Overton: The hidden inequality of culture


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When we talk about barriers to upward social mobility, we typically focus on the economic and financial hurdles that people with lower incomes must overcome, but there’s another important aspect to this story that’s often overlooked: culture.

People of different social classes have their own distinct worldviews, values, preferences, customs, and mannerisms. Like ethnic, national, and religious cultures, class cultures often conflict with one another. Take, for example, the religious conservative working class that makes up much of rural Iowa and juxtapose it with the mostly liberal highly educated middle-class culture of Iowa City, and you’ll see that in a sense, the two are polar opposites.

When the more powerful and dominant middle-class culture completely permeates valuable resources (such as a university), the stage is effectively set to breed inequality.

A study in the January issue of the Sociology of Education included a number of interviews conducted with the same group of working-class students from a Canadian university over the course of four years.

Academically successful and socially active working-class students generally integrated quite well into the university environment and appreciated the new growth and understanding they had attained but recognized a cost.

“The interviews reflect a complex and complicated mix of allegiances to and dismissal of their working-class roots. While maintaining contact with former high-school peers and family, the participants also increasingly perceive of them as narrow-minded and unambitious. Individualistic notions of personal motivation, grit, and pluckiness are evoked to explain what sets them apart from those they consider less driven or talented and who ‘waste’ their lives back in the old working-class environment.”

The study’s author, Wolfgang Lehmann, a sociology professor from the University of Ontario, wrote that these students are shifting away from their traditional working-class roots while remaining outsiders in the middle-class culture.

This can become especially problematic for anyone trying to get into high-status professions, Lucille Jewel, an assistant professor at Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School, wrote in the Buffalo Law Review. Legal institutions have an aristocratic culture built around them. They are inherently very stratified and hierarchical, and that forces law students to try to behave as they think the upper class should, she argues. However, “no one sees beyond their daily routines to recognize the unfair sorting process that places them on a lower rung than others or that those same processes place others on a lower rung than themselves.”

The fundamental problem for any working-class student who wants to enter the middle class is how to behave in the right way so that the right people will notice you, like you, and connect with you so you can get a super awesome job. This becomes extremely hard when you don’t have the same level of sophistication that potential employers, your peers, or professors have, and to some degree, your working-class label might prevent you from advancing as far as you’d like.

This form of inequality is by no means an unstoppable barrier that even the barbarian horde couldn’t overcome, but it’s one that’s often overlooked because of its subtle nature. We take the way we see the world for granted, but our values, worldviews, and very basic mannerisms and interactions depend in large part, but certainly not entirely, on our social class.

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