Monday, August 13, 2007

Notes on "Class"

In order to fully understand either Bickford or Duncan, we need to think about the ways in which they use the word "class." In everyday use, it's become almost meaningless -- if you're not homeless and you're not Bill Gates, then you're "middle class." If the word is to have any utility, it has to make finer distinctions than that.

In most academic work, "class" is used to mean not merely an amount of money, but more importantly an attitude and set of expectations toward money. So we might consider the terms "working class," "professional class," and "capital class." For the working class, money is drawn from wage income derived from (mostly) physical labor, and for the most part spent at about the same rate that it's earned. For the professional class, money is drawn from salary income derived from (mostly) information labor, and there's often enough left to invest for future needs like housing purchases or college tuition. For the capital class, money is drawn from income on investment, and with any smarts at all, most of it gets reinvested and becomes increased capital. (A side note -- "money" is used for transactions for goods and services; "capital" is used for investment to make more money.) My middle brother is a case in point -- he's a small building contractor who does spec houses and pole barns and the occasional commercial/retail building. He's the only millionaire in the family, but he's squarely working class in his view of the world. I have far less money, but I'm a member of the professional class in these terms (and to some extent in my attitudes as well, but more on that in a minute).

So Duncan's alpha and beta landscapes aren't a division between raw amounts of money but a division between a capital-class and a working-class culture.

There has been a lot of research on the ways in which class is transmitted through families through the language used, the economic habits taught, and external reinforcement by people who see a child as a member of a certain class and treat them accordingly. In one brilliant study done in the late 1970s, four teams of researchers were sent to four different schools in the same district during the same two-week period. The schools were neighborhood-based, which is to say that they were divided by social class since housing (as we've seen) is divided by social class. The researchers focused on fifth-grade, and during the two weeks they were there, the entire district fifth-grade was doing a social studies unit on Ancient Greece. You would expect , given a common curriculum, that the experiences in these schools would have been similar. But no. In the poorest school, the curriculum for the most part was "Sit down. Put that away. Be quiet." In the working-class school, the curriculum was procedural: "In order to do your project, here are the steps you need to follow." In the professional-class school, the curriculum was creative -- making drama masks, putting on plays, making sugar-cube models of the Acropolis. And in the capital-class school, the curriculum was strategic: "What do you think the Athenians would have done if Sparta hadn't been such a military power?"

In each case, the children were being trained to replicate their parents, to take on the same roles and attitudes and kinds of work.

And social class endures strongly. In his 2004 book Limbo, journalist Alfred Lubrano describes what it means to be a working-class kid who grew up and took a professional-class job. His dad was a Brooklyn bricklayer, but sent his kids to college (and for the working class, college is not a place to become a sophisticated thinker -- which is seen as both threatening and frivolous -- but rather economic preparation that allows your kids to work indoors and not get hurt on the job). So Alfred graduates from Columbia University's journalism school, and lives at home for a few months after graduation. One day, he gets a call that he's got a job offer. When his dad comes home, Alfred says, "Dad! I got a job!"

Dad's thrilled. "That's great. What paper are you gonna be working for?"

Alfred says, "It's in Youngstown, Ohio."

"OHIO?!? Where the fuck is Ohio?"

"No, Dad, it's not that far away. I'll be able to come home for holidays."

"How much they payin' you?"

"It's really good for a starting salary -- $18,500." (this was in the mid-'70s)

Dad looks Alfred square in the face, and says, "I make more than that. There's only two things important in the world -- money and your family. And you ain't gettin' either one of 'em."

Limbo is about half drawn from Lubrano's personal experience, and half from over a hundred interviews he did with other working-class kids who entered professions. And they're not at home in either world. They don't understand the unwritten rules that all of their colleagues seem to have internalized, but they've changed enough that their families seem somehow unsophisticated and uneducated, maybe even a little embarassing.

I'm in that boat, one of the people whom Lubrano calls "straddlers." My dad dropped out of school in 10th grade and worked as a machinist his entire adult life. I was the first of my family to go to a four-year college, and I hung around long enough to get a Ph.D. and stay in the college/professional environment. When I visit with my brothers, whom I love, we have almost nothing to talk about. I dwell in the world of ideas, and they dwell in the world of labor and the objects that it allows them to buy. But when I spend too much time with my colleagues at work, I sometimes get tired of the strategizing and office politics, and don't understand why we don't just DO something.

This is the kind of tension that both Bickford and Duncan intend to convey through their use of a simple, small word.


LeosMama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jaclyn said...

Thank you for this post. I have never really considered the fact that you can be in the working class and have a lot of money. The example you gave regarding yourself and your brother brought some light to it. I still feel though that I don't really know where I belonged growing up. I grew up in a very diverse area, out in the country, with parents who owned additional real estate that they rented out. My family was never a part of the golf clubs or any other extravagant things. My father was a machine operator, my mother an educator. My friends and distant family considered us well off, yet it seemed like we were making ends meet with just a few privileges. These articles and especially the word "class" has really made me think. This is definitely something I want to research further.

Scott Pfeifer said...

I had a great uncle who was a working class laborer. He had a sixth grade education and he thought I was wasting my time going to college to become an architect. I needed to get a real job and start earning a living. This man was a laborer that was into discarded items and recycling. He collected aluminum cans, scrap wire and metal and anything from jobsites and dumpsters. He would strip the coating off of the copper wire and sell it. He hated to see waste in the world. This was a trait brought about by the depression in which he lost everything he owned. Through his hard work he was able to buy some property outside of town to collect his junk. Over the years he amassed a large amount of junk. He lived simply and seldom traveled. The city began to grow around his property and many saw him as an outcast. His property was littered with junk and it offended many of the new neighbors. He began to sell his property to developers for the new shopping centers, apartments, etc. He also starting selling his junk (antiques). He was worth millions, yet he still went through dumpsters looking for cans. He gave most of his money away to charities while he was still alive. People either looked down upon him because of his landscape or revered him for his charitable donations. There seemed to be some that took both sides.

