Identity and Culture


When Brian Graetz began to write about class and inequality, he opened his work by quoting: “Australia is the most egalitarian of countries…” (153) As it turns out, this claim does not say much in the absolute sense, for Graetz (like others before and after him) continues on to prove vast and terrible inequalities in Australias capitalist system. It appears that, popular opinion non-withstanding, there exists in Australia a strong and self-reproducing class system, by which the accident of birth may dictate the entire future of a man or woman. Unfortunately, academics do not appear to be entirely certain as to how this system is comprised, or by what function it reproduces. It appears that the class system somewhat resembles the ancient conception of wind — that which is all about us, and moves us, and yet cannot be pinned down, captured, or dissected. Social scientists from Marx to the functionalists have tried to comprehend the workings of class, and yet their best factual research cannot be empirically studied. Sociologists themselves admit: “Which approach best accounts for the fact? . . .these are questions which simply cannot be answered in a meaningful way.. . .what are deemed to be facts only become… intelligible when brought into focus by theory.” (Healy, 248) This quandary is hardly made easier by competing definitions of class. The Marxist idea that class is strictly divided between capitalists and proletariats is complicated in Australia by the rise of relatively well-to-do professionals and often impoverished self-employed individuals. “42 per cent of the workforce is distributed between contradictory class locations that are neither capitalist nor working-class,” (Graetz 164) and this makes any theory encompassing only the remainder incomplete. The functionalist perspective which views class as mere status and wealth based on achievement falls short when faced with the consistency with which class is passed between generations. Graetz suggest using three measurements of class, based on material inequality (income and wealth), capital and labor inequality, and educational inequality. Even this has its flaw, as postmodernists such as Kidd are quick to point out. So “class” remains functionally undefined, and yet practically indispensable. A rough and ready definition might be based on income, status, manual vs. non-manual work, and skill level. Regardless of the precise definition, the practical application seems unfortunately incontrovertible, that class/status is an important aspect of our identity because it affects our educational outcomes, life chances, and the environment in which we live.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which class is transmitted between generations (and one of the most difficult to pin down causally) is the appearance of apparently hereditary success in school and on tests of academic intelligence among children. Researchers such as Connell assure the reader that there is no gene for class status, and that actual heredity cannot be to blame for this apparition of class-based intelligence differences. “The educational system thus reproduces social privilege…[though] exactly how class bias now works in schools is not clear…” (3) Connell wrote in 1977; twenty years later he still cold not explain that mechanism, as in 1997 he wrote again of class-statuss positive association with school success and IQ. The answer still boiled down to the fact that IQ tests may not actually test intelligence, but rather test the individuals ability to take tests, an academic mode of thinking which would also be rewarded in school. Possible mechanisms of transmissions included differences in class speech patterns, which he dismissed along with theories that lower-class parents do not encourage their childrens academic selves. The final, albeit unproved theory, was that school and test modes of hierarchal thinking and structure might be more closely related to managerial and professional modes of behavior, and transmitted from professional parents to their children through the structuring of home and family life. IQ is not the only difference between class achievement in school, however. Between equally intelligent and well-performing children in schools, those from lower classes are far more likely to leave school, to fail to continue into university, and to think poorly of their ability to get high-paying or high-status jobs. As Connell points out:

Here are [underclass] children and teenagers who have learned what the good jobs are, and who have picked…ones that would suit their own interests; but who are convinced, before they have really begun, that they are not able to get them…. [even though] they were… children of normal intelligence and school performance… By contrast, the common experience of children from upper-status homes, with fathers in business or in professional jobs, is of fairly smooth progress through school, fairly open access to whatever kinds of jobs they want, and lots of personal encouragement.

(Connell 1997, 153)

So it is that the majority of university entrants come from white-collar or upper class families, even though a majority of students nationally are from blue-collar families. “One of the most important consequences of different performances and backgrounds is that children leave school at different ages.” (Connell 1997, 158) It is to be assumed that this has a drastic effect on the identities of these individuals. If, as all the evidence suggests, class is a major determinant of educational level and success, then it must also be a major determinant of identity. Universities and schools are not merely transmitters of dead information, nor do they merely prepare students for the workplace. A truly good university education will teach the student how to think, and how to imagine and understand the world. A liberal education is designed to create good citizens, with an understanding of art and culture and the broader world. Those who have this advantage are more likely, one must assume, to base their identity on philosophical and artistic ideals that would not be equally accessible to someone who had never been inculcated with a love of reading or philosophy. Likewise, an understanding of politics, sociology, oppression, and democracy is taught in schools that is not readily accessible through the media. These things as well, it must be assumed, will shape the soul of those exposed to them. So differences in class education do not only reflect upon the future identity of an individual or a class in terms of what kind of occupation they will be eligible for or what kind of money they will earn, but also in how they identify themselves as a citizen of the world.

To an academic, the fact that an entire social class is missing out on the opportunity to grasp at higher thought patterns and will instead lead what Socrates would call the “unexamined life,” is surely the most terrifying of class findings — to an economist or practical thinker, the most striking fact would be that education is directly linked to future economic success. Graetz presents evidence that the majority of blue collar workers have had significantly lower levels of education, and that the majority of laborers have dropped out of school prior to university or vocational training; he further shows that there is a direct correlation between low paying manual work and lower levels of educational achievement. So this educational gap itself tends to perpetuate the inheritance of “class” status based on occupation, as the undereducated are more likely to remain proletariats. However, this is not the only factor determining the inheritance of class, as the numbers of unemployed and blue-collar educated individuals in Graetz table indicate.

White and Wyn suggest that, even considering other elements, “These [class] divisions tend to persist… (wealthy parents ensure that their children are taken care of financially; poor parents have fewer resources to pass on to their offspring.) Mobility …is possible, but tends to be the exception.” (3) Connell bakes this up, demonstrating that of those whose parents were white collar workers, 60% had white collar jobs, and among those whose parents were manual laborers, an even greater association was found with 65% also doing manual labor. Additionally, among elite professions, “occupational inheritance” was find to be even higher. (Connell 1997, 162) A number of sociologists have referred to this combination of reduced financial inheritance, reduced educational prospects, and reduced social networking ability as representing fewer “life chances.” One imagines that this, too, would directly affect identity. Work is a huge part of identity in modern Australia, to the degree that one is likely to be asked “What do you do?” far more often than one is asked about other elements of ones identity, such as “Whats your religion?” Or “What kind of music do you like?” A full-time job, not even considering take-home work, overtime, or transportation and breaks, will generally take up over a third of an individuals waking hours. The difference in a persons self-esteem and general life satisfaction is bound to be drastically different if they are working in a demeaning, repetitive job with low social status or if they are working in an interesting and fulfilling job with his social status. It is somewhat ironic that many of the most interesting and enjoyable jobs are also.