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Social Class

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  • A person’s socio-economic status influences her or his personal and social identity. In society, we rank individuals on their wealth, power, and prestige (Weber [1968] 1978). The calculation of wealth is the addition of one’s income and assets minus their debts. The net worth of a person is wealth whereas income from work and investments is the resources a person has available to access. Power is the ability to influence others directly or indirectly and prestige is the esteem or respect associated with social status (Carl 2013). This social stratification system or ranking creates inequality in society and determines one’s social position in areas such as income, education, and occupation.

    Multiple factors influence social standing, however, people often assume hard work and effort leads to a high status and wealth. Socialization reinforces the ideology that social stratification is a result of personal effort or merit (Carl 2013). The concept of meritocracy is a social ideal or value, but no society exists where the determination of social rank is purely on merit. Inheritance alone shows social standing is not always individually earned. Some people have to put little to no effort to inherit social status and wealth. Additionally, societies operating under a caste system where birth determines lifelong status undermines meritocracy. Caste systems function on the structure that someone born into a low-status group remains low status regardless of their accomplishments, and those born into high-status groups stay high status (Henslin 2011). The caste system reinforces ascribed status rather than achieved to ensure sustainment of multiple roles and occupations in society.

    In modern societies, there is evidence of merit based standing in academics and job performance but other factors such as age, disability, gender, race, and region influence life’s opportunities and challenges for obtaining social standing. A major flaw of meritocracy is how society measures social contributions. Janitorial and custodial work is necessary in society to reduce illness and manage waste just as much as surgery is to keep people healthy and alive, but surgeons receive greater rewards than janitors do for their contributions.

    Marx and Engels (1967) suggested there is a social class division between the capitalists who control the means of production and the workers. In 1985, Erik Wright interjected that people can occupy contradictory class positions throughout their lifetime. People who have occupied various class positions (e.g., bookkeeper to manager to chief operating officer) relate to the experiences of others in those positions, and as a result may feel internal conflict in handling situations between positions or favoring one over another. Late in the twentieth century, Joseph Kahl and Dennis Gilbert (1992) updated the theoretical perspective of Max Weber by developing a six-tier model portraying the United States class structure including underclass, working-poor, working, lower middle, upper middle, and capitalists. The social class model depicts the distribution of property, prestige, and power among society based on income and education.

    Each class lifestyle requires a certain level of wealth in order to acquire the material necessities and comforts of life (Henslin 2011). The correlation between the standard of living and quality of life or life chances (i.e., opportunities and barriers) influences one’s ability to afford food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, other basic needs, and luxury items. A person’s standards of living including income, employment, class, and housing effects their cultural identity.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Man Praying on Sidewalk with Food in Front. Image used with permission (CC BY 4.0; Sergio Omassi).

    Social class serves as a marker or indication of resources. These markers are noticeable in the behaviors, customs, and norms of each stratified group (Carl 2013). People living in impoverished communities have different cultural norms and practices compared to those with middle incomes or families of wealth. For example, the urban poor often sleep on cardboard boxes on the ground or on sidewalks and feed themselves by begging, scavenging, and raiding garbage (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Middle income and wealth families tend to sleep in housing structures and nourish themselves with food from supermarkets or restaurants.

    Language and fashion also vary among these classes because of educational attainment, employment, and income. People will use language like “white trash” or “welfare mom” to marginalize people in the lower class and use distinguished labels to identify the upper class such as “noble” and “elite.” Sometimes people often engage in conspicuous consumption or purchase and use certain products (e.g., buy a luxury car or jewelry) to make a social statement about their status (Henslin 2011). Nonetheless, the experience of poor people is very different in comparison to others in the upper and middle classes and the lives of people within each social class may vary based on their position within other social categories including age, disability, gender, race, region, and religion.

    Similar to people, nations are also stratified. The most extreme social class differences are between the wealthiest in industrialized countries and the poorest in the least developed nations (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). The most industrialized or modern countries have the greatest property and wealth. Most industrialized nations are leaders in technology and progress allowing them to dominant, control, and access global resources. Industrializing nations have much lower incomes and standards of living than those living in most industrialized nations (Henslin 2011). The least industrialized nations are not modern, and people living in these nations tend to be impoverished and live on farms and in villages.


