Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Keeping Up With the Joneses

I tried a new assignment in my "Social Structure" class this year: a paper called "Keeping up with the Joneses."

Our aim was to explore the relationship between absolute class and relative status. I had students collect some markers of their own family's class - their parents' education, occupation, and income, and the family's major assets and expenses. With this information they could see where in the national class structure they fit.

Then I asked them to think about experiences they had that showed their status relative to peers and near-peers. One body of evidence came from times when they felt relatively poor or lower status, and times when they felt relatively rich or higher status, than those around them.

In class yesterday we compared experiences, and afterwards I read all the papers.

This turned out to be an eye-opening assignment. Many students had only the vaguest idea of their family's income, and had never asked before. Some parents - fathers, especially - were reluctant to give a specific answer, and not all did. A few students had a clear idea of their family's finances, especially if they were tight. In most cases, though, students thought of themselves as average, middle class people. And in most cases they were surprised to find that their families were significantly above the median income of American families.

They had no trouble remembering moments when they felt up or down relative to the status of someone near. Their stories from childhood turned on things they were not allowed to have, or had when a friend did not. If the parents did not supply an explanation of why some things were not to be had, the students as children had automatically supplied one explanation: we (they) can't afford it.

As they got older, though, students noticed status differences that turned on culture and learning, more than on objects and money. These status differences are more subtle, but more enduring. One excellent fruit of their education is that they gradually come to value understanding more than things.

The strongest emotion that came from most of my students' exploration of their family's class and status is gratitude for all that their families have made possible for them.


Kelcie said...

Interesting assignment!

Anonymous said...

How can I know which group I am in?

Gruntled said...

For class measures, we use Dennis Gilbert's The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality. For status measures, that depends on what groups you compare yours to, above and below.

Paul said...

The statement, "in most cases they were surprised to find that their families were significantly above the median income of American families," highlights what is, to me, one of the most frustrating issues with our society (I was going to add "today" to the end of that sentence, but I question whether the issue is unique to the current age). We have segregated ourselves culturally, financially and socially into little homogenous bubbles where our social contacts are all, more or less, like us.

How can one objectively judge their relative standing when the vast majority of their interaction is with those of a similar standing? If different strata of society have no real examples of the other strata they are left to judge based only on their own limited experience and understanding.

The phrase, "Let them eat cake," comes to mind as an extreme example of this in one direction. In the other direction, I look to William Julius Wilson (I think...) who argued that after desegregation when those African-Americans who were able, left the culturally and financially integrated (but racially segregated) "black neighborhoods" those who were unable (namely the poor and working-classes) were left without the benefit of personal examples of success and social mobility. So, for example, how does one begin to know what steps to take to attend college when they have little interaction with, and few examples of, social relations who have even completed high school?

The most frustrating part, to me, is that it seems the issue is self-perpetuating; the less different strata interact, the less they understand one another, the more they create logic that self-segregates into homogenous enclaves, causing still less interaction. Thus we see the growing chasm between the "haves" and "have nots" that seems to be lamented by nearly everyone (because, ironically, nearly everyone sees themselves, in some way, as being the "have nots").

Gruntled said...

I think the best tool we have for knowing how all the "halves" live is sociology. It is really the only way to view the whole, and see where we fit in it.