On what class is and how it works

A few years ago, the Norwegian Journal of Social Research asked a bunch of researchers about their reflections on the past and/or future of their discipline. What follows is a (rough) translation of my response.

In recent years, questions about social inequality and class differences have returned to the agenda in the social sciences and in the wider public. In a sense, this marks the end of a long post-war consensus, holding that increased prosperity, the welfare state, post-industrialism, consumerism, new political divisions and so-called “individualisation” had made the concept of class irrelevant. Today, new research is constantly being published that shows the continuing relevance of class distinctions in more or less individualized, post-industrial consumer societies .

Beneath the new interest in class and inequality, however, there is also a new uncertainty about what class “is” and how it “works”. In sociology, we have seen a flourishing of class analysis, driven forward by a sweeping theoretical development and reorientation. In recent research, one has turned to more concrete concepts of class, which also emphasize that class is not only a quasi-objective, material structure, but also something subjective that exists within us.

With this, class research has gained a much broader perspective. Where the focus was once predominantly on questions of social mobility and inequalities in education, in recent years we have seen a revitalization of interest in the “subjective”, symbolic and political aspects of class distinctions. All this is very well, but it raises some questions about the underlying understanding of what class really is, and how it can play a role in so many different aspects of life. The answers given by ´new class analyzes have given  have improved the analyses, but raise new questions that must be dealt with. Here I will focus on two themes: Are the new forms of class analysis in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater: do they still preserve key insights from the classics? And do we have a good enough understanding of the ways in which class becomes part of who we are?

On reorientation in class analysis

For quite some time, it made sense to divide sociological class and stratification theory into three camps: Marxist and Weberian class theory and liberal stratification theory. The first two thematized distinctly modern power and inequality relationships that were linked to truly fundamental aspects of how capitalism worked, while the stratification tradition was more strongly characterized by functionalist ideas about division of labor and normative consensus.

If this was once a meaningful division, developments in the research field helped to undermine it. In the endeavors of empirical-sociological class analyses, it seemed that the inspiration from Marx and Weber converged in a surprisingly similar representation of the class structure, as in the convergence of the Goldthorpe and Wright typologies. The overall ambition to analyze power relations took a backseat, while issues of operationalisation, measurement and statistical modeling became more important. The sociology of stratification also distanced itself in practice from its theoretical origins. It may appear as if the difference between these three approaches  can now almost be reduced to a question of whether one prefers to work with categorical data – classes and class schemes – or whether one prefers continuous variables – socioeconomic status scales.

Marx and Weber’s concept of class was abstract. Abstract does not mean distant or imprecise. Their concepts of class were abstract in the sense that they sought to analytically isolate — through abstraction — a few but important features of social structures, specifically property and market relations. Part of the problems encountered by the well-known categorical class schemes can be seen as revolving around the difficulty of “translating” such abstract categories into concrete variables.

In recent years, interest has turned towards class theories that avoid this problem, because they are much more concrete. This applies to both Bourdieu-inspired research and the so-called microclass approach. In Bourdieu’s model, one has, firstly, a relatively concrete way of determining class distinctions in that classes are to be understood as potential groups of actors with the same amount and composition of capital, and with similar social trajectories. Class is thus understood to concern how much and what kind of resources one has available and can put into play to realize whatever plans and wishes one may have. Secondly, the concrete is expressed in Bourdieu’s insistence that how class “works” cannot be revealed by trying to isolate the effect of individual variables, as many of us have been trained to think. In order to be able to understand and explain class divisions and their effects, one must instead see different relationships in context: Rather than looking at gender, age, ethnicity or region as “competitors” to economic and cultural capital, Bourdieu says that a sociological explanation requires us to get grasp of how these are connected to each other and play together, so to speak, in shaping practice. It is a position that has much in common with certain varieties of intersectionality theory.

The microclass approach, associated with the American David Grusky, is another, rather concrete way of looking at class divisions. The main idea is that many important inequality processes may not be operative on such a general level as many class schemes operate on. A basic idea is that the various efforts at social closure – exclusion and monopolization – are not carried out by the “middle class” as such, but by specific professions and occupational groups. By breaking up the large categories and getting down to as detailed an occupational level as possible, one believes that one can get a better understanding of how social mobility and reproduction takes place.