    Could you survive in poverty, middle class, or wealth? In her book A Framework for Understanding Poverty (2005), Dr. Ruby K Payne presents lists of survival skills needed by different societal classes. Test your skills by answering the following questions:

    Could you survive in . . . (mark all that apply)


    1. ____ find the best rummage sales.
    2. ____ locate grocery stores’ garbage bins that have thrown away food.
    3. ____ bail someone out of jail. ____ get a gun, even if I have a police record.
    4. ____ keep my clothes from being stolen at the laundromat.
    5. ____ sniff out problems in a used car.
    6. ____ live without a checking account.
    7. ____ manage without electricity and a phone.
    8. ____ entertain friends with just my personality and stories.
    9. ____ get by when I don’t have money to pay the bills.
    10. ____ move in half a day.
    11. ____ get and use food stamps.
    12. ____ find free medical clinics.
    13. ____ get around without a car.
    14. ____ use a knife as scissors.

    MIDDLE CLASS know how to....

    1. ____ get my children into Little League, piano lessons, and soccer.
    2. ____ set a table properly.
    3. ____ find stores that sell the clothing brands my family wears.
    4. ____ use a credit card, checking and /or savings account.
    5. ____ evaluate insurance: life, disability, 20/80 medical, homeowners, and personal-property.
    6. ____ talk to my children about going to college.
    7. ____ get the best interest rate on my car loan.
    8. ____ help my children with homework and don’t hesitate to make a call if I need more information.

    WEALTH, check if you....

    1. ____ can read a menu in French, English and another language.
    2. ____ have favorite restaurants in different countries around the world.
    3. ____ know how to hire a professional decorator to help decorate your home during the holidays.
    4. ____ can name your preferred financial advisor, lawyer, designer, hairdresser, or domestic-employment service.
    5. ____ have at least two homes that are staffed and maintained.
    6. ____ know how to ensure confidentiality and loyalty with domestic staff.
    7. ____ use two or three “screens” that keep people whom you don’t wish to see away from you
    8. ____ fly in your own plane, the company plane, or the Concorde.
    9. ____ know how to enroll your children in the preferred private schools.
    10. ____ are on the boards of at least two charities.
    11. ____ know the hidden rules of the Junior League.
    12. ____ know how to read a corporate balance sheet and analyze your own financial statements.
    13. ____ support or buy the work of a particular artist.


    All forms of media and technology teach culture including values, norms, language, and behaviors by providing information about activities and events of social significance (Griffiths et al. 2015). Media and technology socialize us to think and act within socio-cultural appropriate norms and accepted practices. Watching and listening to people act and behave through media and technology shows the influence this social institution has like family, peers, school, and work on teaching social norms, values, and beliefs.

    Technological innovations and advancements have influenced social interactions and communication patterns in the twenty-first century creating new social constructions of reality. These changes, particularly in information technology, have led to further segmentation of society based on user-participant affinity groups (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). The internet and web-based applications link people together transecting local, state, and national boundaries centered on common interests. People who share interests, ideas, values, beliefs, and practices are able to connect to one another through web-based and virtual worlds. These shared interests create solidarity among user-participants while disengaging them from others with differing or opposing interests. Cybersocial interactions have reinforced affinity groups creating attitudes and behaviors that strongly encourage tribalism or loyalty to the social group and indifference to others.

    Even though there are so many media, news, and information outlets available online, they are homogenous and tell the same stories using the same sources delivering the same message (McManus 1995). Regardless of the news or information outlets one accesses, the coverage of events is predominantly the same with differences focusing on commentary, perspective, and analysis. Shoemaker and Vos (2009) found this practice allow outlets to serve as gatekeepers by shaping stories and messages into mass media-appropriate forms and reducing them to a manageable amount for the audience. Fragmentation of stories and messages occurs solely on ideology related to events rather than actual coverage of accounts, reports, or news.

