So should we bother with ‘microclasses’?

Robert EriksonEarlier in the year I published two blog posts on ‘microclasses’ – the idea that your specific occupation is an important structuring factor for the social world, beyond its position in a broader class. In this post I look back at the critics of microclasses – both by some of the most senior class sociologists around, and the comments on this blog in response to my previous posts. And I end up by considering what microclasses – and indeed, ‘class’ in general – offers for the study of inequalities.

(Apologies for the delay in the posts as I wrestled with some deadlines – we’ll be back on our regular schedule from now!)

The empirical critique

The work on microclasses by Grusky, Weeden and colleagues (hereafter ‘microclass theorists’) is not just a positive theory about stratification – it’s also a critique of previous class theories. As such, it’s hardly surprising that it drew a sharp response from some of the big hitters of class analysis, with Robert Erikson, John Goldthorpe and Martin Hallsten writing a 2012 counter-critique. The argument is quite intricate, but can be summarised as an empirical critique, a theoretical one, and a normative one.

The empirical critique is basically that microclasses aren’t as powerful as the microclass theorists suggest. They repeat the Jonsson et al 2009 analysis on Sweden, and show:

  • Intergenerational inheritance of microclasses is much weaker among women than men. This is true whether we compare daughters to their mothers or their fathers.
  • Even among men, microclass persistence explains less intergenerational immobility than conventional ‘big classes’ do.

These are valuable cautions, but don’t in themselves mean we should throw out the microclass perspective – indeed, Erikson et al concede that the microclass theorists “have one good point to make, even if they exaggerate its quantitative importance and especially in regard to women” (p224, see also p221). Personally I would take even a qualified compliment from such heavyweights of class analysis – who are not known for throwing compliments out like candy – as being a notable success!

Wider critique I – on immobility and mobility

But it’s the other critiques that seem to me to have greater weight. Theoretically, Erikson et al argue that the microclass theorists can’t explain mobility – they can only explain immobility. In other words, they say that the sons of gardeners are more likely to become gardeners, but they don’t say much about what they’ll become if they DON’T become gardeners. The microclass theorists instead revert to gradational effects – i.e. there’s a socioeconomic ranking, and people are more likely to move to ‘closer’ occupations – which Erikson et al castigate them for, on the grounds that big classes explain a lot here.

What is more, they argue that microclasses are inherently an unstable basis in which to provide a theoretical account of mobility. Jonsson et al 2009 argue that microclass immobility can be observed across time and place, but the nature of microclass mobility may well be contingent as Erikson et al argue:

“[Microclass mobility will] express mere happenstance rather than the effects of any regularly operating factors: that is, instances of mobility that are highly specific to time and place as, say, in resulting from the shifting conditions of local labour markets – the very particular constraints and opportunities that come and go as these markets adjust to wider cyclical or structural economic change” (p222)

I think this is a really interesting point – and is mainly wrong! The idea that we should reject theoretical accounts because they are specific to time and place seems to me a pursuit of universal ‘covering laws’, which the recent philosophy of social science has shown to be highly problematic. Still, it’s a fair critique that microclass theorists struggle to explaining mobility patterns in a single society; culturally contingent patterns require culturally contingent explanations, which they don’t provide.

Finally, on normative grounds Erikson et al argue that microclasses are problematic. Big class immobility can be argued to an inequality in ‘individuals’ chances for self-fulfilment’, which is inherently unfair. But it’s hard to argue that the basis of a fair society is that the sons of fishermen are as likely as anyone else to become fishermen (p223; see Jonsson et al p1023 for a not altogether-convincing defence). It is also worth noting that Jonsson et al conclude by saying that if the roots of immobility are ‘rooted in family dynamics’ then it may take ‘unacceptably intrusive policy’ to tackle it – which is a pretty contentious position…

Wider critique II: Classes and capitals

But the critique of microclasses goes beyond their use in explaining intergenerational persistence. After my first post, the always-interesting Mark Williams wrote that this is a ‘nondebate’, “not that much use to policy makers and of little interest to the general public”.

Why? Because he believes detailed occupation is simply a basket in which we put a variety of other unmeasured influences, such as social networks or personality (what I would call ‘capitals’ following Bourdieu). If class is a proxy for these, then microclasses are (almost by definition) going to be better proxies simply because they’re more detailed. What’s more, looking at this other influences through occupations is much messier – as Mark puts it, ‘I’d much rather deal with 5 facets of personality than 120+ occupations’. I partly agree here.

The reproduction of inequality is incredibly complex, and there’s a whole host of different processes we want to tease apart – ‘class’ hides as much as it reveals. When we see microclass immobility – when we see that politicians’ children are more likely to become politicians; that footballers’ children are more likely to become footballers etc – it raises all sorts of questions about exactly what is going on here. (See also some really interesting qualitative work by Fiona Devine).

But where I think the microclass theorists help is by suggesting that there are occupation-specific processes going on here. So people may get a variety of advantages (forms of capital) from their parents, some of which apply very widely, but some of which are microclass-specific (which we might call specific to a particular microclass field). Reflecting on my own class advantages, the fact that my father was a professional undoubtedly gives me advantages in becoming a professional myself (social networks, cultural capital, personality, non-cognitive skills etc), but the value of these forms of capital is enhanced because I’ve chosen to follow his specific profession: an academic.

Theorising this is tricky, and requires us to take the idea of ‘microclasses’ apart – but I think it offers something incredibly valuable, that gets to the heart of the nature of social reproduction (the idea of field-sensitive capital). So in my ongoing attempts to work on theories around inequality, this is something that I strongly feel should be kept in.

About Ben Baumberg

I am currently a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where I regularly write articles and short blog posts. I have a wide range of (too many...) research interests, at the moment focusing on disability, the workplace, inequality, deservingness and the future of the benefits system, and the relationship between evidence and policy. You can find out more about me at http://www.benbaumberg.com
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One Response to So should we bother with ‘microclasses’?

  1. Pingback: Educational Inequalities in Parents’ Time with Children | Inequalities

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