With both of these approaches, one gets concepts of class that are more concrete than in the categorical class schemes, and both partially claim their legitimacy by being better suited to explain social practices. One also circumvents the difficulties that the Marxist and Weberian class concepts encounter when they are to be used to divide a population into classes: How many classes are there, and how do we know which class each individual should be sorted into? With Bourdieu’s social space, one can operationalize class in very clear accordance with the theory. With the help of multiple correspondence analysis, one can empirically model the distribution of and the relationships between the types of capital and thus construct social spaces where each actor’s position reflects their endowment of economic and cultural capital. With the microclass approach, one can operationalize by relying on apparently real groups – occupations.

Problems in recent class analysis

There are both theoretical and practical advantages to these more concrete approaches to class analysis. Both maintain in a sense the concept of class, although both also have reservations: Following a Bourdieu, it perhaps makes more sense to only talk about positions in social space, and following a micro-class logic, it is perhaps equally meaningful to only talk about occupational groups. Both also maintain a connection to classical class theory, both purely thematically and theoretically.

Nevertheless, it is unclear whether they are good candidates to replace class theory as such since none of them fully address the kind of problem that Marx and Weber started with. Neither Bourdieu-inspired research nor the microclass approach thematizes or theorizes the basic relations of power and domination that arise in capitalist market and production relations. Emphasizing actors’ economic and cultural capital tells us a lot about their life chances. At the same time, a focus on these forms of capital does not provide an exhaustive description of power because the power that owners and top managers have by virtue of their position cannot be described in terms of how much capital they have. In the same way, the average worker’s modest power and influence over his own work cannot be explained by pointing out that he has below average capital. For these power differences, the amount and type of capital is more to be understood as a symptom than a cause.

For microclass research, the increased level of detail offers certain empirical advantages, but the approach has theoretical shortcomings. In this context, perhaps the most problematic thing is how one here thinks of class strictly in occupational terms. What about forms of power and privileges that do not originate in employment? What about the power that comes from property ownership? For the classics of sociology, the basic division in class society was between the many who had to live off labour, and those who could live off property. In that sense, one could say that the class relationship was between those who made a living from their occupation, and those who did not. Where do the property owners fit into a theory that redefines class to mean occupation? Can a theory that has no conceptual space for capitalists really be called a class theory?

These problems represent a challenge for class research today and in the future. Can we find a way to preserve the significant strengths of both Bourdieu-inspired research and the microclass approach without having to renounce central sociological theories and themes of class and social inequality?

Differences, explanation and emotions

Above, I have briefly discussed some challenges related to the concept of class itself and how it can be used. But beyond this there is another fundamental question about how class “works”. I mentioned at the outset that in recent years there have been a number of contributions that show the continuing relevance of class distinctions in a number of aspects of our lives. But why is that so? How is an impersonal relationship like class relationships able to penetrate everything from what and who we like and identify with, what we think is right, wrong and important, which political parties we like, and who we marry?

In the writings of Max Weber there is a probing between what he calls class action and what he calls mass behaviour. Class action refers to social action where people in the same class situation come together and act more or less coordinated – in rational associations – on the basis of an experienced or explicitly recognized cohesion. As is well known, Weber believed that class action did not occur to the same extent and with the same necessity as the Marxists believed. In the hundred or so years since Weber wrote this, it has become widely accepted that this kind of class action is not exactly commonplace. It was also a central point of attack for the theories of individualization and reflexive modernity.

On the other hand, Weber described mass behavior as the more common phenomenon that the class situation produces similar reactions – that is, that people in the same class situation can react to situations or events in a similar way. Weber exemplifies this with workers’ dissatisfaction and “grumbling” about working conditions. The similarity in social conditions of existence affects the actions in a purely external way through the situations they put us in. An example of this is rational choice theories that explain class differences in educational choices as a response to the unequal resource-related playing fields encountered by people of different class origins.

What falls outside the typology of class action and mass behavior is the simple idea that class shapes our way of being in the world. This is thus different from thinking of class action as active organization and feelings of cohesion, or mere similarity in reaction patterns due to external conditions. In this understanding, class is about different ways of feeling, experiencing, perceiving and thinking. Put a little differently, this concerns how class distinctions are cultural – in the broad, anthropological sense, as Bourdieu emphasized. Something like this is central to the concept of habitus. In what Weber called mass behavior – and in, for example, rational action theory – there is an external relationship between the person or people who act, and their social circumstances. But if our class-divided lives help shape us as people, it means that there is also an internal relationship between the social structures and ourselves. We face class society not only as quasi-objective structures “out there”, but also “in here”, in the body and in the psyche.

