The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages, by Jessi Streib

A study of American couples who married out of their socio-economic culture intrigues Mary Evans

April 16, 2015

In the preface to sociologist Jessi Streib’s book about cross-class marriage in the contemporary US, she remarks that her interest in this subject is in part biographical: just before she entered junior high school, her academic father’s new job took her family from a suburban neighbourhood inhabited by the highly educated, professional, white middle class to a more socially mixed rural area.

This study – in which the “power of the past” of the book’s title refers to the personal baggage of class that all individuals bring to their relationships – is also an engagement with the ideas of Charles Murray, the conservative scholar who argued in his 2012 book Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 that divisions of class are becoming more entrenched, and that as a result of that entrenchment, the US working class is losing its traditional American values of marriage, civic responsibility, religion and hard work.

Along with pointing to the very obvious problems with Murray’s thesis – not least its assumption that the values in question are solely American values, and its dubious scare-mongering about the emergence of an underclass – Streib is also critical of those who have used Murray’s ideas to advocate initiatives focused on mixing the upper and lower classes so that by some process of cultural osmosis, “blue-collar” Americans would be rescued from their new and dissolute habits.

We may conclude that the US is not, after all, ‘coming apart’, and neither is anywhere else where fantasies about ‘scroungers’ are fuelling myths of a golden age

Since this “coming apart” of the US did not accord with her own experiences, Streib set out to examine how those who “vowed to have and to hold a partner from another class” might influence and/or change their spouse, and how marriage might promote (or decrease) those supposedly entirely positive white-collar values.

In her research, Streib interviewed two groups of white, heterosexual Americans. In all, she spoke to 32 “different-origin” couples and 10 “shared-origin” couples; of the cross-class couples, there were 15 in which the woman had “married up”, and in 17 it was the man who had done so. All were questioned in the light of the insights that Streib had taken from a long tradition of social theory about the making and the living of social class, and it is particularly good to see the remarkable work of Mirra Komarovsky (notably her classic 1962 study Blue Collar Marriage) being brought to the attention of to a new generation of readers.

Streib asked her subjects a range of questions on topics including work, childcare and money. Notably, she excluded questions about sex; this, in her view, would have made it difficult to attract willing volunteers for her study. While this may suggest that eager voyeurs of other people’s marriages will be disappointed, on the contrary, so pithy and informative are Streib’s brief descriptions of her cast of characters that we step immediately into a world where we find ourselves unable to resist speculating about what s/he sees in him/her.

We meet a range of people, many of whom would be well advised to avoid using Streib’s brief pen portraits of them for the purposes of internet dating. For example, Anita is “frumpily dressed”, Leah is a “deeply religious homemaker with a 1980s fashion sense”, John is a “short, bearded man who talked in clichés” and Jim is “reserved and sullen”.

This is rich material, and the stuff from which novels such as The Great Gatsby and films as diverse as Love Story, Goodbye, Columbus and Meet the Fokkers have emerged. But in reading Streib’s study, it is clear that these films only scratch the surface of the differences of class in the supposedly classless US. Among the many stories that stand out is that of Jason, who interpreted the invitation of his future father-in-law to a “night sail” as a proposal to do some nocturnal discount shopping.

Even more intriguing is the saga of middle-class Scott, “a short, curly-haired man who seemed comfortable in khakis and buttoned-down shirt”. Scott met his future wife, working-class Gina, through an online dating site, but at one point he broke off their relationship because he found her tastes in leisure pursuits incompatible with his: problematically, “she saw leisure as a time to relax, and preferred her local neighbourhood over international places, familiar white bread over exotic foods”. Newly single, Scott then found someone in New York City who seemed to be his cultural soulmate, only for this young woman to make it clear that she had no intention of abandoning either her career or Manhattan. So he returned home and married Gina after all. Despite energetic attempts to persuade his wife to adopt his tastes, a decade later Scott has now recognised that he will not change her.

The interpretation that Streib offers of this story is that class has determined these differences; it is a reading that might be seen as a somewhat determinist account of this marriage. But the characters involved, both of whom sound as though they are accommodating of the other (Gina is happy for Scott to go away on his own; Scott has realised that not everyone wants to travel to exotic destinations and methodically see everything in the guidebook), are also given space to exist outside the boundaries of sociological regulation and expectation. In this implicitly open-ended interpretation of her material, Streib allows us not only to be more than just observers of other people’s lives, but also to recognise that only those within a marriage can fully recognise how it works. Of course class matters, in marriage as much as in other aspects of social existence, but it does not necessarily always work in the way we might suppose.

This is all rather bad news for Murray and his acolytes. One of the findings of Streib’s study is that the thesis proposed by Murray and advocated by others – that the American dream can be protected only by bringing together the upper and lower classes – simply does not occur in marriage. Her findings suggest instead that, far from white-collar spouses converting their partners to the admirable ways of the privileged (or the reverse, in which the white-collar partner is ensnared by a net of blue-collar values), the pattern in the marriages she studied is much more often one in which the partners learn to accept and – with various degrees of grace or irritation – tolerate the values that their partners learned in the homes of their parents. As Streib says in the conclusion to this fascinating book, the power of the class of the past is very great indeed.

