The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus | Part 1: Introduction

Last week I re-read Diane Reay’s 2005 article in Sociology: “Beyond Consciousness? The Psychic Landscape of Social Class”. In it she is critical of how the psychological effects of social class are too often considered reactions which come about as the result of individual differences, rather then a function of a psychic economy which often operates underneath everyday consciousness and, moreover, in contemporary British culture, class (and so its effects on consciousness) is usually intentionally pushed out of discussion, leading to further damage. Below is the abstract:

Emotional and psychic responses to class and class inequalities are routinely relegated to the realm of individual psychology if they are addressed at all. All too often in sociological research such psychic responses are individualized, pushed out of the wider social picture. However, in this article, I argue that there is a powerful dynamic between emotions, the psyche and class inequalities that is as much about the makings of class as it is about its consequences. In contemporary British society social class is not only etched into our culture, it is still deeply etched into our psyches, despite class awareness and class consciousness being seen as ‘a thing of the past’. In the article I draw on educational case studies to demonstrate some of the ways in which affective aspects of class – feelings of ambivalence, inferiority and superiority, visceral aversions, recognition, abjection and the markings of taste constitute a psychic economy of social class. This psychic economy, despite being largely ignored in both everyday commonsense understandings and academic theories, contributes powerfully to the ways we are, feel and act.

The article begins by looking briefly at previous research into the emotional and psychic responses to social class. Reay points out how some sociological theories consider class identities consist of the practices and accounts of such practices done by members of a class, but she believes that how members of a class think and feel about those practices is a key, yet overlooked, feature of class identity. After this she highlights that feminist writing since the 1980s has been important in developing our understanding about how class (and gender) is implicit in many everyday social practices and goes on to draw on this, and her own research, to argue that there is a psychic economy implicit in the reproduction of social classes whereby social class causes psychic effects which contribute to the reproduction of class, which cause psychic effects on that class that reproduce it again, and so on.

Continuing the introduction, Reay looks at some psychic conceptualisations of class which consider how frequency of certain emotions and attitudes reflect social class. Reay uses the example of the work of Andrew Sayers, who looks at how different social classes are more likely to experience certain emotions which reflect and solidify their position. Where Sayer wishes to talk about the moral significance of class as it pertains to causing the different emotional lives which are predominantly found in various classes, Reay wishes to understand and explain how theses psycho-social dynamics explain class thinking, feeling and practices, and their reproduction.


In the next article in this series, I will look at the next section of Reay’s article which examines the school experiences of children from different social classes and how they reflect and contribute to their class outcomes. Reay shows how these experiences might not show explicit knowledge of social class, but at least an implicit understanding about class differences which effect their attitudes and practices. I will also be reflecting on some of my own experiences of school as I think they have effected my own thoughts and practices, and introducing the Bourdieusian concepts of “cleft habitus” and “hysteresis”. I will also begin to explain their centrality to both my own research and understanding about myself, both personally and in terms of social positioning.

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