Applying Critical Perspectives on Class

Critical social psychological research, theorising and related methodologies have important implications for ‘real world’ settings and have been drawn upon in attempts to raise awareness around, and directly challenge, the oppressive effects of classism and practices which serve to reproduce and reinforce class boundaries. Such critical work is most notable in the domains of education and health, and perhaps to a lesser extent, employment, leisure and media representations. Given this predominance of applied research in the areas of education and health, and following on from earlier criticism of mainstream social psychological research in these areas, we provide an overview of some of this important and illuminating work in these two respective fields.

As noted, it appears to be the field of education that has attracted most attention in relation to psychology, social class and the effects of classism (Ostrove & Cole, 2003). This is perhaps unsurprising given the cultural value placed on education and arguments that ‘Sites of education ... are a rich laboratory in which to study the experiences of class’ (Ostrove & Cole, 2003, p. 678). In an intriguing ethnographic study, and with the ultimate goal of providing the foundations for school reform (in the United States), Langhout and Mitchell (2008) examined the ‘hidden curriculum’ (defined as ‘the values, norms and beliefs transmitted via the structure of schooling’ ibid., p. 593) in a second-grade classroom (aged seven to eight years). Part of the ‘hidden curriculum’, built around White middle-class values and assumptions, was a requirement for children to demonstrate their enthusiasm, interest and learning in ways that corresponded to the school’s behavioural and disciplinary code; if they failed to do this (e.g., responding to the teacher’s question without raising their hand), they were reprimanded. These ‘offenders’ consequently began to show signs of despondency and disengagement. The authors noted that this occurred far more frequently among Black and Latino boys and argued that, ‘The hidden curriculum, therefore, reinforces institutionalized racism and classism with the meta-communication that working-class and poor racial and ethnic minority students, especially boys, do not belong in school’ (Langhout & Mitchell, 2008, p. 596).

In higher education, similar processes appear to be in operation. Langhout et al. (2009) found that not only are students from poor and working-class backgrounds more likely to experience classism but also being subjected to classism was found to be associated with a host of negative outcomes and experiences, such as a decreased sense of belonging (to their place of study), poorer psychosocial outcomes and intentions to drop out of college (Langhout et al., 2009). Based on their findings, the authors recommended an array of policies and structural changes that may help to address the classed inequalities faced by poor and working-class students (and the privileges afforded to upper- and middle-class students). These include implementing transition programmes aimed at helping students navigate what might be an unfamiliar system; introducing poor/working-class students to staff members who identify with being from a similar background in order to develop social support networks and, at the level of infrastructure, critically scrutinising university policies and procedures that may unwittingly facilitate classism (Langhout et al., 2009). Importantly however, they also advocate the incorporation of critical studies on social class into the curriculum to raise awareness of class-based issues amongst all students, but particularly those whose class privilege may be hidden or taken for granted. We concur strongly with this latter recommendation and at our own institution include course components which provide students with a language to talk (critically) about class; we commonly have a number of students who choose a critical focus on class in their final-year undergraduate projects.

Acknowledging the paucity of research examining the practices of privileged groups which serve to perpetuate inequalities, Stephens and Gillies (2012) explored the talk and practices of affluent and disadvantaged parents (in New Zealand) in relation to choosing a school for their child/ren and the advantages or constraints conferred upon each of these groups in respect to this ‘choice’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that the ‘affluent group’ were more able to draw upon the necessary resources (e.g., income, housing location and social networks) to secure advantage for their child in terms of schooling. In contrast, parents from the poorer neighbourhood were restricted by work commitments, family circumstances and the need for support in their attempts to access ‘good’ schools and be involved in the school community (Stephens & Gillies, 2012). Notably however, one mother from the lower-income group had succeeded in sending her daughters to a ‘prestigious’ school but talked of the predominant White middle-class culture of the school to which she felt a lack of belonging and ‘of being stopped on the street by a woman who suggested that her daughters should not be at the school’ (ibid., p. 154). This example not only undermines prevailing neo-liberal rhetoric around notions of ‘choice’ and upward social mobility as being achievable and unproblematic, but also highlights how ‘the actions of those of higher status ... work against the development of poor communities’ (ibid., p. 146). The authors conclude by arguing for a shift away from interventions aimed at developing disadvantaged communities solely from within, to attending to the detrimental effects resulting from inequalities between social groups (Stephens & Gillies, 2012).

Moving on to a discussion of critical applied work in the area of health and social class, Melluish and Bulmer (1999) reported on a truly inspiring men’s health action project (in the UK) which was developed in an attempt to challenge and move away from dominant understandings of men’s psychological distress as resulting from (in part) ‘male socialization’ (ibid., p. 93) and constructions of masculinity. The authors argued that this type of understanding overlooks the ways in which social class shapes men’s experiences and articulations of distress, might misrepresent working-class men’s experiences in particular and, importantly, may lead to therapeutic interventions focused on the ‘intrapsychic’ and ‘men’s “inner worlds”’ (ibid., p. 93) when these may not be helpful or appropriate. Further, they argued that working-class men who experience unemployment are subject to a range of negative consequences such as social isolation and feelings of powerlessness resulting from a loss of social solidarity, valued identity and structure to their daily lives. Given this, the authors helped set up a project for unemployed working-class men who were experiencing psychological distress with the aim of providing a forum for them to share experiences and offer mutual support and solidarity.

Although there was initial input from professional practitioners, their involvement became more peripheral as the men began to take more control (e.g., by establishing a management committee—Melluish & Bulmer, 1999). Gradually, the men’s articulations of their distress and experiences shifted from individualised accounts to more collective understandings linked to socio-political issues impacting at the local and societal levels. The men began to frame their experiences through a lens of class, and mental distress as a social rather than personal issue. The authors conclude by calling for a re-conceptualisation of how we make sense of mental distress, what are considered as appropriate forms of support and the necessity of taking social class into account when formulating these understandings.

Finally in this section, we turn our attention to the valuable contributions of William Ming Liu (e.g., Liu et al., 2004; Liu, Stinson, Hernandez, Shepard, & Haag, 2009) to the area of social class (and classism), counselling and therapeutic practices. First, Liu et al. (2009) along with others (e.g., Marecek & Hare-Mustin, 2009) argue that therapeutic models and practices are underpinned by middle-class values and assumptions yet, as is widely documented, poor and working-class people are more likely to experience psychological distress (e.g., Liu, 2011). This raises questions around the suitability of therapeutic practices to meet the needs of poor and working-class service users (Liu et al., 2004; Melluish & Bulmer, 1999). In recognition of this, and the salience of class and classism in shaping psychologies and identities (along with other intersecting dimensions of difference—Liu et al., 2004), Liu et al. (2004) argue that as a starting point, counsellors need to reflect on and interrogate their own class positionings, classism and personal experiences of classism and consider how these may play out in their work with clients. Following on from this, counsellors should explore the client’s mental suffering through a ‘class lens’, for example, by gaining an understanding of their current and historical class (and economic) positionings, the client’s own understanding of class, and their current or historic experiences of classism (Liu et al., 2004). In a nutshell, Liu (2011) argues that class (and experiences of classism) are absolutely central to people’s sense of self and well-being and therefore the exploration of class-related experiences are essential for more meaningful understandings of distress and effective interventions.

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