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Sociology as Class War

Progressive social scientists want to help poor people but won't learn from them.
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I just finished Andrew Cherlin’s new book, Labor’s Love Lost: The Rise and Fall of the Working-Class Family in America. It’s a solid piece of historically-informed synthesis.

But it’s also full of examples of my least-favorite feature of contemporary sociology of the family. Because almost all writing that gets labeled “sociology” is done by members of the overeducated elite, the values common among that elite are taken for granted and treated as objectively correct, whereas values common in working-class or poor communities are pathologized. “Good parenting,” for example, is defined as parenting the way the upper class does it.

This gives sociology an unpleasant us-helping-them flavor. Bad enough when elites try “teaching folk songs to the folk“; must they now teach Ivy League fight songs to the folk?

None of these progressive sociologists would dream of suggesting that the rich are better—but all their solutions for the problems of the poor turn out to be attempts to make the poor act and think more like the rich, and never the other way around. Or they suggest, as I said about 2010’s Red Families vs. Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture, that “poor or nonelite Americans [are] simply elite Americans without the resources to act on the values they obviously share with the authors.”

Here’s an especially egregious example from Cherlin, in which another sociologist, Annette Lareau, phrases something in a way critical of upper-class mores and Cherlin straight-up rephrases it to turn the criticism into praise. Cherlin summarizes Lareau’s research findings like this:

The middle-class [parenting] style of cultivation entailed verbal reasoning and negotiation between parents and children; organizing out-of-school activities and transporting children to and from them; and intervening in schools to ensure that their children were treated well. The “natural growth” style [of working-class parents], on the other hand, entailed verbal directives issues to children without much questioning or negotiation; unorganized, free-flowing out-of-school time; and reluctance to confront and question authorities such as teachers. The result was that middle-class children developed an “emerging sense of entitlement” which we might view as encouraging independent acting and thinking—just the kinds of skills that can be used to obtain and succeed at a high-paying job.

Emphasis very much added. Who’s this “we”? As someone who was lucky enough to spend much of her childhood in “unorganized, free-flowing out-of-school time,” but also has a pretty strong and unpleasant sense of entitlement as a result of privilege, I think Lareau was closer to right than Cherlin.

It’s possible to do sociology which questions elite morality. Kathryn J. Edin and Maria Kefalas’s truly excellent 2005 Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage allows the women they interviewed to speak for themselves, at length, and takes their moral beliefs seriously. Edin and Kefalas found that the women they studied (who were also their neighbors, which is why the book is so good) felt sorry for them because they had no children. These women believed that you shouldn’t wait too long to have kids. Children brought hope and joy into neighborhoods where people were often tempted to despair. Edin and Kefalas were able to accept this critique of their own delayed-marriage, delayed-childbearing lifestyle.

And Cherlin himself offers praise for one non-elite community: He shows obvious respect for the “caring self” fostered by black communities. But that’s an exception; throughout most of the book elite values are assumed to be best.

If you’re a progressive (or anyone, really) doing sociology of the family, and you can’t name at least three major, substantive issues on which poor people are more likely to be right than rich people, you probably have not discovered an objective morality which just happens to line up with the values of the contemporary elite. You are, instead, an unwilling covert operative in the class war—fighting on the side of the rich.

So I’ll lay some of my cards on the table. It’s obviously a massive generalization to suggest that there’s a common “working-class” or “poor community” culture—in fact, one of the best contributions of Cherlin’s book is his delineation of the many ways in which working-class and less-educated people have adopted beliefs and practices which began as upper-class norms. But here are some things I believe which go against the norms of my own overeducated class. This list is not exhaustive:

  • It’s okay to marry young. It’s okay to have children before you’re financially stable. It is a good and beautiful thing when people without money have kids, even if they have little prospect of ever achieving financial stability. The problem is not with the parents, but with those who don’t offer material support so they can care for their kids.
  • Have more kids. The whole “have fewer, but invest in each one more” mentality, which Cherlin promotes, is the mentality which brought us helicopter parenting.
  • Playing in dirt is better than being shuttled to a score of structured, supervised afterschool activities.
  • Children should learn obedience as well as independent thought. We need to learn how to say “yes,” and to whom; we need more than critical thinking skills.
  • If you get pregnant in college, have the baby.

The point here isn’t that I want you to agree with me about each of these specific moral claims. Most of them can be abused. Some of them become much shakier when other elements of a coherent moral worldview are absent—delaying marriage but not childbearing isn’t the best possible path. And, most important, as a Christian I believe that “Judge not, lest ye be judged” is a central part of the moral life. My task is to love and serve regardless of what other people do, not come up with rules for how others should conduct themselves.

But as a Christian I also believe that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven. Why do progressive sociologists keep greasing the camel?

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.