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Sunday, February 26, 2006

Class-based definitions of freedom and choice.

Here's something for my friends who wring their hands about, say, Unitarian Universalism's middle-classness: "As behavioral scientists, we have found that the people who frame freedom in terms of choice are usually the ones who get to make a lot of choices — that is, middle- and upper-class white Americans." Focusing on a four-year college degree as the marker for belonging to the middle class, three contributors to the New York Times Magazine find that Americans who do not have a college degree — most Americans, in fact — identify freedom with being left alone, not with personal choice.

And what a fascinating series of studies they offer as evidence. My favorite:

Another study that compared people in different occupations showed that those employed in middle-class jobs got upset when a friend or neighbor bought the same car as theirs because they felt that the uniqueness of their choice had been undercut. But those in working-class jobs liked it when others chose the same car because it affirmed that they had made a good choice.

Also intriguing: a comparison between rock music's "do what I want" vibe and country music's tragic notion of choice, as in "Now I'm living and dying with the choices I've made."

A not very difficult thought experiment: Apply this article to Unitarian Universalism's DIY-approach to theology, ethics, and religious observance, and tell me whether you notice a class bias in what you find.

("Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?," Barry Schwartz, Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner Snibbe, New York Times Magazine 2.26.06, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 26 February 2006 at 5:13 PM

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February 26, 2006 10:43 PM | Permalink for this comment

Whenever I read this kind of report, I always identify with the working class. Not that I want to be working class, but that I tend to make the same choices. Down to the country music and the hymns I love.

Matthew Gatheringwater coined or adopted the term "governess class" to describe those whose education outpaced their class station or influence, and I gather that's where I am. Fine. The upper class is so far removed that I'm in no position to judge its desirability. But for closer goals, better the governess class than the "upper middle class on credit" class so many of my peers have chosen.


February 27, 2006 04:59 PM | Permalink for this comment

I find this very interesting. It seems to me, IIRC, that Deborah Tannen or Maureen O'Hara or someone said that "freedom from" is masculine while "freedom to" is feminine. Maybe "they" are right when they say middle-class men have been emasculated (good, I say!*)

*I'm not against real men, I'm against that fake masculinity that says men can't do _____. (I had a thing on my refrigerator that said "A well-educated man is useful at a dance and indispensible at a shipwreck.")(same goes for restrictive feminity. guess I must be for freedom! :-)


February 27, 2006 05:13 PM | Permalink for this comment

A question -- because I haven't read Deborah Tannen in many years: Wasn't her research sample drawn from college students? That could skew her data in towards a "middle-class" outcome.

Doug Muder:

February 27, 2006 08:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think it comes down to whether you're more concerned with doing or being done to.


February 28, 2006 07:52 AM | Permalink for this comment

Doug, I think one comes to be more concerned with doing or being done to in large part by cultural factors — including socioeconomic class — which is what I think these studies show.

Kim, I found my copy of Deborah Tannen's "You Just Don't Understand," but I must have been thinking of Carol Gilligan in my comment above. I can't quickly find a description of Tannen's research sample, but it doesn't look as easily derived from a study of college students as I had thought.

Jamie Goodwin:

February 28, 2006 05:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

I am not sure I agree with the some of the ideas found in this study. There is a huge, huge gap between non-college eduacated and Lower Class. There are technical and supervisory levels.

I do not have a college degree, and I only make a piddling salary compared to some who do, I do however have a job that requires a lot of communication, thought, and communication.

This survey seems to disregard a whole section.. those of us in the middle/low economic class.


February 28, 2006 11:31 PM | Permalink for this comment

I haven't checked Tannen's sources recently, but I know she is a real scientist and would be very careful about her research and wouldn't claim anything for it that wasn't justified by her findings.
I remember hearing her speak once and someone in the audience asked her a question that was on a subject she hadn't researched, so Tannen said something to the effect that she couldn't comment on that because she didn't have any scientific evidence on the subject. One of Tannen's books IS opinion -- but it is offered as opinion (The Argument Culture -- I recommend it.)

Jason Pitzl-Waters:

March 1, 2006 12:05 PM | Permalink for this comment

"Apply this article to Unitarian Universalism's DIY-approach to theology, ethics, and religious observance, and tell me whether you notice a class bias in what you find."

Bah! I find these kind of studies to be horribly reductive of the poor (and the middle-class). I grew up poor. My friends growing up were poor. My mother was a single parent who worked as a waitress for most of her life.

Many of the first Pagans I met were poor, most would be classified as "white trash". Couch-hoppers, people who lived in trailer parks, single parents with multiple kids, people in "dysfunctional" relationships. People who were all well within the parameters of the "lower" classes.

Yet all of them were eager to make their own choices about theology, their conception of diety, to defy the dominant ethics of a system that left them behind. They chose to become the alienated amongst the alienated (when it would have been easier to be Christian like their relatives). They all enjoyed the "DIY" ethic of modern Paganism and Witchcraft.

