You could call it class warfare, except the warfare is on the very idea of class. For generations now, various prominent scholars have decided we’d be better off abolishing it. Back in 1939, the sociologist George Simpson declared in the American Sociological Review that “the term ‘class’ has assumed an importance in contemporary social theory in inverse proportion to its clarity as a scientific instrument,” and that “there is such confusion in the term that it is impossible to use it for social investigation.” In the late 1950s, Robert Nisbet, a prominent conservative sociologist, avowed that the term “social class” “is nearly valueless,” at least in the developed West, and compared it to Ptolemaic astronomy.
By the 1990s, the “death of class” thesis took to the field: a number of sociologists, of various ideological persuasions, were suggesting that class was a historical artifact, ready for the dustbin. Others, in the Simpsonian tradition, doubted whether it had ever been a useful designation. The sociologist Peter Calvert’s study The Concept of Class (1982) argued that the idea was so muddled as to be useless, even dangerous. The great literary scholar P.N. Furbank, writing in the 1990s, proposed that “class” was “a baneful concept and one which we need at least to try to unthink.”
In the years since, many scholars have decided to get on without it, while many others have devised increasingly intricate, multidimensional metrics for measuring it. Leaving the medieval scholastics in the dust, we now have — among other metrics — the Erikson-Goldthorpe-Portocarero schema (EGP), which spawned Casmin, the Comparative Study of Social Mobility in Industrial Nations; the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC); the Cambridge Social Interaction and Stratification scales (Camsis); and the more narrowly tailored Standard International Occupational Prestige Scale (Siops), to say nothing of various small-is-beautiful proposals for “microclass” metrics. Nisbet, anticipating such developments, insisted that real class would be a tangible, easily observable relationship, and that “the proof of existence of a social class worthy of the sociological name should not have to depend upon multivariate analysis.”
What does class mean? Can we measure it? Is it really a thing? The questions buzz like flies over carrion. For all the eloquent obituaries, however, “class” remains in rude health, not least in the university itself — a primary locus of the filtration, training, and signaling that promulgate social hierarchies. The academic perplexity around “class” is a symptom of deeper anomalies internal to the concept. That’s not a reason for burying class. It is a reason to use it with some sense of its pedigree.
The very idea of class can seem historically recent. In England the term gained wide currency only in the 19th century, as conservatives reacted to the upheavals of the French Revolution. Yet tracking a concept by tracking a term — as Quentin Skinner famously warned his class-minded colleague Raymond Williams — can invite confusion. And something like the concept of class is age-old. The ancient Greeks were certainly aware of social hierarchies. Feudal Europe saw itself as divided into “estates of the realm” — although there were different ideas of how many estates there were and where to draw the lines. Clergy and the nobility usually counted for two; peasants, merchants, and shopkeepers could be lumped together or split up in various ways.
Modern theories of class start with Karl Marx. In his stylized picture of the British economy in the early days of industrial capitalism, there were only two main classes, defined by their “relations to the means of production”: the capitalists, who owned the factories; and the workers, who earned wages for making things. Marx called the capitalist class the bourgeoisie, taking up a word that had once referred to the shopkeepers and artisans who lived in towns (les bourgs, in French). The workers he called the proletariat.
Part of his point, evidenced in the rise of the workingmen’s associations and then of labor unions, was that these classes were identities: they had normative significance for the people who were in them. People thought of themselves as members of the working class. They took pride in the achievements of their kind. They displayed class solidarity. Class as identity is implicit in Marx’s notion that the proletariat could be both the “object” and the “subject” of history, both the acted-upon and the self-aware actor. The Marxist historian E.P. Thompson pressed this idea further in his classic The Making of the English Working Class (1963): “The working class made itself as much as it was made.”
The basic two-part division of Marxist thought left out large numbers of people. There was still the old aristocracy, the nobility. There were small farmers in the countryside. There were landlords earning rent, and professionals, like barbers, lawyers, doctors, and nurses. Then there was what Marx called the petty bourgeoisie: the shopkeepers and others who ran small businesses. There were also civil servants of all levels: academics, soldiers, police officers, domestic servants, and, of course, managers, who supervised the proletariat at work. Marx was born to a well-off German-Jewish family in Prussia. Both his grandfathers were rabbis; his father was a successful lawyer, who owned a vineyard. Where did Marx himself fit in?
