From Bush to Bush. Miliband to Miliband. Kennedy to Kennedy. Churchill to Churchill. There’s no shortage of political dynasties either in the US or UK, where politically powerful parents beget politically powerful children. Likewise, we often observe how doctors’ children become doctors, or indeed, academics’ children become academics. (This is the moment for self-confession: my father and both my brothers also have PhDs. Tragically my greatest act of rebellion was becoming a social rather than natural scientist…).
When we come to look at class inequalities, we tend to look at ‘big classes’ like professionals. But what if society is instead mainly stratified by narrower occupational groups – ‘microclasses’? Spurred by the latest instalment of a series of papers in the world’s top social science journal (AJS), in these two posts I look at the role of microclasses in the US and beyond.
Different types of class structures
The study of microclasses is closely associated with two US academics, Kim Weeden and David Grusky. While not their first statement of their view, their 2005 paper in the American Journal of Sociology (AJS) was the first contact I had with their ideas, and they’ve since followed this up with two more papers in the same journal – most recently in 2012, from which most of this post is taken. All of these papers are wonderfully long and dense in the way that AJS papers can be, so inevitably I’ll be doing a gross injustice to their ideas in these short posts…
The conventional ‘big class’ view of the world is where “inequalities in life conditions are organized around such familiar sociological categories as professional, manager, service worker, craft worker, and laborer… members of a big class marry within their class, form confidant and support networks within their class, and interact mainly with one another. These within-class ties are facilitated by class-based segregation in the education system, in neighborhoods and communities, and in the workplace.”
Their basic claim is that the forces that make people in one occupation different to another are primarily specific to that particular job (or microclass). It’s not that they’re arguing for fundamentally different processes to the big-class model, but rather that “they operate principally at the level of institutionalized occupations.” So you will take a route into that occupation which is different from other people in your big class; your working conditions will be occupation-specific; you’ll socialise mainly with people in that occupation; and your occupational environment will tend to push you towards particular lifestyles and attitudes.
Just to take one small example close to my heart: they (probably correctly) suggest that sociologists are generally “humanist, antimaterialist, and left-leaning.” In a microclass way of thinking, they would explain this through “(a) the left-leaning reputation of sociology and the consequent self-selection of left-leaning recruits, (b) the inculcation of a liberal worldview through lengthy professional training and socialization, and (c) the reinforcing effects of interaction with like-minded colleagues.” So it’s not just about the general fact of being in the big professional class – else why would economists be different to sociologists?
They also differentiate this from the ‘gradational’ view that there is simply an occupational hierarchy of income and prestige. If this was the case then people in better jobs would be differentiated from people in worse jobs, but there wouldn’t be sharp differences between either microclasses or big classes.
From claims to evidence
That’s the claim, then – but does it hold up in practice? The best visual display of this is in the 2012 paper, looking at occupational stratification in the US in the 1970s across a whole host of different outcomes measures:
To interpret this figure:
- Firstly look at the top bar in each category (the dark black bar on the left, the hatched bar on the right); let’s start with the ‘all outcomes’ one at the bottom. The bar to the right shows how much the association of class with ALL of these outcomes is due to microclasses (58%); the bar to the left shows how much is due to big classes (42%).
- Secondly, look at the bottom bar in each category – the solid grey bar and the (small) white bars. This shows how much of the big class and microclass effects are gradational – that is, they go from the highest-income big/micro-classes to the bottom-income classes in a straightforward way. Most of the big-class associations are gradational in this way, but almost none of the microclass associations are.
In other words, specific microclasses have a stronger association with outcomes than either big classes or occupational income in 1970s America. Which is a big finding! Only for ‘life chances’ – education, employment and home ownership – do they find big classes matter more than microclasses, and microclasses are still important here. They explain the lesser importance of big classes outside of life chances by saying that “this pattern is consistent with the claim that intermediary organizations no longer convert big classes into culturally coherent communities” [p1757].
Their 2005 paper looked across multiple other measures of stratification, and across 30 years of data (1972-2002), claiming that “trends proved to be relatively weak and do not alter our main conclusions here” (p155). But their 2012 paper goes into these trends in more detail, and finds that in several areas big class matters less in the 2000s than it did in the 1970s, particularly for lifestyles and attitudes. In contrast, microclass inequalities have barely shifted, and in the case of political attitudes may even have increased. So the idea that class matters less than it used to is – in their view – because people haven’t been looking enough at microclasses.
Grusky & Weeden are not saying that big classes and gradational models are completely irrelevant (although they have some provocative article titles…) – but rather that we can’t understand inequalities between people in different jobs unless we take microclasses into account.
To be continued…
Perhaps the most interesting part of their work, however, is when they look at intergenerational mobility – what parents pass on to their kids. In the follow-up post, I’ll look at their examination of microclass mobility in the US, Sweden, Germany and Japan, and the (typically) fierce critique made by one of Britain’s most notable sociologists, John Goldthorpe.