Now UU-ism seems to be a mighty privledged-only club (at least in every place I have encountered it), and it would be prudent to examine why. But to say that (religious) freedom defined by choice is middle-class while freedom to be left alone is the poor mode of thought is simplistic and insulting. It doesn't speak to any of my experiences with poor kids and adults I have met.


March 2, 2006 07:10 PM | Permalink for this comment


This barber's son hears everything you say. But...

I'd probably characterize the choices your pagan friends made as a different flavor than the middle-class flavor of choice from the article.

The working class flavor of choice I grew up with at home was very DIY, as you say. But the upper-middle class choice-flavor of my wealthier friends (doctor's and lawyer's and geologist's sons) was more about consumer and identity choice, and also educational/career choice. Sure, going pagan is an identity choice, but it's not one I'd think to buy in the mall, after I'd traded in last year's model. Nor is it comparable to the choice between optometry or dental school.

Along that line, I'm wondering if you and your friends would find it fair to characterize your own choice of paganism as a protest against an availability of "real" choices.

Or maybe we just need to be more clear about whose choices we're talking about here. Some choice sets are more equal than others.

h sofia:

March 4, 2006 01:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

It seems to me that something very important is missing here: the freedom to have an impact on one's society and community.

I attended one year of high school, by the way. And that was part-time. I don't have a college degree, either. I would consider myself middle class mostly based on the fact that I have very good health benefits, and have an agreement with a bank to someday own the house I live in, but I wonder what it is that makes me culturally middle-class if not education or actual net worth.

And when did this happen?

By speaking in generalities and statistics, we fail to recognize the gift that UUism can be for all people. It's starting to concern me to hear that UUism is a "middle class" or "upper middle class" or even "white upper middle class" religion - as if it were *just that way.*

As if it were just that way, and therefore we should not worry about it .... In the interest of space I think I should continue these thoughts elsewhere.


March 5, 2006 06:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

It's starting to concern me to hear that UUism is a "middle class" or "upper middle class" or even "white upper middle class" religion - as if it were *just that way.*

Here here.

A friend at my local congregation puts it this way: do we love people enough to include them in UUism? Even if they don't look/act/think like us?


March 7, 2006 05:32 PM | Permalink for this comment

OK, here's something to chew on. Do you suppose this concept can shed light on the rhetoric of reproductive choice? Let's see if there is a study on attitudes of more-educated vs. less-educated, higher-income vs. lower-income, etc. on attitudes toward reproductive "choice." And just for fun, we can look at who's marching in the pro-choice rallies and try to determine the overall educational and economic background. And then let's continue to wonder, year after year, election after election, why more and more of the working class are defecting from the Democratic party. Personally, I think Howard Dean and Hillary Clinton have hit the nail on the head when they say the language of choice just isn't going to cut it any more. I generally resent the conservative pundits calling the liberal platform elitist, but I wonder if in the way we talk about abortion the label is justified.


March 7, 2006 06:35 PM | Permalink for this comment

Peter, see Sarah Blustain's "Choice Language" (American Prospect 12.6.04).


March 7, 2006 08:11 PM | Permalink for this comment

Pro-choice people are more likely to be rich and male and never go to church. Pro-life folks are poorer, female, and more religious. Gallup thinks that religion is the real driver.

For whatever reason, we are not winning this argument. The percentage of the American people who think abortion should be always legal has dropped from 34 to 23 in the last decade. The percentage who think it should be always illegal has increased from 12 to 22. About half the American people have continued to believe that abortion should be sometimes legal, sometimes not.

My personal view is that we keep shooting ourselves in the foot by adopting extreme positions, such as supporting forced abortion in China and partial-birth abortions.


March 8, 2006 02:45 PM | Permalink for this comment

UUWonk, just a couple comments about your post. First, this is the first time I've heard anyone state that "pro-choicers" tend to be male and "pro-lifers" tend to be female. Are you sure that is what you meant to type?

Secondly, thanks for your comment about extreme positions. I do hope that most Americans are not supporting the forced abortions in China. While living there I did some reflection and concluded that the one-child policy that puts economic and sometimes coercive pressure on women to abort after their first (or in some cases second) child goes against both "pro-life" and "pro-choice" sensibilities. Reproductive choice is about having a choice to go through with the pregnancy, after all. And the fact that the policy has led to the infanticide or abandonment of millions of baby girls has raised feminist voices from around the world, except perhaps in America.


March 8, 2006 07:21 PM | Permalink for this comment

According to a 6-7-2005 Gallup press release ($$ at when Gallup asked if people thought abortion laws should be "more strict" US women answered 41% yes and US men answered 33% yes. They asked the same question in the UK and got 33% yes from women, 25% yes from men.

The same study reports that women tend to care more about the issue than men and that pro-lifers are more passionate than pro-choicers.

Of course, these are just polls of the general public and say nothing about the people who are leading activissts.

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