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History of Classism

Instructor: Mara Sobotka

Mara holds an MA in Comparative Religion, and she teaches writing, religious studies and the Hebrew language.

There is no way to cover the entirety of what classism means in a short article, but this article will give you a brief introduction to the history of classism, and how it interacts with other kinds of prejudice and oppression.

Brief Introduction to Classism

You may be aware of a lot of words ending in '-ism' and '-phobia' that we use to talk about how different groups of people can be treated wrongly or unequally because of a group they belong to, or are thought to belong to. While certain forms of inequitable treatment, such as racism and sexism, are becoming easier for us to spot when they happen, there are other forms which are not as easy to see. One of these forms is classism, which is unequal treatment based on a person's social class. Social class is a label that tells us how much economic power or wealth a person has, and those with less wealth are the ones who are affected most by classism. Higher classes often do not experience adversity because of classism.

Historical Factors

Did you know that a person's social class is not only determined by how much money they make? There are, and have been, many other factors that determine how cultures create narratives based on class. The earliest forms of social class can be traced back to the dawn of written history. No matter which society we're talking about, social class was usually determined by one thing: nobility. Being of noble birth meant that a person was either royalty, or part of another social class with economic or social power.

Tablets from the Indus excavation site

For example: in ancient societies located in the region we now know as India, Nepal, and Pakistan, a person's nobility was determined which caste they were born into. Indian caste was determined by a lot of things, but the most basic way to look at it can be found in the trades and professions people practiced. The priests and holy people sat at the top of the caste system, while the servant class was at the bottom. Similarly, in European cultures, nobility was also a matter of birth. If you were related to royalty, had power in government, or could make significant financial gifts to other nobles or the church, you could be considered nobility. The potential that a person has to change their social class is called social mobility. Another way to change your social class was through marriage. It was, however, very rare for poor peasants to achieve such a high degree of social mobility.

Social Class in the Industrial Revolution

When the Industrial Revolution began in the late 18th century, social class and social mobility started to mean something different. One of the factors in this change was literacy. Thanks to the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, learning how to read was no longer just for priests. Ordinary people now had wider access to books, and the ability to read and write soon became widespread, particularly among wealthy classes. Education soon followed, with the establishment of schools for children. Education of the general population began to a lesser extent (in the West) in the earlier Renaissance (14th-17th centuries) and Enlightenment (18th century) eras, but the Industrial Revolution was when education became more of a means to train people for professions and trades than for creating educated citizens.

Classism in Modernity

The Industrial Revolution is, arguably, the point where social class became far less defined by a person's family lineage (nobility), and more so by a person's accumulated wealth. This made social mobility easier for some people, but just as difficult, if not more so, for people born into marginalized groups. You may be more familiar with this term 'minority groups,' which is very similar. Marginalized groups include racial and religious minorities, as well as LGBTQIA+ people. This interaction between economic power and other things like race, gender, religion, etc., is called intersectionality, and this is one of the things at the forefront of conversations about classism today. Today, it's thought that it's difficult to thoroughly understand how class works without discussing race, nationality, gender, and many other factors, at least in a multicultural society like the United States.

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