Criticizing a discursive approach to class
Looking at discursive constructions of class is useful to clarify the interweaving of class with gender in valuing people. Such an approach helps
recognize the hierarchical basis of conceptions of sex/gender/sexuality. To paraphrase George Orwell: some women are more equal than others. In some respects a discursive approach helps answer questions about why women do housework and other work regarded as ‘women’s work’. They do this work to display themselves as respectably feminine — as worthwhile. However, with working class women there always appears to be an awareness that others may not be convinced. Working class women have, if we follow Bourdieu, an ingrained habitus. These ways of thinking and doing cannot be entirely shaken off, nor do working class women always wish to negate their background and become ‘snobby’. Yet they know that there are social rewards available if they can achieve some success in shaping themselves to the norms of ‘respectable’, meaning middle-class, versions of feminine behaviour (Skeggs, 1997).
Bourdieu’s conception of class and his focus on its reproduction is not thought to account well for social mobility or social change (Skeggs, 2004). He does not make it clear how habitus can be reshaped if it is so ingrained. He recognizes that people do reform themselves, but usually implies that this is more of a superficial and highly conscious imitation of socially valued ways of doing things. Skeggs takes this on board and illustrates how tenuous working class women’s performances of respectability can be. The problem is that Bourdieu is arguing that your class habitus fundamentally affects how you think and do things and how you are judged by others. How then are some individuals (and not others) able to succeed in overcoming, or remaking, their habitus successfully enough to gain social mobility? ‘Successful’ individuals can easily be demonized as having ‘sold out’ and taken on dominant middle-class values. Accruing a certain volume of capital might bring upward social mobility, but is not simply a matter of those who are successful being able to compensate for a lack of say cultural capital by having good social capital. The notion of symbolic capital is an attempt to explain why the struggles over capital that he acknowledges occur within different fields do not significantly alter existing class hierarchies. Those struggles in fact reinforce and reproduce such hierarchies, principally because of the symbolic violence which frames them. Symbolic violence is a violence which is ‘imperceptible and invisible even to its victims, exerted for the most part through the purely symbolic channels of communication and cognition (more precisely misrecognition), recognition, or even feeling’ (Bourdieu, 2001: 1—2). His attempts to use the notion of symbolic violence specifically to understand masculine domination (Bourdieu, 2001), do not substantially add to existing feminist arguments about the importance of representations as well as economics in the oppression of women. Although his formulation of the problem is useful in thinking about how power becomes sedimented into repeating patterns (Holmes, 2004), it is less useful for considering how some working class women
are able to overcome cultural evaluations of themselves as disreputable and accrue some valued forms of capital.
Despite the perception of working class (and indeed all) femininity as a flawed form of cultural capital, a gendered habitus can be converted into other forms of capital if women can maintain the ‘right’ ways of looking and behaving. Adkins and Skeggs both have things to tell us about what constitutes those ‘right’ ways of doing femininity and how precarious the performance can be. The precariousness of gender performances can be very usefully considered by thinking more about the relations between gender, class, and emotions.