    People no longer form and take on identity solely from face-to-face interactions; they also construct themselves from online communication and cybersocial interactions. Approximately 73 percent of adults engage in some sort of online social networking extending their cultural identity to virtual space and time (Pew Research Center 2011). Technological innovations and advancements have even led some people to re-construct a new online identity different from the one they are in face-to-face contexts. Both identities and realities are real to the people who construct and create them, as they are the cultural creators of their personas.

    Technology like other resources in society creates inequality among social groups (Griffiths et al. 2015). People with greater access to resources have the ability to purchase and use online services and applications. Privilege access to technological innovations and advancements depend on one’s age, family, education, ethnicity, gender, profession, race, and social class (Kottak and Kozaitis 2012). Signs of technological stratification are visible in the increasing knowledge gap for those with less access to information technology. People with exposure to technology gain further proficiency that makes them more marketable and employable in modern society (Griffiths et al. 2015). Inflation of the knowledge gap results from the lack of technological infrastructure among races, classes, geographic areas creating a digital divide between those who have internet access and those that do not.


    Native anthropologists study their own culture. For this project, you will explore your own culture by answering the questions below. Your response to each question must be a minimum of one paragraph consisting of 3-5 sentences, typed, and in ASA format (i.e., paragraphs indented and double-spaced). You must include parenthetical citations if you ask or interview someone in your family or kin group to help you understand and answer any one of the questions. Here is a helpful link with information on citing interviews in ASA format:

    PART 1

    1. In examining your background and heritage, what traditions or rituals do you practice regularly? To what extent are traditional cultural group beliefs still held by individuals within the community? To what extent and in what areas has your ethnic or traditional culture changed in comparison to your ancestors?
    2. What major stereotypes do you have about other cultural groups based on age, gender, sex, sexuality, race, ethnicity, region, and social class?
    3. Reflecting on your cultural background, how do you define family?
    4. What is the hierarchy of authority in your family?
    5. What do you think are the functions and obligations of the family as a large social unit to individual family members? To school? To work? To social events?
    6. What do you think are the rights and responsibilities of each family member? For example, do children have an obligation to work and help the family?
    7. In your culture, what stage of life is most valued?
    8. What behaviors are appropriate or unacceptable for children of various ages? How might these conflict with behaviors taught or encouraged in the school, work, or by other social groups?
    9. How does your cultural group compute age? What commemoration is recognized or celebrated, if any (i.e., birthdays, anniversaries, etc.)?

    PART 2

    1. Considering your cultural heritage, what roles within a group are available to whom and how are they acquired?
    2. Are there class or status differences in the expectations of roles within your culture?
    3. Do particular roles have positive or malevolent characteristics?
    4. Is language competence a requirement or qualification for family or cultural group membership?
    5. How do people greet each other?
    6. How is deference or respect shown?
    7. How are insults expressed?
    8. Who may disagree with whom in the cultural group? Under what circumstances? Are mitigating forms used?
    9. Which cultural traditions or rituals are written and how widespread is cultural knowledge found in written forms?
    10. What roles, attitudes, or personality traits are associated with particular ways of speaking among the cultural group?
    11. What is the appropriate decorum or manners among your cultural group?
    12. What counts as discipline in terms of your culture, and what doesn't? What is its importance and value?
    13. Who is responsible and how is blame ascribed if a child misbehaves?
    14. Do means of social control vary with recognized stages in the life cycle, membership in various social categories (i.e., gender, region, class, etc.), or according to setting or offense?
    15. What is the role of language in social control? What is the significance of using the first vs. the second language?

