The Declining Significance of “Class”

January 23, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston
(Cross-posted at Sociological Images)

What we don’t talk about when we don’t talk about class.  That was the title I wanted to use, but it was too long, and besides, there are already too many of these Raymond Carver variants. 

Class seems to have disappeared from public discourse, except for the Republicans’ insistence that to mention inequality at all is to engage in “class warfare.”* The only class we hear about, whether from politicians or the media, is the middle class.  Here, for example, are the results of  a Lexis-Nexis search of news transcripts in the previous month.

On TV news, the upper and lower class do not exist. 

So how do we talk about those at the top and bottom of society?  The discussion of inequality is now all about income.   While “lower class” and “upper class” had only three and four mentions, respectively, in this same period, income terms (high, upper, low, lower) numbered over 300. 

For some historical perspective, I looked at Google Ngrams for the frequency of class terms in books. 

The gap between middle and working is not so large here as in the graph of news transcripts.  But here too, the lower and upper class have been barely worthy of mention.  As for the historical pattern, class talk rises from the mid-1950s to about 1971.  If, as the Republicans claim, thinking about social class is an indicator of radicalism, maybe the 1960s were indeed a radical moment in US history. 

But after 1971, class discourses declines.  Class references in 2008 were only about half what they were at the start of the 1970s.

Ngrams also shows class talk being replaced by income talk, especially when we speak (or write) of those at the bottom.

The large gap between “lower class” and “lower income”in 1970 has dwindled to almost nothing.

The pattern for upper class is similar – a large decline in class talk, a much smaller decrease in income talk – though class references still outnumber income references.

From the media, you get the impression that except for a handful of people at the top and the bottom, there really is only one class in America – the middle class – and that the working class has faded into history.  Yet the GSS subjective social class item (“Which class would you say you belong in?”) gets the same results as it did in 1972: a roughly equal split between “middle” and “working” that accounts for 9 out of 10 Americans. 

*This strategy seems to have worked recently for Newt Gingrich in another field of endeavor.  When asked about his “open marriage” idea (Newt prides himself on being a man of big ideas), he said that to ask the question was despicable.  His multiple adulteries, and his request that his wife bestow her blessings on same was, I guess, just one of those things.  But to point them out was appalling. 

He added that questions like that made it “harder to attract decent people to run for public office.” Apparently so .

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