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Envisioning and enacting class mobility: The routine constructions of the agentic self

Abstract

This paper investigates the cultural mechanisms that enable some working-class youth to achieve upward mobility, operationalized as the attainment of a four-year college degree. Most sociological literature finds that culture reproduces class status by transmitting a particular kind of self. However, a growing body of literature examines how psychological traits such as future orientation, a sense of control over one’s life, and persistence lead to different outcomes within the same group. We build a bridge between these literatures using narrative theory. We argue that stories of the self – and how that self relates to the future – are contingent, developed through ongoing social interactions with adults and gate-keeping institutions. Our data consist of interview and life history data with 90 working-class and 129 middle-class young adults. We find that upwardly mobile working-class respondents who earn college degrees embody a stronger sense of “the agentic self” than their continuing working-class peers. We demonstrate that these cultural differences are the result of everyday, routine conversations and interactions with adults that create and sustain the agentic self. However, we find that successfully performing the agentic self demands procedural knowledge, material resources, and skills that remain unequally distributed across social classes.

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Notes

  1. In contemporary American society, the achievement of a four-year college degree marks the distinction between the middle class and working class (Cherlin, 2014).

  2. As Loseke (2007, p. 677) elucidates, “[a]ctors are not “free agents who can construct any story of their selves that they wish.”

  3. Believing that one is in control of one’s fate and aspiring to achieve more in the future could also leave them more vulnerable to manipulation – especially by expensive for-profit certificate programs against which working-class young adults have little ability to defend themselves (Kirkham, 2011).

  4. There is a great deal of ambiguity and disagreement surrounding the concept of social class within sociology. We rely on father’s attainment of a four-year college degree as a marker of middle class because a bachelor’s degree is the “closest thing to a class boundary that exists today,” providing individuals with the skills and credentials necessary for high wages and stable employment in the contemporary knowledge economy (Cherlin, 2014, pp. 127–128). By using parents’ rather than respondents’ level of education, we allowed for variation in respondents’ social class destinations, allowing us to examine the dynamics of class mobility.

  5. Both the online life history and interview data are a subset of larger samples that include multiple ethnicities. However, the small number of the non-white respondents precluded their inclusion.

  6. Thirty-seven percent of upwardly mobile working-class respondents had mothers with college degrees and 14% had mothers with advanced degrees. Mothers holding college degrees include five teachers, three professionals, four with administrative positions, and one small business owner. Mothers are a potential source of the kinds of imaginative conversations and knowledge necessary for the agentic self (Beller, 2009; Domina and Roksa, 2012) and could potentially complicate our analysis as they represent respondents with contradictory class locations. However, when we only examine the narratives of upwardly mobile respondents whose mothers had less than a college degree, the analysis remains unchanged.

  7. We situate our data on fathers’ and children’s education levels within overall increases in educational attainment – college completion has increased from 6 or 7% of those born in 1915 to 28% of those born in 1975 (Bailey and Dynarski, 2011). However, most of the increase in college graduation has been concentrated in the upper and middle class. Comparing cohorts born in 1961-1964 with those born in 1979–1982 (with NLSY97 data) reveals that the college completion rate increased by 21 percentage points (from 33 to 54%) in the top income quartile but only by 4 percentage points (from 5 to 9%) in the bottom quartile (Bailey and Dynarski, 2011). When social class is measured by parental education, predicted completion rates actually fell from 8 to 6% for 25-year-olds whose parents did not have any college experience, but rose from 37 to 53% percent among those who had at least one parent with a college degree (Wightman and Danziger, 2011). Thus, both our working- and middle-class samples are over-educated compared to national standards.

  8. This is not to say, of course, that middle-class people are “free agents,” unconstrained by their social locations and acting as rational strategists, but rather that they crucially imagine themselves as such.

  9. The pervasive and persistent effects of material scarcity are eloquently summarized by Noah, an underemployed, college graduate from a working-class, single-parent home: “I've had to pay for just about everything, whereas friends I grew up with never will, and never did. What it boils down to is I can't save money. When your parents pay off your loans, buy you a car, suits and ties, and help find you a place to rent or know someone in an area where you can get a job – it provides you with the ability to save up money. When you can save up money, you have choices in life. No money, no choices, no freedom.”

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Acknowledgements

We are especially grateful for guidance from William R. Pearson. We would also like to acknowledge Sharon Hays, Josipa Roksa, Bruce Western, Alexander Riley, Allison Pugh, Nicole Deterding, Ahrum Lee, and the anonymous reviewers and editor for their helpful feedback on previous versions of this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jennifer M. Silva.

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Silva, J.M., Corse, S.M. Envisioning and enacting class mobility: The routine constructions of the agentic self. Am J Cult Sociol 6, 231–265 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-017-0026-x

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1057/s41290-017-0026-x

Keywords

  • narrative
  • self
  • social class
  • higher education
  • culture