Friday, June 22, 2012

Class stratification

Marketplace has a good story on (increasingly rare) marriages across class divides. The whole thing is worth a listen but this part in particular caught my ear.
That doesn’t come as a surprise to Susan Fiske, a professor of psychology and public policy at Princeton. She looks at how social class shapes our daily interactions. “It’s rude to talk about somebody being more privileged than somebody else,” Fiske says. “Social class is such a taboo topic in American society.”  
Fiske’s research sounds like a warning label for couples like Rider and Heavener. Consider the experiment where Fiske put volunteers in MRIs, and showed them pictures of people from different classes. When they got to the photos of really poor people, the part of the brain that normally lights up when we see another human being just didn’t light up. “What we find is that people say it’s hard to think about this person as a three-dimensional human being,” Fiske says.
I've been becoming more and more convinced that class identification has been growing more powerful for the past four decades (with the caveat that the identification is asymmetric; it extends up but not down). The experience of the Great depression and the war had, I suspect, greatly reduced group identification in economic classes. The war had entailed remarkable shared sacrifice and collective action while the Depression had deeply impressed on most Americans the possibility that they too could be among destitute someday. When LBJ was pushing through the Great Society, all of the electorate were born before 1945 (the 26th amendment was still years away)

People.born after the war had almost the opposite experience. They grew up in a period of great economic security and growth. The notion of "there but for the grace of God go I" was almost entirely foreign to them. Under these circumstances it would be difficult to imagine empathy for the poor not dropping.

What amazes me though is how far we've gone and how completely we've internalized these somewhat Randian class attitudes. Mass incarceration is seen as a way of maintaining social order. The same journalists who rail against overpaid teachers will be genuinely moved by the hardships of people scraping by on 300K. A political party in an election year loudly complains that the majority of Americans should pay more taxes so we can make the system less progressive.

Of course, all these examples involve a fairly rarefied group of leaders and opinion makers. Perhaps there's some hope for the rest of us.

p.s. Should have worked in a link to this previous post on the subject.

1 comment:

  1. "The same journalists who rail against overpaid teachers will be genuinely moved by the hardships of people scraping by on 300K."

    That really is one of the more amazing contradictions that has emerged in the past few years. The original example was a University of Chicago professor and his medical doctor wife, which would both be professions heavily aided by government subsidy.