The Future of Class Sociology Also Lies in the Past

By Kobe De Keere

“Middle-class mafia, more like it” exclaims Irie when she finds out that two middle class women, one is her Cambridge educated surrogate mother and the other a medical doctor, secretly make a psychological diagnoses of her friend without actually consulting either of them. Irie is a character out of the brilliantly intersectional novel White Teeth by Zadie Smith and her outrage captures well the institutionally anchored habitus mismatch between the middle and working class. In contrast to the latter, the former are characterized by a type of self-management that is highly self-expressive and psychologized. They have a certain ease towards therapeutic answers to personal and social problems.

Moreover, members of the (primarily cultural) middle class enthusiastically endorse institutionalized forms of psychological guidance such as school counselling, job coaches or motivational workshops. This is unsurprising seeing that they are often on the payroll of these type of institutes, which are, in turn, a part of the overall administrative apparatus of the state (de Swaan, 1988). It is not a coincidence that the middle class have much higher levels of institutional trust (Elchardus & De Keere, 2013) and foster an expressive habitus in their offspring (Calarco, 2011; Lareau, 2011).

Under the guise of a republican virtue, they seem, just as the two middle class women in Smith’s book, selfless in their willingness to help those more unfortunate and therefore also believe in the healing powers of therapeutic institutes. However, their hoarding of the institutional opportunities and the apparent omerta on how one actually enters their class, can make them appear almost mafia-like. And Irei’s desire to belong to a white middle class family, despite her Jamaican and working class background, makes this situation painfully obvious to her.

Hence, from a radical hermeneutics of suspicion, it would be tempting to completely side with Irie and see the contemporary therapeutic state as the result of some kind of conscious middle class racketeering. Yet, this presupposes a lot of social awareness and cynicism amongst the members of the middle class, which even borders on a rational choice understanding of social behavior. However, neither institutions nor variations in class habitus are the result of deliberate group behavior, but they stem from an interweaving of individual and collective historical trajectories. Therefore, the sociological task at hand is to investigate how the alignment between the middle class habitus and therapeutization of social institutions came about through a historical processes that transcends individual intentions.

It is this historical sociological question Bram Spruyt and myself tried to partly answer in a paper we wrote for The Sociological Review. Much has yet been said about the therapeutization of contemporary state system (Rose, 1989), but the constitutive role the middle class played in this has been somewhat underexplored. It was actually Bourdieu who already in 1970s pointed out the connection between therapeutization and the rise of the new middle class. He claimed that the new petite bourgeoisie would increasingly focus on everything concerning the art of living and therapeutic expression. It was eventually them “who started by professing a faith and ended up making it a profession” (Bourdieu, 2010/1979:  370).

To get a more concrete grasp on how the middle class type of self-management is contingent on the restructuring of state power and vise versa, we focused on the role of education as it is crucial in both state and habitus formation. On the basis of content analysis of teachers’ advice articles from the end of the 19th century until today, we reveal how the contemporary expressive habitus of the middle class is not a given but transformed over time due to a symbiotic relationship between state and education. We learn how in the earlier phases of mass education, teachers were primarily interested in instilling an ethic of duty in their pupils and how this was directly related to the centralized control mechanism of the nation state at that time. From the 1960s onwards, we see a therapeutic reconversion of the educational profession. Increasingly teachers emphasize the importance of emotional expression, ‘authentic talents’ and psychological wellbeing, which again is related to the rise of individualized control mechanisms and medicalization of personal and social problems.

It is only through such a historical lens that we can fully grasp why certain types of self-management (i.e. habitus) are tied to specific class positions and what the necessary conditions are for this. Hence, it is not arbitrary that current middle class parents cultivate a habitus in their kids that makes them more self-expressive and comfortable in showing their emotions within institutional settings (Calarco, 2011; Lareau, 2011). These therapeutic dispositions are not just the result of an urge for social distinction, but are embedded in a long-term institutional reconversion of which the dominant class benefited more than the dominated class.

In this respect, it is surprising that, within the study of class inequality, the habitus is often approached in a somewhat a-historical manner. Although many point out the importance of connecting the habitus to specific fields and positions within the social space, the historical trajectories these dispositions go through are often largely neglected. In contrast, Bourdieu himself was very mindful of the historical embedding of social reproduction mechanisms (see volume edited by Gorski, 2013) and thus hoped that “sociology would become a social history of the present” (Bourdieu and Raphael, 1995: 113, cited in Calhoun, 2013: 37). Hence, a static understanding of habitus is conceptually rather hollow, as it has to be entrenched into both individual as well as collective histories.

Yet, snapshot studies of society are dominant within sociology of the second half of 20th century. According to Norbert Elias (1987) – whose prime focus was always on disentangling the historical nature of the habitus – such a “retreat of sociologist into the present” was due to the rise of statistical methods and functionalist thinking (although the popularity of the latter has fortunately waned over the last decades). In contrast to the founding fathers of sociology, who all shared a historical take on social phenomena, contemporary sociologist find it difficult to think in a processual manner (see also Abbott, 2016). And even if they take on board the importance of diachronic variations in society they often do it in a somewhat epochalist manner, getting stuck in a ‘paradox of an ever-renewing novelty’ as Mike Savage (2009) yet pointed out. Instead of seeing processes and evolutions, they prefer to argue for qualitative shifts from one societal paradigm to another (from modern to postmodern or were we never modern at all?). This mode of theorizing is actually the direct result of a shortage of true empirical analyses of historical changes within sociology. It is simply more comfortable to stick to the present than getting your hands ‘dirty’ while excavating the hidden sediments of our society. So, Marx and Engels might well be right when they claimed that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”, but let us then not forget to take a real empirical look at the history of those classes.

Kobe De Keere is assistant professor in cultural sociology at the University of Amsterdam, a Veni Grant holder and Weatherhead scholar at Harvard University.

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