Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures

Betsy Leondar-Wright

Ithaca, NY:  Cornell University Press, 2014, 274 pp.

Reviewed by Alicia Ory DeNicola

 

Leondar-Wright sets out to explore the ways that differing class frameworks and class praxis can affect group dynamics and the success of coalitions. Using rich ethnographic data, she suggests possibilities for appreciating the strengths that diverse class interaction can bring to the table while also pointing out real-world issues that might be avoided.

The author was and remains a participant in liberal social movements, and this background, combined with a problem-focused social science lens, provides a bridge between the complexities of cultural theory and the need to be able to use such theories with a non-specialized audience of practitioners. Leondar-Wright negotiates this landscape well, in part by reminding us consistently that, while class is important and often overlooked, it cannot be separated from other cultural and contextual indicators such as movement history, gender, and racial and ethnic community and identification. Class stands out as something critical to a fuller understanding of conflict, but she never lets us forget its connection to and intermingling with other contexts and cultural identifications.

The author, as an activist herself, sets out to explore a particular problem that she observed through her own experiences: it seemed that those participating in social movements didn’t always seem to work from the same “playbook” or set of rules and expectations, often making it more difficult to mobilize populations and successfully accomplish goals in groups that seemingly came together around a common vision.  Realizing that empirical social science research and hard evidence of class dynamics was largely missing from the literature, she set out to collect it herself. Leondar-Wright collected nearly 100 transcripts of community meetings, which she gathered from 25 different left-leaning social movement groups. The result is a body of data that illustrates clear differences between classes that are largely based on socio-linguistic data and that index differences in education and experience more than income. Thus Leonder-Wright suggests viewing class as a difference in praxis (training in vocation and training in a college context) rather than income in the context of social movements. In particular she found that “Humor, vocabulary, wordiness, and use of swear words and insults varied significantly by class” (5) and that these issues affected the ways that group dynamics played out in practice. Her goal, in collecting and noting these differences, is not to hierarchize or criticize either praxis, but rather to “bring the strengths [of each class] to the coalition table … and tap into all available strengths” (6).

The book is divided into two parts. Part I, largely descriptive and explanatory, includes short vignettes that provide useful models, examples for students to discuss, and accessible introductions to critical theory. Specifically, her short and accessible discussion of Bourdieu’s discourse theory and ideas of cultural capital negotiates the tension between complexity and accessibility well. Discourse theorists will miss much of the nuance and depth of Bourdieu’s theory. Nevertheless, those hoping to help undergraduate social science students and practitioners see the relevance and applicability of praxis and discourse theory are likely to appreciate how well the author encapsulates these issues as she illustrates the use of categorization as an accessible tool of analysis.

Part II is meant to be more prescriptive—or rather, to provide some problem-solving suggestions for those involved in social movements. Clear, more lengthy descriptions and the analysis of praxis provide excellent teaching models of the ways that both construction and deconstruction can work together to solve social problems. Specific ethnographic examples illustrate both how class praxis can be misunderstood across frames, and also the distinct strengths and weaknesses of work in multi-class contexts.

The book’s mix of theory and accessibility gives it a wide appeal. Leondar-Wright’s insights are useful in the workplace: boardrooms, committee meetings and even have some recourse for families, especially those where some members of the family have members who have changed class or are what she calls “straddlers” between classes. Another clear strength of the book, however, is that despite its accessibility and conscious focus on a non-specialist audience, it introduces complex theories, logical examples of methodology and an attention to other key social factors. Thus, Missing Class has wide use within a social science undergraduate program as well. For instance, many of her insights can be used in general social science classrooms on theory, method and practice. Courses in language and culture, grounded theory and method, and social science courses on labor, work or economic anthropology/sociology would also be enhanced with this book. Nevertheless, it is intentionally aimed at social movements theory and would be most useful for courses in organizational communication, social movement theory, and conflict management.

 

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