Beyond Stereotypes: What Makes a Good Representation of the Working Class?

The working class is everywhere these days – in the dozens of reality TV shows about work, in media analysis of the Republican race for the presidential nomination, and in recent reports on economic inequality.  While the Occupy movement isn’t necessarily about the working class, and there are real divides within the 99%, the movement has helped change the meaning of the term “class warfare,” making it harder for conservatives to use it to denigrate any effort to talk about economic justice.  Given recent history, the presence of the working class in public discourse shouldn’t surprise us.

The increase in attention is real and significant.  A check of three news databases – Lexis/Nexis, Newspaper Source, and Newsbank – suggests that the number of stories that include the phrase “working class” has more than tripled over the last two decades.  A Newsbank search of articles in news magazines, for example, found 212 articles mentioning the working class in 1991 and 1992, but a search for 2010 and 2011 listed 778.  Newspaper Source, which searches newspapers, news wires, transcripts, and magazines, tracked an increase from 117 items in 1991-92 to 5774 in 2010-2011.  These numbers may not provide an exact count of what’s happened. Earlier articles may not have been entered into these online databases, which were just getting started in 1991, and the number of news outlets has grown with digital media.  But even given those issues, it seems as if the American media are talking about the working class much more now than they were 20 years ago.

Is it merely coincidence that the first working-class studies conference was held here at Youngstown State 20 years ago?  Several colleagues have suggested that new working-class studies has helped draw attention to the working class. Within this field, scholars, artists, and activists who share a concern about the working class have often noted that American media tend to either ignore or stereotype the working class.  Well, they’re certainly not ignoring the working class these days, so we seem to have made progress.  But have we gotten beyond the stereotypes?

Of course not.  If nothing else, reality TV shows like Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Moonshiners suggest that at least one old-style working-class stereotype – the redneck, white country boy – is alive and well.  So, too, is the idea of the white blue-collar factory worker, a down-to-earth guy who’s proud of the work he does and enjoys a cold one at the end of the day. And then there are all the reporters and commentators analyzing whether Mitt Romney can attract enough white working-class voters to win the Republican nomination over the supposedly more working-class Rick Santorum, a discussion that explains Santorum’s appeal by noting his coal miner grandfather, his traditional values, and his ordinary guy persona.

On the other hand, some recent public discourse about the working class suggests that some of the ideas that we’ve been discussing at working-class studies conferences for the past two decades are being heard beyond academic walls.  Consider, for example, Charles Murray’s new book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010.  No doubt, Murray’s argument that the white working class is in decline because it lacks morality and self-discipline is troubling, and a number of critics have already pointed out the problems with this analysis, especially his habit of assigning to culture social changes that are rooted in economics.  Yet we can’t accuse him of mere stereotyping.  Two recent reports by one of the best reporters on working-class issues, Sabrina Tavernise of the New York Times, corroborate two of Murray’s main claims:  that the working-class lags far behind the middle and upper class on educational attainment and that single motherhood is increasingly common for women without college degrees.  Part of what makes Tavernise’s reports so good is that, unlike Murray, she identifies economic reasons for these cultural patterns, rather than suggesting that they reflect moral or intellectual weaknesses.

And yet, Murray’s approach suggests that he understands a key idea of working-class studies: like Barbara Jensen, Jack Metzgar, and others, he views class not solely in terms of economic position but also as a matter of culture.  I wish he’d paid more attention to the idea that working-class culture has some real strengths, such as the strong family and community ties that Jensen identifies, but I’m still pleased that his book has gotten people thinking about class in more cultural terms.  Murray also defines the working class not by income but by a combination of education and occupation, an approach that at least in part reflects the complex understanding of class in new working-class studies.

The working-class value of fostering communal ties rather than focusing on individual achievement was a core theme of Chrysler’s much-discussed “Halftime in America” ad.  Clint Eastwood’s gravelly voice speaks in terms of “we” and “us,” and he reminds us that because the people of Detroit “all pulled together,” the auto industry there has recovered.

