Friday, October 3, 2014

Crossing Class Boundaries

Yesterday the New York Times published an opinion piece written by University of Toronto, Rotman School of Management Professor, Stephane Cote and I on the challenges of crossing social class boundaries. You can find the article here. This blog post accompanies that article with a few notes about the research.

The opinion piece summarizes research that we are planning to submit to a psychology journal for publication in the very near future. If you would like to read that paper in its glorious entirety you can download it here. We'd love to hear your comments and feedback!

I was in favor of sharing this research with a broad audience because it points out one simple feature of social class in America: Disparities in social class create group differences. From decades of social psychology, we know how challenging it can be to engage in cross-group interactions, but we rarely think of those groups as defined by social class. This is largely because Americans don't talk about social class--in politics, this happens because talking about social class is typically followed by accusations of waging Class Warfare.

The growing body of research by scholars in psychology and sociology suggests that indeed, social class boundaries represent meaningful and relatively impermeable boundaries that separate those at different positions of the social ladder: Americans, live in neighborhoods, attend schools, date and marry, and work with individuals who share their class upbringing.

We don't have a lot of practice crossing class boundaries, and when we do, our data suggest that people have trouble navigating those interactions--they feel and behave in ways suggesting a lack of engagement and understanding of cross-class interaction partners.

Perhaps the most important point brought up by the oped piece is the notion that crossing class boundaries has a built-in asymmetry: For relatively upper-class individuals, not being able to cross class boundaries effectively means that your friendship groups might be less diverse. In contrast, for relatively lower-class individuals, not crossing class boundaries means that access to prestigious jobs and institutions will hold extra inter-personal challenges. In this fashion, economic inequality may be affirmed at the dyadic level, within interactions between the haves and have nots of society.

If you have comments about the oped or about the paper itself, I'd love to read them in the comments of this blog, or you can contact me via twitter (@mwkraus).

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