Forum to explore meaning of ‘white working class’

September 22, 2017
Claudine Pied

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. – Recent media analysis of “white working class” defines the term inconsistently: those of working age without a college education; the near poor, blue-collar workers; or even a truck driving, country music loving culture.

To explore the evolution and transformation of the concept “white working class,” the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s College of Liberal Arts and Education will present a faculty forum, “What Do They Mean By ‘White Working Class?’: National Myths and Small Town Economic Change,” on Thursday, Oct. 5, in Room 136 Doudna Hall from 5-6:30 p.m.

At the forum, Dr. Claudine Pied, assistant professor of sociology and program coordinator of the social and environmental justice program at UW-Platteville, will dissect the multiple ways the concept has been used by the media, social science and working and middle class residents themselves. She will argue that the ambiguity of the concept contributes to a national narrative that white workers are hardworking victims of economic decline while racialized, working class “others” are national threats to economic prosperity.

“I hope that my presentation will encourage participants to question some of the recent media reports about the politics of the ‘white working class,’” said Pied. “I look forward to having a discussion with participants about the ideas that they associate with the terms ‘workers,’ ‘working class’ and ‘middle class.’”

The forum will draw from research Pied has been conducting since 2006 on economic change and class conflict in a former manufacturing town in central Maine. Her research focuses on the tensions that arise between different socioeconomic groups as a small town plans for a post-industrial future.

She found that what it means to be “ordinary” played a prominent role in local economic development debates, whether about how much to pay police officers or who to blame for job loss and poverty – and that race, gender and class shaped ideas about what makes an “ordinary worker.”

“I think it is important to reflect on who or what gets defined as ‘ordinary,’” said Pied. “This is something that I am always trying to bring to my classes: encouraging students to think through what has informed their ideas about themselves and others.”

She noted that ultimately, she is concerned with understanding and decreasing social inequalities.

“While some people think about racism, sexism, poverty or the wealth gap as problems that affect ‘others,’ they are integrated into our social structures and affect everyone,” Pied said. “I find it difficult to study people and society, as anthropologists and sociologists do, without addressing injustice and social suffering. Exploring the meaning of the white working class will demonstrate the far-reaching, negative effects of social inequalities. They affect people in ways they may not have thought about.”

Following Pied’s discussion, Dr. Brian Peckham, associate professor of economics at UW-Platteville, will discuss the importance of improving research in social science by developing clearer, more rigorous accounts of the concept of social class and then applying that tool to the problems of explaining and evaluating social behavior. He will bring to bear some of his work on the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, a 19th century English philosopher and economist who wrote about class and the dangers of class hegemony.

The forum is free and open to university students, faculty, staff and community members. Refreshments will be served.

The LAE Faculty Forum Series, a program instituted in the fall of 2004, is sponsored by UW-Platteville’s College of LAE. The purpose of the forum is to allow faculty to present information in their research areas. Presenters tailor their presentations to a general audience.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, hamerl@uwplatt.edu

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