Class and Climate in China

Pollution at the Great Wall of China. Photo by Thomas Galvez via

Smog hangs over the Great Wall in China. Photo by Thomas Galvez via

China is suffering an environmental crisis, and it’s become a health hazard. Using social media, young activists are now disseminating shocking photos and information. Through their lenses, we see Beijing’s air, thick with smog, and rivers lined with hundreds of rotting animal carcasses. For Chinese and world citizens, it seems clear these environmental problems can’t be ignored, and protests have sprung up across China, especially on its Eastern seaboard. In an interview in Dissent Magazine, Jeffery Wasserstrom asks Duke anthropologist Ralph Litzinger to discuss China’s new environmental movement.

One of Litzinger’s most interesting research findings is that there is a major class discrepancy in reacting to the environmental issues:

Much of the publicity about deteriorating air conditions came from a new kind of middle-class activist citizen who took to the streets to monitor the air, posting findings and images on weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) and other social networking platforms. […]But head out into the outer rings roads of Beijing, where the poorest of Beijing’s migrants and residents live and work, and you experience a very different situation. You see fewer people wearing masks, and hear much less complaining about the air. It is not that migrant and urban fringe communities in Beijing don’t care about health and environmental issues; it is just that they haven’t received the same kind of attention that the middle-class urban resident has received.

In China, the middle and upper classes are able to assess their environmental situation and adapt. They may shop for organic foods, build protection from the poisonous air, stay home from work or school on bad air days, or even leave the country. The poor are merely left to brave their new, toxic environment—at least until their richer countrymen make major changes.

Caste from the Past

One survey participant's "coat-of-arms" generated by taking the Great British Class Survey. Click for image source.

One survey participant’s “coat-of-arms” generated by taking the Great British Class Survey. Click for image source.

Step aside, Downton Abbey, the British social hierarchy is astir again. The BBC Lab UK, with Manchester University’s Fiona Devine and Mike Savage from the London School of Economics, has conducted a class study of more than 161,000 people: the Great British Class Survey. In addition to studying each individual’s economic capital, the researchers also looked at respondents’ social capital (their social status and connections) and cultural capital (the nature and extent of their cultural interests and activities). According to Devine, this extensive survey allowed for “a much more complete picture of class in modern Britain” than previous work has captured.

The team’s results found that the traditional model of class was losing its relevance, with only 39% fitting into the working, middle, or upper class. According to the BBC, the team proposes “a new model of seven social classes ranging from the elite at the top to a ‘precariat’—the poor, precarious proletariat—at the bottom.”

The researchers believe the working and middle classes have waned because of the rise of the information age:

They say the new affluent workers and emergent service workers appear to be the children of the ‘traditional working class,’ which they say has been fragmented by de-industrialisation, mass unemployment, immigration and the restructuring of urban space.

In other words, information-age Britons don’t fit into industrial class structures. The people aren’t obsolete, but the categories may be.

Class War in the Toy Store

A new, educational toy from Japan, Wammy. Photo by japan_style via flickr.

With the holidays bringing so much attention to our shopping habits and stores, many odd trends are bound to crop up. One recent Citing, for instance, looked at the long-standing gender-segregation of toy aisles. Now we spot another toy divide, perhaps as pervasive, but harder to notice: the New York Times argues toy stores divide kids by class, too.

The piece explains that the emergence of larger toy retailers like Toys “R” Us has made toys with a focus on enrichment or learning more rare—they’re more likely found at small, specialty stores. The problem is that these smaller, more upscale stores are mostly found in affluent areas. The article’s author, Ginia Bellafante, writes:

In the way that we have considered food deserts—those parts of the city in which stores seem to stock primarily the food groups Doritos and Pepsi—we might begin to think, in essence, about toy deserts and the implications of a commercial system in which the least-privileged children are choked off from the recreations most explicitly geared toward creativity and achievement.

Research on how much these ”high-class” toys actually help in child development is inconclusive, but it’s easy to infer the toy gap may add to both the education gap and the class divide.

