A basic sociological assumption is that human behavior is patterned, not random. Such patterns form social structures or stratifications that reflect the persistent and regularized social relations that the patterns facilitate. The social stratification made possible by these hierarchies affects life chances, resources at our disposal, and relations of inequality in the distribution of social resources and rewards. Hence, at its most basic, research on social class encompasses the study of how societies manifest hierarchies of prestige and power, and how these hierarchies in turn shape a social stratification system and the reception of goods according to the status assigned to positions in the system.
Much difficulty in explicating the concept of social class critically stems from the fact that in complex societies multiple criteria, not just economic factors, are used to identify the set of relations that determine not only what a class is, but the individual’s position in the social stratification system. For instance, wealth, prominence, ancestry, prestige, occupation, and level of influence are all possible elements in defining social class. What is more, some of these elements have several valences that might carry difference in the prestige and status granted. For example, although wealth is a primary determinant of social class in the United States, how such wealth is attained is key to locating an individual in the stratification system. The proliferation of class terms (criminal class, jobless class, underclass, working class, professional class, chattering class, and so on), speaks further of how the concept of class, albeit productive, has multiplied to the extent that critical imprecision has become a significant concern. Hence, reliance on class as explanatory concept requires careful attention to matters of definition.
From an early focus on only the persuasive effects of discourse, rhetoric scholars since the 1960s have taken up the call for a more robust critical practice that emphasizes rhetoric as a process and perspective humans undertake. This scholarship has sought to understand rhetoric as epistemic, as mediator of multiple “truths,” and as generative grammar for social critique. The insistence on the sociality and materiality of rhetoric, its implication with ideological discourses, and its formative or constitutive power has continued to facilitate the training of rhetorical lenses onto not just iconic texts but the social construction, negotiation, and performance of symbolic structures. Hence scholars of rhetoric have contributed to our understanding of how social structures are socially constructed phenomena, sustained and reproduced by ideological discursive practices.
Rhetorical scholarship has thus provoked deeper understanding of how social relationships are constructed and sustained by the ongoing discursive activity of people. Therefore, patterns of regularized relationships, concomitant notions of status and roles, and their implications are observable through the way people engage in particular discursive practices. However, simple observation reveals significant contestation over the definition, meaning, and impact of social class as marker of identity. Such indeterminacy is not necessarily a shortcoming from the vantage point of the study of rhetoric, as it effectively demonstrates the constructed, negotiated, and performed nature of our identities as discursive practices.
The central outlook to rhetorical engagement with the subject of social class has been a Marxist critical perspective. Marx’s treatment of class as a dynamic relationship tied to the overall set of productive processes and relations in society, his notion of class struggle, and the concomitant theory of social progress (especially Marx 1939–1941) have been the central animating impetus for a critical theory that took up the critique of the political economy in which texts, media, mass culture, and other cultural practices served as legitimating discourses for capitalist ideology.
Although Marx’s ideas about class conflict and economic determination have been criticized as essentialist, the notion that agon is central to the life of the polis has been given prominence by rhetorical and political theorists. With a critical eye toward such discourses, rhetoric scholars have explored how individuals are integrated into the framework of a social formation and the power of such discourses in shaping attitude, belief, and behavior.
A significant move has been the understanding of how the dominant class must constantly reinvent or rearticulate the set of relationships that assure it of social dominance. An implication of this insight is that the power relation between social classes is inherently unstable and a differential relation. In other words, it is not one element or another that points to class or power, but the relations between the complex of elements that are constitutive of class and social position. This particular struggle for reasserting dominance or hegemony takes place in various contexts, including education, politics, media systems, and others. Hence, the Marxian conflict or “battleground” is not merely about economic, but also cultural, relations. From this vantage point, sustaining a dominant status is a struggle to define and rearticulate the basis for dominance conceived not just economically but also culturally, and thus, symbolically.
Scholars of rhetoric have incorporated these insights into studies about just how such hegemonic struggles take place discursively through privileged representations and articulations that reinforce and reaffirm particular power relations. Highlighting a focus on the power of discourse to reconfigure real economic and material relations, and leveling a critique of idealist (or non-realist) positions that pay attention to the effects of discourse on the consciousness of individuals, some scholars have written on the material instrumentality of discourse to affirm hegemony. Others have commented wisely on the history of this ideological critique as it has emerged within the rhetorical tradition. A productive area continues to be how class permeates media content, and how it frames acceptance or promotes class abjection through popular representations.
Concerned with issues of representation, hegemony, intersectionality of social struggles, pluralism, and poststructural sensibilities against totalizing narratives of social structure, many rhetoricians have been in the vanguard of a critique reflective of widespread disenchantment with the essentialist and homogenizing tendencies of Marxist-inspired critical discourses. Such approaches have been instrumental in rendering a critique of power and the social formations it makes possible, as situated within an economy of discourses that “permeate, characterize and constitute the social body” (Foucault 1980, 93). Scholars in the field of rhetoric have responded fruitfully to these poststructural and postmodern approaches, devoting critical attention to anti-essentialist investigations of social positionality, gender, race, and ethnic identity, and to studies of new social movements as reflective of such concerns. Work on the mystification of power relations, vernacular rhetorics, counter-publics, and outlaw rhetoric has treated the centrality of discursive practices to the reproduction of class consciousness, social positionality, and the possibility of social change.
- Althusser, L. (1984). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses. In Essays on ideology (trans. B. Brewster). London: Verso, pp. 1–60.
- Aune, J. A. (1994). Rhetoric and Marxism. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Charland, M. (1987). Constitutive rhetoric: The case of the peuple Quebecois. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 73, 133–150.
- Cloud, D. L. (1994). The materiality of discourse as oxymoron: A challenge to critical rhetoric. Western Journal of Communication, 58, 141–163.
- Crowley, S. (1992). Reflections on an argument that won’t go away: Or, a turn of the ideological screw. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 78, 450–465.
- Foucault, M. (1980). Power/knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972–1977 (ed. C. Gordon). New York: Pantheon.
- Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the prison notebooks (trans. Q. Hoare & G. N. Smith). Newark, NJ: International.
- Greene, R. W. (1998). Another materialism. Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 15, 21–41.
- Hauser, G. A. (1999). Vernacular voices: The rhetoric of publics and public spheres. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
- Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy (trans. W. Moore & P. Cammack). London: Verso.
- Marx, K. (1939–1941). Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie. (Rohentwurf) 1857–1858. Anhang, 1850–1859. 2 vols. Moskow: Verlag für Fremdsprachige Literatur.
- McGee, M. C. (1982). A materialist’s conception of rhetoric. In R. E. McKerrow (ed.), Explorations in rhetoric. Glenview, IL: Scott, Foresman, pp. 23–48.
- McKerrow, R. E. (1989). Critical rhetoric: Theory and praxis. Communication Monographs, 56, 91– 111.
- Ono, K., & Sloop, J. (2002). Shifting borders: Rhetoric, immigration, and California’s proposition 187. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Wander, P. (1983). The ideological turn in modern criticism. Central States Speech Journal, 34, 1– 18.
- Wander, P. (ed.) (1993). Introduction, special issue: Ideology and communication. Western Journal of Communication, 57, 105–110.