Social Class And Gender Research Paper

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Both ‘class’ and ‘gender’ are contested concepts. Debates around gender and class have focused on employment-based approaches to ‘class analysis.’ It is argued that these have reached an impasse. It is, however, still of importance to retain a focus on the processes of gender and class structuring.

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1. Concepts And Definitions

Three different meanings (or dimensions) of the class concept may be identified:

(a) ‘Class’ as prestige, status, culture, or ‘lifestyles.’

(b) ‘Class’ as structured inequality (related to the possession of economic and power resources).

(c) ‘Classes’ as actual or potential social and political actors.

The use of ‘class’—often as an adjective—to de- scribe prestige or lifestyle is probably the most common use of the concept in everyday speech. Social scientists have also carried out descriptive investigations of social differentiation (e.g., Warner 1963), and market research companies have devised occupational classifications in order to give an indication of lifestyles and consumption patterns.

Following Weber, many sociologists would insist on the distinction between this use of ‘class’ to indicate prestige, or consumption patterns, and the use of ‘class’ in the second sense above, that is to describe groups with differential access to economic and power resources (these could be the ownership of capital or productive resources, skills and qualifications, networks of contacts, etc.) that generate structures of material inequality. Such unequally rewarded groups are often described as ‘classes.’ The identification of these groups summarizes the outcome, in material terms, of the competition for resources in capitalist market societies.

The term ‘class,’ however, has not just been used to describe levels of material inequalities or social prestige. ‘Classes’ have also been identified as actual or potential social forces, which have the capacity to transform society. Marx considered the struggle between classes to be the major motive force in human history. From the French Revolution and before, ‘classes’—particularly the lower classes—have been regarded as a possible threat to the established order. Thus ‘class’ is also a term with significant political overtones.

The use of the single word ‘class,’ therefore, may describe hierarchical rankings of social prestige or lifestyles, patterns of material inequalities, as well as revolutionary or conservative social actors. It is a concept that is not the particular preserve of any individual branch of social science—unlike, for example, the concept of marginal utility in economics. It is not possible to identify a ‘correct’ sociological perspective, or an agreed use of the term.

In contrast to ‘class,’ the concept of gender might seem to be unproblematic, given its overt physical manifestations in all spheres of human life. However, its meaning has also been disputed. It is commonplace to draw a distinction between sex and gender, where sex denotes anatomical and physiological differences, and gender the social construction of masculinity and femininity. This is not universal (i.e., there is no ‘essence’ of masculinity or femininity), but created and interpreted differently by different cultures. However, recent theoretical developments within poststructuralist and postmodernist feminism have argued that sex itself is a social construct rather than biologically given, and the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ discursively constructed through ‘performance.’ Thus, ‘gender’ has become overlaid with ‘sexuality.’ This has resulted in a focus on the sexual identity of the individual, and the discourses through which these identities are constructed, rather than on gender as a set of social relations.

However, an emphasis on the discursive construction of gender (or sex) effectively detracts from the investigation of the systematic structuring of inequality between men and women (through, for example, the gender division of labor). The question of sexuality has a focus on the individual and their associated identity—albeit an individual that is constructed, in process, undetermined, etc.—whereas gender is inevitably a relational concept. However, although gender, like class, is a social relationship of power, there is a crucial difference between the two phenomena. Were private property to be abolished overnight, and class differentiation processes outlawed, there would be no ‘classes.’ However, were the differentiation processes of ‘gender’ as we know it to cease tomorrow, approximately half of the human population would nevertheless continue to have breasts and wombs. To recognize the biological roots of gender, however, is not to collapse into a biological determinism or essentialism. While gender differentiation is universal and persistent, what constitutes this concrete ‘difference’ will be variable in its nature and extent, and subject to constant construction and reconstruction.

2. Approaches To Class Analysis

The three different meanings of the class concept identified above are widely employed in a range of different approaches to the analysis of class and stratification. These approaches may be grouped within four areas (Crompton 1993, 1998):

(a) The study of the processes of the emergence and perpetuation of advantaged and disadvantaged groups or ‘classes’ within society. This may be described as ‘class analysis’ as a ‘dependent variable’ enterprise, in which the ‘class’ (or classes) itself is the object of study. All three meanings of ‘class’ may be employed in this approach, and indeed, these different dimensions are often seen as being intertwined with each other—as in, for example, E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (1968).

(b) The study of the concrete consequences (or outcomes) of class location. This may be described as ‘class’ as an ‘independent variable’ specialty, in which ‘class’ is the constant factor and its contribution to other factors—e.g. voting behavior—is that which has to be explained (Wright 1997). Occupational ‘class’ may be related to consumption, inequalities, and political preferences, thus all three meanings of ‘class’ may be drawn upon in empirical investigations. However, the methodology of ‘employment aggregate’ class analysis means that these different dimensions of class have to be treated as discrete variables. Thus, for example, its practitioners argue that it is important to establish that occupational classifications do not correspond to a ‘status’ scale. In practice, however, economic and cultural dimensions are closely inter- twined (particularly in the case of gender), and this separation is problematic.

