How do you determine what socioeconomic "class" a person is in?

In another thread, it was asked what the difference between middle and upper class was with respect to tax brackets and income levels. Rather than hijack that thread, I am started a new one to discuss the following questions:

-What defines what “class” a person belongs to?
-How do you identify a persons class when you meet them?
-How easy/difficult is it to move between classes?
-What are some of the barriers to moving between classes?
-Is it even relevant in American society? In other words, is there so much blending between classes and income brackets that it is essentially as irrelevant as the color of the shirt I put on this morning?

I have my own thoughts on the matter but I would like to see how people respond first.

I also hope BrainGlutton chooses to post his excerpt from *Class: A Guide to the American Status System, by Paul Fussell * again.

The same Paul Fussell says that you can identify the classes by the types of hats they wear. I don’t wear hats, which puts me sqarely in the middle class, right above the “proles” (in Fussell’s terminology).

Fussell also seemed to fail to realize that the Official Preppy Handbook is supposed to be satirical (I least I hope so…it’s pretty silly).

Good question - Fussell’s book is definitely a fun read…

I think this one is both easy and difficult at the same time. Easy in the sense that I think many people have a general idea of what distinguishes one class from another. In the US at least, money/wealth seems to be the set criteria most people use in differentiating one class from another. Difficult in the sense that (in the US) as one examines the issue more closely, it appears that money/wealth isn’t always a reliable indicator. So in understanding class more clearly one needs to incorporate other variables.

I don’t think it’s a matter of making a judgement based on initial impressions (although it’s not to say that people don’t do so). See below

Depends on a given society. In the US, class movement is relatively easy compared to other societies (comtemporary and historical). However, I believe Fussell makes a good point in his book that it is difficult to erase all elements of the class one is born and rasied in. In other words, if I was raised in a lower middle-class background and suddenly found myself the winner of the Powerball Lottery, my financial status would push me into the higher classes (economically). However, I would still probably continue (for a while at least) to keep many of the values/beliefs/attitudes of the lower middle class.

This is relevant because I think many people base their impressions on whether someone is of their class or not by the values/beliefs/attitudes they share (or don’t share). I may have hit the lottery, but if I start “acting differently” then 1) those in my class - lower middle class - may accuse me of “putting on airs” and 2) those in the upper classes may deride me as “nouveau riche”.

See above comments. In the US, class movement is relatively easy, but due to the values/beliefs/attitudes one has been raised in often times makes it difficult for people to be accepted into the other class. This can be overcome somewhat (but not entirely) as long as one gives the appearance of belonging. Which might help explain the popularity of President Bush with portions of the electorate (versus why Kerry might not be popular with certain portions of the electorate).

Still relevant, although I think less so than in the past (from a historical perspective). However, this trend is only relevant if the US maintains a fairly large middle class with the general trend of society geared towards the middle class (that is, the values/belifs/attitudes of the middle class). If there is a noticeable shift away from the values/belifs/attitudes of the middle-class, then I think class distinctions will become more prominent.

Glad to oblige. Fussell’s book is more humor than social science, but still insightful – I think. Judge for yourself.

The following is from Class: A Guide to the American Status System, by Paul Fussell (New York: Summit Books, 1983), pp. 27-50:

In the last chapter, Fussell identifies a tenth class, a “Class X” of declassed intellectuals and bohemians.

Even this fine-grained analysis might be too simplistic. For one thing, it ignores divisions between ethnic groups. A working-class black and a working-class white might work in similar occupations for similar incomes; but they grow up in different social environments, speak different dialects, attend different churches, listen to different music, socialize with circles of friends almost entirely of their own color, and almost certainly will marry (or, at any rate, reproduce) within their own race. The divisions are much less sharp than they were 20 years ago. (I know white kids who listen to rap and hip-hop, and who call each other “nigger” and “dog” as terms of affection, and whose closest friends and romantic interests are as likely to be black as white.) But they’re still there. Are the white prole and the black prole in the same “class”? In 10 or 20 years, maybe; today, no, IMO. They both occupy the same horizontal layer of the social pyramid but there is a vertical line of separation between them.

Perhaps a better question to ask is whether Fussell’s analysis is dated. In noting the death of the American lower middle class due to economic forces in the 1960s and '70s, Fussell acknowledged a society’s class structure can change significantly in a short period of time. And his book dates from 1983. How well does it describe the America of 2004?

Another insightful analysis – albeit one limited to the upper strata – is provided by Michael Lind in The Next American Nation (New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1996), pp. 141-145:

All of the above is about the white overclass. In Lind’s analysis there is also a black overclass and a Hispanic overclass, but they are socially separate and distinct groups, with only limited intermarriage with the white overclass. They lack the white overclass’s financial independence, and mostly work in civil service jobs and corporate middle management. In fact they are salaried dependents of the white overclass. (Think Clarence Thomas.)

