“By My Lights” and “Studies Have Shown”

Recently while writing an article, I found myself using an old-time expression I don’t think I have ever used in writing before: “by my lights,” which means something like “in my view.”  It’s an expression I heard a lot growing up in a working-class family decades ago and still hear among the old-timers of my generation.  Though I sometimes use it in conversation, I thought it might be obscure and/or too colloquial for readers, but the meticulous editor of the piece let it pass without comment.

Then as I read Barbara Jensen’s new book Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America, I thought about notions I’ve had for some time about a distinct working-class epistemology that is often more complex and sophisticated than the standard educated middle-class one.   Reading Classes lays out in detail what Jensen sees as competing class cultures, with special emphasis on how middle-class cultural imperialism in schools (from kindergarten to graduate school) makes life and learning more difficult for working-class students.

Though the book is rich in showing oppositions between categorically distinct working-class and middle-class cultures, Jensen’s effort is to put the cultures into dialogue with each other so that they can benefit from each other’s strengths and compensate for their contrary weaknesses.  Firmly based in a memoir of her own experience as a working-class girl who became (somewhat accidentally) middle class, Jensen draws on a wide range of social science studies to supplement her own direct observation as a counseling psychologist, especially of mixed-class couples and high school students.  In doing that, she brings together what I take to be contrary but potentially complementary epistemologies, captured perhaps by the expressions “by my lights” and “studies have shown.”

In my undergraduate classes, I have long warred against the usage “studies have shown” because of its passive-voice exaggeration of the certainty of conclusions drawn from social science studies.  I read a fair number of such studies, and I have yet to come upon one whose data would not support more than one interpretation, no matter how rigorous the research methodology.   I encourage students to use somewhat more awkward phrasing that acknowledges that fallible human beings are actively drawing conclusions from their study – e.g., “researchers [or even “experts”] who have made systematic studies of X have concluded that . . .” Studies do not “find” things or “show” things.  People do.

Systematic studies by people who are knowledgeable about what has been thought and said in their discipline or field of study should be given greater weight than my or my students’ off-hand impressions based on our direct observation and experience.  But, like our off-hand impressions, studies are products of creative human thought.  And one of my off-hand impressions is that one out of three times when the expression “studies have shown” is used it actually means “shut the fuck up.”  That is, it is an educated middle-class bullying tactic to close off discussion by an appeal to authority.

At least as it is reported in both mainstream and, especially, progressive media, this often seems to be the case with disputes about teaching climate change and evolution in public schools.  Without discounting the ideological power politics of local school boards, I don’t see why popular skepticism about scientific findings (even in the natural sciences) does not present opportunities for educating students about the values and procedures of scientific methods, let alone for the exercise and development of critical thinking.   In any case, dismissing and thereby disrespecting popular skepticism strengthens that skepticism – or, rather, has a tendency to turn skepticism into ideologically rigid resistance.   Thus, my war on “studies have shown” in undergraduate general education courses is part of gaining students’ respect for such studies by requiring them to think about the conclusions experts have derived from them – and not simply learn to repeat “what studies have shown.”

On the other hand, in my experience working-class adults have a strong tendency to give too much weight to their own direct observation and experience.  There is a clear strength to this, as they are often very complex interpreters of what they have seen and lived.  But it can often cause them to discount the value of “book-learning” and “abstractions,” and it can be difficult for them to articulate their interpretations of their direct observation and experience in a mixed-class, mixed-race, mixed-everything public setting.  On the plus side, though, “by my lights” is one of several expressions whereby people acknowledge that not only is their own observation and experience necessarily limited – that is, they know they’re only seeing or feeling one small part of a massive elephant – but that they also are bringing their own unique framework, their way of seeing and thinking, to their report/interpretation of that experience.  And, in most cases, the expression invites others to share how they see things by their lights while firmly asserting the value of one’s own lights.  That is, I fancy that there is a grassroots working-class relativism that thinks and lives within an experientially based subjectivity that claims a large space (often too large, in my view) for belief and faith, but that also sees a path to truth in inter-subjective dialogue – usually looking for confirmation, but existentially open to correction and refinement by how others read their different experiences.

