A recent Conservative government internal memorandum, entitled “What We Know About the Middle Class in Canada” and sent to the deputy minister of employment and social development, was recently leaked to the public and has generated discussions about inequality within Canada. The findings “point to a middle class that isn’t growing in the labour market, is increasingly indebted although it has a relatively modest standard of living, and are less likely to move to higher income”.
While there are a number of important issues raised by the presentation—none the least that it is an internal report that speaks to a pressing broader issue for all Canadians yet was never meant to see the light of day—I would like to raise an issue with how the authors measured class, and suggest that a sociologically based measure would have been beneficial. In the memo, the middle class is defined as “middle-income Canadians...those whose after-tax family income adjusted for family size falls between 75% and 150% of the overall adjusted median income”. Thus, class position is solely equated with individual income. From a sociological point of view, this is an inadequate measure of class. There is little consideration given to the ways in which the economic interests of the privileged social groups in society depend on the dispossession of others, including the ways in which ideology and power support these interests.
Social class has been a long-standing fascination in sociology, which has its origins primarily within Karl Marx’s writings. Since Marx, sociologists have produced a plethora of ways with which to measure the concept that tend to move away from the gradational view adopted by the authors of the study, where the middle classes are rather simply defined as having higher status—education, income, wealth—than the lower classes. Indeed, a recent survey in the U.K., “The Great British Class Survey”, has produced a variant of class largely based around the work of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu—which in addition to economic factors, takes on the cultural aspects of society. This new conceptualization does require a more complex data set with which to create the measure but it does produce more insightful results than when individual class positions are demarcated by individual income. Indeed, a more accurate measure of class position can quite easily be created by incorporating employment status (whether employed, self-employed, or supervisor) and occupation, information available in most Statistics Canada data sets.
If the authors had harnessed a more robust measure of social class, one that was not simply a single measure but included a relational understanding of class which included a variety of additional measures including employment status, occupation, or supervisory role, the findings generated may have proved even more insightful than those they reported. While I surely welcome the much-needed public discourse surrounding class-based issues that the document has generated it is also important that we do not conflate social class with others aspects of stratification, like income or status. Doing so prevents us from seeing the true power of class in shaping life chances and fails to recognize that it is, according to the sociologist Dalton Conley, the “force between the cracks of wealth, income, occupation, and education that constitutes the mortar of the class system”.
If researchers want to look at the effects of income on living standards, employment opportunities, or wealth dispersion they would do well to demarcate their research as such rather than employ class descriptors at all. Conceptualizing class solely through income sterilizes the political connotations of the term and reduces the dynamism Marx and later sociologists have attributed to it. Conflating the terms could also lead to misrecognizing the classed nature of many of the social ills currently facing Canadians—interpreting these simply to be the ramifications of income inequality, which is certainly a by-product of class but not wholly a determination of it. Borrowing a phrase from our honourable Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it’s high time we “commit sociology” when discussing class-based issues.