The concept of class is incredibly still relevant. The relevance of this concept will be discussed with regards to two main reasons. First; the existence of different classes is needed to maintain a labour divide that enables production to take place because without production, the capitalist, material producing society cannot survive. The second reason argues that class is relevant because it helps with the understanding of society, the how and where people fit in, which is crucial to social structuring.
The concept of class is still relevant because of the material producing, capitalist society that exists today. Society is essentially unable to survive without a division of labour, and labour is unable to survive without class. This kind of society revolving around work and labour, has established and enhanced class distinctions, and this concept remains relevant because it is part of social reality. Karl Marx believes production is a “definite mode of life… what they are, therefore coincides with their production, both what they produce and how they produce” (Aurthur 1970, 42), as he refers to society. Production and labour are society’s ‘modes of life’ as it has been structured around an ideology of class maintaining existing societal formations.
Take for example, Trinidadian garment workers investigated by Rebecca Prentice. It is discussed how these women ‘thieve’ skills from the factory in order to “force livelihoods in an unstable and demanding industry” (Prentice 2012, 401), which discusses how they use their skills of sewing and garment production both inside and outside of the factory. This transfer of skills from a formal to informal working environment reflects the competitiveness they need to survive in economic difficulty. These ‘thieved’ skills are used for side jobs, making these garment workers more self-reliant within the economic reality of capitalism and enables them to utilise their own acquired freedom. These garment workers are however still locked in a class that dictates economic precarity. Although the women do gain pleasure from being able use their skills in a versatile way and it is, “a leverage for a young women’s claim on respectability” (Prentice 2012, 404), it is only limited to that. The transfer of these skills across the different jobs that they do does not allow them to make any amount of capital that would move them to higher class. Class is so relevant in this regard because it is needed to maintain this economically driven but also divided society. This divided society is essential to keep production happening and it is clear that labour exists predominantly because class exists. These women are in a class with no escape despite their flexible economic endeavours because they are in a class that is important to production, which is important to the economy and human survival. This demonstration of class with respect to factory production demonstrates how the concept of class is an alive one.
These ideas of class divide must also be seen in light of resistance to extend this argument. The skill of ‘thieving’ can be considered a form of “everyday resistance” (1985, 1989, 1990 cited in Reed-Danahay 1993, 221), coined by James Scott. It describes a form of political action by subordinate groups and is a disguised way of resisting against a dominant class. The Trinidadian workers are taking it in their stride to resist by not limiting their skills to the factory and instilling their own form of agency. This form of ‘resistance’ explains both a power and class divide as it notifies the separation between two groups of people. There is a class below, the Trinidadian workers, and a class above, the capitalist and factory owning characters with a lot of socio-economic capital, that they are resisting, which they do because of class divisions. Class is extremely relevant because of labour divides that will inevitably exist in the face of capitalism. Class is necessary because it has to exist as a concept if this material producing world is going stay producing and keep society alive.
The concept of class is also still relevant for another predominant reason; it is crucial to the fundamental understanding of society. Societal understanding is not only exclusive to class distinctions as society can also be categorised in terms of race, gender, culture, relationships, etc. However, class is an underlying and predominant force in all these structures and remains extremely relevant for societal clarity. Anthropologists such as Levi-Strauss and Margaret Mead have often argued that “food practices are cultural practices” (Karrabæk 2012, 2), which reflect how food socialisation can be symbolic of class and cultural identities. This can be investigated through a Primary Classroom in Copenhagen.
