Critical Social Psychological Approaches to Social Class

Gender, ethnicity and race have received more comprehensive treatment from critical psychologists than social class (Ostrove & Cole, 2003). This neglect has been recognised and addressed in some quarters, and feminist psychologists, notably, have produced some excellent work examining intersections between class and gender and the impact of social class on women’s lives (e.g., Wakerdine, 1991, 1996), with the journal Feminism & Psychology publishing special issues focused explicitly on this issue.

‘Critical social psychology’ encompasses a complex set of theoretical frameworks and approaches to analysis which make it difficult to ‘pin down’ and define precisely (see Wetherell, 1999). Indeed, those such as Parker (2009) have argued that critical psychology must provide resources to transform psychology without 'getting stuck in any model, ethos or worldview' (p. 84). That said, there are a number of different ‘streams’ of theorising and research on social class that could be described as ‘critical social psychological’. These typically utilise qualitative research methods to achieve a number of common aims: Firstly, to produce contextualised accounts of social class which avoid the sort of individualism that often characterises mainstream work (see Bullock & Limbert, 2009). Secondly, a commitment to place poverty, inequality and oppression as central and to produce accounts that problematise class inequality, class relations and class discourse. Thirdly, to examine how class intersects with gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, age, able-bodiedness, geography and so forth to produce diverse experiences and social identities (Griffin, 1993), and to acknowledge that class cannot simply be ‘separated out’ from other social categories or treated as a discrete variable. A final aim is to provide marginalised groups whose experiences have often been neglected by mainstream psychology, such as poor and working-class people, with a voice in research (e.g., Wakerdine, 1991, 1996) rather than treating them as the sum of a number of variables (low SES and problematic cognitions), or speaking for them.

One tradition of feminist psychological work on social class has examined lived experiences of class and what class membership ‘feels’ like (e.g., Reay, 1999, 2005). An area of research of interest here has been class transitions— moving from one social class to another—and the psychological impact which ensues (e.g., Reay, 2002; Wakerdine, 2003). Such research has demonstrated that (perhaps contrary to popular belief) moving from working-class to middle-class status (e.g., via higher educational achievements) is fraught with difficulties. For example, Reay (2002) conducted interviews with working- class higher education students and uncovered struggles around feelings of belonging (e.g., many of the participants said that they felt like an ‘imposter’), identity and authenticity (i.e., maintaining an authentic and coherent sense of self). This is perhaps unsurprising given research evidence that classism is often rife at universities (Langhout, Drake, & Rosselli, 2009). For Reay’s participants, working-class identity increasingly lacked authenticity, whilst the veneer of ‘middle-classness’ felt like a facade, therefore the person finds themselves frozen in limbo between one class and another. This work is important, not only for highlighting complex emotional and identity issues associated with social class but also for challenging popular Western understandings of ‘upward mobility’ as unproblematic and highlighting the barriers experienced by working-class students who enter into higher education.

The emotional distress that can accompany classed experiences has been addressed more directly by psychologists employing more critical perspectives for a number of years. For example, psychologists have highlighted strong links between insufficient or dwindling economic resources, classism and experiences of working-class life in general and psychological distress and deterioration (e.g., Jahoda, 1987). This often includes those who have moved from the working class into the middle class. For example, in a special issue of Feminism & Psychology devoted to social class, Palmer (1996) connects this distress to feelings of shame and fear and lowered self-confidence that are often experienced by working-class people and argues that an important challenge for mental health practitioners is to assist clients in conceiving of their problems as resulting from limitations in other people’s perspectives rather than from personal inadequacy. More recently, a group called Psychologists Against Austerity has mobilised on the Internet (https:// This is a group of psychologists who are actively campaigning against the implementation of austerity policies by the British government, pointing to psychological evidence that these policies have damaging psychological costs. In the United States, psychologists such as Bernice Lott and Heather Bullock have similarly advocated for policy changes that address economic injustice. They critique cultural constructions of the ‘welfare problem’, arguing that it is poverty that is the problem (Lott & Bullock, 2007). This work is crucial in highlighting how individual suffering often results from wider historical developments and political and structural conditions like inequality, exploitation and alienation (Wagner & McLaughlin, 2015).

