Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Class and Classism


Class: Relative social rank in terms of income, wealth, status and/or power.

Classism: The institutional, cultural, and individual set of practices and beliefs that assign differential value to people according to their socio-economic class; and an economic system which creates excessive inequality and causes basic human needs to go unmet.

Class Indicator: A factual or experiential factor that helps determine an individual’s class.

Class Continuum: The ranking of individuals or families in a society by income, wealth, status, or power; the range of experiences out of which particular class identities are defined.  Lines may be drawn at different points along this continuum, and labeled differently.  Class is a relative thing, both subjectively and in terms of resources; our experience varies depending on whether we look up or down the continuum.  However, it is clear that everyone at the top end is mostly agent/dominant, while everyone at the bottom end is mostly target/subordinate.  The following visually demonstrates this:

Targets             Mostly Targets             Mostly Agents             Agents______

Lower Class/       Working Class                Middle Class               Owning Class/
Poor                                                                                                Ruling Class

Class Identity: A label for one category of class experience, such as ruling class, owning class, middle class, working class, lower class.

Ruling Class: The stratum of people who hold positions of power in major institutions of the society.

Owning Class/Rich: The stratum of families who own income-producing assets sufficient to make paid employment necessary.

Middle Class:  The stratum of families for whom breadwinners’ higher education and/or specialized skills bring higher income and more security than those of working class people.

Upper-Middle Class: The portion of the middle class with higher incomes due to professional jobs and/or investment income.

Lower-Middle Class: The portion of the middle class with lower and less stable incomes due to lower-skilled or unstable employment.

Working Class: The stratum of families whose income depends on hourly wages for labor.

Lower Class/Poor: The stratum of families with incomes insufficient to meet basic human needs.

Stereotypes About Different Class Identities:

Ruling Class: cultured, uptight, refined, sophisticated, condescending, greedy
Owning Class: effete snobs, incapable of anything physical, greedy, cultured
Middle Class: normal, regular, boring, wannabees, stodgy
Working Class: tacky, blue collar, bigoted, stupid, bad taste
Poor People: trailer trash, irresponsible, can’t delay gratification, lazy, stupid, disorganized, criminals

Individual Classism: This term refers to classism on a personal or individual level, either in behavior or attitudes, either conscious and intentional or unconscious and unintentional.  Examples include the thought or belief that a certain type of work is beneath you, or the assumption that everyone has the financial resources to go out to an expensive restaurant.

Institutional Classism: This term refers to the ways in which conscious or unconscious classism is manifest in the various institutions of our society.  Two examples from colleges: some schools give preferences to children of alumni, thus making it harder for first-generation college applicants to get in; some schools reserve the most convenient parking spaces for faculty, even though they usually work far more flexible hours than support staff.

Cultural Classism:  This term refers to the ways in which classism is manifest through our cultural norms and practices.  It can often be found in the ideology behind something, as in the commercial for peanut butter, “Choosy mothers choose Jif,” implying that if you buy the least expensive/generic store brand you care less about your children.

Internalized Classism: Acceptance and justification of classism by working class and poor people, such as feelings of inferiority to higher-class people, feelings of superiority to people lower on the class spectrum than oneself, hostility and blame towards other poor and working class people, and beliefs that classist institutions are fair.

Privilege: One of the many tangible or intangible unearned advantages of higher-class status, such as personal contacts with employers, good childhood health care, inherited money, speaking the same dialect and accent as people with institutional power.

From: Adams, Maurianne, Lee Anne Bell and Pat Griffin.  Teaching for Diversity and Social Justice.  New York: Routledge, 1997.


  1. This post was very helpful because this may be horrible to say but I always thought that "working class" and "middle class" were the same thing...oops!

  2. Kelly: I think that is a very common perception. I thought I was "middle class" until I was exposed to people of a much higher class than me. In america, we like to think we are all "middle class" but in fact fewer and fewer of us actually are.

  3. Now would you say privileges include all (or most of all) social resiliency? Such as a stay-at-home-mother; quality child care (perhaps for free from a relative); or geographical benefits (like living in a family home in a "good"/low crime neighborhood). Would privileges extend to those things acquired not by old or new money but by circumstance or the sacrifice of previous generations? (Hopefully that isn't too unclear).

  4. Wow!!! Definitions of class in the US seem very different than here in the UK, although the definition of class in the UK is becoming more like the US. Working class in the UK was/is more about culture, community, a way of talking and the job you did/do. In the US it seems that to many, the term working class just means loser or someone who hasn't got on. So, Joe the plumber will define himself as middle class so as not to look like a guy who only earns $25000 a year, even if he does.

    We are obsessed with class in England. I am working class with 2 degrees, but still struggle to get decent employment. I align myself always with the class I was born and brought up in. But the US and UK definitions are somewhat different.