Socio-economics I’d guess…that and perhaps education and upbringing.

Probably by subconscious cue’s. The way they are dressed, speech and mannerisms, attitudes and positions on things, etc. It pigeonholes people into a ‘slot’ that I suppose could be broadly defined as ‘class’.

In the US? I think it’s pretty easy to move between the ‘classes’, especially if we define them more broadly than just economic. Even economic it’s pretty easy to move between classes in the US. It varies in other countries of course. It was damn hard to move between the more ridged ‘class’ structure in Mexico for my family (and still is for the family I still have living there)…it wasn’t impossible, just more difficult.

Its mostly irrelevant in the US today…at least as I define ‘class’…because the term ‘class’ is basically meaningless. Class meant something in earlier cultures when you had a rigid caste system in place, or when movement between classes was severely restricted (or even completely restricted). When education wasn’t available at all for the lower ‘classes’ there was a huge gap. Now, there is certainly a monetary gap…but a poor Hispanic can get essentially the same education as a rich white. He can learn the same things about economics, politics, language, engineering, etc.

Just look at people of the same economic level…they differ radically within their own ‘class’ level. A Hispanic on the west coast has radically different attitudes than a black making the same amount on the east coast…or a white making the same amount in the south. Hell, two Hispanic’s making the same amount differ if one lives in the South West and one lives in the North East.

‘Class’, as far as in America, is IMO basically a meaningless term…just like ‘race’ is. It’s a hold over (in the US) from earlier times. There ARE no real ‘races’…and in the US there really isn’t a homogenous ‘class’. Wealthy people on the East Coast are a hell of a lot different in their attitudes, politics, priorities, etc, than a wealthy person in the South West, the North West, the West Coast, etc. Hell, even on the East Coast you have wealthy liberals and wealthy conservatives…and they are pretty radically different in more ways than just their politics.


The easiest way to determine an individual’s social class is by rolling 2d10:

01-10 Lower Lower Class
11-20 Middle Lower Class
21-30 Upper Lower Class
31-45 Lower Middle Class
46-70 Middle Middle Class
71-85 Upper Middle Class
86-95 Lower Upper Class
96-99 Middle Upper Class
00 Upper Upper Class

Piece of cake!

If it wasn’t for low class,
I wouldn’t have no class
at all…

I just look at the type of vehicle the person drives. That tells me everything I need to know.

:stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue: :stuck_out_tongue:

No, he can’t, x, not without getting a whole lot of rare lucky breaks. And if he does get the same education, he still can’t do all the same things with it a rich white can. Connections and the “old boy network” still count for a lot,

And white skin privilege still exists. A white hillbilly who gets a good education, works hard, gets rich, and moves into an expensive condo complex is accepted by his new neighbors as one of them. A black from the projects who does the same is still just a nigger in a Jaguar. That’s how it is. For now.

2000 Nissan Maxima SE.

I await judgement with trepidation :D.

  • Tamerlane

I have to actually see it, both the exterior and interior, to make the decision. This is a science, not just some snap judgement! :slight_smile:

msmith: -How easy/difficult is it to move between classes?
-What are some of the barriers to moving between classes?

xt: * Even economic it’s pretty easy to move between classes in the US.*

Insofar as “class” means “income level” (and other people have done a good job of pointing out some of the differences between those categories), the answer seems to be that it’s easier to move between classes in the US than in many other places, but it’s harder than it used to be.

An article in Business Week in 2003 discussed some of the issues of America’s declining income mobility:

If income mobility barriers continue to grow more rigid, we can probably expect to see other types of “class distinctions” tighten up too. One of the things that keeps class distinctions loose is high intergenerational class mobility: if your grandfather lived in a small house in a poor quarter of town and you visited him there a lot and hung out at the corner store with him and his friends, then even if you grow up to be a limo-riding CEO, you probably will remain comfortable with lower-class environments. If, on the other hand, everybody in your family was in the limo-riding CEO class, you’ll have a harder time understanding how the other half lives.

Whew! For awhile I thought I was just common upper-middle class!

I would say that the most visible differences in class can be seen in higher education. For one, it is the oldest point in most peoples life where they have not been forced to make their own way in the world yet, so they are still very much defined by how they were raised. Secondly, education itself somewhat defines a persons “class”. Thirdly, for many people, it is the first time they have been forced to mingle with people of different backgrounds.

One thing I noticed in college was how quickly people who grew up in the same class identified each other, even though on the surface, there is very little outward difference in appearance (in all fairness, my school was rather homogenius anyway with most of the student body ranging from middle class to wealthy). “Oh we went to the same summer camp in Massachusettes”, “You went to Choate? Yeah we played you in lacross.”, “Your family has a house in Spring Lake? Sorry East Hampton.”