What we may conclude from this is that the US is not, after all, “coming apart”, and neither is anywhere else where fantasies about the “work-shy” and “scroungers” are fuelling various political projects aimed at the restoration of a mythical golden age. Rather, we might take from The Power of the Past two much more important possibilities. The first is that in response to the waning sense of security in middle-class expectations, class boundaries may be becoming increasingly blurred. The second is that – again, only perhaps – the US is becoming more tolerant of class differences and moving closer to its cherished ideal of being a classless society.

The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages

By Jessi Streib
Oxford University Press, 304pp, £64.00 and £16.99
ISBN 9780199364428 and 4435
Published 5 March 2015

The author

Jessi Streib, assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, shares a home with her “wonderful” partner Rob Garlick, also an academic at Duke. (“Although I wrote a book about cross-class marriages,” she adds, “he and I are from the same social class.”)

She recalls being a studious child who “in sixth grade used to make a plan each weekend for how to get my homework done. I was determined to do it well, which usually took about eight hours a weekend. I attribute my studiousness to my mom, who always made sure academics came first. My dad was a law professor, and always said that being a professor is the best job in the world.”

Her family lived first in Shaker Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where she says she “was certainly shaped by the stellar public schools. I was also shaped by the class diversity in Shaker Heights. When I was in kindergarten, I had a friend who lived with her large family in a one-room apartment and another friend who lived in a house with an elevator. I remember being shocked and fascinated by both.”

When she was 12, the family moved three hours away to Ada, Ohio, a small rural town. “It was initially a culture shock. I had never seen a tractor pull before, or eaten cheesy potatoes or sloppy joes. I had never met people who lived so close to so many of their relatives or who wanted to spend their entire life in one place. It took a while for me to understand a different style of living, but I came to love it.”

She adds: “I think moving helped me to become a sociologist, as I wanted to understand why people lived in such different ways, and growing up around people of different social classes made me interested in understanding how class relates to culture.”

However, Streib “did feel uncomfortable being one of the rich kids in town. At first I wanted to deny it, to say I was from a middle-class family. But I knew that if I said that, the implication would be that others were not middle class, since they had less than my family. So I bit my tongue.

“I didn’t realise it at the time, but I also benefited from being one of the ‘rich’ kids – one of the children of academics. Teachers treated me well, my social status related to class, and I was able to be involved in a lot of extracurricular activities because my family could afford it.

As an undergraduate, Streib was “studious, social, and idealistic. I loved my academic courses, and I spent more time on coursework than most people I knew. I was also a typical sociology major - outraged by injustices and wanting to change them but not knowing how. I also spent a lot of time hanging out with my friends.”

Streib took her first degree at Trinity College in Connecticut, a private “little Ivy” said to have the fourth-highest percentage of millionaire graduates in the nation.

“At the time I was there, Trinity was voted the college with the worst class relations in the United States,” she says. “I was not surprised by that. One of the reasons I became interested in studying class was because I felt so deeply and continually out of place at Trinity. After four years, I never felt that I belonged at Trinity, and I attributed that to feeling so different from the upper-class students who seemed to dominate the college. I always wondered whether, if I felt alienated by the [top] 1 per cent and my family was in the [top] 10 per cent, what did the students who came from poor and working-class families feel like?”

Streib has also conducted research that shows that children “reproduce class” at the age of four. In her paper “Class Reproduction by Four Year Olds”, she noted that not only do pre-schoolers from wealthy homes arrive at the preschool she studied with more confidence and greater linguistic resources than their peers from poorer backgrounds, their advantages were increased because they were given more attention, support and feedback by their teachers. What did she think of her findings?

“I was both surprised and depressed. I originally designed the study to understand how schools shape children into people who fit into a certain class. I walked into the preschool classroom at the beginning of the academic year and realised I could tell which four-year-olds were from which class just by watching them. I decided I had to change the study from understanding how the school shaped students into people of different classes to how it responded to class differences that already were apparent,” she says.

The differences in how the two groups of children were treated by their teachers were, she says, “depressing to watch. There’s an image etched in my mind of one of the working-class four-year-olds. She accidently hit her head on the corner of a table. The teachers didn’t see it, and so she went over to them, tears welled in her eyes, and stood in front of them with her hand on her head. She just wanted comfort, but they wouldn’t comfort her until she ‘used her words’ to tell them what happened. It struck me as symbolic of the ways that working-class children are hurt by not abiding by middle-class standards – of always needing to use your words.”

Of her research for this book, Streib says she was “surprised that the people I spoke to often had more in common with strangers who shared their class backgrounds than with their spouses with whom they shared their lives. Given their many differences from their spouse, I was also surprised by how happy so many of the marriages were.”

The undergraduate sociology students she teaches at Duke University “are mostly fascinated by class. We tend to start out by talking about it in terms of national trends and other people’s lives, so that helps them be less angry or withdrawn. Eventually we’ll talk about how class plays out on campus. They tend to be very aware of it. There’s some fascination about having elites among them, and, among the less elite students, some of the same alienation I felt at Trinity.”

What gives her hope?

“I’m generally pessimistic about social class inequality. Class inequality has been getting worse for decades, and it does not look like the trends will reverse anytime soon. If anything gives me hope, it’s what I learned from writing The Power of the Past. The people I spoke to often felt drawn to each other because of their class differences, and vowed to spend their life with someone from a different class. Their experiences suggest that people can work together across class lines to find solutions to common problems.”

Karen Shook

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