The educated middle-class, on the other hand, while officially recognizing a thorough-going epistemological relativism (“observation interferes” even in physics), has a strong tendency to overestimate the number and certainty of “known facts,” to confuse “evidence” with “proof,” and to try to “escape” from belief through the use of rigorous methodologies that can overcome or get beyond “subjective biases.”  The whole project of the sciences (social as well as natural) is to design and implement methods that get researchers free not only of their own subjectivity, but of all subjectivity so that they can “find” objective truth.  These efforts can sometimes be quixotic and are often highly disingenuous, but over the past several centuries they have compiled an impressive array of “known facts” that could not have been derived from undisciplined sharing of beliefs and experiences.  Though the arts and humanities operate very differently, placing much more emphasis on the interpretation of direct experience, interior as well as exterior, we generally respect and pay deference to “scientific truth” without thinking that it is all there is.   But we too tend to overestimate how large what is known is and the degree of certainty with which it is known.

If I had my way, there would be more experimentation with putting these two contrary, but potentially complementary epistemologies together.  Barbara Jensen’s Reading Classes is not the first to do that within Working-Class Studies, but it is the most thorough and comprehensive (and admirably risky) attempt so far.   There are more such efforts in progress.  Christine Walley, for example, who spoke at last year’s How Class Works conference, will soon publish Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago.  Walley calls it an “autoethnography.” The book begins with her childhood recollections of the day her father lost his job when Wisconsin Steel shut down forever, and Walley uses anthropological methods to understand the long arm of consequences deindustrialization continues to visit not only on her family and its neighborhood but on a whole world of meanings and relationships that extend well beyond.

By my lights, these and other working-class studies have shown that there is a lot more to life and learning than is dreamt of in an exclusively middle-class philosophy.  But that’s true of a working-class one as well.  Cross-class coalitions, besides being crucial to our politics going forward, have a vast, nearly untapped potential for cultural sharing — not just of information and ideas, but of different ways of knowing.   With Reading Classes and Exit Zero we are better able to tap some of that potential.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

Class and the Olympics

By the time you read this the Olympics and Paralympics will be over in London. Both sets of games have been very popular in Britain and have stimulated thousands of column inches of media interest.  In amongst the coverage of sport the issue of class has emerged in a number of different contexts.

Even before the games had begun Londoners’ ire was raised by the dedicated ‘Games Lanes’ dedicated to traffic of the Olympic ‘family.’ In amongst the grumbles was a noticeable critique that these transport arteries seemed to be more about ferrying elite members of the ‘family’ from their five-star hotels in West London and less about getting competing athletes to their venues –the West end of London has always been the poshest part of the city due to the prevailing winds.  Industry, and the majority of working-class communities who worked in them, tended to be planted in the East end where the Games were located. When challenged on this exclusivity, Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rather bizarrely claimed that his Committee were workers and that “We are working-class people.” Defending the IOC encampment in the Park Lane Hilton, Rogge made an argument about workers like himself and his colleagues  needing adequate conditions and was quoted as saying “I am sorry but in three-star hotels you will not find the facilities there are in this hotel: conference rooms, simultaneous translations- this is something only more upscale hotels have.” To be fair, I find the same myself.

Arguably the most interesting and deeper reflection on class came in the debate stimulated over the social and educational background of British medal winners, especially the over-representation of privately educated medal winners among the successes. This sparked a debate about the lack of opportunity of access less well-off children and young people get to certain sports, such as rowing and especially the equestrian events. While the privately educated make up 7% of Britain’s population, privately educated athletes at one point had won over 60% of the medals.  This proportion later improved, but not before Conservative politicians and media attempted to explain the disparity by claiming that this was proof that state schools discouraged competitive sport rather than structural and cultural issues around access to training facilities and equipment.

