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Stop using the word "tribal" for modern political or social groupings
Stop using the word "tribal" for modern political and social groupings.

1. The groupings in question actually act much more like classes than like tribes. (Yes, I'm putting the matter crudely and confusedly.)

2. Setting aside its potential racism towards Native Americans — "clan" or "family" would be just as wrong conceptually — the term mislabels a part as a whole. That is, a tribe is a society with an internal social structure, whereas groups like "lower-middle-class whites" and "college-educated blacks" and "Republicans" and "Democrats" and so on are subgroups within a society, subgroups that relate to one another to form social structures.

Not that tribes themselves never had relations with one another. (I can't say I know much about it, either the structure of, say, the different Native (North) American tribes and Amazonian tribes, etc., or the structure of the interplay between tribes.) "Inside" and "outside" are never absolute social distinctions. But caveats such as this one shouldn't be used to obscure the basic mistake built into the metaphor "tribal."

3. The deep basic mistake that concerns me most is the idea that we have social class, here, as one kind of social relation, but that then there's this other stuff, "culture," there, that works differently from class. In fact, instead, class and culture are so deeply intertwined that "intertwined" itself is much too weak a word.

Obviously, all my points here are what on Wikipedia they call "stubs." This one has the most stubble of all. To say briefly what needs several hundred thousand words: what we tend to call "economic class" must have a cultural component or else class mobility both up and down would be too easy and desirable. Embedded in this idea is that e.g. those "in" the "lower" classes get positive status, and meaning, and love and excitement and a feeling of at least being somewhat "at home," right where they are, even though where and who "they are" is actually always necessarily slippery and at risk and even though they don't necessarily conceive where "they are" as belonging to or inside a class. ("In" got scare quotes above for being a problematic word.) The classes nonetheless make up the landscape in which people find (or look for) themselves. So a class isn't altogether unlike an ethnic group. But it is fundamentally different nonetheless in that to be in (or near) a class is to be part of a social structure that relates you to those who are in or near other classes.

That is, people don't fit snugly within a class. That's not how modern class works. They live instead within class systems, social structures, some of which are fairly ad hoc. But it's within these systems that they work out who they are, their creativity and their loves as well as conflicts and oppression and resentments. And they don't find movement all that easy, or inviting.

(To add another circular or elliptical twist or tangle to all this, as the world gets ever more cosmopolitan, ethnic groups themselves are more and more acting like classes (even more than they always did), so are in relation to other groups as part of a structure, rather than as separate structures in themselves, but paradoxically appear more and more as a choice, with at least some leeway, much greater than in the past, as to whether or how much one deploys one's ethnic identity (of course depending on circumstances).)

4. But most crucially and controversially I'll say that, while upper-middle-working class or some near variant on that is probably "right," i.e., is the basic structure of modern "advanced" societies, such classes often aren't the classes of our most immediate experience, and often aren't the classes that are in most immediate effect. So e.g. being a "freak" or a "feminist" or a "progressive" or a "leftist" or "indie" or "intellectual" may not just feel more crucial and more like an identity than being precariously "middle class" does, it puts you in everyday relation to other social groupings. For example, back in my high school, freaks were in relation to normies, to liberals, and to greasers so were part of a social structure that included these other groups. (And yes, I'm claiming such groupings really do structure a good deal of social life, as do the everyday adult groupings that are much vaguer and more ad hoc than the ones in high school.) Again, it's not that you feel at home in your particular class or group — most students felt estranged and many were unaffiliated — it's that such groupings constitute the social landscape and affect and direct your social choices. (If you're an "outsider" you're nonetheless in this social structure, which tells you you're outside the available groups, but nearer to some than to others, and influenced by all.) My basic point here is that to understand such groups, e.g. "freaks," you have to think of them as CLASSES not TRIBES.

5. Although most members of those groupings I listed in scare quotes in the previous paragraph are from what I call the sideways middle class, not all of those people were of middle-class origin. But all those groupings (I'm going to argue someday, when I get the chance) are generated by the upper-middle-working class structure. At least, somewhat generated by it. (Yes, conversely, we can have culture generating structure too, not just structure generating culture, though here I'm talking about structures generating structures anyway, maybe in a kind of feedback loop, with some uncertainty as to how much a particular structure is "economic" or not, and how hierarchical it is. And again, maybe there's a similar but better description than "upper-middle-working class.")