(c) The discussion of the significance of ‘class,’ and class processes, for macro theories of societal change and development. These discussions mainly relate to the third meaning of class identified above. In Marx’s work, ‘classes’ are seen as having the causal capacity to shape societies and generate social change (Sayer and Walker 1992; it should be noted that these claims are not only made by Marxists). Much of the debate with ‘reflexive’ or ‘post’ modernist critics of ‘class analysis’ has centered on this issue, i.e., whether, with increasing ‘individuation,’ ‘classes’ are still relevant social forces (Pakulski and Waters 1996, Clark and Lipset 1991). These preoccupations lead directly into a fourth approach to ‘class’ within sociology:

(d) The development of class and status cultures and identities. These discussions have tended to have a major focus on the first meaning of class identified above. However, Bourdieu’s (1973) influential work combines an analysis of both class cultures and class inequalities, and focuses on both the processes of class formation as well as their outcomes.

3. Processes And Outcomes

The notion of class processes, therefore, may be used as a general term to identify the patterns of change, tensions, and struggle that generate the differentiated groupings that we call ‘classes’—although, as we have stressed above, there would be no general agreement on the composition of these ‘classes.’ We have to distinguish between the processes of the formation and emergence of advantaged and disadvantaged, more powerful and less powerful, groups (or ‘classes’) in society, and the concrete consequences or outcomes of these processes. It has been suggested that this distinction broadly corresponds to two rather different approaches to ‘class analysis’ ((a) and (b) above). In a similar vein, it may be argued that it is important to distinguish between the processes of differentiation between men and women—that is, the construction of gender as a social relation—and the concrete consequences of this construction, that is, measurable differences between the sexes when taken in aggregate. Thus measurable ‘sex differences’ may be seen as outcomes of gender differentiation processes.

4. Measuring Social Class

The occupational structure is often used to generate ‘class’ groupings. This approach to the measurement of class may be described as the ‘employment aggregate’ approach, and is so widespread that the occupational structure and the class structure are frequently referred to as if they were synonymous.

From the 1970s leading practitioners of ‘class analysis’ argued that the classifications used by leading researchers of the time—(e.g., Blau and Duncan 1967)—did not measure ‘class’ in a truly sociological sense. Albeit from rather different theoretical perspectives, both Wright and Goldthorpe argued that the occupational measures previously used had in fact been hierarchical (‘gradational’) status scales rather than ‘relational’ class schemes. Thus throughout the 1980s, two major cross-national projects, both of which developed their own, employment-based class schemes, were established. The International Class Project, directed by Wright (1985, 1997), was explicitly Marxist in its inspiration and the scheme(s) he devised classified jobs according to a Marxist analysis of relations of domination and exploitation in production. The Comparative Analysis of Social Mobility in Industrial Societies (CASMIN) project used an occupational classification initially derived from Goldthorpe’s study of social mobility.

Even in these improved versions, however, there are a number of problems with the assumption that the job or occupational structure may be divided so as to generate ‘classes.’ The occupational structure does not give any indication of wealth or property holdings. Not all adult persons have an occupation and there are therefore problems in allocating an individual ‘class situation’—this has been particularly problematic in relation to the ‘economically inactive,’ such as housewives. The occupational structure also bears the imprint of other major stratifying factors—notably gender, race, and age—which are difficult to disentangle from those of ‘class.’

We will expand our discussion of feminist criticisms of ‘class analysis’ in the next section, but for the moment, it is important to reiterate the point that occupational class schemes are only a proxy for ‘classes.’ Occupation gives a reasonable indication of ‘life chances,’ but no accurate measure of property or wealth. Employment aggregates do not correspond to politically conscious collectivities. Rather, sociological class schemes may be seen as an approximate measure (probably the best we have) of the outcomes of the processes of class differentiation. Wright and Goldthorpe take different positions regarding the identification of these processes. Wright’s location of jobs into particular classes is guided by Marxist class theory. However, Goldthorpe emphasizes that no particular theory has contributed to his class scheme which must be judged by its empirical adequacy—‘it is consequences, not antecedents, that matter.’ Nevertheless, the schemes intercorrelate quite highly and indeed Wright suggests that his scheme can be interpreted ‘in a Weberian or hybrid manner.’

5. Feminist Criticisms Of ‘Class Analysis’

In contrast to both Goldthorpe and Wright, feminists have argued that the processes of class formation and emergence—the divisions of capital and labor which led to the development of the bourgeoisie and mass proletariat—were intimately bound up with parallel processes of gender differentiation (e.g., Bradley 1989). They have described the processes whereby the sexual division of labor which culminated in that stage of modern capitalism we may loosely describe as ‘Fordist’ was characterized by the ‘male breadwinner’ model of the division of labor, around which ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gender blocs were crystallized.

