Social Class in Usa

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Cultural Sociology
Copyright © 2008 BSA Publications Ltd® Volume 2(3): 345–367 [DOI: 10.1177/1749975508095616] SAGE Publications Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore

Common Sense and the Collaborative Production of Class

Celine-Marie Pascale
American University, USA


In the USA, economic inequality, while arguably one of the most material sites of ‘difference’, is often one of the least visible. The presence and meaning of class in daily life may be more vague than at any other time in US history. This article examines how commonsense knowledge about class leads people to engage in practices that systematically disorganize the presence of social and economic capital.The over-arching analytical framework builds a performative analysis of class by situating the personal agency of talk within broader cultural discourses that shape and constrain possibilities for talk. I draw from ethnomethodology and poststructural discourse analysis to analyze talk about class in 1600 pages of transcript from interviews with 23 people. By linking the interpretive practices of talk in interviews to the circulation and repetition of cultural knowledge in discourses, I demonstrate how class identities are constituted through conditions not generally associated with economic processes. K E Y WOR D S

deconstruction / discourse analysis / ethnomethodology / performativity / poststructuralism / social class / textual analysis



n the United States, economic inequality, while arguably one of the most material sites of ‘difference’, is often one of the least visible. According to the US Census African American, Native American, Native Alaskan, and



Cultural Sociology Volume 2


Number 3


November 2008

Hispanic families all have median household incomes that are $10–20,000 below government-based calculations for economic self-sufficiency.1 At the same time, minimum-wage workers are unable to afford rent for a one-bedroom apartment in any city in the USA.2 If the relationships among minimum wage, affordable housing, and median incomes provide some limited awareness of the presence of US poverty, the disparity between wealth and poverty remains more elusive. The US Census Bureau does not publish data on the incomes of the top one percent.3 However, studies show that over the last 30 years the redistribution of wealth through tax cuts has provided average working families with at most a one percent increase in income, while those in the 99.99th percentile (with annual incomes estimated at over $6 million) gained approximately a 497% increase in income (Krugman, 2006). ‘Right now the income disparity between the top one-tenth of 1% of earners and the middle class is higher after taxes than before. From 2003 to 2005, the increase in incomes of the top one percent of Americans exceeded the total income of the poorest 20% according to the Congressional Budget Office’ (Lobel, 2008: 17). The gap between rich and poor in the United States arguably threatens to exceed the capacity to sustain meaningful democracy, yet the conditions of affluence and poverty that variously shape life in the United States have rarely been part of a sustained or routine public discourse. Even within the discipline of American sociology, Yair (2001) found that discussions of class were notably missing in 92 years of presidential addresses of the American Sociological Association. There was a time in US history when cogent class analyses shaped public discourse; many historical analyses recount the processes of class formation and class struggle (cf. Foner, 1988, 1990; Foner and Mahoney, 1995; Katznelson, 1981; Pascale, 2001; Piven and Cloward, 1979). In the limited space of this article, it is important to note that violent repression characterized class formation in the USA and shaped what has come to function today most broadly as hegemonic commonsense knowledge about class in the USA. The...
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