Blog #11 | Researching People of Means
The incomparable Stefanie DeLuca visited Seminar on Scholar-Activism this week, sharing insights about residential mobility, poverty, and activism. Given her work on why and where poor people move, and given the volume of research involving poor people, a question struck me: What research is out there about middle/upper class people? If we had had more time in class, I would have asked Stefanie her recommendations for papers about these people: what they do and why, what plights they face, how they learn and interpret. Some economic justice advocates may scoff at this question, since middle/upper class people are privileged and don’t need researchers to help them out. But something magical happens when people write papers like this: middle/upper class people become un-normal, become people with flaws and triumphs and irregularities and unique characteristics worthy of study. These papers do not help middle/upper class people per se, but rather break down the normativity of their values and experiences. When middle/upper class people are not studied, they get the message loud and clear: they are the norm that poor people should aspire to emulate.
But the way middle/upper class people (are statistically more likely to) act is not better than the way poor people (are statistically more likely to) act; it is just different. Stefanie discussed how she has often discovered “unflattering” trends in the behaviors of the people involved in her studies, and argued that this is part and parcel of being a social scientist. She is right. Consequently, when people only read research about poor people, they hear scholars discussing the unflattering behaviors only of poor people. The result is victim-blame-y rhetoric about “the culture of poverty” with little discussion about the things middle/upper class people do to perpetuate poverty — or discussion about any of the unflattering things they do at all.
The reality is that poor people and middle/upper class people engage in unflattering behavior, and the behaviors tend to be different among the two groups. Of course, there is considerable heterogeneity within both populations. I have no intention of essentializing either group. However, it fools no one to suggest that each group does not have distinct cultural and behavioral characteristics in general. Based on overall trends, poor people and middle/upper class people are different. Different beyond just measures of material resources. It helps no one to suggest otherwise.
So, given those thoughts, I continue to seek some recommendations. I have explored excellent work that contrasts the behaviors/values/experiences of people in the two groups, such as Class-Based Masculinities: The Interdependence of Gender, Class, and Interpersonal Power; Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality; and Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. I still notice a scarcity of research about just people on the higher end of the social class hierarchy, though. Good research abounds about just poor people, and I think there should be more just about their wealthier counterparts. I welcome suggestions for existing research.