Writing a couple of generations later, the German sociologist Max Weber, who was the child of a prominent Berlin-based politician, pointed toward a richer conception — not in his specific treatment of “class,” which he defined narrowly, as a purely objective, economic fact about people, but in his larger account of social stratification. In addition to wealth, Weber’s account encompassed the idea of a status group (a Stand) that involved “positive or negative estimations of honor”; and something he called “party” (Partei), which reflected your relation to power, and so your ability to achieve your goals.
Those three categories were entwined. Wealth had a complex relation to status distinctions; and power, too, could confer status and be secured by wealth. Weber saw that “status honor is normally expressed by the fact that above all else a specific style of life can be expected from all those who wish to belong to the circle.” (He had a strong sense of honor himself; he once challenged an academic antagonist of his wife’s — she was also a social theorist — to a duel.)
What evolved from this account was a concept of class that draws from each of Weber’s three buckets. We don’t think you can specify someone’s class from his or her tax return. A Jesuit’s vow of poverty doesn’t consign him to a lower class. A penniless graduate student is situated differently from the janitor of her dormitory. And, of course, the literature of the 19th century is full of poor relations, like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Jane Austen’s Dashwood girls, who need a job or a husband or a patron to support them, but have a claim to gentle birth. Conversely, being in possession of a fortune didn’t make you upper class. In Doctor Thorne, one of Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, Sir Roger Scatcherd is rich, titled, and the owner of a grand estate. Upper class? Not by his accounting or anybody else’s: He’s an ex-convict and stonemason who made his fortune, and procured his title, by his feats as a railway contractor.
So why not say that class is simply a matter of status? Because the economic dimension here is anything but incidental, and not every form of status relates to class status. (The star players on a football team have an advantage in honor, as well as in earnings, over the benchwarmers, but class isn’t the right way to describe the arrangement.) Heritability is part of the picture; so is the prospect of upward or downward mobility. The connection between class and wealth, though complex, is indissoluble. The relevant forms of status are those most associated with a lineage of long-possessed wealth. And though upper-class status doesn’t always entail having money, it does entail social proximity to money. Real poverty, it has been observed, is about social isolation as much as material deprivation; the poor don’t have the sort of friendship networks that the advantaged draw upon. Class is one way that you benefit from the money in the pockets of friends and acquaintances.
It’s because of those uncertainties about how it is to be defined that so many scholars have, over the decades, sought to abolish “class,” if not class. Here we see the basic reductionist urge: replace the large and messy with the lean and clean. In the postwar era, the term “socioeconomic status” came into widespread use to designate what’s ordinarily meant by class. Alas, it merely tucks away the perplexities into the “socio” part, like a child hiding her spinach in a napkin.
“Poverty,” Jane Eyre at one point reflects, “looks grim to grown people; still more so to children: they have not much idea of industrious, working, respectable poverty.” Brontë’s novel was published in 1847, two years after Friedrich Engel’s The Conditions of the Working Class in England. It was a golden age of “class.” Real changes were afoot. In England, in the later years of the 18th century and the first half of the 19th, people in what had once been called the “lower orders” developed a growing sense of self-respect, something that manifested itself in the development of a self-conscious working class. No longer defined negatively by their lower place in a system of status, by what they were not, the workingmen’s associations of Britain came to view manual labor as a source not just of income but also of pride.
As is evident from the fact that these groups were called men’s associations, this way of thinking saw men and women of the working classes as having different roles. But working-class women didn’t just look after and raise workingmen; they also worked themselves. And even if their work was not pleasant or interesting, working people of both sexes could be proud both of what they produced and of what they earned through their labor. In fact, we miss something important about our class system if we think that it is just about inequality. Class creates equals as well as unequals. (That’s why Emil Durkheim held high hopes for the political role of solidarity-promoting occupational groups.) A class identity, like any other, creates an in-group. At the same time, through such refashioned social identities, workers could mobilize to resist exploitation and challenge derogation.
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In 19th-century America, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, wealth was more evenly distributed than it was in Europe, and often held by people who had acquired it themselves. “Wealth circulates there with incredible rapidity,” he wrote, “and experience teaches that it is rare to see two generations reap the rewards of wealth.” The result, among what he called the Anglo-Americans (i.e., the white population), was that social relations were more equal than in the societies of the Old World: “What is most important for democracy, is not that there are no great fortunes; it is that great fortunes do not rest in the same hands. In this way, there are the rich, but they do not form a class.”
