Inside Story

Cross-class coupling

What can cross-class relationships tell us about Australia’s semi-visible inequalities?

Sara Dowse Books 13 June 2024 1349 words

“My father-in-law… never forgave his son for rising ‘above’ his class.” Paul Miller/AAP Image

How curious it is that my twenty-five-year-old grandson is leaving Australia for a prestigious position in New York just as I’m writing this review of Rose Butler and Eve Vincent’s Love Across Class. Some quick research tells me that it’s exceedingly hard to get a position like the one he’s heading to, but there’s no denying he is an outstanding worker with impressive qualifications. His move is what Butler and Vincent call global mobility, representative of his generation’s form of climbing the class scale.

Back in the day, changing class, or trying to, was simpler. People tended to stay where they were. If a young man on the make married the boss’s daughter, or the millionaire’s son drank himself into oblivion, this was the stuff of the novels and films I gorged on when I was young. In fact, I never gave much thought to class until, like my grandson, I moved to a different country.

In those days — I’m talking about the mid fifties, when I arrived from Los Angeles — Australia prided itself on being a relatively classless society. It was a myth, of course, then and now. Yet I saw class everywhere, largely because of the family I’d married into.

My husband, the only child of a publican and his wife, had gone to university after boarding at what is now one of the elite private secondary schools on Sydney’s North Shore. (The North Shore gets a fair few mentions in Love Across Class, but I’m jumping ahead of myself here.) My father-in-law, a resourceful businessman who was also a bookmaker, began making serious money building home units in Sydney’s postwar housing shortage. Yet he never forgave his son for rising “above” his class. In fact, my husband’s difficulties later in life had their origins in his inability to successfully cross the divide between his class background and that of his private school friends.

But what do we mean by class? In the 1970s (by which time I’d taken out Australian citizenship and borne four dinky-di Aussies) my idea of class was based chiefly on social-feminist theories “bequeathed by Marx,” as Butler and Vincent explain. They were “centred on employment, exploitation and class antagonism” and drew “a fundamental distinction between those who owned the means of production, such as factory owners, and those who owned only their capacity to labour, which they sold on the market.”

Feminism challenged this definition by raising the question of unpaid domestic labour. Butler, a sociologist, and Vincent, an anthropologist, are sensitive to the interaction of gender, race, sexuality and class, but their approach goes further, nodding to the non-economic factors the Marxists often airily dismissed (if acknowledged at all) as “superstructure.”

When Butler and Vincent put out a call for cross-class couples willing to be interviewed, twenty-four couples responded. The two authors recorded the class trajectories of their respondents and, more interesting still, embraced their subjective experiences, taking account of emotions and values once considered more germane to storytelling than to social science.

It is this engagement with the personal that makes their meticulous scholarly undertaking so captivating to a lay reader. Love Across Class is about people and their stories, couched in somewhat colloquial prose not usually found in academic texts. And whatever the authors’ theoretical scaffolding, or the conclusions they draw from their research, it’s the interviewees who are ever-present on the page.

“Sarah knew almost immediately that her partner hailed from a different class background to her own,” the book opens.

Born in country Victoria, Sarah had moved around a lot as a kid. Her parents were “pretty poor” and separated when she was young, with her mum holding a series of casual, low-paid jobs and receiving social security. Sarah spoke tenderly of her mum, describing her as someone who was “vulnerable” and “exploited” through her work. Her dad was also “pretty broke” but held steadier work in manufacturing.

The first in her family to go to university, Sarah works in legal aid; her partner Tim, a surgeon, came from a family of academics. (Some of the partners opted out of being interviewed, Tim being one.) Both are in their thirties and live in a mortgaged home purchased with their combined savings. At the time of her interview Sarah was able to say that she now “holds her own” as far as class is concerned but that her class background was “a real source of anxiety” in the early years of their dating.

Butler and Vincent’s approach is heavily influenced by French theorist Pierre Bourdieu, and particularly by his concept of “habitus,” which he defines as a “socially created system of ‘dispositions’ that shape our thinking, perceptions, expressions and behaviour.” Each individual carries these dispositions through life as forms of “capital.” There’s social capital (our connections), cultural capital (covering our material assets and life experiences) and symbolic capital, by which, through the favourable operation of the first two, a fortunate individual gains social status.

For Butler and Vincent, “Bourdieu’s multidimensional model of social class exposes the subtle and deeply obscured ways in which classed privileges and disadvantages from within the family and the childhood world are inherited, accumulated and passed on to others — sometimes by changing their form and character.” Through a close examination of what their class-crossed subjects say about themselves, they draw valuable insights into navigations peculiar to Australians.

An awful lot is packed into 180 pages, not counting the acknowledgements, end notes, bibliography and index. Even if we take up the suggestion that we consult the list at the back of the book when needed, the couples are not always easy to keep track of as they weave their way in and out of the text.

Aside from that, the text falls easily into three broad parts. The first deals with how the couples fell, and stayed, in love, and the friction and hurt they experienced in their relationships. Next come the parameters of their day-to-day living, and how different attitudes toward money — spending, saving and owning it — are negotiated. In the final section the authors deal with what they call “class in flux,” meaning historical and political changes and their impact on the participants, and go on to examine Australia’s starkly unequal secondary education system, where the effects of all those changes appear to coalesce.

After nearly half a century of ruthless neoliberal economic policies tempered with progress in areas of race, gender and sexuality, some Australians at least seem to be more willing to consider the matter of class. For a long time, we only heard the word when conservative politicians fired the “class envy” salvo at any attempt to redistribute income through the tax system.

But now, faced with a crippled medical system, crumbling infrastructure, stressed government schools, a frightening lack of affordable housing and totally inadequate support for the jobless, the concept of class — more often expressed as “growing inequality” — has begun to seep into the public lexicon again. It’s more nuanced than the Marxist-infused version of yesteryear, but a class analysis all the same.

Taking my cue from Butler and Vincent, as my twenty-five-year-old grandson boards his plane towards bright horizons I’ll attempt a brief outline of his Bourdieuan habitus, the complex cultural capital he takes with him in his baggage. The second child of a father who, like his own father, was sent to board in an elite private secondary school, my globally mobile grandson went instead to a nearby selective government school, working after school, on weekends and during holidays, until he enrolled in a commerce course at Sydney University and lived for a while in one of the campus colleges. There he established the friendships and connections that can help him get through life. And maybe, along the way, he’s picked up enough of his bolshie grandmother’s view of things to understand how very fortunate he’s been with his habitus. •

Love Across Class
By Rose Butler and Eve Vincent | Melbourne University Press | $35 | 226 pages