Race and racism

Race has been a fundamental fact in American society for centuries, since the sixteenth century with the arrival of African slaves.  And many would observe that racism has been a part of that history from beginning to end.  These are distinct statements; it is possible for race to be a factor, without racism being present.  But our history does not suggest this separation.  Instead, the United States has embodied a pretty deep version of racial awareness, extending back to the period of slavery and its aftermath, and it continues to embody behaviors, attitudes, and outcomes that are best described as racist.

So what do we mean when we say that a society contains a substrate of racism? Can we observe and measure the social dimensions of racism?  And can we say with any confidence that there has been change over time?  Most fundamentally, a society is racist if members of one racial group despise, demean, mistreat, and discriminate against members of another racial group.  Assertions of racial superiority and inferiority, patterns of treatment that discriminate across individuals within different racial groups, and outcomes that show a distinct advantage to members of a dominant racial group all represent the markings of racism within a society.

We might say that there are several important social factors that represent different aspects of the social reality of racism: attitudes, behaviors, institutions, and outcomes.

The attitudes of racism include a bundle of emotions and beliefs: a belief in the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race relative to another; feelings of hostility, suspicion, or antipathy towards members of a different racial group; a set of stereotypes about the characteristics of the other group; and a readiness to discriminate against members of other groups when one is in a position to assign benefits, opportunities, or hardships.  There is such a thing as an “ideology” of race: a set of beliefs about people and the world that validates the assumptions of superiority and inferiority and the situation of privilege of the dominant group.  It is possible to use survey methodology, focus groups, and individual interviews to probe attitudes of a population, and perhaps it is possible to “map” the variations in racial thinking throughout a society.  So we might have some confidence in the possibility of developing an aggregate measure of “degree of racist attitudes” in a given society, and with effort we could monitor the direction of change of this measure over time.  This might give us a basis for concluding that “racial attitudes are improving (or worsening) during a specific period.”

Behaviors have something to do with attitudes; we generally believe that people’s behaviors derive in some way from their underlying attitudes and ideologies.  But the evidence of racist behavior is more visible than inferences about attitudes.  Particularly visible are facts about the incidence of racially motivated violence; facts about discrimination in employment and housing; and patterns of social behaviors in interactions between members of different racial groups.  A situation in which members of a privileged group express dominance, superiority, and greater self-importance towards members of a different group is one that expresses behaviorally the logic of race relations in that society.  So we can ask the question of a given society: to what extent do members of a privileged racial group engage in harmful and discriminatory behaviors towards members of another group?  And we might attempt to estimate the degree of racism in a society by the relative frequency of racially motivated crimes over time (FBI hate crime statistics; link).  Consider this graph of the frequency of lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1965 (Wikipedia link):

We might speculate that decades in which there is an exceptionally high incidence of lynchings are also peak periods of racism more generally.  (Though we might also explain the frequency of these acts of violence in more political-organizational terms.)

The third factor mentioned above is institutions: to what extent are the basic institutions in a given society “racialized”?  That is, to what extent do the basic institutions automatically and systematically treat members of different races differently?  The practices of real estate “steering” and mortgage redlining are clear examples of a racialized system for assigning home seekers to neighborhoods; and employment practices that disadvantage members of some racial groups are just as critical in the area of employment and wellbeing.  For example, facts about residential segregation and the availability of transportation make it extremely difficult for African-American applicants to pursue job openings in the suburbs. So this is a system that discriminates against one group in favor of another — even though the employer’s personal attitudes may not be the cause of the discrimination.  Here too it is plausible to imagine that we might arrive at some quantifiable judgments about the degree of discrimination and equality of basic institutions at a given time; and this would permit us to make comparisons over time as well.

The fourth factor is outcomes. The degree of racialization of a society might be measured by the breadth of the gap between races with respect to important life outcomes.  If blacks and whites differ significantly in life expectancy, incarceration rates, health status, income, wealth, and education, we have good reason to believe that there are racialized social processes that are leading to these outcomes.  So measuring the race gap with respect to important social outcomes is an important way of assessing the degree to which a given society is racialized; or in other words, to measure the degree to which racism is an important social factor in that society.  Racial gaps with respect to important life outcomes can be measured; and it is meaningful to find that racial gaps have narrowed (or widened) during a given period of time.

The fundamental test of a non-racist society is this: there should be no difference in the availability of opportunities across racial groups, and — given a reasonable assumption about the fundamental equality of human beings — there should be no gap in outcomes across racial groups when it comes to factors like health, education, income, or wealth.  In other words, a non-racist society is one whose basic institutions do not discriminate, consciously or unconsciously, across individuals from different racial groups.

The treatment of attitudes, behaviors, institutions, and outcomes offered here suggests that it is indeed possible to chart the degree of racial progress a society has made over a number of decades.  We can measure attitudes and behaviors over time, using rigorous social-science tools (survey methodology).  And we can assess the workings of institutions and the distribution of outcomes using the suite of tools available to the social historian more generally.  What is genuinely surprising, however, is the relative paucity of social-science research on this topic.

There is of course the crucial question of the social dynamics of racist attitudes and behavior.  Are there social or psychological factors that make the appearance of racist attitudes more likely?  Are there features of human nature that lead naturally to a social psychology of “in-group, out-group” discrimination?  Or is racism a purely contingent accident that results from some important historical events in the past — the slave economy, for example?  What are the factors in contemporary American social life that are either conducive or inhibiting to the formation of racist attitudes and behaviors in individuals?

Business interests and democracy

The central ideal of democracy is the notion that citizens can express their political and policy preferences through political institutions, and that the policies selected will reflect those preferences. We also expect that elected officials will act ethically in support of the best interests of the public. This is their public trust.

The anti-democratic possibility is that popular debates and expressions of preference are only a sham, and that secretive, powerful actors are able to secure their will in most circumstances. And in contemporary circumstances, that sounds a lot like corporations and business lobbying organizations. (Here is an earlier post on a report about corrupt behavior at the Department of the Interior.)

The January Supreme Court decision affirming the status of corporations as persons, and therefore entitled to unfettered rights of free speech, is the most extreme expression of the power of business, corporations, and money. As distinguished law professor Ronald Dworkin argues in the New York Review of Books (link), this decision dramatically increases the ability of corporations to influence elections and decisions in their favor — vastly disproportionately to citizens’ organizations. And, as Dworkin points out, corporations don’t need to exercise this right frequently in order to have enormous impact on candidates and issues. The mere threat of a well-financed media campaign against key representatives will suffice to sway their behavior.