Another stream of critical social psychological work on social class has afforded a central role to language and discourse (e.g., Holt & Griffin, 2005; Phoenix & Tizard, 1996; Willott & Griffin, 1999). This body of work employs discourse analysis to scrutinise the functions of class discourse, such as legitimising class inequalities by making these appear natural or inevitable or the result of merit rather than structural inequalities. It also considers how such discourse places people within unequal relations of power and the forms of subjectivity that this discourse makes available. For example, Ringrose and Walkerdine (2008) examined classed and gendered discourse on so-called lifestyle and self-improvement programmes on British television and found that such shows often depict a spectre of ‘working-class failure’. Moreover, a central character within such programmes is often a working-class woman who is the focus of transformation and correction and positioned as insufficiently self-monitoring. They argue that this ‘failed’ subjectivity is depicted as uninhabitable and ‘Other’ to the neo-liberal ideals that are promoted, whilst a discourse of poverty and oppression is largely absent. This and similar studies (e.g., Tyler, 2008) are important in that they highlight the media as a powerful institution where problematic discourses around class and associated subjectivities are reproduced. Further, as highlighted by Ringrose and Walkerdine, these mediated discourses function in ways that render invisible the wider socio-cultural, economic and political conditions that contribute to problems often associated with poverty such as poor diet, constructing these instead as the result of personal failing.

These studies are important in highlighting the role of discourse in justifying social structures based on class difference. This work arguably builds upon Marxist literature on the role of ‘dominant bourgeois ideology’ and how this serves to obscure exploitation and injustice in capitalist societies (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, 1978), excluding the possibility of social change (see Gramsci, 1971). However, one limitation of these studies is that these fail to examine how people engage with such patterns of meaning in their everyday lives and how class discourse constitutes people’s subjectivities. Some critical social psychological studies have examined people’s talk around class and other, intersecting social identities with illuminating results. For example, Phoenix and Tizard (1996) interviewed a diverse sample of 248, 14-18-year- old Londoners in order to explore their social identities. The authors found that the working-class participants were less likely to articulate a conscious identity position with regard to social class than the middle-class participants (see also Gorz, 1982); for instance, they were more likely to report that they did not know which social class they belonged to or what was meant by social class. Further, there was a general tendency for the participants to describe themselves as ‘middle-class’, a tendency, particularly amongst White people, that is well documented (see Bullock & Limbert, 2009). In addition, some accounts provided by the middle-class participants positioned working-class people as inferior and figures from popular culture (e.g., television shows) were drawn upon as typifying working-class lifestyles which were derided (see also Walkerdine & Lucey, 1989). This demonstrates the impact of class ‘stereotypes’ identified in popular culture by those such as Ringrose and Walkerdine (2008) and Tyler (2008) can have on everyday understandings and class relations. In general, the participants distinguished between ‘us’ and ‘them’ on the basis of commodities, practices and lifestyles that have strong class connotations (e.g., housing, dress, behaviour and economic resources), and most of the participants lacked familiarity with people from other social class groups; therefore class relations were largely imagined rather than ‘lived’. As argued by Walkerdine (1995), such constructions of working-class people probably reveal more about the ‘middle-class imagination’ with its fears and desires than they do about what working-class people are actually like.

In another study which has examined the relational construction of class identities, Holt and Griffin (2005) examined the talk of young, middle-class participants (who again, were diverse in terms of gender, ethnic and sexual groupings) in the context of leisure spaces such as pubs and clubs, and found that they referred to social class in highly coded ways. This typically involved referring to ‘types’ of people and places that were clearly ‘classed’, for example, referring to working-class people as ‘townies’ or ‘locals’, and it was assumed that these understandings were socially shared ones that would be readily understood. The authors argue that explicit talk around class has become taboo in contemporary British society where an ideal of ‘classlessness’ is promoted (Bradley, 1996) and indeed, talk around class was often accompanied by nervous laughter or an apology. Interestingly, Holt and Griffin (2005) also describe how the class prejudice identified in their study was also shot through with ambivalent desire for the (exotic) working-class Other and certain aspects of (more authentic) working-class culture. This kind of complexity cannot be adequately theorised by employing more mainstream social psychological approaches to identity such as Social Identity Theory (SIT) (Tajfel, 1978, 1981) (for more extended discussions of the limitations of SIT in theorising social class, see Argyle, 1994; Day et al., 2014; Holt & Griffin, 2005).

