Social Class

Social Class: How Does It Work?

Annette Lareau
Dalton Conley
Copyright Date: 2008
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 400
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    Social Class
    Book Description:

    Class differences permeate the neighborhoods, classrooms, and workplaces where we lead our daily lives. But little is known about how class really works, and its importance is often downplayed or denied. In this important new volume, leading sociologists systematically examine how social class operates in the United States today. Social Class argues against the view that we are becoming a classless society. The authors show instead the decisive ways social class matters—from how long people live, to how they raise their children, to how they vote. The distinguished contributors to Social Class examine how class works in a variety of domains including politics, health, education, gender, and the family. Michael Hout shows that class membership remains an integral part of identity in the U.S.—in two large national surveys, over 97 percent of Americans, when prompted, identify themselves with a particular class. Dalton Conley identifies an intangible but crucial source of class difference that he calls the “opportunity horizon”—children form aspirations based on what they have seen is possible. The best predictor of earning a college degree isn’t race, income, or even parental occupation—it is, rather, the level of education that one’s parents achieved. Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger find that parental involvement in the college application process, which significantly contributes to student success, is overwhelmingly a middle-class phenomenon. David Grusky and Kim Weeden introduce a new model for measuring inequality that allows researchers to assess not just the extent of inequality, but also whether it is taking on a more polarized, class-based form. John Goldthorpe and Michelle Jackson examine the academic careers of students in three social classes and find that poorly performing students from high-status families do much better in many instances than talented students from less-advantaged families. Erik Olin Wright critically assesses the emphasis on individual life chances in many studies of class and calls for a more structural conception of class. In an epilogue, journalists Ray Suarez, Janny Scott, and Roger Hodge reflect on the media’s failure to report hardening class lines in the U.S., even when images on the nightly news—such as those involving health, crime, or immigration—are profoundly shaped by issues of class. Until now, class scholarship has been highly specialized, with researchers working on only one part of a larger puzzle. Social Class gathers the most current research in one volume, and persuasively illustrates that class remains a powerful force in American society.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-725-6
    Subjects: Sociology, Economics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)

    • Introduction: Taking Stock of Class
      (pp. 3-24)
      Annette Lareau

      Social class has an odd place in sociology. On the one hand, class is prominently featured in many core aspects of the discipline. Its centrality has a long lineage: the theoretical foundations for studying social class were established by many of the leading figures of sociology, including Marx and Weber (Wright 2005). Comparing and contrasting these theoretical perspectives is a time-honored tradition in graduate education. Similarly, some sociology professors report that their favorite moments in the classroom involve contesting young people’s presumption of the viability of the American Dream. From dramatic charts showing that the “wealthiest 1 percent of all...

    • Chapter 1 How Class Works: Objective and Subjective Aspects of Class Since the 1970s
      (pp. 25-64)
      Michael Hout

      Marx and Engels founded class analysis with their famous claim, inThe Communist Manifesto, that “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” Class analysts have struggled ever since to live down the founders’ boldness. Past and present societies turn out to be more complex than class struggle admits. But it is a serious error of both logic and fact to conclude that just because class falls short of explaining “all hitherto existing society,” it is somehow insignificant. As Erik Olin Wright notes inClass Counts(1997, 1), “Class is a pervasive social cause and...

    • Chapter 2 Are There Social Classes? A Framework for Testing Sociology’s Favorite Concept
      (pp. 65-90)
      David B. Grusky and Kim A. Weeden

      The study of inequality is plagued by a surplus of measurement paradigms based variously on socioeconomic or prestige scales, income or earnings reports, and Weberian, neo-Marxian, or Durkheimian class schemes. The chapters in this volume reveal quite strikingly this embarrassment of riches, with some contributors characterizing inequality in terms of aggregate occupational categories (Manza and Brooks, Lareau and Weininger), others treating income or education as more fundamental metrics (Lacy and Harris, McCall), and yet others focusing on the subjective classes with which individuals identify (Hout). Most often, scholars choose a measurement paradigm not on the basis of scientific criteria, but...


    • Chapter 3 Education-Based Meritocracy: The Barriers to Its Realization
      (pp. 93-117)
      John Goldthorpe and Michelle Jackson

      The idea of “meritocracy” originates in sociological fantasy—that is, in Michael Young’s remarkable piece of social science fiction,The Rise of the Meritocracy,which was first published in 1958.

