WCP: Rethinking Working-Class Belonging

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Belonging is a central theme and a strength of working-class culture, a source of pleasure and of collective agency. Yet it can also be divisive, emphasizing how “we” are different from “them” — a way of thinking that has often divided the working class along boundaries focused on race, region, or other distinctions. In Working-Class Perspectives  this week, Sherry Linkon considers the power and the limits of belonging. Can we create a larger-scale sense of working-class belonging, one that fully engages with and embraces differences?

December always invites us to look back over the past year — the media fills the relatively quiet year-end news cycle with various “best of” lists, and New Year’s seems to demand that we reflect on our own lives. This year, I stumbled on something that took me back much further, to one of the first pieces that John Russo and I wrote together: a talk for a conference debating “Can Class Still Unite?” Most of the speakers discussed European trade unions, but almost none said anything about issues of race, gender, or immigration status. In contrast, John and I focused on the growing diversity of the U.S. labor movement. We argued that theories that “depict class as a universalist structure or in static terms of social stratification” are “clearly insufficient.” Class isn’t the only factor shaping working-class people’s views and actions, so our work on class must be intersectional. We also argued that to understand solidarity we have to think about economic relations but also about culture, which can help us understand what motivates and complicates people’s willingness to join in collective actions or even to think of themselves as part of the working class.

Twenty years later, we’re still making sense of class cultures and the multiplicity of the working class. Recent books and reports on political populism and resentment, the rise in drug addiction and suicide, and other phenomena have emphasized the cultural as well as economic aspects of class. Scholarly studies of class also make the link. Historians and sociologists tracing class formation identify cultural views like feeling a sense of shared identity and embracing the needs and the good of the collective as elements of the solidarity that lies at the heart of class action.

One of the most visible versions of the cultural approach within working-class studies comes from the work of Barbara Jensen and Jack Metzgar, who have identified key qualities of working-class and middle-class culture. In their separate publications, both have focused on the idea that working-class culture prioritizes belonging while middle-class culture focuses on individual striving. This idea strikes a chord with many people from working-class backgrounds as well as those who study how class works. It highlights a central strength of working-class culture, a source of comfort, pride, and pleasure.  As Metzgar argues in a book due out next year, the middle class would benefit from understanding and embracing a culture of belonging.

Yet this formulation yields three difficulties. First, any effort to describe the qualities of “working-class culture” will tend to emphasize what people hold in common, not their differences – a problem that seems to me to be built into the task of describing any broadly-shared culture. Generalization must erase variation in order to be useful. And we must recognize both the value and the limits of the generalization.

Second, belonging is most readily felt and understood on a small scale. It may be possible to feel that one belongs to a huge group defined by shared conditions like wage labor (or skin color, gender, sexuality, nationality), but in practice, in our daily lives, belonging is fostered by familiarity and interpersonal relations. Organizers know that while it is possible to create a sense of commonality with people from far away, it’s easier to foster belonging in a neighborhood, where people can see and talk with each other. If nothing else, this suggests the value of interrogating more fully the relationship between small-scale belonging and larger-scale solidarity.  

Third, belonging generates boundaries. Some people are “like us,” but others are set apart as “them.” Articulating the difference between “us” and “them” can enable both pleasure and agency. It can help people see that their injuries are not individual, that injustice and struggle are shared, and that standing together can be a source of power. Yet too often in working-class history, the boundaries of belonging have defined “us” in narrow terms focused on race, gender, or nationality. “We” have been native-born workers keeping immigrants out of the union or the U.S. “We” have been people with one set of political views denouncing “them” for “taking away our country.” To the extent that belonging relies on some people being with us or like us, it can contribute to divisions within the working class even as it connects people within any given family or community.

As these difficulties suggest, belonging may be a valuable asset of working-class culture, but it can also be limiting and divisive. Working-class studies can address these challenges by examining and critiquing the idea of belonging – not to reject it but to enrich and complicate it. As Joseph Entin phrases it in his contribution to the new Routledge International Handbook of Working-Class Studies, we should rethink class as something “that must be continually interrogated and recast in the context of particular struggles.” He goes so far as to call class a “problem” – not in the sense of something that needs to be eliminated or fixed but rather as a concept that requires ongoing examination, not least because class is so deeply intersectional.

What would intersectional belonging mean? Among people who lead diversity training, belonging is often characterized as the most complete embrace of difference. As one often-quoted (and inadequately credited) line puts it, “Diversity is like being invited to a party, inclusion is being asked to dance, and belonging is dancing like no one’s watching.” I like how this line encourages us to do more than recognize the diversity of the working class or create a more inclusive field. To create a larger-scale sense of working-class belonging, we have to fully engage with and embrace differences. Entin argues that “social differences, tensions, and contradictions” are not merely part of working-class life but actually “constitutive of working-class collectivity.” If we want class to unite – a goal that feels at once more important and more challenging than ever – we need to build bonds that are strengthened by difference rather than boundaries that divide.

Sherry Linkon, Georgetown University

Read other Working-Class Perspectives on our website.

The Working-Class Perspectives blog is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-20 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 94,000 times by readers in 176 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.