Monday, February 11, 2008

An Attempt at a Definition Part 1: Questions

Pam's comment on my previous blog post said
Also, we haven't yet defined "working class" and probably simply can't in any meaningful, consistenlty useful way.
So here's my first attempt at a definition of class. This isn't Quaker-specific, so I'll be inviting bloggers outside of the Quaker blogosphere to participate in the discussion. I welcome everyone's insights, additions, subtractions, criticisms, and praise.

I've been thinking about Pam's comment and wondering if I can't at least try to define class in a way that makes sense.

I have come to understand gender to exist on several continuum along several axes: sex (the physical sex with which you were born or assigned at birth or discovered at puberty), gender identity (the gender with which you identify internally, or you internally experience), gender expression (the gender with which you present to the world at large), and sexual orientation.

What if class were also expressed along continuum on several axes? What would the axes be? Can they be as simple as the gender model?

Off the top of my head, I thought of several continuum:

Education, income, cultural values & norms, and family of origin class status

Then I began to wonder how these things should be weighted. Certainly the first three would definitely be impacted by your family of origin's class status. So then should family of origin class status even be included or should it just inform the other three? Should income have equal weight with education and cultural values, or is there another measure by which we can judge economic class status (like spending, for instance, which was written about in a recent New York Times article)? Some have suggested that education shouldn't have as much weight as income because a high income can get you an education but an education doesn't automatically confer high income on a degree recipient. What about cultural values & norms being more highly valued than income because social capital can get you things (like jobs and material items) that money can't?

Part of the problem with using the gender model is that while each of the four continuum inform the others, I don't think that's true for gender to the extent my categories inform each other.

I think the three axes could be weighted equally. I also like the idea that one axis is based on consumer spending and ownership rather than income. I would add savings, investments and retirement to that value. So, for instance, you might go up a notch if you own your home outright, but down a little if you have less than 50% equity. You would go up a notch for each car you *could* afford to own (here I'm thinking of people like my partner and I who choose to share a car rather than own two). And "could" afford would assume a full-time income at your income-earning potential(because, again, I'm thinking of people who choose to live below the poverty line in order to protest war taxes). We could prioritize spending. For instance, you get more upward movement by spending money on dental care or a computer than say buying a pop-up tent you can hitch to your car.

I also like the spending model because it's what so many people talked about when they took the "What Privilege Do You Have" meme. Some said, Yes, I went to summer camp but it was sponsored by the Y and my parents didn't have to pay anything, or Yes, I went to private school but I went on scholarship because I was raised by my single dad who worked two jobs to keep a roof over our head. It became about how much parents paid for those things, rather than the things themselves and the privilege they conferred.

So what do you think?


Jane said...

Excellent questions, Jeanne.

Some thoughts:

Michael Zweig (in his book The Working Class Majority) suggests that a key factor in thinking about where people belong in a class continuum is how much power they have over their own lives. Power can be manifested in how much control one has over the conditions of one's work, how much respect one gets from others (and thus, perhaps, how much deference one might expect, or how much credibility one is given when writing letters to the editor or speaking up in a political caucus), or how many people actually directly report to someone.

Sociologists also talk about the importance of wealth, as distinctive from income. People on the Privilege Meme talked about being required to work as a young person as evidence of their humble roots, but in my view, they were talking more about lifestyle than about class if their parents owned things (stocks, property, inheritance) that could generate income for them apart from jobs that they might do.

And education does play into all of this -- social capital is formally acquired through school, and only people with sufficient levels of social capital can succeed in school. Even if you're not making a lot of money but have internalized the outlooks of "the educated", you can hold your own at the dinner parties where you network with people who can open other doors for you, where you can eavesdrop on conversations about art and investments and politics and acquire yet more cultural capital.

And the higher the status of college that one attended, the "richer" (in every sense of the word) the social networks one is likely to be a part of, so again, even if one is living on a relatively low income, there may still be weekends at the shore, introductions to uncles serving in the Senate or on the board of the medical school that is the next step.

Family of origin: yes. Some British feminists from the working class (Diane Reay, Valerie Walkerdine ,Bev Skeggs) are writing some really things about the psycho-social processes of mobility among women who become more educated than their parents and find themselves in the middle class facing unanticipated tensions...

I'm going to stop because I don't assume that others are as fascinated with all of this as I am.

Thanks for launching this thread.


Education and Class

Will Barratt said...

Education, income, cultural values & norms, and family of origin class status.

That is a pretty good list and prompts me to ask you if you think that class is something you have, like education and income, or something you are, like identity? A personal notion of class, different from a sociological notion that is based on groups, is an appealing idea to me. Ultimately everything in personal, to me.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Wow, Jeanne

This is awesome, and, amusingly, you just jumped right in and presented what I was still dithering about in my head....


