WCP: Going Public with Working-Class Studies

Panel of speakers addresses a crowd.

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Discussions on the working-class in media and economics often neglect the depth and nuances of the working-class many academics have become familiar with. In this week’s Working-Class Perspectives, Sherry Linkon addresses the need for working-class studies to be more integrated with lay understandings of the working-class.

We started Working-Class Perspectives because we wanted to help readers understand how class works, especially for poor and working-class people. We offered commentaries on issues such as educationpolitics, and work as well as critiques of media representations of class. Most of our posts get a few thousand page views, and many are reposted on other sites, so we know they reach quite a few readers. But given our goal of changing public discourse about class, I’m glad to see that two early pieces defining working class and challenging class stereotypes have been read by more than 75,000 people.  Ten years after they first appeared, they still get hundreds of page views every week. This reflects a continuing curiosity about class, but it also highlights how confused many people remain about what class is and how it works.

Some of that confusion centers on politics. Although pundits and reporters devoted plenty of attention to white working-class voters in previous elections, in part because many assumed (wrongly) that working-class white people would never support a black candidate, Drumpf’s victory in 2016 made many more people take notice. Some of the media coverage still relies on tired stereotypes, and journalists too often treat “the working class” as if it were a unified group. As a commentator on the Daily Kos noted about a recent NPR report, the media sometimes “cherrypicks” which working-class voices to highlight, focusing almost entirely on white folks in deindustrialized areas who bought into Drumpf’s promises to deport immigrants and bring back the steel and coal industries. Although I’m glad to hear Democrats debating whether and how they should woo white working-class voters, I’m not terribly surprised to see class confusion continuing.

Part of the problem lies with class itself, which resists simple definitions but also changes as economic, social, and political conditions shift.  You can see the appeal of the Pew Research Center’s simple calculator that uses income, household size, and location to determine what class you belong to or why political analysts at the Center for American Progress use education as a proxy for class. Such models enable clear analysis, even if they ignore the fuzzier reality represented in the fact that many industrial workers earn more than the majority of today’s college professors (75.5% are temporary and/or part-time employees).
But how people understand any social phenomena, including class, is rooted in experience as well as the stories and ideas we encounter. Some learn about class on the job, through interactions with co-workers and bosses, while for others, the lessons begin at home, through a sense of commonality and connection with family members and neighbors who share church pews, children’s games, and day-to-day struggles to get by. Many working-class academics have written about how they didn’t fully understand their class identities until they went to college and began interacting with people from more middle-class families.

Experience is almost always more complicated than income or education. Paying attention to experiences reminds us that class is a matter of culture and relationships but also of emotion. In a series called “Opportunity Costs: Money and Class in America,” the NPR podcast “Death, Sex, and Money” – which specializes in conversations about the important things most people find uncomfortable to talk about – approached class through five stories about how people in different class positions feel about their economic and social status. In one, two women talk about how their very different economic situations influenced not only their friendship but also their experiences with infertility. In another, a father and son discuss their experiences with being wealthy. In one of the best episodes, host Anna Sale has an especially complex conversation about class with Ernie Major, a former photojournalist who later took a job at a refinery because the union contract would provide him with a pension. He describes how his class position has shifted over time but also about the positive things he gained from growing up poor and choosing that more working-class job over the higher status, more independent middle-class profession. Buzzfeed also published a dozen essays and features related to the series, though most of those focus on money rather than on class.

In introducing the series, Sale invited listeners to share their stories about “when you felt your class status,” a question that prompted many responses, including this one: “class is a level of pride or shame.” That generated a series of pride/shame comments from listeners from varied class positions. Many said that they felt shame about how much money they make, especially in comparison to others, and pride in having enough to live comfortably. Others felt the opposite: shame that they earn less than their parents do but pride in having achieved other things they value, like education or meaningful work. A comment from Kelly in California captures the tensions inherent in this shame/pride discussion: “I lived in poverty for many years in my 20s. I’m now 35, and though I’m saddled with $130k in student loan debt, I can say that I have a career in social work, doing work with people that I feel privileged to do, and brings me enough income to survive in an expensive state.”  Sale also invited listeners to submit songs that reflected their views on class, creating a Spotify playlist of over 100 examples, ranging from “9 to 5” to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The series also generated a Pinterest list of books about class, with a mix of fiction and nonfiction but also some interesting gaps. Listeners recommended some old standards, like Paul Fussell’s 1992 Class: A Guide Through the American Status System and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, along with some newer examples, like – predictably – Hillbilly Elegy and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash but also several books focused on elite lives, like Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Streety: The Anxieties of Affluence.

I discovered this list, and the “Opportunity Costs” series, from Joe Lowry, who shared it in a comment on Tim Strangleman’s recent blog about a new collection of essays by working-class people. As Tim noted, many reviews of Know Your Place commented on how rarely we hear about class from working-class people. Of course, that rarity depends in part on who “we” are. For those of who teach and write about working-class culture, writing by working-class people has long been a central source of insight, as are conversations about people’s classed experiences. But the book recommendations from listeners to “Opportunity Costs” reminded me that most people have never heard of the books that I see as the most insightful, meaningful sources for understanding class in America. None of Janet Zandy’s anthologies appears on this list, nor did anyone recommend Christine Walley’s Exit ZeroBarbara Jensen’s Reading Classesor Michael Zweig’s Working-Class MajorityFiction like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina or Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street were also missing, and the list includes neither plays nor poetry.

I don’t mean to criticize the books that people recommended. But the list illustrates a key challenge for those of us who want to promote better understanding of class: no matter how insightful and critical our academic work is, if we want to influence politics and culture, we need to reach wider audiences. We need to translate our scholarly analyses into forms and styles that will engage more people, and we need to go public with our stories. That’s what we try to do at Working-Class Perspectives, and as a field, Working-Class Studies should focus more on speaking to the public, not just to each other.

Read the post in its entirety  and other WCP posts on our website.

The Working-Class Perspectives blog  is brought to you by our Visiting Scholar for the 2015-18 academic years, John Russo, and English Professor and Director of the American Studies Program at Georgetown University, Sherry Linkon, the author of this post. It features several regular and guest contributors. Last year, the blog published 43 posts that were read over 131,000 times by readers in 178 countries. The blog is cited by journalists from around the world, and discussed in courses in high schools and colleges worldwide.