There are too many examples of pernicious influence of business interests on public policy. Take a useful policy that many states and cities have tested, pretrial release programs. It appears that the public interest has been defeated by … the bail bondsmen. NPR ran a story on the pretrial release program in Broward, Florida (link). The program was successful, with a high appearance rate for court appearances and annual savings of $20 million for the county. But this program cost the bail bondsmen business. They hired a lobbyist, and in the dead of night the county commission scaled back the program. Here is how the “industry” describes the issue (link).  It is a pretty shocking story:

According to campaign records, Book [the lobbyist] … and the rest of Broward’s bondsmen spread almost $23,000 across the council in the year before the bill was passed. Fifteen bondsmen cut checks worth more than $5,000 to commissioner and now-county Mayor Ken Keechl just five days before the vote.

Keechl and several other commissioners declined NPR’s repeated requests for an interview. At the meeting last January, they said they were concerned that Broward’s pretrial program cost more than other counties’ programs, and they vigorously denied that campaign contributions played any role.

Book had his work cut out for him. Broward’s own county attorney wrote a memo warning commissioners that cutting back pretrial could be unconstitutional. But Book worked behind the scenes.

He met with commissioners, and according to county records, he had unusual access. That’s because at the same time he was hired by the bondsmen to lobby commissioners, he was also hired by the commissioners to be their lobbyist. (transcript from NPR report)

The story makes the sequence pretty clear: Through the use of campaign contributions and influence of votes by commissioners, the bondsmen groups have prevailed to abandon the policy which was unmistakably in the public interest.  The commission acted in deference to the narrow financial interests of a business group; campaign contributions by that group played a decisive role; and an overburdened county government was denied a tool that was good public policy from every point of view.  And similar efforts are taking place in many cities.  So where is the public’s interest? 
Or take the largest issues we face today in national politics — cap-and-trade policy, healthcare reform, and the nation’s food system. The influence of large financial interests in each of these areas is perfectly visible. Energy companies, coal companies, insurance companies and trade associations, and large food companies and restaurant chains pretty much run the show. Regulations are written in deference to their interests, legislation conforms to their needs and demands, and elected officials calculate their actions to the winds of campaign contributions. And the Supreme Court reverses a century of precedent and accords the rights of freedom of expression to corporations and unions that are enjoyed by individual citizens. So the influence of financially powerful corporations and industry groups will become even greater.

It would be deeply interesting if we had a sort “influence compass” that would allow us to measure the net deviation created by the private interests of companies and industries for a number of policy areas. How far from the due north of the public’s interest are we when it comes to —

  • Environmental protection
  • Banking regulation
  • Insurance regulation
  • Energy policy
  • Cost-effective military procurement
  • Urban land use policy 
  • Airline safety
  • Licensing of public resources such as gas and coal leases

Of course the metaphor of “north” doesn’t really work here, since there is no purely objective definition of the public good in any of these areas. That is the purpose of open democratic debate about policy issues — what are the facts, what do we want to achieve, and what are the most effective ways of achieving our ends? But when private interests can influence decision makers to adopt X because it is good for the profits of industry Y — in spite of the clear public interest in doing Z — then we have anti-democratic distortion of the process.

Where are the democratic checks on this exercise of power? A first line of defense is the set of regulations most governments and agencies have concerning conflict of interest and lobbying. These institutions obviously don’t work; no one who pays attention would seriously think that agencies and governments are uninfluenced by gifts, contributions, promises of future benefits, and the blandishments of lobbyists. And these influences range from slight deviations to gross corruption.  Moreover, influence doesn’t need to be corrupt in order to be anti-democratic.  If an energy company gets a privileged opportunity to make the case for “clean coal” behind closed doors, this may represent a legitimate set of partial arguments.  The problem is that experts representing the public are not given the same opportunity.

A related strategy is publicity: requiring that decision-making agencies make their deliberations and decision-making processes transparent and visible to the public. Let the public know who is influencing the debate, and perhaps this will deter decision-makers from favoring an important set of private interests. Then-Vice-President Cheney’s refusal to make public the list of companies involved in consultations to the National Energy Policy Development Group (link) is an instructive example; it is very natural to suspect that the recommendations put forward by the NEPDG reflected the specific business concerns of an unknown set of energy companies and lobbyists (link). So greater publicity of process can be a tool in enhancing the fit between policy and the public’s interests. (Here are earlier posts on the capacity of publicity to serve as a check on bad organizational behavior (post, post).)

Another line of defense is the independent press and media. Our newspapers and magazines have historically had the resources and mission to track down the influence of private interests on the formulation of legislation, regulation, and policy. Bill Moyers is a great example (link); for example, his recent story on the role of campaign contributions in the election of judges (link). But the resources are disappearing and the cheerleaders at Fox News are gaining influence by the month. So relying on the investigative powers of an independent media looks like an increasingly long-odds bet.

So we have our work cut out for us to validate the main premise of democracy: that the interests of the public will be served faithfully by government without significant distortion by private business interests.

(Here is a recent post on C. Wright Mills’ analysis of power elites and the influence accorded to corporations in the United States.)

Labor abuses in China

The world press has begun to find ways of documenting the conditions of workers in many of the factories in China devoted to manufacturing goods for export to the United States and other countries (for example, In Chinese Factories, NYT, 1/5/08). The reportage is eye-opening but not surprising.  Reporters have documented excessive hours of work, pay that is lower than what Chinese law requires, working conditions that are chronically unsafe, and persistent exposure to the very dangerous chemicals that American toy consumers have been so concerned about. One of the authorities sometimes quoted in these articles is Professor Anita Chan from the Australian National University, and Professor Chan has been documenting these conditions for years. Her book, China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, is a detailed and factual examination of some of these conditions. She documents the fact that the most vulnerable groups of workers — in the range of tens of millions! — are the internal migrants of China, who have left their home regions in search of jobs. Very significantly, Professor Chan bases some of her fact-finding on the slowly emerging field of local investigative journalism in China.

Why do these abuses occur? For several related reasons. First, the motive of generating profits in the context of a rapidly growing economy. Since China’s industrial economy was reformed in the 1990s, permiting private ownership of factories and enterprises, there have been strong incentives to be successful in business and to become rich. There has been tremendous demand for low-cost Chinese-manufactured goods, and great fortunes are being made in consumer electronics, toys, clothing, and dozens of other sectors. And in the downturn of world demand, equally abusive practices have been used to reduce costs.  The profit motive leads factory owners and managers to strive hard to keep wages and factory expenses as low as possible; and the vast population of poor rural people in China who are available for unskilled factory work makes the bargaining position of the factory owner very strong. (Chan documents some of the forms of coercion and intimidation that are used in some Chinese factories to keep workers on the job and to prevent them from leaving or resisting.) And the global purchasers are insistent about cost-cutting and price-cutting on the finished goods. So the result is — a chronic competitive “race to the bottom” in which each factory tries to produce at the require level of quality with the absolutely lowest level of cost; and this means continuous pressure on working conditions, health and safety conditions, and environmental effects.  (C. K. Lee describes the situation of protest and resistance in “sunbelt” and “rustbelt” factories in Against the Law: Labor Protests in China’s Rustbelt and Sunbelt.)