    PART 3

    1. What is considered sacred (religious) and what secular (non-religious)?
    2. What religious roles and authority are recognized in the community?
    3. What should an outsider not know, or not acknowledge knowing about your religion or culture?
    4. Are there any external signs of participation in religious rituals (e.g., ashes, dress, marking)?
    5. Are dietary restrictions to be observed including fasting on particular occasions?
    6. Are there any prescribed religious procedures or forms of participation if there is a death in the family?
    7. What taboos are associated with death and the dead?
    8. Who or what is believed to cause illness or death (e.g., biological vs. supernatural or other causes)?
    9. Who or what is responsible for treating or curing illness?
    10. Reflecting on your culture, what foods are typical or favorites? What are taboo?
    11. What rules are observed during meals regarding age and sex roles within the family, the order of serving, seating, utensils used, and appropriate verbal formulas (e.g., how, and if, one may request, refuse, or thank)?
    12. What social obligations are there with regard to food giving, preparation, reciprocity, and honoring people?
    13. What relation does food have to health? What medicinal uses are made of food, or categories of food?
    14. What are the taboos or prescriptions associated with the handling, offering, or discarding of food?
    15. What clothing is common or typical among your cultural group? What is worn for special occasions?
    16. What significance does dress have for group identity?
    17. How does dress differ for age, sex, and social class? What restrictions are imposed for modesty (e.g., can girls wear pants, wear shorts, or shower in the gym)?
    18. What is the concept of beauty, or attractiveness in the culture? What characteristics are most valued?
    19. What constitutes a compliment of beauty or attractiveness in your culture (e.g., in traditional Latin American culture, telling a woman she is getting fat is a compliment)?
    20. Does the color of dress have symbolic significance (e.g., black or white for mourning, celebrations, etc.)?

    PART 4

    1. In your culture, what individuals and events in history are a source of pride for the group?
    2. ow is knowledge of the group's history preserved? How and in what ways is it passed on to new generations (e.g., writings, aphorisms or opinions, proverbs or sayings)?
    3. Do any ceremonies or festive activities re-enact historical events?
    4. Among your cultural group, what holidays and celebrations are observed? What is their purpose? What cultural values do they intend to inculcate?
    5. What aspects of socialization/enculturation do holidays and celebrations observed further?
    6. In your culture, what is the purpose of education?
    7. What methods for teaching and learning are used at home (e.g., modeling and imitation, didactic stories and proverbs, direct verbal instruction)?
    8. What is the role of language in learning and teaching?
    9. How many years is it considered 'normal' for children to go to school?
    10. Are there different expectations with respect to different groups (e.g., boys vs. girls)? In different subjects?
    11. Considering your culture, what kinds of work are prestigious and why?
    12. Why is work valued (e.g., financial gain, group welfare, individual satisfaction, promotes group cohesiveness, fulfillment or creation of obligations, position in the community, etc.)?

    PART 5

    1. How and to what extent may approval or disapproval be expressed in you culture?
    2. What defines the concepts of successful among your cultural group?
    3. To what extent is it possible or proper for an individual to express personal vs. group goals?
    4. What beliefs are held regarding luck and fate?
    5. What significance does adherence to traditional culture have for individual success or achievement?
    6. What are the perceptions on the acquisition of dominant group culture have on success or achievement?
    7. Do parents expect and desire assimilation of children to the dominant culture as a result of education and the acquisition of language?
    8. Are the attitudes of the cultural community the same as or different from those of cultural leaders?
    9. Among your cultural group, what beliefs or values are associated with concepts of time? How important is punctuality, speed, patience, etc.?
    10. Are particular behavioral prescriptions or taboos associated with the seasons?
    11. Is there a seasonal organization of work or other activities?
    12. How do individuals organize themselves spatially in groups during cultural events, activities, or gatherings (e.g., in rows, circles, around tables, on the floor, in the middle of the room, etc.)?
    13. What is the spatial organization of the home in your culture (e.g., particular activities in various areas of the home, areas allotted to children, or open to children,)?
    14. What geo-spatial concepts, understandings, and beliefs (e.g., cardinal directions, heaven, hell, sun, moon, stars, natural phenomena, etc.) exist among the cultural group or are known to individuals?
    15. Are particular behavioral prescriptions or taboos associated with geo-spatial concepts, understandings, and beliefs? What sanctions are there against individuals violating restrictions or prescriptions?
    16. Which animals are valued in your culture, and for what reasons?
    17. Which animals are considered appropriate as pets and which are inappropriate? Why?
    18. Are particular behavioral prescriptions or taboos associated with particular animals?
    19. Are any animals of religious significance? Of historical importance?
    20. What forms of art and music are most highly valued?
    21. What art medium and musical instruments are traditionally used?
    22. Are there any behavioral prescriptions or taboos related to art and music (e.g., both sexes sing, play a particular instrument, paint or photograph nude images, etc.)?