Class Reunion: The Remaking of the American White Working Class
reviewed by Janel Benson - 2006
Lois Weiss Class Reunion provides an in-depth portrait of how economic restructuring at the end of the twentieth century fundamentally altered the way white working-class men and women, coming of age in the rapidly de-industrializing city of Freeway, construct class identities. Weis captures how de-industrialization not only strips jobs from working-class communities but also disrupts the hegemonic gender roles and hierarchies that held them together. Through longitudinal ethnographic and interview data collected at two significant points in time, in 1985 shortly after the closing of Freeways largest manufacturing plant and again in 2000 after the city lost virtually all of its industrial centers, Weis illustrates how the success of the new working-class is dependent on remaking the class and gender identities held by the old industrial working-class. Within the new global order, working-class families, unable to thrive on one income alone, must reconstruct old hegemonic notions of gender to produce more egalitarian family forms where both spouses actively participate in family and work.
The first half of Class Reunion describes the very different gender and class identities held by white working-class men and women in Freeway at the end of their third year in high school. First, while all students emphasized the importance of schooling, young women were much more likely than young men, with the exception of men in advanced honor tracks, to aspire to post-secondary education. Second, young men and women held contradictory notions of family gender roles. While young men envisioned themselves as sole breadwinners with stay-at-home wives, young women did not construct fantasy futures as wives and mothers, but rather wanted to go on to college and establish independent careers (p. 59). In addition, young women held less optimistic notions of marriage than men, with many women expressing fears of oppressive marriages and divorce. Weis learns in follow-up interviews, however, that what these women feared most was the physical and emotional abuse they saw in their own families while growing up. Finally, young men were more likely to engage in racism and racial bordering than young women in high school.
Weis posits that the differences in the ways men and women construct their class and gender identities are due largely to their positions within gender-based collectives within high school. The female collective, energized by the womens movement, encouraged female independence and achievement whereas the male collective encouraged physical prowess, sexism, and racism. The honors track, however, provided a social space for some men to stake out non-hegemonic forms of masculinity.
The strength of the book, however, lies in the second half where Weis, challenging neo-liberal and resistance theories of class, depicts how working class identities are dynamic and change form over time. When Weis returns to Freeway fifteen years later, she finds that economic restructuring had impacted the lives of men and women differently. Because women had already rejected patriarchal gender roles in high school and expected to play the dual-role of wage-earner and homemaker in adulthood, they were well-positioned not only to take advantage of increased access to both educational and labor market opportunities but also to contribute as wage-earners to their families. On the other hand, mens adolescent masculine identity put them in a poor position to adjust to the changing economy. Hamstrung by the collapse of Freeways industrial centers, working-class men had few options to fulfill their adolescent masculine identity as breadwinner. As a result, mens economic success hinged upon altering their masculine identity. Weis finds that men who reconstruct their hegemonic notions of gender roles and establish an egalitarian household with two wage-earners are more economically stable than those who do not.
Weis acknowledges, however, that the gender balance within egalitarian, working-class families is fragile at best. She contends that the stability of these white, working-class unions depends not only upon the active participation of both partners in the spheres of work and family but also upon establishing racial boundaries between themselves and racially defined others. Weis finds that racism takes a slightly different form in adulthood. Yemenites, moving into the white side of Freeway, replace African Americans as the racial other, and women join men in establishing physical as well as psychological racial borders around their white neighborhoods and schools.
Class Reunion contributes to our understanding of gender and class identity in several ways. First, Weiss innovative longitudinal ethnographic approach is far superior to static, cross-sectional studies of class identity. By following a cohort over time, Weis is able to uncover the complex ways in which class, gender, and social context interact and change over time. Second, I applaud Weis for highlighting the importance of gender, especially femininity, in understanding class identity. Importantly, she shows how the new working class depends on maintaining a gender balance within the family.
Although Class Reunion is undoubtedly a significant contribution to the literature on class identity, it has several shortcomings. First, the author does not adequately describe her sample. Although she claims that all students are from similar working-class backgrounds, Weis does not provide information on sample members family background characteristics, including parents educational attainment and occupation. Without this information, it is difficult to know if the success of men in the honors track is due to selection or the honors track peer culture. In addition, the author does not provide detailed information about sample members employment and family statuses at the time of the second interview. The author argues that the family is critical in class identity formation, yet she spends little time describing the work-family dynamics within marital and cohabiting unions.
Second, I was disappointed that the author did not connect emerging gender differences in educational attainment and family formation within the working class to larger patterns of family change and inequality in the United States. Since 1970, the rate of divorce and cohabitation has increased for families in the bottom two-thirds of the socioeconomic distribution, while these trends have remained constant for families in the top third (McLanahan 2004; Martin 2004). Although not explicitly a study of family change, Class Reunion not only documents the increased instability of working-class families during this time period but also offers several insightful explanations for these trends.
Class Reunion is a necessary read for those interested in class, gender, and social change. Weiss longitudinal approach provides a unique and critical lens for examining how global economic changes impact the lives of white, working-class people in the United States.
Martin, S.P. 2004. Growing evidence of a divorce divide? Education and marital
rates in the U.S. since the 1970s. Russell Sage Foundation, New York.
Mclanahan, S. 2004. Diverging destinies: How children are faring under the
second demographic transition. Demography 41, 607-627.