So part of the story has to do with the economic incentives and advantages that factory owners have relative to a large working population that has few alternatives. But this part of the story is familiar from other economies as they have developed through intensive industrialization. It has been learned elsewhere in the world that the imperatives of profitability by themselves almost mandate the abuse of labor; so government regulation and inspection are a necessary part of a manufacturing system if it is to succeed in treating all the population fairly and humanely. We might have imagined that the Chinese government would have been prepared to provide the regulatory environment that was necessary to protect the best interests of farmers and workers; it is, after all, governed by the party of farmers and workers. However, this is not the case. China has been so concerned to support economic growth that it has been very slow to implement effective regulatory systems to protect labor and the environment. Moreover, the balance of power between factory owners and local officials seems to be tilted towards the owners; other Times reporting has documented the fact that local officials cannot impose their will upon the owners. And, of course, there is ample opportunity for corrupt collusion between owners and officials.

This failure to regulate has been evident in other areas besides labor; the Chinese government has shown itself to be unwilling or unable to enact effective environmental regulations or to establish an effective regime of inspection and regulation for foods, drugs, and other potentially harmful products. It appears that middle-class Chinese consumers themselves are now expressing anxiety about the absence of this kind of regulation within their food and drug system.
So what other avenues exist for improving the conditions of workers in China?
There are three possibilities — all mutually compatible. First, workers themselves can protect their interests in fair wages, safe working conditions, and limited hours of work — if they are permitted to organize in unions. Woody Guthrie had it right: as individuals, workers are weak, but together they are strong. It seems inescapable that a major part of the problem is the enormous imbalance that exists between the powers associated with ownership and management, and those assigned to workers and their organizations. So a more just China will need to permit the development of real independent labor unions that work hard for the interests of their members.
Second, labor mobility can improve the conditions of labor everywhere. It is not an accident that some of the worst abuses documented by Professor Chan have to do with the forms of coercion that factory owners use to keep workers in their factories. If workers can vote with their feet, then we would expect that they will migrate to factories and other employers who offer better conditions of work and pay. And this will force employers to bid for qualified labor on the basis of improved working conditions.
And finally, there is obviously a role for consumers and companies in North America and Europe in all of this. North American consumers benefit from the low manufacturing costs currently available in China; but these low costs are unavoidably associated with the labor abuses we see today. We have a model for how international companies can take responsibility for the conditions of labor and environmental behavior, in the form of the Fair Labor struggles of the 1990s on university campuses in the United States. Large apparel manufacturers took on the responsibility of subjecting their suppliers to standards of conduct, and they subscribed to third-party organizations that undertook to “audit” the level of compliance with these standards by the supply chain. (Visit the Fair Labor website for an example of such an organization.) As the Times story observes, this is a tricky business, given the substantial degree of sub-contracting that occurs in the manufacturing process in China. But it can have a measurable effect.
China is plainly destined to be a major economic and political power in the coming fifty years. But to succeed in creating a society in which everyone has a continuing stake in a good quality of life and a fair deal from society, it will have to solve the problems of regulation of labor, health, and environment. And this will mean a degree of redistribution of China’s wealth and power towards its poorest people.

Who invented the totalitarian state?

 
The world has known ruthless, violent, and murderous rulers for centuries.  Queen Elizabeth ran a secret service that ruthlessly pursued her enemies in the Catholic underground.  Isabella and Ferdinand persecuted and expelled the Jews of Spain.  And the French government was perfectly ready to use deadly force against workers and rebels in Paris in 1848 and 1871.  But the totalitarian state was a creation of the twentieth century.  The fascist states of Italy, Spain, and Germany as well as the Soviet state seem to have been qualitatively different from even the most repressive of their nineteenth century predecessors. By comparison, Bismarck’s Prussia, Napoleon III’s France, Czar Alexander’s Russia, and Victor Emmanuel’s Italy were quaint amateur affairs when it came to organized coercion and mass politics.

The differences are striking — the apparatus of political prisons, the extensive secret police networks, the purposive use of violent organizations, the ideologies of national and ethnic purity.  Most fundamental, though, is the degree and depth of bureaucratic control that the modern totalitarian state achieved.  This is what made the modern fascist or soviet state “total” — an ability to monitor and intimidate civil society down to the street level.

The distinction between the realm of the state and the realm of civil society has been fundamental to political theory.  Civil society encompasses the private activities of individuals and their associations, and the realm of the state involves the political apparatus of law, enforcement, and coercion.  We can roughly estimate the degree to which the apparatus of the state is able to penetrate down into civil society.  And European states prior to the twentieth century were objectively limited in their capacity to rule civil society.  This is true for the imperial Chinese state in the nineteenth century as well; it was commonly said that the power of the Emperor ended at the yamen wall (or at the county level).  As Mark Allee puts it in Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China: Northern Taiwan in the Nineteenth Century,

The limited effectiveness of yamen runners as police prompted local administrators in Danshui and Xinzhu to search for ways to augment and supplement their runner cadre. In so doing, sub-prefecture and county heads aimed to create more intimate linkages to the people in their jurisdiction and to extend the reach of local government beyond the yamen wall into the countryside. (197)

Weak states have only a limited ability to enforce their will against the mass populations of city and countryside; mechanisms such as tax farming and collective tax liability are therefore called upon in order to secure the resources needed by the central authorities.  And the scope of law and the effective enforcement of laws and decrees is limited as well in a weak state.  European polities of the nineteenth century were generally weak states; Britain, France, Germany, and Italy had central governments with only limited administrative capacity and limited ability to impose their authority at the local level.  But there was a dramatic increase in the beginning of the twentieth century in the administrative capacity of the state and its ability to govern local society.  The scope of the political grew much broader, and the domain of civil society — the relatively safe and insulated zone of individual activity and choice — grew more limited.  The creation of the totalitarian state depended on this radical increase in state power and state coercive capacity.

A striking feature of the totalitarian states of the twentieth century is their aggressiveness and brutality towards all opposition.  These fascist states were ruthless and effective in their ability to attack and dismantle oppositional groups — including communists, labor unions, radical peasants, rent resistance organizations, liberals, and anarchists.  Chuck Tilly’s discussion of “trust networks” is relevant here; the balance of power between the trust networks of civil society and the central power of the state apparatus shifted profoundly with the advent of the modern dictatorship; Trust and Rule.

One index of the administrative and coercive capacity of the state is the degree to which it is successful in exacting a greater percentage of the national wealth in taxes.  Weak states are relatively inefficient at collecting taxes.  So careful historical study of systems of taxation is an important contribution to the topic of the power of the state.  Isaac Martin, Ajay Mehrotra, and Monica Prasad’s The New Fiscal Sociology: Taxation in Comparative and Historical Perspective provides a good exposure to the field of comparative fiscal sociology. With a foreword and article by Charles Tilly, it examines the ways in which states since the early modern period have intensified their ability to collect tax revenues.