That was the point that I was trying to make, and I think the gender metaphor works well (I don't really understand gender stuff that well either!)

It is exactly that. My last girlfriend grew up with a LOT more money than I did, and her dad was a business owner, a plumbing business. In terms of values and culture she felt much more working class than me, and yet she'd gone to an ivy league school, travelled more than me, and has a financial security that I will never have.

I myself feel like I have working class "blood", though I wasnt' raised working class at all. But my dad's parents, and to some extent my dad, passed on little bits of the "culture" here and there. It's not my identity, but it shapes my identity.

I guess I would say the axes are

Wealth/Income (differnt, but similar)

I wouldn't include family of origin because that seems tied up in the other stuff to me. It comes in in terms of whether they can pay for your education, or what sort of culture they pass on to you, but I have trouble seeing it as its own category. Maybe someone can elaborate on that.

Lone Star Ma said...

I don't know. Families of origin can really matter, too. I have had a very multi-class upbringing (very poor roots, but my mom married a doc in my childhood and then we had plenty)and live sort of a multi-class lifestyle (I'm way educated and make sure my kids are, too, but they end up going to school with people who are upper class and consider themselves middle class - we are middle class, income-wise, and end up seeming working class by comparison) - the upshot of which is that I feel comfortable nowhere instead of everywhere.

Rosa said...

The thing I learned from the privilege meme discussions mirrors what Jane said in her comment.

Class isn't about what you *have*, it's what you *expect*. That's partly a sense of power over your own life, partly culture, partly your awareness of your actual safety net (financial, social).

If you live in a dirt-floored shack and pee in an outhouse because you decided to be Thoreau, you're still middle class. If you live that way because every time you get a decent job and start saving for a new apartment your old abscessed tooth flares up and makes you miss a week of work, you're working poor. It's about power, not possessions.

cath said...

"Class" is a tricky thing, even with sociological defenitions for reference. Already you and the comments have refered to point of view: what you have, what you expect, what you have learned, etc.

My own situation is so full of twists and turns that it would take an entire blog just to explain it. The person who went off to college with just the clothes on his back and became a Ph.D. The person who had a vibrant career and became disabled and now receives foodstamps. The person who "never left the farm" but can tell you more than anyone else about Major League baseball, the person who had only one dress to her name but kater in life knew movie stars.

I could go on and on. And I guarantee that people who don't know me personally often make false assumptions about my condition in life.

The point I am trying to make is that we can make no assumptions. It's just not that easy to discern as much as we think we can without --gasp!-- getting to know a person. :)

I personally think that we will not have answers to the questions of class and Quakerism unless we also look at the issue of Quakers and reluctance to evangelize. Some Meetings seem to shy away from even advertising their existence. So, a new attender will most likely be a friend of a member or regular attender.

We also need to look at where we choose to build/buy Meetinghouses. Do we worship in areas that are accessible to a wide variety of people?

We might want to consider the social issues that arouse us and encourage us to get out and witness. Yes, there is the Peace Testimony, but how many Meetings support other issues as well?

And is the Simplicity Testimony just a nice hobby?

And finally, we have to look at history. We thrived in the early days because of patronage. We were encouraged by the letters of George Fox, Margaret Fell, and the journals and writings of others. We established an expectation that we would be holding oursselves together as a Society by literacy.

It would be interesting to hear from a Friend who lives in a place where literacy rates are low. How easy is it to champion the cause, so to speak?

The issue of class is a very important one. I am glad that it's being discussed here and elsewhere. It's a topic that will make some uncomfortable, but that's a good thing. Now spiritual POV is worth its weight in Salt and Light ;) if it is too comfortable.


Cath said...

oops! I left out a crucial word in the last sentence of my comment.

It should read:

Spiritual POV is worth its weight in Salt and Light ;)if it is **not** too comfortable.

Sorry about that.


Jeanne said...

Hi everyone,

Thanks for stopping by, especially Jane and Will. After I wrote this post, I was going to email you but I've had a few setbacks in healing from pneumonia and haven't been able to sit and type for any significant amount of time.

I really appreciate everyone's thoughts. I have a question for Jane and Rosa. How do you measure the power someone might *expect*?

When I read the question, I thought about my own experience. I grew up solidly working class and had secretarial/shift work sorts of jobs until I was around 30 and stumbled into fundraising. Then I met my partner and married into wealth (not because of my job, but through Quaker circles). Some unconscious part of me expected more power but I didn't get it. People still managed me.

So, as I see it, there are expectations and reality. And again, how and what to measure?

Jane, I'd love to read the articles and/or books you mentioned. Can you point me in a general direction to find them? I think I still have access to my school's databases now that I've graduated, but they might take that privilege away any minute. I'd be interested in what feminists have to say about class straddling...Al Lubrano's book was great but it was particularly *masculine* (but not sexist, per se).