      In this book, the recent history of British society is recounted from the standpoint of 2033. The narrator describes how a meritocracy was created in Britain in the late twentieth century as a work of enlightenment. Merit, defined as “IQ plus effort,” was taken to be expressed primarily through educational attainment. A strict relationship was then established between such attainment and the social positions that individuals obtained. The educational elite...

    • Chapter 4 Class and the Transition to Adulthood
      (pp. 118-151)
      Annette Lareau and Elliot B. Weininger

      Americans tend to believe that schools are the best option for overcoming patterns of social inequity: education is a pathway for social mobility. Social scientific research, however, has demonstrated repeatedly that this view of education as a simple leveler of social privilege is unsustainable. For example, studies have established that college access, enrollment, and graduation are linked to various dimensions of stratification, including social class and race.¹ The mechanisms that drive these associations remain poorly understood, however. The search for better conceptual and empirical tools for explaining the relationship between education and inequality has led researchers to construct models that...

    • Chapter 5 Breaking the Class Monolith: Understanding Class Differences in Black Adolescents′ Attachment to Racial Identity
      (pp. 152-178)
      Karyn Lacy and Angel L. Harris

      Scholars have long debated the relative importance of social class as a key indicator of social distinctiveness (Bourdieu 1984; Clark and Lipset 1991; Clark, Lipset, and Rempel 1993; Hout, Brooks, and Manza 1993; Kingston 2000; Lamont 1992, 2000; Pakulski 1993; Wilson 1979, 1987). A burgeoning research agenda within this subfield of social stratification is concerned with assessing the impact of social class in the everyday lives of families (Gecas 1979; Hansen 2005; Hochschild 1989; Lareau 2003; Rubin 1976). Many of these studies demonstrate that social class shapes parental socialization strategies. They show that parents differ by social class in terms...

    • Chapter 6 Bringing Sibling Differences In: Enlarging Our Understanding of the Transmission of Advantage in Families
      (pp. 179-200)
      Dalton Conley

      How similar are the socioeconomic statuses of siblings, and what does this mean for class analysis and theory? In this chapter, I have multiple goals. First, I make the case that standard studies of family background (including the approaches used by John Goldthorpe, by David Grusky and Kim Weeden, and by other contributors to this volume) miss a crucial point: they fail to acknowledge that parents’ resources are not distributed in an equal fashion to each child. Without this acknowledgment, their models remain incomplete and, at times, misleading. Drawing from the literature on the economics of the family, the life...

    • Chapter 7 Class and Politics
      (pp. 201-231)
      Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks

      Textbook models of how class inequalities influence political processes and outcomes suggest a vast array of topics. There are class differences in political participation and citizen activism, as well as differences in partisanship and voting behavior. Classes have varying political capacities, especially if we compare class-related organizations such as business and trade associations versus unions or groups seeking to represent the poor. Political institutions often favor some classes over others. Tensions between the current global economy and national institutions and configurations of class power raise important questions; historical evidence suggests that both class inputs into the political system and redistributive...

    • Chapter 8 Social Inequality and Health: Future Directions for the Fundamental Cause Explanation
      (pp. 232-263)
      Richard M. Carpiano, Bruce G. Link and Jo C. Phelan

      While volumes of social science research have implicated social class as a critical element in many social and economic outcomes, a substantial body of evidence has also documented its pervasive association with what is arguably one of the most important elements of anyone′s life: health. Collectively, this evidence, which spans several centuries, has consistently shown that, across geopolitical place and disease ″regime″ (infectious, chronic), higher social position (whether conceptualized as social class or socioeconomic status) is associated with lower morbidity and longer life expectancy (Link et al. 1998), and some evidence suggests that this association has even increased in magnitude...

    • Chapter 9 Race, Class, and Neighborhoods
      (pp. 264-292)
      Mary Pattillo

      This chapter takes a historical and ethnographic case study approach to illustrate how class works to stratify urban space and in particular how class elites use strategies of exclusion for the purposes of what Charles Tilly calls ″opportunity hoarding.″ Tilly (1998, 8) argues that ″people who control access to value-producing resources solve pressing organizational problems by means of categorical distinctions.″ ″Class″ is a primary category of distinction-making and thus the basis upon which resources are shared or hoarded, while a neighborhood is an example of an organization made up of residents, elected representatives, and other stakeholders who have class-based interests...

