A Report on Our Widening Range of Choice

Educated Americans are eager customers for national self-analysis, especially for studies which compare the present unfavorably to the past. They Hock to writers like Vance Packard, who see America in the throes of a decline in individualism, thrift, culture and other long-prized virtues.

One of the favorite topics of the decline-and-fall school of social analysis is the homogenization of American life. Once upon a time, the story goes, America was rich in its variety; but today it is a society of middle-class conformists: men and women are increasingly less distinguishable puppets who do the bidding of Hollywood, Madison Avenue—and their children.There is some truth to this image; some of the past founts of diversity are drying up, notably regional economies and ethnic subcultures. But there are other diversifying influences, some of equally long standing, and of these the most significant is class. Whatever the pros and cons of economic and social stratification, class differences today provide the single most important source of diversity in American life.Before the advent of mass production, ways of living and making a living in America were closely tied to the natural resources and to the geographical characteristics of the environment. Moreover, communication and trade were limited by natural barriers, and by the lack of transportation facilities. As a result, variations in the country's geography created a set of relatively isolated regions, each with a distinctive economy and social structure. These regions produced what either the land or its tenants could grow best, what could be manufactured from resources within the earth, and what could be marketed. In the first century of American life, the regions were almost self-sufficient; later they specialized in contributing distinctive products to the national economy. Textiles and hard goods came from the East; grain and iron from the Midwest; cattle from the Far West, and cotton from the South.

But modern industrialization obliterated the historical tie between geography and economy; modern forms of transportation eliminated the boundaries between regions; and mass production did away with much regional product specialization and with differences in methods. The assembly line moves without respect for regional differences in craftsmanship, and even industrialized farming is much the same whether the crop is lettuce or cotton. Service occupations, which today employ more people than farming or manufacturing, require no raw materials. They are not subject to regional variation.

Today, then, regions are simply sectors of a national economy, and the regional economic differences that remain are due primarily to differences in rates of growth or decline. The Far West differs from the Northeast more because of the speed of its recent economic development than because of its products. Only areas like Texas, and the Minnesota or Western mining regions remain somewhat distinctive because of the raw materials they contribute to the economy.

The social systems and ways of life which were nurtured by the regional economies - and by the isolation of regions from each other are also disappearing, though at a less rapid rate. A New England merchant and manufacturing aristocracy is still with us, but its economic and political power — and its prestige—are much reduced. The family farm continues to symbolize the Midwest, but it loses most of its young people to the cities. Even the Southern feudal system, which has outlived most of its regional peers, is now definitely on the way out. Differences in geography and climate continue to affect the tempo of life, the remainders of old traditions persist in everyday routines, and small towns still hesitate for many years before they admit newcomers to the inner social circle. But these are minor; the mobile employees of the large corporations need no cultural retraining when they are transferred from one region to another.

The decline of regionalism was already under way when the great European immigration of the late 19th Century began. The ethnic cultures of Catholic peasants and Jewish artisans and shopkeepers introduced a new and highly visible diversity to American life, and transformed the cities overnight. But these cultures began to disappear almost immediately; their languages, ethnic organizations, newspapers and lasted barely into the second generation.

American versions of these institutions took their place, especially among the Jews, and less visible social arrangements (such as the clan-like extended family system of the Eastern and Southern European migrants) have survived in attenuated form. The Southern Negroes and Puerto Ricans who replaced the immigrants added little new ethnic diversity. The plantations from which they came had permitted them only minimal ways of life, and these fall by the wayside even more quickly than peasant traditions.

What I wish to emphasize is that the visible diversity of regional economies and ethnic groups overshadowed the class differences that resulted from different incomes, occupations and educational opportunities, and that class differences were usually greater than those based on regional factors. Indeed, equally placed classes lived in much the same way everywhere.

Thus, the families of Southern plantation owners and New England merchants had little in common with their own employees, but much in common with each other: wives devoted to charitable activities and conspicuous consumption; sons trained to continue the family enterprise or to enter the law, the ministry or the services; and daughters taught to choose husbands who would maintain the family status, and possibly aid its business fortunes. Likewise, farm families in one region differed little from those in others. The poorest lived a marginal existence that often did not permit family life. This was true on Western ranches, in the New England textile mills and the plantations; and later, in the mines, the stockyards and on the railroad gangs as well.

Class had much the same effect among ethnic groups. Working-class Poles, Italians and Irish lived in much the same way—and in the same tenements—even though they spoke different languages and ate different foods. They had more in common with each other than with their kind who had become middle class; as in the case of the lace-curtain and shanty Irish.

