The NYT Tries Class

Just a quick entry to note that I entirely agree with what Donna and Bill have had to say about the New York Times series on class: there’s not much blogging going on about the series because the series is one big yawn, with very little of interest to say on the subject of class in America, and certainly nothing new to add to the discussion other than its reportage on the stories of individual people — which, I’ll admit, lends the story some reportorial weight, but let’s not mistake weight for insight.

The good folks on the Working-Class Studies Listserv have lately been making a lot of smart and sometimes wonderfully snarky comments about the series, as you might expect from experts on class, but since those comments are addressed to a private list, I don’t feel comfortable repeating them here. However, there’s one observation I can’t resist sharing, simply because I so much agree with it: the misrepresentations offered by this poorly-designed interactive graphic are dangerous. The most obvious problem is that the quintile lines offered by the graphic cutting across all categories give the impression that there is a monolithic five-tier system of class, for which somehow adding up or averaging all the options offered will slot you into a solid position. The second problem is that the first graphic implies that class is entirely synchronic — a problem hardly corrected by the later graphics concerning generational mobility of income.

Again, I’m not saying the series is bad: I’m impressed with the way the reporting brings home the concretized, material, embodied effects of class on individual lives for the lay reader, and with the way it again repeats — for those that don’t know — that class mobility has slowed and the income gap between the rich and the poor is getting larger. But this pop-sociological approach seems to borrow quite a bit of its information and approach from the same sources cited in Dennis L. Gilbert and Joseph A. Kahl’s excellent and accessible synthesis The American Class Structure, a book much more worth your while — if you’re interested in sociological approaches to class — than the Times series.

The NYT Tries Class

5 thoughts on “The NYT Tries Class

  • May 29, 2005 at 6:02 pm

    I have to admit that I haven’t been reading the series. I’m afraid that I decided when they announced it that it was going to be a snore.

    But while I’ve got you on this topic, I want to ask a question: are you a little unnerved by some of the assumptions underlying recent posts on the Working-Class listserv? I don’t have them in front of me, but they included assumptions such as class is a personal choice and people in the military are opposed to the working class. The latter of these has actually been challenged on the list; the former has not. And then there’s the matter of the sweeping stereotypes in the listserv discussion, stereotypes about the working class as well as military families. I’m new to that list and not ready to post to it. But I’m wondering whether I will even want to continue on the list. Any thoughts?

  • May 29, 2005 at 9:33 pm

    Yes, I am a little unnerved, and I’ve spoken up on-list about my worries about such assumptions in the past, and have subsequently been characterized as “attacking” people. Which is why — as someone who’s on the job market in the fall — I don’t have much to say on the list these days. But yes, I’m troubled by those on the list who claim “working class” status (the “personal choice” you describe) when, according to the AAUP, the average salary for higher ed (averaging together professors, associate profs, assistant profs, lecturers, and instructors) is $56,273. And of course I’m opposed to the ridiculous assertion about the military, and I did some of the challenging.

    I think the list has a lot of smart, serious, good-hearted people on it. But I also think it sometimes becomes an echo chamber that permits very little room for dissent, and as a grad student who’s been sternly reprimanded off-list by one of its luminaries for daring to ask a clarifying question, I’m a lurker these days.

  • May 29, 2005 at 11:35 pm

    I concur with your decision to exercise discretion. Oddly enough, earlier today I was remembering when in 1997 I interviewed at TCU. At the conclusion of my job talk, Gary Tate raised his hand from the back of the room and said, “You are aware that what you’re saying runs directly counter to everything my work stands for?” You could have heard a pin drop in that room. And I simply said, “Yes, I do.” I don’t remember what happened after that. I do know that I got the job and that Gary was a generous, dynamic colleague whom I valued every day. But let’s face it; lots and lots of gatekeepers in departments don’t have the flexibility that Gary does; they want people who agree with them, not people who will challenge them.

    Back to the listserv: thanks for that perspective. I’ll persevere.

  • June 7, 2005 at 3:29 pm

    Check out the discussion at TPM Cafe about the series. I’m enjoying reading over there; did you know that Anne freakin’ LAMOTT writes for them?

  • June 8, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    Viviane’s comment there is right on the mark: the later stories in the series serve only to confirm the NYT’s role as fluffer for wealth and privilege.

    I’ll admit, Clancy, that I can never quite figure out the tenor of your political comments. Where I live, I regularly interact with plenty of people like the vaguely and self-satisfiedly hippy-dippy Anne Lamott, and it’s no surprise to me that she’d be writing on Joshua Micah Marshall’s self-satisfiedly left-wing group blog. Sure, my further-left-than-either-of-them politics give me a huge and abiding anger at the current administration, and I’m disgusted at the shameless mendacity of folks like Michelle Malkin and LGF, but I also have little patience for folks on the left who don’t stop to critically examine their own beliefs. With your research interests in punditry, I’m sure you read such sites with a far more nuanced perspective than my own — which is maybe why I scratch my head and try to figure out where you’re coming from when you mention pundit blogs, whether it’s TPM Cafe, Powerline, or Glenn Reynolds.

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