Social Class Tourism

Over at the Whatever, Scalzi has some acid comments for Prof. Will Barrat’s Social Class on Campus diagnostic tools, particularly the step forward exercise (I’ve linked the Web version– John refers to the Word file):

[F]or the purposes of this exercise — showing indicators of privilege and class — this list is not actually useful, and indeed counter-productive. In this exercise, it’s entirely possible for someone of a lower social class to appear more “privileged” than someone who is of the “rich and snooty” class. This doesn’t create awareness of privilege; it does, however, create awareness of the essential lameness of this particular exercise. This may be why the exercise notes warn that “anger will be a primary emotion.” I would be angry, too, if my time were wasted on an exercise like this.

I’m a little more inclined to cut Barratt some slack than John is– as several commenters at the Whatever note, it’s entirely possible that all of the individual factors Barratt is using to indicate “privilege” will fail in specific cases, but that as a statistical aggregate, they’ll tend to be a more reliable indicator of relative class standing. John and others are getting much too hung up on anecdotal “that-doesn’t-apply-to-me” issues, where the list as a whole does seem like it would tend to coarsely separate the “privileged” from the “not privileged.” It won’t accurately rank-order students, but it would probably get you two fairly distinct groups in a lot of situations. I’d have to see it in practice to really say.

I’m not willing to let Barratt off the hook entirely, though, because while this looks like a well-meaning exercise in getting students to recognize class differences, it’s done with the sort of bumbling and clueless manner that gives academics a bad name. This is much more evident in the “Social Class Knowledge Quiz” (which is only available as a .doc file). That quiz asks a series of questions for “Red Points” or “Blue Points” that are obviously meant to align with the “Red/Blue” split in political stories. A number of those questions are more than a little off, and the quiz as a whole ends up feeling faintly insulting.

The correct answers for the questions aren’t given, and I’m too lazy to Google them, but basing my score on whether I could confidently give an answer, I’m amused to see that I come out more “Red” than “Blue,” despite being a Ph.D. holding Ivory Tower academic. I can immediately answer 12/18 “Blue” questions and 14/18 “Red” ones, and while I could probably guess some of the others, that’d be a matter of luck, more than anything else.

The amazing thing about this quiz, though, is that it manages to be kind of insulting to both sides. To rack up “Blue Points,” you evidently need to be a brand-obsessed preppy snob, while “Red Points” are awarded for being a steroetypical redneck goober. It appears to assume that nobody in the “Blue” category ever watches sports on tv (it would be really difficult to watch ESPN and not know what an F150 is, unless you’re astonishingly good at tuning out commercials), while nobody in the “Red” category has a brain (the too-cute Saab question and the diamond question, which is just a spelling test). A number of the items are also either dated (“Achy Breaky Heart?”) or misplaced (since when is fishing an upper-class activity?).

The problem with the quiz is that it smacks of class tourism– it seems like the sort of thing you would get from a privileged-class academic whose understanding of lower-class life is primarily theoretical. It doesn’t feel like it’s put together with any real knowledge of or respect for the “Red” group, and that rankles a bit. (And let me note that I say this as someone who’s very solidly in the “Blue” category, despite my score on the quiz…)

So, I’m with Scalzi in thinking that the primary effect of this quiz is to “create awareness of the essential lameness of this particular exercise.” To the extent that it makes me angry, the source is annoyance at the ham-fisted stereotyping evident in the quiz.

I’m also never quite sure what the point of these exercises is supposed to be. I suppose it’s possible that this could just be a clumsy introduction to a program that does promote some real understanding of class issues and engagement across class lines. It doesn’t really look that way, though– it looks like a gimmicky tool to “spark discussion” for an hour or so, in a non-threatening way that won’t hurt anybody’s feelings, before sending everybody back to their home class groups with a short-lived and false feeling of enlightenment. And, you know, I’d almost prefer that they didn’t bother.


  1. #1 Brian
    January 4, 2008

    I don’t think that the blue and red on the quiz have anything to do with blue vs red states. Actually if you take the stereotypical person who would know the answers to all of these very stereotypical questions, BOTH would vote republican!

    It’s almost as if the colors came from “Blue Bloods” vs “Red Necks” which is even MORE offensive, if that’s possible.

    so, yeah.

  2. #2 marciepooh
    January 4, 2008

    I, too, wondered when fly fishing became a snotty upperclass hobby. I found the “Dooney and Burke” interesting because lower SES students might not be able to afford their handbags they probably know what the brand is and some have probably sought out the best knock-offs of D&B. The question about fish forks was odd also since privilege can be bought but knowledge of rarely used formal flat-wear requires exposure to snotty dinners. I thought the quiz, at least, was very stereotyping and somewhat outdated.

  3. #3 Mary Kay
    January 4, 2008

    Re: fishing — sort of depends on where you’re coming from. In the UK the privilege of fishing the very best salmon streams belongs to, well, the privileged. This is sort of odd since all my UK friends remarked on the extreme US-ness of the the privilege test. Maybe there thinking of marlin fishing or something.


  4. #4 Eric Lund
    January 4, 2008

    Brian is definitely right: “Blue” means “Blue Blood” and “Red” means “Redneck”. Several of the Blue questions are quite esoteric for anyone who is not to the manner born, e.g., the fish fork question or the specific location of Dean and Deluca. The Red questions are, on average, much less esoteric for people who do not live the lifestyle; e.g., despite coming from a white collar family I knew what a shop steward was, and anybody who has been a Boy Scout should know what snipe hunting is.

    As for when fly fishing became an upper class activity: It happened when people started traveling long distances for the sport. If you are fly fishing in Montana and you do not live in that state, you are almost certainly upper class. If you buy fishing gear from L.L. Bean and you live more than 50 miles from Freeport, you are probably upper class.

    I agree that Scalzi is off-base in his criticism of the Step Forward exercise. While none of the questions by themselves will reliably separate richer from poorer, in the aggregate they will. I agree with him that the heating bill question is irrelevant for many people (anyone who grew up in a tropical or subtropical climate, as I did), and some others like the cell phone question are less relevant now than they were even a few years ago. A separate criticism that Scalzi does not directly address (although some of his commenters do) is the tendency of many families in this country to live beyond their means, causing those families to appear richer (and others poorer) than they really are. However, for almost all of the questions it will be true that most people answering “yes” will be richer (or from richer families) than most of those answering “no”.

  5. #5 Charles Kuffner
    January 4, 2008

    Slate did something like this back in 2004, which I blogged about at the time. One question they asked was as follows:

    What does the Eighth Commandment prohibit?
    (A) stealing
    (B) coveting your neighbor’s wife
    (C) avarice
    (D) committing adultery

    I noted that any good Catholic could tell you that the correct answer is “bearing false witness against your neighbor”, but as you can see, that wasn’t a choice. I guessed their “correct” answer (stealing), and that skewed my score ten points in the Red direction. C’est la vie, as we (born on the) East Coast elitists like to say.

  6. #6 JSinger
    January 7, 2008

    The problem with the quiz is that it smacks of class tourism– it seems like the sort of thing you would get from a privileged-class academic whose understanding of lower-class life is primarily theoretical. It doesn’t feel like it’s put together with any real knowledge of or respect for the “Red” group, and that rankles a bit.

    I dunno — the “Red” material is at least mostly drawn from the past decade; the “Blue” seems better targeted to the young Teddy Roosevelt than to any student likely to walk into Indiana State nowadays.

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