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Wealth is not class is not social capital, damn it all. - Wemyss's Appalling Hobby:
From the Party Guilty of Committing 'Gate of Ivory, Gate of Horn'
Wealth is not class is not social capital, damn it all.

Evidently, there is a meme – indeed, there may, if reports be true, be more than one – floating about, ostensibly to do with ‘privilege’ (one of the more ill-defined and generally misused concepts ever to infest academic discourse, but let that pass for the moment).  One has in fact seen rather more in the way of essays inspired by the meme than one has seen of the meme, or memes, as such.  I do seem to have tracked to its lair the meme – created, it seems, at some poly in Illinois, in America – that is most frequently pled in aid of whatever the essayists wish to argue.


Well.  It’s certainly very, well, American, isn’t it.




Much of it, I mean to say, is simply not applicable other than in and to North America.  It may, for example, be that at a North American independent fee-paying school (there’s a mouthful of necessary periphrasis for you, proof that the US and the UK are two nations separated by a common language), having one’s own telly in one’s, er, ‘dorm room’ (is that right?) symbolises, well, something or other to the status-conscious.  I should like to imagine the faces of the relevant Housemaster, Dame, House Captain, and Captain of Games, should some innocent child turn up thus equipped at one of the senior public schools….  Of course, he’d not do: he’d know better from having absorbed the Way Things Are at his prepper, but that’s another story.


And here is where, to my mind, this whole thing falls apart.  I have seen a good few essays and comments regarding this quiz, now, and I have noted that not a few writers have suggested that this measures less ‘privilege’ than ‘socioeconomic status’; and there’s the rub.  In part, what this quiz may conceivably measure with some accuracy (at least for North America) is social capital.  In part, and sometimes in conflict with that, it seems to be attempting to measure, simply, capital: riches, wealth.  I am not certain that even in North America does it measure class.  (As any number of scholars have pointed out over the years, there is at least one section even in the US where wealth and class have long been decoupled: the American South.)


And this is the nub of the matter, is it not: outside North America, and to some extent inside it, ‘socioeconomic’ stands revealed as a meaningless portmanteau word, something like ‘squareblue’ or ‘drywet’.  Class is not dependent on wealth or even on that element of social capital that we may call intellectual capital.  Observe:


Parents as having attended University: This is perhaps important to intellectual capital, although a good public school or grammar school education in the UK is probably superior to an MA from most American universities, frankly.  It says nothing of class.  This is particularly complicated when one considers that, for example, the US military academies confer university degrees; Sandhurst and Dartmouth (Britannia RNC, these days) and Cranwell do not.  And then there’s the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, where not a few County scions and backwoods hereditaries may be found, forcing themselves to grasp at least the rudiments of estate management rather than wasting their time on a certain Fourth at Worcester or Oriel or the House.  A University education may and often does provide entrée and assist aspiration; it is not necessary to preserving class status for those born to privilege.


Relations as being barristers, solicitors, physicians, or dons: This is meaningless in class terms.  And it’s merely good fortune that it’s meaningless: it could easily be a non-U marker, particularly as regards medicos.  There are any number of barristers and dons from lower- and middle-class backgrounds: it’s the sports, such as Michael Ancram at the Bar and Lord David Cecil in the old days at Oxford, who skew the professions at all upwards on the class scale.  (And just to make things more complex, here is as good a place as any to note that what may be true of England will not always apply to Scotland, and so on.)


A home library, and its extent: This might be a measure of intellectual capital were it not for the existence, on the one hand, of lending libraries, and, on the other, of libraries bought by the upper classes by the yard, as a sort of superior wallpaper, and never read at any time.  Unless it is supposed that a process of osmosis takes place?


Having a parent read one bedtime stories: Surely a useful measure of social capital, but what of nannies?

Childhood lessons and tutoring: I can only presume this refers to such things as riding lessons, fencing lessons, and the like?  I don’t know that it’s at all dispositive of class issues, and indeed the upper-middle classes perhaps emphasise it the most.


