May 12, 2007

Back to the drawing board on defining "class"

Readers have reacted with a well thought-out lack of enthusiasm for my attempt to define "class" as "a group of potential in-laws, people who might turn out to be ancestors of mutual descendents."

While there's a clever insight in focusing on the marriage market as central to issues of class, self-congratulation got the best of me. There appear to be at least two problems.

First, it extends the purview of class beyond any previous definition. Most notably, religion has traditionally had much to do with who-marries-whom, but to redefine religions as classes reeks of Humpty Dumptyism:

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone,' it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less.'

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'

'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master - that's all.'

Similarly, region plays a banally obvious role in who marries whom (people from South Carolina are more likely to marry other people from South Carolina than people from Oregon). It doesn't help much to define, say, a South Carolina factory worker family as a different class from an Oregon factory worker family just because, say, the odds of their intermarrying is lower than the odds of the South Carolina farm family intermarrying with a South Carolina factory-owner family.

(Of course, region can overlap with class. Midwesterners are notorious for po-mouthing their origins -- I'm just a boy from a town in the Midwest so small you probably have never heard of it, Kenilworth, Illinois ... For example, the rich characters in The Great Gatsby feel slightly oppressed knowing they are from the Midwest. Texans, in contrast, seldom publicly admit feelings of class inferiority due to being from Texas.)

Second, "class" as typically used implies levels of hierarchy about which there exists something of a consensus within a society about which classes are lower and which are higher (and thus which are preferable to marry into). Traditionally, these judgments are based on a complicated combination of wealth, bloodline, moral merit, job, education and so forth, so there is much room for disagreement, but much interest in ranking people on this dimension (see Jane Austen's novels).

Still, it makes sense to visualize a particular class as spreading horizontally across the social map, while other factors that affect who marries whom like region and religion are more vertical, and thus intersect class. Thus, say, an wealthy ultra-Orthodox Jewish family and a wealthy Parsi family might belong to the same class, but aren't likely to have common descendents within the next few generations because they both insist upon endogamy.

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Anonymous said...

Perhaps class is to fluid a term to capture very well by definition. Two reasons: good opportunities in America for upward mobility, and a deeply rooted inability, or lack of desire, to think in terms of class.

Anonymous said...

You realize, of course, that there is already a word defined in the way that you proposed to define class: "caste."

I realize, of course, that you still need a good way to define class.

Anonymous said...

Class is a status hierarchy, which usually has discrete grades, but is essentially analog, when understood most accurately.
The Duncan scale and its similars, come down to an equal ranking of income and years of education.
This is the modern, urban all-purpose status hierarchy of 'class'.
The older hierarchy, still extant in much of small town America, is a mix of size and antiquity of landownership relative to the time of settlement of a district, and military rank of one's forebears, plus the money-education scale averaged-in to some extent.
Fame hierarchies are highly susceptible to interpenetration with notoriety.
The delineation of class hierarchies, even presenting one scale as competing with another, has been a province of writers to a great extent; fiction writers who took advantage of their privilege, and left us with less than one would expect.

Anonymous said...

A definition then could be:
the locally-dominant analog status hierarchy,
where dominant means deferred to by the majority in a locality,
whether they themselves share the implicit ranking of values involved or not.
Class does not imply community of values.
People recognize and defer to, other value-rankings, especially when these are fossilized in institutions, and never stated explicitly.

dearieme said...

Congratulations for having a try, and also for having a re-think.

Anthony said...

If you haven't already, you really must read "Class" by Paul Fussell. Some of the examples of class markers are dated, but the general outlines seem pretty accurate.

Anonymous said...

What facts does the concept "class" capture that, say, "status ranking" does not? In America, there is plenty of pecking-order and money oligarchy, but the class thing is pretty fluid. Is it a useful concept here? What are we using the concept to designate?

Does anyone have any anecdotes about class in the USA that don't boil down to something else (like race or income?). I don't.

Anonymous said...

There's definitely a notion of shared values, too, in the sense that people of similar social class can more easily interact than people of very different social class. This encompasses education, background, interests, etc.

This drives some of the dysfunctional drive to send everyone to college. You pretty much have to have gone to college to be in the educated class, and despite a higher income, you wouldn't expect a plumbing contractor to feel comfortable at a gathering of programmers, research scientists, and college professors.

I suspect this also has a lot to do with the drive to get your kids into an ivy league school. Getting into Harvard almost automatically puts your kids into a higher class, and by association, puts you into a higher class.