This work provides more nuanced and sophisticated accounts of social identities and social relations and the important role that social class plays in these. It would seem that the contemporary discursive landscape in the

Western world is instructive here in a number of ways. Firstly, this has been characterised by a cultural suppression of the acknowledgement of class and class inequalities (Skeggs, 2005), whereby for example, political and economic interests and conflicts have been reified as individual differences in terms of character, personality or lifestyle (Wagner & McLaughlin, 2015). This is illustrated in the Holt and Griffin (2005) study, where although the participants drew upon notions of class difference, this was largely in relation to commodities, lifestyles, leisure activities and so on. A discourse of power differentials was largely absent. Secondly, there are the kinds of stigmatising and pathologising discourses around the working class that are highly visible in the media (Ringrose & Walkerdine, 2008; Tyler, 2008). This discursive landscape may have resulted in what Bradley (1996) describes as ‘submerged identities’ (p. 72) in relation to class. In other words, talk around class and identification with a class group (particularly the working class) has become difficult, in some instances embarrassing or anxiety-provoking, and so may be avoided altogether (Holt & Griffin, 2005). This marked decline of ‘class consciousness’ in the Western world (Wagner & McLaughlin, 2015) should concern Marxists who believe that this is a prerequisite for class conflict and collective political action on the part of the working class (e.g., Marx, 1970), or at the very least a questioning of what is often ‘passed off’ as the natural order of things (Bourdieu & Ferguson, 1999).

So far, we have provided a fairly disheartening overview of the ways in which class privilege is discursively reproduced whilst at the same time obscured, and some of the consequences of this for everyday discursive practices, social identities and social relations. However, that is not to say that people always buy into such discourses in straightforward and unproblematic ways. Further, although it has been highlighted that there is a lack of positively loaded positions for working-class women in the UK context (Wagner & McLaughlin, 2015), a number of recent critical social psychological studies have highlighted examples of resistance on the part of British working-class girls and women. For example, Woolhouse, Day, Rickett and Milnes (2012) conducted a study which involved focus group discussions with working-class adolescent girls from South Yorkshire in the UK to examine the discourses that they drew upon around femininity, food and eating. We found that many culturally sanctioned and promoted ideals and practices, such as eating small amounts of ‘healthy’ food, displaying little enthusiasm for food and being concerned with weight and appearance were understood by the participants as classed (e.g., something that ‘posh’ women do) and were often explicitly derided and rejected. Similarly, recent critical studies in the field of organisational psychology have examined how working-class women who work in police work (e.g.,

Rickett, 2014) and door supervision or ‘bouncing’ (e.g., Rickett & Roman, 2013) have also identified constructions of the ideal female worker as imbued with gendered and classed ideals around being safe, risk-aversive, ‘feminine’ and ‘ladylike’. Scholars such as Skeggs (1997) have argued that such bourgeois models of passive and ‘frail’ femininity have been promoted by privileged groups and have often been inaccessible to working-class women because, for example, of the physical labour that they have traditionally been engaged in. Although fewer people now work in industries characterised by heavy physical labour due to deindustrialisation (Budgeon, 2014), the work that the women in these studies perform still involves a physical (and occasionally violent) element. Consequently, these constructions of the ideal female worker were rejected by the participants in these studies as unconducive to the type of work that they do, oppressive and exclusionary. In contrast, they positioned themselves as courageous and wily women who were ‘not afraid to get stuck in’ (Rickett, 2014). Similarly, Day, Gough and McFadden (2003), who (like Holt & Griffin, 2005) also examined discourse in the context of leisure spaces and ‘night outs’, found that the working-class women in their study also challenged classed ideals of frail and passive femininity by positioning themselves as women who ‘could look after themselves’ on a night out. In addition, middle-class women were often ridiculed by them as inauthentic and pretentious. These studies demonstrate that working-class, feminine identities can be negotiated, despite the negative discursive landscape previously discussed, in ways that are imbued with power (albeit ones that arguably draw upon normative discourses around the ‘tough’ and unpretentious working-class women who is unaffected by body image ideals etc.).

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