Perspectives on Identity and Social Class

Perspectives on Identity and Social Class

The MARXIST perspective on class and identity

The main argument here is YES – social class continues to be a significant factor in shaping social identity: but not always in a way that is particularly POSITIVE.

SUGARMAN argues that class is an important factor in influencing the norms and values of children – middle class children are socialised into seeing education as a career and learning to plan for the future (deferred gratification) whilst working class children are prepared less for professional careers and identities by ‘living for the moment’ and enjoying life now rather than later – an identity based on immediate gratification.

SKEGGS and LOVEDAY – also see class as being an important factor in defining identity but not always in a positive way. Skeggs/Loveday see the working class being subjected to NEGATIVE STEREOTYPES such as poverty, lack of education and ambition. HOWEVER, this research also recorded the working class themselves  seeing their own identities based on positive characteristics such as loyalty and caring for others and that these aspects of identity were missing from the middle class.

Other Marxists support these ideas by making reference to the power of the ESTABLISHMENT, SOCIAL CLOSURE, MIDDLE-CLASS VALUES and upper/middle class control of EDUCATION.

So – Marxists continue to see class as THE key factor in framing identity IN ALL CLASSES.

The POSTMODERN  perspective on class and identity

The basic postmodernist position is based on the belief that CLASS is no longer the main factor in creating identity. Society has moved AWAY from a belief that identity is based on where and how people earn their money. Instead, identity is now based on how and where people SPEND their money. This means identity WAS defined by class but is now defined by CONSUMPTION (spending, buying).

CROOK, PAKUSKI and WATERS – argue for the FRAGMENTATION (splitting into parts) of social class into SEPARATE IDENTITIES. The main point of their argument focusses on YOUNG PEOPLE who are now much less likely to see their identity in terms of social class and MORE likely to see it in terms of fashion, music, gender, media roles etc. If they are correct, postmodernists are saying that young people no longer recognise class and so it has no significance in the way they construct their identities.

Postmodernists also argue that LEISURE is no longer class based – distinctions between LOW and HIGH CULTURE are blurred and identity is now much more likely to be based on a MASS CULTURE.

Marxists disagree! What if an identity based on consumption and spending effectively ‘prices out’ the poor?

BOURDIEU’S  perspective on class and identity

Bourdieu occupies a ‘perspective of his own’. There are bits of Marxism in his research, bits of functionalism and the odd drop of postmodernism. He’s unique – he’s out on his own: it’s what makes him such a fascinating sociologist to study.

Does he think social class is still an important aspect of how we form identity? YES

Because of the power of the upper class and middle class to maintain their grip on CULTURAL POWER that effectively gives them a particularly strong sense of identity that EXCLUDES the working classes. A similar ‘exclusion’ works in relation to SOCIAL and ECONOMIC capital – both of which have an important influence on how identity develops.

SO – class is an important part of how identity is defined – research and ideas supported by SAVAGE.

The NEW RIGHT  perspective on class and identity

Class NO LONGER important – society is now more equal and the old class divisions have disappeared (SAUNDERS).  Similar views from MARSHALL who thinks class identity – especially for the working class – is now much less important than it once was. BRADLEY argues something similar to postmodernism – class not as important in framing identity which may now be more influenced by ethnicity, gender and age.

MURRAY – class IS important, particularly the idea of the ‘UNDERCLASS’ who exist as part of a culture and identity based on benefits, dependency, crime and drugs.

The FUNCTIONALIST perspective on class and identity

YES – still an important factor. Class helps society FUNCTION because of MERITOCRACY which means people find their ‘natural’ place in society based on ability, talent and effort.

If you get to the top of society – it’s because you ‘deserve’ to be there.

People who conform to the norms and values of society will be those who ‘do well’ and make sure the norms and values of that society stay important and stay ‘at the top’.

OTHER  perspectives on class and identity

GIDDENS and DIAMOND – class is important but NO LONGER the main source of inequality – gender and ethnicity may now be much more important in defining inequality and identity.

BRADLEYyes, class is weaker than it used to be and so therefore has less of an influence on identity. HOWEVER – the rich are very rich and the poor can be very poor – how can this NOT have an influence on identity? On this point, she agrees with the Marxists. HOWEVER – other sources of identity – age, ethnicity, gender etc are increasingly important in how we frame our identity – so, on this point she agrees with the postmodernists.

SO . . . most sociologists recognise that class remains at least ONE part of what gives individuals their identity. However, apart from the Marxists, who continue to argue that class is THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of identity, other perspectives now recognise that ethnicity/race, gender, age/disability may be at least as important.

Postmodernism takes this further by questioning the extent to which social class, in the 21st century, actually exists at all. Functionalism argues that class does exist and that this is good for society whereas Marxists argue that class identities usually work as another way of oppressing the working class. In this respect, Bourdieu has a similar view.

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