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Social Class: How does it work?

reviewed by Sylvia Martinez - January 16, 2009

coverTitle: Social Class: How does it work?
Author(s): Annette Lareau and Dalton Conley (Eds.)
Publisher: Russell Sage Foundation, New York
ISBN: 0871545063, Pages: 388, Year: 2008
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Sociologists appear to agree that social class matters in our everyday lives. It impacts our ability to obtain a quality education, a desirable occupation, adequate shelter, or medical care. There is much less consensus, however, on how social class should be conceptualized or exactly how class influences life outcomes or conditions. The contributors to Lareau and Conley’s edited volume successfully illustrate the challenges sociologists and other scholars of social class encounter when defining and measuring this concept, how the concept impacts our daily lives, and the directions the field should take if a more comprehensive analysis of class is to be achieved.

The first part of the book is dedicated to understanding how class works and whether social classes exist. In chapter 1, using General Social Survey data, Hout convincingly shows us that Americans are quite aware of social class differences. In addition, Americans are quite willing and capable of identifying with a particular social class. Hout found that the majority of Americans place themselves in either the working or middle class. Smaller percentages report belonging to the upper or lower class.  Most interestingly, Hout’s analyses illustrate amazing alignments between an individual’s objective social class (measured by income, education, and occupation) and an individual’s self-reported social class or “subjective” social class. What is not so surprising is that the alignment is particularly evident at the extremes. There is much more “status inconsistency” or misalignment between an individual’s objective and subjective social class in the middle of the social ladder. Status inconsistency occurs when a person’s occupation may put them in a higher social status than that indicated by their income for example. Another indication that traditional social class gradations may be more complex than conceptualized is provided by Grusky and Weeden’s chapter titled, “Are there Social Classes? A Framework for Testing Sociology’s Favorite Concept.” They argue that it is important not only to address the amount of inequality, but also the form of the inequality. Their work illustrates how individuals are distributed along a “…multidimensional inequality space” (p. 70). Thus, the extent and form of inequality can be quite varied.

The bulk of the book is dedicated to pieces illustrating how class influences various spheres of life (i.e., educational attainment, health, racial/ethnic identity, and politics). It is after reading this section of the book that the reader is overwhelmingly convinced that social class does matter. The reader will also notice that the manner in which class is conceptualized in each of the chapters can vary greatly. A few examples of the correlation between social class and life outcomes are provided since space does not allow for the summary of all the chapters in this section. Goldthorpe and Jackson, authors of the chapter titled, “Education-Based Meritocracy: The Barriers to its Realization,” for example, find that education based meritocracy continues to be a myth, and social class origin, conceptualized as the stratification resulting from employment relations, appears to be one of the biggest predictors of a child’s educational career. Lareau and Weininger, authors of “Class and the Transition to Adulthood,” find social class differences in the way families define parental involvement with regards to helping children apply to post-secondary institutions. Much like Lareau’s previous work, Lareau and Weininger discover that middle class parents of college bound students are much more involved in the college research and application process than working class parents. Because of these differences in parental involvement, middle class students are more likely to apply, gain admission, and enroll in post-secondary institutions. Class in this case is conceptualized by examining the amount of managerial authority parents possess or the amount of college level skills they employ on the job. Lastly, Manza and Brooks demonstrate that class matters in American politics. While class did not appear to be a strong predictor of vote choice as expected, class does appear to impact political participation and a candidate’s ability to raise campaigns funds.

An important recognition was made by the authors of the chapter on the correlation between social class and health outcomes. The authors recognized that attention must not solely be paid to understanding social class disparities between racial-ethnic groups, but also social class differences within racial-ethnic minority groups. Two chapters were particularly successful at discussing this important point: Lacy and Harris’ chapter on racial identity among black adolescents and McCall’s chapter on class inequality among women. While McCall’s work does not address social class differences within a racial-ethnic minority group, it addresses the need to examine the social class cleavages within a social group that are typically ignored. In a study of the role of social class in the development of youths’ racial identity, Lacy and Harris find that middle class black parents have different racial socialization practices than black parents from the lower class. And McCall’s work demonstrates that inequality among women is qualitatively different from the inequality among men.

For those not familiar with the discussions and disagreements about the concept of class in the field of sociology, the last part of the book will be particularly useful at understanding the cleavages seen in the discipline. In the chapter titled “Logics of Class Analysis,” Erik Olin Wright discusses how scholars of class analysis have traditionally approached this endeavor. He suggests that there are six main questions and three types of causal mechanisms that guide the analysis of class. Wright argues that much of sociological research on class (this volume included) has focused on the question of life chances. The central question has been, “What explains inequalities in life chances and material standards of living?” (p. 330). And the driving causal mechanism has been how unequal life conditions and individual attributes create significant effects in an individual’s life. To a much lesser degree, research has focused on the forms of social closure or opportunity hoarding that gives certain groups of people advantages over others that have been excluded in the process. His biggest criticism is that the field has not addressed issues of power, privilege, and exploitation adequately. Essentially, Wright is suggesting that an accurate analysis of class must incorporate all three causal mechanisms: individual attributes, opportunity hoarding, and exploitation.

The tension over how the concept of class should be defined is outlined in the chapters by Goldthorpe and Conley. Goldthorpe acknowledges the tension between scholars who prefer a catch-all or an “umbrella” concept of class and those who prefer a more specific concept of class. Goldthorpe readily conveys his alliances with the latter group because he sees a clear distinction between class and status. Conley, on the other hand, supports an umbrella concept of class because variables such as income, education, or occupation are often poor proxies for class. While a composite measure of income, education, and occupation might be an improvement to using just one of these variables, according to Conley, the measure could never capture the essence of social class. So this is ultimately the challenge that researchers of class must face according to Conley, how do you accurately measure or conceptualize an abstract concept that we know to be so salient in our everyday lives?   

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 16, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15488, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:54:17 PM

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About the Author
  • Sylvia Martinez
    Indiana University
    E-mail Author
    SYLVIA MARTINEZ is an Assistant professor at Indiana University in the department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies as well as the Latino Studies Program. She is a sociologist interested in the educational experiences of Latino high school students, Latino families, and women’s work experiences. She teaches courses on the sociology of education, Latinas in the U.S., and the Latino family.
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