Such thinking has provided inspiration for a number of contributions that study class based on different ways of feeling, perceiving and experiencing. In that sense, one can say that what the British sociologist Mike Savage has called the cultural turn in class analysis is also in a sense a cognitive turn. It emphasizes how the class structure not only confronts us as an external limitation we have to deal with, but is also embedded inside our heads and bodies.

In this perspective, it becomes easier to approach explanations for why the in principle impersonal class relationships can affect so many things we do. One example is Will Atkinson’s research into education and career choices, where the informants from the dominant classes have a self-evident and taken-for-granted attitude towards taking higher education, while informants from the dominated classes state that they have not even considered it .In this way, some of the actors’ social sense of place transpires.

Such an understanding also has challenging implications for issues of criticism and normativity: A common-sense criticism of social conditions can be based on the fact that the conditions prevent people from pursuing their projects and plans. It is therefore the tension between wishes and possibilities that becomes the critical point. But this becomes more complicated when you see that the wishes and dreams themselves are shaped by one’s position in class relations – when class has crept into our sense of who we are and what we want.

But as the Belgian sociologist Dieter Vandebroeck put it: If class is inside our heads, how did it get there? What processes create this class-divided subjectivity? Vandebroeck has done a pioneering study on how children pick up signs of class affiliation. While five-year-olds do not yet have full control of the signs and codes, older children are already very competent. Not least, they gradually, but relatively early on, develop clear ideas about an economic hierarchy between the classes, but also a social and moral hierarchy – manifested in who you don’t want to play with or invite to your birthday.

There are still some who think that the royal road to sociological explanation runs through refined statistical techniques that can allegedly reveal causal relationships. In my view, sociological explanation must focus on social practices – what people do, how it is that they have the opportunity to do what they do, and not least why they do it. This invokes the classic interactionist interest in how people interpret and understand the situations in which they act.

Cultural class analysis makes it clear that these interpretations draw on socially produced ways of (among other things) interpreting, which are not the same for everyone. But the challenge today is not to theoretically establish that this is the case, but to further develop ways of studying and analyzing these classed ways of being and where they came from. Here we may draw insights from the sociology of emotions, social psychology and new fields such as neurosociology. In order to understand how class plays into so many aspects of life, we need to grasp the class-divided ways of experiencing, perceiving, feeling and thinking about the world.

On what class and how it works

A few years ago, the Norwegian Journal of Social Research asked a bunch of researchers about their reflections on the past and/or future of their discipline. What follows is a (rough) translation of my response.

In recent years, questions about social inequality and class differences have returned to the agenda in the social sciences and in the wider public. In a sense, this marks the end of a long post-war consensus, holding that increased prosperity, the welfare state, post-industrialism, consumerism, new political divisions and so-called “individualisation” had made the concept of class irrelevant. Today, new research is constantly being published that shows the continuing relevance of class distinctions in more or less individualized, post-industrial consumer societies .

Beneath the new interest in class and inequality, however, there is also a new uncertainty about what class “is” and how it “works”. In sociology, we have seen a flourishing of class analysis, driven forward by a sweeping theoretical development and reorientation. In recent research, one has turned to more concrete concepts of class, which also emphasize that class is not only a quasi-objective, material structure, but also something subjective that exists within us.

With this, class research has gained a much broader perspective. Where the focus was once predominantly on questions of social mobility and inequalities in education, in recent years we have seen a revitalization of interest in the “subjective”, symbolic and political aspects of class distinctions. All this is very well, but it raises some questions about the underlying understanding of what class really is, and how it can play a role in so many different aspects of life. The answers given by ´new class analyzes have given  have improved the analyses, but raise new questions that must be dealt with. Here I will focus on two themes: Are the new forms of class analysis in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater: do they still preserve key insights from the classics? And do we have a good enough understanding of the ways in which class becomes part of who we are?

On reorientation in class analysis

For quite some time, it made sense to divide sociological class and stratification theory into three camps: Marxist and Weberian class theory and liberal stratification theory. The first two thematized distinctly modern power and inequality relationships that were linked to truly fundamental aspects of how capitalism worked, while the stratification tradition was more strongly characterized by functionalist ideas about division of labor and normative consensus.

If this was once a meaningful division, developments in the research field helped to undermine it. In the endeavors of empirical-sociological class analyses, it seemed that the inspiration from Marx and Weber converged in a surprisingly similar representation of the class structure, as in the convergence of the Goldthorpe and Wright typologies. The overall ambition to analyze power relations took a backseat, while issues of operationalisation, measurement and statistical modeling became more important. The sociology of stratification also distanced itself in practice from its theoretical origins. It may appear as if the difference between these three approaches  can now almost be reduced to a question of whether one prefers to work with categorical data – classes and class schemes – or whether one prefers continuous variables – socioeconomic status scales.

