WCP: Working-Class Scholars and Activists Bringing Change

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In recent years, class has gained fresh attention as a system that creates and reinforces inequality. As Sarah Attfield writes in this week’s Working-Class Perspectives (new window), this is due in part to the efforts of scholars and activists from working-class backgrounds. Along with researching, writing, and teaching about class, working-class academics have written about their experiences and come together to share their insights and advocate for equity and justice. 

At the beginning of 2021, I asked whether life for working-class people would get any better now that everyone understood that working-class people keep societies running. I wasn’t very optimistic about bosses or governments doing much to stem job insecurity or to increase wages and improve conditions, and that pessimism was well-founded. But I also looked forward to more workers organising and taking stands against injustice and unfair conditions, and this certainly did happen, with workers around the world flexing their industrial muscle.

Along with increased collective and industrial action, class is being recognised as a system that creates and reinforces inequality. Working-class people get shut out of certain professional industries and face barriers in some, such as the media and higher education.

What is creating this increasing understanding of how class works? A lot of it is due to the groundwork of scholars and activists involved in working-class studies. Academic and activist work is gaining exposure in the media, and direct references to class and to being working-class are appearing in Australia, the UK, and the US (and I’m sure in other places too, but these are the places I have access to).

Scholars and activists who have a deep understanding of working-class life are fuelling this interest. Working-class background students have been highlighting classism in universities. Students from Durham University in the North of England revealed that their working-class accents had been mocked, and they had faced insults regarding their working-class families. The media accounts brought to light these kinds of bullying and discrimination, and that empowered working-class students to create their own support and advocacy groups, such as the Durham Working Class Students Association.

Academics from working-class backgrounds have also been researching and writing about the barriers they’ve faced while trying to establish academic careers. While it is now quite well understood that academics from all backgrounds face precarity in an increasingly casualised workforce, and that work intensification in higher education has been rampant and mostly unchecked now for years, working-class academics face additional challenges. Dr. Teresa Crew’s papers and book based on her research into life for working-class academics in the UK describes the many ‘micro-aggressions’ experienced. As Crew explains, these ‘hostile encounters’ leave working-class academics feeling insecure, inadequate, and less intellectual than their middle-class counterparts. Such encounters occur because middle-class colleagues have preconceived ideas of what it means to be working class. They focus on working-class colleagues’ ‘deficiencies’ in cultural capital but ignore the additional benefits, knowledge, and experience that working-class people bring to the institution.  

This interest in working-class academics isn’t new. A number of excellent books and articles have explored these issues and experiences, but most have focused on US academics. Crew is one of the few that examines the UK sector. A 2015 book, Bread and Roses: Voices of Australian Academics from the Working Classalso demonstrates how class intersects with other forms of identity.

The growing interest in class and in working-class life has also led to a number of events organised by academics, writers, artists, and activists outside of the US. In 2019, the Working-Class Studies Association annual conference was held in the UK, its first gathering outside of the US. This sparked interest in other meetings, including a Irish working-class studies conference. In 2020 and 2021, International Working-Class Academics conferences were hosted by a team of (mostly) British academics, and in 2021, British author Natasha Carthew ran a festival for working-class writers.

Can all this actually have an impact on the lives of working-class people? I think so. Academic work gets translated into media articles and social media posts, and these can shift opinions, put pressure on those in power, and lead to change. We have seen this in initiatives from some large companies to target people from working-class backgrounds in their recruitment strategies. And we see it in the recognition that the media are dominated by middle-class people (and in the UK, by privately-educated people). Efforts to counter the lack of working-class people in various sectors can lead to more working-class people being employed in organisations that can change working-class life for the better.

That includes higher education. If working-class people have opportunities for education, then they have more chance of access to the industries and sectors that directly impact on working-class life. To help working-class students succeed, universities should hire more working-class academics, who understand the issues these students face. That, in turn, would prepare more working-class people for careers as writers, and that might encourage publishers and media producers to take on more working-class stories. It’s empowering for working-class people to see themselves represented in books, on TV, in movies, and in the media. Such images also help challenge and change stereotypes when done well.

Increased understanding of class helps everyone. A working-class background (in its many forms) brings valuable knowledge and skills to any institution, workplace, or organisation. So, while I don’t expect the current crop of bosses and politicians to do much to improve the lives of working-class people, I am hopeful that the wave of interest in class and the growing confidence of working-class students, academics, union members, activists, and community leaders will bring us closer to equity and social justice.

Sarah Attfield, University of Technology Sydney