Probably the biggest barrier between classes is attitude toward wealth and prosperity. Lower classes will wear shirts with a giant POLO logo in 6 inch letters across the back like a NASCAR sponser while upper classes wear the more subdued classic horse logo on the breast pocket.

My girlfriend went to college a few miles away from my school. While similar, her school was definitely skewed more to the Middle Class. The student body, while coming from families with similar incomes, tended to travel shorter distances to go to school there and tended to stay closer upon graduating. They viewed people from my school as a bunch of rich arrogant alchoholic druggies like characters out of a Bret Easton Ellis book or something. Of course we had a lot of them too. On the other hand, my school was not in the same class as the Harvards and Princetons of the world.

As for how much class matters, probably not that much. My girlfriends family runs the entire specrum of the socioecomic latter. Her parents aren’t very wealthy and live in a rural area while her cousin is part owner of a Major League baseball team. And she has aunts and uncles and cousins all in between -lawyers, high school soccer coaches, what have you.

Anyhow I have to go eat. More thoughts later

hhmmm… lets go to the nitty gritty of class discrimination:

1st - Check out the shoes. Bad shoes are a give away.
2nd - Overall clothes check. Good quality and good taste ? Belts especially.
3rd - Wrist watch… a good and fancy watch might mean some economic power. Too flashy might mean a “noveau riche”.

4th - Teeth. More money means better dentist work and getting teeth fixed.
5th - Overall demeanor and posture.

6th Now depending on the country you’d check out skin color… and during conversation cultural references and general culture, and age.

I’m not going to be politically correct about this topic. We all “measure” people all the time. Even if I don’t want to label someone… I see the give away details that mark someone as lower middle class in Brazil quite easily for example. I also figure out when someone is rich… but they weren’t born so.

Education and culture also determine “class” a lot. You’d be surprised how people determine “class” during conversation. The higher the class… the more educated you might have to be… and the interests might be different too. I’ve never played golf… so I doubt I’d be able to mingle with the CEO crowd for example. I couldn’t keep up with a much younger group either talking about computer games. Music tastes too point out class.

University education in Brazil isn’t as widespread as in the US for example… and interest in politics isn’t that common outside of these circles. Getting a higher education in Brazil means being in the 3-4% group.

To answer the question in a market research context, there is a standard socio-economic classification system, also known as social grade.

In Britain, the standard classification system is A, B, C1, C2, D, E - all a bit Brave New World. Essentially, an individual is graded according to his/ her income band and profession (or the houshold’s income and main breadwinner’s profession). As a bishop, or bishop’s spouse, you get A status even if you have no or little income. I don’t know if the system is exactly the same in the US. However, researchers on both sides of the Atlantic often look at data analysed by education level and pure income group as well as this socio-economic dimension.

Another system used by marketers is entirely based on neighbourhood. These systems were developed because the six-way social grade system was felt to be too crude, and because they are suited to direct mail campaigns. All the neighbourhoods in a country are classified into clusters - 36 in the system I have seen. One example of a cluster might be inner city/ high density housing/ middle income/ small households/ high proportion of retired people.

However, the distinction between old money and new money is normally overlooked in these systems.

I find class differences to be a fascinating subject: here in NE, we have a very entrenched class of “Old Mone” people. These folks have been rich so long that they have no need to display their affluence. They live in drafty old houses, which are usually decaying. They also dress conservatively, and drive older american cars (no $300,000- Maybach sedans for them). They send their kids to prep schools, and prefer tastless, mushy kinds of food (like brown bread and baked beans).
And, they are exceedingly cheap…one old Bostonian family lady was once complemented on her choice of hats…she was asked where she bought them. To this she replied: “we don’t buy them, we have them”!

I’m glad you brought this up. Fussell discusses this very aspect, describing how the members of the “top-out-of-sight” class drive 20-year-old beater Plymouths and Chevrolets. Again, however, this betrays a strong Northeastern provincialism; you would definitely not see the same sort of people driving the same sort of cars in L.A. Though it’s also arguable that you couldn’t really find the same sort of people in L.A. by definition. Be that as it may, I love Fussell’s book and have read my copy to pieces. (Interestingly, for those familiar with the book, if you don’t know what Dr. Fussell looks like…he looks very much llike his own classic “prole”, if you look at the side-by-side drawing of a coarse-looking prole next to an equally exaggeratedly effete “aristocrat”.)

I’ve heard of a classic NE proverb: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”

One point Lind made was that the feminist revolution has had the unexpected effect of making social mobility between generations more difficult. In the '50s, a male doctor might marry his nurse, a male lawyer might marry his secretary – who might well be a woman of humbler social origin than himself. Nowadays we have “assortative mating” – a male doctor is likelier to marry a female doctor, a male lawyer a female lawyer, etc. In terms of gender equity this is a good thing, but it tends to freeze class lines.