Mainstream Social Psychological Accounts of Social Class

Mainstream social psychological work has often focused on difference between the abilities, motivations and cognitions of people according to the social class position (or SES) that they occupy. However, similar to feminist criticisms of ‘sex difference’ research (e.g., Gilligan, 1982), this work often implicitly assumes a particular standard (in this case a middle-class standard) that positions middle-class (and upper-class) abilities, values and social and economic worlds as the reference point—with working-class people compared unfavourably against such a ‘standard’, rendered ‘deficient’, ‘less than’ or problematic and in need of regulation and care.

The first example of such work is the body of research that seeks to examine, first, whether persons of a working-class (or ‘lower’ class) background have lower levels of intelligence than their middle- (or upper-) class counterparts, and second, whether these lower levels can explain their social and economic hierarchical positioning in work and life. A highly cited review of the literature (Gottfredson, 2004) argues for a replacement of the notion of unequal social class hierarchies with an IQ continuum which reflects graded, intellectual capabilities to achieve and succeed in life, and where ‘differences’ are attributed to the heritability to succeed and survive through the conferment of intelligence. Similarly, Nettle’s (2003) work posits that intelligence is causal in processes of social mobility by its link with occupational attainment. This research looks at longitudinal data from the British National Child Development Study. Despite results indicating a strong correlation between fathers’ ‘social class’ (occupation) and attained ‘social class’ (occupation), the author argues that the most significant results show that intelligence test scores at 11 years old predict class mobility in adulthood uniformly across all social classes, therefore revealing a high level of social mobility and meritocracy in contemporary Britain.

In sum, this body of research locates the problem of a lack of social mobility within working-class people by reproducing the meritocratic premise that all people are exposed to the same level, quality and type of educational environment, therefore an (in) ability to achieve success within this ‘level playground’ is due in something inside the person (e.g., Gottfredson, 2004). However, the ‘level playground’ can be regarded as an illusion, since working-class children are repeatedly exposed to lower quality education and socio-economic disadvantage (e.g., Stansfeld, Clark, Rodgers, Caldwell, & Power, 2011). As Lott (2012) argues, even when working-class children do access well-resourced education they are routinely short-changed; expectations are much lower for them and social class can be a dominant force in the classroom whereby the working-class are ‘othered’ from the ‘ideal’ (middle- class) student. This may leave working-class children less likely to profit from education than their middle-class counterparts (Lott, 2012). Littler (2013) also argues that this elitist, essentialist and individualist ‘myth of difference’ (p. 54) has led to apartheid education that, in turn, led to a disproportionate amount of resources being spent on children measured to be ‘clever’. In addition, this notion of more ‘intelligent’ working-class people moving up the occupational ladder to ‘escape’ constructs working-class cultures as ‘other’ and spaces to avoid or ‘get out of’ (Tyler, 2013). Lastly, meritocracy as an ideal obscures economic and social inequities, dissolving them in gradients of talent, effort and inherent abilities and thereby legitimising power and privilege.

However, there is a nice example of social cognitive work that does attempt to disturb the taken-for-granted myth of meritocracy (Spencer & Castano, 2007). Here it is argued that negative stereotypes associated with working-class children result in ‘stereotype threat’ which produces poor performance on IQ tests as a result of students fearing confirmation of such stereotypes. Using a revised general intelligence test, coupled with a demographic form asking for parents’ income and occupation (presented either before or after completing the test), results showed that working-class children underperformed if class was made salient before the test while performing equal to the middle-class counterparts when class was made salient after the test. Worryingly, provision of such demographic information is commonplace before such tests and working-class children who apply for financial support for the costs of tests (common in the United States) often experience ‘humiliating’ (p. 428) levels of attention to these demographics to prove they are poor enough to be eligible.

The second main trend in social psychological research on social class typically pathologises the practices of people from ‘lower down’ the socioeconomic scale as deficient in their ‘motivations’ to live a successful, healthy life (see Day, Rickett, & Woolhouse, 2014). For example, Kasser, Ryan, Zax and Sameroff (1995) reportedly found that adolescents whose mothers had low educational attainment and income were more materially oriented, valuing financial success more than self-acceptance (e.g., hopes for autonomy), affiliation (e.g., hopes for positive relations with family/friends) and community feeling (desires to improve the world through activism). The authors argued that these young people value conformity more than self-direction, paying less attention to their own desires and preferring to seek rewards from external sources. Further, the authors argue that young people growing up in ‘high- crime, low income environments’ (Kasser et al., 1995. p. 912) see conformity as a requirement for securing a job and financial success as a way of escape, therefore placing too much emphasis on money ‘relative to other more prosocial and growth-oriented values’ (Kasser et al., 1995, p. 912).