That wasn’t always the experience from inside. The instability of the class structure, not its nonexistence, may have been a lever of the country’s political history. When America started to become a manufacturing center, a few decades into the 19th century, the scions of well-established Northern families felt socially and politically displaced. They had been raised to be a ruling elite, but now they found no followers; power was shifting from the agricultural world to an emerging business world, where, as the historian David Herbert Donald wrote, “too gentle an education, too nice a morality were handicaps.” And so this cohort, which came of age in the 1830s, became reformers — something Donald saw as an effort to reclaim their lost social dominance. “Some fought for prison reform; some for women’s rights; some for world peace; but ultimately most came to make that natural identification between moneyed aristocracy, textile manufacturing, and Southern slave-grown cotton,” he argued. “An attack on slavery was their best, if quite unconscious, attack upon the new industrial system. … Reform gave meaning to the lives of this displaced social elite.” A class-based analysis of motives is seldom flattering. But whatever their causes, these moral ideals gained genuine traction. They kept alive the picture of a politics of equals that some took to be implicit in the American republic.
Which isn’t to say such a politics was actually achieved. The ideal of a society of equals was elusive. Race complicates everything in America, but among whites, as among blacks, there were hierarchies of status associated with distinctions of behavior between those who came from uneducated families in which men and women worked with their hands and those who came from educated families and did not earn a living from manual labor. With the enormous increase in college education after the Second World War — an increase that came earlier for whites than for blacks — and the growth of occupations for which a college education was regarded as necessary, a substantial divide grew between those whose formal education ended with high school and those who went on to college. The “middle-class” status of meagerly compensated librarians reflected a vocational requirement for an education beyond secondary school; that the better-paid assembly-line workers were “working class” reflected the absence of such a requirement. For a time, that divide was increasingly a matter of individual income and style of life, and less likely to be decided by the family from which you came. This period, with some justice, can be thought of as offering a democratization of opportunity. But don’t for a moment imagine that it meant the erasure of hierarchy.
In fact, the basic mechanisms of class were still the ones dramatized in Jane Eyre. Jane’s adjacency to privilege is what connects her to the education that allows her to become a governess, which is the job that brings her to Thornfield Hall, the home of Mr. Rochester. Jane Eyre, in other words, takes her social capital and turns it, through education and upbringing, into cultural capital: the manners and carriage (what the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called habitus and hexis) of an educated woman of her class and time. There were jobs that Jane Eyre wouldn’t have considered doing — factory labor as a seamstress, for example — because they were inconsistent with her class. That makes her not just a suitable teacher but also a suitable companion for her young pupil. Her posture and the way she speaks, her ability to talk about history, play the piano, paint watercolors — all of these distinguish her from the maids and valets who surround her and the farm laborers who work on the estate.
The fact that financial, social, and cultural capital are distinct is one of the reasons that efforts to reduce class to any single scale don’t work. Weber’s account of social stratification left us with a quandary: It can’t put hatch marks on a ruler and provide a system by which everyone could be assigned a class rank. The tripartite approach that I support, taking account of those three forms of capital, isn’t meant to solve that problem. On the contrary, it’s meant to show why it can’t be solved. The Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin often talked about values as being “incommensurable”: You couldn’t measure the value of freedom and the value of equality on the same scale. Something like that is true as well of the different vectors of capital.
And nowhere are their untidy interactions more visible than in the realm of the academy. Bourdieu had, after all, introduced the notion of cultural capital in a discussion of education as a mechanism of social reproduction. In his model, pedagogical institutions certified certain cultural codes. If you had exposure to those codes at home (and if your family had the right attitude toward education), you’d benefit as a student, in ways that compounded over the years, perpetuating stratification. When it came to the grinding work of reproducing and maintaining social hierarchies, he thought, schools and universities were the engine rooms.
This picture captures something real, but it also leaves a lot out. Certainly education can, in the words of the British sociologist John Goldthorpe, “complement, compensate for or indeed counter family influences.” The writer Gore Vidal — an American who had (as he found ways to remind his readers) a plausible claim to belong to the upper class — wasn’t set back by skipping college; his sparring partner Norman Mailer, a child of first-generation immigrants who came of age in Flatbush and Crown Heights but went to Harvard, probably would have been.
The defunding of many state universities, a conservative agenda in recent decades, has only advanced inequality, because strong midtier public institutions have a commendable record of promoting social mobility. At the same time, elite universities remain largely inaccessible to the children of lower-income households. According to research conducted by the economist Raj Chetty and colleagues, a child from the top 1 percent is 77 times as likely to attend an Ivy League school as a child from the lower fifth. The academy can redistribute or entrench social privilege. Scholars of class tend to be exquisitely conscious of that fact.
