Tuesday, February 1, 2011

What We Talk About When We Talk About Class

Before proceeding to a more in-depth discussion of the main themes of Stayin' Alive, it is necessary to structure our discussion by attempting to arrive at a common understanding of what exactly we mean when we talk about the concept of "class" broadly and the "working class" in particular.

The concept of class is at the heart of much sociological and historical study. One of the first writers to engage in class analysis in a systematic fashion was Karl Marx, who along with Emile Durkheim and Max Weber is considered one of the founders of sociology in addition to his more well known role as the intellectual godfather of the modern socialist movement. From a Marxist point of view, a class is a group of people who have a common relationship to labor and the means of production (the tools and raw materials used to make things) and who therefore share a common way of looking at the world - a "class consciousness" - based on that relationship. In his earlier writings, Marx identified two main classes in society - the capitalists (those who own the means of production and make decisions as to how it will be employed) and the working class (people who do not own the means of production and need to sell their ability to work to a capitalist in return for a wage). Marx argued that the relationship between these two classes is inherently antagonistic and would result in conflicts for power and resources - and that this class struggle was the basic motive force of history. But as capitalism became more complex in the later part of the 19th century, he revised his view to incorporate the middle classes that occupied a space somewhere between the capitalists and the working class (this category can include small businesspeople, professionals, and white collar workers). This development has complicated the class structure as well as the nature of class conflict in advanced capitalist societies in North America, Europe, and elsewhere.

Like Marx, Max Weber was one of the most influential social thinkers in modern history. Unlike Marx and many later Marxists, Weber did not think that one's position in society should be conceived primarily in economic terms, but should be supplemented other considerations, namely status and power. Status derives from one's popularity, prestige, or honor in society, and power derives from one's ability to achieve one's goals despite opposition from other groups (typically conceived in political terms). Both of these factors may not necessarily be tied to one's economic position, and one's class position may not necessarily depend on one's earnings - is a unionized blue collar worker who makes around $100,000 per year to be considered part of the working class or the middle class?

Toward the end of the 20th century, the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu advanced a theory of social class based on questions of aesthetic judgment. He argued that one's class position is defined by how one presents his or her mode of being to the world. This would include one's clothing, reading and eating habits, furniture and interior decoration, and other lifestyle choices associated with one's class position. In such a view, the most important difference between a worker and a bourgeois would not be their different relationships to the means of production but rather their differing tastes. Integral to this concept is the idea of cultural capital - the knowledge, skills, and education that a person has that gives them a higher staus in society. For example, a CUNY graduate may be just as smart or have the same skills as a Harvard graduate, but the cultural capital confered by a degree from the former simply does not measure up to that of the latter in the eyes of society.

The view of class that I would like to emphasize, however, comes out of the Marxist tradition and was best summarized by the historian E.P. Thompson in the preface of his classic book The Making of the English Working Class. There he argues against the more rigid Marxists who saw a class as an objective structure that necessarily had to produce a certain kind of class consciousness, and not coincidentally, tended to be at least somewhat authoritarian in their politics. In contrast, Thompson's perspective was much more open and fluid:

By class I understand an historical phenomenon, unifying a number of disparate and seemingly unconnected events, both in the raw material of experience and in consciousnes. I emphasize that it is an historical phenomenon. I do not see class as a "structure," nor even as a "category," but as something which is fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships...Like any other relationship, it is a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomize its structure. The finest-meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class, any more than it can give us one of deference or one of love. The relationship must always be embodied in real people and in a real context. Moreover, we cannot have two distinct classes, each with an independent being, and then bring them into relationship with one another. We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and laborers. And class happens when some men (sic), as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men (sic) whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs...Class is defined by men (sic) as they live their own history, and, in the end, this is its only definition.

Jefferson Cowie, the author of Stayin' Alive, adopts a similar view when he defines his conception of class in footnote 4 on p. 376, one that also draws from an approach to knowledge called social constructionism: "this study uses 'the working class' as a socially, politically, culturally, and economically constructed category with multiple possible meanings, expressions and outlets. The elastic nature of class in politics and social life - especially in the elusive American context - is, arguably, more important than defining the term with statistical accuracy."

I will talk about class in this sense in the course of this discussion, but I don't mean to imply that this is The One True Way of thinking or talking about class. How do you define class generally, and the working class in particular? What class would you place yourself in? How do you think class works in America, and do you think this differs from the way it works in other countries?

1 comment:

Carl said...

I think it has become difficult to pin down a definition of class because people possess multiple characteristics and can therefore fit into multiple classes. I can characterize people by income, occupation, educational attainment, etc. I most often simply divide people into "haves" and "have-nots". You can draw the line between them in many ways. I think the most crucial distinction in modern American society is the tiny "ownership class" that owns a significant chunk of the capital. Then there is everyone else. Sure, the "have-nots" actually have a lot, but there's a widening gulf between them and the ownership class.