Thus, in this body of research, personal growth, self-expression and self- directed behaviour are standards which individuals from lower socio-economic backgrounds fail to match up to. That those from middle-class backgrounds may have already acquired a level of financial security and material resources that enables them to direct their attention away from meeting basic needs towards ‘growth and self-expression’ is not acknowledged (Kasser et al., 1995, p. 907). In sum, poor and working-class people are positioned as subscribing to a value system which is not only different to socio-economically privileged groups but also inferior, superficial and detrimental to ‘self-development’. In addition, this justifies social inequality by implying that working-class value systems are faulty while also obscuring an examination of structural and ideological barriers to social change.

Lastly, we look at the social-cognitive analyses of health outcomes which are understood and defined in terms of SES (see Day, 2012 for more indepth analyses). Research into inequalities in health has tended to focus on those of ‘lower SES’ and has sought to identify the biological, behavioural and psychological factors that contribute to disparities in health outcomes. For example, being from a ‘disadvantaged background’ has been associated with ‘negative cognitive-emotional factors’ such as hostility, anxiety and depression, which have all been found to impact negatively on health (e.g., Hatch & Dohrenwend, 2007). The predominant focus though has been on ‘health- risk behaviours’, defined as ‘habits or practices that increase an individual’s likelihood of poor health outcomes’ (Goy, Dodds, Rosenberg, & King, 2008, p. 314). For example, lower SES has been linked to a range of health-risk behaviours such as smoking, poor diet, physical inactivity and heavy drinking (e.g., Wardle & Steptoe, 2003). Here, inequalities in health status are conceptualised in terms of differentials in individual health behaviours and lifestyle patterns (e.g., Richter et al., 2006). It is argued that working-class people tend to be unhealthier because they do not take adequate care of their health and make poor choices. Indeed, a research paper by Lynch, Kaplan and Salonen (1997) is actually entitled ‘Why do poor people behave poorly?’ Unsurprisingly then, current health-risk reduction and health promotion interventions target the health behaviours of those from lower SES groups and the beliefs and attitudes believed to underpin these behaviours (e.g., Myers, 2009). Once again, working-class people have been characterised as problematic, with the failure of such interventions being blamed on the targets who, it has been claimed, are more resistant (presumably than middle-class people) to behaviour change (Lynch et al., 1997).

Walkerdine (2002) argues that psychology has played a special role in promoting the neo-liberalist notion (which she contends is a fiction) of choice. Neo-liberalist discourses (Rose, 1999) are said to be widespread in late capitalist societies and emphasise individualism, agency and the possibility of personal transformation. As discussed, mainstream research presents choice as located within the individual in the form of cognitions, with the assumption that these (along with the behaviours that they unpin) can be altered or modified (although such interventions are often unsuccessful). As with research on intelligence and motivations, notions of poverty, inequality and class oppression become an ‘absent present’ (Ringrose & Walkerdine, 2008). There is some acknowledgement in the mainstream literature that class-related stressors (e.g., poverty) and discrimination may play an important role in health disparities. However, such factors have to date been under-researched, and when acknowledged, often treated as ‘bolt on’ variables in an overall conceptual model rather than pervasive and central issues that need to be tackled in social and political ways (see Myers, 2009).

Overall, mainstream social psychological work on social class conceptualises working-class people as having lower levels of intelligence and ‘key’ motivations, or as making the wrong choices (possibly as a result of these ‘deficits’) to live a successful and healthy life. The causes for such ‘deficits’ or the enactment of such ‘poor’ reasoning are seen as residing within the individual either in a modifiable manner (as in social cognitions) or in an inherent, essentialist, unmodifiable manner (as in level of intelligence). The reproduction of such meritocratic and neo-liberalist discourses around class leaves working-class people to be regarded as either a drain on or waste of public resources or as deserving of their social and economic positioning. This, along with notions of individualism and agency, bolsters classism, or what Tyler (2008) calls ‘class disgust’. Mainstream social psychology has played a pivotal role. It is unclear, and perhaps uncharitable to conclude that social psychologists have intentionally set out to blame vulnerable people and place sole responsibility for social, economic or health outcomes on to individuals (see Lee, Lemyre,

Turner, Orpana, & Krewski, 2008). However, as Day previously concludes in her analysis of health psychology and class (2012) ‘critical psychologists are concerned with the outcomes or consequences of theorising, empirical claims and actions (for example, interventions) rather than the intentions of individual psychologists’ (pp. 65).

 
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