6. I think most of you would rebel against calling freaks etc. "classes," as it would confuse matters, and people wouldn't understand you. I think that's exactly why you should call them classes, since the confusion might force you to think, and anyway people don't understand you. Nonetheless, getting back to the impetus of this post, calling such groupings "tribes" and their relations "tribal" is just drastically wrong and simply wipes out what you need to be thinking about.

If you must, admit that you don't have a word. You've been using "tribal" by default and it's time to stop.

7. Especially, stop using "tribal" as an explanation. The word doesn't explain much. It's more a conversation stopper.

8. Yes, people tend to vote their hairstyle, and feel safer when surrounded by those with similar styles; but this doesn't explain at all where the hairstyles come from, or how the consensus happens.

9. The paradox of class, whether you limit the concept to upper-middle-working or go wild with it as I do, is that your apparent freedom of choice and freedom of association, to work for whom you want and to befriend whom you want, unfettered by kinship or caste, are what throw you unwillingly into these social structures, which actually constrain where you hang out within them, and — even if you're fairly mobile — limit the number of choices offered to anyone.

10. A commentator who reaches for the word "tribal" is more or less trying to signal, correctly, that people are exercising less choice than they're aware of in what they believe, how they dress, whom they run with, what they do, that in effect they're letting their social affiliation constrain their thought.

I'm not really plumping for you to plug in the word "class" everywhere you'd have said "tribal." Rather, just don't use "tribal." There doesn't have to be an all-purpose word. But "class" is better here than "tribal" for suggesting not just that you exercise less choice but that you have less choice. Maybe a better way to put it is that to create choice for yourself requires way more thought and social effort and risk than you realize. (Even if I realize it in principle, I forget in my day-to-day how much my consciousness is directed rather than chosen.) Now "tribal," if taken literally, would imply even less choice than "class" does: you don't choose your kin, your tribe; you're born into it or marry into it. But we're not using "tribal" literally. That our use of it is so obviously metaphoric is one thing that makes it so pernicious. That is, since we know we're not literally in a tribe, we — those who tend to use the word "tribal" — believe that both we and others ought to be able to snap out of it, simply switch off our parochial, prejudiced, "tribal" perspective. Whereas with "class" you at least know you're not going to flip the switch and take a new view.

11. The paradox of class — that choice leads to constraint — occurs exactly where you appear most free, not just in what you do, where we acknowledge that there are constraints imposed by the job market, by customers, by supervisors, but in your apparent ability to invent who you are, in your hobbies, your friendship groupings, your leisure pursuits, your social markers, your hairstyle, your colloquialisms, your everyday speech,. —Yes, this "freedom" will be greater or lesser depending on whether the group in question is something like "evangelical Christian" or whether it's something like "black." Obv. the former is way more of a choice than the latter. But these days the range of things like the former — "evangelical Christian," "math geek," and on and on — is expanding in comparison to the latter. E.g., almost no one notices or cares if you're Irish. There really seems to be a lot of choice as to which part of the "self" to make a big deal of, to put into play as "social identity."

12. But then it turns out that you've chosen constraints, not freedom, or that you're thrown into situations (high school is an example) where a structure is imposed on you, and you have to wend your way through the structural features even if the choices they offer seem limited and dumb. (E.g., you can choose to enter politics, but once you do...)

13. And this is just what the word "tribal" doesn't explain, though it's offered as an explanation. ("Why doesn't she believe in global warming?" "Oh, that's tribal. The people she identifies with don't believe it either.") It doesn't explain why your free choices run into unexpected limits, and doesn't explain why, even where you're most free — what movies you see, what videogames you play, whom you friend on Facebook — your choices seem to be accompanied by locks and bolts on how you think, or on what everybody else thinks, anyway.

14. And here's where the word "tribal" is worse than useless. I imagine that in actual traditionalist cultures — I wouldn't know, I've never lived in one — when queried as to why you think or do things in a particular way, you can answer, legitimately, "because this is the way of my people." But in my world that's a justification that just doesn't cut it. I raised this issue back when I got an LVW column: Since people like the music they like for reasons that are largely visceral and individual, how come musical taste clusters by social class? (Of course, for this question to work, I needed to expand the def'n of class.) "I like this song because to do so helps me maintain my social identity" doesn't fly as a reason, either when spoken to others or spoken to oneself. And it doesn't fly any better as a justification for one's ideas and one's politics.