Marx and Weber’s concept of class was abstract. Abstract does not mean distant or imprecise. Their concepts of class were abstract in the sense that they sought to analytically isolate — through abstraction — a few but important features of social structures, specifically property and market relations. Part of the problems encountered by the well-known categorical class schemes can be seen as revolving around the difficulty of “translating” such abstract categories into concrete variables.

In recent years, interest has turned towards class theories that avoid this problem, because they are much more concrete. This applies to both Bourdieu-inspired research and the so-called microclass approach. In Bourdieu’s model, one has, firstly, a relatively concrete way of determining class distinctions in that classes are to be understood as potential groups of actors with the same amount and composition of capital, and with similar social trajectories. Class is thus understood to concern how much and what kind of resources one has available and can put into play to realize whatever plans and wishes one may have. Secondly, the concrete is expressed in Bourdieu’s insistence that how class “works” cannot be revealed by trying to isolate the effect of individual variables, as many of us have been trained to think. In order to be able to understand and explain class divisions and their effects, one must instead see different relationships in context: Rather than looking at gender, age, ethnicity or region as “competitors” to economic and cultural capital, Bourdieu says that a sociological explanation requires us to get grasp of how these are connected to each other and play together, so to speak, in shaping practice. It is a position that has much in common with certain varieties of intersectionality theory.

The microclass approach, associated with the American David Grusky, is another, rather concrete way of looking at class divisions. The main idea is that many important inequality processes may not be operative on such a general level as many class schemes operate on. A basic idea is that the various efforts at social closure – exclusion and monopolization – are not carried out by the “middle class” as such, but by specific professions and occupational groups. By breaking up the large categories and getting down to as detailed an occupational level as possible, one believes that one can get a better understanding of how social mobility and reproduction takes place.

With both of these approaches, one gets concepts of class that are more concrete than in the categorical class schemes, and both partially claim their legitimacy by being better suited to explain social practices. One also circumvents the difficulties that the Marxist and Weberian class concepts encounter when they are to be used to divide a population into classes: How many classes are there, and how do we know which class each individual should be sorted into? With Bourdieu’s social space, one can operationalize class in very clear accordance with the theory. With the help of multiple correspondence analysis, one can empirically model the distribution of and the relationships between the types of capital and thus construct social spaces where each actor’s position reflects their endowment of economic and cultural capital. With the microclass approach, one can operationalize by relying on apparently real groups – occupations.

Problems in recent class analysis

There are both theoretical and practical advantages to these more concrete approaches to class analysis. Both maintain in a sense the concept of class, although both also have reservations: Following a Bourdieu, it perhaps makes more sense to only talk about positions in social space, and following a micro-class logic, it is perhaps equally meaningful to only talk about occupational groups. Both also maintain a connection to classical class theory, both purely thematically and theoretically.

Nevertheless, it is unclear whether they are good candidates to replace class theory as such since none of them fully address the kind of problem that Marx and Weber started with. Neither Bourdieu-inspired research nor the microclass approach thematizes or theorizes the basic relations of power and domination that arise in capitalist market and production relations. Emphasizing actors’ economic and cultural capital tells us a lot about their life chances. At the same time, a focus on these forms of capital does not provide an exhaustive description of power because the power that owners and top managers have by virtue of their position cannot be described in terms of how much capital they have. In the same way, the average worker’s modest power and influence over his own work cannot be explained by pointing out that he has below average capital. For these power differences, the amount and type of capital is more to be understood as a symptom than a cause.

For microclass research, the increased level of detail offers certain empirical advantages, but the approach has theoretical shortcomings. In this context, perhaps the most problematic thing is how one here thinks of class strictly in occupational terms. What about forms of power and privileges that do not originate in employment? What about the power that comes from property ownership? For the classics of sociology, the basic division in class society was between the many who had to live off labour, and those who could live off property. In that sense, one could say that the class relationship was between those who made a living from their occupation, and those who did not. Where do the property owners fit into a theory that redefines class to mean occupation? Can a theory that has no conceptual space for capitalists really be called a class theory?

These problems represent a challenge for class research today and in the future. Can we find a way to preserve the significant strengths of both Bourdieu-inspired research and the microclass approach without having to renounce central sociological theories and themes of class and social inequality?

