The Hidden Privileges of Identity: On Being Middle Class

A summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Sociological Perspectives on Identity’, chapter 7

During summer 2000 and in January 2001, there were two separate community-protests over the housing of child-offenders in the local community, one in a working-class area, by working-class people, another in a middle class area, by middle-class people.

The first protest took place in a working class housing estate in Palsgrove, Portsmouth, in which local residents were demanding the removal men believed to be sex offenders already living in the area; the second protest took place in middle-class Balham, London, where locals were protesting against a proposition to build a residential centre for sex-offenders, including child sex-offenders.

Both received press coverage, but both the amount and the tone of the reporting differed.

The working-class protest received an enormous amount of coverage, and commentary, with the women involved presented in dismissive and disgusted terms and not a single broad sheet newspaper reported their protest as rational or understandable, preferring to cast the protesters as a mob of rioters. In addition, frequent reference was made to personal aspects of their lives – such as their appearance, how they furnished their homes, their relationship status, as well as details of their past relationships.

In contrast, the middle class mothers in Balham were almost entirely sympathetic – they were presented as ‘vigilant’ rather than vigilante, and identification was invited so they became part of an imagined ‘we’ uniting against the sex-offenders; there was minimal reference to their personal lives – other than details of their children’ ages and their jobs, which were all ‘solidly professional’.

The Paulsgrave women were vilified across three different axes:

  • Their bodily appearance
  • Their ignorance or lack of understanding
  • Their inadequacy as mothers

And through this vilification their protests were rendered ridiculous through assumptions of immorality, incompetence and ignorance.

Lawler now asks what can these representations tell us about identity? They tell us nothing about the subjectivities of the people involved – but they do tell us something about how class is conferred on people: there is a long tradition of representing the working class as a mob, against which middle-class individuality is asserted, but it is doubtful that anyone identifies subjectively as part of a mob, so mob-identity is conferred on the working classes rather than coming from them and/ or how they feel about themselves.

One of the subtlest ways this works is through the middle classes claiming to ‘know’ the working classes, thus claiming the right to identify them (when in reality, they don’t know them at all).

One of the ways class works is through marking identities as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, pathological or healthy, normal or abnormal, and classed identities are part of the stakes in class politics – working class people don’t know the right things, they don’t value the right things, they don’t look right and they don’t act right, while the middle classes silently pass as normal.

This chapter looks at how middle class identities are normalised, and defined as ‘right’ against a working class identity which is defined (by the middle classes) as wrong. This is important for two reasons

1. We have traditionally understood class in economic terms, but increasingly cultural markers matter.

2. Class still matters as a source of identity but recently it has taken a back seat as academics have focused on other aspects of identity – such as sexuality.

‘What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect’ (Skeggs, 2004, 118).

The persistence of class

Class divisions and distinctions have not disappeared, class has not ceased to be a meaningful frame for analysis, instead it has become an absent presence – it circulates socially while being unnamed.

The drawing of class distinctions has become displaced onto individual persons and families who are approved or disapproved of.

As Bourdieu has demonstrated ‘taste’ is now one of the primary means through which class is configured – that which is tasteful is seen as middle class, and vice-versa for vulgar working class taste – the problem here is that there is nothing natural about taste – it is simply what the middle class say it is.

Expressions of disgust at working-class existence remain rife among middle class commentators and middle classness relies on the expulsion and exclusion of (what is held to be) working classness.

(Lawler thus adopts a relational approach to class and sees it as dynamic, rather than static categories dependent on economic position).

She effectively argues that the public bourgeoisie (mainly journalists and academics, and social commentators), those who are low in economic capital, but high in cultural capital, use their voices to express contempt for the working classes, and at the same time position their middle class selves against them.

Together this group, what Bourdieu refers to as the ‘dominated section of the dominant class’ construct a doxic understanding of class – they have a shared understanding of what working class and middle class means, and this is largely goes undiscussed.

This is ultimately all about power, about the middle classes trying to position themselves above the working classes by defining them as inferior along the axis of taste.