Will, I'm going for a personal notion of class, in part because it's hard to get people to not read autobiographically, especially privileged folks. It's the individualism that is rampant among the middle and owning classes.

Pam, I'm glad some of this speaks to you. I'm surprised to hear you say your last girlfriend felt more working class than you. I had the opposite impression in many ways, that she was higher on the ladder than you. But that might be because I read you, to some extent, as someone who should have gone to a trade school. Not that you're not bright--just the opposite. You are more of a follower and less of a leader, more of a worker than a manager. But you got a very elite education from grade school through undergrad school.

I wholeheartedly agree that wealth has to be taken into account as well as income.

Cath, I think it's easy to fall into the trap of having the exceptions defining the rule. You yearn for your class "home" and also you want to be an individual. I can appreciate that because it's easy for me to fall into defining class by the exceptions.

Everyone, in the meantime, I'll ponder these things and begin a draft of a post. In between this post and that one, I have another one I'm pondering about some insights I've had about why it's hard for people to talk through social class.

cath said...

I'm very much interested in the topic of Quakerism and social class, but I think this blog drifts more toward intellectual discussion than something less abstract and perhaps more personal.

Of course, every blogger has the right to define the tone of his/her blog.

But, as much as I would like to participate in a more meaningful wayu, I think I am **outclassed** :)

Hope you are feeling better, Jeanne. Pneumonia is not an easy thing to bounce back from.


Jeanne said...


How long have you been reading the blog?

Because when I get real (and real for me about class is ANGRY), I get tsk-ed tsk-ed from Friends who say I should be less angry. Or I get silent shunning by the folks who manage the primary Quaker blogosphere aggregator. Or I get emails from people telling me to be nicer.

Even worse are admonitions from working class or poor Quakers.

cath said...

I haven't been reading all that long, Jeanne, and perhaps if I had been I would have seen people telling you to be less angry and "nicer."

Please don't lose your passion. Please don't let your passion subvert itself through anger. The Quaker world needs people who feel deeply about what's under the rug.

We need people who are passionate about vital issues and don't burn themselves out in the process.

I think I may share your passion.

I started reading Quaker blogs because I felt I was not getting the kinds of issue-oriented discussions I needed in real life.

I think my post last night made you feel judged, and I apologize for that. My intention was to write it in a way that allowed me to back out of what seemed to be an agreed-upon tone and structure that was uncomfortable for me, but that had every right to be in place.

The interplay of theory and experience in a discussion is a delicate one to maintain.



earthfreak (Pam) said...

I really like what Rosa has to say.

I agree that it's about expectation.

One of my early realizations of class was when, in college, I had a fast food job (I had never had to work to support myself, and still wasn't, but I did need to supplement) where I dropped someting on the floor and my automatic thought was "oh, it's someone's job to mop that up" - it took a moment to realize that, yeah, and that someone was ME. Hadn't happened until I was 20. Wow.

Jeanne - I'm fascinated by your reference to reprimands from working class quakers being the worst. I'd like to know more about what you think about that. Is it a class thing? people turning on each other in an effort to suck up and fit in? Does it hurt more because you value their opinion more?

I still don't really understand the thing about managing and being managed. I experience you as having a very strong personality (maybe a class thing, maybe not?) and can't imagine anyone succeeding in managing you, even if they try. I, on the other hand, think that I have a confidence problem (unnrelated to class, I THINK) and find myself getting bossed around and not questioning it all the time, though it might be worse if I hadn't been raised middle class.

So many things to think about...

Rosa said...

I don't know how you measure expectation in a sociological way. You just bump up against it sometimes - media attention to problems is a good measure of middle-class expectations, I think. And of course it's race and gender based, as well.

There's the expectation that there's enough food to go around. I have a close friend who grew up food-insecure and I transgressed her boundaries pretty bad at first, without realizing it.

There's the expectation that you will be treated with respect even if you are not dressed neatly - that one is a well-documented difference between middle class activists and various working class communities.

There's the expectation that police will not arbitrarily detain or beat you.

There's the comfortable feeling that you won't be negatively judged for speaking in your own dialect, or the belief that your home speech is not a dialect.

There's the expectation that you will always be able to find a job "Well, if I ever lose my *good* job I can always clean houses/get a factory job/be a call center monkey". That's actuall built right into the description of some jobs as "low-skill".

I have pretty clear judgement of the boundary between working-class and middle class culture, because I grew up in a bi-class family, but I don't have any knowledge at all about owning-class people.

earthfreak (Pam) said...

I have so much to say on this topic that I’m feeling a little overwhelmed, and concerned that I will tie my own brain up in knots and make no sense whatsoever, but here goes….

