The Language of Class

By Kevin Reuning (@KevinReuning)

In our newest blog on the meaning and measurement of the working class, we are going to dive into the specific words that individuals and groups used to describe what it means to be working class in America. What I find is that Republicans use a much wider understanding of working class, meaning anyone who works, while Democrats focus more on precarity. In addition those who face little precarity are more likely to use more traditional definitions of working class based on types of jobs and education.

In order to analyze text differences, I used the method proposed by Monroe, Colaresi and Quinn (2008) and implemented in the SpeedReader package available on github. Unlike many text analysis methods, they suggest a model based approach where the words used in the text are seen as the probabilistic result of different groups with different propensities to select words. From this framework it is possible to compare the probability of using different words by each group.  

As a refresher, we asked 1,282 Americans to describe what it means to be working class in America. Along with machine text analysis I also handed coded six non-exclusive categories: work in general; poverty/precarity; occupational characteristics; educational characteristics; pride; and disrespect. The full description of this process is here.

Looking first at partisan differences, there are a few ways that Democrats and Republicans differ in how they speak about working class. In the below plot I show both the frequency of word usage (across the x-axis) as well as the tendency of one group to use words more than another group (across the y-axis). Democrats tended to mention aspects of precarity, in particular that to be working class means to live paycheck to paycheck. Democrats were also more likely than Republicans to mention education levels.

In contrast Republicans made reference to work in general more often than Democrats. The words ‘day’ and ‘week’ were most often used in phrases such as ‘work every day’ or ‘work 40 years a week’. There are some references as well to ‘taxes’ which was often employed in reference to the working class paying taxes and receiving little.


The hand coded categories find similar results. 43% of Democratic responses mentioned precarity or poverty while only 29% of Republicans mentioned that. Although less common, Republicans were more likely (7% to 4%) to mention some aspect of pride in being a member of the working class. 5% of Democratic responses mentioned education levels while only 3% of Republicans did. In addition, Independents were also much more likely to mention aspects of disrespect.


In the previous post I argued that precarity is a good measure of working class and developed a scale to identify who was precarious. Here, we see the difference in word usage between those who are the most precarious (the top third) and those who are the least precious (bottom third).  Those who are least precarious discuss a more traditional understanding of working class. They are more likely to reference words like ‘blue’, ‘collar, ‘service’ and ‘income’. This fits with the way working class is normally measured -- through education, income level, and sometimes particular occupations. In contrast, those who are economically precarious use words like ‘poor’, ‘try’, ‘make’, ‘end’. The last three often came up in phrases like ‘make ends meet’ or ‘trying to survive’.


Again the hand coding finds similar patterns. Those who were most precarious mentioned issued of precarity in about 41% of responses while those who were the least precarious only mentioned it in 31% of responses. The relationship flips for occupation characteristics. Interestingly, the most precarious were actually the least likely to mention pride in their definition of working class.

_class_cats_prec (1).png

Language is embedded with our experiences and identities. The way Republicans discuss working class reflects their views of both the importance of the working while also using such a wide definition that it allows them to be working class simply because they work. In contrast, Democrats focus on a much narrower view of working class. Although many Americans view working class as precarity, this is especially true for Democrats.

In addition, given these results it is perhaps not surprising that our understanding of working class is so static. The people who most often articulate the working class in public debate face little economic precarity themselves. Compared to most Americans, the definitions they use will focus much more on credentialing and blue collar work than on the need to work to survive.

Kevin Reuning (@KevinReuning) is an assistant professor of political science at Miami University.

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