When George Orwell identified his family background as “lower-upper-middle class,” he wasn’t being facetious. It was a comment not just on British social hierarchy but on how that structure perpetuated itself -- through an anxious process of monitoring and policing the nuances of distinction, the markers of inclusion and exclusion at each level.
It’s a cliché that Americans tend to be clueless about such things, or at least as pointedly indifferent to them as circumstances permit. No other society has ever managed to convince itself so thoroughly, for so long, that social mobility is normative -- tending, as if by nature, mostly upward. Some of the people Jessi Streib interviewed for The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages (Oxford University Press) were “visibly angry or tearful” when asked about class, “as they thought that the question implied not only differences but also statements about who was morally superior.”
What a contrast to the rather morbid preoccupation with calibrating status that Orwell describes! But the difference is not so complete as it first appears. Intense indignation and distress at being asked to think about one’s class background suggest it is a topic charged with feelings of embarrassment, frustration, anger, disgust and fear, to keep the list as short as possible. Orwell’s reflections on class find the same emotional elements, albeit combined in a different formula.
What happens to class differences within the crucible of romantic love is an old question for novelists, but Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, takes a more analytical approach. She interviewed 32 married heterosexual couples in the United States in which one spouse came from a blue-collar family and the other from a white-collar family, plus another 10 couples for whom all the in-laws were from a white-collar background. Everyone interviewed was white and most were college graduates.
The homogeneity on these points was in part a function of who answered the initial call for interviews, but it had the advantage of limiting the number of variables in a relatively small pool of subjects.
The precise definition of class is a matter for dispute even among social theorists sharing the same general framework of analysis (the Marxist debates alone are voluminous), but Streib’s categories are pretty much vernacular. “White-collar-origin respondents are those that had fathers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees and who worked in professional or managerial jobs.” The blue-collar-origin participants “had fathers with at most a high-school diploma and who tended to work with their hands (though, of course, their jobs also often required mental work).” The mothers’ educational levels were almost always identical to those of their husbands.
The interview subjects themselves, whatever their parents’ educational and occupation level, fell into the white-collar category. Streib questioned each member of the couple separately and then together, covering not just their family backgrounds and biography but their attitudes and practices concerning money, career, child raising, housework and use of free time. The mixed-background couples tended to have met in college or at their workplaces -- in other words, in contexts where each person would understandably assume that the other occupied a white-collar status or was at least headed that way.
My impression from Streib’s biographical sketches is that during early phases of their relationships, mixed-class couples tended to think of differences in their background mainly in terms of family income. When describing his own class origins, Orwell wrote: “You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood.” So it is, but other aspects of class come into view only after spending some time with the other person’s family -- experiencing something of the world they grew up in, the attitudes and norms that shaped them.
Streib identifies two general patterns of value and behavior associated with the partners’ origins. Those who come from professional white-collar families exhibit what she calls a “managerial sensibility.” They tend “to plan, deliberate, mull over and organize their resources, their children and their daily lives,” while their spouses are prone to a “laissez-faire sensibility” and prefer “to feel free from self-constraint... to go with the flow and live in the moment.” (Carpe diem is a better characterization of it than laissez-faire, but que sera sera....)
Such broad generalizations are not easily distinguished from stereotypes -- and as someone who would fall into Streib’s blue-collar-origin cohort, I’ll point out that her “managerial sensibility” also exists in the lower orders, where it is known as the work ethic. In any event, The Power of the Past focuses largely on how managerial and laissez-faire sensibilities play out in the various domains of family life, and how couples come to understand the contrasts and strains.
The most interesting finding is that mixed-background spouses tend to be attracted to each another by personality traits missing from their own sensibility: the highly organized daughter of lawyers falls for the easygoing trucker’s son. Complications and conflicts inevitably ensue. Resolving or containing them is certainly possible, though it is much more complex and drawn-out a process than the romantic comedies would have you believe. (My white-collar-origin spouse would surely agree.)
The author’s insights are necessarily limited by the size and narrow demographics of her pool of subjects, but also by abundance of happy endings, or at least of lasting unions. Class conflicts can be resolved in good marriages -- but it doesn’t always work out that well. I don’t think Marx ever had divorce in mind when he referred to “the mutual ruin of the contending classes,” but the statistics imply that is the usual outcome.