The discursive construction of class and gender
Many feminists (see for example, Adkins and Skeggs, 2004; Duggins and Pudsey, 2006) wishing to move beyond economistic or structuralist theories of class have turned to the thinking of Pierre Bourdieu, who is highly critical of crude materialist distinctions between the real and the symbolic. He has extended the Marxist understanding of class (for example, in Bourdieu, 1987) to look at the importance of not just economic but also cultural and social forms of capital. He turns the notion of capital into a metaphor and identifies three main forms: economic, cultural and social capital. Economic capital can simply be described as monetary wealth or assets. Cultural capital is something more abstract but can be thought of as like wealth in the form of ways of thinking and being. Bourdieu argues that middle class ways of thinking and being are privileged. If you know about classical music, fine wines, and how to wear classy clothes, and hold your knife and fork ‘properly’ for example, you are likely to be recognized as having cultural capital. These and less privileged tastes are learnt within people’s class backgrounds and are used by the middle classes to create distinctions between themselves and ‘lower’ classes. Social capital refers to the connections and networks with others to which people belong; for example, an old boys’ network or a group of trade union activists. Hierarchies of class are organized around how much these different capitals are thought to be ‘worth’.
Class is not just about material situation but is a discourse about what and whom is valuable and respectable in society. The forms and types of capital valued differ in different fields. A field is a set of structured relations between people, for example the political field or the intellectual
field. Within say the cultural field, including the art world, ‘good’ aesthetic taste is valued (Bourdieu, 1987). However, fields are always a battleground on which struggles over capital are played out. According to Bourdieu, habitus is crucial to the success of privileged groups of people within these battles. Habitus is the set of learned and embodied ways of doing and thinking (see Chapter 8). For example, a middle class habitus is likely to involve learning ways of speaking and thinking that prepare children well for the field of education, where school systems value analytical and generalized views of the world. Therefore middle class children are more likely to do well at school because they have a habitus that ‘fits’ with the field; they already have the cultural capital that is valued in the field of education (Bourdieu, 1974). Class therefore reproduces itself because dominant classes are advantaged in the struggles over capital. In this respect Bourdieu refers to a fourth form of capital: symbolic capital.
Symbolic capital is about the legitimacy that certain forms of capital take on, and how all the varying types of cultural capital and social capital are weighted in relation to each other and how this shifts. This is about power. Remember that Bourdieu is using capital as a metaphor. Symbolic capital acts as a kind of umbrella term which captures the processes of legitimation that Bourdieu is trying to describe. Those processes ‘misrecognize’ socially constructed hierarchies of worth for ‘real’ worth. In other words, if something has symbolic capital it means it is thought to have ‘innate’ value (see Duggins and Pudsey, 2006: 113). An example might be that a Picasso painting is thought to be unquestionably ‘good’ art. It has symbolic capital because its value is thought to come from some innate artistic merit, but Bourdieu would argue that its value is actually created by the dominance of middle-class forms of cultural capital, which means their view of what is ‘good’ art is seen as the ‘correct’ view. Symbolic capital legitimates, allowing or restricting the ability of different types of economic, cultural and social capital to be converted into other forms. You can convert your knowledge of Picasso (cultural capital) into economic capital by, say, writing art criticism or working for fine art galleries or auction houses, more easily than you could convert a knowledge of graffiti art. Yet how might gender be part of these legitimation processes?
Diane Reay (for example, 1997; 1998; 2005) has argued that in order to understand how class and class inequalities are lived in gendered ways, sociologists need to move beyond an economistic (structuralist) focus to include discourses. She claims that middle class discourses on class are dominant. For example, the discourse of classlessness that has emerged within everyday life in most Western nations (she focuses on Britain) suggests that class is a thing of the past and that people can now succeed through hard work if they wish. Reay notes that this discourse blames the
working class for not succeeding and that the working class are seen as ‘other’.The psychic effects of this class creation are further explored in her later work (Reay, 2005), but all her work asserts that working class people continue to have limited opportunities partly because of the way ideas about class and gender influence their ability to take advantage of any opportunities available for themselves, or their children. In one of her articles she discusses the example of education, based on her research with working class mothers. She finds that the way mothers consume education is shaped by class. One mother talks about her son’s education:
For me it’s all rather confusing because I didn’t get that far… I feel incapable. A bit of me thinks why shouldn’t he go to Oxford or Cambridge.
But there are certain courses you should take and people like me just don’t
know. (Quoted in Reay, 1998: 270)
Here a mother expresses her lack of cultural capital. She does not have the ‘right’ kind of knowledge to help her son get to Oxbridge and thereby get qualifications which would allow him to convert that into social capital (meeting the ‘right’ kind of people) and economic capital (getting a ‘good’, well-paid job). However, Reay fails to develop the idea of how gender is important. Quite what this mother might mean by ‘people like me’ is open to interpretation. Does her femininity make her even less likely to be able to pass on not only the right kind of knowledge, but the right kind of connections (she is unlikely to belong to ‘old boy’ networks) — or even to provide much economic support? Reay seems to lose an account of gender in the details of the data. I return to the promise of her later work shortly. Meanwhile, more precise considerations of how class and gender intertwine can be drawn from the work of Beverley Skeggs.
