While one’s class position can cause identity issues, it is also the case that the great promise of democracy and meritocracy, of the capacity to mobilise between classes and maintain an upward trajectory, creates its own set of identity problems. The move from the working class to the middle class is for many working-class families something to be proud of, a sign of status and achievement. And yet it leaves the mobilised with a sense of loss, a sense of bereavement, even survivor guilt. The movement between classes is, following Goffman, a form of spoiled identity and that is why it is interesting – it sheds light on the ways in which classes protect and police their boundaries. Economically middle class but culturally working-class – those who make the shift find it hard to shake off their class habitus. There is also evidence that indicates education and vocation aren’t always enough to enter the cliques of middle class life.
This is illustrated in Alfred Lubrano’s book Limbo: Blue-collar roots, White collar dreams – (2004) and he recounts his own shift in classhood. He developed a limbo identity, neither one of the other, an identity which straddled the divide between classes. ‘Be careful what you ask for’ could be the sub-title of the book, such is the strength of this perspective in Lubrano’s account. It is a useful illustration of how class identity is multifaceted, and provides insights into a world of ambivalence, where those in limbo never quite fit in. He calls it the never-ending struggle with identity, a struggle supported by other studies of mobility. This conflict over identity has real consequences for a sense of belonging – ‘straddlers’ as Zubrano calls them, find it hard to feel comfort in one environment:
For the fish-out-of–water set, flopping on the gleaming floor of the middle class gets exhausting. That’s why formal reunions are important for Straddlers – they serve as refreshing dives back into familiar waters. The Straddlers join up with the old crowd and become recharged with the legitimacy of their own backgrounds. Unfortunately the high only lasts a little while. And people who’ve travelled sometimes great distances to revisit their roots because of dissatisfaction with the white-collar life learnt that these all-blue weekends are not the ultimate answer. After the nostalgia clears like burned-off fog and the remember-whens are all carefully recited like verses of an epic poem, something will be seen or said that will remind the reminiscer of why he or she left in the first place. Then there will be a slow, sad dawning in the brain: ‘oh, now I remember. I’m the one who doesn’t really belong anywhere’ (Zubrano, 2004: 204).
Lubrano is particularly good at highlighting the familial context from which one experiences the pain of transition. Straddlers have to ‘fight for light’ to escape the clutches of what he calls ‘black hole families’, families that equate to ‘dense dark stars whose gravitational pull is so great that no light can escape (p. 34). He also provides an excellent account of limbo land as experience in higher education and in work. One of the academics he talks to in his study, Janet Zandy, refers to Du Bois’ notion of ‘two-ness’ and applies it to class:
If you are born into the working class, and you’re willing to change your speech and appearance, and deny the culture of your working-class background, then you could pass as a member of the dominant culture. But you will never belong there (Lubrano, 2004: 194).
Based on his research, Lubrano concludes that for Straddlers (p. 225), life’s ultimate goal is ‘reconciliation: finding peace with the past and present, blue collar and white, old family ways and the new middle-class life’. But his evidence also strongly illustrates just how difficult, even impossible, such a reconciliation is, which shows how significant both identity and class are in people’s lives, as well as a need to belong. He is wise however to point that limbo land ‘does not have to be debilitating’ (2004: 225). Some of his straddlers thought their success came around because and not despite being born working class. This is an important caveat as so much of the discussion around identity and mobility tends toward negative talk of loss and bereavement, imposter syndrome and even survivor guilt. These are the kinds of issues raised in Ryan and Sackrey’s book (1995) Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class, alongside internalised class conflict and the ‘dual estrangement’ experience also found in Lubrano’s account. See also Hurst’s account of the experiences of working class students in a US public university (2010). She details what she calls the burdens of academic success and how these impact on the management of working-class identities in university life.
Hurst, A. (2010). The Burden of Academic Success: Managing Working-Class Identities in College. Lexington Books.
Lubrano, A. (2004). Limbo: Blue-collar roots, White collar dreams. San Francisco: Wiley.
Ryan. J. & Sackrey, C. (1995). Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class. University press of America.