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Missing Class

Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures

Betsy Leondar-Wright
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Cornell University Press,
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  • Book Info
    Missing Class
    Book Description:

    Many activists worry about the same few problems in their groups: low turnout, inactive members, conflicting views on racism, overtalking, and offensive violations of group norms. But in searching for solutions to these predictable and intractable troubles, progressive social movement groups overlook class culture differences. In Missing Class, Betsy Leondar-Wright uses a class-focused lens to show that members with different class life experiences tend to approach these problems differently. This perspective enables readers to envision new solutions that draw on the strengths of all class cultures to form the basis of stronger cross-class and multiracial movements.

    The first comprehensive empirical study of US activist class cultures, Missing Class looks at class dynamics in 25 groups that span the gamut of social movement organizations in the United States today, including the labor movement, grassroots community organizing, and groups working on global causes in the anarchist and progressive traditions. Leondar-Wright applies Pierre Bourdieu's theories of cultural capital and habitus to four class trajectories: lifelong working-class and poor; lifelong professional middle class; voluntarily downwardly mobile; and upwardly mobile.

    Compellingly written for both activists and social scientists, this book describes class differences in paths to activism, attitudes toward leadership, methods of conflict resolution, ways of using language, diversity practices, use of humor, methods of recruiting, and group process preferences. Too often, we miss class. Missing Class makes a persuasive case that seeing class culture differences could enable activists to strengthen their own groups and build more durable cross-class alliances for social justice.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7071-4
    Subjects: Sociology, Political Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Online Tables and Appendixes
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction: Activist Class Cultures as a Key to Movement Building
    (pp. 1-6)

    For its annual goal-setting meeting, the Tri-City Labor Alliance (TLA), an urban coalition of unions and their allies, brought in an outside facilitator, Zoe, a college-educated white woman from a professional-middle-class (PMC) background who was respected by many members.¹

    At the beginning of the meeting, Zoe made a very long statement using many phrases that had no concrete referent (no action, person, organization, time, or place specified), such ascategory of goals,proactive,review the process,participation in mobilization,leadership development opportunities, andstrategic planning.She mentioned only a very few potential concrete goals, such as making sure that the...

  6. Part I. Class Diversity among Activists

    • Chapter 1 Why Look through a Class Lens? Five Stories through Three Lenses
      (pp. 9-28)

      Small voluntary groups run into trouble: there are internal conflicts, difficult decisions, and clashes with other groups. Where can members turn for ideas on how to set things right? They may turn to their movement traditions. They may frame problems in terms of race or gender, or turn to practices from their ethnic roots or their gender identities. Or they may draw from their class cultures—but usually much less consciously, without naming them as class.

      Any story of small-group troubles can be told in these three ways: through the lens of movement traditions, through a race and/or gender lens,...

    • Chapter 2 Applying Class Concepts to US Activists
      (pp. 29-37)

      Confusion about class pervades American society, and that confusion distorts progressive movement building. The popular myth that the United States is a classless society is scorned by most on the left, but paradoxically the myth of a classlessmovementlives on. Some activists believe that the very act of sacrificing time and/or money for social change actually removes them from the class system (Carlsson 2008). Class dynamics in the movement are difficult to discuss with people who believe they are nonexistent.

      Why does class diversity have such a low profile on the left today? One reason is that it’s hard...

    • Chapter 3 Four Class Categories of Activists and Their Typical Group Troubles
      (pp. 38-63)

      If I introduced the surveyed activists as 362 unique personalities, or if I clumped them by race or gender, in each case readers would see different aspects of the same people. Instead, I introduce them according to their commonalities within four class categories: lifelong-working-class, lifelong-professional-range, upwardly mobile, and voluntarily downwardly mobile (VDM). This four-way comparison enables me to explore my hypothesis that there are unseen class cultures operating in US movements for social change. In this chapter I create composite class-cultural profiles of these four main class trajectories, describing their typical demographics, cultural tastes, and most common activist troubles.