One piece of this new capacity was organizational.  Fascist states in the 1930s created bureaucracies of surveillance, enforcement, punishment, and killing that went vastly beyond the capacity of nineteenth century state organizations.  The organizations of police and army in Italy, Spain, and Germany took major steps forward in size and complexity in the twentieth century.  The personnel of the forces of coercion — police and other armed state forces such as militias — were few in the early nineteenth century; but by the middle of the twentieth century these numbers had grown exponentially.

Improved communication and transportation were also key to the possibility of the totalitarian state.  The telephone and the railroad allowed fascist states to collect information quickly and to move their forces around the cities and countryside efficiently; functionally, this meant that rural groups and ordinary people were no longer buffered from the state by poor roads and rudimentary communication.

Another technological advance that was crucial for the totalitarian state was a substantial improvement in the technology of record keeping and retrieval.  James Scott argues that the modern state’s imperative to regiment and record its population is fundamental to its capacity to collect taxes and conscript soldiers  — and therefore fundamental to the nature of modern political power (Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed).  The technology of organized record keeping improved dramatically in the first several decades of the twentieth century — thus making the state’s goal of closely monitoring its subjects more attainable.  (Edwin Black describes the use of IBM punch card systems to manage National Socialist records of Jews and other enemies in IBM and the Holocaust.)  So communication, transportation, and record-keeping were crucial to the creation of the totalitarian state.

Of course greater state capacity is not synonymous with totalitarianism.  Liberal democratic states too increased their capacity to impose their will at the local level.  What distinguished totalitarian regimes was the set of ideological and political goals that fascist states sought to accomplish on the basis of their greater repressive capacity and the cult of violence that each embodied.  Other states took some of these sorts of steps forward in the twentieth century; the “reach of the state” increased dramatically in the United States, France, and Britain as well.  The administrative functions of the state and the ability to extract revenues through taxation increased exponentially.  It would be interesting to compare the total tax percentages in 1860 and 1930 for the United States and France; surely the increase is dramatic.  And likewise, the personnel of these states increased dramatically during the same time period as a percentage of population.  But this broad increase in state capacity did not lead to repression and dictatorship in these countries.

This topic is historically interesting; much turns on how we explain the power and human tragedies associated with Franco’s Spain or Mussolini’s Italy.  But it is also interesting today when we consider the undisguised efforts of the Iranian state, and its Republican Guard military organization, to dominate the whole of Iranian civil society.  Here too we see the use of surveillance, intimidation, mass arrests, forced confessions, and political murder as tactics in the effort to control civil society.

(There is quite a bit of scope for new comparative historical research on this topic.  Chuck Tilly has always emphasized these issues in his analysis of the development of the modern state.  Michael Mann’s findings in The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation States, 1760-1914 are certainly relevant as well to this line of thought.  But there isn’t much empirical detail available at present.  Simply attempting to measure the dimensions highlighted here for a number of countries — scale of tax collections, size of state apparatus, size and complexity of police organizations, and overall state capacity to regulate local society — requires research that doesn’t appear to exist at present. )

Why the corporation?

image: Diego Rivera mural of Rouge Plant, Detroit Institute of the Arts

Recently I posted about C. Wright Mills and his analysis of power elites in America (post). A major theme in Mills’s book is the new power associated with the American corporation following World War II. Charles Perrow’s Organizing America: Wealth, Power, and the Origins of Corporate Capitalism (2002) offers an historical account of how this system of power came into being. Perrow is a historical sociologist, and he focuses his analysis on the structural features of the organizations he considers; the historical and social factors that favored the emergence of these kinds of organizations; and the role that they now play within the complex social and political system of modern America.

The topic is particularly relevant today, when the Supreme Court is considering whether “corporations have a right to free speech”, and therefore a right to further deepen their influence on political directions and policies through their funding of political messages.

Perrow gives close empirical attention to the evolution of the institutions through which the American economy functioned from the mid-nineteenth century into the twentieth century. Textiles and railroads play key roles in this early history. Perrow tells the story of how the American economy came to feature the large corporation as its central business organization — an outcome that was far from inevitable. He argues that the large corporation is a historically contingent creation; other forms of enterprise activity could have emerged. And he teases out of this account a pretty compelling set of conclusions that are very supportive of Mills’s basic line of thought concerning the disproportionate power that is wielded by corporations and their officers. Here’s his summary statement:

Our economic organizations — business and industry — concentrate wealth and power; socialize employees and customers alike to meet their needs; and pass off to the rest of society the cost of their pollution, crowding, accidents, and encouragement of destructive life styles. In the vaunted “free market” economy of the United States, regulation of business and industry to prevent or mitigate this market failure is relatively ineffective, as compared to that enacted by other industrialized countries. (1-2)

Perrow notes that organizations do not have to be large to be effective and efficient; along with Charles Sabel and Jonathan Zeitlin (World of Possibilities: Flexibility and Mass Production in Western Industrialization) and Philip Scranton (Endless Novelty), he argues that “networks of small firms can drive innovation and distribute wealth and power more equitably” (2). So large, hierarchical organizations are not mandated by the technical demands of modern economic life. In fact, innovation, flexibility, and community responsiveness are more likely to be associated with networks of small organizations rather than solitary large organizations, and these types of organizations were abundant in our economic history. “Many conditions were in place to grow a society of well-regulated and moderate-sized firms focused upon regional economic development; at various points in the century many citizens argued for this” (19). But that is not what we got; instead, the large organization and the corporation became the central unit of economic activity.

So why did large organizations and corporations come to have the central and dominating role that they have had in economic and social life since the early twentieth century in the United States? Perrow’s answer to this represents a synthesis of the best thinking to date on the role that corporations play. He refers to his approach as a “society of organizations” approach, involving these key elements:

  • History is path-dependent, accidental, only partially developmental
  • structure and environment rather than entrepreneurship explain success / failure
  • technologies are chosen to fit preferred structure / ideology
  • culture shapes and is shaped by organization; the latter is emphasized
  • labor process is shaped in part by workers’ resistance and can occasionally be a key factor, but acquiescence in dependency, and tradeoffs in benefits, are more often the common lot of employees
  • bureaucracy (formalization, standardization, centralization, hierarchy) is the best unobtrusive control device that elites ever had (19)

The point about labor process is an important one. Perrow notes that the central challenge of how to discipline and regularize a labor force in textiles or other mass-production industries itself led to the early development of bureaucratic and hierarchical rules within emerging organizations. For example, “uniform work rules for all mills in Philadelphia including Manayunk were established at meetings of the owners in the early 1830s” (55). (Michael Burawoy explores this role of the corporation throughout his work; Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process Under Monopoly Capitalism.)

Perrow also gives quite a bit of attention to the legal and policy environment in the United States as a key variable in the specific pathway that American business took. The enactment of legislation permitting incorporation was an important step, in that it provided significant rights and powers to corporations (36 ff.). And Perrow notices that the development of railroads and their business organizations in the United States took a very different course than counterparts in Europe because of significant differences in political values and culture in the United States (a point that leads Perrow to intersect with Frank Dobbin’s analysis in Forging Industrial Policy: The United States, Britain, and France in the Railway Age, discussed here.)

