class

Teaching Weber’s concepts of Class and Status with The Washington Post and Todd Snider

Here’s an article that would be useful for a range of sociology and political science courses (What is the ‘Middle Class’? It depends who’s using the term, and why). I could see using it in a social theory course, a social inequality class, or the public opinion seminar I’m teaching this semester.

For Social Inequality, I’d use it early in the semester when I’m providing an overview of income and wealth distributions in the U.S. One of the things I’ve learned teaching inequality over the years is that students really don’t have a working knowledge of the income distribution and where they or their families fall in the spread. Many of the students I teach are relatively privileged, and don’t seem to understand it. This partly because even the relatively privileged stress over paying for the American Dream. The article illustrates both of these issues quite well.

In Public Opinion I’d use it to illustrate good use of public opinion data and to show how public opinion often doesn’t match very well with other sorts of data. I’d use it to start a conversation about why that’s the case.

In Social Theory I’d use it when I was teaching Weber’s “Class, Status, Party.” In this case I’d use it not because it’s a good example, but to demonstrate why Weber thought it was important to distinguish class and status. Read this paragraph:

The problem with that emerges immediately. In New York County, N.Y — that is, Manhattan — the median household income in 2013 was almost $69,659. In Tuscaloosa County, Ala., the median was $45,408. That’s a function, among other things, of cost of living differences. But someone making $55,000 in Alabama is above average. Making that in New York, below. The status conferred by income is relative.

Do you see what I see? The author starts by making a good point about how cost of living differences across the U.S make national numbers somewhat misleading at the local level. But, that last sentence conflates class and status. When I look at cost of living differences I read those as indicators of how the distribution of material goods works in a place. An income of $45,000 in Tuscaloosa County, Ala. is going to allow a relatively decent standard of material living, while that’s much less likely in Manhattan. But, in Weber’s analysis, that’s not a perfect predictor of status – the esteem granted to you by others. You can have low income and high status, so the author shouldn’t have equated the two.

Of course, Weber tells us class and status are often closely related to one another, but seeing how the two are different helps us better understand the complexity of social life. I might then move the conversation to a discussion of the status of a Manhattan banker in Manhattan and Tuscaloosa. One can imagine ways the ‘banker’ might have different statuses in the two places, even with the same income. Maybe I’d use Todd Snider’s song “New York Banker” to make the point with a little soulful humor.

I’m not your boss, sir: service worker small talk as class warfare?

One of my least favorite social interactions is when service workers, often waitstaff, use ‘terms of endearment.’ You know, “what can I get you, hon?” or “there you go, boss.” It makes me uncomfortable. I say service workers because these are the interactions in which I notice it, but surely it happens elsewhere too. Quite frankly, terms of endearment from just about anyone make me uncomfortable, so it may just be that I’m atypically socially distant (I’d buy that). Maybe, but I think there are social patterns here to be considered

First, the phenomenon appears gendered. I’ve never noticed a male waiter call me ‘hon’ or ‘sweetie,’ and I don’t recall a lot of female service workers calling me ‘boss.’ Service workers have an opportunity to do some fun breaching experiments here. I imagine most folks wouldn’t notice if a female worker called them ‘boss,’ but I imagine nearly every male would notice if a male worker called him ‘sweetie.’  Having read about ‘everyday sexism‘, I’d guess women hear a lot more of this sort of small talk than do men, from both women and men. Women are probably uncomfortably called ‘sweetie’ all the time, by everyone. Do male workers call female customers ‘boss’?

Second, why do I find it so uncomfortable? I think the language is too intimate for what are nearly always fleeting relationships in the context of economic transactions. While I’ve never said it, I always think “I’m not your hon,” or “I’m not your boss”  Maybe Donald Black’s theory of Moral Time could help me understand a bit of it. Is the conflict I feel a result of ‘over intimacy?’ That seems reasonable for ‘hon’ and ‘sweetie’ and the like, but maybe not for ‘boss.’ I find ‘boss’ harder to take. I always hear with it a bit of disdain. Maybe it’s a small shot at the inequality of the service relationship? Maybe in this context ‘boss’ is meant to draw attention to the fact that work is being done, for me, by someone who is likely underpaid and under appreciated. Maybe it’s a subtle critique of class privilege? Maybe it’s the expression of completely internalized capitalistic social relations?

‘Merican Douchebags?: Elitist and Redneck discourse

This Michael Mark Cohen essay about ‘douchebag’ as a white racial slur has come my way a few times recently. Whatever you think about the argument, it could be a useful resource to start conversations about the intersectionality of white, male, upper class privilege.

Here’s how Cohen puts it:

For the time being, this is the vernacular critique of whiteness that we’ve always needed, and its been right before our eyes all along. The term douchebag, again used as we already use it, has the power to name white ruling class power and white sexist privilege as noxious, selfish, toxic, foolish and above all, dangerous.

What got me thinking about this again today was sitting in a Bruegger’s watching a ‘preppy’ white guy parked in a running Jeep Grand Cherokee 4 X 4 on his cellphone for at least 15 minutes, and he was still there when I left. As anyone who drives with me knows, I’ll barely let my car idle between turning the key and moving, or stopping and shutting down. Idling, in almost any instance, is bad for the environment, our health, and wastes expensive fossil fuel (8 facts and myths about warming up your car). This well dressed guy, sitting in a behemoth that probably cost north of $30,000 and manages an around town mpg rating in the low 20s, clearly cared about none of those things.

But, I don’t think this particular automotive behavior is significantly classed or raced in America. If anything, being obsessed with environmentally conscious behavior is maybe a bourgeois affliction. The term I thought when I walked past this guy, tempted to knock on the window and ask him what the hell he was thinking, was this: Merica (urban dictionary). I realized, however, that I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone use the term (what is the correct version, anyway?) except to denigrate or celebrate what I think of as working class, white culture. I grew up in that culture, in a town that has advertised “Redneck Games” on the webpage of its visitors bureau. If that’s not ‘Mercia, I don’t know what is.

So, I checked, and Cohen’s article doesn’t make any mention of “merica” or its other forms. I’d hypothesize it’s use would correlate with ‘cracker,’ ‘hillbilly,’ and ‘redneck,’ or the other terms that Cohen correctly points out also discriminate by class. Google Correlate didn’t show any search results, but this post at floatingsheep (Welcome to ‘Merica (Or is it ‘Murica?)) maps Twitter use of the two terms, and argues that the more sarcastic ‘murica is preferred by coastal elites who may be eager to differentiate themselves from the yokels in flyover country. At the same time, I’ve been to fireworks shows and sporting events where people in the middle of a good time shout ‘Murica!’ to advertise and celebrate their fun.

So, what’s the function of ‘merica/’murica? Is it for elites to denigrate America’s working class? Is it to celebrate ‘middle America’ fun? When I saw that douche in the 4 X 4 guzzling gas and a large coffee, was ‘Merica a reasonable response?

Let’s settle it with some enraged comments on the internet!