    • Chapter 4 Movement Traditions and Their Class-Cultural Troubles
      (pp. 64-84)

      Going into various activist groups can feel like entering different worlds. How people talk and dress is different; how meetings are run and decisions are made is different; what people laugh at is different; how they wage conflicts is different.

      Social movement organizations have classed and raced roots in the earlier generations of activists who created their movement tradition and in the past political and economic environments that shaped those earlier generations. These roots formed the group styles inherited by today’s social movement organizations.

      In the last chapter I introduced the 362 survey respondents by their class trajectories; now I...

  7. Part II. Activist Class Cultures and Solving Group Troubles

    • Chapter 5 Where Is Everybody? Approaches to Recruitment and Group Cohesion
      (pp. 87-114)

      “Is Marc coming?” “Isadora told me she’d be late.” “IknowEddie is coming.” The early arrivals at some meetings started out chatting cheerfully, but as the minutes passed and most chairs remained empty such comments about who was missing gradually took over the conversation.

      The first challenge in building any social movement organization is to get people in the door, literally and figuratively. Too few new people joining and too few members showing up to meetings: these are the most common and most basic of activist group troubles. This chapter looks at how group members approached turnout problems and...

    • Class Speech Differences I: Humor and Laughter
      (pp. 115-120)

      In the last chapter we saw how two groups coped with low turnouts using humor and laughter. Whole-group laughter was heard during almost every meeting but at different rates of frequency depending on class.¹ Working-class-majority groups laughed an average of once every 8.75 minutes.² Professional-middle-class-majority (PMC) groups laughed an average of once every 15.71 minutes.³ Volunterily-downwardly-mobile-majority (VDM) groups seem to have laughed even less.⁴

      Group sense of humor—what tended to make everyone laugh in meetings—also varied quite a bit by the groups’ majority class No meeting included any actual jokes with punch lines. Instead, humor was woven into...

    • Chapter 6 Activating the Inactive: Leadership and Group-Process Solutions That Backfire
      (pp. 121-151)

      A dozen people sat in a circle without speaking. They were having a meeting, but long silences dragged on as they all waited for someone to say something. What was going on? Action Against Empire (AAE) had a big problem with unequal participation, and at this meeting the group’s informal leaders were holding back their own participation in hopes that someone else would step up.

      Usually the same three members not only did most of the talking at AAE meetings but they also did most of the tasks between meetings. Two of them, Alton and Ira, found themselves in the...

    • Class Speech Differences II: Abstract and Concrete Vocabulary
      (pp. 152-157)

      One of the most clear-cut class-cultural differences among the activists in the study was in their type of vocabulary. Remember that the professional-middle-class (PMC) facilitator profiled in the introduction used general organizational words to guide a labor coalition’s goal-setting process, while working-class-background members responded with concrete political issues and operational details. This pattern was found throughout all the meetings and interviews.

      Lifelong-working-class activists referred to more specific people, places, and events, even when answering general questions, as Bernstein (1971) also found in his studies of British teenage boys, one component of his so-called “restricted code” of working-class speech. In contrast,...

    • Class Speech Differences III: Racial Terms
      (pp. 158-160)

      One example of abstract versus concrete speech plays a key role in the next chapter on class differences in approaches to antiracism. Activists of different classes tended to use different terms for ethnic groups. Why? One explanation is that certain broad racial terms such as “people of color” and “Latino” are in fact abstract generalizations, more common in the vocabulary of college-educated activists.

      The only racial term for which activists of all classes shared nearly universal usage was “white.” More than 90 percent of references to those of European ancestry by all class groups used “white.” To refer to people...

    • Chapter 7 Diversity Ironies: Clashing Antiracism Frames and Practices
      (pp. 161-183)

      City Power members were frustrated. They depended on progressive foundations to pay their staff, but one of their regular funders had returned their grant proposal with an additional set of questions about race and racism that they had to answer before the proposal would be considered.

      Their meeting about this funder demand was a rare instance of open class-based resentment discussed at length by lifelong-working-class activists. It revealed class differences in approaches to identity politics, in particular to race and antiracism, which turned out to apply to many groups in the study.