1) Robin, I have felt something similar, and think it goes with the territory in dealing with this stuff, which is complex and hard (not intellectually hard even, emotionally hard) – it seems doing one thing is off limits, but doing the opposite is off limits too, until you feel like you can’t move, the key is to keep paying attention and try to stay calm, I think…

2) I didn’t hear Jeanne say anything that makes me think she thinks she gets to decide what people’s intentions are. Actually for the most part, I didn’t see her say “don’t use big words”, but something much more subtle, *pay attention to whether you are communicating*, and, if you need to think about using more accessible words, don’t think of it in terms of talking to children (unless you are talking to children, of course) because that’s condescending and insulting if you are, in fact, talking to an adult.

3) Robin, again, it sounds like maybe this is mostly about something personal, so me spouting off my ideas may not help at all. I got teased for not talking at all at schools, which is maybe why I like quakers so much, no expectation of talking  But I think it’s important to honor everyone. People who feel alienated from Friends by the big words may be feeling something similar, shame in the way they naturally communicate. Instead of focusing on the differences in our ways of communicating, perhaps we could try to be tender to the fact that we all want to be welcomed as who we are, where we are right now.

4) Intention is important, but I’d hardly say it’s “all about” intention. Communication is all about communicating, as far as I can tell. If you use big words (or Swedish, for that matter) because it comes naturally to you, you may have no active intention of building a wall between us, but if I can’t understand what you say, well, I can’t understand what you say.

5) I myself use big words sometimes. Sometimes they’re very handy, and, as you point out, more precise. But sometimes they are clearly all about showing off, and sometimes not so clearly, but they are unnecessarily opaque (ie: impossible to see through to the truth behind them). I love the word opaque. But having gone to a pretentious liberal arts college, I got my fill of the big words that get batted about, almost like it’s a competition, where the meaning of words is lost and interesting ideas are completely beside the point. There was a point at which I thought if I overheard the word “didactic” in a coffeeshop one more time I might really kill someone, and I’m a religious studies major who still can’t retain what the heck “hermeneutics” means for more than five minutes after looking it up in the dictionary (which I’ve done about 8 times now)

6) Goodnesss knows what’s happening to me when sports analogies occur to me, but I’m thinking about communication…….. When you’re up at bat, you hit the ball as far as you can, that’s all about your ability, and you don’t hold back. When you’re in a foot race you run as fast as you can, and if you leave the other people in the dust, so much the better. But if you’re passing a ball to a teammate in soccer or basketball, the point is not how far you can throw it, it’s getting the ball *to* them, the skills involved have more to do with locating them, gauging their speed, if they’re ready, etc, and throwing not as fast or as far as you possibly can, but at just the right force so that they will be most likely to be able to catch it. I think it’s like that. I’m not asking you to pretend you’re not as smart or educated (or strong) as you are, I’m asking you to use another set of skills, with the goal of actually connecting with another person.

7) This is a little bit of a tangent, but I have dear friend at meeting who often doesn’t recognize words that get bandied about in our larger group conversations, and I LOVE about her that she ASKS. She’ll just jump in and say “I don’t know what that means” very politely. (and she’s told me it was very hard for her to get over the shame at not knowing to be able to do that, so it’s not something I would easily expect from someone) and what I especially love about it is that she’s often caught people, including me, using words we’re not quite sure of. We may have a sense of it, but when really called on it we stammer, “well, it’s kinda like, um, sorta….” Good for the soul!

HysteryWitch said...

Related to class and being managed: Might not gender be another element in this conversation? Historically, women have been managed and many middle-class women may be included in the group of people who have been socialized to take a more passive, obedient role. The intersection between class, gender, cultural experience, and personality is a complex thing.

cubbie said...

hi, jeanne, i finally got around to moderating, allowing, and commenting back to your comment on my post. i've been thinking a lot about these definitions and things and my own understanding of my own class and privilege, and i've had somewhat of an epiphany about what happened with me that makes me feel like i'm way more privileged than memes or other privilege exercises have shown (besides the way that these things have such different weights-- my white skin privilege and all that goes with that is so much bigger than whether i went to summer camp...)-- and that's that i was put in the honors track in school. i moved a gazillion times, my parents never went to college, we were poor, but i got put in the same classes with a whole bunch of rich white kids. i think if i was a person of color, or if the district or the school or the person administering the tests for these things were different, things might have been completely different. i remember raging inside about all of the financial costs that my classmates could easily afford that i'd have to talk my parents into (posterboard was a big one) and then later when i had to start staying way after school to use the computers to do my homework because we didn't have one at home... but in many ways i was treated like i was rich and i learned how to act that way. my parents were smart and stuff, but i learned a different language, and then went off to college and now i try and talk to my mom about white skin privilege from my college-educated position and language constantly fails. and the concept does, too, to some degree. how can i, with my privileges, call her out on the privileges that i've been privileged enough to learn are privileges? (i'm not saying there's not a way-- it's just a puzzle.)