Concepts of Class

By | December 15, 2017

What does class mean? In the last week I’ve encountered three conceptualizations – financial, cultural, and aspirational.

Under the financial concept, class is determined by whether one’s assets and income are below or above some threshold. Here, class is external to the individual and might vary relatively easily as an individual gains more wealth. This form of class is the easiest to escape – simply win the lottery or earn more money and Congratulations! You’re in the middle class! Of course, it’s easier to fall to a lower class in this concept, too. Spend all your money, lose your job, and down you go. This form of class is used frequently in policy discussions, for the simple fact that it’s easy to measure. It’s not false, but it’s not the whole picture – it doesn’t explain the noveau-riche, for example, people whose financial wealth ought to place them in the upper class but who are considered not yet to have merged with it, generally because they lack the appropriate cultural signifiers.

This brings us to the second model, which focuses on cultural determinants. Here, you’re working class if your use of cultural signifiers such as dress, humor, or language distinguish you as such. This is the form of class where you can become independently wealthy yet still be considered working class because you have no taste for fine wine or you think butt jokes are acceptable in polite company. This is an exclusionary form of class – I can’t easily think of any situation where this concept of class is used to classify someone favorably or neutrally – it’s almost always about excluding someone for their uncouth manners and untidy dress, or their preference for wine over beer and art galleries over football. This form of class is problematic because of its use of stereotypes to negatively categorize people, much as in other forms of discrimination where the cultural characteristics of a discriminated group are key, such as sexism and racism. Furthermore, it’s inflexible and situated more in the interpretations of others than in one’s interpretation of one’s self – you can’t do much to leave the working class as that’s up to others to assess by judging your taste in food, clothes, or whatever. It’s worth noting that much humor has been made around this struggle – I immediately think of the British comedy “Keeping Up Appearances”.

The third concept of class is an internal one, and not one I’d encountered until recently when I saw it noted in Tom Friedman’s book “The World Is Flat”. Here, the class you belong to is defined by your aspirations and the things you strive for. If you’re working class, your struggle is simply to pay the bills and to survive. If you’re middle class, you’ve escaped the struggle for survival, and struggle now for advancement. Finally, if you’re upper class, you’re not struggling economically, as your material needs are taken care of. Obviously, there is simplification here. Most people seek fulfilment beyond their immediate needs, even if they desperately need money for food. Poor people aren’t animals grubbing in the dirt, they’re artists and dreamers just like the rest of us. Similarly, the wealthy aren’t all idle dilettantes, but struggle as well towards a variety of goals. Nonetheless, this is an interesting concept. It describes class in the functional terms that different groups play within the larger economy, and explains to a large extent why “the middle class” are so lauded in today’s political discourse. A more subtle conception here would take account not just of aspirations and attitudes, but of behavior. You aren’t suddenly middle class because you briefly have a dream, but you are when you orient your effort and your life around that pursuit. Another over-simplification here is that there are many motivations that people orient their lives around that aren’t cleanly classified – artists, for example, often lead lives of relative poverty but do not seem to conceive of themselves as working only for survival, and even when they do have wealth, this conception doesn’t seem to change.

Two other concepts have popped into my head as I’ve considered uses of the term class that didn’t mesh well with the above concepts.

The first is class in terms of social groups and membership. This is related to but not identical to the cultural concept, in that it’s about others determining one’s membership in the group. Here, however, the distinction is made based on relationships of family and power. Sure, you may be rich, but your family only came here two generations ago, so you’re not like us. Sure, you’re in the factory just like me, but your brother’s a lawyer, so you’re not like us. This concept is to some extent what’s really going on inside the cultural concept – the details of cultural signifiers aren’t important so much as they are lampshades and excuses to exclude someone from an existing set of privileges and group memberships. It’s about identifying the members of your social circle more than it is about understanding who they are within society.

The final concept, then, is moral class. It’s the concept of class used by revolutionary Marxism, where moral value is ascribed to different types of people in pursuit of an ideology and revolution, or, on the other end of the spectrum, the moral value we apply when we speak of the deserving poor, of the titans of industry or the divine right of kings. It’s frequently used as a tool within class warfare and, as such, is not a sociological classifier that we use to understand the makeup of society, but a method of using that language to judge others and promote ourselves in an ongoing struggle. It takes on the trappings of social science and applies it to as a justification for the exercise of power and the dehumanization of the other. On the other hand, though, it also provides a mechanism of solidarity and a narrative for the creation of feelings of shared moral virtue – we miners are hard workers, far more so than those people who work at the university. While more broader concepts of virtue would be preferable, this mechanism is nonetheless central to how people situate themselves in the world and, as such, is the source of much injustice but also much good.

This post came out of my need to categorize stuff, particularly in an ontological sense. I love understanding the different ways words are employed, as it makes it easier to see through bad arguments and past pointless disagreements of miscommunication.

Obviously, I’ve missed or mischaracterized some stuff – you can’t reduce class down as simply as I have an expect not to get some things wrong. Furthermore, I’m not an expert in this field. What did I miss?