Friday, January 06, 2006

Social Class Bleg

by Tom Bozzo

One of the more common search terms that leads people here is "upper middle class income," for which this post appears on the first page of Google returns. While the main subject is tax reform, I do actually characterize a range of incomes within the top quartile of adjusted gross incomes from Federal income taxes as "upper middle class." For reasons the lower end of the range should make clear, income (and wealth) statistics are really not sufficient to define the upper mdidle class. While I have some idea of what I might spout forth on the subject for a future "question hour" (*) post, I can only assume that some sociologists have thought about the matter far more than me, and it's just being a good economist not to go about re-inventing the wheel.

So, dear sociologist visitors, is there any sociological consensus on qualitative signifiers of membership in the upper middle class? If not, is there a readily accessible summary of the relevant debate around? Thanks in advance.

Non-sociologist readers may chime in too, of course. I'm interested in a broad perspective.

(*) An occasional series on more-or-less amusing or enlightening search terms leading to this blog that hasn't run recently.
There was an interesting and possibly relevant debate a little while back at Donkey Rising, about the socio-economic features of the lower middle class, and specifically about how keying off of education instead of income leads to a different sample set.

It started with a paper entitled What's the Matter with What's the Matter with Kansas, which triggered a thoughtful back and forth conversation.

They don't doesn't address the upper middle class specifically, but the general terms of the debate are useful. Is it helpful to make a distinction between advanced degrees in the sciences and professional degrees, or between business and academia?

My other thought would be to analyze wealth versus income. I would consider that the crux of what divides the upper middle class from the rich -- to a zeroth approximation, people whose money derives mainly from salary vs. people whose money comes from inheritence or cashing out a successful business.

I too would be interested to read up on any academic debate or consensus on the matter.
Thanks for the links, Ben.

I think it's safe to say that education substitutes for income to some extent in determining social status at the upper end of the middle class, too. (David Brooks makes this point in Brooksian style in Bobos in Paradise.)

I also agree in general on the outline of the income vs. wealth considerations, though one could argue that you get beyond the "upper middle" and into just plain "upper" long before income from capital starts to outstrip income from labor.
Like most topics in sociology, there is no consensus. I'm not the best person to answer this question (for some reason, I never took a class on stratification), but I know there was a recent article by Kim Weeden and David Grusky in a 2005 issue of the American Journal of Sociology about this topic. The article is "The Case for a New Class Map."
I'm certainly no expert either, but any quantitative variable based on economic descriptions of wealth are never going to get at the social meanings of class, in my opinion. Yes, that's a mighty strong statement, but sometimes commonsense knowledge leads us to something - everyone knows its not how much money you make but how you spend it and what you know about the world that matters. Bourdieu gets to this in _Homo Academicus_ and _Distinction_. There's also lots of studies of the upperclasses that trace social ties - see Granovetter's work on networks. Unsurprisingly, it's not exactly what school you attended as much as who you know that determines what job you'll get. I think the debates in sociology are still in the early stages - culturalists v. economists, structuralists v. constructionists, etc. No one is really distancing the traditional argument from its economic foundations and recognizing that class is much more than money.
I'm not one of those sociologists who has thought much about this. If the measure takes everyone above a cutpoint on something, I'm not sure whether including the word "middle" in the name of the concept is as worthwhile.
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