Dear economists: what about class(ism)?

Economics is one of the most elitist academic disciplines and therefore biased for the benefit of upper classes.

You might be familiar with the terms sexism, racism, or ableism. Oppressed groups have done lots of work to bring the issues they address on the table. The term classism seems to me still relatively unknown and was eye-opening to me and my experiences in economics. In 5 years of economic studies, I didn’t hear the word classism or class even once. This is remarkable but not surprising, as we will see later. Here, I want to offer some food for thought on classism and how it is present in economics. What is classism? The us-based organization Class Action explains: [1]
“Classism is differential treatment based on social class or perceived social class. Classism is the systematic oppression of subordinated class groups to advantage and strengthen the dominant class groups. It’s the systematic assignment of characteristics of worth and ability based on social class.”

Classism targets “lower” (already that shows the hierarchy) classes which concretely means working-class and impoverished people, including unemployed-, homeless- or people without university degrees. “Working class” often evokes a narrow image of the white-male factory worker but includes many more: farmers, plantation laborers, nurses and other care workers, self-employed food delivery workers, call-center workers, you name it. All of them are disadvantaged in the class system in some ways. Classism means building and justifying an economy that exploits, dehumanizes, and devalues. Class is complex because it is about more than economic resources and people might not be privileged with all of them: it’s also about cultural and social capital which means education, job type and networks. ALL of these things get inherited and accumulated over generations and class membership is not random at all. Against the claim of “upward mobility”, these class positions are inherited mostly. To give you an idea of the range of issues connected with classism, I wrote an unfinished list of how classism can show up:

Classism is when people need a job to survive while others can live off of capital and rent income. Classism is when media portrays unemployed people as lazy.
Classism is when rich people can portray themselves as ecofriendly and blame consumption by “the masses” as the main reason for the climate crisis. When in fact rich segments of society contribute most emissions.
Classism is when life expectancy between low- and high-income households within a country varies by 10 years or even more (classism kills).
Classism is when a working-class child is three times less likely to begin university studies compared to academic children.
Classism is when working class people are underrepresented in parliaments or cannot even vote because of lacking citizenship.
Classism is when the wealthiest one percent owns as much as the bottom 50 percent.
Classism is when old age poverty is explained by “poor financial literacy.”
Classism is when you own apartments in a city while others need to work longer hours just to keep up with soaring rent prices.
Classism is claiming that the best retirement provision for everyone is “to invest in and buy property privately.”
Classism is when your language, your tastes and preferences are ridiculed by class privileged folks.
Classism is when working class students in academia constantly doubt their competencies.
Class privilege is to hide from yourself and others how much of your “success” actually depends on inherited economic, social, and cultural capital.
Classism is when economists think of society as a collection of individuals who earn according to their productivity.
Let’s stay with the last one because it is one example where classism in economics runs really deep. Inequalities like those listed are staggering and need to be justified by a classist ideology that is telling us (in many ways) one core message: it is your own fault if you don’t get enough, and it is just that some people receive more than others because they worked harder and what they do is more valuable. Classism works by individualizing responsibility, creating shame and isolation among those affected. Mainstream economic theory is providing the perfect model for this, when it assumes that the economy is made up of rational individuals who voluntarily decide whether to work or not and are rewarded by their “marginal productivity”. In this worldview (called “methodological individualism”) there are no classes and consequently no power differences between them, just individuals. If you earn more, it is because you are more “productive”. In this way, from the very start, mainstream economics is biased towards the (real existing) upper class and is reproducing classism.

That this does rarely change is also a matter of who studies and works in economics:  A recent study in the US has found a “socioeconomic diversity problem” [2]. The data (figures below) shows how economics in the US is the most classist academic discipline where working class PhD students are underrepresented even more than in other disciplines. Interestingly, also when it comes to sexism (upper figure) and racism (bottom figure) economics scores very badly compared to other subjects.

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Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

Once you become aware of class you might begin to see how in academia (and elsewhere), middle- and upper class children can navigate and claim the university landscape more easily supported by a backpack of monetary, cultural, and social resources (not saying it is necessarily easy, academia is hard and unjust for many reasons and -isms). As a working-class child with the privilege to access university, learning about classism made me understand that I am not supposed to be here. Good to know that a group of working-class economists was recently founded in the UK, speaking up and organizing against this structural inequality and making working class perspectives more visible [3]. Founder Níall Glynn wrote a brilliant piece and summarizes that “We need to listen to the working class, in all its diversity, to have economics which is for the working class with them at the heart of it. And even more importantly, economics written and spoken by them.“ [4] 

[1] Class Action: What is Classism? 

[2] Anna Stansbury, Robert Schultz (2023): The Economics Profession’s Socioeconomic Diversity Problem. Journal of Economic Perspectives Vol. 37 (4). Available here: 

[3] Working Class Economists Group (WCEG) 

[4] Níall Glynn (2023): A broken discipline: Why class matters. 

Image credits: Biao Xie on Unsplash

Author: Sven-David Pfau, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien / Austria

Ein Bild, das Symbol, Grafiken, Schrift, Kreis enthält.

Automatisch generierte Beschreibung

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