Social Class

An overlooked but important aspect of diversity.

Posted Feb 12, 2017

Diversity is a familiar topic in many college psychology classes. Race, gender, sexual orientation, LGBTQ issues, ethnicity, and disability fall under the heading of diversity. Yet one topic, social class, is often overlooked or even avoided in classroom discussions of diversity.

One reason for avoiding discussing social class is likely to be the fact that many American students assume they fall into the ill-defined social category known as “middle class.” In many cases, students are loath to identify themselves as “upper middle class” or “working class.” Being middle class is not risky; you pass as everyman—or everywoman. And many Americans still hold onto the idea that they live in a “classless” society. They—we—don’t.

Social class is all around us, but in higher education generally and in the field of psychology specifically, with few exceptions, we—faculty members and students alike-avoid the topic. In the minds of many, social class is defined by income: To wit, higher income is aligned with a higher social class. As a proxy variable, individual or household income has something going for it. But it may be that one’s relationship to money and how it is spent also matters not just how much or how little is available. It turns out that social class is more than mere money. It is also defined by educational attainment, language, and speech, where one lives, consumer habits, travel experiences or the lack thereof, attitudes, and, of course, a variety of behaviors, among other possible factors.

I’ve been thinking about social class the last few days because I am reading J. D. Vance’s excellent book Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (Harper, 2016). The book is a tour of life in a segment of poor white America, primarily parts of Kentucky (chiefly its Appalachian region) and (once industrial) Ohio. Vance describes his childhood and his complicated but loving relationships with his close and extended family and their many travails. What began as a post-World War II migration from Kentucky to Ohio in search of stable work and a middle-class life turns out to be a very different account of the American Dream. Yes, his grandparents escape crippling poverty for a new and better life, but it turns out that the new life is still affected by social and cultural forces of the old one (e.g., alcoholism, addiction, violence, abuse, neglect). Vance, his siblings, parents, and grandparents live a somewhat chaotic life—unimaginable to some readers but no doubt familiar to many others.

I want to be clear that Hillbilly Elegy is a candid portrayal of one family’s experience against the backdrop of one part of the United States. The experience of poor white families in other parts of the country might be different but, if Vance is correct, there are apt to be shared aspects of these experiences. This book is a potential starting point for discussing social class in the classroom. As a work of nonfiction, it is also a way to explore the great sociopolitical divide our nation is currently enduring. Regardless of your political outlook, there is much to be learned and considered here. Upward social mobility is not the magical and positive process of song and story or simplistic civics classes (if those are even still being taught)—it is a hardscrabble process fraught with anxiety, doubt, fear, and hope. People who think of the nation as comprised of primarily the East and West Coasts and who don’t give much thought to the “flyover” states in the middle have much to learn here. Those of us who teach about diversity in our college classes need to redouble our efforts by bringing the issue of social class into the mix.