social theory

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.

Mechanical solidarity at work or play?

In The Division of Labor in Society, Emile Durkheim writes about occupational groups as a source of community in modern societies. In his language, we might consider these occupational groups as reservoirs of mechanical solidarity in a mass society characterized by organic solidarity. I’ve never thought very seriously about this; mostly because I’ve assumed it’s just wrong. I belong to the American Sociological Association, and I’m happy to, but the ASA doesn’t feel like community to me. I rejoined this year after letting my membership lapse for several years. I joined as a grad student because I was told I should be part of the ‘profession’ if I wanted a good start to a ‘career.’ It wasn’t about joining a community for the sake of being part of a community, and then the meetings felt more like competitive exclusion than religious harmony. I rejoined primarily because Twitter has put me in touch with networks of sociologists and scholars in other disciplines, and those connections have made me feel a bit more connected to the discipline, and the academic-world in general, than I had recently. So, my renewed membership in ASA was really a consequence of feeling part of the community (if that’s the right word) of scholars . Maybe the ASA meetings in New York this summer will create that rare but great feeling of collective effervescence Durkheim tells us is the result of collectively celebrating our morality and social order. Maybe.

If I was asked about the totem of my tribe, I’d not show you my ASA lanyards. Instead I’d show this picture:


Teaching Marx: The Creative Class and the Ikea Effect

This morning we discussed a selection of the Manifesto of the Communist Party in Social Theory (the selection in Peter Kivisto’s Social Theory: Roots and Branches, Vol 4). We spend about a week reading and discussing Marx, and it’s never enough. In general, I think the students get the basic argument about the bourgeoisie and proletariat because they are likely exposed to this in other sociology classes. As important as that argument is, I’ve personally always been a lot more interested in what Marx has to say about alienated labor, how his work can lead into a discussion of consumption, and his general claims about the political implications of revolutions of the system of production.

I’m always looking for good ways to make Marx’s writing relatable to students. Many have had, or are working, jobs that are unsatisfying because they don’t allow them to be creative. These are jobs that are a means to an end, just like Marx writes about. I’ll ask them to think about the value of various commodities like iPhones. Who made that iPhone, what is its use, and why is it valuable? I’ll talk a little about advertisements that encourage us to want things we don’t even know exist. They get this point too, I think.


Texting in Class: What can we learn from Mead?

Over at the excellent Sociology Source, Nathan Palmer recently shared some thoughts about dealing with texting in class.  I’d be surprised if this reflection on classroom authority doesn’t resonate with most of us who think about how to effectively teach in the smart phone saturated college setting.  I’d never considered the Weberian take on the issue, but I do regularly talk to students about the meaning of cell phones in the classroom, especially when I teach Goffman (presentation of self), and Mills (cheerful robots).  However, the classical theorist that most informs my approach to limiting phone use during class is George Herbert Mead.  In particular, I tell students that in “The Fusion of the I and the Me in Social Activities,” from Mind, Self, & Society, Mead suggests that keeping the phone in your pocket could make class a ‘religious’ experience.

Self and Society in the classroom

Mead describes the self as a process in which the active “I” adjusts to the social control of the “me.” The “me” is our understanding of the expectations and attitudes of others that we take into account when we act in social situations.  To become a self in society, Mead argues, we learn to take the ‘role of the other’ so that we can successfully adjust our conduct according to social expectations.  When our gestures produce the same response from others as they do in ourselves, we can complete a successful act. (more…)