Oh, here’s one I quite like, and must give in the original: ‘The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively’: I think it is somewhat of a commonplace to observe that, in Hollywood USA as in Grauniad leaders, the rich are generally portrayed negatively and indeed as villains, so I don’t know what, in Yank terms, this is meant to prove.  It’s certainly a facer in British terms.  The most persistent tropes of British humour are rooted in class envy and resentment uneasily yoked with snobbery and a distant, paternal contempt for ‘the lower orders’ as well: music hall comics mocked toffs, mostly, but when middle-class writers took over writing plays and telly programmes, the lower classes took a pounding (Alf Garnett, Steptoe, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and All) just as much as did the upper classes and the universally mocked middle classes (Hyacinth Bucket, anyone?).  It’s as true now as it was when GBS said it that no British person can open his (or her) mouth without causing another to despise him (or her) on class grounds.  Simply note the personal, class-based elements in the attacks, never mind the political, on Boris Johnson, Dave Hugahoodie Cameron, John Prescott, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, and so on.  Prescott is held up as an example of the un-eradicable native savagery of the working classes; Thatcher and Major are condemned as hopelessly bourgeois; Boris and Dave are dismissed as Bullingdon Club rahs (well, they are, but that’s not the point here).  What could the creators of this questionnaire have been thinking?


Took hols that involved staying in hotels: What?  I can only imagine that this is to distinguish, in America, hols that involved putting up with relations or stopping at caravan sites.  But surely even Americans of means have, or their families jointly have, country houses, shooting boxes and lodges, private waters, and the like?  A life en pension is not quite U.


Clothes and cars bought new: There’s many a lad has attained his growth and been given some indestructible Lovat tweeds or whatnot that his great-grandfather first had from the tailor, and there’s nothing non-U about keeping the ancient Humber Snipe, Hillman Hunter, or Bristol 405 in the family.  Besides, there should be a clear distinction between a gentleman and a tailor’s dummy.


Art: Is something that covers the walls.  As a matter of social capital by osmosis, it may be utile, but as a class marker, it’s no more than furniture.


Flights and cruises: There’s something non-U about commercial cruises. 


Well, you take the point.  Class is not wealth is not social capital, Miss Stein.  (I’m sorry, Miss Toklas, I didn’t see you there, you were in Miss Stein’s shadow.  Again.)  And these certainly cannot be measured – even in North America – by this omnium gatherum of a quiz, that’s neither the one thing nor the other.  As for universality of application … suffice it to say that the only thing I can see that’s been demonstrated is how different the nations are to one another (for a properly-crafted such quiz for England would be useless in Scotland, Wales, and NI, let alone for the Frogs and the Jerries and that lot).  But at least this should put paid to any remaining silly notions that wealth and class have anything to do with one another.  (I should like to think that a worthwhile discussion of social capital might also result, one that would assist the Leftwards sort who are most exercised about privilege, to an understanding of how free markets are the surest way to redress the inequities they rail against, but I do try to keep my hopes within the bounds of reality.)


Right, then.  Now to puzzle out the impenetrable arcana of heating bills (seems simple enough to me.  Fire-wood goes in, heat comes out…).  But perhaps that is a privileged view?

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62 comments or Leave a comment
sgt_majorette From: sgt_majorette Date: January 3rd, 2008 05:23 pm (UTC) (Link)
"...seems simple enough to me. Fire-wood goes in, heat comes out... But perhaps that is a privileged view?"

Yes, because only rich people can afford to have wood-burning fireplaces in their townhouses. Or perhaps this is a New Yorker's view?
shezan From: shezan Date: January 3rd, 2008 07:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nobody really U since Diana Mosley tried to install central heating in a 17th century pile, and hers (in County Galway) burned as a result.
jamoche From: jamoche Date: January 3rd, 2008 05:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think (being American) that this meme only distinguishes between the bottom few economic classes - the only ones we as a culture really admit to having (outside, as you say, the South - and I'm Southern, so I find the whole meme rather amusing). Or perhaps, given "The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively", it's even more specific - "poor inner-city" vs "suburban", as, aside from Southern and a few regional New York/New England accents, those are the only group markers readily apparent in American speech.

And so "childhood lessons" would be after-school activities along the lines of piano, dance, karate, or soccer - the sort of thing children beg their parents for when they're between 8 and 12, and generally drop thereafter. Very popular in the suburbs - I taught karate years ago, and we made most of our money off the kids who'd take lessons for an average of six months before quitting.

wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 3rd, 2008 07:51 pm (UTC) (Link)

What a cunning business plan.

