Significance of discussing classism in mental health practice

To fully understand the impact of social class and individual’s subjective social class experiences, practitioners and researchers must also recognize the impact of classism (Liu et al. 2004). Like race and racism, and sex and sexism, class and classism are co-constructed, interdependent constructs (Liu et al. 2004). In other words, one cannot study social class without examining classism, such as there cannot be a complete understanding of race and racial identity without exploration of racism. We continue Liu’s (2013) definition of classism as macro and micro interpersonal forms of prejudice and discrimination and acknowledge the deleterious effects of classism on an institutional and systemic level (e.g., big banks).

Classism, like racism and sexism continue to serve and uphold a social hierarchy in which people in the dominant cultural group (White, heterosexual, upper-class men) hold positions of power through domination and social control (Smith 2005). Classism can be viewed as the physical manifestation of social class privilege and is often expressed as a means of policing those in different and similar social classes who “step out” of their expected social circles. This policing ensures that the status quo remains (Smith 2005). Some scholars believe classism is a form of oppression and therefore can only be practiced by the dominant class (Lott 2002) and the authors agree. However, the authors assert individuals of any social class group (Liu et al. 2004) can practice ciassist prejudice and forms of discrimination informed by ciassist values.

Research examining classism often assumes a unilateral direction and focus. In other words, research tends to examine class-related negative attitudes, behaviors, and values from individuals in higher social classes towards individuals in lower social classes. This pattern is perpetuated by the frequency of research calling for additional mental health services for individuals in lower social classes whenever discussion of social class are held (Smith 2005). Therefore, counselors and psychologists tend to conceptualize social class and classism as a lower-class issue. However, classism can be understood in terms of the directions they may be projected, and are categorized into four domains: upward, downward, internally, and laterally (Liu 2002).

Downward classism, as described, is the most commonly thought of direction of classism. Consistent with the myth of meritocracy, downward classism attributes individual responsibility to social and financial success. Meritocracy can be deconstructed into four dimensions: (1) merit, (2) distributive justice, (3) equality of opportunity, and (4) social mobility. Merit and distributive justice are the test of individual ability (Conrad 1976; Liu 2011). For instance, persistent stereotypical characteristics upper-class individuals may have of lower-class individuals include lacking education, exploitation of the welfare system, and hyper-sexuality. A person in any social class can enact downward classism, however, as no matter what social class standing an individual is in, there is always a belief that someone else is in an inferior position (Liu 2002).

Upward classism, on the other hand, is prejudice and discriminatory attitudes and behaviors towards individuals in a perceived higher class standing (Liu 2002). Cognitions may include thoughts that these individuals are “out of touch” with common folks, are elitist, snobby, or have not experienced “true struggles.” Perceivers’ affective-emotional reactions in enacting upward classism may include anger, resentment, and self-pity.

Internalized classism refers to the internalized beliefs and thoughts an individual should have in order to belong to their social class (Liu 2002). Worries of being “found out,” caught as a fraud, or inability to “keep up” result in distressful affective responses such as anger, anxiety, depression, guilt, and disappointment when unable to maintain one’s social class standing.

Finally, lateral classism, which will make the bulk of the following case vignettes and discussion, is the prejudice and discrimination people hold towards others perceived to be in similar social class standings (Liu 2002). Individuals perceiving others within the same social class engaging in actions and behaviors attempting to increase their social class upward mobility utilize lateral ciassist prejudice and discrimination as a tool.Transgressors of lateral classism attempt to police another’s social class standing and to exert control to ensure an individual realigns to their shared social class (Liu et al. 2004). The successful coercion of an individual to stay within their group standing allows the transgressor of lateral classism to avoid the negative feelings of seeing another become more successful than themselves (Smith 2005).

While this chapter primarily focuses on the negative impacts of lateral classism in the hopes of enabling mental health providers to better understand how these issues affect clients, it is important to recognize the human tendency to categorize individuals into larger social groups is not inherently negative. Allocentrism, a trait of collectivism in which individuals are focused on the people around them in a community, has been linked with lower levels of isolation and positively correlated with social support (Triandis et al. 1985). Being in the presence of others that hold similar worldviews have been associated with increased self-worth through appraisal by valued groups, (Cialdini and Richardson 1980), social belonging, and interconnectedness (Correll and Park 2005). Individuals within the ingroup experiencing distress may become motivated to utilize ciassist prejudice and discrimination as power and dominance to maintain a hierarchical status quo.

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