Social cognitive frameworks and social class

It is evident that all of us “filter” the social worlds that we inhabit according to a set of expectations, assumptions, stereotypes, and values. We understand a social interaction that we ourselves participate in, or merely observe, through these assumptions and filters. We might describe these systems of thought as “social-cognitive frameworks” — the collection of basic assumptions that an individual possesses in terms of which he or she conceptualizes and frames the social world around him, and some of the basic norms, values, and pro/con attitudes that influence behavior in everyday environments. These frameworks are not inevitable or uniform within a particular society. Instead, they are influenced by ordinary experiences in life in work, neighborhood, family, school, and military settings. And surely they vary dramatically by one’s position in the systems of class, gender, race, ethnicity, caste, and status within which one lives. Here I would like to explore one aspect of how these social-cognitive frameworks are constituted through an individual’s early and young-adult experiences — the world of work.

A social-cognitive framework involves something like a taxonomy of the various categories of people around one, along with powerful social emotions: who can be trusted? Who feared? Who is a potential friend and ally, and who is an adversary or enemy? Which groups are thought to be admirable, and which contemptible? Are there socially specific indicators or labels that guide judgments like these — a way of dressing, a tattoo, a readiness to smile, a motorcycle? And, finally, a social-cognitive framework involves a set of values and orienting goals for the individual — the activities and achievements that he or she aspires to attain.

For example, what do Amazon warehouse workers think of the professors they may encounter when they visit Madison or Ann Arbor — what assumptions do they make about the professors’ social attitudes? And vice versa — what assumptions do professors make about the hourly working people they encounter? And what about the technical specialists at the warehouse or factory — how do the Amazon workers think about these “white collar” “professional” men and women, and how do they behave towards them?

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that George Orwell attempted to get inside the social-cognitive frameworks of the working class men and women with whom he interacted in the north of England, as recorded in The Road to Wigan Pier. He paid close attention to the ways these men and women talk, dress, eat, work, and raise their children, and made it very clear that these practices and mental frameworks differ a great deal from other social strata in England in the period. Orwell identified his own class origin as “lower-upper-middle class”, and has a clear understanding of the distinctive social views of that segment of English society:

I was born into what you might describe as the lower-upper-middle class. The upper-middle class, which had its heyday in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, with Kipling as its poet laureate, was a sort of mound of wreckage left behind when the tide of Victorian prosperity receded. Or perhaps it would be better to change the metaphor and describe it not as a mound but as a layer—the layer of society lying between £2,000 and £300 a year: my own family was not far from the bottom. You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood. Nevertheless, the essential point about the English class-system is that it is not entirely explicable in terms of money. Roughly speaking it is a money-stratification, but it is also interpenetrated by a sort of shadowy caste-system; rather like a jerry-built modern bungalow haunted by medieval ghosts. Hence the fact that the upper-middle class extends or extended to incomes as low as £300 a year—to incomes, that is, much lower than those of merely middle-class people with no social pretensions. Probably there are countries where you can predict a man’s opinions from his income, but it is never quite safe to do so in England; you have always got to take his traditions into consideration as well. A naval officer and his grocer very likely have the same income, but they are not equivalent persons and they would only be on the same side in very large issues such as a war or a general strike—possibly not even then. (chapter 8)

Here is his portrait of the lower-middle class gentile view of the working class:

And what is this attitude? An attitude of sniggering superiority punctuated by bursts of vicious hatred. Look at any number of Punch during the past thirty years. You will find it everywhere taken for granted that a working-class person, as such, is a figure of fun, except at odd moments when he shows signs of being too prosperous, whereupon he ceases to be a figure of fun and becomes a demon. It is no use wasting breath in denouncing this attitude. It is better to consider how it has arisen, and to do that one has got to realise what the working classes look like to those who live among them but have different habits and traditions. (chapter 8)

Where do these social-cognitive frameworks come from? Orwell tries to answer this question as well.

I have dwelt on these subjects because they are vitally important. To get rid of class-distinctions you have got to start by understanding how one class appears when seen through the eyes of another. It is useless to say that the middle classes are ‘snobbish’ and leave it at that. You get no further if you do not realise that snobbishness is bound up with a species of idealism. It derives from the early training in which a middle-class child is taught almost simultaneously to wash his neck, to be ready to die for his country, and to despise the ‘lower classes’.  (chapter 8)

And Orwell is persuaded that these assumptions are deep and stable, once established.