Almost Slytherin, in fact.

Glad to hear I'm right about the South: I made sure I cd trust my sources, but one never knows. Thank you.
executrix From: executrix Date: January 3rd, 2008 05:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
I really don't see how the poor bastards can be blamed if an exercise created to teach elementary sociology students in the U.S. about "what kinds of questions do sociologists ask?," when taken without their permission and out of their control, is not particularly useful as a description of the daily life of every person anywhere in the world.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 3rd, 2008 07:55 pm (UTC) (Link)

Not at all. And I don't think I do blame them.

Or not for that, at least. It's the way it's been applied I was mostly concerned with. I do believe even now, though, that you cannot very reliably use the same questions or series of questions to track class, riches, and social capital, at once, in the US or anywhere else (see, e.g., posts by oulangi, kaskait, and others). But I really don't think I was barracking the sociologists responsible.
serriadh From: serriadh Date: January 3rd, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC) (Link)
Childhood lessons and tutoring: I can only presume this refers to such things as riding lessons, fencing lessons, and the like? I don’t know that it’s at all dispositive of class issues, and indeed the upper-middle classes perhaps emphasise it the most.

In England, I think it's the aspirant middle classes who emphasise this. Certainly my parents were very keen for me to learn piano and flute, and friends took 'speech and drama' or other musical instruments. Perhaps what you're tutored in is a better marker (though again, that'll change with time). Your dad might give you money to have boxing lessons down the working men's club (a friend's father was sent off to boxing lessons like this), but I'm sure that's rather different from the young Hon. Jasper Fffinchinley (pronounced 'Fluffy') being sent off to learn how to fence.

Does all your heating run off wood, then? I'm tempted to say (tongue in cheek, of course) that that seems a sign of Not Moving With The Times, rather than class :)

wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 3rd, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)

I never move with The Times. Or even the Telegraph.

And I don't know that I can claim heating as such. More warm spots amidst the howling draughts, really.

As to yr serious points, I agree unreservedly.
eagles_rock From: eagles_rock Date: January 3rd, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

Peasants roasting on an open fire...

A Quiz about Education:

a) Spell 'privilege'.
b) Give etymology thereof.

A Quiz about Class:

a) Do you sleep with a dog for warmth?
b) Al-fresco?
shezan From: shezan Date: January 3rd, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Peasants roasting on an open fire...

Do you sleep with a dog for warmth?

Definitely an upper-class marker in a LOT of cases.

("Do you sleep with your adored Lab for [emotional, since Mummy has never hugged you in your life] [physical, because it's impossible, and frankly rather wet to heat all 90 rooms of the family pile] warmth?")
tree_and_leaf From: tree_and_leaf Date: January 3rd, 2008 07:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
(seems simple enough to me. Fire-wood goes in, heat comes out…). But perhaps that is a privileged view?

In one sense! But in terms of sociology, surely it's a marker of being rural rather than urban?

And you are absolutely right about the cultural specificity (ahem) of all theses status markers. Quite apart from the fact that whether or not you spend hols staying with relations or friends depends on (a) how much you like them and (b) how scattered your circle of acquaintance is. That might mean that you've been to a university which draws students from an international pool, or it might mean you are Scottish and your grandparents were working class. Or, of course, both)

As a Scot, I am inclined to think that the key to redressing social equality is in access to education and the lad (and lass) o' pairts. But possibly not the exam-obssessed education we get these days; my great uncle started as a telegram boy and ended up with a quite hush-hush job at Ferrantis (as was); I'm not sure how possible that sort of trajectory is now.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 3rd, 2008 08:06 pm (UTC) (Link)

I quite agree.

Send 'em off to S'n'andrew's wi' a sack o' oats for parritch and ane coin. But, truly, yes: dominies are the builders of the future of Scotland, and grammar schools want to be brought back where practicable all over England, and cross-party common sense wants employing throughout the Three Kingdoms and the Principality.
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gillyp From: gillyp Date: January 3rd, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC) (Link)
"In the United States, people don't have that expression "non-U." Class isn't that obvious. We don't have official upper classes here, you know."
Class isn't that obvious here either, any more, or, on the increasingly rare occasions when it is, is disregarded as unimportant by the great majority. The only people to whom it still seems to matter are the types who'd use an expression like 'non-U' (an expression I can guarantee the vast majority of Brits have never heard, wouldn't know what it meant and could care less) who appear to think we all still look up to them and care what they think (we don't).
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magic_at_mungos From: magic_at_mungos Date: January 3rd, 2008 08:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've seen that meme floating around and seeing as I come from a nice middle class family, wasn't sure what it meant if anything.