Parting Ways on “Coming Apart”

Working Class HeroIf you’re familiar with his previous books, Losing Ground and The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, you won’t be surprised to learn that Charles Murray’s new book is ruffling more than a few scholarly feathers. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education this week outlines the ruckus and a few sociologists weigh in.

The Chronicle summarizes the book:

Mr. Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum), makes a pretense of making nice. It bills itself as an attempt to alleviate divisiveness in American society by calling attention to a growing cultural gap between the wealthy and the working class.

Focused on white people in order to set aside considerations of race and ethnicity, it discusses trends, like the growing geographic concentration of the rich and steadily declining churchgoing rates among the poor, that social scientists of all ideological leanings have documented for decades. It espouses the virtues of apple-pie values like commitment to work and family.

But Mr. Murray, a Harvard and MIT-educated political scientist, seems wired like a South Boston bar brawler in his inability to resist the urge to provoke. In the midst of all of his talk about togetherness, he puts out there his belief that the economic problems of America’s working class are largely its own fault, stemming from factors like the presence of a lot of lazy men and morally loose women who have kids out of wedlock. Moreover, he argues, because of Americans’ growing tendency to pair up with the similarly educated, working-class children are increasingly genetically predisposed to be on the dim side.

(This is the point where heads turn, fists clench, and a hush is broken by the sound of liberal commenters muttering, “Oh no he didn’t.”)

Even Murray seems to know that his conclusions and brand of social scientific analysis and commentary may not sit well in academic circles:

“I am sure there are still sociology departments where people would cross themselves if I came into the room,” he said in an interview last week.

While some sociologists, such as Claude S. Fischer, think that Murray’s book will likely not get much play in scholarly circles, Dalton Conley notes that Murray is:

“probably the most influential social-policy thinker in America” thanks to his engaging writing style and his ability to make complex ideas accessible to wide audiences. “He is like the Carl Sagan of social policy,” Mr. Conley said, “but with an ideological slant.”

A flashpoint for many social scientists has long been Murray’s use of social scientific research, methods, and rhetoric. Conley explains how Murray’s use of social science may mislead readers on both theoretical and methodological grounds:

Although his descriptions of societal problems echo a lot of research performed by other scholars, he takes leaps in naming the causes or proposing solutions. Mr. Conley …said the idea that certain values, such as religiosity, lead to financial success “is a big, big assumption that outpaces the evidence,” because social scientists cannot conclusively prove such causal relationships without conducting randomized experiments on humans.

It is entirely possible, he said, that religiosity and financial success go hand in hand not because the former causes the latter, but because the latter causes the former, or both are the product of some other force not being considered.

Katherine Newman also adds:

Most social scientists continue to argue that it is economic hardship that leads to deterioration of working-class social conditions, not the other way around. “I don’t think there is any question that Americans in the working class, and those below the poverty line, have been hammered by the economic transformations that have robbed them of stable employment, and privileged those who are really well educated, giving them access to the only good jobs we have…”

In light of this disconnect, The Chronicle argues:

At the end of the day, the cultural and economic divide most illuminated by Coming Apart might be one found in scholarly publishing. On one side are authors and publishers who produce nuanced books that offer only conclusions stemming from research, and tend to be too esoteric for wide readership. On the other side are authors and publishers who cash in by producing best-selling polemics, in which research is used to buttress foregone conclusions.

Here at TSP, we’re trying to do something to bridge this very divide!

Pondering Parenting

amy giving nick a violin lesson in our living room - MG 1510.custom blended fused

The Atlantic writer Laura McKenna recently reflected on parenting and came to the conclusion that she is the product of her social class.

Jonah, did you ask your French teacher about why you got that B on that assignment? At 5:00 p.m. today, you have an orthodontist appointment. We’ll pick up Thai food on the way home and then you’ll finish your English homework. Don’t forget to put a book cover on your essay. A book cover always bumps a grade up half a point….