The role of class is most clearly illustrated by the considerable difference between the Jews and others who came to America at the same time. As Nathan Glazer has shown, the Jews have been an urban middle-class people for several centuries, and even though the immigrants worked in sweatshops or small retail stores, they sent their children to college and into the professions. Meanwhile, the children of the peasant immigrants were expected to leave school as early as possible an order to contribute to the family income.

The diversifying function of class has not changed significantly in our era. The class system has virtually become uniform the nation over, and changes have taken place in the nature of the classes. In the 19th Century, and until the Great Depression, occupation and income were the two most important determinants of class position, and of the ways of life associated with each class.

The traditional division of American society into lower, middle and upper classes reflected the differences between blue collar, white collar and managerial or professional occupations and incomes. Today, these divisions have less meaning. The skilled worker is able to live like a white collar one, at least in good times. The differences between white collar and professional work have been blurred by the professionalization - real or spurious - of many occupations, and the demand for professionals and managers has been so great that it can no longer be filled from the upper class alone.

Ever-growing specialization has increased the significance of education - or at least of the diploma and the degree - as a prerequisite for employment and as a mark of occupational status. Moreover, in a changing society, the habits and the wisdom which, one generation passes on to its offspring are often anachronistic. Other institutions, such as the school, attempt to provide more up-to-date solutions, and thus become more influential in shaping work, play, family life and community participation. Today and in the future, the amount and type of education obtained by parents, and aspired to for their children will increasingly distinguish the classes from each other—assuming of course that the economic opportunity to achieve the aspirations is available. Education will probably be—after income—the most important source of diversity.

Education and Variety

When we come to family life, education is likely to play an especially significant role. In an agrarian society, the family is usually the basic economic unit. Its members all have specific duties, which help to assure the family's survival and also hold it together as a social unit. But in an industrial society, the family is no longer an economic unit; either the man supports it alone, or family members work wherever they can find employment. Consequently, if the family is to be a meaningful social unit, other joint activities—aside from the universal sexual, procreative and child-rearing ones—take the place of economic ones. A review of present family life will illustrate how education provides a basis for joint activities, and for diversity.

When education is minimal, as in the working class, joint activities are absent. Husband, wife and children live under the same roof, and although love and affection are exchanged, there is little close communication in the cultural or intellectual sense. The few years of elementary school education have had little effect on the peasant tradition, which trained family members to associate with their own peers but made them unable to communicate effectively across age and sex barriers. If there is a family circle, it is segregated sexually and chronologically; the men spend their non-work hours with male relatives; the women with female ones. When there is no family circle, the men congregate at clubs and taverns; the women, at the neighbors. The absence of close communication between the sexes extends even to the most intimate relationships; working class sexual life is often a case of the husband taking his pleasure without knowing or caring to know the wife’s wishes and feelings—and these are frequently based on disinterest or resignation.

Parent-child relationships are marked by a similar communication gap. The working-class family is adult-centered; that is, family life revolves around the adults’ preferences. Activities which benefit only the children are rare, and there is little of the self-conscious deliberate child-rearing that is so important in the middle class. Children are expected to act like miniature adults at home, and as a result, they spend most of their time away from home. Only on the street and in their clubs can they really behave like children.

The school was traditionally expected to draw children away from working-class culture, but it often failed to do so because the child was not encouraged to learn at home. Today, the decline in unskilled work has dispelled the parental lack of interest in education, and an ever larger proportion of working-class families now urge their children to finish high school. However, the parents’ inability to communicate with their children, and the failure of the schools to cope with their working-class students maintain the drop-out rate at levels higher than justified by economic conditions. In the Negro community, the situation is complicated by financial need, and the lack of family communication is compounded by the widespread existence of households without husbands.

Middle-class family structure is quite different. The larger family circle is either totally absent or limited to occasional Sunday afternoon get-togethers. As a result, husband, wife and children are more dependent on each other for affection and companionship.

In the lower middle class of the present generation, husband and wife are likely to have gone through high school, perhaps even to the same one. This shared background helps them to with each other, and creates some common interests, although much spare time is still spent with peers of the same sex. The most easily shared interest is the children, and the parents communicate best with each other through joint child-rearing. This family is clearly child-centered. Parents play with their children—which is rare in the working class - rear them with some degree of self-consciousness, and give up many of their adult pleasures for them. Family size is strongly influenced by educational aspirations. If the parents are satisfied with their own occupational and social status, and feel no great urgency to send their children to college, they may have as many children as possible, for each one adds to their shared pleasures, and to family unity—at least while the children are young. Parents who dream of college think primarily of sending the boys. Even so, the home life, and the companions to which they expose their offspring do not always create the motivation or the intellectual ability for further education.

