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  • Assessing Classism in Academic Settings
  • Regina Day Langhout (bio), Francine Rosselli (bio), and Jonathan Feinstein (bio)

Although gaining more attention recently, classism is an area that has historically lacked consideration in psychological literature (Ostrove & Cole, 2003). Classism is a type of discrimination, much like sexism or racism. In the case of classism, people occupying lower social class levels are treated in ways that exclude, devalue, discount, and separate them (Lott, 2002). Researchers have examined individual experiences related to social class or socioeconomic status, but the emphasis has not been on defining empirical domains of classism and assessing base rates. An emphasis on assessing classism fits well with Ostrove and Cole's (2003) call for a critical psychology that can investigate, among other things, social class as it relates to experiences of discrimination.

Examining classism in college is particularly important because college represents an important developmental phase where young people are transitioning from adolescence into adulthood. This transition often results [End Page 145] in a more integrated identity (Berk, 2000). In other words, college students are figuring out who they are and what they value. If colleges take classism seriously, then this emphasis can translate into students also taking classism seriously and subsequently entering their adult years with the value that classism should not be practiced or tolerated. Additionally, if students are experiencing classism in college, then their psychosocial and academic outcomes may be compromised; these outcomes counter the expectations of what college should provide for students.

The research described in this paper creates a behaviorally based measure that defines theoretically distinct domains of classism, assesses base rates within a college context, and examines how social class, race, and gender are related to classism. This research can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of how social class mediates college student experiences and awareness of how college campuses can combat classism. To create a behaviorally based and theoretically grounded measure of classism, we must first understand social class as a construct.

Social Class Defined

Bourdieu (1986) defines social class as a combination of economic, social, and cultural capital. Economic capital is simply the money a person has available to him or her. Social capital includes the social networks available to a person, which can provide access to economic and/or cultural capital. Cultural capital, on the other hand, is knowledge of and familiarity with the cultural practices of the dominant culture. Knowledge and familiarity can take the form of owning items (e.g., a large home in a wealthy neighborhood, a sports utility vehicle, etc.) or other symbolic markers (e.g., a diploma from an Ivy League school) considered important to the dominant class. Overall, social class is partly about money and partly performative in that the person must be able to function in the dominant class.

Social class is contextually mediated (Jones, 2003; Ortner, 1998), meaning that social class is best understood within specific contexts or places. Although there are dominant narratives about social class that are reproduced within the culture at large (e.g., poor people are lazy), the specifics of what those narratives mean, how they are understood and enacted, and what they represent varies across contexts. This article deals with a private liberal arts college as the specific cultural and physical location.

When studying social class, college is an important location for examination. College can represent social class mobility for working-class students, especially for working-class students who attend elite institutions because of the possibility of gaining access to exclusive social networks. Generally speaking, one reason students come to college is to secure a better future or a job that pays more money than they could otherwise expect. Additionally, [End Page 146] college is a transitional place for many students in that it is the first time they have lived away from home. Given the current de facto class divisions of neighborhoods and cities in the United States (Wilson, 1997), many students may come into close contact with people from different social class backgrounds for the first time in college. Examining issues of class during these transitional phases is especially important because social class can become more salient when people are around others from different social class...


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pp. 145-184
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