Class as she is spoken in Australia

Wednesday, September 25, 1991

Class Analysis and Contemporary Australia
Janeen Baxter, Michael Emmison and John Western (eds)
Macmillan Australia, 1991
Reviewed by Jeremy Smith

Australian studies of class have often been overshadowed by international efforts, notably those of Erin Wright and Goldthorpe. The partial intention of this collection of essays is to redress this perceived imbalance whilst also engaging the views of those authorities.

The imbalance between theory and empirical investigation, in which the former allegedly has been privileged over the latter in Marxist and Weberian analyses, seems to be a central concern of the authors, in spite of their claim that they have synthesised both aspects. Two schools of thought have emerged around this problem.

Bob Connell and friends' conception of class as a living social relation enabled them to generate Marxist scholarship which located the problematic of class in relation to consciousness and ideology. Partly in reaction to this, a number of neo-Weberian writers have expanded the quantitative base of the sociology of class. The concerns of the latter are the preoccupation of the authors in this text.

The hypothesis which underlies this project is straightforward: "Is class an organisation principle in Australia today?". The authors respond in the affirmative. However, they are primarily interested in class consciousness, which leads them immediately to fall into the trap which they caution others against:

"... the identification of a structure of class positions on the basis of occupational differences or workplace social relations of authority and control cannot suffice. The 'promise' of class analysis ... is to go beyond the objective mapping of class structure and to demonstrate that class relations forged in the workplace have effects elsewhere ..."

This project is premised on a reductionist understanding of class as industrial relations. This renders the working class a minority and does not help the authors understand the identity-forming framework of the actors they are studying.

This is reflected in the questionnaire used in their sample, which explores the overall make-up of the individual's biography rather than attempting to discover whether collective class cultures exist, whether people identify with them and what impact they have beyond this on the objective class reality which the authors have identified.

As a result, the importance of class is defined primarily according to the subjective identification of individuals interviewed randomly and often outside a context of industrial and political action. An analysis of class relations as perceived by people involved in a social movement or campaign would produce different responses.

If class is perceived to be little more than a conceptual schema for sociologists to use to pigeonhole people, as the authors suggest, then corresponding consciousness will seem arbitrary at least to some extent. The authors, having reduced their notion of class to the admit that it may manifest itself in other realms of social relations and that the situation may be more complex.

Yet these theoretical issues are eschewed for the age-old obsession of sociology for the empirical "proof" that one model demonstrates more than another.

The laboratory for such tests is, as usual, the atomised interviewee, whilst the subjects to be tested are the models of Wright and Goldthorpe. As the authors note, Wright's model (a Marxist one) is not that different from Goldthorpe's (Weberian) one.

The source of this similarity lies in their empirical approaches to class relations. Goldthorpe's map consists of 11 class categories, each determined by the criteria of tasks, prestige and skills involved in a particular job and where a particular job locates an individual in the market.

Wright's original model was a sophisticated representation of the classical Marxian understanding of class. However, he later abandoned this for a 12-category class map based on three criteria of exploitation — ownership, skills and credentials acquisition and organisational capacities.

From this model and based on Australian data, the authors construct a grid of social relations into which percentages of the population neatly fit. The initial rigour of Wright's early work is forgotten, save for a few token paragraphs.

The empirical reconstruction of Wright and Goldthorpe's models is not the be-all and the end-all of this book; but it does point to two fundamental flaws in the understanding of class employed.

Firstly, the sketching of a chart of class does not account for or reflect the history of class formation, class relations or the relationship between class and politics. Classes do not appear out of thin air, but develop historically and thus carry the accumulation of past activities into the present, albeit in often limited ways.

Nor can industrial and political relations between classes be recognised, let alone understood, except in a historical context. The emergence of political parties with orientations towards certain class interests is also contextualised by history and alters as that context changes. The authors' approach and that of the theorists which have inspired them is ahistorical.

The second problem has to do with the mathematical acrobatics of such statistical mechanisms as factor and regression analysis. The notion that a computer can understand, assess, even quantify social relations and then place them on a matrix of class tends to grate on this reviewer.

Social behaviour and political action are peculiarly human phenomena which can be subject to dramatic transformations, especially when the atomised individuals interviewed by sociologists are placed in the context of collective action. To capture a moment of people's class consciousness is only to attain a fragment of the overall picture of class. To generalise it into a class structure is to neglect the history of class and in many ways to miss the point.

My other major quarrel with Class Analysis concerns the depoliticising aspect of sociological stratification theory.

Class analysis within Marxism has traditionally operated as a guide to action for working people attempting to change the world. This class analysis is clearly foreign to the stratificationist theories which pervade modern sociology.

The kind of class analysis needed by people struggling against capitalism is one which emphasises class as a lived experience. Class Analysis offers us very little of this.