Thus feminist criticisms of employment aggregate class analysis derive from the observation that, be- cause the primacy of women’s family responsibilities has been explicitly or implicitly treated as ‘natural’ and men have been dominant in the employment sphere, this approach has effectively excluded women from any systematic consideration in ‘class analysis.’ It is argued:

(a) That the primary focus on paid employment does not take into account the unpaid domestic labor of women. Thus, women’s contribution to production is not examined or analyzed (as in, for example, the debate around ‘domestic labor,’ see Molyneux 1979).

(b) The expansion of married women’s paid employment has, apparently, rendered problematic the practice of taking the ‘male breadwinner’s’ occupation as a proxy for the ‘class situation’ of the household.

(c) That gendered occupational segregation makes it difficult to construct universalistic ‘class schemes’ (that is, classifications equally applicable to men and women). The crowding of women into lower-level occupations, as well as the stereotypical or cultural ‘gendering’ of particular occupations (such as nursing, for example), gives very different ‘class structures’ for men and women when the same scheme is applied to both. Even more problematic is the fact that the same occupation (or ‘class situation’) may be associated with very different ‘life chances’ as far as men and women are concerned (for example, clerical work).

This third criticism emphasizes the de facto inter-twining of class and gender within the employment structure (Crompton and Mann 1994). As noted above, the occupational structure emerging in many industrial societies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was grounded in a division of labor in which women took the primary responsibility for domestic work, while male ‘breadwinners’ specialized in market work. Today this is changing in that married women have taken up market work, and this has had very important consequences for employment aggregate class analysis.

5.1 Response Of Leading Practitioners

When Goldthorpe’s major national investigation of the British class structure was published (1980 1987), it was subjected to extensive criticism on the grounds that it focused entirely on men, women only being included as wives. However, Goldthorpe argued that as the family is the unit of ‘class analysis,’ then the ‘class position’ of the family can be taken to be that of the head of the household, who will usually be a male. Thus were the assumptions of the male breadwinner model incorporated into sociological class analysis in Britain. To incorporate women’s employment into ‘class analysis’ on the same terms as men’s, he argued, would lead to confusion. Many women work in lower- level white-collar jobs (‘Intermediate’ class locations in Goldthorpe’s original class scheme), and to include their occupations would result in the generation of ‘excessive’ amounts of spurious social mobility.

However, he subsequently modified his original position in adopting, with Erikson, a ‘dominance’ strategy, in which the class position of the household is taken as that of the ‘dominant’ occupation in material terms—whether a man or a woman holds this occupation. Furthermore, although Erikson and Goldthorpe (1992) still insist that the unit of class analysis is the household, their class scheme has been modified in its application to women as individuals. Class IIIb (routine nonmanual) has been categorized as ‘intermediate’ for men, but ‘labor contract’ for women. Besides these modifications of his original approach, Goldthorpe has demonstrated that as measured by the Goldthorpe class scheme, the pattern of women’s relative rates of social mobility closely parallels that of men. Thus although, because of the effects of occupational segregation, the distribution of men and women within occupational ‘class’ schemes is different, when considered separately, the impact of ‘class’ on mobility chances is similar for men and women.

Wright’s analysis generally takes the individual, rather than the household, to be the unit of class analysis. However, in respect of economically inactive housewives, Wright (1997) employs a similar strategy to that of Goldthorpe. He introduces the notion of a ‘derived’ class location, which provides a ‘mediated’ linkage to the class structure via the class location of others. Wright is sensitive to the issue of gender, and the fact that gender is a major sorting mechanism within the occupational structure as well as reciprocally interacting with class. Nevertheless, he argues that while gender is indeed highly relevant for under- standing and explaining the concrete lived experiences of people, it does not follow that gender should be incorporated into the abstract concept of ‘class.’ Thus in his empirical work, ‘class’ and ‘gender’ are maintained as separate factors.

We can see, therefore, that in responding to feminist criticisms, both Goldthorpe and Wright insist that class and gender should be considered as distinct causal processes. This analytical separation of class and gender may be seen as part of a more general strategy within the employment aggregate approach in which the continuing relevance of ‘class’ is demonstrated by the empirical evidence of ‘class effects’ (Goldthorpe and Marshall 1992). Although, therefore, Goldthorpe and Wright have apparently developed very different approaches to ‘class analysis,’ their underlying approach to the articulation of gender with class is in fact the same. It may be suggested that this stems from the similarity of the empirical techniques used by the CASMIN and International Class Projects: that is, the large-scale, cross-nationally comparative, sample survey. This kind of research proceeds by isolating a particular variable—in this case, employment class—and measuring its effects.

