Class Privilege: Definition & Examples

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about class privilege, or the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways that access to important resources is determined by our social class position.

What Is Class Privilege?

When you go to the grocery store do you have to carefully add up how much each item costs, to make sure you aren't over your budget? Or, can you throw anything you like into your cart without worrying too much about what things costs? This is an example of what sociologists call class privilege, or the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways that particular groups in our society have advantages based on our access to economic resources.

Class privilege affords us important resources, like income and wealth.

Privilege is related to our social class. Sociologists define social class as our overall standing in society based on things like income, occupation, and education level. Class privilege really revolves around our access to resources like money.

People within different social classes share a number of characteristics, generally speaking. Namely, they tend to have similar levels of education, similar types of occupations, and similar levels of access to things like health care. Simply put, money provides us with the opportunity for things like better housing and schooling. Class privilege allows us to live in better neighborhoods, drive a nicer car, and afford medical care if we get sick or hurt.

Class privilege also says something about our group membership. For example, middle or upper class residents can lobby their local politician for more benefits without looking like they want a hand-out, as one tend to assume people from lower classes are doing.

Privilege is often taken for granted or invisible, meaning we have a hard time seeing it when we ourselves have it, and we have a hard time seeing when others don't have privilege.

Class Privilege in Everyday Life

So now that we have a working definition of class privilege, where might we see this happening in the real world? Let's take some examples to illustrate how class privilege works and how it impacts people's lives.

Mary is from an upper class family and attended an Ivy League school. She graduated from college and immediately secured a job at a high powered consulting firm. Mary makes excellent money and can afford to live in a great apartment and go out with her friends for dinner and drinks without worrying too much about the cost of things.

Martin is from a lower class family and had to defer going to college in order to work as a janitor at a bar. He lives in an apartment he shares with his mother and grandmother, and they all chip in to pay the bills. Martin is trying to save up to go to college, so he cannot usually do things like meet his friends for dinner at a restaurant.

What is one of the first things you notice about these anecdotes? Likely that Mary and Martin have had extremely different opportunities throughout their lives. Mary's education allows her access to the kind of work that will maintain her upper class status and allow her to live comfortably.

It's also likely that, because of Mary's membership in the upper class, going to college was expected of her. Martin's family, on the other hand, probably did not have the resources to assume that all children will go to college.

We might talk about a family as a system of privilege that confers different advantages on Mary and Martin. Privilege can be earned and unearned. For example, Mary was born into an upper class and has a number of advantages right from birth that she did not necessarily earn. Martin will have to work much harder to earn advantages throughout his life.

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