And it isn't that one is simply failing to admit one's conformity. If there's a conflict between your tastes and your group's tastes, or your ideas and your group's ideas, and your politics and your group's politics, you'll go with your own tastes, ideas, and politics every time. Whether or how you make your ideas public is a different matter. But still, as I wrote in that LVW piece (in regard to music), "How is it that individual visceral responses align — or realign — so that members of the same social group respond similarly to music? And how is it that individual visceral responses further deviate a bit, so that individuals will be enough at odds with other members of their social group so that they will be individuals?" "Tribal" is no answer whatsoever here.

15. Yes, regarding many — most — of my beliefs and ideas, I recognize that I haven't seen with my own eyes and worked through with my own mind; rather, I'm trusting some source, who may well be trusting some other source, or I'm following some thinker who seems to know what she's talking about. But again, "Seems to know what she's talking about" or "is thoughtful and self-questioning on subjects I at least half understand, so is likely to be trustworthy on the ones I don't much understand at all" isn't another way of saying "tribal." In fact, "seems to know" and "is thoughtful and self-questioning" will always outvote, "Is the sort of person I identify with," will outvote it every time. So deploying my trust is pretty much the same operation as deploying my tastes or deploying my brain. It's still my judgment. And my judgment won't bow to my friends' judgment, where there's a difference. Which leaves totally open the question why there aren't more differences, and why my tastes, attitudes, and ideas tend to resemble that of my group(s), my class(es), as if I have chosen my class over my brain.*

So the word "tribal" again offers no insight into the question: Why do individual judgments cluster by social class?

16. The word "tribal" offers no good explanation for how the groups form in the first place, or take the form that they do (which isn't remotely tribal), or arrive at their group characteristics, their collective ideas and assumptions and styles, and their internal disagreements and tensions, or how authority and influence within a group work — nor does "tribal" explain how the groups relate to one another, wield power and influence over each other, shape each other, are forced into relation with one another.


That's where I'll leave it for this post, with questions rather than answers. I was inspired here partly by running across an old Ezra Klein column that half-assedly attempted some answers; Klein is usually sensible and intelligent; here he was bordering on hysteria. I do love the title, "How politics makes us stupid." And I'm not really going to go into a full-scale critique. The experimental results Klein cites by Dan Kahan and crew are not surprising: people have trouble taking in information and ideas that run counter to what they expect, especially when the info etc. require mental work; and when the information and ideas run counter to people's political identity they have even more trouble taking them in.

These are dog-bites-man results that shouldn't lead anyone to the nihilism that Klein fears might be lurking there. E.g., the experiments don't show that people can't take in unexpected or unwanted information or ideas, or that conversation with someone willing both to respect and challenge your logic won't cause you to notice when your own logic has gone astray. So the actual effect of actual information and discussion wasn't being tested by Kahan's experiments. (But such criticisms can also wait for another post.)

The Klein piece brings up (1) genuinely appalling and destructively consequential behavior that (2) needs to be explained. I'm not kidding when I say I like the phrase "politics makes you stupid" in Klein's title. My concern again is that "tribe" and "tribal identity" are being used as explanations rather than being treated as the phenomena that need to be explained. There's an entirely speculative and evidence-free account of the dire social consequences that would befall Sean Hannity if he were to decide "that climate change was the central threat to the planet." But the account just takes people to be the cowards and bores I don't think they are.** It also incorrectly assumes that political activists are typical members of their "tribes."

Which doesn't mean I don't think a lot of the activists are fucked-up and are capitulating to fucked-up social dynamics.

*I don't mean to imply in all this that e.g. because language is social, language constrains us. Compared to what? Language and society make thought possible. But the struggle to think is social, in that communities have to genuinely value counter evidence and the understanding of alternative viewpoints if they want to produce them much less learn from them, and few communities do.

