Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Social class... in America?

The Cafe Philo NYC discussion topic for next Thursday (9/24) is "What is social class?"

My initial reaction is... Social class? In America? No, that is the special thing about America compared to "older", "medieval" societies -- we do not have any "social classes" in America. We no longer have slaves and do not have true Aristocrats.

Sure, we have economic classes and plenty of economic, race, ethnicity, and gender-based prejudices and biases, but nothing resembling the social classes of "old."

In America you are not "born" into any "social class."

In particular, if you study hard and work diligently, you can... "go anywhere and do anything." Not exactly a hallmark of "social class." You can start at the bottom and sometimes push your way all the way to the top, maybe become one of the wealthiest or even most powerful, despite the circumstances of your parents or your birth.

That said, we have plenty of "categories" that people can "fall" into:

  1. Native American "Indians"
  2. The mentally ill
  3. The mentally retarded
  4. Handicapped
  5. Senior citizens
  6. Athletes
  7. Writers, poets, journalists
  8. Artists
  9. Performers
  10. Businessmen
  11. Legal immigrants
  12. Illegal immigrants
  13. Union members
  14. Management
  15. Executives
  16. Entrepreneurs
  17. Hobbyists, fans, and enthusiasts
  18. People with "weird" hobbies
  19. Trekkies
  20. Dog people
  21. Gender identity other than natural male and natural female
  22. Forms of attire - "suit", casual, work, etc.
  23. Alcoholics
  24. Drug addicts
  25. Race
  26. Beauty
  27. Sexuality
  28. Scientists
  29. Mathematicians
  30. Engineers
  31. Luddites
  32. Philosophers
  33. Citizens
  34. Children
  35. Infants
  36. Young adults
  37. Tourists
  38. Doctors
  39. Criminals
  40. Affinity groups
  41. Social organizations
  42. Religions
  43. Region, language dialects
  44. Astrology sign
  45. etc.

Some of these categories are in fact fixed physically, but most are changeable or evolve or are outright choices.

It may not always be easy to "move up in the world", but commonly it is a choice to accept our current situation and not "pursue our dreams."

As the Wikipedia notes, "In class society class is a key feature of life, and the cause and consequence of an individual's class often deeply scores their life." Sure, some, even many Americans feel that experience, but overall Americans have something to say about the course of their life.

We do have something we still call "the middle class", but it is essentially a vague economic categorization rather than a social "class". There is a constant state of flux as people move up into the middle class, upwards from the middle class, or downwards from the middle class or downwards into the middle class. This is usually a matter of money, economics, motivation, jobs, health issues, etc., but essentially never a true "social class" issue.

Education is a significant factor in your ultimate economic status, but is not driven purely by money or the economic status of your parents.

The politicians that run states and even our national government are quite a "motley" crew. Sure, there is certainly some elitism, but there are plenty of examples of lowly "commoners" rising far higher than would be possible in a true "class society." Our latest President of the United States famously referred to himself as "a mutt like me."

We could also talk about "social standing", "status", "recognition", and "position", but how is any of that related to social class?

I suppose maybe we could also refer to "elitists" and "the common man." Sure, such a distinction does exist, but it is vague and gray and mostly a matter of perception rather than an objective assessment of social class.

Then there is Marx and socialism and all of that. Enough said on that.

In any case, I will lead with the position that America is not a true "class society" (because of the social and economic mobility we have) and hence we do not have "social class" in America.

So, the question is whether we are to discuss the older, more traditional conceptions of class society and social class that pre-date America (e.g., medieval Europe, monarchies, caste systems, etc.) or whether we wish to discuss the biases, prejudices, and artificial categories that we choose and use in America in our structure which has left traditional "class society" and "social" class in the proverbial dustbin of history.

Now, if anybody disagrees with me, start by identifying what one "social class" you belong to.

-- Jack Krupansky



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