I have worked for over three decades in a theoretical tradition, born at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and associated with the journal Rethinking Marxism, defined by a revitalization of Marxian class analysis (in relation to the appropriation and distribution of surplus labor) and a critique of essentialism (in both methodology, such as economic determinism and humanism, and epistemology, including rationalism and empiricism). What this means is that we tend to see class processes as neither essentialist determinants of economic and social outcomes nor the phenomenal form of some essential cause but, rather, as the overdetermined cause and effect of history and the myriad—economic, political, and cultural—dimensions of society.
But we have never really looked at the class determinants of essentialist views of the world. As it turns out, Dacher Keltner (whose research I have discussed before, here and here) has (with coauthor Michael W. Kraus) done just that. And the results are fascinating.
What psychologists Keltner and Kraus (behind a paywall) find is that social class is correlated with both essentialist conceptions of class and beliefs in a just world—and that the belief in a just world, in turn, reinforces essentialist conceptions of class. In other words, they found that upper-class individuals (as measured by subjective ranking rather than so-called objective criteria, such as income) were more likely to endorse the idea, first, that social class is an inherent, stable, and biologically determined social category and, second, that society is fair and just relative to their lower-class counterparts. Those on the other end tended to view the world through a different, social constructivist lens, that is, the view that “social class is based on changeable, external social forces.”
In addition, Keltner and Kraus report that class-based differences in social perception affect beliefs about social justice: lower-class individuals tend both to support less punishment and, when they endorse it, punishment based on restoration as against retribution more than their upper-class counterparts.
And their conclusion?
The current results provide some initial evidence suggesting that essentialist beliefs are associated with justifying and legitimizing an individual’s own position in society and raise the possibility that these beliefs will also increase justification of unfairness in the distribution of economic and social resources: That essentialist beliefs endorsed by upper-class individuals were associated with failing, rather than rehabilitating, academic cheaters suggests that one way in which individuals can maintain current societal structure is through the use of essentialist beliefs. Future research is necessary to determine what other legitimizing behaviors high-status individuals may engage in to constrain upward mobility in society (e.g., opposition to affirmative action programs) and whether essentialist conceptions of social categories explain this behavior.
As well, endorsing social constructivist beliefs—beliefs that social class is based on changeable, external social forces—led to the favoring of social policies related to academic policy and judicial procedure that focus on rehabilitating individuals. Perhaps social constructivist views, endorsed by lower-class rank individuals, may increase optimism among these individuals with regard to overcoming current financial hardship, future career opportunities, or even the economic advancement of future generations.
Clearly, different conceptions of the determinants of social class have important implications for economic and social policy, including approaches to criminal justice. And, as economic and social inequalities widen and we remain mired in the Second Great Depression, we need to move beyond the tendency to neglect or overlook the role of class and essentialism in determining (and, of course, being determined by) the policies that got us into this mess in the first place.