Culturalist Approaches to Social Class

The analytical distinction between structural inequality and social mobility or status attainment has been subject to criticism by a third perspective on inequality that focuses more explicitly on the legacies between individuals and the social positions that they inhabit. Charles Tilly (1998) has stressed that categorical inequalities such as gender or race are so durable because they are visibly marked and part of the social identity. In a similar way, Bourdieu (1984) has emphasized the role of the incorporation of symbolic cleavages and categorizations into the habitus in order to explain why social inequalities are so persistent despite rapid social change.

In general, so-called culturalist approaches to social class, often combined with qualitative and ethnographic methods, form an important but largely separate strand of research on inequality (Lareau and Conley 2008). They refer to processes of socialization (or incorporation or adaption) in order to explain the correlation between material living conditions and cultural practices, values and conducts of life, and highlight the role of symbolic categorizations and dichotomies that generate cultural class cleavages or symbolic boundaries between groups (Lamont 2000). Culturalist approaches to social class typically are interested in understanding how culture contributes to the reproduction and legitimation of class inequality. While social scientists construct the space of inequality based on large data, people typically tend to compress the inequality space enormously in their mindsets in order to reduce cognitive dissonance. Ethnographic studies have consistently shown how the poor manage to represent themselves as ‘middle class’ by drawing symbolic boundaries between those below them on the income and prestige scale, while many of the super-rich do the same by pointing to the mainstream values of hard work and a decent life to render themselves as ‘middle class’. Beyond this hugely compressed and self-centred mental representation of the inequality space, ethnographic studies are paramount in depicting how fine lines of social differentiation are drawn by subtle categorizations of daily practices and how the larger class differences are strongly mirrored in basic differences of practical routines and concepts.

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