College-Trained Parents

Among college-educated parents who are usually found in the middle and upper middle class, education and educational aspirations shape family life. (This is creating a gap between the college-educated population and the rest of society which replaces the earlier gap between blue and white collar workers.) Higher education adds immeasurably to the number of common interests, including activities other than childrearing. Consequently, these parents are not as child-centered as lower middle class ones. Family life is adult-directed; child-rearing gives more priority to what the parents think is desirable than to what the children themselves want. Educated parents devote much time and effort to assuring their children's education. They limit the size of their families for this purpose; they choose their place of residence more by the quality of the local school system than other people; they ride herd on the school authorities to meet their standards; and of course they exert considerable pressure on their children to do well in school.

I have, of course, oversimplified and overemphasized the independent role of education as a lever of social change, and I have neglected the potent influence of other sources of diversity. Income remains the single most important factor, for lack of money discourages not only the achievement of aspirations, but also the incentive to seek aspirations, and the perseverance to pursue them. Regional variations in economic vitality affect the amount of opportunity for educational and occupational mobility, especially for people outside the middle class. Minor and sometimes subtle differences in family relationships and child-rearing methods still exist among ethnic groups, regional subcultures and between people from urban and small town or farm backgrounds. Moreover, the increasing amount of intermarriage between ethnic and religious groups, and between mobile people from different regions—coupled with the increasing ability of family members to communicate with each other, and to develop new joint aspirations—is likely to result in important, though poorly visible, kinds of diversities in family life.

Yet the impact of education makes itself felt throughout American society. For example, since most people no longer live in the neighborhoods in which they work, class distinctions in the residential community are based increasingly on educational differences, as well as on consumer behavior patterns, taste and leisure activity preferences which follow in their wake.

Community life itself is increasingly structured by educational differences, especially in the suburbs. Social and cultural organizations frequently recruit on the basis of educational background—although not openly or even intentionally so - and by whether the members want to continue to improve themselves or not. Neighborhood conflicts over child discipline and community deliberations about juvenile delinquency and teenage recreation programs continually reflect class differences of opinion about how children should be reared, and how much adult standards and adult supervision should guide their lives. The diversity of educational aspirations appears most clearly in bitterly fought tax battles, which usually pit parents who want a school system that will prepare their children for college against neighbors who want or need to give lower priority to educational expenditures.

This diversifying role of education is likely to become more significant. Already, sociological studies show that education is becoming the most important variable—aside from income—in explaining differences in behavior, attitudes and taste. Art theaters, off-Broadway, summer stock, foreign travel, the mass marketing of contemporary design, etc., are a direct result of the new tastes spawned by rising college enrollment. As college attendance becomes a median rather than a minority statistic, diversity will be measured not by amount of education, but by the type of college one attended. There are many kinds of colleges and universities, each of which prepares its students somewhat differently for work, family life, leisure and community participation, if not in the classroom then in dormitories and extra-curricular activities. The extent to which this variety persists—and hopefully, multiplies—is likely to determine the amount of diversity in the middle class of the future.

Are We Becoming Homogenized?

Given the existence of these diversities in the family—and in other sectors of American life as well – why do we hear so much about the danger of everybody's becoming alike—of homogenization? I think there are three reasons. First, diversity is usually measured by the amount of regionalism and ethnicity, and their decline can easily lead to the impression that all diversity is therefore on the wane. Moreover, class was for a long time an uncomfortable topic, and the relationship between class differences and diversity has not been explored sufficiently.

Finally, the frame of reference used in evaluating recent social change results in a narrow perspective. Those who fear homogenization look at society from the point of view of culture. They study America as they do works of art; they evaluate it by how and what it contributes to a cultural record called civilization.

 This perspective may be compared to that of a tourist. The tourist is on vacation; he seeks variety and esthetic pleasure in the physical and human landscape, but he is little concerned with the functioning or the everyday problems of the society he is visiting. Nor does he participate in that society, except with the detachment of the visitor. Consequently, the slum that is odoriferous at home may become exotic abroad, and backward agricultural practices are seen as culturally valuable expressions of tradition and the simple life. But one does not need to go abroad to adopt this perspective. The upper-class observer in America—and many of our critics and observers have come from, or adopted this class - often expects America itself to provide him with ways of life which are varied, esthetically satisfying and culturally different from his own.

By such criteria, the ethnic and regional subcultures were highly desirable. When New England villages are overwhelmed by suburban subdivisions, and Italian or Jewish street markets are replaced by chain-store shopping centers, the landscape is undoubtedly denuded, and no one feels it more than the detached observer.