The reader can almost envision McKenna shaking her head at herself as she notes, “Every once in a while, you step back from yourself as a parent and say, ‘Dude! Did I actually just say that? I used to be cool. Did some alien take over my brain and turn me into this Mom Machine?'”

Instead of running with the alien theory, McKenna turned to Annette Lareau’s 2003 book Unequal Childhoods, in which she studied how 88 families from different backgrounds were raising their kids.

Lareau writes that the working class and the middle class have very different methods of raising their children. Poor and working-class parents practice what Lareau calls accomplishment of natural growth parenting. Their children have long periods of unstructured time where they shoot the breeze with neighbors and cousins, roam around the neighborhood, and watch TV with their large, extended families. Parents give orders to the children, rather than soliciting their opinions. Parents believe that they should care for their children, but kids reach adulthood naturally without too much interference from adults.

In contrast, middle-class kids are driven to soccer practice and band recitals, are involved in family debates at dinner time, and are told that to ask their teacher why they received a B on a French exam. They talk, talk, talk to their kids all the time. Even discipline becomes a matter of negotiation and bargaining between the child and the adult. Lareau calls this style of parenting concerted cultivation.

McKenna worries that, while her children may learn how to navigate bureaucracy and manage their time, they may be overscheduled.  “It’s hard to step back and relax when everyone around you is speeding up. My kids can’t go out for a spontaneous game of tag when every other kid on the block is at a band concert or at soccer practice.”

Even more worrisome to her is the idea that different parenting styles may be reinforcing class divisions in the U.S., which is something that a book cover can’t fix.

Canines and Class Conflict

y2.d108 | tug of war.Judging by the popularity of cat and dog videos on the Internet, it seems safe to say that pets have assumed an important role in our society.

However, as Benedict Carey explores in a recent NY Times article, the pet’s position within the family can be a contentious topic.

“The big bone of contention was that my mom and my sister thought that he was too smart to be treated like a dog; they thought he was a person and should be treated as such — well, spoiled,” said Danielle, a Florida woman who asked that her last name not be published to avoid more family pet strife. “The dog remains to this day, 10 years later, a source of contention and anger.”

To understand human pet relationships, Carey turns to the field of sociology. David Blouin, a sociologist at Indiana University, explains that there are three basic categories of belief concerning pets.  “Dominionists” who see pets as a useful, and beloved, but ranked below humans and replaceable. “Humanists,” who cherish their pets and raise them to the same status as a favored child. And, “protectionists,” who base their views on what they think is “best” for the animal.

“These are ideologies, and so protectionists are very critical of humanists, who are very critical of dominionists, and so on,” Dr. Blouin said. “You can see where this can create problems if people in a family have different orientations. Every little decision about the pet is loaded.”

And, whether you believe Fido should be in the yard or snuggling under the down comforter at night may not simply be a matter of personal preference. Rather, as sociologist Elizabeth Terrien helps us understand, views vary by class, ethnicity and geographic location.

One clear trend that has emerged is that people from rural backgrounds tend to see their dogs as guardians to be kept outside, whereas middle-class couples typically treat their hounds as children, often having them sleep in the master bedroom, or a special bed.

Terrien explains, the cultural and class-based differences in understanding how a pet should be treated can lead to groups judging each other negatively.

In neighborhoods with a larger Latino immigrant population, owners were more likely to say “protector,” or even “toy for the children,” she found. “In those neighborhoods you’ll sometimes see kids yanking around a dog on the leash, pushing and playing, the sort of behavior that some middle-class owners would think of as abuse” she said.

Carey’s article provides an important reminder that sometimes even the most personal – for instance, family arguments over whether the dog is included in the will – is linked to larger social forces. Also, Carey confirms yet again that class matters, even for dogs and cats.



what’s at stake in wisconsin

Protesting Scott Walker
In an op-ed published in the Raleigh-based paper, the Newsobserver, sociology Ph.D student Amanda Gengler provides insight into what is at stake in the current political struggle in Wisconsin. To do so Gengler draws upon her experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she earned her master’s degree.

