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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).

Press Coverage of CM

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 visitors answered those questions:

And answers from the Class Matters book:

Becoming Vesus Belonging

Psychology, Speech, and Social Class

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  1. Class can (and should) be broken into more subtle categories within each of the working and middle classes and many have done so (Labov, 1970, Fussell, 1983). There are significant differences between, say, the lower and upper middle classes, just as there are between the lower and upper working class, or working class and poor people. These distinctions are beyond the scope of this paper and the kinds fundamental differences I am describing will be true, more or less, for people within the broader categories. (Back to article)
  2. It is indeed tempting to try to illuminate the proper body of his work, and to write about the debate that arose around his early work and the supposedly contrasting theory advanced by William Labov (1970). However the savagery of academic discourse has molded their images, I believe both of these men deeply shared the same concern I bring to this paper: the illumination of working class culture and the rescue of it from the solipsism of the dominant middle and upper classes.

    I would like to also note that the "deficit vs. difference" debate which arose around them is not an accurate assessment of the body of Bernstein's work. Rather, I think that it has used him to personify a particularly American confusion between class and ethnicity, and that this "debate" has labored under an ignorance of the different stages oppressed groups might go through (Jackson and Hardiman, 1980). Though it is beyond the scope of this paper, a properly detailed look at this question is at least as relevant now, as the age of diversity and multiculturalism reaches its zenith, as it was thirty years ago when it began by taking Bernstein's name in vain.

    Bernstein is understandably disappointed by American theorists who continue to go back to his early work to challenge him, ignoring twenty-five years of subsequent theory he developed to deepen and expand his original ideas. Since it is his early work that most interests me, I can only hope that my use of it as something which validates my own experiences (as a psychologist and a working class person) might mitigate this incomplete recounting of his work. (Back to article)

  3. More recently, Bernstein (1990, Adlam, et al, 1977) described groups of children, separated by class, who were encouraged to speak freely about a picture: The middle class kids generally produced descriptions of things in the picture, the kind of abstract and specific comments they would be asked to make in school (or at home). The working class kids produced narratives which involved people and events in their lives. They did not explain who the people or where the places were. Again, it is not that the working class children are unaware that the interviewer will not know who "Tony" is, or where "the creek" is, it is that they are not oriented to speak to a universal audience. (Back to article)
  4. Bernstein's later work has abandoned his early efforts to define the codes and cultures through lists of surface linguistic differences and psycholinguistic processes and has focused almost exclusively on these relations between the codes (1990). The codes may well be, in some respects, created by and for each other. Though this is a rich area of exploration, it is beyond the scope of this paper. (Back to article)
  5. Labov challenged the biases of his fields (linguistics and sociolinguistics) about what constitutes a realistic speech sample, indeed what constitutes logic, meaning and verbal intelligence. In Black English he found a wealth of non-standard complexity and subtlety, and he critiqued middle class speech as consisting of much "hemming and hawing, backing and filling" (1970, p. 171). We could say that Labov looked into the boxes and found the working class box a whole lot more full than it first appeared. He found the middle class box had filler in it that made it look fuller than it really was.

    The problem with this work, as important as it has been in challenging middle class biases, is that it misses the rest of what is in the box and may in fact obscure what is more emblematic of working class culture(s). It also still defines human worth within a middle class value system: verbal ability as an indicator of intelligence, cognitive ability, etc. What if much of what is in the box, both alongside and nestled within speech, is not verbal? "In the case of restricted codes, to varying degrees it is the extra-verbal channels which become objects of special perceptual activity" (Bernstein, 1971, p. 148). What we really want to know is: what is the subject of "special perceptual activity"? (Back to article)

  6. I have emphasized positive aspects of working class culture because that value is so often occluded in a middle class world. But this is not merely a "different" culture, it is a controlled and colonized one. Working class culture, and the psychology of the people in it, is a complex mesh of cultures in collision, including various ethnicities, and of a dominating middle class culture which is ever casting working class ways in very negative light. In addition, there is the frequent powerlessness and physical exhaustion of working class work. All this also results in a psychology of shame and self doubt as well as one which struggles to reduce the cognitive dissonance of colliding value systems (Cashell, 1995, Sennett and Cobb, 1973, Lerner, 1986, Jensen, 1995). Indeed, often the only "tuning in" adults do, after a day of hard labor and indignities, is to the treasured large-screen TV which dominates the living room (Rubin, 1976). (Back to article)
  7. There is danger, while trying to illustrate deeper and positive aspects of a non-dominant culture, of reifying stereotypes of working class people as non-cognitive, non-verbal, and generally unsuited for the pursuits of the middle classes. It is beyond the scope of this paper, but I suggest we need guidance in understanding when it is time, for us or our students, to challenge perceived differences from the mainstream and when to explore and build on them. Again, Jackson and Hardiman (1980) have developed just such a framework. (Back to article)

To read more of Barbara Jensenís work, see What's Class Got To Do With It, edited by Michael Zweig, Cornell University Press, forthcoming in June, 2004.

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