But the cultural perspective gives only half the picture. Society is not only a landscape, and it cannot be judged on esthetic grounds alone. Social change must also be seen from the point of view of people; especially those people whose lives and aspirations are the raw material of that change.

From this perspective, the patterns of family life I have been describing do not represent a decline in diversity, but just the opposite. For the ancestors of the present middle classes and the upper level of the working class, neither regionalism nor ethnicity were an unmixed blessing. The former often meant an involuntary adaptation to conditions over which people had no control; the latter, a set of traditional ways which were frequently inappropriate for the economic and social situations with which they had to deal in America. Many—and perhaps even the majority—of the people who are now at or just below the median in income, occupational status and education have been liberated economically, culturally and politically by the social changes that accompanied modern industrialization and led to the decline of regional and ethnic differences. Their present situation is hardly perfect, but it represents a vast improvement over the past.

To paraphrase Nelson Foote, much of the declining diversity was based on tradition and on constraint; much of the present diversity is a result of the enlargement of choice. (Nelson Foote, Janet Abu-Lughod, Mary Foley and Louis Winnick, Housing Choices and Constraints, McGraw-Hill, 1960.) Americans of all classes—except perhaps the upper class—have more opportunity than their ancestors to make choices, in family life and in most other areas. The woman who bore nine children a generation or two ago rarely did so by choice. Having children was her traditional role, even though it meant exhaustion, ill health and probably a short life-span. Moreover, the nature of her marital relationship was such that she had little say in the matter. The woman who bears children today is able to choose, and because of her equal status, and her ability to communicate with her husband, she can plan the size of the family with him.

The Wider Range of Choice

From a cultural perspective, the choices which result are often similar. It is therefore easy to jump to the conclusion that these are being made by people motivated by conformity, even though in actual fact the choices represent fairly thoughtful compromises between aspirations and opportunities. Young middleclass couples today choose to have two to three children if they want them to have a college education; three or four if they place more value on their pleasures in child-rearing, and less on education. Consequently, the over-all statistics show that Americans as a whole generally have two to four children, and that few have the large families common in the past. But the dissatisfaction of the observer who yearns for a wider range of family size is surely matched, and overridden, by the increased satisfaction of those who now have some control over their destiny. Choices that are wise for individuals do not always serve the public interest. Nor does choice-making eliminate problems; greater awareness of alternatives may even increase them for some people. But the fact that the proportion of bachelors and spinsters is declining sharply suggests that American family life is more attractive now than it was in the past.

I can illustrate the change in type of diversity by another example. The extension of equality to women has been viewed by some as the incipient homogenization of the sexes. From the cultural perspective, the greater equality of the marriage partners may appear as sameness, but there is no evidence that men are becoming socially or physiologically more effeminate; or women, more masculine. Indeed, the opposite is true; women who want careers no longer need to have masculine drives in order to succeed. Although middleclass husbands who wash dishes and diapers to help their wives may reduce some of the cultural diversity between the sexes that prevailed when women were second-class citizens, new kinds of diversity are created because women are now able to choose from a wider range of activities.

The old diversity encouraged cultural variety; the new diversity enhances individual difference.

There is a fourth reason for the fear of homogenization, which reflects anxieties over the future of high culture. The new way of life in America rests on a mass base, and its cultural forms express low- or middle-brow tastes. These cultural forms have grown rapidly in the last 30 years, because the lower middle and working-class population has achieved the wherewithal to express its preferences for cultural goods and ideas on a market place previously reserved for the upper middle and upper classes. Moreover, the growth of commercial and private popular culture has wiped out the ethnic and regional folk cultures for which high culture advocates have always had considerable affection. Since the new diversity is democratic, allowing the rank-and-file members of society to make choices at all taste-levels and—partly by sheer weight of numbers in the cultural market place—to question the prestige and power of high culture, it is seen by some as a threat to high culture.

There can be no doubt that the power and prestige of high culture has declined in the 20th Century, but decline is qualitatively different from disappearance, and the decline does not represent a threat to its existence. In fact, respect for high culture increases as educational levels rise, and imitation is a form of flattery, however discomforting its results. American society is open enough to provide room for all cultures, and wealthy enough to support them as well. The ideal solution is diversity at all levels of taste, and we shall not achieve it by mourning a past which cannot be brought back to life, or by deprecating the new kinds of diversity as homogeneity. I believe that Americans are seeking to expand their newly-found ability to make choices and that this expansion should be encouraged by all means possible. If wider opportunities for a truly liberal education can be made available, the ability to make choices is likely to improve, and this in turn promises to stimulate additional diversity, social as well as cultural, in the years to come.

Herbert J. Gans is a sociologist with the Institute for Urban Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

This article appeared in the April 4, 1961 issue of the magazine.