les classes sociales pas mort (homogamy)

One of the chief questions that exercise the good social theorists (and which the others, aka apologists for the status quo, would rather see exorcised) is how power relations are reproduced in a given society. Once we dispense with the anodyne notion that we all start life from the identical starting line with identical chances of winning the race, we’re forced to consider what gets passed on from generation to generation, how domination and classes function, how much mobility, permeability, between classes really exists. Certainly money is central here, but it’s not the entire story. There is capital also in a much more diffuse sense; the so-called cultural capital (see Bourdieu) that affords the legatee a kind of unerring sense for how to get ahead, an ability to navigate social situations, an unquestioned feeling of at-homeness in a given milieu (say that of an elite academic institution or a corporate boardroom). This is partly how to account for the stubborn fact that, statistically, people born into a given class are far more likely to stay within that class than, say, ascend into a class above them.

This posting was sparked by my reading of a recently published French sociology journal article,* taking on the third way “flat” world thesis of a social world where class is supposedly becoming an increasingly less salient means of understanding daily life. The author introduced me to a new word – homogamie, or homogamy in English. Selon the OED, it’s a biological term – (a) homogamous condition; fertilization of a flower by its own pollen or by that of another flower on the same plant. As often happens, the biological term migrated to the social sciences (and often such migrations come with unacknowledged costs, i.e. reducing society to a depoliticized “natural” biological mechanism). Homogamy came up as the French author, armed with a battery of stats, demonstrated how class continues to dictate many life choices, perhaps even more so now than before, and that like continues to marry like, people from working class backgrounds tend overwhelmingly to marry other people from similar backgrounds, and people from the liberal and professional classes, for example, tend to an overwhelming degree not to marry people from the working class. To borrow a citation from the OED definition: 1947 Evolution I. 270/2 “The concept of homogamy or associative mating states that within a population the most similar individuals will mate with each other.” The children of such associative mating are then ever more likely to grow up and stay within that association, reproducing the same power relations that contributed, along with cupid bien entendu, to their parents getting married, either not questioning their privileges, or not imagining such privileges to be within their ken.

None of this is a straitjacket of course, but class matters and efforts to suggest it’s an outmoded discourse – bearing in mind, as Tony Judt points out, that the Left itself bears a lot of responsibility for this discrediting – tell us more about the agenda of the person making the argument than the phenomenon itself. Anyone doubting this could consult the most recent staggering numbers on income inequalities in the US and conservative attempts to gloss them, a theme of numerous Paul Krugman columns.

*Chauvel (Louis), « Le retour des classes sociales ? », Revue de l’OFCE, n°79, octobre 2001, Observatoire Français des Conjonctures Economiques/Presses de Sciences Po, p. 315-359.

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