**Not sure if it's Klein or Kahan who concocted the account; and to be fair to Kahan, he is trying to weave a theory in which — in my words — it's subconsciously rational to subconsciously be highly motivated not to take in counter evidence and not to understand alternative ideas. My double use of "subconsciously" indicates that I don't think Kahan's really got a grip on the issue, but I don't think he's wrong to try for one. (I think my description in my old Paris/Vietnam piece might be useful, of how at age 12 I became primed to switch from supporting to opposing the Vietnam War, this being before my having good reason for either. Now, the case here was more my being prior to taking in info and ideas than my making myself unable to, but my piece shows reasons that are deeper and more real and positive and compelling for wanting to take a particular side than just fearing ostracism or wanting to stick with a social identity.) And Klein's use of the word "structures" in the final sentence of his article suggests he has various social theories that might be worth seeing. He'd be less likely to fall into glibness if he'd drop the words "tribe" and "tribal."

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Hoping this isn't a filibuster. I just came across this Duncan Watts quote that I'd posted to Tumblr a few years ago (that I'd forgotten about):

"In social science, Thatcher’s philosophical position [that “There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women, and there are families”] goes by the name of methodological individualism, which claims that until one has succeeded in explaining some social phenomenon–the popularity of the Mona Lisa or the relation between interest rates and economic growth–exclusively in terms of the thoughts, actions, and intentions of individual people, one has not fully succeeded in explaining it at all. Explanations that ascribe individual psychological motivations to aggregate entities like firms, markets, and governments might be convenient, but they are not, as the philosopher John Watkins put it, “rock bottom” explanations.

Unfortunately, attempts to construct the kind of rock-bottom explanations that methodological individualists imagined have all run smack into the micro-macro problem. In practice, therefore, social scientists invoke what is called a representative agent, a fictitious individual whose decisions stand in for the behavior of the collective.

…By ignoring the interactions between thousands or millions of individual actors, the representative agent simplifies the analysis of business cycles [for instance] enormously. It assumes, in effect, that as long as economists have a good model of how individuals behave, they effectively have a good model for how the economy behaves as well.

…In practice, however, methodological individualists have lost the battle, and not just in economics. Pick up any work of history, sociology, or political science that deals with “macro” phenomena, like class, race, business, war, wealth, innovation, politics, law, or government, and you will find a world populated with representative agents. So common is their use in social science, in fact, that the substitution of a fictitious individual for what is in reality a collective typically happens without so much as an acknowledgement, like the magician placing the rabbit in the hat while the audience is looking elsewhere. No matter how it is done, however, the representative agent is only and always a convenient fiction. And no matter ho we try to dress them up in mathematics or other finery, explanations that invoke representative agents are making essentially the same error as commonsense explanations that talk about firms, markets, and societies in the same terms that we use to describe individual people."

Just sticking it here for the moment to stew on and maybe respond to a bit more. But I've been thinking a lot about the "micro--macro" split re: your thoughts on social class -- how some of what you're interested in -- the "clustering" process, say -- is exactly that mid-point between the individual and the group that's so hard to articulate and measure. (In part, I think, because of elements of chance and choice that enter into those larger formations, i.e. a sliver of what makes "tribal" problematic though maybe not the most interesting sliver...)

Not getting why Watts thinks this is the same mistake: (1) True, the group isn't an individual, and its actions shouldn't be seen as analogous to the actions of an individual; and nonetheless groups do act. But (2) "representative agent" is a micro entity, so if positing it is a mistake, it's a very different kind of mistake. You can certainly add up the behavior of representative agents and get something that doesn't look like an individual in super form.

The second mistake — the assumption that the actions of individuals can be used as the "rock-bottom" behavior that can be summed up into an analysis that's therefore well-grounded — is equally a mistake whether you're simplifying into "representative agents" or — somehow — managing to add up the actions of a bunch of disparate individual agents. The behavior of a firm, a government, a mob, a market, a social class, or a society isn't just the sum of the actions of the individuals in it, it also to a good extent directs and defines those actions and even creates them. If there's a special problem with the concept "representative agent," the problem isn't that it simplifies (it does, but simplifications can be useful), but that firms, mobs, etc. don't direct all individuals into the same roles and the same behaviors, so the individuals are not all the same constituent parts, and if you try to simplify into representative agents, you're gonna need more than one type. But as I just said, that's not the fundamental error. The fundamental error is in not seeing how much groups direct and define and create individual behavior.