Beverley Skeggs s (1997) work Formations of Class and Gender develops Bourdieu’s analysis in order to consider the importance of class in the symbolic construction of gender. She argues that the forms of capital outlined become organized and valued within the social relations of gender and class (and indeed ‘race’ (see Hunter, 2002)). For working class women the notion of respectability is key to their struggle with constructions of class and gender. In her ethnographic study Skeggs follows a group of young women who were enrolled on caring courses at a further education college. By taking such courses the women hope to convert their limited feminine cultural capital into economic capital. Women are thought to have cultural capital in the form of knowledge of how to care for others, which they hope to legitimate by getting qual – ifications. Yet those qualifications do not necessarily provide the chance for the women to convert their cultural into economic capital. Even if they do get caring-related jobs they are often insecure and poorly paid, and do not guarantee respectability. Skeggs provides some telling illustrations of how notions of respectability reinforce class distinctions within everyday life. Working class women are constantly reminded that they are thought lesser beings, not entitled to privileged treatment, sexu – alized and given little respect. One woman, for example, talks about her experience of working for a middle-class family:
When I first went to work as a nanny I couldn’t stand it. They [the middle class people] really think they are something else. They treat you like shit. What I’ve noticed is they never look at you. Well they do at first they look you all over and make you feel like a door rag, but then they just tell you what to do. One of them asked me if I had any other clothes. Some of them want you to know that you are shit in comparison to them. (Quoted in Skeggs, 1997: 92)
Skeggs’s highly evocative analysis of the realities of class domination for working class women indicates the myriad ways in which they are made to feel worthless. Their femininity is always implicated in these distinctions. They may scorn the snobbishness and pretensions of middle-class women, but are acutely aware that if they can approximate to the taste of that middle-class feminine style, there will be social rewards attached. They might be able to get ‘better’ jobs, ‘better’ men, and ‘better’ lives. However, it is not easy — especially when compared to masculinity — to convert femininity into ‘good’jobs.
Lisa Adkins (1995) has explored the labour market as one in which continued prejudices about gender and sexuality as markers of particular types of capabilities help create ‘women’s jobs’ and ‘men’s jobs’. For example, masculinity is thought to be a marker of physical strength and femininity a marker of pretty pleasantness. This is illustrated in one of the workplaces that Adkins studied: ‘Funland’, a leisure park in a declining British seaside resort. The managers almost exclusively chose men to operate the rides (90 per cent of operatives were men).They claimed that the fast rides, especially, required operators with physical strength and assumed that only (young) men had this. In fact operating the rides only required the pressing of a switch, but managers were adamant. Meanwhile women were almost exclusively employed in the catering jobs at the fair. They were selected for having the ‘right’ kind of appearance, which seemed to be a kind of feminine prettiness. Why this was necessary was unclear because ‘you do not have to be pretty to make sandwiches’ (Adkins, 1995: 107). However, the catering manager was insistent that customers would expect that kind of prettiness, therefore she must employ women with the ‘right’ look. By looking at this and other workplaces Adkins shows that not only is women’s appearance key to judgements and regulation of them as workers, but that women’s sexual labour is also exploited by customers and by their male co-workers. Women are subject to considerable sexual innuendo and general sexualization. Just one example is the women bar staff at
Funland being expected to wear gingham dresses and the bar manager frequently pulling the sleeves down so that the dresses were worn ‘off the shoulder’, as he insisted they should be. Women workers have to go along with this in order to keep their jobs and although sometimes they may find sexually charged repartee with co-workers enjoyable, if they do not go along with it they know it could turn nasty.
What Adkins deduced from this gendered sexualization of labour evident in Funland and other workplaces she studied is that capitalism is a profoundly gendered system. She argues therefore that women are not ‘workers’ in the same way as men. Her work offers an extremely important corrective to a class theory which has failed to understand why capitalism should care who does the different types of jobs available. Adkins could be used to understand managers as exercising a ‘taste’ for particular types of workers to do particular jobs. She allows us to appreciate the significance of gender and sexuality in producing men’s labour market advantage and therefore their greater command of economic capital. What slips away in her otherwise careful considerations is a view of the relationship of class to the production of what are considered the ‘right’ kinds of feminine appearance and behaviour.
Adkins’s (2004) argument is that gender is an ingrained habit remade and reinforced by reflexivity, rather than transformed by it; but the actual role that class might play remains unanalyzed. She attempts to develop an analysis of the ‘feminine habitus’ as it has altered in a shift from private (domestic) to public spheres. It seems clear empirically (see for example, Holmes, 2004; Jamieson, 1998; Skeggs, 1997) that there is no ‘easy association’ between supposed increased reflexivity and detraditionalization (a freeing from past rigid constraints) (Adkins, 2004:191). Gender and gender inequalities are reproduced in relation to sexualized power hierarchies which continue to restrict women. Adkins notes in analysing an empirical study that one respondent commented ‘it depends who I am going to be seeing. Sometimes I’ll choose the ‘executive bimbo look’, at others… [a plain but very smart tailored blue dress] looks tremendously professional’ (McDowell cited in Adkins, 2004: 203). Adkins fails to comment on the class implications here. What is an ‘executive bimbo look’? Is the ‘professional’ woman distinguished by a middle class respectability from that sexualized image of a working class woman made good? The links between the economics of capitalism and the discourse of patriarchy remain unclear and there are other difficulties with discursive approaches to class.