Both that ad and another GE ad also challenge the whiteness of so much of public discourse about the working class.  Chrysler shows images of white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and other American people, some looking gravely at the camera, others working, dropping kids off at school, driving a car.  GE shows workers at a Kentucky appliance factory, men and women, white and black, talking about why their jobs matter.

Of course, these ads still draw on a fairly narrow, traditional definition of the working class — the industrial worker.  I’d like to see the media develop better strategies to show us the majority of today’s working class – the janitors, retail clerks, home health care workers, and so on.  For too many people, “working class” still brings to mind a factory worker, not a cashier, and that contributes to continued misunderstanding not only of who the working class is but of what issues matter to the working class.  But then I’m reminded of the question someone once asked after I introduced myself as the co-director of the Center for Working-Class Studies:  do we still have a working class in America?  What she meant, I think, is that all the blue-collar jobs had disappeared.  But while most working-class jobs these days are in the service sector, there’s some value to remembering that factory jobs still exist and still matter.

We’ve spent so much time talking about how the media gets it wrong.  Maybe we also need to talk about what it means to get it right. Clearly, we’ve made gains in the quantity of media attention to the working class. But how are we doing on quality? What do you think makes a good representation of the working class?

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

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8 Responses to Beyond Stereotypes: What Makes a Good Representation of the Working Class?

  1. I wonder if this isn’t a question that could be empirically answered.

    Our difficulty, I suspect, is that we’re using a single term — “working class” — to describe a richly nuanced classification. Inevitably, then, no matter what “shorthand” we choose to quickly tag class members, we’re going to fall short of the “long-form” classification: We’re going to get a fair number of false positives (and false negatives) because our classification methodology was too crude.

    I think the classic view was that one’s social class was whatever _others_ said it was. (So just because _I_ think I’m upper-middle class, doesn’t mean anybody else agrees. And their disagreement means I’m wrong.) But others, in classifying me, consider a wholistic porridge of things — some of which they may not even be consciously aware of themselves (perhaps I resemble their dad, who was a real upright working class kind of guy). Worse, different members among these “others” may be using different criteria. But it is their _collective_ judgement that counts.

    Would it be possible to design a study where subjects classified others, told us why / how, and then we teased out, from the data, what the heavily weighted factors (& combinatorics) must have been. Perhaps we could have people watch a movie and then classify the characters therein. This way we’d have multiple judgements on single targets. This might also have the advantage that we would know the “objective” characteristics of the target being classified. Of course, we’d have to guard against the possibility that we’re just getting the movie director’s class definitions fed back to us (with amplification).


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  3. Larry Hanley says:

    As Sherry persuasively documents: class is back! And, the recent “return” to class seems to be following a familiar historical pattern: class as part of a populist rhetoric counterposing the “little man/woman” vs. “them.” For the moment, “them” seems to be sliding more toward the corporations, the 1%, the elite, etc. This is a tricky rhetoric however – – the populist flavor of class talk can swing both ways – – the racial populism of Nixon/Reagan vs the economic populism of the New Deal, etc.

    The question of “good” representations is important. However, I wouldn’t want it to be trapped in a kind of statistical or demographic “realism.” E.g. how “accurate” are mass culture representations of the working class? Mass culture after all is the realm of fantasy, myth, imagination; it’s often a place where cultures talk about things by not talking about them. From the Sopranos to Law and Order to The Walking Dead, work and class continue to supply the weekly meat of t.v. comedy and drama. The IMDB (Internet Movie Database) top 10 Most Popular Feature Films released in 2011 includes movies like “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” “Tower Heist,” “Drive,” “Immortals,” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Except for Tower Heist, the other four films don’t deal directly with class or class conflict. But certainly it’s not to difficult to see how “Ghost Rider” (about a leather-clad biker with supernatural powers) or “Drive” (featuring a driver and a mechanic), “Immortals” (about humble humans battling a ruthless, supernaturally-connected tyro-aristocrat), or “Girl with Dragon Tattoo (whose hero is an inked-up, body-arted post-punk female outsider), could be read and enjoyed – – in different ways – – as tales about class and, more importantly, class conflict. Because class – – and especially class difference – – is so integral to contemporary American experience, mass culture narrative depends on representations of class and class conflict – – even if those representations don’t always arrive wearing denim and advocating solidarity.