Zaki is a student of Somalian descent in the classroom that Martha Sif Karrabæk studies. Zaki is not allowed to eat his wrap for lunch as his teacher, Louise believes it is ‘unhealthy’ and she makes him eat his rye bread sandwich instead because this is glorified food in Denmark. Louise is sharing a value system with Zaki to try and enforce what she perceives to be a respectable child. However, Zaki being of Somalian descent does place him in a different position to some of the other children in his class because “when teachers ideologically pair national identity and food culture, immigrants and minority groups are easily alienated” (Salazar 2007 cited in Karrabæk, 5). Minority groups are mostly affected by food socialisation, as their understanding of food may differ from what is considered respectable, which is also seen as a threat to social order. From a young age, class and moral values are being instilled through food socialisation as this reflects culture and class. Zaki comes from a lower class and obtains much less cultural capital than some other students and he stands out, confusing his sense of belonging. Class has been used to understand backgrounds of children and allows them to also understand where they fit in regards to other classes.
Nash discusses theories of Bourdieu and explains how a solution to class struggling divides would be to have a common culture of literacy, which can also apply to class in the broader sense. It would however be difficult to have a common culture or class, “given the reality of the economic division of labour, middle class people who must possess this culture have a great advantage” (Nash 1990, 438), which can be understood in reference to the Copenhagen primary school. Due to the range of economic and cultural backgrounds, there will never be a universal group or methodology that can encompass everyone, and that is why separate classes exist. This is also why class ideologies are brought into being through education, because class is a fundamental factor in society dictating belonging. This makes class so relevant because it shows how it is engrained early and cannot be escaped. Schools such as this one in Copenhagen uphold information of class, and use symbols such as food socialisation to represent this. Bourdieu also argues, “groups - familial or other - are things which people do, at the cost of a constant labour of maintenance” (Lamaison and Bourdieu 1986, 120), which describes how people have a need for groups, for social division, which are created so that society and where people belong is understood. Class is an expression of human desire to understand and organise.
Despite the fact that class is relevant in this regard of social understanding, the ways in which this may also be problematic must be acknowledged. Class co-exists with capitalism and has caused immense forms of “symbolic violence” coined by Bourdieu in the 1970s (Nash 1990, 431). ‘Symbolic Violence’ is a non-physical, but power related violence developed through distinctive power relations that constitute social inequality, regarding society having certain classes naturally be favoured towards. “If you can artfully manipulate a situation to your own advantage, then you have power” (1993, 228), which Reed-Danahay uses to describe the Auvergnat farmers, however this is a crucial ideology in explaining how inequality is manifested by symbolic violence. The ‘artful manipulation’ is how capitalism allows classes with a greater amount of capital, and the mobility that this comes with, to exploit other classes to obtain an even greater amount of capital. Class is not only social understanding but also social inequality, which is its natural consequence. This must be recognised in light of class being something so relevant because of the both positive and negative connotations.
The concept of class is of great relevance. Two main reasons were discussed in acknowledgement to the relevance of this concept. Firstly, how class is essential to the maintenance of production due to the way that the division of labour has been organised around this production, making class therefore depended on to uphold society. Secondly, how class is one major way to organise and be clear about society, which is instilled from a young age in educational institutions. Despite class also being something that enhances social inequality, it is still essential in grounding societal understanding.
Aurthur, C J (1970) The German Ideology. Part One with selections from Parts Two and Three, together with Marx’s “Introduction to a Critique of Political Economy”. Section 1A, pp. 42-57. London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Karrebaek, M.S. (2012) “What’s in your Lunch Box Today?”: Health, Respectability, and Ethnicity in the Primary Classroom. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. 22 (1): 1-22. [e- journal]
Lamaison, P and Bourdieu, P “From Rules to Strategies: An Interview with Pierre Bourdieu” Cultural Anthropology, 1 (1): 110-120. [e-journal]
Nash, R (1990) Bourdieu on Education and Social and Cultural Reproduction. British Journal of Sociology of Education. 11(4): 431-447.[e-journal]
Prentice, R (2015) “No One Ever Showed Me Nothing: Skill and Self-Making among Trinidadian Garment Workers” Anthropology and Education Quarterly 43(4):400-414.
Reed-Danahay (1993) “Talking about Resistance: Ethnography and Theory in Rural France”
Anthropological Quarterly. 66 (4): Controversy: 221-229.