Challenges to class analysis in the 21st century

Currently, social inequality is a hot topic, but sociologists are not as visible in the discussions as one might expect. Does this have something to do with the understanding of class or the use of class concept in research? Can the sociological research on this topic be improved? These were the questions addressed by the research seminar concerning class and elites recently held by members of the Department of Sociology at the University of Oslo.


Illustrasjon: Simen Østad

Two prominent scholars of class analysis, Kim Weeden from Cornell University and Jan O. Jonsson from the University of Oxford, were invited to expound on these questions in the context of the theoretical framework of micro-class. The micro-class approach embodies identifying many classes that cluster around occupations. The study of class inequalities often tends to look at “big class” such as “professionals”. In contrast, the micro-class approach examines how narrower occupational groups or “micro-classes” could be the main cause for social stratification. This demands an alternate approach to the study of social mobility. Weeden presented her current work evaluating how intergenerational information within a family affects the inheritance of occupations and consequently an individual’s micro-class. Jonsson presented both his research on the significance of occupations as inheritable variables, as well as trends in micro-class mobility.


 Jan O. Jonsson

solveig-fagtung1Micro-classes as a mechanism for intergenerational reproduction

Intergenerational reproduction takes one of two forms in the sociological literature on social mobility. This has been the long-standing convention. There is either a categorical form that has parents passing on a “big-class” position to their children, or a gadational form that has parents passing on their socioeconomic position to their children. While presenting his research, Jan O. Jonsson emphasized that these conventional approaches undermine the important role that occupations play in transferring advantage and disadvantage from one generation to the next. In log-linear analyses of nationally representative data from the United States, Sweden, Germany and Japan, the findings were: “(a) Occupations are an important conduit for reproduction, (b) the most extreme rigidities in the mobility regime are only revealed when analyses are carried out at the detailed occupational level, and (c) much of what shows up as big-class reproduction in conventional mobility analyses is in fact occupational reproduction in disguise.”

He said occupations could be seen as one of the most natural signifiers for class in society. They are central to cultural and institutional differences. Occupations have numerous aspects that are substantial for the identity of an individual. One spends a considerable amount of time and effort on work. There are also substantial social components. Ones occupations is often presented as an answer to the question: “Tell me about yourself?”. There is also an explicit socializing element. Sharing a common occupation involves sharing goals; colleagues bond around common work tasks. Furthermore, an occupation has a significant social impact, for instance, an individuals’ possibility to negotiate wages, influences social stratification. Occupations also affect information bias when you grow up. Individuals inherit social and professional networks from their parents. Using a cross-national coding scheme for occupations, Jonsson presented these trends in micro-class mobility. The intergenerational reproduction causes decreased mobility. Micro-class is a deeply entrenched phenomenon in modern societies and this sets a limit to the possibilities of equalization.



 Kim Weeden 

Why it’s a good bet that our children will be professors, too.

Weeden first introduced her approach and subject matter using her “mesearch”. Her young son’s knowledge of her own occupation was quite comically limited in the understanding of what she actually did. Intergenerational information could be a part of shaping this understanding. What do children know about their parents’ occupations? And does the level of understanding affect intergenerational reproduction? People hold rather positive ideals about how families interact and therefore assume that children are an accurate perception of their parents’ occupations. She conducted a survey where she asked young people about their parents’ occupations and about what they themselves would want as an occupation. Despite some “goofy” and funny inaccurate responses about their parents’ professions, there was a substantial inheritance effect. The children had varying knowledge about their parents’ occupations and this often correlated with the occupations they thought they would have in the future; the more knowledge they have about their parents’ occupations, the more likely they are to want these occupations for themselves. Although some of the effect could also be attributed to the fact that some occupations were quite established in society, and was not based on intergenerational communication in the home. Still the fairly strong associations could serve as a vindication for micro-class analysis.