Middle Class Studies?
March 1, 2012
It is common now, when teaching about race, to turn students’ attention to “Whiteness Studies” and to the unearned and often invisible privileges of whites in relation to people of color. It’s understood now that merely teaching white people about “them” or encouraging white teachers to reflect on their conscious attitudes about race is never enough. We have to also dig deeper into the taken-for granted privileges that sustain oppression.
Several recent studies about make me wonder about the potential of “middle class studies” as part of teaching and learning about class and education.
For example, this study out of Berkeley demonstrated that our ability to quickly “read” a variety of subtle social signals enables us to perceive the social class of others relatively early in social exchanges. Some of the markers identifying higher status individuals are particularly intriguing:
In general, powerful individuals are less dependent on other people, and tend to show more nonverbal disengagement, than less powerful people do. Studies find, for example, that high-power individuals, compared with low-power individuals, focus their gaze less on other people (particularly people of high status; Ellyson, Dovidio, & Fehr, 1981; Hall, Coats, &Smith LeBeau, 2005), are more likely to interrupt, and tend to speak at greater length—behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others (DePaulo & Friedman, 1998). …
For example, a meta-analytic review of status and nonverbal behavior found that, in comparison with lower-SES individuals, upper-SES individuals speak in ways that are less attentive to the audience, for example, making fewer turn-inviting pauses (Hall et al., 2005).
A second study also done at Berkeley suggests that upper-class people feel less compassion in response to suffering than lower-class people.
Our findings suggest that when a person is suffering, upper-class individuals perceive these signals less well on average, consistent with other findings documenting reduced empathic accuracy in upper-class individuals (Kraus et al., 2010). Taken together, these findings suggest that upper-class individuals may underestimate the distress and suffering in their social environments.
And this recent study suggests that the individualistic norms of college classes, norms that work well for competitive, independent work styles of middle-class students, may undermine the academic success of first-generation college students.
These studies share the limitations of any research done with undergraduates in “lab” settings rather than in day-to-day interactions.
But they are suggestive.
So much of education policy and practice focuses on “fixing” poor and working- class kids. Might not we also begin to speak openly about how class privilege may limit development of such basic human traits as compassion for suffering?
Some things I’ve been wondering about as I’ve been reading this new body of work:
Policy makers have long been touting the importance of teachers’ academic preparation as key to closing achievement gaps (and academic preparation might is, indeed, essential), but might, for example, those privileged young people in Teach for America be missing key relational qualities that could be essential to building safe and supportive classrooms for poor kids?
Might all the teachers who regularly come here to defend Ruby Payne ( here, here, and here, for example) and her tired Culture of Poverty approach to “understanding” low income kids might come to understand that merely teaching poor and working-class kids to emulate mythical middle class culture is selling them short? And that understanding poor kids in our classrooms is never only about learning lists of things about “them” but also about our own deeply-engrained inability to see how our own actions disadvantage others?
I wonder about how often first-generation college students have written of their sense of “just not belonging” in academia, and how that sense of unease may be fed by middle-class propensity for “behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others”. I know that even now, as a highly-educated middle-aged woman, I still catch myself feeling that I need to earn the recognition of higher-status people I meet, that it will take effort to get on their radar. It’s so easy to take this personally, to wonder if I’m still talking too loudly and too assertively and too working-class. But it may well also be about them.
There would seem to be any number of fruitful lines of research suggested in these initial recent studies.
What might a field of “Middle Class Studies” include?