Monday, March 15, 2010

American class self-identification

Pierre Bourdieu said, perhaps not as famously as one would wish, that "public opinion" is an "artifact, pure and simple, the function of which is to dissemble that the state of opinion at any given moment is a system of forces and tensions and that nothing is more inadequate for representing the state of opinion than a percentage". In particular, he charged that the manufacturers of public opinion in fact produce what they supposedly report: a consensus on what the problems are, what the appropriate questions are, how they should be framed, and so on. With that in mind, I give you this recent ABC/Washington post poll, which tells us that American class self-identification is roughly as follows: 39% say they are working class or worse off, 45% middle class, and 18% upper-middle class or better off. And where the poll does an important part of its work is in this question:

“Necessary elements” of a middle-class life
Being able to...
Own your own home - 80%
Save for the future - 78
Afford things you’d like to have - 77
Afford vacation travel - 71
Buy a new car - 67
This is a very leading question, and a considerable amount of thought must have gone into it, at least in its original formulation (I don't know how long the question has been asked for, in this form). In a previous post, I mentioned research on American 'class consciousness' by Vanneman and Cannon, which pointed out that research on the American class structure was heavily shaped by the activities of the state in that field. In the post-WWII period, the US government funded and drove research which sought to create an understanding of class as status, based on certain patterns of consumption, income and education, rather than an antagonistic relationship centred on production. In that bowdlerised sociology, class is like a continuous ladder of prestige and status, which one might ascend or descend, rather than a conflict built into social relations.

It doesn't actually matter if it was the state or private capital who decisively formulated these conventions, but the poll question cited above is undoubtedly shaped by them. Decades of thought - or doctrine - are embedded in this simple query. It assumes that there is such a thing as a "middle class life", that it would have as its essential characteristics certain consumption patterns, and that the only real disagreement is over how important each element of consumption is. What's interesting about these results is that many respondents appear to have defied the implicit bias in the poll, and defined themselves as, say, working class when their income would give them a reasonable chance of access to all of the "necessary elements" of a "middle class life". The responses would suggest that there are layers of motivation and interest informing the interpretation of the questions, and thus the answers. Even with that, the poll did its job in that, like thousands of other polls framed in much the same way, it obtained a middle class majority.