20 March 2007

Class categories

A friend of mine was just alluding to Paul Fussell's book Class: A Guide Through the American Status Systems. I found a list of Fussell's categories, and they're interesting.

Top Out of Sight — Billionaires and multi-millionaires. The people so wealthy they can afford exclusive levels of privacy. We never hear about them because they don't want us to.

Upper Class — Millionaires, inherited wealth. Those who don't have to work. They refer to tuxes as “dinner jackets.”

Upper Middle — Wealthy surgeons and lawyers, etc. Professionals who couldn't be described as middle class. I suspect this is the class to which I, an engineer, am supposed to aspire.

Middle Class — The great American majority, sort of.

High Proletarian (or “prole”) — Skilled workers but manual labor. Electricians, plumbers, etc. Probably not familiar with the term “proletarian.”

Middle Prole — Unskilled manual labor. Waitresses, painters. (In other words, my mom and dad!)

Low Prole — Non-skilled of a lower level than mid prole. I suspect these people ask “Would you like fries with that, sir?” as a career.

Destitute — Working and non-working poor.

Bottom Out of Sight — Street people, the most destitute in society. “Out of sight” because they have no voice, influence or voter impact. (They don't vote.)

That's more slices than in Ruby K. Payne's terrific A Framework for Understanding Poverty, which is a chaotic but insightful book that does a a simple split into only upper, middle, and lower classes that is really illuminating about the cultural elements of class, especially around “common knowledge.” I like the way Fussell cuts that into more categories—the distinctions at the high and low ends of the scale are particularly clever, I think—but I don't like the way it's close to being a simple linear scale from high and low.

I'm not a real sociologist, but I think of class in the US in more categories, to reflect some cultural distinctions among folks who may overlap in wealth and income but do different kind of work and have different culture and distinct social networks. I've talked about this before, but not really laid out all of the categories I have in my head. So here they are:

High, middle, and low aristocracy
Inherited wealth. Low means rich enough not to have to work, medium means able to afford the trappings of wealth, high means hundreds of millions of dollars or more. As Fussel observes, these folks spend their wealth making themselves invisible, especially as you move further up the scale.

Major and minor celebrities
This includes not only obvious movie and pop stars but also big-name politicians, a few entrepeneurs like Bill Gates, atheletes, and so forth. Fame is a different kind of currency than wealth, and it comes with its own social circle and culture. “Major” celebrities can presume a permanent place in this class; “minor” celebrities cannot.

Nouveaux riche
Entrepeneurs, CEOs, and so forth who have made enough money that they don't have to work ... but almost certainly continue to work, and work hard. These people may have wealth comparable to the middle aristocrats; at the point where they have as much money as high aristos they are better conceived as part of that artistocratic class, while at the low end they blur into the richest end of high professionals.

High and low professionals
People who make their living with some valuable mental skill. High professionals include successful doctors, lawyers, and corporate executives who make a lot of money ... but not enough that they can just quit working. Low professionals include just about everybody else who works in offices, from architects to customer service representatives, which means a broad range of actual income.

Intellectuals
People who make their living with some valuable knowledge. Professors, scientists, and other experts of various kinds, including many artists. Often mistaken for professionals, but these folks have more (and stranger!) books in their houses. Again, covers a very broad range of actual incomes.

Bohemians
People who devote themselves to art or entertainment (though that last may simply mean entertaining themselves). Musicians, actors, bartenders, sex workers, nightclub bouncers, twenty-four hour party people. Keeping late or odd hours is a key defining characteristic.

High and low working class
People who make their living through physical work. The high working class have valuable skills, like plumbers or construction workers, while the low working class don't.

Poor
People working, often working hard, but perpetually worried about money because they're a paycheque away from economic disaster and homelessness, and don't have a route to improve that situation.

Underclass
People unable to connect to the above-board economy. This ranges from the hungry homeless to folks currently hustling up wealth on a par with the upper end of the low working class ... but without any stability even at the day-to-day scale.

If this stuff interests you, I have an old post on the subject with a discussion of the relation between wealth and power and the distinction between professional and intellectual class.

Update: I should observe that practically all of the people ranging from the high professionals to the low working class refer to themselves as “middle class.”

Update: Realized I need to add bohemians to my personal taxonomy.

6 comments:

d a r k c h i l d e said...

One of the big enlightenments of my youthful, teenage years was found in 10th grade when my economics teacher explained the economic catagories and the level of weath/income needed for each of them.

I had grown up with my mother and father telling me how we were wealthy and "better off" than many others. I remember being told how to be nice to those who "don't have as much" and other things that would indicate to my young mind that we were in the upper-middle class.

Then I say the statistics and learned that we were actually in the LOWER middle-class and barely scraping along to fit in there!

My mother just wanted SO MUCH to be in the upper class that she convinced herself (and me for a while) that we WERE there...

perspective...it's quite a thing!

I like your break-down of class categories...but it is interesting how you are using the groups on an "effort"-scale rather than a wealth-scale.

batojar said...

darkchilde,

I think the phenomenon you describe is one of the primary reasons political discussions of class (and usually the subsequent discussions of taxes) are often non-starters in this America. *Most* Americans consider themselves rich or very well off (except those in the working poor category and below - they know what the score is)or envision themselves soon to be rich. They don't want to tax "themselves" even though they are largely by no means rich -and generally unlikely to become truly rich.

Well, that phenomenon, and a lot of very poor framing on the part of the Left.

T. Thorn Coyle said...

Was just discussing the vagaries of class while in Britain last weekend.

These catagories are helpful to the conversation.

Kate said...

Are you ill? Traveling? Bored with blogging?

Miss these insights into your life and times.

Love,

Mom

J'Carlin said...

I find a hidden but critical subclass of the Professional and Intellectual classes that I call change effectors (borrowed from biology). These are the people who understand the impact of their particular contribution on the larger society and change that impact for the improvement of that society.
All to many professionals and intellectuals are essentially assembly line workers. The project falls off the feed line, bounces off the floor, is picked up, placed on the white board, solved, and the button pushed for the next one on the feed line.
The change effector has an extra white board where "what did I learn" is noted before the "next" button is pushed. And uses that accumulated knowledge to change the way the line works.
These people are the Salman Khans who see beyond the endless stream of lecture halls, day after day, to a new way of teaching. To pick one famous example.

Jonathan Korman said...

Carlin, there's definitely something to your point about how people with different temperaments approach their work and affect the organizations in which they operate. But I'm not sure that this tells us much about the social-political order of social class.