As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison 10 years ago, every month a few dollars of my stipend went to pay dues to the TAA; a unique union that represents and protects graduate employees working in the UW-System. In return, I worked under a contract that ensured full health care benefits and basic dental care (with no out-of-pocket premiums), and tuition remission (without which my education would not have been possible) as well as other fair labor protections.

Now, even after each subsequent renegotiation of the rights for Wisconsin’s graduate employees has resulted in more and more concessions, current Gov. Scott Walker is proposing to remove the TAA’s collective bargaining rights altogether. This would make it impossible to fight for any of these protections, all of which could be immediately revoked.

Graduate students are not alone in seeing this as an attack on the education system.

Under the rallying cry “Hands off our Teachers,” undergraduates have taken to the streets in recent days alongside their graduate student instructors.

Gengler cautions us to not see this as an isolated threat directed at the University system.

Wisconsin’s 3,000 graduate student workers are but one of the many constituencies that will be directly harmed by the state government’s attack on unions and workers’ rights. As Wisconsin’s unions offer up economic concessions in terms of pay and premiums, only to be completely rebuffed by state lawmakers, it is clear that this issue is not about the budget: it is about ending workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The op-ed serves as a call for all workers and unions to pay close attention to what is occurring in Wisconsin. While the situation appears bleak, Gengler leaves us with a statement of resolve:

Those of us who have been fortunate enough to have those rights know what they are worth, and the thousands who continue to flood Madison’s streets make it clear that the right to fight is one thing they will not concede.

Living Politics


Arab News recently covered the two books that sociologist Asef Bayat published this year.  In them, he uses social movement theory to explain how everyday actions create change in the Middle East.

While many believe radical Islam expresses the interests of the poor, Bayat has observed that the urban poor are generally reluctant to support any kind of political movement. The poor cannot afford to be ideological, but they are interested in organizations and associations that can help them and answer their needs. Their political opinion is not linked to political Islam, but in a poor people’s “nonmovement,” which is the main form of activism in the Muslim Middle East.

Instead of organized politics, everyday life turns into “street politics.”

The concept of “street politics” is closely tied to the economic situation prevalent in the Middle East. Bayat rightly points out that the streets of Cairo, Tehran or Jakarta are jam-packed with people “compelled by the poverty or dispossession” to work, socialize and spend their day in the public spaces. Streets allow people to come into contact with each other and share their problems and this can turn a small manifestation into a massive demonstration. Revolutions and protest movements originate on the streets. Therefore, authorities are often weary of the potential danger of street politics, which often reflect the feelings and opinions of a nation.

The organizations and associations that work to meet the needs of the poor people’s “nonmovement” are also covered by Bayat.

Bayat rightfully highlights the positive role played by Muslim movements who provided health care, education and financial aid. This is the case of the Rifah Party in Turkey, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria and how Hezbollah filled the vacuum triggered by the total absence of the state in Lebanon. The growing number of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) confirms the vital role they play especially in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Sudan. Social Islam and NGOization “despite their flaws, appear to have become the dominant forms of activism that now contribute to improving some aspects of people’s lives in Middle Eastern countries,” writes Bayat.

Let Them Eat Cheetos

Mission accomplished! $20 worth of jalapeño cheetos
The phrase “you are what you eat” may refer to more than your physical make-up. In fact, the food in your fridge might say just as much about your social class as about your health.  Newsweek reports:

According to data released last week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 17 percent of Americans—more than 50 million people—live in households that are “food insecure,” a term that means a family sometimes runs out of money to buy food, or it sometimes runs out of food before it can get more money. Food insecurity is especially high in households headed by a single mother. It is most severe in the South, and in big cities. In New York City, 1.4 million people are food insecure, and 257,000 of them live near me, in Brooklyn. Food insecurity is linked, of course, to other economic measures like housing and employment, so it surprised no one that the biggest surge in food insecurity since the agency established the measure in 1995 occurred between 2007 and 2008, at the start of the economic downturn.