What is the upshot? Perrow argues that in the United States the national political economy was led to create a system that gave enormous and very lightly regulated power to large organizations and corporations; that, once established, these organizations were very capable of defending their rights and freedom of action; and that the corporations exercise power at every level in American society. Corporations and large organizations wield micro-power over the tens of millions of Americans who work within them, meso-power over the environmental status of communities and regions and the consumption patterns of individuals, and macro-power over the direction that legislation and policy takes. And this degree of power is now deeply entrenched:

Belatedly, the Progressive movement of the early twentieth century sought to redress the power imbalances and the costly externalities for workers and communities. But the organizational infrastructure of the nation was not to be seriously disturbed or even ideologically challenged, up to the present. A society with small- and modest-sized firms, regional rather than national markets, and with civic welfare provisions that are a right of citizenship rather than a benefit of employment–a society with wealth and power distributed widely–is now out of the question. Large bureaucratic organizations, public and private, will be our fate for the foreseeable future. It might have been otherwise. (228)

And finally, Perrow argues that this system was not economically or technologically inevitable. Networks of smaller firms and organizations could satisfy the needs for efficient production and innovation that a robust and dynamic economy presents. And a substantially less centralized political economy would be favorable to democracy and modern quality of life.

(Perrow’s most recent book is also very timely and worth reading (The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters). Here Perrow returns to the subject of catastrophe and its prevention. He outlines the very significant possibilities of catastrophic failure that are inherent in our current industrial and economic organization, and offers some ideas about how we might reduce these vulnerabilities. There is a connection between the two books; the wide scope of the corporation as the basic unit of economic organization directly implies the concentration of dangerous industrial processes that a more decentralized network of smaller producers would have avoided. Try a sample chapter on the Kindle.)

Social mobility?


We often think of the United States as a place with a lot of social mobility. What exactly does this mean? And is it true? Ironically, the answer appears to be a fairly decisive “no.” In fact, here’s a graph from a 2005 New York Times series on income mobility that shows that the United States ranks second to last among Great Britain, US, France, Canada, and Denmark when it comes to the rate of income improvement over four generations for poor families. And here are two very interesting recent studies that come to similar conclusions — a report on social mobility by the Center for American Progress and a 2007 academic study by researchers at Kent State, Wisconsin and Syracuse. Here is how Professor Kathryn Wilson, associate professor of economics at Kent State University, summarizes the main finding of the latter study: “People like to think of America as the land of opportunities. The irony is that our country actually has less social mobility and more inequality than most developed countries” (link).

Basically social mobility refers to the likelihood that a child will grow up into adulthood and attain a higher level of economic and social wellbeing than his/her family of origin. Is there a correlation between the socioeconomic status (SES) of an adult and his/her family of origin? Do poor people tend to have poor parents? And do poor parents tend to have children who end up as poor adults later in life? Does low SES in the parents’ circumstances at a certain time in life — say, the age of 30 — serve to predict the SES of the child at the same age?

The fact of social mobility is closely tied to facts about social inequality and facts about social class. In a highly egalitarian society there would be little need for social mobility. And in a society with a fairly persistent class structure there is also relatively little social mobility — because there is some set of mechanisms that limit entry and exit into the various classes. In the simplest terms, a social class is a sub-population within a society in which parents and their adult children tend to share similar occupations and economic circumstances of life. It is possible for a society to have substantial inequalities but also a substantial degree of social mobility. But there are good sociological reasons to suspect that this is a fairly unstable situation; groups with a significant degree of wealth and power are also likely to be in a position to arrange social institutions in such a way that privilege is transmitted across generations. (Here are several earlier postings on class; post, post, post.)

A crucial question to pose as we think about class and social mobility, is the issue of the social mechanisms through which children are launched into careers and economic positions in society. A pure meritocracy is a society in which specific social mechanisms distinguish between high-achieving and low-achieving individuals, assigning high-achieving individuals to desirable positions in society. A pure plutocracy is a society in which holders of wealth provide advantages to their children, ensuring that their adult children become the wealth-holders of the next generation. A caste system assigns children and young adults to occupations based on their ascriptive status. In each case there are fairly visible social mechanisms through which children from specific social environments are tracked into specific groups of roles in society. The sociological question is how these mechanisms work; in other words, we want to know about the “microfoundations” of the system of economic and social placement across generations.

In a society in which there is substantial equality of opportunity across all social groups, we would expect there to be little or no correlation between the SES of the parent and the child. We might have a very simple theory of the factors that determine an adult’s SES in a society with extensive equality of opportunity: the sum total of the individual’s talents, personality traits, and motivation strongly influence success in the pursuit of a career. (Chance also plays a role.) If talent is randomly distributed across the population, rich and poor; if all children are exposed to similar opportunities for the development of their talents; and if all walks of life are open to talent without regard to social status — then we should find a zero correlation between parents’ SES and adult child’s SES. So, in this simple model, evidence of correlation with SES of parent and child would also be evidence of failures of equality of opportunity.

However, the situation is more complicated. Success in career is probably influenced by factors other than talent: for example, personal values, practical interests, personality qualities like perseverence, and cultural values. And these qualities are plainly influenced by the child’s family and neighborhood environment. So if there is such a thing as a “culture of poverty” or a “culture of entrepreneurism”, then the social fact of the child’s immersion in this culture will be part of the explanation of the child’s performance in adulthood — whatever opportunities were available to the child. (French sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie makes a point along these lines about the segregation of immigrant communities that exists in French society today; post, post.) So this is a fact about family background that is causally relevant to eventual SES and independent of the opportunity structure of the society.

But another relevant fact is the sharply differentiated opportunities that exist for children and young adults from various social groups in many societies, including the United States. How is schooling provided to children across all income groups? What kind and quality of healthcare is available across income and race? To what extent are job opportunities made available to all individuals without regard to status, race, or income? How are urban people treated relative to suburban or rural people when it comes to the availability of important social opportunities? It is plain that there are substantial differences across many societies when it comes to questions like these.

Education is certainly one of the chief mechanisms of social mobility in any society; it involves providing the child and young adult with the tools necessary to translate personal qualities and talents into productive activity. So inequalities in access to education constitute a central barrier to social mobility. (See this earlier post for a discussion of some efforts to assess the impact of higher education on social mobility for disadvantaged people.)

And it seems all too clear that children have very unequal educational opportunities throughout the United States, from pre-school to university. These inequalities correlate with socially significant facts like family income, place of residence, and race; and they correlate in turn with the career paths and eventual SES of the young people who are placed in one or another of these educational settings. Race is a particularly prevalent form of structural inequalities of opportunity in the US; multiple studies have shown how slowly patterns of racial segregation are changing in the cities of the United States (post). And along with segregation comes limitation on opportunities associated with health, education, and employment.

