Tag Archives: research

The Epitome Of Class


The BBC has taken it upon themselves to redefine class. ‘Well of course’ you say ‘and we do love Downton Abby, Call The Midwife and Mr. Selfridge.’ Yes, those decadent and indulgent shows are lavish examples of the British class system in play. But I refer instead to the questionnaire the BBC posted online that over 160,000 completed. Ignoring for a moment the completely unscientific method of this ‘survey’ and also putting aside the very stark reality of who completes online surveys, let us instead consider this tricky terrain.

The British have always been quite transparent about their views and demarcations of class. What (and where) one is born into is often where one stays. There are examples of upward mobility in British society (beyond that of Eliza Doolittle.) But for the most part, where you started is where you’ll stay. If for no other reason than the British are wonderfully observant of clues. (Hello? Sherlock, Miss Marple, Inspector Lewis, anyone?) The slightest hint of a flat ‘a’ or the improper wearing of wellies, and they’ve got you pegged. They have graciously exported this gift to previously colonized locales. You could probably travel the globe and identify where the United Kingdom has ruled simply by observing the (seemingly) arbitrary ‘you’re in’ you’re out’ class systems.

Americans have always prided themselves in eschewing this structure. We still like to fancy ourselves the little rebels who fled from the tyranny of such structure. The truth is that what we do is less honest and more destructive. We pretend that social class doesn’t exist. Oh, we’re happy to discuss real dollars and sense. We take great comfort (or distress) in determining if we economically fall into the middle-class. Politicians love to talk about the middle class. We don’t talk of the lower class or even working class anymore however. No, we call it ‘working families.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s just one person in that ‘family’ or twenty. It’s funny how liberal we can be discussing families in terms of poverty levels but not in terms of legal union.

Taking pains to never associate class with anything but money creates problems. To discuss class in terms of values and cultural proclivities is anathema to Americans. We discuss education and achievement in terms of poverty which is often a thin guise for race. We discuss poverty and race as if they have anything whatsoever to do with achievement, which of course they don’t. There is nothing about any race that impacts learning. There is nothing about how much money a household has which impacts learning. Underfunded and improperly staffed schools impact learning, as do households in which learning is not a priority. We avoid discussing public health and lifestyle behaviors in terms of class. We think nothing of imposing middle values on lower class people, but we’ll never admit that’s what we’re doing. Our entire social and child services structure is built on that very premise.

It’s important to Americans to ignore the real differences of class. But yet we’re wedded to creating a very us vs. them culture. We’re much more comfortable attributing our opposing outlooks and proclivities to religious or political ideals. Sociologists (versus online questionnaires) often explore the gravitation of like-peoples. (Think: lunchroom table configuration studies.) Much more often than not the ‘like-people’ means people of our own religious and ethnic group. But outside of laboratories and research studies what you’re most likely to find in the real world, is that people gravitate towards those of their own class. Being of the same racial/ethnic/religious group is less of an indicator of our shared values than that of class. Would the Rothschilds understand the seder at Sadie’s on Orchard Street? Of course, but after the seder (at 2:00 AM) what in the world would they talk about? If you take a look around at the people with whom you feel most connected they are those with similar values and cultural proclivities. They don’t have identical incomes, they don’t worship in the same way, and their complexions vary in hue. But you all share a similar outlook and a view of the world. That’s class.

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Posted by on April 4, 2013 in Cultural Critique


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And The Beat Goes On*

Have you heard the news?  The Encyclopedia Britannica is stopping the presses (see: changing marketplace.)  No doubt this is quite the blow to Britannica employees and door-to-door salesmen (see: Fuller Brush, Willy Loman.)  But perhaps this is actually not all bad news.

The encyclopedia had a hallowed place in many homes and hearts.  The (wonderful) film Ball of Fire (1941) updated the 7 dwarfs and their mighty leader, Gregory Peck, into encyclopedia wizards.  The quirky little brainiacs toiled for years, documenting every subject known to humankind.  It was a noble undertaking, and one made all the more enjoyable with the arrival of Barbara Stanwyck.  For decades, real-life families across the country paid for one volume of encyclopedic knowledge at a time.  The books; with their hard covers and lush pages, were displayed with pride in living rooms and dens.  For better or worse, schoolchildren used these volumes to complete homework assignments.  Those without (and there were/are plenty of those) made the trip to the library or relied on source material (a.k.a. parents) or turned in homework destined for less than an “A.”

Encyclopedias are a great source for cursory understanding of a subject, but there are now so many more of those.  With a few keystrokes endless source materials are at our fingertips.  Students (and others) can go directly to the U.S. government sites or the American Medical Association.  The very act of searching (a.k.a. researching) broadens the understanding of a subject.

Will some people confuse wikipedia with an authoritative (and fully vetted) source?  They already do.  Does the cessation of printing encyclopedias put disadvantaged students at a disadvantage?  Not in this day and age.  It’s a pretty safe bet that if a library has an up-to-date version of the encyclopedia on the shelves, they have computers and access to the internet as well.  I would posit that the elimination of the printed encyclopedia evens the playing the field a bit for students, if it weren’t for the fact that having them in the home is no longer a sign of special access to information.

Why is it even worth note you ask (assuming you don’t work in the printing or door-to-door sales professions?)  For the simplest of reasons: progress is sometimes quite progressive.  The shuttering of a theatre, restaurant or nightclub to make way for a food court or Sephora, is not progress, it’s just sad.  The erosion of demarcation between public space and private space is not progress, it just means I have to throw my body over my entree as the woman at the next table styles her hair.  The memory of salesmen, diaper service, milk delivery, Sheriff Taylor and his son Opie, fill us with a warmth and sense of safety.  Change (and growing pains) are always just a bit frightening and our instincts are to cling to vestiges of the past.  For proof, one need only witness an adolescent girl’s bedroom festooned with equal parts stuffed animals and mascara.

There once was a dizzying amount of New York (daily) newspapers, some of them having more than one edition a day.  It took awhile, but with technology we have that once again.  The insatiable human desire for information is part of our charm.  As long as our innovations keep pace with that need, we can say farewell to the past without too much angst.  For those who will miss those smooth, hefty burgundy books, just consider how much fun you’ll have convincing children that you used to have to walk to the library (in the snow, uphill, both ways) to learn who invented the printing press.

*Sonny Bono (1967)


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