Rick E said...

Very interesting post. I never really thought about the working class rich or members of the professional class that are really living from paycheck to paycheck.

Food for thought!

Carlos said...

It's very interesting when you talk about that research done when children were moved to a different school district. I never thought about it, children are being taught different depending on their teachers and schools. You would think that teachers would teach at an even level in every school. Some children are not benefiting from better education just because they happen to live and go to school in a poor neighborhood.

Stacey Stevens said...

I can definitely relate to Herbs analogy. I grew up in a family of six. Only two of us have college educations and I will be the only one to graduate, hopefully, with a Master’s degree. I talk to all my siblings but I will talk to my college educated brother more. It’s not that I don’t have anything in common with my two other brothers, one of them is a contractor, it’s just their lack of education is apparent in our conversations.
My father was just plain lucky to find a job with a prosperous company. After a few years of the company’s success, our family went from the labor class to the professional class and later to the capital class. My father is now going to retire with a huge nest egg.
I have learned in life that there are millionaires in the labor class and there are uneducated people in the capital class.

SMunger said...

As architects, we are lucky to interact with all manner of classes of people within our daily routine.

Today I walked a site with a brickmason (working class), had a phone conversation with a developer (capital class), worked on a project for a law office(professional class).

I have often felt that the role of architect at times falls into many different categories, and defies simple categorization.

But I can tell you that there is a definite "code shift" in myself, as I talk to a member of each group. Small talk, pleasantries, and tone change based on who you are communicating to, and what the nature of your relationship to one another.

David Streebin said...

Relating to the discussion of children being taught differently in different schools really connects to our public schools. Omaha metro schools have spent the last two years and millions of dollars (that are going to lawyers in lieu of students) arguing about how kids are educated (money). The state legislature and Governor have also been involved writing and implementing new laws. Basically it boils down to dividing up the money. The legislature passed a law last year dealing with the issue and more lawsuits were created saying it was unconstitutional.

The legislature past a new law this year that created more bureaucracy so more dollars are now going to a new governing board that tells the districts to play nice. Once again more money not going to the students. It has been a real mess.

Gus G.-Angulo said...

To start my comment, I just want to share a very insightful comment that one of my colleagues give me today at work, after having a very philosophical talk about the Duncan Text. (by the way, part of the conversation was how “difficult” has been for me to have a “monologue – dialog” with my classmates and professors on the net (not very personal for me), and how much I enjoy the direct personal contact. (look in to the eye!)
His “instruction” came to me, after I told him how much I am being my worst enemy in school (now), because I have a very “disperse” way of thinking, my mind “spins” so much, that many times I feel overwhelmed because I have much I will like to do, but not the time to achieve it (very similar when I am designing =)!)….. so he share with me something I have if to share with all, al least to go over it one more time (ponder on it!).
He shared with me his “KISS” canon:
K eep
I t
S imple
S tupid
So in lieu of my newest “revelation”, I totally agree with Herb (commenting on Duncan paper and making the connection with Bickford) in how we “learn” and we are “tough” mainly from family, influencing in great manner how we think and make connections in every aspect of life.
For me, this is human nature (as many times I have mentioned) there are universal concepts that applies to all (man / woman, old / young, US / china, poor/rich) but the big difference is the way we process this information -events and how we express our reactions, with is (as I mentioned before) determined by the circumstances in witch we were raised up; how we relate to others, how we interact with society, how we react to adversity or happiness! (reinforcing what Bickford explained as: the danger)
I mention this, because coming form a different culture the first two years were revealing and eye opening, its was so obvious to see all this is fascinating events, reactions and expectations, it was like being in a “European movie” and see stuff happening in fort of your eyes, reaming in admiration that those behavior, actions, expectations and ideals were overlook, tolerated, accepted and many times encouraged.
Practical examples that affect our profession are to come in my bloog , because contradicting my firs premise (to keep it simple), well…. Here I am again like Paris Hilton going back to jail, or Lindsey Lohan promising not to drink more and the going to rehab (one more time!)
I really did not fulfill my brand new KISS "precept" today but …. I am trying!

Scott Pfeifer said...

I can relate to what Steven M. said about relating to different types of people every day. We have a huge variety of clients as well as all the individuals mentioned by Steven. This requires us to see and understand multiple viewpoints, synthesizing and summarizing this varied perspectives/input into a cohesive design response.
The sibling discussions to me parallel this discussion. The degree of education of the siblings or people we interact with is inconsequential to me. I have been told that one of the reasons I have enjoyed some successes with the above mentioned individuals is because I can discuss the given topic at an appropriate level. Outside of the academic world, I find the “sixth grade mentality” works well with most clients, contractors in which I work. You elevate this discussion once your conversation partner starts to give you indications that a higher level is appropriate. I won’t be discussing Bickford’s article with some of the mastered degreed siblings or associates I interact with more because of interest than education level.

Jaclyn said...

One of the things I have learned in the field it to "dumb it down" for others. Not that you really need to but my boss always says, "Keep it simple." This is true. Why take a whole page to get your point across if it can be done in a paragraph. Like Scott said, once raising the level is initiated by another that is when you can raise it. I have found simple terms for PB and ZB experiences to be the best because a lot of the members of those boards aren't familiar with all the terminology, etc.