Friday, January 3, 2003

Class on Class

Before the break, my students were looking at social inequality. They were asked to make lists of attributes for the lower, middle and upper classes - and to locate themselves in these categories and lists. At the beginning of our discussion, everyone wanted to be seen as middle-class and only at the end of the hour were people positioning themselves as either lower or upper class. I wondered what it was about (semi)public discussions of class that encouraged these reactions. Enter Andrew Sayer with What Are You Worth?: Why Class is an Embarrassing Subject.

Class is an embarrassing topic. 'What class are you?' or 'What class are they?' are not easy questions, particularly if those who are asked ponder the implications of their answers, or if the questioner is of a different class from the person being asked, and especially if there are others of different classes present who can hear the answer. They can be unsettling because they could be taken to imply further disturbing questions, such as: What are you worth? and Do you think you're worth more/less than others? Even if we want to say that class has nothing to do with worth, that only makes the existence of class inequalities more troubling. What is at stake is the disjunction between economic valuation and ethical valuation.

Sayer continues to explain that new undergrads in sociology will, eventually and unfortunately, be taught to objectify class and distance themselves from it, in order to "better" study it. He argues that this process hides contradictions and ambiguities in our understanding of class - as well as the ethical dimensions.

That may have been what unsettled my students in their initial reflexive moments of engagement - Next week I'll ask them what they think about this.

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