Maine students’ perceptions of class
People really don’t like talking about social class. It’s a taboo topic that makes people uncomfortable; when asked to talk about social class, people start fidgeting and playing with their hair, giggling or nervously looking around the room. Perhaps this is because people don’t really understand what social class is. When asked about social class and where people fall in the spectrum, many college students from around Maine deferred to answers based on social cliques rather than social class. “Are you really putting me on the spot with that?” one student from Thomas College asked. “Because there are all types of social class. You have the prep people, you have the gangsters, you could have the skater people. I mean there’s all kinds of social classes.” Other students answered with the more typical middle, upper-middle and sometimes simply upper class.
However, when asked more covert questions about social class, students answered candidly, perhaps unaware that their answers were driven by social class. In a project conducted for an education course, “Social Class and Schooling,” a group of five Colby students traveled around the state, interviewing students from seven Maine colleges and universities. One of the most telling questions these students asked was, “Where are you more likely to find Colby students, Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks?” The majority of students responded immediately (and very confidently) with Starbucks. Though this question doesn’t outright ask about social class, there are deep implications in both answers: Starbucks is widely perceived as a more upscale coffee shop, with five-dollar lattes and fancy-flavored cappuccinos. These students were cautious when asked what social class Colby students fall into, but their Starbucks answer was just as telling. When asked why they expect to find Colby students at Starbucks, one Bowdoin College student responded, “It’s a status thing.”
When asked what social class they fit into, the majority of Americans respond with middle class. Social class really isn’t definable, and it certainly isn’t based solely on money. Numerous other factors come in to play, such as social and cultural capital—the networks, resources and cultural knowledge that are available to a person. In our capitalist society, wealth often blinds people so much that they overlook these other factors. When social class is only tied to wealth, it comes with the shame of having so much more than others, or having less. This is why Americans strive to be middle class; it bears no stigma from either side.
We must overcome these stigmas. The only way to combat the social class issues that our society faces is to educate ourselves on what social class is and begin to have a conversation.