The Moral Significance of Class
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
0521850894 (hb), 0521616409 (pb)
Class has been seen as an 'obsolete category' in recent years. Government rhetoric has distanced itself from class terminology - apart from occasional reference to the 'underclass.' Yet in the UK New Labour policies as well as images in popular culture remain implicitly based on class stereotypes and prejudices. There is a growing interest in class in sociology, but whereas most of the recent studies have used Bourdieu's concepts such as capitals, power and habitual action in the theorisation of power relations, Sayer emphasises the importance of virtues, vices, kindness and selfishness, because these influence our ability to suffer or flourish as human beings.
The Moral Significance of Class offers a unique discussion on class subjectivity by focusing on class sentiments. With a focus on what Sayer regards as the most important sentiment for actors' well-being, morality, this book pays attention to what people sense is 'right'. Sayer focuses on the significance of class lay normativity, involving what are considered 'good' behaviours, characters, practices and ways of life. Although 'Class is not a reflection of moral worth or needs, and its relationship to merit is zero in childhood and more cause than effect later' (p. vii), the moral significance of class matters on a daily basis, influencing everyday interactions within and between class groups. Sayer takes 'lay normativity' and 'folk sociologies' seriously, exploring the rationales behind the ethics of everyday life.
In Chapters 2 to 4, Sayer explores meanings of class and lay morality. Chapter 2 revises Bourdieu's concept of habitus to include lay reflexivity. Here, he emphasises that moral behaviour is based primarily on people's moral sentiments and influenced by everyday interaction, rather than reducing morality to a system of regulative norms. As a theoretical framework, Sayer combines sociology with social theory and moral philosophy, using in the main Bourdieu and Adam Smith.
Chapter 3 deals with the importance of morality in recognition - both conditional and unconditional forms - and how this is related to economic redistribution. It is necessary to theorise class both abstractly and in more concrete ways, Sayer argues, and he demonstrates that these two forms of understanding are not always mutually exclusive. "Struggles of the social field" (Chapter 5) explores the nature of the struggle and how varying groups aim for different and similar goods, and Chapter 6 analyses moral and immoral sentiments of class. In Chapter 7, attention is placed on class interactions between working-class and middle-class people, examining how interclass dynamics involve not only hostility but also respect. Chapter 8 explores the development of 'folk sociologies', how people understand the actions of others, and the role of class. Particular attention is placed on the evasiveness and embarrassment surrounding class, that 'reflects the morally problematic nature of class, deriving from the fact that people's life-chances and who they become are strongly influenced by the accident of their natal class and the inequalities which follow from this' (p. 1). In the conclusion (Chapter 9), Sayer argues that it is necessary to explore normative issues further in order to understand the moral dimension of social life. He emphasises the continuing relevance of class, how it differs from other social divisions, and how the moral character of class is both highlighted and played down in the lived experience of class.
Perhaps because of the engagement with moral philosophy, this book may be hard going for sociologists and may not be suitable for sociology students. It is a theoretical monograph which assumes a high level of prior knowledge of not only class, but also philosophy; many philosophical phrases are used without definition, and the writing style is at times fluid, dense and complex. Much of the conception is abstract, though at times findings from previous empirical research projects are used to support claims. The focus of the thesis is not entirely on class and attention is placed also on gender, which features in the abstract theories as well as in evidence presented from empirical research findings. However, other social divisions are rarely mentioned, and I wonder whether a theory that is based in the main on empirical research with white British people may be culturally and economically specific to a particular group.
The section I found most valuable and unique was the exploration of the moral and immoral sentiments of class (Chapter 6), which provides a philosophical and sociological analysis of sentiments such as envy, shame, humiliation, compassion and benevolence. At times I was unsure about some of the arguments, particularly relating to actors' embarrassment of class, as much research seems to indicate that people enjoy making class judgements, and it is something they do frequently. Moreover, I found the 'realist' framework - which situates suffering and flourishing as existing objectively - problematic. However, these minor issues do not detract from a very interesting thesis, offering a unique analysis of the moral significance of class and adding to the growing resurgence of work on class subjectivity in the UK.
University of York