Having the knowledge

Lawler begins by quoting a definition of cultural capital form Johnson (1993)…

Cultural Capital refers to a specific form of knowledge which ‘equips the social agent with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artefacts…. cultural capital is accumulated through a long process of acquisitions or inculcation which includes the pedagogical action of the family or group members (family, education), educated members of the social formation (diffuse, education) and social institutions (institutionalised education)’

For Bourdieu, it it is only the cultural capital of the middle classes which is legitimised and becomes symbolic capital – around which prestige and status are conferred – it is only middle class tastes, knowledges, and dispositions which are encoded as inherently ‘right’.

However, the fact that all of this is social in origin, and the fact that power is operating here is obscured, because

– part of this process of constructing middle-class ness (converting cultural capital into symbolic capital) involves using knowledge itself

– because the cultural capital is marked as ‘normal’ the fact that it is classed at all is obscured.

– the competencies and knowledges associated with the middle class are not generally seen as social mechanisms because they are believed to be part of the self, and thus class is not seen as an objective position but it becomes configured into ‘who we are’.

On this final point, Sennet and Cobb (1977) famously observed that class inflicts hidden injuries – in terms of the ridicule, shaming, silence and self-scrutiny which go along with a position of pathology.

What Lawler’s basically describing above, I believe, is the process of individualisation – the cultural capital dimension of class is social in origin and circulation, but part of that circulation involves sending out the message that these tastes are all down to the individual – thus if someone has ‘superior’ ‘middle class’ tastes they believe they have chosen this, and vice versa for those with vulgar working-class tastes – they are invited by the middle classes to feel a sense of shame about this and to blame themselves for their own inferiority.

Habitus and the subject

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus is central to his analysis of social identity and is his attempt to theorise the ways in which the social is incorporated into the self.

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus has been described as ‘second sense’, ‘practical sense’, or ‘second nature’ that equips people with ‘know-how’. Habitus refers to both physical and psychological aspects of the self – it is the way we stand, how we move, how we look and how we feel, and it is our dispositions, attitudes and tastes, so it is a concept which cuts across traditional mind-body splits, with much of its force deriving from non-conscious elements.

In short, the habitus is not only something someone has, it is learned in the mind-body, it is what one is.

The habitus has also been referred to as ‘socialised subjectivity’, or ’embodied history’, a result of ‘deep socialisation’. It is learned, but we have forgotten that it is learned and so as far as we are concerned what we do and who we are ‘just natural’.

What all of the above suggests is that ‘taste’ is not innate but learned through deep socialisation of the habitus, furthermore what gets to count as ‘tasteful’ is what the group with the power to name things as tasteful decide is tasteful.

Habitus is not determining, but generative. It is dynamic, so it does not reproduce itself perfectly.

Central to the concept of habitus is relationality – habitus only makes sense in the context of specific local contexts or ‘fields’ – a field is a network of objective relations between positions. Fields are the games for which the rules of the game equip us.

Habitus are also relational in another sense – they exist in relation to one another – they carry the traces, or the lines along which society is divided – class, gender, ethnicity, the whole lot.

Habitus are also hierarchical – some are normalised, some pathological and they clash, and part of the embodied sense of habitus is the judgement of other habitus – however, only some people have the power to make judgements stick.

What gives habitus its power is that it’s not about what you do, or how you act, but about who you are, and some people (the middle classes) have more ability to make judgements about legitimate taste stick than others.

Disgusting subjects: narratives of lack…

Savage et al (2001) found that people were frequently uncomfortable and evasive when talking about class as a system, but middle class people consistently characterise working class people in the most horrific terms. The working classes being talked about are rarely named in class terms, but it is clear who the targets are.

Lawler now gives an example of Les Back (2002) who, when giving a paper on white working class youth was asked by an academic member of the audience whether ‘he was going to do the voices’ – imagine the outrage if this had been asked in relation to a study on an ethnic minority group, yet there was no such outrage surrounding ‘parodying’ the working classes.