    I guess another ways of seeing this is to think about the “good” in good. We often judge goodness in terms of accuracy or fairness – – how well a representation mirrors some version of reality. But another way of thinking about good is in terms of action and effects. E.g. a “good” representation is one that does good work – – whatever its content. For instance, death metal – – and the 47 other varieties of heavy metal music – – may help to animate and clarify working-class consciousness despite its apparent lyrical content. The same could be said of rap (and its 47 varieties) and the role of salsa in some immigrant communities. In other words, good isn’t just a question of what’s pictured, but of how that picture does things, how people (working-class, middle-class, etc.) use it to think about, imagine, and experience class identities and relations. E.g. a good representation might also be one that does “good” things.


  4. Barb Weaver says:

    It looks like the “working class” that’s depicted in the media these days is actually the 21st century’s poverty class. I considered myself working class/poverty class four years ago when I was working full-time as a clerical worker (numeric data entry) in a financial institution. I was making less than $10.00 an hour when I and approximately 170 coworkers (mostly women) were laid off. Since the layoff, I’ve been working a part-time minimum wage job (Internet research) and living in public housing out in the middle of nowhere away from all the NIMBYers…and everything else.
    So now I’m just poverty class and the things I see, hear and smell in this place (due in part to shoddy building design and materials) are indeed a reality. That is, living conditions contribute to the creation and perpetuation of certain behaviors (etc.) if not stereotypes.

    PS: I don’t have TV. I googled Hillbilly Handfishin’ and Moonshiners.


  5. David Byrne says:

    Interestingly whilst class is back in the UK discourse the term ‘working class’ as a description in the media seems to have become almost separated from its traditional connection with industrial workers, partly perhaps because the UK has so massively deindustrialized, and instead is attached to the poorest and most excluded people. See for example the book ‘Chavs – the demonization of the working class’ by Own Jones. Jones is attacking that demonization which takes the form of a cultural assault but is also associated with a major reconfiguration of the UK benefits system which is massively reducing entitlement rights in the teeth of growing unemployment. By the way New ‘Labour’ was all for this and hasn’t, even in opposition, worked up steam against it. In the industrial UK the term ‘working class’ was happily accepted as a personal identity by many who might count as middle class in the US and many of the UK’s new middle class come from industrial working class backgrounds, not least because of activist working class families commitment to education as a means to mobility, but their experiences have, until very recently, not been part of the discourse of class. The current crisis is changing that particularly in relation to public sector workers.


  6. Lowell May says:

    The dominant culture of capitalism inevitably represents workers according to subordinate status. It is through the actual collective production of socially useful things that workers define themselves as commodity creators and not commodity consumers. Both notions co-exist in minds of workers. Occasionally, the self-consciousness as subject/producers predominates. The need to create a new worker-based power structure and alternative non-hierarchical methods of operating as a society become, as we see now, both necessary and possible. Only when workers have a platform to define themselves with the dignity we deserve as producers and creators, only then will the working class be properly represented.


  7. It sounds like you have a really narrow view of “working class” – basically, a White Archie Bunker stereotype.

    Working class is an ECONOMIC category and includes everybody who works for wages, regardless of race, ethnic background, national origin or culture.


  8. Roy Wilson says:

    I think part of the difficulty is the overlap between “class” and “status”.

    Historians Sean Wilentz and David Montgomery suggest that much of the identity of pre-WWI “working-class” was centered on control of the workplace. The original struggle for control, which some suggest ended during WWII, may have been as much (if not more) about status as class..

    The book Social Class: How Does It Work, edited by Annette Lareau and Dalton Conley, 2008, Rusell Sage Foundation, New York, NY offers some analysis of these concepts. In “Two Oppositions in studies of class: A reflection”, John Goldthorpe suggests that (the sociologist) Max Weber distinguishes between “class and status as two different forms of social stratification.”.Status is a “quite different relational structure of inequality to class. Status has to do with which people you treat as your social equals, which you regard as your superiors, and which as your inferiors.” As someone who may have been (and may still be) a “member” of “the” working class, the above distinction is especially relevant:


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