Ways of Thinking…: Social Class Lesson 1: Hello Class!

Ways of Thinking...: Social Class Lesson 1: Hello Class!
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Before starting this lesson, I would like to see what you already think about social class. Please pause and answer the following questions:

Here is the Google form for today’s lesson.

1. What social class would you say that you/your family belong in?

If you don’t know, it’s okay to say that. You will see why later in this lesson.

2. What determines social class?

Last unit we saw that people are shaped by the structures of society. Family, school, peers, media all have profound effects on who we become. In this unit, we will see that these structures also create inequalities. Often, these inequalities are overlooked because the dominant groups and structures look past these inequalities. The first type of inequality we will examine is social class. Below is a brief background about how the study of inequalities evolved in sociology.

Americans and Social Class

The United States has always resisted the pretentiousness of class. The country was founded partly as a reaction to a monarch, which is in itself a class-based system defined by hereditary status and honorary titles. Additionally, and perhaps because of, its revolutionary history, the US values ​​equality, freedom and individual control over one’s own destiny. Whether these values ​​are realized within society or not, they are all inherently anti-social class.

Americans do not like:

  • the idea of ​​people being unequal,
  • not having the freedom to pursue individual economic interests and
  • not being in control of their own destinies
Simply put, Americans do not like social class. The anti-social class mentality has existed for over a century. During the gilded age, the Horatio Alger myth was popularized as a promise of the American possibility of going from “rags to riches” a success story sometimes summed up as, “only in America.” From Princeton University professor Jen Hochschild’s 1996 book, Facing Up to the American Dream, Americans believe in the American dream and that success is attainable for anyone. According to Hochschild, the United States has failed to face up to what that dream requires of our society, and yet it possesses no other central belief that can save the country from chaos.

3. Do you understand why Americans have trouble accepting/talking about social class? Is this true for you and your family?

Breakout Discussion: Examine the data in the chart below. What do you think is significant about it? Why? Answer this in your Google Form #4.

Examining Data About Social Class

From the PEW Research Center, this 2015 publication shows American attitudes about income and social class.

This 2015 article from Smithsonian Magazine details a number of sources that show Americans like to believe that they are middle class.
4. What do you think is significant about it? Why?

So why bother studying social class in the US?

If Americans don’t like social class and don’t believe that it exists here in the United States, then why study it? First, social class does, in fact, exist in the US and, understanding it will help you to understand the opportunities and obstacles that Americans face. Additionally, this will help to explain why the idea of ​​”middle class” is so appealing to Americans. Social classes are difficult to define because the US is so stratified. Social class shapes us so strongly that by understanding it, we will understand ourselves better as well as our fellow Americans better. And this understanding is not just an understanding of how we think and what we value, but it also is an understanding of our life chances, or what we are capable of achieving and the probability that we achieve it.

Discussion: Analyze the 4 figures/graphs below. What conclusions can you draw? Which figure do you find most compelling and why? Answer this in #5 of your Google Doc.

Figure 1:

Figure 2:

Figure 3:

Figure 4:

5. Analyze the 4 figures/graphs above. What conclusions can you draw? Which figure do you find most compelling and why?

From the Economic Policy Institute,
Most Americans believe that a rising tide should lift all boats—that as the economy expands, everybody should reap the rewards. And for two-and-a-half decades beginning in the late 1940s, this was how our economy worked. Over this period, the pay (wages and benefits) of typical workers rose in tandem with productivity (how much workers produce per hour). In other words, as the economy became more efficient and expanded, everyday Americans benefited correspondingly through better pay. But in the 1970s, this started to change.

Social class inequality in the US is growing and has been for decades. This growth is profoundly shaping the United States even though few seem to recognize it. Economic inequality is influenced by many factors, including the economy, public policy and social changes. The last several decades, income inequality has been growing. The highest earning Americans have continued to earn more and more over the last 50 years, while the lower earners have earned closer to about the same.

Breakout Discussion: Analyze the graphs below and answer #6: Why does social class matter?

This 2012 post from Sociimages of the Society Pages points to The Equality Trust, a British trust that displays data related to income inequality (for more, see the 2012 post linked above):

Figure 5:

Figure 6:

Figure 7:

Figure 8:

6. Why social class is important to sociology?

Lastly, the final reason why social class is relevant is social class and inequality correlate with a number of measures of society that show inequality makes countries less healthy, less productive and less desirable. Understanding this can help make our society a healthier and happier place to live.