Back observes that not only do the working class not deserve to be taken seriously, it is also assumed that they are easy to read and know, although they are seen as unable to know themselves.

The working classes are probably most obviously marked out by their appearance – their clothes and general demeanour – in the UK references are made to shell suits, large gold earrings and tightly permed hair – such easy signfiers do a great deal to code class difference and it is left to the reader (or viewer) to fill in the gaps by understanding that such appearances are the result of pathology.

Some commentators also comment with awed horror on the environments where working class people live and are often surprised that ‘people live there’, forgetting that for working class people these environments are completely normal.

There is also a discourse which has coded such working class areas as high-crime areas, given legitimacy through crime-mapping software.

Landscape and inhabitants are frequently described in terms of lack, but it in these discussions it is not so much money they lack, but taste.

On top of criticising working class landscapes and dress, character traits are also part of the construction of the working classes – Lawler now summarises the ways in which the working classes are demonised –

‘As cigarette-smoking teenage mothers, rearing children in deprived and arid backgrounds of instability, emotional chaos, parental strife, of moral vacuum.. whose children will grow up as socially autistic adults with little expectations and even less talent.’

Above all, she says they are held to lack everything perceived as having value.

This discourse of lack defines social policy – which mainly focuses around tackling social exclusion where social class is concerned.

Lawler is very critical of such accounts – especially of Simon Charlseworth’s (2000) account of working class life as picture bleak and empty, devoid of meaning – we have to ask – is this about working class life, or about a way of looking at it?

Two sociologists who argue coherently against such narratives of lack are Beverly Skeggs and Angella McRobbie

And narratives of decline…

Where discussion of the working classes is concerned, narratives of lack are accompanied by narratives of decline.

The narrative of decline is the tale that the working class used to be respectable, but that the decline of heavy industry has lead to the working class either moving upward to become middle class, or behind, effectively no longer having any value.

The working classes are also seen as suffering from outdated political values, or cultural lag, while progress and reason are on the side of the government and the middle classes. The characterisation of the underlcass has done little to change this.

All of this is worse for working class women get a double negative-label – not only working class but also characterised as unfeminine – and those who try to be feminine are themselves disparaged for it.

The move from working class to underclass also has a gendered dimension.

Representations of the working classes of the past emphasise masculinity – and radicalised, politicised male workers at least having respectability.

However, representations of the new underclass are feminised – with the teenage mother being the symbol of spite – hence we have a gendering of the ‘lower’ classes, all fundamentally tied into middle class attempts to empower themselves don’t forget.

We get the impression from current representations that the wc used to be OK but now they are a problem.

Savage argues that this is not the case – only a few wc members manage to claim the noble WC identity referred to above – the middle class have always seen an attempted to portray the WC as something problematic.

All that has changed is that today we don’t talk explicitly about ‘class’; instead the ‘disgusting’ traits are presented as the outcome of individual and familial pathology… representations of working class people are marked by disapproval or disdain not for the ‘objective’ markers of their position, but for (what are perceived to be) their identities. Their clothes, their bodies, their localities are all seen as tasteless, and faulty.

Lawler now notes that exactly how disgust comes to operate through class is relatively underexplored, but it is so important because it is an emotion which is literally experience in the body, so is very much part of us, but it is also social, because it needs collective affirmation – disgust is thus very much where the personal meets the social.

Lawler now reminds us that disgust does not arise because of something intrinsic within the object, but out of a relation between the disgusted and the ‘disgusting’ object.

Disgust is also bound up with identity – it works to push away others and establish one’s own identity as non-disgusting.

At the end of the day disgust is the opposite of taste, and the two are flexible – forever changing – what is tasteful today may not be so tomorrow – consider the way the middle classes adapt in the face of popularisation through mass consumption. This change however only serves to highlight the fragility of these classes boundaries via good taste and disgust – one is always aware that one can become the other, and hence the crucial importance of working on maintaining boundaries.

Concluding remarks

Basically a reminder that there lies an anxiety at the heart of all identities.

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