Feminist criticisms, therefore, were important in making explicit the fact that the ‘employmentaggregate’ approach within ‘class analysis’ is largely concerned with the outcomes of employment structuring (via its analysis of occupational aggregates or ‘classes’), rather than the processes of this structuring. To paraphrase Goldthorpe and Marshall, employment aggregate ‘class analysis’ now appears as a rather less ambitious project than it once appeared to be. In a parallel fashion, it may be suggested that a major weakness of Wright’s class project (not specific to the gender question) is that the linkage between Marxist theory and his ‘class’ categories has not been successfully achieved.

Although important issues have been clarified, therefore, this debate can go no further, and Wright argues that it is necessary to get on with ‘… the messy business of empirically examining the way class and gender intersect.’ While one may be in broad agreement with this sentiment, it may be noted that Wright’s preferred methodology focuses only on the association between job categories and biological sex. However, developments within the employment structures of the advanced service economies suggest the need for an approach that recognizes the complex processes of the structuring of both class and gender.

6. The Restructuring Of Gender And Class: The Shift To Services

In today’s advanced service economies, employment is still a significant, although not the only, determinant of ‘life chances’ and access to them. The last 20 years, however, have seen two major, and related, developments. These are, first, the shift to service work, and second, the growth and development of women’s employment.

The growth of male-dominated industrial employment was paralleled by the increasing development of social protections associated with the welfare state. Welfare state institutions, such as occupational pensions and other social benefits, were in many countries explicitly created on the assumption that the male breadwinner model was the norm, and women received social benefits via their ‘breadwinner.’ In countries without extensive state welfare protections, such as the US, there has been an extensive development of marketized personal services. The expansion of the welfare state (as well as the expansion of other services such as education and health) was a major source of employment growth for women. Similarly, marketized personal services are also female dominated. Thus the basis of the male breadwinner model was being eroded even as its principles were being consolidated in national institutions and policies.

Other factors were also leading to the growth of women’s employment, including ‘push’ factors such as rising levels of education, effective fertility controls, and the growth of ‘second wave’ feminism, as well as ‘pull’ factors including the buoyant labor markets of the 1950s and 1960s. Service expansion was fueled not only by state expenditure and job creation, but also the growth of financial, leisure, and business services.

In the West, much of the growth of women’s employment in the decades after World War II was in low-level and subordinate jobs. This reflected not only the directly discriminatory employment practices that were a major target of feminist action and protest in the 1960s and 1970s, but also the relatively low level of formal employment experience among women entering the labor force at this time. However, over the last 10 years, women have been steadily increasing their representation in managerial and professional occupations.

7. The Growth Of Women In Management And The Professions

In all Western countries, the proportion of women in professional and managerial occupations is increasing at a faster rate than the proportion of women in the labor force as a whole. The level of increase of women’s representation in some heavily feminized professions, such as teaching, is relatively low, suggesting that these professions might be nearing female saturation. In other professions such as engineering, the increase of female representation is again only modest, but in these instances, from a low base. Well above average rates of increase in the numbers and proportions of women are to be found in public service, financial and legal professions, in ‘people centered’ management such as personnel, marketing, and advertising, and above average rates in previously male dominated medical professions such as medicine. These trends support Esping-Andersen’s (1993) assertion that the postindustrial (or service) job hierarchy is becoming increasingly feminized.

The feminization of the middle classes would appear to be a universal trend. This means that growing numbers of women are earning sufficient amounts to enable them to support a household. There has been an increase in the proportion of ‘dual breadwinner’ households. One outcome of this trend has been growing social polarization at the level of the household, as the gap between two income and one income households widens. Occupational polarization is also occurring with the growth of a new servant class. Another major outcome of the increase of women in managerial and professional occupations has been a decline in fertility levels, particularly among well- educated women. These demographic trends serve to illustrate, in a rather dramatic fashion, the de facto intertwining of employment and domestic life, which was one of the major points emphasized by ‘secondwave’ feminism.

8. Discussion

Changes in the gender division of labor are leading to increasing tensions between the demands of employment and caring responsibilities (Hochschild 1997), and some have argued that gender conflicts are replacing class conflicts (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 1995). We have suggested, however, that rather than viewing ‘gender’ and ‘class’ as alternati e causal processes, we should rather focus on their interaction. With the mass entry of women into the labor force, it is increasingly problematic to regard paid and unpaid labor as residing in ‘separate spheres,’ as class analysis conventionally has done. Demands originating from the domestic realm—for example, for time to carry out caring responsibilities or unpaid labor (both men and women may make these demands)—might potentially have a substantial impact on the structuring of paid employment and thus on a significant aspect of class relations. Thus although debates between feminist critics and ‘employment aggregate’ practitioners may have ended in stalemate, the actual need for a refocus on the interaction of gender and class processes is, arguably, greater than ever.


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