Growing inequality between the rich and the poor in the United States is reflected at the dinner table as well:

Among the lowest quintile of American families, mean household income has held relatively steady between $10,000 and $13,000 for the past two decades (in inflation-adjusted dollars); among the highest, income has jumped 20 percent to $170,800 over the same period, according to census data. What this means, in practical terms, is that the richest Americans can afford to buy berries out of season at Whole Foods—the upscale grocery chain that recently reported a 58 percent increase in its quarterly profits—while the food insecure often eat what they can: highly caloric, mass-produced foods like pizza and packaged cakes that fill them up quickly.

Using language evocative of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, one epidemiologist explains:

Lower-income families don’t subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education, as some have argued. And though many poor neighborhoods are, indeed, food deserts—meaning that the people who live there don’t have access to a well-stocked supermarket—many are not. Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they’re cheaper—and because they taste good. In a paper published last spring, Drewnowski showed how the prices of specific foods changed between 2004 and 2008 based on data from Seattle-area supermarkets. While food prices overall rose about 25 percent, the most nutritious foods (red peppers, raw oysters, spinach, mustard greens, romaine lettuce) rose 29 percent, while the least nutritious foods (white sugar, hard candy, jelly beans, and cola) rose just 16 percent.

“In America,” Drewnowski wrote in an e-mail, “food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”

Concern about rising obesity, especially among low income communities, had led to some controversial policy proposals.

In recent weeks the news in New York City has been full with a controversial proposal to ban food-stamp recipients from using their government money to buy soda. Local public-health officials insist they need to be more proactive about slowing obesity; a recent study found that 40 percent of the children in New York City’s kindergarten through eighth-grade classrooms were either overweight or obese. (Nationwide, 36 percent of 6- to 11-year-olds are overweight or obese.)

But French sociologist Claude Fischler suggests that there might be a better way to address both food insecurity and obesity: Americans should be more French about food.

Americans take an approach to food and eating that is unlike any other people in history. For one thing, we regard food primarily as (good or bad) nutrition. When asked “What is eating well?” Americans generally answer in the language of daily allowances: they talk about calories and carbs, fats, and sugars. They don’t see eating as a social activity, and they don’t see food—as it has been seen for millennia—as a shared resource, like a loaf of bread passed around the table. When asked “What is eating well?” the French inevitably answer in terms of “conviviality”: togetherness, intimacy, and good tastes unfolding in a predictable way.

Even more idiosyncratic than our obsession with nutrition, says Fischler, is that Americans see food choice as a matter of personal freedom, an inalienable right. Americans want to eat what they want: morels or Big Macs. They want to eat where they want, in the car or alfresco. And they want to eat when they want. With the exception of Thanksgiving, when most of us dine off the same turkey menu, we are food libertarians. In surveys, Fischler has found no single time of day (or night) when Americans predictably sit together and eat. By contrast, 54 percent of the French dine at 12:30 each day. Only 9.5 percent of the French are obese.

Others suggest addressing systematic barriers to food accessibility and delivery. According to author and foodie icon Micahel Pollan:

“Essentially,” he says, “we have a system where wealthy farmers feed the poor crap and poor farmers feed the wealthy high-quality food.” He points to Walmart’s recent announcement of a program that will put more locally grown food on its shelves as an indication that big retailers are looking to sell fresh produce in a scalable way. These fruits and vegetables might not be organic, but the goal, says Pollan, is not to be absolutist in one’s food ideology. “I argue for being conscious,” he says, “but perfectionism is an enemy of progress.”

Community activists agree:

Food co-ops and community-garden associations are doing better urban outreach. Municipalities are establishing bus routes between poor neighborhoods and those where well-stocked supermarkets exist.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, says these programs are good, but they need to go much, much further. He believes, like Fischler, that the answer lies in seeing food more as a shared resource, like water, than as a consumer product, like shoes. “It’s a nuanced conversation, but I think ‘local’ or ‘organic’ as the shorthand for all things good is way too simplistic,” says Berg. “I think we need a broader conversation about scale, working conditions, and environmental impact. It’s a little too much of people buying easy virtue.”re as well,” Berg says…

Berg believes that part of the answer lies in working with Big Food. The food industry hasn’t been entirely bad: it developed the technology to bring apples to Wisconsin in the middle of winter, after all. It could surely make sustainably produced fruits and vegetables affordable and available. “We need to bring social justice to bigger agriculture as well,” Berg says.

