17 August 2005

Social class

Brad Plumer has an incicive comment about how social class connects to one's work — and wriggles out of the over-simple idea that higher income equals higher social class.

One way to define class — and this is hardly an original thought — is to look not at income but at power. Power in the workplace. Power in the world. The working class, from this point of view, can be defined as those who do their jobs under strict supervision, have little control over what they do or how fast they do it, and have no power over anyone else. Notice I picked this definition somewhat deliberately; these are precisely the sorts of people who, under labor law, can join a union. Obviously the definition's not hard and fast. I'm in a union, after all, because at work I technically get no input into the Mother Jones budget, and have precisely zero authority over any other employee. So that's the law. In practice, though, I do have the ability to hire, promote, and fire interns, I get to work at my own pace, and have wide discretion over what projects I want to pursue. So I'd put myself in the middle class, even if I make far less, income-wise, than many who would be considered working class. Intuitively, this classification makes far more sense than calling me “working class” and, say, a well-paid, unionized electrician “middle class.”

I like this. I have a tendency, when talking about class, to avoid talking about “middle” class for this very reason, and refer to “working” versus “professional;” I break things up into poor, working poor, working, professional, intellectual, upper professional, aristocratic.

7 comments:

TheWayOfTheGun said...

Does "intellectual" belong on that scale at all? Seems orthogonal to me.

Yezida said...

Intellectual class is actually an important part of the scale, because class often doesn't just reflect income, but also worldview, political leanings, purchasing choices etc (at least in a general sense). Those in the intellectual class may be in the same income bracket as the working poor, for example, but their worldview is often quite different, making seem to be in a very different class.

I come from a working class family who have all stayed working class (yet have great "middle class" incomes) yet I somehow turned out firmly intellectual class (and don't have such a great income. Shucks. Shoulda stayed home).

Jonathan Korman said...

Aye, it's an important cultural distinction. In general, professional class do work with well-defined mental professional skills --- lawyers, project managers, telemarketers --- while intellectual class do work with knowledge and more generalized mental skills --- writers, professors.

The key distinguishing cultural characteristic of intellectual class is how many books they have in their houses. Most professionals have very few; intellectuals have lots.

Indri said...

Ah, I've got to challenge you on the "number of books" question. I spend time in the homes of many "professional class" people, and they seem to be as likely to have a lot of books as your "intellectual class."

They are, however, different books. Which is a larger point than it might at first seem.

Jonathan Korman said...

Cookbooks don't count!

Miriam said...

Hey, now! While this project manager has a fair number of cookbooks, she suspects her religious studies and anthropology sections could at least get her a backstage pass to the intellectual's parties.

Jonathan Korman said...

Oh, absolutely. Social class is cultural, and not simply a function of occupation, though there is a strong correlation.