SOCIAL CLASS IN THE UNITED STATES: A BRIEF HISTORY
To understand the traditions of social class that have evolved in America, it is important to have a sense of the historical trends and social/material conditions that helped produce them. I begin with a brief summary of the history of the emergence of the middle and working classes in America in the 19th century. I then turn to a discussion of how these cultural trends have in some cases intensified and in other cases fragmented and blurred during the 20th century.
THE EMERGENCE OF THE MIDDLE CLASS
A substantial middle class did not emerge in America until the middle decades of the 19th century (Blumin, 1989; Mahoney, 2005). Before that time, there were what Blumin called "middling" folks: small farmers, skilled workers or artisans, shopkeepers, and the like. These "middling" folks were of modest means compared to the elite citizens of their day, their relatively low social status deriving not only from their limited income but also from the fact that they generally engaged in manual labor. By the middle of the 19th century, however, pressures of industrialization had begun, slowly, to dissolve this "middling" group. As firms grew larger and more complex, specializing different functions, local manufacturies and home-based businesses were replaced by companies and corporations (Porter, 1992; Trachtenberg, 1982).
As firms grew in size and complexity, they began to separate manual laborers from "clerks" and other non-manual workers who handled paperwork and sales, among other duties. First, in small concerns, they simply worked in separate rooms. As cities became more spatially specialized, however, they increasingly worked in completely separate locations. Over time, this distinction between manual and non-manual labor became the key indicator of class 19th century class status. By the 1890s, manual and non-manual workers increasingly inhabited "separate social world[s]" as cities became segregated by class (Blumin, p. 233).
The increasing complexity of the world being created by industrialism was very confusing for an evolving middle class. Rapid urbanization fragmented their “personalized networks,” eroding their ability to transfer their “status from one place to another.” In an increasingly anonymous world, the old systems of patronage and “letters of introduction” lost their controlling force. Partly in response to the loss of this network of personal relationships, the middle class developed more objective standards and qualifications for particular jobs allowing people to act more autonomously. At the same time, the middle class created a range of associations, evolving new discursive processes within these organizations "to deal with their increasing size and impersonality" (Mahoney, 2005, p. 361).
These changes required the development of a broad new set of social practices and self-understandings to help members of the middle class successfully orient themselves in this new "impersonal" world. Increasingly, "one had to forge a self-reliant, confident, and independent sense of identity cut free from reliance on the approbation, support, or referencing of friends, for such contacts were short-lived and less reliable through time" (Mahoney, 2005, p. 363). There was increasing criticism of nepotism and cronyism. “Privacy, confidentiality, and nonjudgmental impartiality, rather than acting for one's 'friends' no matter what the cost . . . , gradually emerged as the new ethical ethos of the middle-class life" (p. 361).
The increasing wealth of the middle class allowed them to purchase larger residences separated from the homes of the “masses,” with multiple rooms for different activities. In these new contexts a particular kind of middle-class "domestic" ideal began to emerge, altering gender roles and “strategies of child nurturance and education” (Blumin, 1989, p. 139). The new middle class "'initiated methods of socialization designed to inculcate values and traits of character deemed essential to middle-class achievement and respectability,' values and traits not of the aggressive entrepreneur but of the 'cautious, prudent small-business man.'" Perhaps most importantly, “children were given greater amounts of formal schooling, a crucial tactic intended to help them secure positions in the expanding nonmanual work force" (p. 187).
During these decades the middle class became an odd kind of “class” that maintained a coherent collective identity through a kind of studied independence. This “brings us face-to-face with a central paradox in the concept of middle-class formation, the building of a class that binds itself together as a social group in part through the common embrace of an ideology of social atomism” (Blumin, 1989, pp. 9-10). A “new character ideal” emerged in this impersonal world: “the team player” able to constantly shift relational ties and work closely with relative strangers.
THE EMERGENCE OF THE WORKING CLASS
“Woe unto the man who stood alone in this pitiless struggle for existence.”
--Montgomery, 1988, p. 88.
Similar processes of industrialization also molded a new working class. At the beginning of the 19th century, an enormous class of wage laborers had been almost unthinkable. But by the end of the century, “wage labor emerged . . . as the definitive working-class experience” (Trachtenberg, 1982, p. 88).
The conditions of industrial work, which by 1900 had captured "more than one third of the population" (Trachtenberg, 1982, p. 87), differed in fundamental ways from the work of “white-collar workers.” Middle class, non-manual workers maintained significant independence, increasingly depending on individual expertise for their continued success. In contrast, in factories the holistic skills of artisans were systematically broken down into separate operations, allowing the hiring of much less skilled workers, holding wages down, and threatening workers' independence on the worksite. By 1886, 65-75% of the labor force was semi- or unskilled. Furthermore, in contrast with the clean offices of the non-manual class, working class labor "was often dirty, backbreaking, and frustrating" (Trachtenberg, 1982, p. 88). Factory workers at the end of the 19th century increasingly worked under the "clock," laboring in settings ruled by "compulsion, force, and fear" (Pollard cited in Braverman, 1974, p. 66).
