What is “a semiotics of class morality”?

class_and_campus_lifeA review of Class and Campus Life: Managing and Experiencing Inequality at an Elite College by Elizabeth M. Lee, Cornell University Press (2016):

“How do low socioeconomic status students make their way through largely affluent college communities? . . . merely gaining access to an elite college is not the end of the story.” (p. 2)

“How do students negotiate the deeply complex boundaries of class position within their intimate friendships and peer circles?” (p.2)

“How [is] class inequality interpreted through a semiotics of class morality within an elite institutional context . . . ?” (p. 31)

Elizabeth M. Lee poses these questions in the opening pages of her book, Class and Campus Life: Managing and Experiencing Inequality at an Elite College. To address these questions, Lee conducted an ethnographic study of low socioeconomic status (SES) students at Linden College (a pseudonym for an unidentified, elite, four-year women’s college in New England).

Lee spent two years living in the small-town home of the college, spending each day on campus: attending college events – in particular, those “designed to introduce students to Linden, and shape a Linden student identity” (p. 29); sitting in on a humanities course (she was interested in seeing how economic background played out in the classroom); and meeting with Linden faculty and administrators. She also met with class- and income-based student groups, and “shadowed” Linden students in their social activities: attending parties, and occasionally, spending nights in their dorm rooms. She spent about 550 hours observing Linden students, faculty, and administrators, and conducted 120 unique, formal interviews of 26 students from low-income and working-class backgrounds. In addition, Lee interviewed 10 faculty members, 13 administrators (deans, etc.), and five recent alumnae.

Through excerpts from student interviews and journal entries, Class and Campus Life sheds light on the experiences of these 26 students as they negotiate the elite world of Linden. Lee examines the interactions between students of different socioeconomic status and with dominant and non-dominant forms of cultural capital as well as “the ways that class position is contextualized, and given meaning within the Linden College institutional setting” (p. 7). Through this examination she sought to shed light on the ways in which students with low SES negotiated the implicit moral and social norms and value systems at an elite college.

Early in Class and Campus Life, Lee introduces the term “a semiotics of class morality” and it is a pivotal concept in her discourse. She explains that class and monetary wealth carry with them social advantages and benefits beyond those that are purely financial. In addition, Lee suggests that members of a community make moral judgments about others in the community based on class.

“The question of who and what is legitimated at Linden, as at other elite institutions of higher education, is not always communicated directly but rather through what I call the semiotics of class morality. A semiotics is a system of languages, including texts, public presentations, visual representations, conversational exchanges, speeches, and other direct and indirect forms of communication. I use this term to convey the idea that interactional exchanges about the meaning of class take place below the surface . . . I also use this term to convey the idea that there is a hidden language of moral association around class that is communicated through personal and institutional discourses and that it is pervasive, occurring across many interactional venues.” (p. 13)

The book develops the idea that colleges (and, by extension, all institutions) define and impose norms with respect to class position and status, and provide implicit metrics for defining class advantage and disadvantage. Those who are defined, or who define themselves, as outside the norm are, therefore, “others” or outsiders. Lee argues they are sometimes seen (or see themselves) as sources of difference, contrast, or otherness by which those in the norm, in turn, can view or situate themselves.

Lee draws on ideas from Andrew Sayer [1] and Carneval and Rose [2] in developing this idea. Sayer’s work focused on the moral significance of class — positing that “. . . people connote money, income, and socioeconomic status with deeply held (if often subconscious) beliefs about better and worse, good and bad, right and wrong. When we fail to attain a middle-class or upper-class way of living, we are marked as not merely materially deprived but morally lacking . . .” (p. 6)

Carneval and Rose found that 90% of students at the top 146 colleges in the US come from the top half of the socioeconomic spectrum. By sheer strength of numbers, the upper-middle class experience becomes the normative (and dominant) culture. Students in the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum experience cross-class interactions at a very high frequency.

While the small number of yellow atoms are surrounded by and interact almost exclusively with the large number of blue atoms, the blue atoms behave, on average, as if there are no yellow atoms at all.

In contrast, students from the upper half of the socioeconomic spectrum interact almost exclusively with other students from their half of the socioeconomic spectrum. Here, I couldn’t help but think about solution models in chemistry, specifically the implications of the Henrian behavior of solute atoms (here, yellow atoms representing students with low SES) and the Raoultian behavior of solvent atoms (here, blue atoms representing students with high SES) in dilute solutions.

The majority of Class and Campus Life consists of excerpts from interviews with the 26 students in Lee’s study. These student reactions and reflections bring an immediacy and reality to some of Lee’s more theoretical commentary. Students speak compellingly about feeling undervalued, unsupported, and misunderstood. They speak about their perception of themselves as outsiders. In conclusion, Lee makes three recommendations for helping students with low SES to negotiate and thrive at elite institutions:

  1. change the narrative about who – fundamentally – belongs to and defines the campus culture;
  2. change the support structure, by increasing and improving the formal supports provided by the administration to student groups on campus that address class inequality; and
  3. change the numbers (while acknowledging that issues of enrollment are inextricably linked to prospective students’ perceptions of campus life and climate).

Although Lee focuses on the impact of socioeconomic class in higher education, Class and Campus Life provides a useful lens through which to consider the general ideas of difference, diversity, campus climate and micro-climate, and how, in general, students from different groups negotiate university and campus life. It is important for all of us in higher education, — especially those of us at elite institutions — to remember that for some groups on campus this negotiation is essentially effortless: the terms are their terms. For other groups, every day and every hour brings new negotiations and new challenges. We must be ready to acknowledge these differences and when necessary, challenge accepted norms.

[1] Andrew Sayer, The Moral Significance of Class, Cambridge University Press, 2005.

[2] Anthony P. Carneval and Stephen J. Rose, “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity and Selective College Admissions,” in America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education, ed. Richard Kahlenberg (New York: Century Foundation, 2004).

(“Solution” from Janet Rankin / cc by-nc-sa)

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