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Class Matters book cover

Order Class Matters: Cross-Class Alliance Building for Middle-Class Activists by Betsy Leondar-Wright (New Society Publishers, 2005).

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Classist Comments

What's the most classist thing you ever heard someone say?

(I'm not talking about someone like Bill O'Reilly or your right-wing uncle. More specifically, what's the most classist thing you ever heard a liberal or progressive person say?)

Read five interviewees' answers — and my own.

Class and Other Identities

How do you experience class differently because of your race, ethnic group, religion, gender, age, or other identity? What class dynamics do you notice within your identity groups?

Here's how a few ClassMatters.org visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Becoming Vesus Belonging

Psychology, Speech, and Social Class

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Bernstein's Linguistic Codes

Basil Bernstein made a remarkable contribution to the understanding of class as culture when he discovered that class differences in speech were profound enough to demonstrate that language was actually being used for different purposes. He saw these reflected in two different linguistic "codes": the "elaborated code" found in the middle class group and the "restricted code" found in the working class group (Bernstein, 1971, 1990). Bernstein has distanced himself from the linguistic indicators of his early work and his creative interpretations of psycholinguistic processes for methodological reasons and perhaps because it was so easily misunderstood (Halliday, 1995). He has replaced his early formulations of code theory with increasingly specific and detailed analyses of how codes are a function of, and reproduce, the unequal division of labor in a society. (2)

An "elaborated" linguistic code is a more formal and verbally flexible use of language. It emphasizes individual verbal elaboration. The classic example of this is the frequent prefix "I think" in Bernstein's early middle speech sample (1962). The elaborated code has many structural and vocabulary options to allow (and command) people to use language to be precise and explicit in what they say. It allows the speaker to clearly differentiate one idea from another. As such it is well-prepared for abstraction and is the kind of language needed in papers such as this one. It is a universal language; it speaks to a general, non-specific audience. Meltzer (1978) used as an example the response from a middle class person when asked where chewing gum is usually purchased. The reply was: "At a cashier's counter or in a grocery store." The working class people said, "at the National," or "from Tony" (Strauss and Schatzman 1955, p.337, from Meltzer, 1978). Bernstein noted that to be performed well, an elaborated code may require formal education (1971).

Whether or not people use it well is beside the cultural point of the code. Middle class speakers are quite capable of "turgid, redundant, bombastic" speech (Labov, 1970, p.164). As anyone in academic circles should be painfully aware, this is all too frequently the case. Still, the cultural point of the code is about what kinds of meanings people are supposed to produce (individualistic and general ones), not how skillful they are at doing so. However well they succeed at the task, the code still allows and commands that people be explicit and abstract. The code, and the culture, assign the greatest value to those who stand out most clearly, those who are "outstanding". Again, in the "I think" of Bernstein's middle class speech sample (which was not present in the working class sample) we see a prefix of differentiation; it separates the speaker from the listener and invites an opposing "I think" from the other. It is the signal of a culture which prizes individuality and the competition between outstanding individuals. This is the kind of speech where words are used as bricks and boards with which one can attempt to systematically build the house of language, self and society.

By contrast, the "restricted code" used by working class people is implicit rather than explicit. The amount of explication and specificity in the speech of working class people is more limited, hence the linguistic description "restricted." Bernstein noted early on that only verbal elaboration was restricted, while gestures, meaningful glances, variations in vocal tone, volume and pace were used more freely (one might say elaborately) than in the middle class group. The gestures and nuances are understood by people in the group, but an outsider would not understand half of what was going on. Bernstein noticed that language was being used to "signal social position", to connect people, rather than to differentiate them from each other (1962). A demonstration of this would be the "sympathetic circularity" suffixes Bernstein found only in the working class group. People ended sentences with something that would connect them again to the others, that would invite agreement — "wouldn't he?", or "you know?", or "isn't it?" — and the others would nod (ibid.). Also the use of "buzz words" in working class speech brings nods of inclusion. The speech they learn to use is not designed to speak in a universal manner. It is designed for members, not outsiders. As such it serves to connect people from within and to keep outsiders out. Using the common speech and gestures of the group reaffirms membership in the group as well as the group itself. The best example I can think of is the way teenagers of any class use slang.

I think of the restricted code as an essential, condensed kind of communication, the kind that happens between intimates. It is the kind of speech where explaining things in a general and formal way would seem strange. A differentiated kind of speech creates a certain amount of distance between people. It is not that working class people do not like to talk, it is that when they do they produce narratives, they tell stories, rather than "download" information or produce abstract encapsulations of concepts. Again, the stories they tell are filled with implicit references to people and places in their lives ("localized meanings") (Bernstein, 1990, Adlam, et al, 1977). It is not, as some might suppose, that the working class person is so ignorant that they think the interviewer knows who "Tony" is or where "the creek" is. Nor is it necessarily that they are unable to produce abstractions (ibid.). It is that doing so does not feel natural to them. The speech they learn is for particular people who share their lives. I suggest it reflects and recreates a culture based on belonging and cooperation.(3)

These codes may well be artificially stark and, as Bernstein said, a "crude Index" due to the mobility in the society and frequent hybrids of the codes in real life (1971). I return to the notion of cultural, now linguistic, clouds or fields that overlap. Clearly, middle class people maintain personal connections and working class people certainly feel the strain of (middle class) society's valuing of "somebodies" over "nobodies." Indeed, these areas of overlap are crucial to understanding the codes because the edges are dynamic locations of conflict, oppression, and change. (4) Nonetheless, we can still find in the extremes of the codes the cultural underpinnings of the difference between middle class and working class. One is a culture that values, and recreates, individuality and competition, and expects its members to "become" all they can in society. Working class culture, by contrast, is a culture of tribal-like "belonging", of what Nel Noddings (in a different context) called "personal and particular" connections (1989). As such, the cultures stand in sharp contrast to each other. Whatever variation may be woven into the basic patterns, they point their members in different, and opposing, directions.

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