And then, a group's behavior not only isn't just the aggregate of its members', it's also related to the behavior of other groups, and of individuals not in the group; just as an individual's behavior doesn't just take account of a group of which the individual might be a member, but of the other groups and the various social systems those groups find themselves in.

I feel that what I just wrote are basic platitudes of the mid 20th century, or the hottest new philosophy in the 1790s.

Edited at 2016-07-01 11:11 pm (UTC)

One: If you get the chance, I'd be happy if you could say what you think I'm implying, working on, should be thinking about in regard to the relation between individuals and larger social systems, and what you're thinking on the matters you think I'm raising — but by that I don't think I mean I or you need to have an opinion on pseudo–big topic The Relation Between Individual And Society or pseudo–big topic The Relation Between Parts And Wholes. To understand how parts work you have to understand how wholes tend to work (more or less) and to understand how wholes work you have to understand how a whole lot of parts tend to work, and I don't know if there's anything more one needs to say at such a level of generalization. A useful analogy might be that you wouldn't be able to understand a phoneme if it weren't in a word (in fact it wouldn't be a phoneme), or a word if it weren't in a statement, and statements that aren't part of conversations and social practices and languages etc. Same for humans and broader social practices and groupings (though of course we ascribe initiative to humans that we don't ascribe to words and statements; and of course, individuals can make a difference in the world; but then so can statements). But having made these points, I'd say that they don't themselves provide a model for understanding how individuals and social structures work on one another.

Two: Duncan J. Watts is an interesting guy, and thinking about his ideas is worth doing for its own sake; but I'm not seeing how the passage you quoted will help lead us to the questions I'm working on regarding social class etc. Nonetheless I'm curious how you think that passage fits into the broader context of what he's saying. (A quick search of Google Books tells me it's from Everything Is Obvious, Once You Know The Answer, which I've read but I don't remember the passage.)

Edited at 2016-07-05 02:38 am (UTC)

Three: That said, I drew heavily and crudely (and heavily metally) on Watts' ideas regarding cumulative advantage in my "Metal Clusters" piece in week two of my Las Vegas Weekly stint.

But there can be a chance element in this, and that's what I want to emphasize today. Let's say you're a schoolkid in the mid '70s and you're in a classroom with seating that's assigned alphabetically. Suppose you like metal and prog and funk, all about equally; by coincidence, the guy sitting to your right likes metal, country-rock, and oldies; and the guy to your left likes metal, singer-songwriter music, and glam. Now, what the three of you have in common is metal, so those tastes reinforce each other, and each one of you becomes sources of info for the other two. In that way a small preference can turn into a big liking and a part of your identity. Of course, real-life preferences aren't as random; but this is one way tastes can cluster.


Let's suppose that once you and your two classmates discover your common liking for metal, and under each other's influence expand and deepen your knowledge and love of the music, you come to the attention of other kids, some of whom also like metal and so gravitate toward you three. So in effect you three have become the opinion leaders. But this isn't necessarily owing to your having any special leadership qualities, but just to there being three of you and your constituting a noticeable clump.

And if this were happening in real life, followup questions would be: what happens to your and your friends' other tastes? Do you become interested in the nonmetal music that your metal friends like, developing broad, eclectic tastes? Or do the other musics get shunted aside, you spending more time on metal and less on your other (former?) likes? This could go either way, but I can see how the latter can happen, as it has in my life (turning toward disco and freestyle and hip-hop and country and teenpop, listening less to rock and indie). In our hypothetical classroom I can imagine some metal nonfans disparaging the metal that the metalheads like; and if some of these metal nonfans are fans of Eagles-style country, I can imagine your metal friend who also likes the Eagles could start veering away from such music. Not that the Eagles would suddenly sound bad to him, but he might feel a sourness toward that type of music, so will no longer explore it as much.
And being the punk that I am, I'll drop us down to the final paragraph, which I especially like:

My concern here isn't particularly with metal, which I've never identified with all that much, but with a more a general lesson, which is that, although it's probably necessary that tastes and conventions cluster to some extent — this is how communities remain communities, after all — there's no reason to assume that a particular community's tastes and conventions are inevitable or all that good. This is as true for intellectuals and bohemians and journalists as it is for metalheads.

