Psychology and Social Class

By Jonathan Elcock


I intend this to be a three part series of psychology and social class. Social class is one of things I teach about in the Critical Social Psychology module. In this part I will look at why psychology should engage with social class. In the next part I will look at why psychologists have tended not to engage with social class (or have done so badly). In the final part I will look at prospects for a solution to the problems I identify in the second part.

Why psychology should care about class.

Overall psychology as a discipline can look back over its history of engagement with ‘race’ and racism in a fairly optimistic way. While the anglophone discipline in the 1910s was a bulwark of scientific racism that consensus broke down in the 1920s with the discussion of the results of ‘Race Psychology’ in the 1920s that led many in psychology to question their own racist assumptions. By the 1930s psychology was studying racism, prejudice and discrimination and while the Pioneer Fund funded Jensen work in the late 1960s created a home for racist psychology that has had negative consequences to the current day, the consensus has shifted so that there is much more research effort into racism rather than trying to show differences between ‘races’.

The disciplines engagement with gender and sexism is less positive overall. For over a century prominent voices in psychology, including some early pioneering women psychologists, have pointed out that the differences within men and women swamp the psychological differences between men and women. Despite this plenty of psychologists do naive work on sex and gender differences that suggest no engagement with the high quality critical work. Some evolutionary psychology seems determined to try and make cultural expectations of men and women into biological laws, and this seems to have caught the popular imagination. Some of the work on development of masculinity and femininity makes people sound like mindless drones and refuses to engage with issues of power, other work is more critical, however there does not seem to be a dialogue between the critical (often feminist) psychology and the more naive psychology. There is, it would be fair to say, lots of engagement with issues around sex and gender.

With sexuality there is an even more mixed story. Everyone knows the broad brush story, psychology acting as a hand maiden to psychiatry when being lesbian, gay or bisexual was seen as a mental illness. Developing ‘objective tests’ that could be used as diagnostic tools. Psychoanalysis acting as a rationale for why some people do not develop ‘normal’ sexuality. Psychologists taking part in treatment programs to help ‘cure’ people of their sexuality. Then the switch in views, with over time, psychologists becoming concerned with helping (some) LGB people come to terms with their sexuality and studying discrimination against LGBT people. More recently the arguments by (some) psychologists that being gay (and most of this has focused on male sexuality) is biologically natural, and that being used in arguments about rights, whereas the only thing that should be important humans for equal rights is being human.

But then there is social class. While I can find a few (very few) examples of work that have looked at social class by psychologists the picture is one of neglect. I will do another post about why I think that neglect has happened, in this one I just want to look at the case for doing psychology engaging with class.

Professional psychologists will, probably, have clients across the class spectrum. Professional training in psychology is getting better at tackling discrimination amongst trainees and the possible consequences of this for clients. Without a body of knowledge about class prejudice there is little opportunity to tackle issues of discrimination based on class. There is some evidence that trainee psychologists have different beliefs about working class and middle class clients, and that these different beliefs include beliefs about what a list of symptoms mean. (The typical way to do such work is to give a list of symptoms to trainees along with a short autobiographical sketch.) Psychology trainees who believe in a just world are likely to show more of an effect (with normal caveats about psychology findings being chronically underpowered and open to question).

Allied to this is a need for an understanding of how (or if) social class affects psychological functioning, and if possible to try to pick at the antecedents of that, which are caused by structural factors and which are caused by class based identity. It would be interesting to look at psychological functioning across the classes, from the very wealthy through to those dealing with poverty. To some extent the concerns of psychology are middle class concerns and there is a need to broaden that. Although therein lies the major difficulty.

To some extent psychology has broadened its concerns with people as those who make up the population of psychologists has changed. There are concerns that entrance into higher education may be becoming ever more restricted for working class folks, and the added barriers of doing further post-graduate studies, but beyond that, there is something about the process of becoming a psychologist that takes people away from being working class, whatever their origins were. So unlike issues around racism, gender and sexuality the body of psychologists are likely to remain middle class so one issue is how to engage with class without becoming patronising.

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