    • Chapter 10 What Does Class Inequality Among Women Look Like? A Comparison with Men and Families, 1970 to 2000
      (pp. 293-326)
      Leslie Mccall

      At least some of the impetus for a new book about class is driven by the steep rise in market earnings inequality in the United States and other advanced industrial nations during the 1980s and 1990s. In the United States, this rise in earnings inequality occurred for women as well as for men. Although estimates vary somewhat depending on data sources and definitions, the level of earnings inequality is roughly the same for men and women, and the rate of increase in earnings inequality is also comparable. This is particularly true for measures of inequality that tap into the top...


    • Chapter 11 Logics of Class Analysis
      (pp. 329-349)
      Erik Olin Wright

      Few concepts in sociology are more contested than the concept of class: different people mean quite different things when they use the word. The result is that in many discussions people talk past each other; they use the same word, but they are really talking about quite different concepts.

      Two issues underlie much of this confusion. First, there are many different sorts of questions people ask for which class is thought to provide at least part of the answer. Different concepts of class are often rooted in different questions or clusters of questions. Second, even when people are addressing the...

    • Chapter 12 Two Oppositions in Studies of Class: A Reflection
      (pp. 350-353)
      John Goldthorpe

      I am generally called upon to do sessions with Erik Olin Wright so that we can argue with each other over Marxist versus non-Marxist forms of class analysis. But on this occasion, this is largely not going to be the case, since Erik has done that part of the wrap-up very well in his chapter. Instead, I will pick up two themes that I think have recurred throughout the whole range of chapters in this volume. I say two themes, but these are really two oppositions that have emerged and that we should think about.

      On one side of the...

    • Chapter 13 Reflection on ″Class Matters″
      (pp. 354-358)
      Janny Scott

      This is like some sort of strange dream.

      In the dream, you′re a reporter who has spent a year calling up strangers and asking them to tell you everything they know about a subject you don′t understand and they do. In fact, they′ve spent entire careers studying the thing that you′re going to profess to know something about in, oh, six minutes. You go off and write something inevitably facile—this is journalism, after all—based on things they told you. Afterward, you′re never quite sure they even saw what you wrote. Nor are you quite sure you would have...

    • Chapter 14 Class Notes
      (pp. 359-360)
      Roger D. Hodge

      Why does the myth of the classless society persist in America? Is the myth itself a myth? Is the public more aware of class as an issue than social scientists generally think? Are Americans afraid to talk about class? What can academics do to better educate the public about class as a powerful force that shapes American lives? These were some of the guiding questions that we were asked to address at the 2006 conference.

      I think the myth is itself a myth. Americans are obsessed with class, and although they might not always use that word, they possess a...

    • Chapter 15 Holding Up a Mirror to a Classless Society
      (pp. 361-365)
      Ray Suarez

      I want to thank the conference organizers for thinking that a journalist has something to say that′s fit to be heard at an ambitious conference. Reporters are sociologists on the fly. We traffic blithely and consistently in class-rooted images, especially on TV, but certainly in the printed press as well. We do this so habitually that it achieves a kind of transparency, a metawink at the audience. That wink is most powerful to that portion of the audience watching in metropolitan areas, in homes that cross every boundary of class and status. When I say we traffic in those images...

    • Chapter 16 Reading Class Between the Lines (of This Volume): A Reflection on Why We Should Stick to Folk Concepts of Social Class
      (pp. 366-374)
      Dalton Conley

      Much academic ink (academic in both senses of the word) has been spilled in debates as to whether class is gradational—à la Max Weber′s classic notion of life chances in the marketplace—or whether it is relational—more akin to Marx′s definition of class as defined by the relations of production (or Wright′s in this volume, for that matter). Is class best thought of as a fundamental social cleavage or as a continuum of sorts? Does it rest in the individual person or in the person′s ″role″ in the economic system?

      The constant changing of the nature of our...

  8. Index
    (pp. 375-390)