So the findings mentioned above, documenting the relatively limited degree of social mobility that currently exists in the United States by international standards, are understandable when we consider the entrenched structures that exist in our country determining the opportunities available to children and young adults. Race, poverty, and geography conspire to create recurring patterns of low SES across generations of families in the United States. (See an earlier post on Douglas Massey’s analysis of the mechanisms of race and inequality in the US.) And limited social mobility is the predictable result.

Power elites after fifty years


When C. Wright Mills wrote The Power Elite in 1956, we lived in a simpler time. And yet, with a few important exceptions, the concentration of power that he described continues to seem familiar by today’s standards. The central idea is that the United States democracy — in spite of the reality of political parties, separation of powers, contested elections, and elected representation — actually embodied a hidden system of power and influence that negated many of these democratic ideals. The first words of the book are evocative:

The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family, and neighborhood they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.

And a page or two later, here is how he describes the “power elite”:
The power elite is composed of men whose positions enable them to transcend the ordinary environments of ordinary men and women; they are in positions to make decisions having major consequences. Whether they do or do not make such decisions is less important than the fact that they do occupy such pivotal positions: their failure to act, their failure to make decisions, is itself an act that is often of greater consequence than the decisions they do make. For they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. They rule the big corporations. They run the machinery of the state and claim its prerogatives. They direct the military establishment. They occupy the strategic command posts of the social structure, in which are now centered the effective means of the power and the wealth and the celebrity which they enjoy.
Mills offers a sort of middle-level sociology of power in America. He believes that power in the America of the 1950s centers in the economic, political, and military domains — corporations, the state, and the military are all organized around networks of influence at the top of which stands a relatively small number of extremely powerful people. (It seems that Mills’s description of the military is less apt today; perhaps not surprising, given that Mills was writing in the middle of the Cold War.) Power is defined as the ability to achieve what one wants over the opposition of others; and the levers of power are the great institutions in society — corporations, political institutions, and the military. And the thesis is that a relatively compact group of people exercise hegemony in each of these areas. Moreover, power leads often to wealth, in that power permits firms and individuals to gain access to society’s wealth. So a power elite is often also an economic elite.

The central thrust of the book stands in sharp opposition to the fundamental assumption of then-current democratic theory: the idea that American democracy is a pluralist system of interest groups in which no single group is able to dominate all the others (Robert Dahl (1959), A Preface to Democratic Theory). Against this pluralistic view, Mills postulates that members of mass society are dominated, more or less visibly, by a small group of powerful people in the elite. (See an earlier posting on power as influence for discussion of how power works.)

So what is Mills’s theory, exactly? It is that there is a small subset of the American population that (1) possess a number of social characteristics in common (for example, elite university educations, membership in certain civic organizations); (2) are socially interconnected with each other through marriage, friendship, and business relationship; (3) occupy social positions that give them a durable ability to make a large number of the most momentous decisions for American society; (4) are largely insulated from effective oversight from democratic institutions (press, regulatory system, political constraint). They are an elite; they are a socially interconnected group; they possess durable power; and they are little constrained by open and democratic processes.

And, of course, there needs to be a theory about recruitment and the social mechanisms of steering given individuals into the elite group. Is it family background? Is it the accident of attendance at Yale? Is it a meritocracy through which talented young people eventually grasp the sinews of power through their own achievement in the organizations of power? We need to have an account of the social means of reproduction through which a set of power relations is preserved and reproduced throughout generational change.

What is interesting in rereading Mills’s classic book today, is how scarce the empirical evidence is within the analysis. It is not really an empirical study at all, but rather a reflective essay on how this sociologist has been led to conceptualize American society, based on his long experience and study. The most empirical chapter is the section on chief executives of corporations; Mills provides an historical and quantitative narrative of the rise and consolidation of the corporation over the prior 75 years. But overall, there is quite a bit of descriptive assertion in the book; relatively little analysis of the social mechanisms that reproduce this social order; and very little by way of empirical validation of the analysis as a whole.

So how does it look today? To what extent is there a compact set of powerful people in contemporary America who have a disproportionate ability to bend the future to their interests and desires? One thing is strikingly clear: the concentration of wealth in America has increased significantly since 1956. Edward Wolff provides a summary graph for the percentage of wealth owned by the top 1% of wealth holders since 1920 in Top Heavy: The Increasing Inequality of Wealth in America and What Can Be Done About It. In 1955 the top 1% held 30% of the nation’s wealth; from 1970 to 1980 this percent declined to about 22%; and from the Reagan administration forward the percentage climbed past its previous highs to about 38% in 2000. So plainly there is an economic super-elite in the United States. This is a group that benefits from durable privileges and inequalities of access to wealth and income.

But this isn’t exactly what Mills had in mind; he was interested in a power elite — a fairly compact group of people who had the ability to make fundamental decisions in the three large areas of modern life that he highlights. And though he doesn’t say very much about this point, he implies that it is an interconnected group — through interlocking directorships in corporations, for example. So how can we assess the degree to which contemporary society in the United States is run through such a system? Is there a power elite today?

In one sense it is obvious what the answer is. Corporations continue to have enormous influence on our society — banks, energy companies, pharmaceutical companies, food corporations. In fact, the collective power of corporations in modern societies is surely much greater than it was fifty years ago, through direct economic action and through their ability to influence laws and regulations. Their directors and CEOs do in fact constitute a small and interlocked portion of the population. And these leaders continue to have great ability to determine social outcomes through their “private” decisions about the conduct of the corporation. Moreover, as we have learned only too well in the past year, there is very little regulative oversight over their decisions and choices. So the existence of a “power elite” is almost a visible fact in today’s world.

But to get more specific — and to make more precise comparisons over time — it seems that we need some way of identifying and quantifying the idea of a sociologically real “power elite.” One way of trying to do that is by making use of the tools of social network analysis. For example, here is a network graph of corporate America compiled by kiwitobes. What the graph demonstrates is that the boards of America’s largest corporations are populated with directors who overlap substantially across companies; there is a high degree of interconnectedness across the boards of directors of major corporations. So this bears out part of Mills’s thesis in today’s corporate social reality.

But even more compelling would be a study that doesn’t exist yet — a social network map that represents something like the whole population of a community, linking individuals to the institutions in which they occupy a position of power. The vast majority of the population would exist in single points at the bottom of the map; most people don’t have a position of power at all. But, if Mills is right, there will be a small subset of people who are interconnected through many relationships to institutional sources of power: memberships in boards, offices in corporations, directorships of banks, trustees of universities. And we might give our thought experiment one additional feature: we might look at snapshots of the same data for each generation identified by families. Now we have Mills’s hypothesis in a nutshell: at a given time there is a small subset of the population who occupy most of the positions of power; and the probability is great that the sons and daughters of this group will occupy similar positions of power in the next generation. And in fact, it is perfectly visible in our society that the likelihood of occupying a position of power in one generation is highly influenced by the power status of the antecedent generation.

