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7.5: Social class and culture

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    Social class refers to the hierarchical ranking of people in society based on presumably identifiable factors. American sociologists, in trying to define these relevant factors more precisely have tended to use the term socioeconomic status (SES) which is measured by combining indices of family wealth and/or income, educational attainment, and occupational prestige (Oakes and Rossi, 2003). While Americans are sometimes reluctant to acknowledge the existence of social class as a determinant of social life in the U.S., scholars have long argued that social class is a culturally marked category. Clearly social class is reflected in the material lives of people. For instance, lower class and upper class people typically live in different neighborhoods, belong to different social clubs, and attend different educational institutions (Domhoff, 1998).

    Sociologists argue that different social classes seem to embrace a different system of values and that this is reflected in childrearing. For instance, Kohn (1977) showed that middle-class parents tended to value self-direction while working class parents valued conformity to external authority. Middle class parents aimed to instill in children qualities of intellectual curiosity, dependability, consideration for others, and self-control, whereas working class parents tended to emphasize obedience, neatness, and good manners.

    More recent research (e.g., Lareau, 2011) confirms Kohn’s findings, further emphasizing the advantages that middle-class parenting tends to confer on middle-class children. For example, in observational studies of families, Lareau found “more talking in middle-class homes than in working class and poor homes, leading to the development,” among middle class children, of “greater verbal agility, larger vocabularies, more comfort with authority figures, and more familiarity with abstract concepts” (p. 5).

    According to Kraus, Piff and Keltner (2011), social class is also signaled behaviorally. For instance, in videotaped interactions between people (in the U.S.) from different social classes, lower-class individuals tended to show greater social engagement as evidenced by non-verbal signs such as eye contact, head nods, and laughs compared to higher-class individuals who were less engaged (as evidenced by less responsive head nodding and less eye contact) and who were more likely to disengage by means of actions such as checking their cell phones or doodling (Kraus & Keltner, 2009).

    Lower-class and upper class individuals also exhibit different belief systems, with lower-class people more likely to attribute social circumstances such as income inequality to contextual forces (e.g., educational opportunity). On the other hand, upper-class people are more likely to explain inequality in dispositional terms (e.g., as a result of differences in talent) Kluegel & Smith, 1986.

    In short, different social classes seem to be distinguished from one another by many of the characteristics that we have previously identified as elements of culture, e.g., patterns of beliefs, values, collective habits, social behavior, material possessions, etc.


    This page titled 7.5: Social class and culture is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Nolan Weil (Rebus Community) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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