Edited at 2016-07-05 02:42 am (UTC)

Oops. I'm in the midst of rereading Everything Is Obvious (Once You Know The Answer), I just got to the part you quoted, and I see that what I wrote above is kind of obtuse. But also, Duncan Watts' explanation (so far; pp 64-67) of "representative agent" is uncharacteristically unclear. In fact, I'm still basically confused in the same way I was confused above — I claim that "representative agent" is a "micro entity," which maybe isn't right, certainly isn't always right, but I'm not able to tell whether or not you can sometimes treat "representative agent" as a micro entity.

That is, (1) you can say, "We don't know what all the varied individuals in this group are doing as individuals, but for simplicity's sake we can posit an average individual and then 'add up' what these average individuals are likely to do when they get together";* or (2) you can say "for simplicity's sake, we'll say the collective psyche of this group is like this average person's individual psyche, and the group behavior can be understood as this person's behavior writ large." And, as I wrote in the first comment, 1 and 2 aren't the same mistake (and may not give you the same result). But in fact I can't tell if Watts thinks representative agent is number 1 or whether he thinks it's number 2. Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of social commentators fudge 1 and 2 together. Maybe I should read up on the concept.

Nonetheless, I don't quite get Watts' point in the passage. If by "representative agent" he means 2, then obviously it's the same mistake, because it's the same thing. If not, then not. And honestly, I think he too fudges this, sometimes treating it as a representative individual (or representative firm, etc.) and sometimes an average individual.

Back on pages 64 and 65 he writes "When it comes to social phenomena, however, we do speak of 'social actors' like families, firms, markets, political parties, demographic segments, and nation-states as if they act in more or less the same way as the individuals that comprise them. Families, that is 'decide' where to go on vacation, firms 'choose' between business strategies, and parties 'pursue' legislative agendas."

But wait, it's completely right to say that families decide, firms choose, and parties pursue. Those are not metaphors and don't need quotation marks. And to say families, firms, and parties decide etc. does not imply that their collective decisions follow the same psychological pattern as an individual's decision-making. I'm sure a lot of social commentators do conflate the collective process with the individual (I'm sure I do at times, too, and sometimes get good results doing so), but there's nothing in the notion of collective decision-making that forces us to.

*Do you have to do this, though? I myself can't do the math, but can't you do what Boltzmann and Planck did with molecules, which is not to posit that they're all the same but rather to posit a range, and statistically develop a set of probabilities anyway? (Actually, the previous sentence should go "but can't you do what I think, in my ignorance, that Boltzmann and Planck did with molecules...")

Watts goes on (pp 67-71) to describe a Mark Granovetter thought experiment that shows two groups of students, each with the same average propensity to riot, but one rioting and the other not. This is very worth reading, and shows how unexpected features and random features can play a role (just as in "cumulative advantage," which he's about to get to). And it works to challenge either version of "representative agent" I give above (average individual or representative individual); but, in fact, in this one Watts seems to be using average individual.

(Also, the thought experiment doesn't show that "representative agent" in either of its potential meanings must be wrong, just that it can be wrong, and that there can be a large number of features we overlook when making explanations, often because those features aren't emotionally meaningful to us. Anyway, I haven't recounted the Granovetter thought experiment, so what I'm writing here may not be very clear. As I said, I do recommend rereading.)

Was just doing some random searching of old posts on my blog (I've been putzing around with putting an e-book of Bedbugs stuff together) and forgot that quote even existed. The only real "huh" moment I had was that the sorts of thinking that goes into the "tribal" metaphor (or lack-of-thinking) may in part come from a desire to "solve" the problem that micro social interactions don't always look very similar to their macro counter-parts -- your individual response to music (say) has coherence to you or for you, isn't just what everyone else does, and yet when you zoom out, it IS what "everyone else" (everyone else in your class) is listening to (say), even if they're not listening to it how you are.

My sense at the time when I posted the quote was that when people use "tribal," they're using a kind of tribe of "representative agents." But then if you reject "tribal," it doesn't really matter so much what that "tribe" consists of? But that idea of a fake tribe of fake people provides (to the term's user) a cover of "semi-agency," where you don't have to deal with how individual decisions, tastes, feelings, end up clustering into class groups, and you don't really have to deal with groups that may or may not be connected to some consistent behavior between their individuals.