Class, or rather working-class history, was reasonably well represented in the Olympic opening ceremony. While it may have left most of the world’s viewing audience mildly bemused, the show included many nods to working-class politics and class struggle. Most obvious was the part of the performance where the utopia of pre-industrial rural England was swept aside by the industrial revolution. Stovetop-hatted capitalists gathered in small huddles surveying the creation of dark satanic mills, or at least their chimneys, tended to by a grimy faced proletariat. Again, some right-wingers saw this and other aspects of the show as evidence of left-wing bias, and the director being ‘anti-business.’ Even more interesting was the way this narrative of work and class was conveniently constrained to the representation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an amusing postscript to that aspect of the performance, the next day three of the volunteer actors who played the ‘factory hands’ in the ceremony were interviewed on national television. The curious interviewer asked the group what their day jobs were in real life. Their individual answers gave a fascinating insight in to the changing nature of Britain’s economy: the first was a civil servant, the second an accountant, and the third worked in ‘new media.’ So Britain’s industrial workers of the past were played by middle-class workers of the new economy.

There were, of course, many real workers on site during the opening ceremony, most notably at its climax where construction workers involved in building parts of the Olympic Park at Stratford formed a guard of honour for the Olympic flame as it entered the stadium. Of course, the comprehensive commentary didn’t mention that at least one of the construction firms working on the site is under investigation for blacklisting workers and compiling a database of those who raised concerns about workplace health and safety. These included trade unionists as well as non- activist workers who had particular concerns.  More embarrassing for the Conservative Party was that at least one of the firms involved in this illegal activity – Sir Robert McAlpine – was a substantial corporate donor to the Party.

One final aspect of class around the Olympics, and especially the Olympic Park itself, can be seen in the erasure of evidence of working-class culture and industry on the site.  Much of the commentary on the games focused on the role of regeneration of what was usually referred to as a “post-industrial wasteland.” This ignored the fact that many working-class jobs and working-class communities had been moved after the games were awarded to London back in 2005 in order to make room for the Olympic Park. While this erasure was not of the scale seen in Beijing, it was nonetheless notable. The immediate site itself and the wider Lea Valley area that surrounds it were home to a range of industries, including the manufacture of armaments, and this was  where gasoline was first refined. St. Etienne made a fascinating film about the area in 2005 called What have you done today, Mervyn Day? More historically but also ignored by commentators,  the games sat directly on the site of what was once the largest locomotive construction and repair shops in the world, where for a century and a half thousands of workers had built and maintained rolling stock for the Great Eastern and other railway companies. The local authority has an oral history section featuring some of those who worked at the site.

So class was strangely both absent and present at the London games in the summer of 2012. At times it was portrayed in graphic historical terms but not as something live in the present. Working-class culture, protest, and struggle were boxed off in a past represented by bygone industry, the parts of industrial workers played by members of the new economy. But for those of us who take the time to look, working-class culture surrounded both the sport played in the venues and the sites themselves.  In four years time it with be Rio’s turn to host the games, I wonder what stories of class will be told or left untold then. But as Jacques Rogge claims, the IOC are “working-class people,” so surely we can count on them?

Tim Strangleman

Voting on the American Dream

In between the Republican and Democratic conventions, I was asked to review an article concerning the attitudes of displaced workers toward their plight. The study suggested that cultural narratives shape the social and political consciousness of those suffering economic distress in both positive and negative ways.  The article made me think about the convention speeches and the impact that they may have on working- and middle-class listeners whose lives have been disrupted by the Great Recession. How might they use the words and cultural narratives suggested in the convention speeches?

The New York Times actually tracked how often the Republicans and Democrats used certain words at their conventions. Other than the names of the presidential candidates, God, and taxes, the most common terms at both conventions were work, jobs, families, opportunity, economy, and success. All of these terms are closely associated with the American Dream, which was also mentioned frequently.

The frequent use of these words is to be expected, given that the American Dream has been the most dominant aspirational and cultural narrative in our county. Among other things, the American Dream suggests that through hard work and education individuals could improve their standard of living and that improvement would continue for each successive generation.  But that narrative has become contested because of declining socio-economic conditions and downward class mobility. A question now being heard, as noted in an NPR story last spring, is whether the American Dream is still viable, or has it become a nightmare?

