Class Analysis And Social Recognition: Some Tentative Reflections

Carlos Palma Amestoy

Class and higher education are intimately connected to the reproduction of social inequalities and aspirations towards universities are mediated by individuals’ class positions. In the case of Chile, I found important distinctions in the way pupils belonging to three theoretical classes approach higher education. Thus, broadly speaking, the members of the dominant class take higher education as the natural pathway in their trajectories; those in the dominated positions face the possibility of higher education marked by uncertainties and ambivalences; while in the intermediate class, higher education is mostly appreciated as a demand of society. Taken as a whole, the process of transition from school to higher education triggers many forms of what Pierre Bourdieu understands as misrecognition and symbolic violence but also of what can be interpreted within the frame of struggles for recognition. Starting from these insights, I will briefly reflect here on how the framework of struggles for recognition may help to enrich class analysis, the understanding of the subjective experience of class and sociological inquiring in a given society.

Many of the students I interviewed for my doctoral research, particularly from the intermediate positions in the Chilean social space, raised discourses associated with higher education that can be interpreted within the framework of what Axel Honneth calls struggles for recognition. Indeed, these pupils tended to frame their desires to enter higher education not only as a means to get access to particular job positions and rewards in the labour market, but also in association with the search for social recognition in a broader sense. For this group higher education was a way of gaining respect and to prevent potential situations of discrimination in society. This condition becomes particularly striking when we note that most of the pupils from the intermediate class I interviewed were likely to be first-generation in their families attending higher education. The feeling of higher education as a demand, furthermore, is consistent with a society in which the idea of meritocracy and neoliberal tropes such as individual responsibility, competition and personal endeavour have become part of the core of the country’s dominant ideology and doxa – i.e. the unquestioned beliefs and taken-for-granted worldview to which individuals adhere.

In October 2019, people in Chile took to the street. Protests against decades of neoliberalism in the country, which have materialised in structural inequalities and different forms of abuses, quickly became massive. No wonder that those who started the revolt were secondary school students, many of them from public schools. In fact, during the last few decades, these students have been important social and political actors who have challenged the country’s status quo and have been able to impose transformative agendas on the political field. Shortly after the first riots took place, among the main demands and claims of protesters was the idea of dignity.  ‘Hasta que la dignidad se haga costumbre’ (‘Until dignity becomes a habit’)said one of the main mottos people raised. Likewise, the main meeting point for protesters in Santiago, where more than a million people gathered in October 2019, was renamed ‘Plaza de la Dignidad’ (‘Dignity Square’).

Certainly, dignity, respect and recognition can be taken as a triad of interrelated concepts. It is in this sense that we could hypothesise – and this is just a sociological hypothesis to reflect on – that there is a direct connection between the classed experience of struggles for recognition of those pupils from the intermediate positions in the social space who strive for entering higher education and the events that began in October 2019.

How can we connect the above-mentioned experiences and events? In the case of pupils from intermediate and lower class positions in Chile, we may argue that the meritocratic promise associated with the possibility of higher education brings about what can be interpreted as pupils’ struggles for recognition. The main problem, however, is that in a highly segregated educational system that tends to reproduce social inequalities, this meritocratic promise is likely to be unfulfilled, a fact that can be regarded as an important cause of malaise in Chilean society. This malaise would trigger new forms of struggles. Struggles for recognition, in this sense, are not only classed – i.e. they not only respond to particular locations in the social space – but they also take different forms and meaning depending on the context and the particular situations framing individuals’ experiences at a given time. Beyond the above outlined hypothesis, what I want to stress here is the fact that grasping different forms of struggles for recognition may importantly help us to understand social class distinctions. Class analysis not only should focus on understanding distinctions in terms of the objective positions taken by individuals in the social class structure, but also in terms of the subjectivities and generative practices that classed experiences produce. Thus, how struggles for recognition are lived in different location of social space, how they are associated with particular contexts and situation affecting individuals’ everyday life experiences, and how they may trigger new forms of struggles can importantly enrich class analysis.  

Carlos Palma Amestoy has recently received his PhD in Sociology from the University of Bristol. He is interested in class, social inequalities, social theory, subjectivities and sociology of education.

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