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  • Writer's pictureLiddell Hastings

We are Measuring Class all Wrong

Updated: Jan 25, 2022

Methodology, the topic that excites activists like nothing else. Even though discussing methodology is incredibly boring, I believe there are some serious shortcomings in how academia measures class and those shortcomings have prevented accuracy and reliability in studying class consciousness. In most academic studies income is often the preferred measurement, through income brackets, which acts as a proxy for class overall. I believe that our fixation on measuring income and having it represent some kind of meaningful insight into respondents is a serious disservice to the historical and cultural elements that play into class consciousness. There is both a theoretical and methodological void that prevents a modern understanding of class cleavages in our society.

Income and class are not the same thing. This should be evident even on a simple logical level. Income is a raw statistic, a measurement of net revenue for an individual or household. Any second-year business student would know that net revenue is useless unless you also know the total expenditures. A combined household income of $100,000 is above the Canadian average, but with three kids and a dependent grandmother, the income gets split up quickly. Alternatively, two people may belong to the same income bracket but $30,000 goes a lot farther in Sarnia than it does in downtown Toronto. There is an infinite amount of factors that can impact the way people live on their raw income. From a methodological perspective, what is the purpose of collecting a statistic like: the median Trump supporter earned more than the median Hillary Clinton supporter? During my research into populism, I saw various narratives coming out of this statistic trying to debunk the notion that Trump supporters are disenfranchised Americans. Failing to realize that perceived status and objective status are two very different things, and while a large majority of impoverished inner-city voters supported Clinton there are plenty of declining small towns across America that swung for Trump. Just with this one example of the 2016 American election, there are endless examples of how income gets overridden by more fruitful demographics like race, age, gender, education, and location.

Class is a subjective identity that can be perceived externally or felt internally. It is related to income but not directly tied to it. There is a rich history of class struggle and working class consciousness was necessary for obtaining so many of the rights we cherish in liberal democracies today. But class identity, because of its history, is deeply intertwined with culture, geography, race, and gender. Worker’s movements were often localized to towns and industries and therefore became linked to ethnic enclaves. In North America the English were the gatekeepers to unions and industry, then it became a struggle between Italian and Irish control in certain industries while African Americans, Chinese, and Latinos were excluded. Women were also excluded from working life for most of the 1900s. Class identity was formed from unions’ involvement in the community through parades, festivals, education, and of course collective action. This led to a working class identity that was unique to a subset of lower-income people, those who were included in this collective action. Meanwhile, excluded minorities actively fought against unions by undermining wages and acting as strikebreakers because they are excluded from participating in the system. They began to form racial identities instead of class identities, justifiably so. Class identity is shaped by the historic events that have included and excluded certain groups and have had lasting effects on how modern-day identities have formed, even long after unions and class consciousness have declined.

Class consciousness has changed significantly from the days of worker activism and growing unions. The majority of people now think of themselves as middle class despite actual incomes polarizing to each end of the spectrum. Working-class identity has declined as low-income workers began to think of themselves as middle class and the growing number of people reliant on government assistance have lost any form of class identity. To assume that people perceive themselves in direct association with their income is a serious and obvious flaw across most political science literature.

Researchers often are afraid of subjective questions and prefer to use objective measurements like income brackets as a linear ordinal scale. This is a solid methodology for research projects that deal with objective outcomes, like child mortality rate or crime rates. But so much of political science is either entirely subjective or partially. For example, the study of elections has plenty of objective numbers and demographics but ultimately it is the study of a subjective process. Each voter has a cocktail of factors that contribute to their vote choice and this cocktail is distributed in a completely subjective way. Therefore, when asking the demographics of a voter, objective factors are still important but the subjective thought processes that contributed to voting choice are equally important. Knowing the income of a voter gives us a certain amount of information, but knowing that a voter identifies as working-class illustrates a certain lens from which they view the world. By no means is this lens uniform across the entire class, but their perceived identity is highly impactful on who they perceive to be the best politician. In Ashley Jardina’s study of white identity, she found that those who had a higher attachment to their whiteness were more likely to vote for Trump. Objective measures of race give a baseline insight into voting trends, but asking people their perceived identity provides deeper insights into the reason for people’s vote choice.

A literature review of organizational studies found that only 5% measure subjective class. There are plenty of methodological reasons for this. Reasons, I argue, that do not justify the increased clarity gained from more comprehensive and historical/cultural measurements of class. But there may be a deeper causal factor for the gap in working-class comprehension amongst political science literature. The makeup of academics is overwhelmingly from a middle to an upper-class background. We already accept that a collection of white people are not best served to write policy directly related to black people. With similar sentiment with respect to gender. Understanding working-class consciousness and how to measure it is possibly an endeavour that requires a certain level of cultural understanding that a majority of academics simply do not have. Marxist political theory is the closest thing the working class has to a voice within political science literature. But Marxism has always been highly influenced by an intelligentsia class that has no intentions of ever picking up a hammer or sickle. The working class needs a voice within academia that is grounded in the 21st-century reality of working-class life.

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