The uncertain existence of manual workers was made even more difficult by the fragility and unpredictability of the economy of the 19th century. The nation stumbled from depression to depression. In 1875, for example, only one fifth of the population could find regular work (Raybach, 1966). During the 1880s and 1890s business failures rose as high as 95% (Trachtenberg, 1982). As has always been the case, those on the bottom suffered the most through these tumultuous times, as wages in real terms for manual workers fell (see Raybach, 1966). By the end of the 1880s, "about 45 percent of the industrial workers barely held on above the $500-per-year poverty line” and “about 40 percent lived below the line of tolerable existence" (Trachtenberg, 1982, p. 90). As early as "the 1850s inter-class mobility disappeared" for most, as “the membership of the classes became” increasingly “fixed'" (Davis, 1986, p. 19).
Workers throughout the century responded to these challenges with expressions of solidarity, seeing to contest the predations of the industrial age. They fought in firms for wages and other concessions and in the political realm for favorable legislation. Despite some successes, however, labor mostly faced defeat. At times, an incipient working-class consciousness sometimes seemed to be emerging. But a sense of common cause did not ultimately coalesce in America. Manual workers remained fractured by racism, sexism, and a range of ethnic, religious, urban/rural, immigrant/”native,” and skilled craftsmen/unskilled laborer conflicts (see Montgomery, 1988). In fact, one of the most common strategies for self-defense involved attempts to exclude "others" from employment. The “mutualism” of working-class life could just as easily feed group division as collective solidarity (see Montgomery, 1987).
Despite these internal differences, class distinctions between workers and the more privileged classes became increasingly evident, especially in the burgeoning cities. In contrast with an emerging middle-class culture of domesticity, individualism, and restrained association, the working class necessarily depended upon very different forms of collective solidarity--of families, of communities, of trades, and more. “The constraints and uncertainties of working-class life . . . made individualism at best a wasteful indulgence and at worst a mortal threat” (McGerr, 2003, p. 13). Under these conditions, workers developed “a culture of mutualism and reciprocity,” teaching “at home and at work . . . sometimes harsh lessons about the necessity of self-denial and collective action” (p. 13). In general, "daily experiences and visible social distinctions taught many workers that although others might wield social influence as individuals, workers' only hope of securing what they wanted in life was through concerted action" (Montgomery, 1987, p. 2). Whereas the middle class increasingly lived in a world of acquaintances and strangers, then, workers depended on their embeddedness in long-term relationships, extended families, and closely knit communities for survival. In fact, efforts to assert middle-class forms of individual and nuclear family autonomy were often seen as threatening to the survival workers as a collective and in the extended relational ties of working-class communities.
SHIFTING FORMS OF SOCIAL CLASS IN THE 20th CENTURY
The 20th century brought vast changes in the structure of the national and global economy and increasingly complex, overlapping layers of social diversity. For the working class, the most important shift, as Braverman (1974) noted, was probably the growth of a broad range of non-middle-class service jobs whose work embodied many characteristics of working-class labor but looked very different from manual labor in factories and elsewhere. Initially most visible as a vast increase in low-level office workers (mostly women), a vast army of low-pay positions emerged in sales, food service, hospitals, janitorial services, and, more recently, call-centers (Benson, 1986; Kanter, 1993; Leidner, 1993; Newman, 1999). Braverman argued that these new positions were clearly working class, subjected to the process of “deskilling” familiar to earlier manual workers.5 Nonetheless, the recent explosion of new kinds of positions with a range of different job requirements (like technicians and a complex proliferation of health care jobs) has clearly complicated and blurred any simple binary distinction between middle and working classes.
Throughout the 20th century, fairly strict hierarchical control has remained much more evident at the lower levels of firms than at the top, and capacities for control have been magnified by new systems of “scientific management” instituted after the turn of the century, intensified recently by sophisticated information technologies. In recent years there has been some effort around (or at least rhetoric about) providing opportunities for more individual discretion and encouraging more collaboration among nonmanagement workers. Many have questioned whether these efforts have substantially altered the work environment of low-level employees (see Estey, 2002; Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996). Nonetheless, this new focus on encouraging teamwork at all levels of a firm may also contribute to a progressive blurring of clear distinctions between middle- and working-class jobs and discursive practices.
Although the experience of work among lower level employees has fragmented to some extent, evidence indicates that the importance of middle-class practices of teamwork for managers and professionals has only increased. Because these workers are relatively autonomous, organizations cannot set strict guidelines and are forced to depend on social “norms . . . that facilitate control from a distance . . . together with structural policing mechanisms such as committee work (where ‘colleagues’ police one another)” (Brown, 1995, p. 56). As the “postmodern” workplace advances, it seems likely that these pressures for self-guided collaboration at the higher levels will continue to intensify (Gee et al., 1996).
Outside the realm of work, a range of social/material changes in our increasingly postindustrial world have also complicated the structure of social class in America. For example, the strong local working-class communities that provided an important grounding for earlier working-class cultures have largely disappeared in many areas. This loss of community is especially evident in the impoverished, segregated areas of our cities. Despite these challenges, the social survival traditions of the working class still represent important potential resources for a broad range of impoverished groups in America. Ultimately, the poor and marginalized seem to have little choice but to cling to local relationships, however weak, as one of their few supports in a world where independence may be desired but is rarely realistically achievable (Schutz, 2006).
For managers and professionals, the growing fluidity of postmodern life and their progressive loss of connections to particular places and communities of people seem, for most, to have largely magnified cultural trends already visible at the end of the 19th century.