 A middle-class person embraces Socialism and perhaps even joins the Communist Party. How much real difference does it make? Obviously, living within the framework of capitalist society, he has got to go on earning his living, and one cannot blame him if he clings to his bourgeois economic status. But is there any change in his tastes, his habits, his manners, his imaginative background—his ‘ideology’, in Communist jargon? Is there any change in him except that he now votes Labour, or, when possible, Communist at the elections? It is noticeable that he still habitually associates with his own class; he is vastly more at home with a member of his own class, who thinks him a dangerous Bolshie, than with a member of the working class who supposedly agrees with him; his tastes in food, wine, clothes, books, pictures, music, ballet, are still recognisably bourgeois tastes; most significant of all, he invariably marries into his own class. (chapter 8)

Throughout Orwell’s essays there are two consistent themes: that the social perceptions and attitudes of English men and women differ dramatically by class, and that (unlike many of his counterparts) he has a fundamental respect for the values and perspectives of working people. His analysis of the poetry of Kipling, for example, is very much concerned with the worldview of social relations that it expresses.

Charles Sabel addressed this question of worker mentality (or what I am calling “social-cognitive frameworks”) in Work and Politics. One of the most interesting parts of Sabel’s book is the attention he gives to the consciousness and values of various strata of workers. His description of the “craftsman’s ethos” is particularly intriguing, since it pertains to a category of labor that is in a sense a carry-over from pre-modern handicraft economies:

From the point of view of the middle class, the craftsman is a contradictory figure, capable of tasks that presuppose self-esteem and assertiveness, yet in a more general way lacking both. Despite his apparent social proximity to middle-class managers and social scientists, he has remained as mysterious to them as the other parts of the working class. The craftsman’s autonomy on the job is frequently attested: Not only does his independence often make supervision superfluous, but he frequently outwits managers in complex negotiations over work rules and piece rates…. Yet it has been repeatedly shown that the craftsman’s attitudes toward education, child rearing, and the social hierarchy are those typical of what might be called a subaltern social class. Where the middle-class manager teaches his son to questions rules and inquire into the justification of hierarchy, the skilled worker often teaches his son to accept both respectfully. (82)

But to judge by the few studies of the experience of apprenticeship itself, however organized and by whomever administered, the programs teach two related lessons. The first concerns objects and techniques, the second the social preconditions and implications of the craft’s knowledge. (83)

Sabel’s answer to the question, what are some of the the primary determinants of a person’s social-cognitive framework, is to point to the circumstances and values inculcated in technical training programs and internships. These processes of formation and training lead to an orienting set of values and aspirations. And these values are distinct from those that a similarly talented young person would gain from a university education in engineering. Sabel writes:

Incorporation into a new social world also defines the craftsman’s hopes for the future, and in ways that shed light on his apparently inconsistent behavior in the labor market. What counts for him now is technical prowess, not place in an officially defined hierarchy of jobs: Titles are not important, savoir faire is. Careful studies by Siegfried Braun and Jochen Fuhrmann show that this is precisely the opposite of the middle-class attitude. The middle class conceived of a career not as a series of successively more complex jobs, but as a progression through a socially recognized hierarchy of posts, each patently more prestigious than the preceding one. The craftsman wants to be able to do something; there is evidence that he is often indifferent to or ignorant of the career possibilities — understood in the middle-class sense — that apprenticeship opens to him. (84)


Sabel refers to this value orientation as a craftsman ethos, and he believes it is a distinctive social-cognitive orientation to the contemporary world of work.

These passages provide clear documentation of the workings of distinctive social-cognitive frameworks across class (in England, anyway). And it seems likely that a similar ethnographic account could be provided for the many forms of social separation that exist in modern US society as well: across lines of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, and age cohort, for example. Further, these differences of perspective are important, since they create the environment in which social interaction, friendship, or political solidarity arise. Social cohesion and political persuasion are important but challenged goals in twenty-first century United States (as well as other countries); and it seems apparent that group-specific differences in social expectations and assumptions about other groups are likely to be important for cohesion, conflict, and persuasion.

This raises a very interesting question: where does this kind of inquiry fit within the domain of the social and behavioral sciences? Is it a question for ethnographers? For micro-sociologists like Erving Goffman? For social psychologists or opinion researchers? For journalists like Barbara Ehrenreich and Studs Terkel? And more abstractly, is it possible to formulate a better theory or landscape map of the socially situated actor that takes into account the formation and influence of diverse social-cognitive frameworks?