Building Reality: The Social Construction of Knowledge
Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb
The Hidden Injuries of Class
Even if a
poor person has a home to live in and is healthy and eating enough, the consequences of
poverty can still be psychologically damaging. In a society that measures individual worth
in terms of occupational achievement and accumulated wealth, feelings of self-worth tend
to be based on one's ability to amass and consume material goods.
economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen, the wealthy do not acquire wealth in order to
consume goods conspicuously; rather, they consume goods in order to display their
accumulation of wealth to others.1 Poor and
working-class people are unable to indicate their social worth to others because by and
large they have no goods to display.
this idea, in the early 1970s sociologists Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb interviewed
working-class men to examine the lives and conflicts of people near the bottom of the
occupational scale.2 These men were employed and not
were sufficiently insecure economically to have the sorts of identity conflicts
experienced by many poor people. One garbage collector, for instance, clearly defined his
failures as the result of his own inadequacies:
Look, I know it's nobody's
fault but mine that I got stuck here where I am, I mean . . . if I wasn't such a dumb - -
- - ˇno, it ain't that neither . . . if I'd applied myself, I know I got it in me to be
different, can't say anyone did it to me.3
To survive in
this world of perceived failure and self-blame, working-class people must somehow restore
dignity and value to their lives. They begin to see their work as meaningless and
irrelevant to their core identity and self-worth. Instead, they define their work as a
sacrifice they make for their families. A bricklayer put it simply: "My job is to
work for my family."4
focusing on the dreariness of their dead-end jobs or the insignificance of the work they
do, working-class men come to view their work self-righteously as a noble act of
sacrifice. Defining a job as sacrifice solves the problem of powerlessness in a couple of
return for their sacrifice, working-class men can demand a position of power within their
own families: "In exchange for my sacrifice, you will obey and respect me."
framing degrading work as sacrifice allows these men to slip the bonds of the present and
orient their lives toward a better future, which gives them a sense of control they can't
get through their jobs.
however, framing work as sacrifice causes some hidden injuries within working-class
families. On the one hand, the parents want to spend time with the children and show
concern for them. On the other hand, they know that the only way they can provide a
"good home" for their family, which, in turn, will give their own lives greater
meaning, is to work longer hours at an unfulfilling job and be absent from home more
from the perspective of the child, parental absence is precisely what constitutes a
it is more difficult for working-class parents to sacrifice "successfully."
Upper-class parents make sacrifices so that their children will have a life like theirs.
Working-class parents sacrifice so that their children will not have a life like theirs.
Their lives are not a "model" but a "warning."
The danger of
this type of sacrifice is that if the children do fulfill the parents' wishes and rise
above their family's quality of life, the parents may become an embarrassment to their
experience of class thus goes well beyond financial stability or instability. People who
struggle to make ends meet are caught in a vicious trap. Their work offers no glory or
prideˇas culturally definedˇunless framed as future- and family-oriented sacrifice. But
by making such sacrifices, other painful wounds are opened upˇincluding resentment,
hostility, and shame.
1Veblen, T. 1953. The theory of the leisure
class: An economic study of institutions. New York: Mentor. (Original work published
2Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. 1972. The
hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Books.
3Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. 1972. The
hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Books. p. 96.
4Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. 1972. The
hidden injuries of class. New York: Vintage Books. p. 135.
David Newman and Rebecca Smith.
(Created September 14, 1999). Copyright Pine Forge Press.