What is "Class" Anyway?

By Kyla Bender-Baird

Throughout my education in sociology and women's studies as well as my activism within the non-profit realm, I have been taught to utilize an "intersectional" approach to research, advocacy, and politics. Which means always looking at race, class and gender and how they connect to each other.  Sometimes we'll expand intersectionality to look at other elements such as mental and physical ability, national origin, and sexual identity/orientation.  And while my awareness of the complexities and richness of race and gender has only expanded, when people bring up class, I basically stop and go "huh?!" Because, yes, intrinsically I know what class is and can point to it. But if asked for a definition, I'm completely at a loss.

So naturally when I saw that the Wellesley Centers for Women had an audio presentation on measuring class, I had to tune in! The Wellesley Centers for Women regularly offers seminar and panel style presentations where their scholars  share the latest research findings and theoretical trends with a larger audience. And luck for us, they now post recordings of these presentations online!  Click here to see what's available.

On April 1st, Alice Frye (MPH, Ph.D.) gave the following talk: The Measurement and Use of "Social Class" in Published Research: Education, Occupation, Income, Location, Government Assistance or Some Combination Thereof. Basically, I'm not the only one who comes up short in offering a clear definition of class (or socioeconomic status as she calls it).  According to Alice Frye, there is no consensus on what exactly class is or how to measure it.  It definitely has multiple components: parenting status, money, family size, education, and occupational status.  But sociologists and economists disagree with each other--and amongst themselves--on which of these components is most important in measuring class.  What they CAN agree on is that class is both social and mutable. The best definition Alice Frye felt she could offer was that class indicates different access to opportunities.

If you are as interested as I am in learning more about the complexities of class and how one practitioner has decided to use certain measurements of class in her research on adolescent health, click here.


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