Of course I had books - sprog of a family stuffed to the gills of teachers with several older cousins. Here have some nice books. And I lived abroad - of course I've been on a plan.

Plus private lessons? We tried ballet - it didn't stick as it was meant to try and teach me to turn my feet out and a maths tutor ans I was clearly just about to fail my maths a level.

Hmm. It's interesting to try and look at it from a academic sort of view.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 3rd, 2008 10:31 pm (UTC) (Link)

Isn't it, though?

And let us hope it remains merely academic and interesting (oh Chancellor DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARling! Yoo hoo! Darling!).
From: kaskait Date: January 3rd, 2008 09:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
This is a middle-class meme, in essence what middle-class people like myself think privileged people are concerned about. However the meme strikes me as mid-western, a place with extremely cold winters. A New Yorker did not write it.

As a New Yorker, I can say that class wars are extremely vicious in America. We lower classes are taught not to see it. The true blue bloods are taught to be gracious enough not to mention it. It is the "new arrivals" that like to use class as a whip.
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 3rd, 2008 10:34 pm (UTC) (Link)

Cold winters? I missed that clue.

And I expect they're vicious everywhere. The class warfare, that is, not the winters.
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wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 3rd, 2008 10:47 pm (UTC) (Link)


I suppose if you grant that money and class are linked - which jamoche confirms may not be true in all regions - this all makes sense. I do note that even before the NHS, the 'professions' however remunerative were middle-class in the eyes of the upper classes: invited to garden parties, but not to dine.

I may also add that there must be a remarkable number of 'very wealthy Americans': one is forever hearing of how all the nannies are going to the States, a sort of Pram Drain.
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lasayla From: lasayla Date: January 4th, 2008 04:28 pm (UTC) (Link)

Why a British MA is worth more than an American MA...

It's not as big of an exaggeration as it looks.

We start school much younger for one thing. A ten-year old who's been privately educated in Britain could have as much as four years education on an American of the same age and even those who weren't privately educated would have at least one or two. (I'm never actually sure whether to count kindergarten as equivalent to nursery school [the year before compulsary schooling] or the first year of primary school. You get taught to read in kindergarten so that seems like a proper school thing, but it also includes a group nap and is often just part-time, which seems nursery-ish. My knowledge on the subject is gleaned entirely from Kindergarten Cop and the Ramona books, so I'm happy to be corrected.)

We also specialise earlier. English students start shedding subjects from about age thirteen. Then again at sixteen. And at eighteen. Whereas Americans have to take subjects outside their major in college and sit an exam containing subjects outside their major in order to qualify for a masters degree.

So the British MA has spent at least four times (and sometimes six times) as long as the American MA in the exclusive, full time study of their specific subject.

Both systems are seriously flawed. It's ridiculous that I only got three years of proper Geography lessons under the British system and equally ridiculous that I'd have to take a Maths exam to study a non-Maths MA in the states.

I'll leave the specific advantages of private schooling for our host to explain, since he had it and I didn't.
max_und_moritz From: max_und_moritz Date: January 5th, 2008 09:35 am (UTC) (Link)
A very interesting take, Tony. Quite different from the definition of "privilege" in my two countries of origin, Spain and Hungary. Just shows how navelistic such a concept can become ;)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 5th, 2008 01:21 pm (UTC) (Link)


Whatever its origins and intended purpose, this, as a meme, has become very revealing all 'round.
velvet_tipping From: velvet_tipping Date: January 5th, 2008 10:59 am (UTC) (Link)
ha ha. i remember filling this one out. you are way privilegeder than i am, i'm sure ;)
wemyss From: wemyss Date: January 5th, 2008 01:23 pm (UTC) (Link)

Oh, I shouldn't think so.

You're far more clever than am I, for one thing.
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