The Hidden Rules of (Social) Class

Although the concept of social class is deeply-embedded in A-level Sociology Specifications, a lot of time and effort nominally devoted to this concept is actually taken-up by talking about the economic dimension of class. Although clearly important, the continued emphasis on economic class means students come to see the concept largely in these terms: class as an objectively-measurable category synonymous with wealth, income and work.

While there’s nothing particularly wrong with this approach, the economic emphasis (some are rich, some are poor and some are sort-of in-the-middle) often diverts attention away from the more-subjective cultural dimensions to class that, I would argue, humanises the concept and, by so doing, makes it much more intrinsically interesting for a-level students to study.

This cultural dimension gives, I think, a deeper and arguably more-involving sense of how people actually live their class lives and by conceptualising class in this way – as a social as well as an economic identity – it allows students to explore the concept in an arguably more-involving way: one that reintroduces the notion of subjective class experiences in a way that complements the idea of objective class positions and consequences.

In addition, a focus on the “social dimensions” of class also makes the introduction of concepts like cultural and social capital more meaningful to students and locates them in a conceptual framework distinct from, while closely correlated with, the notion of (objective) economic class positions.

Refocusing how students see and understand the more-subjective elements of social class also allows teachers to explore how and why these subjective dimensions impact on objective class experiences (related to areas like family life, educational achievement and the like). It should also give greater meaning to concepts like class identity, which all-to-often are simply reduced to a reading-off of class differences based around notions of economic class.

One way to do this is to get students to think about different dimensions of social class in terms of how it is governed by what Payne (A Framework for Understanding Poverty, 2001) calls “hidden rules of behaviour”: rules that, for example, condition how people in one class see their position in relation to other classes and, by extension, rules that structure and constrain individual class perceptions and behaviours.

These “Rules” can be used to help students develop a deeper level of engagement with social class by reflecting on how different social classes see different categories, such as money, clothing, education, family, love and humour, in different ways.

One way you might want to do this is to show students Payne’s “Hidden Rules” table and get them to discuss the extent to which these rules apply to their own sense of social class (both objective and subjective – if you’re turning this into a class exercise you might want to begin by getting your students to objectively identify their own class position in whatever way you choose or devise).

You need to keep in mind these rules were developed in relation to an American concept of social classes and both the class categories used (the poor, middle-class and wealthy) and the rules identified for each may well be different in UK society.

In terms of family structure, for example, poor American families – particularly but by no-means exclusively poor black families – are much more-likely to be headed by a single-parent female than in the UK. While single-parent families are an important dimension of the working class in our society they are by no-means as prevalent as among their American counterparts.

These differences can, however, be usefully incorporated into any discussion of Payne’s Rules in terms of both their cultural and cross-cultural application.

The chart – whether or not your students believe it accurately reflects UK class categories (and if they don’t you can pursue these differences to the point of producing a new chart from scratch detailing subjective class elements of the categories Payne provides) – can be used as a starting-point for making the connection between subjective and objective class features.

If Payne’s chart, for example, is broadly accurate in terms of significant class differences the implication is that the members of each class are, in effect, speaking a different language that each assumes is the only language – and this has important implications across a variety of social institutions. In terms of A-level sociology generally, the most significant of these is likely to be education and the ideas your students generate about class differences can be applied to a wide variety of educational areas, of which differential educational achievement is but one obvious example. If you want to drive home this particular point you could use this “Language of Education” simulation to demonstrate how different class-based assumptions about language can translate into educational advantage and disadvantage.

More generally, one of the most interesting applications of the “Hidden Rules” is to consider how they might relate to and impact on many areas of the a-level Sociology Specification. A quick selection might, for example, include:

• Culture and identity – class cultures, cultural capital, social capital, habitus.
• Family – structure and relationships.
• Education – inequality, achievement, cultural capital and how this applies in education.
• Crime and Deviance – behavioural rules, deviance.
• Social Inequality – social capital, class structures, cross-cultural comparisons, theories of class formation.

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