Thursday, July 13, 2006

Is Corporate Class to Knowledge Class as Gentleman is to Scholar?

In everyday life we get by with a very simplified language to describe the social classes and status groups of American life. Almost all Americans will pick middle class as their self-identification. Union families might call themselves working class (though if the union is working well, they often work their way into the middle of the income spectrum). We might talk about other people as rich or poor, but small percentages of Americans would describe themselves that way in public.

For a sociologist, though, the nuances of class and status are the rich flora and fauna of the social world we study. Classes, and the "ideal types" of the people in them, are, to take another metaphor, our bread and butter.

The particular corner of the social structure that I am most concerned with is that portion near the top where the corporate class meets the knowledge class. These terms are not in everyday use outside of sociology, but they are not so far from common meaning that we can't quickly feel comfortable using them.

The corporate class centers on the top management of business corporations. They shade off into pure owners at the top and permanent middle management at the bottom. They shade off into the top management of government and, at a further remove, the non-profit sector on the "left," and perhaps into successful entrepreneurs on the "right."

The knowledge class is the class that makes its living from the control of knowledge. It centers on the top writers, thinkers, and analysts who make knowledge, and the professors who teach it. The knowledge class shades off into the greatest artists and scientists at the top, and schoolteachers and librarians at the bottom. The right side shades into engineers and technicians, while the left edge would, perhaps, lead to barely employed coffeehouse intellectuals, perpetual students, and working class men and women who have made themselves experts in one corner of their avocation.

Clearly, studying the classes is as much an art as it is a science.

Pierre Bourdieu is a great theorist of how the classes relate to one another. The terms that he uses, though clearer in a scientific sense, are far from ordinary language indeed. The contrast that I am drawing between the corporate class and the knowledge class he describes as the "dominant fraction of the dominant class" versus the "dominated fraction of the dominant class." Clearly, this will need a little translation, and not just from French.

Bourdieu does, though, suggest a fruitful image to summarize the contrast. Put in the terms I use, the image, and insight, is this: corporate class is to knowledge class as gentleman is to scholar.

In the coming years of research, we will unpack that insight.


Gruntled said...

Let me be the first to comment on my own post. I know that the English ideal of the gentleman is definitely not a corporate manager. Rather, the English gentleman who aims to avoid work at all, living instead on investments and rents. These are Jane Austen's gentleman who "have" ten thousand a year.

I submit, though, that the American gentleman works. Corporate management is not restricted to gentleman (Lord knows), but at their best American gentleman aim to be corporate statesmen.

SPorcupine said...

I think the nuance in your added comment is important.

The relationship of gentleman to corporate life is not simple, but there is something in thinking that gentleman is the slightly antiquated, slightly nostalgic, not-quite-attainable standard for personal conduct and style. There's a tension between the graceful and the rough-and-tumble versions of the same sort of life. Worth unpacking.

The relationship of scholar to knowlede class life may, indeed be similar. For one thing, scholar is an ideal with roots that are at least medieval and based in church and feudal systems. That may be like the way gentleman comes from aristocratic structures,a nd it may yield a similar tension with rough-and-tumble market versions. One might phrase this as whether Jobs and Gates count as failures or successes for the colleges from which they dropped out: that's surely contested. And that, too, is worth unpacking.

Mark Smith said...

I have to question the term "gentleman".

If you mean someone who owns a home (often large), and who has enough savings to be comfortable, I agree that the group links well to the corporate class.

If you mean someone with strong ethics, who while in the upper echelon of society cares about those below him, then I think the current corporate class is about as far as you can get from that.

I agree that the American gentleman aims to be a corporate stateman. However, that is such a small percentage of corporate leadership that I don't believe that the comparison is apt. ("gentleman" is a tiny subset of "corporate leader")

At least that's how it is in the NYC-Philly-DC megalopolis.

Tyler Ward said...

Exploring how Centre (and other like institutions) contribute both gentlemen and scholars would be pretty interesting. Also, if I recall correctly, the sub-title of your book about the history of Centre talks about making three categories of people, two of which I think is gentleman and scholar. What do you make of the third category that has historically been associated with Centre?

Jonathan B. Horen said...

I have a problem with your division into two classes: specifically, with your statement that "[t]he knowledge class is the class that makes its living from the control of knowledge."

I respectfully disagree.

It has often been said that "knowledge is power" and, despite a nod of the head to the role of academia in the knowledge department, in today's world the control of knowledge rests firmly with the corporate class, via their unarguable death-lock on access to electronic forms of information.

With all due respect to Bill Gates, the Unix operating system (and its predecessors), initially developed by corporate giant AT&T during the early 1970s, were nurtured and shaped by American and European colleges and universities and, together with the US government's DARPA, they created the Internet.

Proprietary computer software has become the tool for controlling knowledge (information). On the other hand, F/OSS (Free/Open-Source Software) -- such as that funded/created by the Free Software Foundation -- has been, and remains, the bedrock for academic computing and the litmus test for corporate motivation.

Examples of F/OSS abound (such as the Linux operating system), where companies make enough money to become (and remain) self-sustaining; i.e., RedHat and others, which make their profits providing support, training, and other value-added services.

Bill Gates might be the world's greatest philanthropist, but his fortune was made on shoddy software and shady business practices.

F/OSS is just one example of where corporations and gentlemen can be, and often are, the same people, just wearing multiple hats.

Please excuse the soapbox and wordiness.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the knowledge class is much broader than academics. Software engineers are also fully members. The distinction is one that I will take up today.

Gruntled said...

(Sorry, that last one was me -- I just forgot to sign in).