What We Talk About When We Talk About Class
Date Written: 07/12/2016
Year Published: 2016
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX22208
Professor of sociology at North Carolina State, Michael Schwalbe, reflects on the intrinsic contradiction of teaching and researching about class in the United States while benefiting from his own class position.
In the course I teach on social class in America, I show students how capitalism generates inequalities in wealth, status, and power. What I offer is not a moral critique of capitalism but rather an empirically grounded analysis of how it works, at a nuts-and-bolts level, to create and maintain a disproportionate flow of material and symbolic resources to the capitalist class. That capitalism does this is, as Noam Chomsky might say, uncontroversial. Or, as a student double-majoring in sociology and business once said to me, "You talk about a lot of the same things my business professors do, but you sure talk about them differently."
Once my students understand how capitalism works and the full range of consequences it produces, their moral intuition tells them what's wrong with this form of economy. They recognize the unfairness of a system premised on the exploitation of labor; a system that allows wealth to accumulate to an unlimited degree and thus belie claims to provide equal opportunity; a system that wastes vast human potential; a system that undermines democracy by concentrating power in the hands of a relative few. I make the point that sociological analysis can't tell us what's right or wrong, but it can inform our moral judgments by helping us see how our social practices affirm or betray our best values.