Brief Timeline of Social Class and Sociology

Although this unit examines social class and inequality, I want to be explicit that this unit us not making the case for a particular form of government or even for government policies. But because the term “socialism” has been politicized, it might be helpful to review the growth of economic theory alongside sociology. As the US and the Western world entered the industrial age, the economic theory of capitalism grew too. Sociology’s understanding of social class grew out of the results of the growth of both capitalism and industrialism. Although inequality based on social class was written into the US Constitution which only allowed landowners to vote (until 1856 in North Carolina!) But the Industrial Revolution and pure capitalism magnified the existing classism in the US

This chart compares socialism to capitalism and the results of both throughout US history:

Capitalism is most closely associated with the 1776 publication of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith. The Adam Smith Institute explains that capitalism is rooted in the free-market (no government control) and the accumulation of wealth. The United States has NEVER been a purely capitalist nation. Government policy, priorities, and budgets shape both national and local. The federal government is the largest employer in the US, it shapes the markets and it awards some of the largest contracts to private corporations.

Power – Karl Marx and the Inequalities of Capitalism

Marx studied these disparities and wrote about them. For example, Marx points out that middle-class persons lived an average of 38 years, but laborers only made it 17 years. Marx also wrote about earlier class systems such as feudalism and slavery. His paradigm was focused on who owned the industries of the 1800s and who were the workers in those industries. This was the beginning of examining power in capitalist society and how that power shaped individuals.

Wealth and Prestige – Max Weber and Three-Component Social Class

Following Marx, Weber wrote about social class just before WWI. Weber argued that social class was composed of multiple components, namely wealth, prestige and power. This was an early example of sociology attempting to understand social class as a set of components that all work together.

Culture – Pierre Bourdieu and the Cultural and Social Reproduction of Class

Later still, in 1977 Pierre Bourdieu wrote “Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction” which was a study of the French educational system. Bourdieu made the claim that social class involves hidden assets that sustain one’s class such as education, style of speech, how to dress, as well as how to conduct oneself to fit into a class system. This was a way of using symbolic interaction to understand social class from a micro-sociological level. Think about last chapter about culture and how much it shapes people. Bourdieau helped apply that influence to social class.

Family – Annette Lareau and Social Class, Race and Education

In 1989, Annette Lareau published a seminal study that examined American education and social class and race. Here is an explanation from Lareau’s publisher,

Class does make a difference in the lives and futures of American children. Drawing on in-depth observations of black and white middle-class, working-class, and poor families, Unequal Childhoods explores this fact, offering a picture of childhood today. Here are the frenetic families managing their children’s hectic schedules of “leisure” activities; and here are families with plenty of time but little economic security. Lareau shows how middle-class parents, whether black or white, engage in a process of “concerted cultivation” designed to draw out children’s talents and skills, while working-class and poor families rely on “the accomplishment of natural growth,” in which A child’s development unfolds spontaneously―as long as basic comfort, food, and shelter are provided. Each of these approaches to childrearing brings its own benefits and its own drawbacks. In identifying and analyzing differences between the two, Lareau demonstrates the power, and limits, of social class in shaping the lives of America’s children.

Lareau provides a recent example of how social class becomes a part of a person’s identity. She shows that people experience the world through the lens of their social class. It starts with families who shape individuals before they are even conscious of themselves and it continues through school.
For more on Lareau, here she is explaining her research from the Stanford Center for Inequality:

And here is an Atlantic article (2012) explaining Lareau’s research.

7. What components of social class did you say in number 2 are mentioned by the researchers above (Marx, Weber, Bordieau, Lareau)?

Moving forward
This is the background with which sociologists approach social class. Social class is complex and made up of various components that interconnect with each other. These various components create opportunities and obstacles for the members of a society. Not only does social class affect people’s life chances, but it also affects how people experience the world; it constructs their reality.

8. Any questions that you would like to discuss during the social class unit? What would you like to know about social class?

For review:

What is social class to sociologists?

How do Americans feel about social class in general?

Why bother studying social class?

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