The American Social Class System – Does It Exist?

By | February 12, 2013

In sociology, social stratification deals with the structure of perceived status in society. Now there are very few aristocrats and Lords of the Manor left, society has generally retained the old class system but the qualifiers are mostly economic and education based now. The latter of which will determine your speech patterns, vocabulary and [in the UK] accent.

But lets take a look at the United States. Does class exist there? Or is it a classless society?

Social class is sometimes presented as a description of how members of the society have sorted themselves along a continuum of positions varying in importance, influence, prestige, and compensation.

In these models, certain occupations are considered to be desirable and influential, while others are considered to be menial, repetitive, and unpleasant.

(In some cases, non-occupational roles such as a parent or volunteer mentor, are also considered.) Generally, the higher the ranking on such a scale, the higher the skill and education levels required to perform it.

Some sociologists consider the higher income and prestige of higher ranked jobs to simply be incentives to encourage members of society to obtain the skills necessary to perform important work.

This is an important mechanism in the economic theory of capitalism, and is compatible with the notion that class is mutable and determined by a combination of choices and opportunities.

Social class in the United States is a controversial issue, having many competing definitions, models, and even disagreements over its very existence.

Many Americans believe in a simple three-class model that includes the “rich”, the “middle class”, and the “poor”. More complex models that have been proposed describe as many as a dozen class levels; while still others deny the very existence, in the European sense, of “social class” in American society.

Most definitions of class structure group people according to wealth, income, education, type of occupation, and membership in a specific subculture or social network.

Sociologists Dennis Gilbert, William Thompson, Joseph Hickey, and James Henslin have proposed class systems with six distinct social classes.

These class models feature an upper or capitalist class consisting of the rich and powerful, an upper middle class consisting of highly educated and affluent professionals, a middle class consisting of college-educated individuals employed in white-collar industries, a lower middle class, a working class constituted by clerical and blue collar workers whose work is highly routinised  and a lower class divided between the working poor and the unemployed underclass.

However, curiously, it seems of the few Americans that will discuss this topic, most seem to feel the US is a classless society. Or rather, they prefer to term the ‘levels of society’ by other names and vehemently avoid use of the term ‘class’.

I think the terminology is what gives. The opinion polls are pretty even.

Lets take a fictional American lawyer: He is quite successful in a large US town. He is married, two kids, nice house, cars, maybe a holiday home, investments, etc. Will he generally associate with the guy who cleans his pool? Probably not. Why? Because they have nothing in common. Why? Because their class level differs maybe? Both might be capital chaps who help old ladies across the street and great husbands and fathers. But society perceives them differently.

I think in the US there is a tendency to view the working class differently. There is a national attitude that makes, certainly service workers, often very proud of what they do. That is something the UK could learn from the US actually.

Go in a some stores in the UK and you will likely be met with a sullen person working a minimum wage job who would rather be some place else (to see that amplified by ten, go to Russia). And it shows on their face.

In the US, amongst the native English speakers at least, there is way more enthusiasm. More of a pride in what they do. Because American society seems to encourage appreciation of workers more. Indeed, songs are written that support that.

I suppose this why some Americans seem very defensive on this subject, and prone perhaps to infer superciliousness on the part of the asker when none is intended.

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