Chapter 3

Building Reality: The Social Construction of Knowledge

Sociologists at Work


Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb

The Hidden Injuries of Class

Even if a poor person has a home to live in and is healthy and eating enough, the consequences of poverty can still be psychologically damaging. In a society that measures individual worth in terms of occupational achievement and accumulated wealth, feelings of self-worth tend to be based on one's ability to amass and consume material goods.

According to economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, the wealthy do not acquire wealth in order to consume goods conspicuously; rather, they consume goods in order to display their accumulation of wealth to others.1 Poor and working-class people are unable to indicate their social worth to others because by and large they have no goods to display.

Inspired by this idea, in the early 1970s sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb interviewed working-class men to examine the lives and conflicts of people near the bottom of the occupational scale.2 These men were employed and not officially poor.

However, they were sufficiently insecure economically to have the sorts of identity conflicts experienced by many poor people. One garbage collector, for instance, clearly defined his failures as the result of his own inadequacies:

Look, I know it's nobody's fault but mine that I got stuck here where I am, I mean . . . if I wasn't such a dumb - - - - ˇno, it ain't that neither . . . if I'd applied myself, I know I got it in me to be different, can't say anyone did it to me.3

To survive in this world of perceived failure and self-blame, working-class people must somehow restore dignity and value to their lives. They begin to see their work as meaningless and irrelevant to their core identity and self-worth. Instead, they define their work as a sacrifice they make for their families. A bricklayer put it simply: "My job is to work for my family."4

Rather than focusing on the dreariness of their dead-end jobs or the insignificance of the work they do, working-class men come to view their work self-righteously as a noble act of sacrifice. Defining a job as sacrifice solves the problem of powerlessness in a couple of ways.

First, in return for their sacrifice, working-class men can demand a position of power within their own families: "In exchange for my sacrifice, you will obey and respect me."

Second, framing degrading work as sacrifice allows these men to slip the bonds of the present and orient their lives toward a better future, which gives them a sense of control they can't get through their jobs.

Ironically, however, framing work as sacrifice causes some hidden injuries within working-class families. On the one hand, the parents want to spend time with the children and show concern for them. On the other hand, they know that the only way they can provide a "good home" for their family, which, in turn, will give their own lives greater meaning, is to work longer hours at an unfulfilling job and be absent from home more frequently.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of the child, parental absence is precisely what constitutes a "bad home."

In addition, it is more difficult for working-class parents to sacrifice "successfully." Upper-class parents make sacrifices so that their children will have a life like theirs. Working-class parents sacrifice so that their children will not have a life like theirs. Their lives are not a "model" but a "warning."

The danger of this type of sacrifice is that if the children do fulfill the parents' wishes and rise above their family's quality of life, the parents may become an embarrassment to their children.

The everyday experience of class thus goes well beyond financial stability or instability. People who struggle to make ends meet are caught in a vicious trap. Their work offers no glory or prideˇas culturally definedˇunless framed as future- and family-oriented sacrifice. But by making such sacrifices, other painful wounds are opened upˇincluding resentment, hostility, and shame.

1Veblen, T. 1953. The theory of the leisure class: An economic study of institutions. New York: Mentor. (Original work published 1899)

2Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. 1972. The hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Books.

3Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. 1972. The hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Books. p. 96.

4Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. 1972. The hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Books. p. 135.

David Newman and Rebecca Smith. (Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.