Shoot, Some Ladders

Jem kicked off his shoes and swung his feet to the bed. He propped himself against a pillow and switched on the reading light. “You know something, Scout? I’ve got it all figured out, now. I’ve thought about it a lot lately and I’ve got it figured out. There’s four kinds of folks in the world. There’s the ordinary kind like us and the neighbors, there’s the kind like the Cunninghams out in the woods, the kind like the Ewells down at the dump, and the Negroes.”

“What about the Chinese, and the Cajuns down yonder in Baldwin County?”

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

In my last post—which was over a week ago, and I’m sorry, I’ll try to do better going forward—I made the semi-provocative statement that I think that people know less than they think about classes that aren’t immediately adjacent to their own.I also said that I think the three to five classes usually used, i.e. lower, (lower- and upper-) middle, upper, aren’t descriptive enough to be useful and mentioned a 13-class system divided into four superclades. I think that that is closer to my experience and observation of America. Dividing people into groups is dangerous work and we can get it wrong, like Scout and Jem do above, but I think it’s a way to understand each other provided we keep the framework elastic enough.

Michael O. Church’s Three Ladders

Some time ago, somewhere, I came across a link to a blog post by Micheal O. Church which he has since deleted, but which is still available through the Internet Archive. He begins by stating “Typical depictions of social class in the United States posit a linear, ordered hierarchy. I’ve actually come to the conclusion that there are 3 distinct ladders, with approximately four social classes on each. Additionally, there is an underclass of people not connected to any of the ladders, creating an unlucky 13th social class.” The three ladders he named Labor, Gentry, and Elite and he proposed four classes within each. I would say the underclass is still part of the ladder system, say, perhaps, metaphorically the space between the ground and the first rung. Here is his system laid out visually, and perhaps refined by me to seem more like four ladders:

A chart I made to illustrate my interpretation of a blog post by Michael O. Church. Also, a major reason it took me ten days to get around to posting this update.

I’ll let you read Church’s descriptions of each class and the role in his system. In this ladder system, “G2 – High Gentry” is the Upper Middle Class that is so heavily represented in Unitarian Universalism. If you look at how the ladders are arranged, then, the class cultures that are usually most familiar to the Upper Middle Class aren’t just their own and immediately above and below, but also to the sides—a total of six classes. I think I most neatly fall into class “E2 – National Elite” in Church’s system, and that cuts my neighborhood knowledge down to merely three classes.

What I like about the system is that it helps explain relative notions of status. For instance, Church asserts that someone in category L1 may well be thought of as “rich” but not belong to the upper class (he exemplifies, I won’t.). I might be elite but my grandmother didn’t give me a dukedom as a wedding present, I’ve never commuted to my job at the football arena by helicopter, and I don’t know what it’s like to live that way. He also calls the American middle class an “educated gentry,” as opposed to a landed one, and thus shifts what we think of as “middle” to a point ahead of the population median. I think that’s increasingly a fair point.

Some Caveats

Caveats, like caviar, are good to have but not strictly necessary when you digest this article. You can certainly make your own notes and value judgments but here are mine if you want them. As useful as I think this taxonomy he proposes is, I do have objections and quibbles with Church’s article.

Not scientific. I don’t know if Church drew from sociology theorists to develop this system; if he did it’s unattributed. He also admits the percentages he uses to populate each group are merely his guesses; I think those are best ignored. I guess I’m saying I value the ladder system theory here and realize that while I think it may stand up to empirical observation, it’s not (yet?) tested by social science.

Underclass. I think that though the obstacles may be very, very high, people do break free of the conditions that Church uses for the underclass. I wonder if there are subclasses within that Underclass which ought to be mapped on their own ladder. I think, again, that we know the experience best of those classes adjacent to our own and that the underclass is probably fairly non-adjacent to Church and to me.

