Listening to classes

Class differences in society have become visible and audible. The dismantling of the Finnish welfare state, changes in ownership relations, changes in work duties and the globalisation of labour markets have caused poverty to increase and society to become polarised in terms of education, cultural background and health. This has not been without political turmoil.

Adjunct Professor at the University of Turku, Anu-Hanna Anttila’s multidisciplinary research project entitled Voice and Silence of Class, or VoxClass, examines the power of class theories in trying to understand the societal changes of recent decades. The research project group consists of sociologists, literature and gender researchers and philosophers: in addition to Anttila, the members of the group are Harley Bergroth, Ralf Kauranen, Emma Lamberg, Lauri Lahikainen, Kati Launis, Katariina Mäkinen and Jussi Ojajärvi.

In the so-called new approach to class research, social classes are no longer discussed without taking cultural dimensions into account. The research of those who draw on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theories on class focuses perhaps too much on cultural capital, with less attention being accorded to economic and social capital. The problem with the class analysis of the older classics such as Karl Marx and Max Weber, which focuses on economic aspects, was that their connection to the important issues in daily life, such as education, social networks and voting behaviour, remained oversimplified. The ideas of all three theorists have been used as a basis for more modern approaches in which empirical statistical research features strongly. What is more, in the United Kingdom and Finland for example, there are even semi-serious online applications that help you determine your class allegiance.

The research work carried out by Anttila’s research group regarding Finland in the 21st century takes a different approach than the majority of class studies. The explanatory power of the class theories of the classics, especially Marx and Bourdieu, is reconsidered. By combining these classics with content from other theories, new theoretical perspectives that are not necessarily concordant are formed. All the researchers in the project are focusing on theory development and contributing to the theoretical proposal.

The name of the project, Voice and Silence of Class, describes the research configuration: it is a question of theoretical structuring, and deals with the way that classes are discussed and how class is manifested in daily life and produced in media representations, for example. “We understand class as an economic, cultural and social relationship and process,” says Anttila. The research approach is based on the tradition of qualitative cultural studies, but methods used in other disciplines are also included. Among the researchers in the project, literature researcher Kati Launis and sociologists Harley Bergroth and Anttila are focusing on autobiographical works on poverty, gender researcher Katariina Mäkinen is focusing on the immigration debate, philosopher Lauri Lahikainen on theoretical analysis, literature researcher Jussi Ojajärvi on class literature, and sociologist Ralf Kauranen on Jyrki Katainen’s speeches as prime minister. Bergroth and Emma Lamberg are students of sociology and are writing their master’s theses as a part of the VoxClass project.

Classes have not disappeared anywhere, but discussion about classes is muted, and also in many studies, class is drowned or hidden in other conceptual approaches. People live and create class and simultaneously personify other social categories which are determined on the basis of gender, age and race, for example. Anttila prefers to talk about the organisation of class rather than class structure. This means that models that describe social class hierarchy are not accepted as they are, but instead, one has to ask what values they reflect and what these class structure models fail to address. “We do not examine class independent of gender, for example, as class organisation is connected to gender organisation.” Anttila takes her own research, the subject of which is the buying and selling of housework chores, as an example: analysing adverts and job notices reveals primarily a class relationship, but also issues of gender, division of work by gender, and whiteness.

Anttila highlights the dramatic and concrete changes that have taken place in the position of industrial workers, for example, whose work has ended because of automation or globalisation. In traditional class structure models based on socioeconomic position and its hierarchical valuation, these people who have lost their jobs do not belong to any class, despite the fact that in their case, class or the lack of it seems especially significant. Neither do the models take into account the economic elite, who do not need to engage in paid work to make ends meet.

The research of Anttila’s VoxClass group transcends boundaries in social sciences and humanities research. For Anttila, working as a social scientist entails that the research has some social relevance. This is why she is interested in seeing what the forthcoming strategic research council will bring. This is government-funded research, and it aims to find solutions to society’s great challenges. “Our research can be used as a basis for political decision-making,” Anttila says. “It is important that we do not find ourselves in a situation in which decision-makers order a study only to decide on its outcome already in advance.”