Occupations rich in cultural capital continue to be ranked higher than those that are typical of the working and lower-middle classes. In a 2012 survey of occupational prestige, Americans placed professors close to big-city mayors, a little below physicians, and above lawyers. We academics actually occupy a strange place in the contemporary class system. Our extended educations give us a great deal of cultural capital, which can sometimes translate into connections and money — social and financial capital. But many Americans with doctoral degrees have little money and work long hours in jobs with few perks. “Adjunctification,” an unlovely term for an unlovely condition, has created the proletarian poetry instructor, racing from one campus to another with a dog-eared Heath Anthology in order to keep the lights on. (The anthology falls open to Dickinson’s “Your Riches Taught Me Poverty.”) In 1970, according to the Department of Education, adjuncts represented about a fifth of the faculty headcount; now they’re roughly half. A study from the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education found that a quarter of adjuncts are on public assistance.
As researchers have explored the effects of higher education upon inequality, then, a crevasse of inequality has been growing within the university. And here, perversely, the cachet of academia can impede efforts at redress. Adjunct faculty members, many of whom are effectively paid less than the minimum wage, may seek to join labor unions. Yet their cultural capital can present a hurdle to the effort, simply because they are unlikely to be identified as straightforwardly working class — as “labor.”
When it comes to demarcating class, there’s no Linnaean system that will do all we might want from it. Still, some forms of clustering can be more illuminating than others. In the largest study of class in Britain ever undertaken, the Great British Class Survey, in 2011, which used measures of all three forms of capital, the English sociologists Mike Savage and his colleagues concluded that there were now not three but seven classes in Britain. There was still an elite at the top, equipped with money, connections, and education, able to transmit financial, social, and cultural capital to their children. This top 6 percent of the population has an average income of more than $115,000, education at elite universities like Oxford and Cambridge, and a network of social connections to one another and to the old aristocracy. And there’s still a well-defined place at the bottom: 15 percent of the British population is now what the researchers called the “precariat,” with low incomes (typically a little over $10,000 after taxes), irregular, unstable employment, little in savings, and few social connections to the classes above them. Only about 3 percent of the children of the precariat get a college education.
But between those two classes, the study identified five distinct groups: clusters of financial, social, and cultural capital, which are not easily ranked against one another: emergent service workers, like chefs and production assistants, who go to “rock gigs,” play sports, and use gyms and social media; a traditional working class, like truck drivers and office cleaners, who mostly don’t do those things; a class of newly affluent workers (including electricians and plumbers); a technical middle class (including pilots and pharmacists); and an established middle class, who work in the professions and in management. Those groups don’t have a shared sense of what activities confer standing — reading versus computer games, classical versus popular music, cricket versus soccer, and so on — and the relative prestige of their occupations, too, is far from agreed upon.
The analysis is enlightening, not because it draws sharp lines on the map of a complex social reality, but because, like the best such research, it leaves us with larger lessons. Class, as we learn, isn’t a ladder. It’s a mountain, with multiple paths for ascent and descent. And it won’t do to pretend that we live on the plains.
The “death of class” thesis hasn’t flourished in light of the well-documented trends of the past few decades. Economists have exposed the increasing heritability of financial inequality, compounded by the rise of assortative mating (once bankers married their secretaries; now they marry other bankers). But if the subject of our moral concern were merely about the distribution of money, we really could drop “class.” What also matters is that the official ideal of meritocracy has tended to erode the dignity that the working classes once saw as their due, in an era when the trends of technology and globalization have taken a toll on their prospects and those of their children.
The title of a classic study by Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, The Hidden Injuries of Class (1972), continues to encapsulate a profound problem. The Tocquevillian ideal of a politics of equals hasn’t lost its claim on us. Talk of class requires us to think about dignity, and about inequality as a matter of relations, not just resources. That’s why class can’t be confined to the social sciences. Its significance spills over into the humanistic study of culture, into history, literature, philosophy, and the rest of what used to be called the moral sciences.
The critics of “class,” to be sure, had a point: The concept involves a complex circulation of nonconvertible currencies. Like all social identities, it has objective and subjective dimensions and disputed boundaries. We’ll never have a clean way of demarcating it. Peter Calvert was right when, invoking a term of the political philosopher W.B. Gallie, he called it an “essentially contested concept.” But he was wrong to see this as a reason to stop talking about it. Justice, democracy, dignity, fairness: All are essentially contested concepts. So is equality. Arguments over what those things mean can be of immense value. If they matter to us, the best solution to the lure of reductionism remains a touch of class.
Kwame Anthony Appiah is a professor of philosophy and law at New York University. This essay is adapted from The Lies That Bind, published this month by Norton.