To answer that, it helps to consider the political uses of the American Dream.  Political economists have suggested that it has served hegemonic purposes, allowing small but powerful groups to exercise political power with high levels of popular consent. In the case of the American Dream, they suggest, elites have used this powerful narrative to create a social and political consciousness that would not threaten the privileged.  For example, some elites argue that success is the product individual effort and not government or collective support.  A recent example appeared in the Republican convention, which emphasized the claim that “We  Built It” in response to President Obama’s suggestion that businesses don’t build the roads and infrastructure that allow their enterprises to succeed.

But what happens when the American Dream becomes discredited?  Does it lose its ability to shape political consciousness? As the Occupy Movement has shown, the American Dream has been betrayed, and today the story of America is characterized by injustice, inequality, and unfairness.  But that movement created what’s called a counter-hegomonic narrative, a story that made clear that the Dream is no longer attainable.  A narrative emphasizing the betrayal of the American Dream could play a powerful role in shaping social and political attitudes and in deciding the election this year, as the study I mentioned earlier suggested.

Of course, candidates still insist on citing the American Dream in their speeches.  But while some people still find hope in that narrative, others recognize that their own situation reveals the Dream’s contradictions. So what will be the dominant influence?  Hope?  Or a change in the way we think about the American Dream?

I suspect that people will look more critically at the limitations of the American Dream narrative than they have in most previous elections. A recent Pew Research study shows that Americans increasingly define themselves as lower class. The greatest shifts occurred among adults under 30, especially whites and Hispanics and those without a college degree (whom pollsters often consider working-class), though many who have college degrees also identified as lower class.  The pattern holds across political affiliations, among Democrats, Republicans, and independents. More important, those who identified as lower class also supported the idea that hard work doesn’t guarantee success, and they expressed little optimism for the future.

Given that, politicians would do well to go beyond embracing the American Dream and instead identify clear strategies for renewing its viability.  Unfortunately, neither party has been able to suggest anything except increased education,  and they offer few concrete plans to help more people attain that.  Most of the time, the best they can do is make oblique references to raising the standard living and improving trade and manufacturing policies.  Despite their fervent statements of faith in the American Dream, what we’re hearing is mostly aspirational political rhetoric.  And many Americans just aren’t buying it anymore.

That skepticism might, eventually, provide the foundation for broader discontent, which could take many forms.  As Election Day gets closer, perhaps the biggest threat to both parties, but especially the Democrats, is apathy and resignation from voters who no longer believe in the American Dream.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Can Working-Class Women Have It All?

This past summer, Anne-Marie Slaughter generated a tsunami of commentary with her Atlantic cover story about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.”  According to the magazine’s editors, the article broke records for online readers, Facebook likes, and comments, and it inspired response articles in a number of other publications.  Building on that success, the magazine is running another potentially controversial piece on women’s lives this month, Hanna Rosin’s argument that the “hook-up culture” on college campuses is empowering women.

Both writers acknowledge, in different ways, that when they say “women,” they really mean white middle-class straight women.  Slaughter states directly that she was “writing for my demographic—highly educated, well-off women who are privileged enough to have choices in the first place. We may not have choices about whether to do paid work, as dual incomes have become indispensable. But we have choices about the type and tempo of the work we do. We are the women who could be leading, and who should be equally represented in the leadership ranks.”  I appreciate Slaughter making this point; too often, when people write about “women,” they don’t acknowledge class differences.

Yet I also can’t help imagining the potentially productive conversation between a woman from Slaughter’s “demographic” and a working-class woman about strategies for achieving work-life balance.  After all, working-class women have always worked, often in jobs that don’t have clear time and space boundaries (home-based piecework, taking in boarders, child care), and the tension between doing your job and caring for your family is one they’ve navigated for generations.

Rosin ackowledges working-class women more directly in her piece, citing a study by Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton that examined the views of hooking up by college women from different class backgrounds.  They showed that going to college reflects “a classed self-development imperative that discourages relationships but makes hooking up appealing.”  In other words, Rosin suggests, women choose casual sex over committed relationships in order to preserve their ability to, as one young woman put it, “maintain the lifestyle that I’ve grown up with.” Rosin mentions that the working-class women in the study found the hook-up culture “alienating,” but in order to “succeed” in the eyes of their peers, they had to adapt to it.  Those who didn’t were seen as “the dorm tragedies.”  