Regrettably, we don’t have a direct ability to carry out this experiment. But we might consider a test case invoking an important decision and a large number of “stakeholders”, large and small: the current effort to reform the health care system in the United States. Will this issue be resolved in a fully democratic way, with the interests of all elements of society being represented fairly in the outcome? Or will a relatively small group of corporations, political interests, and professions be in a position to invisibly block reforms that would be democratically selected? And if this is in fact the case, then doesn’t that speak loudly in support of the power elite hypothesis?

With the advantage of fifty years of perspective, I think two observations can be made about Mills’s book. First, he seems to have diagnosed a very important thread in the sociological reality of power in America — albeit in a way that is more intuitive and less empirical than contemporary sociologists would prefer. And second, he illustrates a profoundly important ability to exercise his sociological imagination: to arrive at a way of looking at contemporary society that allows us to make sense of many of the observations that press upon us.

(Another important voice on this subject is G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change (1967). Domhoff has a very nice web version of his theory on his web page.)

Inequalities in France


Inequalities in France are particularly volatile these days, with high unemployment, rising income inequality, increasingly evident differences in opportunities for young people from immigrant communities, and rather different levels of schooling available to different communities in France. Social conflict, strikes, and political disagreements are rising in France, and it will take skillful work by community leaders and public policy makers to arrive at a new and sustainable social consensus. There seems to be a new social reality in France — and to cope with these new realities, there is an urgent need for good social understanding of the causes of social distress, social inequality, and social conflict.

Some recent work in French sociology, economics, and journalism provides some useful contributions towards arriving at that better understanding of contemporary France.

Noteworthy along these lines is an important institute at the Sorbonne that focuses on inequalities in France, L’Observatoire des inégalités. Researchers affiliated with the Observatoire have recently published the institute’s second report on inequalities, L’état des inégalités en France 2009 (link). The volume includes extensive statistical information about social and economic inequalities in France, as well as a set of short, thoughtful essays offering analysis of several dimensions of current inequalities. Observatoire Director Louis Maurin and President Patrick Savidan provide the introduction to the volume. The book is a solid and illuminating snapshot of the situation of wealth, income, education, gender, and ethnic status in France today, and it provides a useful empirical baseline for understanding current debates and conflicts in France during this period of severe economic crisis.

The major categories of measurement include income and poverty, employment, education, life style, social origin, gender, age, nationality and immigration, space and territory, health, housing, and comparisons with Europe and the world.

The book brings forward a great range of social data. Several graphs and charts caught my eye as being particularly interesting. Here’s a map of poverty across the face of France:


And here is a graph indicating the rate and volume of poverty over several decades. The second panel indicates a fairly large decline in the percentage of poverty since 1970, with relatively little change in the past ten years.

Women’s equality in the workplace appears to have made more progress than in many other countries. Since 1951 median female salary has increased from about 65% of median male salary to about 82% in 2005:


And the percentage of adults with higher education is also an interesting variable. Overall, 17.7% of adults have a two-year or four-year degree beyond the Baccalaureat (roughly, high school diploma). This compares to a U.S. figure of about 27% of the adult population with an bachelor’s degree (link), with an additional percentage of adults with a two-year associate’s degree. This is especially important because another table documents that 72% of young people with the Bac+2 have regular jobs, compared with only 43% of young people lacking a diploma. Clearly, access to higher education is a critical component in economic opportunity in France, as it is in the United States.


The section on health is interesting, though it would be useful to have more public health variables and more disaggregation across regions and communities. In the fifteen years between 1976 and 1991 life expectancy for both men and women has increased by about three years, and the gap between male and female life expectancy has remained wide at about seven years (76 compared to 83 for the period 1991-1999). In general, this volume indicates that French public opinion and public policy seems to pay more attention to the situation of “handicapped” people than is the case in the United States.

The section on nationalities and immigrants is also eye-opening. 15% of immigrant households fall below the poverty line, compared with 5.6% of non-immigrant households. And households of North African origin show a staggering poverty rate of 22.6%. The report makes it plain that a significant part of this differential derives from overt discrimination; a candidate with a French surname is between 1.5 and 3 times more likely to receive a job interview than a French resident of Moroccan origin.

An excellent companion to this book is La France invisible, prepared by Stéphane Beaud, Joseph Confavreux, and Jade Lindgaard. (See an earlier posting on French sociology for a brief discussion of this book.) This book makes an extensive effort to catalogue the many slices of French society that are often overlooked; this is the sociological reality that underlies many of the forms of inequality described in L’état des inégalités en France 2009. La France invisible is not primarily interested in statistical measurement; there is not a single table or graph in the 650-page volume. Instead, it is an effort at sociological description and ethnographic insight into the situations of daily life of the various disadvantaged minority groups in France. The editors link their work to an earlier book by Pierre Bourdieu, La Misere du monde, in 1993. Their goal is to give voice to people and groups who have been largely unheard in the larger society in the past thirty years. And they have made a very powerful contribution to this effort.

Combine these books with the careful and intense fieldwork by Didier Lapeyronnie in Ghetto urbain, and you have a great survey of social inequalities in France today. (See an earlier posting on segregation in France that refers to Lapeyronnie’s work.) Lapeyronnie’s work documents in great sociological detail, some of the social realities that define the situation of inequality, discrimination, and segregation that limit many of France’s immigrant communities today. And it is self-evident, that France must address these issues in ways consistent with its highest civic values — or social conflict is inevitable.

I am sure that every country is developing its own forms of analysis of the new social realities that the twenty-first century confronts us with. And it is an interesting fact that there are persistent differences across national traditions of social inquiry. We certainly need new approaches and new mental frameworks in terms of which to understand the rapidly changing social circumstances of the cities and populations of the world today. Berlin, Oslo, and Milan are probably creating equally interesting new ideas about how to conceptualize emerging social realities. But even in this global world of ideas, the obstacle of language makes transmission of these research traditions difficult. The contemporary French sociological framework is sufficiently distinctive from American and British sociology to serve as a highly interesting point of contrast and innovation for fresh thinking everywhere.

Class in America




Are there social classes in America?

In order to answer the question in the affirmative, we would need to determine whether there are major social groups that are defined by their position within the economy, who share —

  • some degree of a common perspective on the world
  • some degree of a common culture
  • a set of distinctive economic interests
  • the potential of engaging in collective political action in support of their interests.

Does American society possess groups with these characteristics? Or, in the negative, is the American population so homogeneous (or possibly, so heterogeneous) in values, interests, culture, and politics, that the concept of class has no bearing today?

