The concept of social class is a difficult one to come to terms with. This is reflected by the many disagreements (in society as well as Sociology) as to the significance of social class. Some sociologists, for example, use the concept as a convenient way of classifying different occupational groups in society (managers, supervisors, employees and so forth). In this respect social class is seen to be a statistical category that does not have much significance outside the fact that it allows us to conveniently group people of similar occupations. This usage is probably closest to the Functionalist perspective in Sociology.
Other sociologists, however, view social class as far more than a convenient classification of related occupations. Marxist sociologists, for example, see social class as a much more active concept. That is, social class is seen to influence people’s experiences in the social world and, most importantly, how they see the nature of their world.
There also have been many studies made on the relevance of social class on an individual’s identity. Savage et al. produced an article that discussed how people are unsure and confused about their class identity. Whereas traditional Marxist analysis of class relations suggests that people would have a developed class-consciousness and awareness because of their objective class position and real class struggles, Savage et al. argues that people, in fact, have a weak class identification. A key argument of the article is that most people are defensive about their class status, preferring to be regarded as ‘ordinary’ or ‘normal’.
Many respondents in the study experience class mobility. This means that they do not stay in one class position permanently, but change over the course of their life. Consequently, some feel unsure how to locate themselves in the class structure. They could either be defensive of their previous status, or protective of their new one.
The second reason to support the argument is that while many respondents can identify a class structure and classify others in terms of class, they feel awkward about self-identification. It seems that they feel personally threatened by placing themselves in a class hierarchy, which is after all a set of power relations. Furthermore, they are unclear how they can use appropriate criteria to know their true class identities. Combining these points, many respondents wish to be treated as just individuals, and not to be labelled as belonging to one or another class.
However, there are some reasons to doubt the key argument. The first reason, as correctly mentioned in the article, is that for some respondents class still is a political badge, and signals their political allegiance. For instance, to claim to be working class may imply that you are left wing, whereas claiming to be upper middle class can mark you as right wing. While it may be difficult for people to communicate their class position on economic grounds, for many identifying a class represents a political belonging. In other words, the term ‘class’ has a political significance and meaning.
The second reason to counter the key argument is that the people may be suffering from false consciousness. This means that people are influenced by various kinds of ideologies to mystify and conceal their true identity. It is not that people are unsure about their class position, but rather they have been socialised into thinking that class relations do not matter. For instance, the newspapers and television try to avoid presenting economic and political conflicts (such as strikes and pay negotiations) as a result of class struggle and conflict of class interests. In so doing, the media preserves the interests of the dominant and ruling class in the society.
Clearly, it is understandable that people feel defensive about voicing their class positions, and so wish to be seen as being just ‘normal’ and ‘ordinary’. Nowadays, grouping individuals into social class is diminishing, the meaning and characteristics of each class still remains based on peoples’ standing in society – either they belong to the rich class or to the poor class of people.
It’s also worth taking a look at the other sources of identity. These are:
Compared to the other sources of identity, social class is the most difficult to define. If you asked someone “what gender are you?” they would be able to give an answer without hesitation. The same applies if you were to ask “what age are you?” or “what nationality are you?” or “what ethnicity are you?”. Although, if you were to ask “what social class are you?” I would imagine there would be some confusion. This is because there is now a crossover between the classes. The traditional “working”, “middle” and “upper” have began to merge together, making it difficult for people to choose which one they belong to. There is also no fixed definition of what it means to be “working/middle/upper” class. Ultimately, this begs the question – how can something that is impossible to define have any relevance to anybody?