Differences, explanation and feelings

Above, I have briefly discussed some challenges related to the concept of class itself and how it can be used. But beyond this there is another fundamental question about how class “works”. I mentioned at the outset that in recent years there have been a number of contributions that show the continuing relevance of class distinctions in a number of aspects of our lives. But why is that so? How is an impersonal relationship like class relationships able to penetrate everything from what and who we like and identify with, what we think is right, wrong and important, which political parties we like, and who we marry?

In the writings of Max Weber there is a probing between what he calls class action and what he calls mass behaviour. Class action refers to social action where people in the same class situation come together and act more or less coordinated – in rational associations – on the basis of an experienced or explicitly recognized cohesion. As is well known, Weber believed that class action did not occur to the same extent and with the same necessity as the Marxists believed. In the hundred or so years since Weber wrote this, it has become widely accepted that this kind of class action is not exactly commonplace. It was also a central point of attack for the theories of individualization and reflexive modernity.

On the other hand, Weber described mass behavior as the more common phenomenon that the class situation produces similar reactions – that is, that people in the same class situation can react to situations or events in a similar way. Weber exemplifies this with workers’ dissatisfaction and “grumbling” about working conditions. The similarity in social conditions of existence affects the actions in a purely external way through the situations they put us in. An example of this is rational choice theories that explain class differences in educational choices as a response to the unequal resource-related playing fields encountered by people of different class origins.

What falls outside the typology of class action and mass behavior is the simple idea that class shapes our way of being in the world. This is thus different from thinking of class action as active organization and feelings of cohesion, or mere similarity in reaction patterns due to external conditions. In this understanding, class is about different ways of feeling, experiencing, perceiving and thinking. Put a little differently, this concerns how class distinctions are cultural – in the broad, anthropological sense, as Bourdieu emphasized. Something like this is central to the concept of habitus. In what Weber called mass behavior – and in, for example, rational action theory – there is an external relationship between the person or people who act, and their social circumstances. But if our class-divided lives help shape us as people, it means that there is also an internal relationship between the social structures and ourselves. We face class society not only as quasi-objective structures “out there”, but also “in here”, in the body and in the psyche.

Such thinking has provided inspiration for a number of contributions that study class based on different ways of feeling, perceiving and experiencing. In that sense, one can say that what the British sociologist Mike Savage has called the cultural turn in class analysis is also in a sense a cognitive turn. It emphasizes how the class structure not only confronts us as an external limitation we have to deal with, but is also embedded inside our heads and bodies.

In this perspective, it becomes easier to approach explanations for why the in principle impersonal class relationships can affect so many things we do. One example is Will Atkinson’s research into education and career choices, where the informants from the dominant classes have a self-evident and taken-for-granted attitude towards taking higher education, while informants from the dominated classes state that they have not even considered it .In this way, some of the actors’ social sense of place transpires.

Such an understanding also has challenging implications for issues of criticism and normativity: A common-sense criticism of social conditions can be based on the fact that the conditions prevent people from pursuing their projects and plans. It is therefore the tension between wishes and possibilities that becomes the critical point. But this becomes more complicated when you see that the wishes and dreams themselves are shaped by one’s position in class relations – when class has crept into our sense of who we are and what we want.

But as the Belgian sociologist Dieter Vandebroeck put it: If class is inside our heads, how did it get there? What processes create this class-divided subjectivity? Vandebroeck has done a pioneering study on how children pick up signs of class affiliation. While five-year-olds do not yet have full control of the signs and codes, older children are already very competent. Not least, they gradually, but relatively early on, develop clear ideas about an economic hierarchy between the classes, but also a social and moral hierarchy – manifested in who you don’t want to play with or invite to your birthday.

There are still some who think that the royal road to sociological explanation runs through refined statistical techniques that can allegedly reveal causal relationships. In my view, sociological explanation must focus on social practices – what people do, how it is that they have the opportunity to do what they do, and not least why they do it. This invokes the classic interactionist interest in how people interpret and understand the situations in which they act.

Cultural class analysis makes it clear that these interpretations draw on socially produced ways of (among other things) interpreting, which are not the same for everyone. But the challenge today is not to theoretically establish that this is the case, but to further develop ways of studying and analyzing these classed ways of being and where they came from. Here we may draw insights from the sociology of emotions, social psychology and new fields such as neurosociology. In order to understand how class plays into so many aspects of life, we need to grasp the class-divided ways of experiencing, perceiving, feeling and thinking about the world.

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