There are certainly occupational groupings in the American workforce. The United States Department of Labor makes use of a hierarchical classification of jobs in the U.S., with 23 major groups. These include management occupations, business and financial operations, computer and mathematical operations, architecture and engineering operations, food preparation and serving occupations, community and social service occupations, legal occupations, education, training, and library occupations, healthcare support occupations, and, eventually, production occupations. Within production occupations there is a further differentiation of jobs among supervisors, production workers, assemblers, fabricators, food processing workers, and so on for dozens of other sub-categories. So there is certainly a very clear occupational structure to the American economy, and the sociological pathways that convey an individual into a particular location within this structure are well-defined and impactful on the future quality of life of the individual.

So we might consider classifying these occupations according to some higher-level categories and then constructing a theory of social classes around them: management, unskilled labor, skilled labor, professional labor, white collar, blue collar, pink collar, manufacturing, service, agriculture. (See a prior posting for an effort along these lines.) And we might consider whether some of these groupings have the cohesion and sociological interconnectedness to constitute a “class”. Are unionized, blue-collar, industrial workers a “class”? Are non-unionized service workers a class? Are accountants, architects, and engineers a social class? Are nurses and other healthcare workers a class? Are mid-sized family farmers a social class? And for that matter, are the owners and top managers of banks, investment companies, and financial firms a class? These are fruitful questions, and they begin in a recognition of the complex occupational structure of the U.S. economy. Occupations have large impact on worldview, values, quality of life, and political behavior.

Second, there is certainly a great deal of persistent social stratification in the U.S. The probability of a child’s remaining in the quintile of the income distribution where his parents found themselves is high; so the position of a family within the distributive system is fairly stable over time. And position within the income distribution has major consequences for a family’s level of consumption and quality of life. Being persistently “near-poor” is a situation of deprivation and insecurity that is sharply different from the life situation of the moderately affluent. So we might consider several large social groups based on income — the extremely poor, the working poor, the middle-income, the rich, and the super-rich. Within each of these categories of society defined by income we are likely to find some characteristic features of lifestyle, values, and existential dilemmas. So the basic structure of stratification of social goods such as income, health status, and education might serve to define large social “classes.”

Third, it would appear that there are clusters of values, styles, and mental frameworks that correspond to different economic segments of American society. This is the cultural dimension of the social reality of class. Patterns of use of leisure time, attitudes towards education, membership in different kinds of civic organizations, and attitudes towards other nations seem to distinguish social groups in America. So we might attempt to delineate social classes on the basis of clusters of values and mental frameworks. And this approach can certainly be approached empirically, through administration of instruments such as the World Values Survey and domestic equivalents. To what extent do studies like these demonstrate significant inter-group differences within the United States?

Fourth, it seems likely that there are differentiating patterns among various social groups based on the patterns of social relationships that exist within the group, that would be revealed by maps of social networks. And it seems probable that the distinct groups that emerge will have important economic relationships in common. (Here is an interesting slide presentation by Valdis Krebs that illustrates some suggestive applications of social network analysis.) Here is a hypothetical study that couldn’t really be performed but may be interesting as a thought experiment. Suppose we ask everyone in an urban population for the names of 5 non-family members upon whom they could call in an emergency to perform an important favor. Now draw the network map that results from this survey. Are there “islands” of separate sub-populations that can be discovered, where the great majority of links fall within the island and only a small number extend across to another island? And are these islands related in some important way to economic situation and status of the individuals who are included? Would this study map out groups that could be identified as “social classes”? It seems likely that the answers to these questions are affirmative.

Each of these is a different starting-place for a sociological analysis of social class in America. And if the theory of class is correct, we would expect that these different starting places would begin to converge around the same large social formations: occupations, incomes, cultures, and social networks may all call out the same large social groups.

Ultimately, the theory of class has to do with collective interests. We might say that the fundamental interests of a group involve income, job security, healthcare, opportunities, and pensions. A more intangible set of interests have to do with a demand for fair treatment in economic decision-making and a need for a sense of self-determination. And it is plain that there are business decisions and public policy decisions that are being made today that affect these interests very differently for different groups. This suggests that there are in fact large groups in American society whose members have shared interests with each other and who can be mobilized in political action in support of these interests. And this begins to suggest that class remains a social reality in America — and one that may become more politically salient rather than less in the coming decade or so.

What cannot be forgotten, though, is the fact that economic structures are only one aspect of the social mechanisms of distribution and control through which individuals’ status is determined. The mechanisms of race, ethnicity, migration, and gender all affect individuals’ core interests in ways that are somewhat independent from the structures of property and class we’ve been highlighting. And this has important consequences for political mobilization as well; it means that political affinities and action may be organized around race and ethnicity as readily as they are around wage labor and capital — witness the massive immigration rallies that took place in 2007, pictured above in the third image.

A diagram of class structure

Consider this schematic representation of several variables defined by circumstances of work, income, and occupation. The diagram proposes a classification of income earners according to a series of distinctions about their economic situation.


The diagram captures a handful of separate dimensions of a person’s economic location — one’s class. These include:

  • source of income (profits, wages, partner’s shares)
  • level of skill and education
  • function as manager or staff
  • income level (high, medium, low)
  • sector of economy (manufacturing, service, agriculture)

These are important economic characteristics that serve to define a person’s status, quality of life, and opportunities in American society. (All but income are designated in the dashed boxes on the diagram.)

We might hypothesize that the large groups that are defined by this diagram have the makings of a class: unskilled farm laborers; unskilled industrial workers; skilled salaried industrial professionals; skilled salaried professors, teachers, and librarians; professionals in firms with partner status and income; and owners of property. Moreover, we are led to ask whether there are likely to be linkages across sectors: are unskilled farm workers and factory workers likely to see themselves as members of a large class? Are salaried professionals in the industrial sector and the service sector likely to have affinity with each other? What about salaried accountants and their counterparts in partner-governed firms? What about salaried professors and temporary instructors?

Each of these categories of classification makes a difference in one’s life circumstances. The source of income defines a basic set of interests for the members of each group; for example, owners of industrial firms have an economic interest in reducing labor costs, whereas wage and salaried workers have an interest in increasing salaries and benefits. The criterion of skill and education influences one’s productivity and value to the employer; and it highlights an abstract social resource that one owns (specialized knowledge). The category of “manager/staff” defines the individual’s power and influence within the workplace — whether he/she is a “boss” or a “worker”. The sector one works in makes a difference because it establishes a set of distinctive characteristics of the workplace (a factory is different from a factory farm), and it locates the individual’s fortunes within a part of the economy that itself has specific interests and advantages. (More free trade is good for farmers because it boosts grain exports, but bad for industrial workers because it creates more competition around labor costs.)

It is also worth pointing out that the diagram provides a crude theory of income distribution: incomes are higher for more skilled workers, for executives, managers, and supervisors, and in more productive industries.

What the diagram leaves out are social characteristics like race, ethnicity, or gender, that substantially influence where one will end up within this structure. And it is intriguing to consider whether there might be a similar diagram that plots out the workings of race, immigration status, gender, or ethnicity in life outcomes.

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