"Class" as a concept strikes me as big and scary and unwieldy (not that "tribal" SHOULD be wielded at all) -- class, meaning something closer to socioeconomic class, tends to be seen by people who wield it as an umbrella you are kind of shunted or born into, even if you can technically move between categories, whereas the broader "social class" is a different beast, a complex mixture of where you were, where you are, where you want to go. It's malleable but it's not a *fiction*, i.e. it isn't infinitely malleable. To some extent it's circumscribed, to some extent it's invented. It can be sitting there waiting for you to go into it (or to stay within it if you started there), or it can go with you, travel with you and change with you as you change things in it.

Which is to say that I think "social class" stands outside of this Watts split of micro versus macro, speaks to a kind of other way, not dissimilar to the rejection of classroom/hallway as a binary.

None of this is very well-formed. I've been thinking about this casually for a long time without seeming to get much of anywhere with it yet. (I think turning to the classroom as a kind of microcosm of this stuff might be more fruitful for me -- I'm feeling a little...I dunno, dense, or fuzzy, in thinking about it in the big picture.)

So here are some thoughts from my teaching experiences -- maybe this will be more relevant?

I teach predominately low-income, black teenagers from Philadelphia, whose race and class (in the socioeconomic sense) tend to be talked about in very rigid ways. From the inside of the classroom, I see all of the complex divisions into social class -- the groupings aren't any different (in the process of grouping, that is) from any other school, even if the make-up of the groups and the divisions themselves are necessarily different.

One thing I noticed recently, for instance, was that my students, for the most part, have a kind of casual interest in Beyonce. A lot of them see her as a phony, not representative of their experiences or their tastes. They find Kendrick Lamar to be boring and sanctimonious. What's been interesting to me is that my various visceral reactions to music they play in the classroom tend to be very similar to theirs, from my very different standing (race, class, role, etc.). Some teachers I work with are actually unnerved a little that their own investment in black music and black culture -- which usually has a kind of "Beyonce-Kendrick" gloss of respectability to it -- has so little impact on their relationship to the tastes of their students. (One teacher recently said something like, "I love Beyonce and my students don't even like her!") Meanwhile, I say I kind of like the Beyonce album but think it's a little corny, or that I think Kendrick Lamar is a little pretentious, and a lot of my students connect to it.

So my own standing among these students on the "inside" of the classroom is a really complicated one, even though, outside the classroom, the difference in our standing isn't very complicated at all to any outside observation. The classroom is a space where a lot of "outside" divisions, along race and big-C class lines, are complicated, not erased. We form this fragile, maybe ad hoc or temporary, little social class in the classroom itself -- I get where they're coming from with most of what they like, and usually share, if not their love, at least a lot of fondness and, even more frequently, a lot of their skepticism toward music that they're being told (by teachers and progressive education standpoints, which often emphasize "positive hip-hop" etc.) is "good for them."

I guess the bigger point is that how "mobile" you are in articulating your social class depends on where you're doing the articulation. In that classroom space, social class opens up to the math geeks and the emo kids and the bougie kids, etc. etc., even with, and maybe despite, the constraints that "black" puts on them in some larger sense of social grouping. And it's not like those things (the race/class/gender categories) are irrelevant, obviously, just that what's going on in the classroom is both interesting and truer to how they *feel* about themselves than to (for instance) constantly emphasize the structural realities and lived experiences of white supremacy or sexism or classism. That has its place, too, and those things aren't mutually exclusive, but I think that a focus on less mutable categories -- race/class/gender, say -- can blind teachers (certainly, and maybe even students in some ways?) to the more complex groupings and choices that are closer to what my students would probably call their identity.

Edited at 2016-07-07 06:52 pm (UTC)

(Don't mean to say that the classroom itself is a cogent "social class," but that divisions I might think about without knowing my students, in terms of "how they group," get clarified in the classroom space. Students still break off into groups and subgroups, etc. Just saying that there's a kind of obviousness of that complex social space in the classroom that follows them OUT of the classroom, but not in ways that you'd really "get" if you were to just break them into race/class/gender divisions. In the classroom, I see new patterns, and they push against the patterns I didn't or couldn't notice from outside.)

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