We’re Not Sure What Class Is, But We’ll Know It When We See It

Some days, I don’t know whether to bang my head on my monitor or laugh when I read what’s being written about social class in the blogosphere.

Today, I’m opting for head banging.

For example:

This blogger takes a break from offering advice on fashion to educating her readers about social class in the U.S. in this surprisingly detailed post in which she explains that

a) most people who graduate from high school are middle class (including, one would presume, all of those high school graduates working at McDonalds and Walmart?)

b) brick laying is a low class occupation because brick layers need brawn by not brains (I’d recommend popping Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work into those shopping bags to read during latte breaks at the mall) and

c) the “ultra wealthy are described as those making more than $200,000 a year”. It would seem that when shopping, those subtle differences between being in the top quintile and being in the upper class are merely trivial semantics.

More free-lance class analysis can be found in the commentors on this post on the shifting middle class as they deliberate about whether they are or are not middle class based on little more than their own feelings about their relative economic circumstances. To be fair, though, some do reference the interactive tool published on the NYT website a few years ago (which, contrary to what our shopping class analyst above asserts, is not a “scientific” tool to determine one’s class, but at least is better than idle speculation).

And then there’s Steve, one of many bloggers who has jumped on an article written for the London Times (also posted here) asserting that disproportionate admission of the elite to selective colleges is explained entirely by difference in IQ between high and lower status people. Steve and his fellow ” we knew that they were dumber than us” bloggers ignore the imperfect correlations between IQ and academic achievement, between IQ and personal ambition, and IQ and eventual adult success.

Does IQ correlate with social class? Yes. But does that explain class stratification in higher education? No.

Steve, your argument is essentially the same as saying that since the data show that it’s less likely to rain in June than in November, planning an outdoor event in June guarantees that the sun will always shine on the picnic.

In the US, as Peter Sacks writes, mediocre students from high -income families are more likely to attend college than high achieving students from low-income families. Meritocracy? Right.

So again, I wonder:

How do we begin to move toward a more informed discourse on class in this country?

5 thoughts on “We’re Not Sure What Class Is, But We’ll Know It When We See It

  1. Veester June 8, 2008 / 5:08 am

    To be fair to the fashion blogger, it’s an American tradition to view class through the lens of public behavior. Which is why Emily Post books were such a huge hit with the public. Anybody can be “correct” and that usually means altering your behavior, if necessary, to conform to an upper middle class standard.

    Way more innocuous than the IQ claims. Now that’s patently ridiculous.

  2. janevangalen June 8, 2008 / 8:09 am


    Point taken about class being viewed through public behavior. I’m fine with anyone giving fashion advice to those wanting to fit into some higher status.

    I still hope, though, that we can get to the point where we can be more clear about what the middle (or working, or upper middle, or upper) class even is.

    It’s one thing to recommend wearing natural fibers to a fund raising lunch at the art museum, and quite another to state that manual labor is inherently devoid of intellectual labor and that a household earning $200k because two adults are working three jobs is “ultra wealthy”.

    Thanks for stopping by.


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