Max Travers (1999) 'Qualitative Sociology and Social Class'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 1, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/4/1/travers.html>
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Received: 05/11/98 Accepted: 23/3/99 Published: 31/3/99
... research energies and resources should be channelled in the direction of intensive, longitudinal ethnography, in which different aspects of consciousness are located firmly in the context of class practices - everyday work in the factory, leisure time at home and in the club, the recent protest, the strike - and conceptualised at the outset as inherently dynamic phenomena. (Marshall 1988, p.121).
... how can variable analysis include the process of interpretation? Presumably the answer would be to treat the act of interpretation as an 'intervening variable'. But what does this mean? If it means that interpretation is merely an intervening neutral medium through which the independent variable exercises its influence, then, of course, this would be no answer. Interpretation is a formative or creative process in its own right. It constructs meanings which ... are not predetermined or determined by the independent variable. (Blumer 1969, p. 135).
Is this simply to reiterate the familiar plea for a proper balance between the validity sought through intensive fieldwork techniques and the reliability guaranteed by statistically sophisticated social surveys? I think not. It is difficult to see how the shortcomings of social surveys, as a means of studying class consciousness, can be overcome simply by a more thorough piloting of survey questions or a more careful aggregation of survey data. It is not that qualitative research of the kind here advocated complements surveys in this field. Rather such research provides a more suitable alternative to the large scale survey, and it generates data that the latter are incapable of uncovering no matter how much care is taken in piloting the survey and in compiling the questions. Survey research cannot report on action directly observed; consciousness can only be studied contextually as a component of class practices; therefore surveys are inappropriate to the study of class consciousness. (Marshall 1988, pp. 122-123).
The cognitive structures which social agents implement in their practical knowledge of the social world are internalized, "embodied" social structures. The practical knowledge of the social world that is presupposed by 'reasonable' behaviour within it implements classificatory schemes...historical schemes of perception and appreciation which are the product of the objective division into classes (age groups, genders, social classes) and which function below the level of consciousness and discourse. Being the product of the incorporation of the fundamental structures of a society, these principles of division are common to all the agents of the society and make possible the production of a common, meaningful world, a common-sense world. (Bourdieu 1996, p. 468).
However, the sociologist's lumping of people into various socio-economic categories of membership tells us very little about the structure and process of everyday life. Rather it is the lumping that everyday participants do that tells us that. Using common-sense we can entertain the idea that this or that category is applicable to this or that person in society....But what we want to discover, so as to come out with news about society's workings, is precisely how members decide for themselves what social categories of membership they are in at any interactional moment in their daily intercourse. (Speier 1973, p. 185).
Are we seriously to believe that in their everyday lives people think of themselves as members of a class, rather than, say, as British, as parents, or as white or black...? On holiday in Spain we feel British, waiting outside the school gates we know we are a parent....and answering questions, framed by sociologists with class on their brain, we are working class. (Saunders 1989, pp. 4-5).
Speier also suggests that... it may actually turn out that the concept of class has to be either discarded or reserved for political rhetoric, or at the very most, reserved for a common-sense short-hand method of referring to vast collections of persons who are categorised for the convenience of a theoretical argument, and categorised from without their own interactional patterns of life. (Speier 1973, p. 186).
2 Much of Marshall's work is informed by a commitment to Keynsian economics and social justice (see, for example, Marshall et al 1988, and Marshall et al 1997).
3 Marshall was responding to numerous studies, conducted during the 1960s and 1970s, which had investigated working-class consciousness, mainly using survey methods (see, for example, Bulmer 1975 and Newby 1977). The inspiration for these studies was Lockwood's (1966) paper on images of society, in which he suggested that different groups of workers developed particular values as a result of their structural location in the economy.
4 History, like sociology, is more about interpretation, and argument, rather than discovering the facts, and a Marxist historian would have no difficulty in demonstrating the existence of class conflict. The biggest critics of traditional Labour history in recent years have been poststructuralists (see, for example, section F of Joyce 1995), although they owe rather more to Weber than Derrida in their approach to the past. Joyce (1990) argues, along Weberian lines, that nineteenth century British society is best understood using the concept of status rather than class.
5 What is extraordinary about these studies is their scale and ambition when compared to the projects that get funded today. Each involved a team of researchers living in a city for several years, and producing several volumes of findings about all aspects of urban life.
6 The conservatism of these studies derives from the fact that they were writing about small towns in periods of economic prosperity, although Warner believed that America benefited from economic inequality, provided there were no barriers to social mobility (see also Davis and Moore 1945).
7 See, for example, Jenkins (1992).
8 Other ethnomethodological papers about social class include Gobo (1995) and Coleman (1996); see also Hiller (1973).
9 For an introduction to these methodological principles, see Heritage (1984).
10 Remarkably, there are some commentators and politicians who believe that this is no longer the case, including the current prime-minister Tony Blair who has recently suggested that most people in Britain are middle-class (The Guardian, 15th January 1999, p.3). However, the fact that class is constantly discussed by the media, and contested in public life, is one of the ways in which it is part of everyday life. For some compelling evidence about how class distinctions still matter, see Adonis and Pollard (1997).
11 Perhaps the most promising avenue of investigation, if one wanted to find class consciousness, might be to study an industrial dispute. An ethnomethodologist would, however, adopt a different approach to the class-analyst in that the objective would be to understand the perspective of workers in these conflicts, rather than using them as a vehicle to make a political point about working class consciousness. For an example of a study by a class-analyst, see Fantasia (1988) which makes a general case about the potential radicalism of American workers, through describing a wild-cat strike. See also Fantasia (1995), reviewing research on class-consciousness in America, which draws partly upon Marshall.
12 For a discussion of the issues involved in analysing interview data from an ethnomethodological perspective, see Silverman (1993), chapter 5.
13 The psychological predicament of the parvenu - the person who has moved into a class above his or her original station - has inspired many films and novels. This is one case of what the Chicago School sociologist Everett Stonequist (1936) called 'the marginal man': a general term for people who find themselves 'caught between two cultures'. One example Stonequist uses are Polish and Jewish immigrants to America in the 1920s and 1930s who were under pressure to assimilate. They too were made to feel ashamed about their ethnic origins (for example, their accent, or religion), but were also ashamed to feel ashamed. For studies which address the shame felt by working class people, see Goffman (1964) and Sennett and Cobb (1972).
14 For an interesting discussion of how different sociological traditions understand the 'qualitative'/'quantitative' issue, see Halfpenny (1979). One point he makes is that sociologists handle qualitative data in different ways depending on their epistemological assumptions. Marshall, like many British sociologists, has a broadly positivistic orientation to data-collection. He recommends ethnographic research as a means of measuring the extent of working class consciousness, provided steps are taken to obtain a reliable sample, and ensure a valid account uncontaminated by observer bias (Marshall 1988, pp. 122-23). On the other hand, an interpretivist would accept that there may be many different ways of understanding the same event or social setting. This has led many qualitative sociologists in the direction of either poststructuralism (with its celebration of multiple versions), or ethnomethodology (in which the process of creating versions becomes the topic).
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