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JUST WHAT constitutes class in America? The experts don't always agree on the exact definition, but most would say the elements include:


As Columbia University sociologist Herbert Gans says, "In the end, it always comes down to money."

Not that occupation, education and lifestyle aren't important, but usually they are byproducts of having money. "If you come from a wealthy home, most likely you'll go to a good school, you're apt to get connections to a good job," Gans says. "If you're poor, you're more likely to go to a lousy school, and be eligible for lousy jobs."

But, he notes, it makes a difference in determining class where the money comes from: The true elite of the country inherit their money or the means to get it, while the nouveau riche are earning it.

A family with an income of $150,000 probably signifies two breadwinners, not the true elite, he says. Thus you have people making $200,000 saying, in all seriousness, they shouldn't be considered "rich."

Besides old and new, there's dirty and clean money. Say the difference between money earned from drug trafficking and money earned as a brain surgeon, says Pierre van den Berghe, University of Washington professor of sociology and anthropology.

Van den Berghe says in America, money earned in unsavory ways is "cleaned up" over a generation whereas "in Europe, it takes two or three or four generations." An example, he says is the Kennedy clan: "The father acquired money in an unsavory way, but the son became a U.S. president."


The "prestige" of a person's occupation is an important component to class. Prestige in a person's job is defined, van den Berghe says, by a combination of: salary; education required; freedom or autonomy it allows; power; whether it's physically hard or dangerous. If two jobs require equal skill and one is clean and the other dirty, the clean will have higher status even if the dirty pays more.

The depreciation of manual labor as opposed to brain labor is historical, even though many manual jobs require as many or more skills as many white-collar jobs.

For any given job, he adds, knock "prestige points" off if the job is done primarily by women -- for example, secretary or elementary-school teacher. While the value of women-dominated jobs is deflated, the value of men's jobs is inflated.

High-paying, skilled blue-collar jobs are being lost as the United States becomes less of a manufacturing economy and more of a service economy. And many white-collar jobs that have mushroomed are low-skill jobs: Gans calls jobs such as word-processor and clerk "working class jobs for women."


There are those who say power is the real measure of class, and money is only important because power usually flows from money.

Reeve Vanneman, a University of Maryland sociologist and author of "The Meaning of Social Class," is one.

He sees three classes. First, "the real elites that control society -- these are the upper corporate echelons, the top management people of the top corporations, such as Boeing or IBM."

Most of the rest of us can be divided, in his view, into working class and middle class. The difference, he says, is that middle class people have some control, direct or indirect, on others (teachers over students' lives; doctors and nurses, over patients; newspaper editors over what people read). Working class people don't.

This remains an important distinction, he argues, even though middle-class people with some control over others may at the same time have to answer to someone above them.

Those middle-class people are only 30 percent of the population, he says. "The largest part of the population is working class: they're in service jobs, blue- and lower-white-collar jobs -- they're machinists at Boeing, in the lumber industry, clerks, secretaries, retail sales clerks."


How you live -- what you buy, where you live, where you vacation, what you do for entertainment, what sports you play, what you read -- all are part of defining "lifestyle."

Some experts say lifestyle is a sign of "status" -- more fluid and superficial than class, and influenced by a host of things from neighborhood to ethnic group to occupation to religion. Others say it's one component of class.

Money is, again, the most important element in the kind of lifestyle someone leads, but most agree that a person's class is not defined by his buying habits.

The old super rich, Gans says, don't need to buy stuff to prove they have status; they know they have money. "The really uppers in Boston dress very shabbily. The idea is that anybody with money can dress, but only the upper class has the gall to run around in shabby dress. Of course these are very expensive clothes worn for many years -- Brooks Brother shabby, not K mart."

Other than the upper-uppers, in a society where money equates with success, people tend to want to look successful. That, say the sociologists, is why the nouveau riche buy a lot of expensive stuff; expensive stuff has status. (But it has to be the right sort of expensive stuff, depending on what class someone aspires to. To the upper class, for example, a Cadillac is vulgar.)

But it's the middle class, not working class, that tends to be acutely brand-conscious and status conscious, Vanneman adds.

People buy to show they belong to particular group; which group, Lawrence says, is shaped to a great extent by advertisers.

For example, Gans says, "The Marlboro ad is not for professionals; Michelob is for yuppies, Miller or Bud for muscle men." By what kinds of people are pictured in the ads, the advertiser gives the clue about the class of the buyer. The guys in work shirts having a beer after a hard day's work are clearly blue collar; when someone is pictured on the telephone, or in the first-class seat of an airplane, they're middle or upper class.

Besides the products they buy, people seek to "belong" with clubs; schools they attend (in a spectrum from Ivy League to vocational school).

What people do with their leisure time is perhaps one of the biggest indicators of class, van den Berghe says. Watching a lot of TV sitcoms, bowling, beer-drinking or poker-playing tend to be an activities of the working class, he says, while reading the Wall Street Journal, playing chess, sailing and drinking champagne would be more upper-class leisure habits.

Different classes will gravitate to certain sports, which have a rich history of class bias.

Polo is upper class, Gans says, because it's very expensive to play. Golf and tennis, once upper class because of the expense, have become more open and thus more accessible to the middle or upper-middle class.

"I've never seen an upper class kid become a professional boxer, or even a football player," Gans notes. The reason: "These are brutal sports."

Says van den Berghe: "If you have two ways of engaging in an activity, one that requires a lot of skill, demonstrates you had a lot of leisure, is non-polluting and non-noise-making, that would be the upper-class sport. If it's noisy, polluting and low-skilled it would be the lower-or working-class sport."

His examples: skiing (upper) and snowmobiling (lower); riding horseback (upper) or riding a motorcycle (lower); sailing a boat (upper) or piloting a motorboat (lower).

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