She also notes, again briefly (perhaps because it doesn’t fit the narrative of her article), that the working-class women “felt trapped between the choice of marrying the disastrous hometown guy who never gets off the couch, and will steal their credit card – or joining a sexual culture that made them uncomfortable.” In her view, it seems, marrying a working-class man is an inherently bad, even foolish choice.  The only other option she can imagine – or the only one that fits her claim that hooking up reflects women’s increasing power — is embracing the hook-up culture.  Obviously, there’s plenty of open space and many options between those two extremes, including the possibility that an educated woman from a working-class background could construct a fulfilling relationship with an uneducated man with whom she shares a home culture.

Having glibly exaggerated the tensions working-class women might feel with the “classed self-development imperative” of higher education, Rosin blithely treats the Yale business-school students she interviewed as representative of most college women.  In truth, they may be more deeply invested than most college students in the individualistic culture of personal advancement that scholars such as Barbara Jensen have associated with the middle class. So while I give Rosin credit for acknowledging the possibility of class differences among college women, her efforts reflect exactly the kinds of stereotyping and blind spots that Jack Metzgar wrote about here a few weeks ago.

 Slaughter overtly excludes working-class women, while Rosin addresses their perspectives in highly problematic ways.  Nevertheless, these two pieces suggest an interesting question: what would it mean for a working-class woman to “have it all”?

Given the differences in values between the working class and the middle class (see Jensen’s new book Reading Classes for a good overview, or click here for an earlier version of her analysis), we can probably begin by speculating that “having it all” for a working-class woman would not be about professional success.   More likely, it would be about finding the balance between hours at work and hours at home, keeping a job and a steady income while being there for her kids — pretty much the same challenge that professional women face. 

So what’s the difference?  Choice, for a start. Privileged women are more likely to have the option to stay at home.  Many also have the financial stability and social capital to work fewer hours, to travel less for their jobs, or to choose a job that is more flexible.  Some earn enough to be able to hire help. One reason we don’t hear much about working-class women debating whether they can have it all is that they have few options.  Most have to work at least one job, and they do forms of work that allow them little if any control over their shifts or working conditions.  Many probably have some choice of which job to do, but many do not.  They do the work that is available, under the conditions that exist, and they do the best they can with their families.  So there’s nothing to debate.  

That’s the standard thinking, right?  But it might not reflect the whole story.  In her 2011 book, For the Family? How Class and Gender Shape Women’s Work, Sarah Damaske argues that while working-class women cite financial need as their reason for working, they are also motivated by the satisfaction they find at work. Working-class women, Damaske suggests, feel pressure to claim that they work in order to fulfill the needs of their families.  Work may be a source of pride and identity for working-class people, but for women, especially, family roles are even more powerful.  Yet in Damaske’s interviews, working-class women also described their jobs as providing intrinsic motivation.  One woman says that it’s her job that “makes me want to get up and go somewhere.” She and others found work meaningful and enjoyable, just like their middle-class sisters.

For professional-class women, the opposite social pressure may well be in play.  They feel pressured to achieve as much as possible in their careers.  For them, choosing the less-demanding job, or worse, choosing to stay at home, feels like a decision that must be defended, while working-class women feel they must justify working.

Working-class and middle-class women are also likely to have different expectations about family life.  In her research for Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life, Annette Lareau found clear differences in how middle-class and working-class families approached raising children. The middle-class version emphasized intentional, organized child development aimed at individual achievement, while the working-class model is less ambitious, built around a vision of more spontaneous, organic development.  The middle-class version is also more labor-intensive for parents, requiring constant juggling of children’s schedules of lessons, soccer games, and other activities.  No wonder professional women struggle to balance work and family.  Even with less flexibility and power in their jobs, working-class women may be able to fit work life and home life together more smoothly, because family life involves fewer activities and less pressure for performance.

As this comparison suggests, talking about “having it all” is never simple.  But this much is: gender is classed.  That’s old news in Working-Class Studies, but it’s a lesson all those pundits talking about women have yet to understand.

Sherry Linkon