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Class traits

Class traits , also called class markers, are the typical behaviors, customs, and norms that define each class. Class traits indicate the level of exposure a person has to a wide range of cultures. Class traits also indicate the amount of resources a person has to spend on items like hobbies, vacations, and leisure activities.

People may associate the upper class with enjoyment of costly, refined, or highly cultivated tastes—expensive clothing, luxury cars, high-end fund-raisers, and opulent vacations. People may also believe that the middle and lower classes are more likely to enjoy camping, fishing, or hunting, shopping at large retailers, and participating in community activities. While these descriptions may identify class traits, they may also simply be stereotypes. Moreover, just as class distinctions have blurred in recent decades, so too have class traits. A very wealthy person may enjoy bowling as much as opera. A factory worker could be a skilled French cook. A billionaire might dress in ripped jeans, and a low-income student might own designer shoes.

Turn-of-the-century “social problem novels”: sociological gold mines

Class distinctions were sharper in the nineteenth century and earlier, in part because people easily accepted them. The ideology of social order made class structure seem natural, right, and just.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, U.S. and British novelists played a role in changing public perception. They published novels in which characters struggled to survive against a merciless class system. These dissenting authors used gender and morality to question the class system and expose its inequalities. They protested the suffering of urbanization and industrialization, drawing attention to these issues.

These “social problem novels,” sometimes called Victorian realism, forced middle-class readers into an uncomfortable position: they had to question and challenge the natural order of social class.

For speaking out so strongly about the social issues of class, authors were both praised and criticized. Most authors did not want to dissolve the class system. They wanted to bring about an awareness that would improve conditions for the lower classes, while maintaining their own higher class positions (DeVine 2005).

Soon, middle-class readers were not their only audience. In 1870, Forster’s Elementary Education Act required all children ages five through twelve in England and Wales to attend school. The act increased literacy levels among the urban poor, causing a rise in sales of cheap newspapers and magazines. The increasing number of people who rode public transit systems created a demand for “railway literature,” as it was called (Williams 1984). These reading materials are credited with the move toward democratization in England. By 1900 the British middle class had established a rigid definition for itself, and England’s working class also began to self-identify and demand a better way of life.

Many of the novels of that era are seen as sociological goldmines. They are studied as existing sources because they detail the customs and mores of the upper, middle, and lower classes of that period in history.

Examples of “social problem” novels include Charles Dickens’s The Adventures of Oliver Twist (1838), which shocked readers with its brutal portrayal of the realities of poverty, vice, and crime. Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891) was considered revolutionary by critics for its depiction of working-class women (DeVine 2005), and U.S. novelist Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900) portrayed an accurate and detailed description of early Chicago.

Summary

There are three main classes in the United States: upper, middle, and lower class. Social mobility describes a shift from one social class to another. Class traits, also called class markers, are the typical behaviors, customs, and norms that define each class.

Short answer

Which social class do you and your family belong to? Are you in a different social class than your grandparents and great-grandparents? Does your class differ from your social standing, and, if so, how? What aspects of your societal situation establish you in a social class?

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What class traits define your peer group? For example, what speech patterns or clothing trends do you and your friends share? What cultural elements, such as taste in music or hobbies, define your peer group? How do you see this set of class traits as different from other classes either above or below yours?

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Write a list of ten to twenty class traits that describe the environment of your upbringing. Which of these seem like true class traits, and which seem like stereotypes? What items might fall into both categories? How do you imagine a sociologist might address the conflation of class traits and stereotypes?

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Further research

PBS made a documentary about social class called “People Like Us: Social Class in America.” The filmmakers interviewed people who lived in Park Avenue penthouses and Appalachian trailer parks. The accompanying web site is full of information, interactive games, and life stories from those who participated. Read about it at (External Link)

References

Beeghley, Leonard. 2008. The Structure of Social Stratification in the United States . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

DeVine, Christine. 2005. Class in Turn-of-the-Century Novels of Gissing, James, Hardy and Wells . London: Ashgate Publishing Co.

Domhoff, G. William. 2013. "Wealth, Income, and Power." Retrieved December 22, 2014 (http://www2.ucsc.edu/whorulesamerica/power/wealth.html).

Gilbert, Dennis. 2010. The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality . Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Kennickell, Arthur B. 2009. Ponds and Streams: Wealth and Income in the U.S., 1989 to 2007 . January 7. Retrieved January 10, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

Lin, Nan, and Wen Xie. 1988. “Occupational Prestige in Urban China.” American Journal of Sociology 93(4):793–832.

Mason, Jeff, and Andy Sullivan. 2010. “Factbox: What Is Middle Class in the United States?” Reuters , September 14. Retrieved August 29, 2011 ( (External Link) ).

Popken, Ben. "CEO Pay Up 298%, Average Worker's? 4.3% (1995-2005)," 2007, The Consumerist . Retrieved on December 31, 2014 (http://consumerist.com/2007/04/09/ceo-pay-up-298-average-workers-43-1995-2005/)

United States Department of Labor. 2014. “Wage and Hour Division: Minimum Wage Laws in the States—September 1, 2014.” Retrieved January 10, 2012 ( (External Link) ).

United States Department of Agriculture, 2013, "Food and Nutrition Assistance Research Database: Overview." Retrieved December 31, 2014 (http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-and-nutrition-assistance-research-database/ridge-project-summaries.aspx?type=2&summaryId=233)

Williams, Raymond. 1984 [1976]. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society . New York: Oxford University Press.

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Jan 20, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11762/1.6
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