      In this racially diverse group, it was interesting...

    • Class Speech Differences IV: Talking Long, Talking Often
      (pp. 184-186)

      Most groups had norms about how much people talked in meetings, which varied by the group’s predominant class Members of mostly professional-middle-class (PMC) groups used more words but talked less often members of mostly working-class and lower-middle-class (LMC) groups talked more briefly but more often.

      In conversation analysis one principle is that “turn size is not fixed, but varies” (Sacks 1992); in other words, there’s no typical number of words people speak at a stretch. But even though all groups had some almost silent and some talkative people, participants’ typical wordiness corresponded with the group’s predominat class. When three mostly...

    • Chapter 8 Overtalkers: Coping with the Universal Pet Peeve
      (pp. 187-194)

      Activism brings many pleasures, but the downside is rubbing elbows with fellow activists whose behavior is annoying or offensive. In this chapter I explore class differences in how activists responded to problematic behavior, first analyzing the most common of all annoyances, overtalking. In chapter 9 I look at more extreme violations of group norms.

      When fifty-five interviewees from twenty groups answered the questions “Do you have any pet peeves about how people act in meetings?” and/or “Does anyone in this group drive you crazy?,” the great majority, forty-one of them, mentioned people talking too much. In addition, eight group members...

    • Class Speech Differences V: Anger, Swearing, and Insults
      (pp. 195-198)

      Within every class category, a subset of activists got angry, swore, and used hostile language. But class differences showed up in different ways of expressing anger and antagonism.

      Professional-middle-class (PMC) activists were more likely to talk about being angry, using emotion words such as “pissed off” and “angry.”¹ Lifelong working-class people usually expressed anger in other ways besides describing their emotions in words, such as with tone of voices, body language, and loud volume. There was a race pattern in volume: everyone who yelled was white or African American; no Latinos, Asian Americans, or Native Americans yelled.

      One word in...

    • Chapter 9 Activists Behaving Badly: Responses to Extreme Behavior Violations
      (pp. 199-218)

      The most eccentric person I met while researching the 2008 convention protests was Anthony, the full-time bicycle billboard. For several weeks before the Democratic National Convention, he spent all his daylight hours riding around Denver wearing sandwich boards that read “Tye Lies,” referring to a founder of the militant convention protest group Stand Up Fight Back (SUFB).

      Anthony was a surprisingly normal looking middle-aged white man, very buff from all that bicycling; his way of talking sounded sane. But his explanation for his total dedication to harassing a protest leader made no sense. During two SUFB meetings, Anthony told me,...

    • Class Speech Differences VI: Missing Class Talk
      (pp. 219-224)

      Discussion of class dynamics was almost nonexistent in these groups. If class-culture differences played such a central role in the intragroup problems most troubling to activists, as seen in the last five chapters. why weren’t they discussed more often? One reason was a lack of shared vocabulary for class identities.

      Ironically, the word “class” was especially uncommon among lifelong-working-class activists’ speech. Working-class interviewees said “class” only 34 times per 10,000 words,¹ compared with 9.55 times for college-educated interviewees, a large ratio of 28:1.² Straddler interviewees used the c-word more than any other class trajectory, 35 times as often as working-class...

    • Conclusion: Building a Movement with the Strengths of All Class Cultures
      (pp. 225-232)

      The years of this study, 2007 and 2008, fell during a time of relative movement drought when more progressive energy went into electoral politics than into social change groups. But after the drought came the inspiring movement resurgence of 2011. Against the backdrop of the Arab Spring uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East, union members, students, and local supporters took over the Wisconsin State Capitol to try to stop a union-busting initiative. Then in the fall, Occupy Wall Street began in Zuccotti Park in New York City; “Occupy” went viral, and hundreds of local encampments sprang up and...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 233-234)
  9. Appendix: Methodology Notes
    (pp. 235-244)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 245-256)
  11. References
    (pp. 257-268)
  12. Index
    (pp. 269-274)