Our Love Affair with Marriage


Americans love marriage.  The wedding industry is worth over 40 billion dollars, and TV shows and magazines continually cover stories of romantic proposals, show us how women chose their wedding dresses, and highlight when and where celebrities tied the knot.  But, TIME recently confirmed a sociological story: marriage is changing.

In 1978, 28% of people surveyed thought that marriage was becoming obsolete.  Today, a new study conducted by the Pew Research Center and TIME revealed that 40% of people think it’s obsolete.

Even more surprising: overwhelmingly, Americans still venerate marriage enough to want to try it. About 70% of us have been married at least once, according to the 2010 Census. The Pew poll found that although 44% of Americans under 30 believe marriage is heading for extinction, only 5% of those in that age group do not want to get married. Sociologists note that Americans have a rate of marriage — and of remarriage — among the highest in the Western world. (In between is a divorce rate higher than that of most countries in the European Union.) We spill copious amounts of ink and spend copious amounts of money being anxious about marriage, both collectively and individually. We view the state of our families as a symbol of the state of our nation, and we treat marriage as a personal project, something we work at and try to perfect. “Getting married is a way to show family and friends that you have a successful personal life,” says Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and the author of The Marriage-Go-Round: The State of Marriage and the Family in America Today. “It’s like the ultimate merit badge.”

This badge of merit has changed over the past few decades.  In 1960, 70% of American adults were married.  Now, about half are.  Also, wealthy, highly educated people are now more likely to get married/be married than those with lower levels of education and socioeconomic statuses.

The change is mostly a numbers game. Since more women than men have graduated from college for several decades, it’s more likely than it used to be that a male college graduate will meet, fall in love with, wed and share the salary of a woman with a degree. Women’s advances in education have roughly paralleled the growth of the knowledge economy, so the slice of the family bacon she brings home will be substantial.

These changes would suggest that the drive to finish college would explain why fewer people are married.  But, in the last two decades, people with a high school education began to get married later than college graduates.

What has brought about the switch? It’s not any disparity in desire. According to the Pew survey, 46% of college graduates want to get married, and 44% of the less educated do. “Fifty years ago, if you were a high school dropout [or] if you were a college graduate or a doctor, marriage probably meant more or less the same thing,” says Conley [a sociologist at New York University]. “Now it’s very different depending where you are in society.” Getting married is an important part of college graduates’ plans for their future. For the less well educated, he says, it’s often the only plan.

Promising publicly to be someone’s partner for life used to be something people did to lay the foundation of their independent life. It was the demarcation of adulthood. Now it’s more of a finishing touch, the last brick in the edifice, sociologists believe. “Marriage is the capstone for both the college-educated and the less well educated,” says Johns Hopkins’ Cherlin. “The college-educated wait until they’re finished with their education and their careers are launched. The less educated wait until they feel comfortable financially.

And as they wait, they are increasingly likely to pass the time under the same roof.

Cohabitation is on the rise not just because of the economy. It’s so commonplace these days that less than half the country thinks living together is a bad idea. Couples who move in together before marrying don’t divorce any less often, say studies, although that might change as the practice becomes more widespread. In any case, academic analysis doesn’t seem to be as compelling to most people as the example set by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Or as splitting the rent.


“Marriage is still the way Americans tend to do long-term, stable partnerships,” says Cherlin. “We have the shortest cohabiting relationships of any wealthy country in the world. In some European countries, we see couples who live together for decades.” To this day, only 6% of American children have parents who live together without being married.

This story is further nuanced by differences in class and views about what is best for children.  Check out the full article!