Paper Review: Elementary School Children’s Reasoning About Social Class

Mistry, R. S., Brown, C. S., White, E. S., Chow, K. A. & Gillen-O’Neel, C. (2015), Elementary school children’s reasoning about social class: A mixed-methods study. Child Development. doi: 10.1111/cdev.12407

Against the backdrop, in the UK at least, of the imminent Labour Party leadership election, with supporters for the left-most candidate, Jeremy Corbyn, arguing for  “an economy which works for all, rejects austerity and places wealth and opportunity in the hands of the millions and not simply the millionaires”,  it seemed timely to look at this paper, examining as it does, children’s conceptions and understanding of social class.

The authors looked at 117 U.S. children’s (aged 10-12 years) placing of their family on a ten-rung ladder from people who have most money, to people who have least money, and were asked to tell researchers why they had placed themselves there. Additionally, children were asked what came to mind when talking about “rich, middle-class, and poor” people, and completed attitude scales of people in these categories. Further to this, their parents reported on the family income and subjective social class.

Children were asked to indicate what proportion of [rich] people would display each trait.

Children were asked to indicate what proportion of [rich] people would display each trait.

This was one of the first studies to test not simply the effects of social class (there are many of those studies out there) but to look at children’s understanding of social class. The authors expected that children would express the most negative beliefs about the poor as compared to the rich and middle class, and that childrens beliefs about the middle class (the modal class) would  be most positive.

The authors found that children’s understanding of their family’s income was informed by knowledge of material possessions, by lifestyle characteristics, and by comparison with others. Children rated “the poor” as having fewer positive attributes and more negative attributes than the “middle class”, and fewer positive attributes than “the rich”. Children who perceived that they were poor held less positive attitudes toward the poor than children who saw themselves as more middle class. But what does this mean for their understanding, exactly? 

Developmental Intergroup Theory

This study was framed within Developmental Intergroup Theory (DIT; Bigler & Liben, 2007) which, simply put,  proposes that children will categorize individuals according to salient perceptual dimensions and, seeing these dimensions used by adults in their classifications, develop hypotheses about why these dimensions are important for classification. What is it then that children pick up about social class categories?

Support was found here, for the tenets of DIT. Specifically, almost three quarters of the children in the current study rated their socioeconomic status as somewhere in the middle (i.e., ladder ratings between 5 and 7). Children seem to consider themselves part of the normative group. Furthermore, children were particularly focused on the concrete aspects of their social class, such as what they are (or are not) able to buy, what their house is like, and how their lifestyle differs from their friends’ (as opposed to noting more abstract features of having / not having money, such as security). 

As well as this, this paper goes beyond quantitative findings, and details careful qualitative exploration of why children understood their socio-economic status to be as they did. For example, one child said:

Well, I was thinking that at the top of the ladder, thats someone like J.K. Rowling, theyd just breally wealthy and the next one is like someone who is pretty wealthy and this one is [pointing to the next rung on the ladder], they probably live in a really big house and I think I might be here [points down] because I think my family has enough money to be comfortable and were happy and like we dont have a hard time, but its not likwe have a lot of money and its not like we live in a huge housewe live in a little house in [neighborhood] but its just nice and a nice size.  (p. 10). 

clearly indicating social comparison, and concreteness in describing their house size.

Who lives here?

Who lives here?

However, it may be that the tendency to identify as middle class is precisely because children imagined extreme examples of rich and poor (as above), and by default, somewhere between those extremes implies middle class. It would then be the nuances within “middle class” that would be interesting to look at – how do I compare with my friends? classmates? And how does that matter? 

And Beyond DIT

Further results showed that children did  associate the most negative attributes with the poor relative to the rich. They rated the poor as both higher in negative attributes and lower in positive attributes compared to the other social class group. When it came to their own group,, children who saw themselves as poorer rated the poor as having more negative attributes than the other more middle class children. This has echoes of the doll studies of the 1970s – where Black children preferred the White doll, rating the Black doll negatively. However, as the author’s note, in absolute terms, negative ratings weren’t that bad – only a “few” or “some” people had the negative traits.

Considering that children were asked to identify their socioeconomic status on the ladder rungs, it is also worth noting that no child rated themselves on the two lowest rungs of the ladder, and none self- identied as poor per sé. It is also worth mentioning that a measure of social identity with one’s social class was not taken. And, although the qualitative reports indicated some understanding of where money might come from, social mobility across social class was not measured either.

There is also the issue of this being a one-shot study, with a correlational design. That is, it is a snapshot of one school, at one point in time, with set diversity in terms of social class. Further research might usefully open up this diversity. For example, what happens in affluent areas, or private schools, where socioeconomic class is normativity high? Or between those who have or have not won scholarships for their study? How do perceptions of social class shape in-class interactions – or vice versa? And crucially, for a research program basing itself in the developmental intergroup framework – how do these perceptions develop? Only 10-12 year-olds were tested here: where did their ideas come from? And is the class system fair? Is it fixed?  Children were furnished with three class categories here: given the homogeneity in seeing themselves as middle class, what are the important  differences for them?

So, this was one of the first studies to look at children’s understanding of social class. It showed that children had awareness of their class, had differential attitudes towards other classes, and could explain how they came to perceive themselves as belonging to a given class. And, as with the best of research, there is now a multitude of questions remaining. What about “social identity”? How does age play a role here? How do children understand the notion of “social mobility” when it comes to SES? How does this interact with their moral reasoning about equality and justice? And then other, related questions spring to mind: how should we treat children from different classes? How do children’s perceptions relate to those of their parents? If you’ll excuse the pun, children’s reasoning about social class is indeed a rich area of research.


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