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Global Affairs Blog

Culture Series: Class and Culture

By: Austin Gassen, JD ’19

I want to begin by making one comments about “culture”. Most of my colleagues have highlighted elements of culture in the “macro” sense of the word, for example culture that can be ascribed to most if not all within a country. I wanted to point out that I won’t be referring to culture in the same sense. More so than anything, I think culture can, and is more specific than that. Someone’s Culture, to me, can only be understood by understanding its parts, and that’s not to say the food they eat or the music they listen to, though those are all important.

To me, culture is broken down, or perhaps better said, divided into, subcultures. Just taking myself as an example, in any given day it’s a contest between my Italian culture that comes from my grandparents who immigrated, my culture that comes from me growing up in the Midwest, and the culture I have kind of appropriated by joining the law school. The sum, or intersection, depending on how you want to think about it, of these cultures, or sub cultures, or identities, or whatever you want to call them, is going to give you my “culture”.

I want to spend the rest of my time setting up something for us to talk about later, and that is this: does class affect your access to culture, and does your culture change how you look at class? I guess the best perspective I can give on that front, is speaking a bit about where I come. In some respect, I think it’s fair to say class affects your view of culture, and I think culture affects how you perceive class.

How does class affect ones’ perspective of culture? Coming from my town in Missouri, 1% of my graduating class went to college. Of that one percent, 3 finished. Given that high school education is the peak for most within my town, you’d hope that it was at least a quality education. In that case, you’d be wrong. Furthermore, In high school, of the people I grew up with have never left the state of Missouri, and outside of the personal issues of their neighbor, most people truly have no idea about the issues facing the world today. It is truly a different world from what I think many of experience on the daily. The lack of education, money, and frankly exposure, definitely limits, or at least shapes, what they perceive as “culture” in the United States. I think that poses and interesting challenge for those who have never lived in those environments because frankly there is going to be a very large difference between the perceived culture of the United States. I think that’s something the recent elections have taught us that we can’t sit back and think that there is “one America” because before and especially now, we have to realize that there are different cultures in different areas of the United States that are created by their daily lived experiences and lack of exposure to different perspectives.

How does culture affect one’s opinion on class? One might think that there is one universal definition of “class” in the United States, but from my experience, that simply isn’t true. Growing up, to us the epitome of high class was living in the Plaza of Kansas City and going to really nice restaurants like the Cheesecake factory. Having a nice house was an indication of high class. It frankly wasn’t until coming to Penn that my conceptualization of “class” really changed. My “culture” saw class differently. Now, people look at the cheesecake factory as quaint, my friends currently pay rent higher than most of that in Kansas City’s plaza, and I’ve actually heard people comparing beach houses.

Overall, given these experiences, when we are talking about culture and class, we have to look at them as connected concepts, with our status in one affecting how we see the other.