The Labels. Some of Church’s labels don’t feel satisfactory to me. “Strivers” and “Secondary Labor” and “Transitional Gentry” seem like they could have other nomenclature substituted. “Labor Leadership” brings to mind Jimmy Hoffa instead of the group of people Church describes.

Cultural Influencers. I think more than just the problematic label (every group exerts influence on the culture), I have a hard time understanding who this group really is; it seems like a place to put people who are nouveau riche and powerful in mass media.

Class descriptions of E4, E2 & E1. In the case of “Strivers,” I’m don’t think you can have a social class of just young people. I think this locus needs better description. Just as Church seems to be non-adjacent himself to the underclass, he also seems to be similarly unfamiliar with the most elite groups, and his descriptions are stereotypical, resentful and frankly, mean. Even so, the groups he defines do exist.

All of the analysis and prognostication. Church described his class ladder system in order to set up an argument for what he believes about class conflict. He and I share some of the same concerns, but I think his thoughtfulness in the article takes a steep decline once those ladders are described.

So what do you think? Do you see yourself and your extended family in any of these places? What changes would you make to this graphic? I’m curious.

I know this post had little to do with Unitarian Universalism and everything to do with class. Ahead, I’ll be shifting my attention more to issues of class conflict, inherency of human worth, and ecclesiology. In the meantime, I hope that Church’s system gives us a way to think about class that is specifically North American and nuanced enough that we don’t have to be rigid about how people belong.

5 thoughts on “Shoot, Some Ladders

  1. Wow! Tough subject for your third piece. I read just the beginning of the Church article, where he describes the rungs of his ladders, and like you I dislike many of his descriptions. This needs more thought than I’ve given it, but my first impression is not to see separate ladders. I see it as one ladder with very broad categories and, probably many vertical striations.

    I come from Jews who immigrated to the U.S. between 1890 and 1925. They were quite poor, and in some cases hungry, but they put high value on owning their own businesses. They simply did not work for anyone else but sold fruit on the street, delivered newspapers, worked up to owning a news stand, then a gas station, and so on. They were subsistence small–business people. So I don’t see them as clearly either L or G.

    And then I came along. I didn’t finish college, and I didn’t even attend an elite college. But at one time in my career I was riding in corporate jets and writing speeches for powerful E2’s or E1’s. Then at another point in my career I was a ghost-writer for an E1 with a net worth of $1.5 billion. Later, I owned an insurance agency with a couple of employees and barely paid myself a salary, but because my wife came from an E family and had an E education, I was attending social events in the University of Virginia Rotunda.

    So I think the horizontal distinctions in the U.S. are nowhere near as rigid as Church does, but it’s a useful exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think individually, most of us defy easy placement in just one of these boxes. My maternal grandparents had a similar story to your Jewish ancestors, for instance. I suspect, though, that there’s probably a box for each of us that feels “homiest” and maybe a few others that are comfortable for us, especially over the course of a lifetime. So collectively, then, our society is organized into something like these groups and we are travellers between them.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Fascinating.

    I haven’t gotten to the Church article yet, but find myself wondering about these “slots” that people fall into. I admit that I don’t understand a lot of nomenclature or arrangement.

    I tend to think of myself as someone who is slot-less, though I know I must fit into the chart somewhere. I grew up in a small town in KY, my father was a dairy farmer/businessman, and we were considered the upperclass of that small community. Then I got out into a larger world and found myself somewhere in the middle of things, but moving easily between the underclass (prisoners) and the elite as a personal computer consultant to the rich (and sometimes famous) of Palm Beach. Despite our very different backgrounds, one of these very rich and famous is a very good personal friend. Most of the rest I call “clients”. Yet I cling to the connections I have with the barely literate and dirt poor prisoners that I advocate for.

    Interested in seeing where you are going with this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think most people feel like home might be more than one place on this map; I wonder if the map is any good.
      At some point I suppose I will have to get into class markers, which are useful but dangerously inaccurate means of identification.


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