The effect of spouses
From a theoretical point of view, the concept of “mixed” subjective class identity can be traced back to research on women’s class status and identity by Western scholars. Historically, women’s labor force participation has been low in Western countries. Influenced by the traditional gender division of labor, classical social stratification studies have largely ignored women as a result. However, with the rise of the feminist movement in the West since the 1970s and the increase in women’s labor force participation, the question of women’s social class status attainment has become an important issue for social stratification theorists.
Goldthorpe, a pioneering neo-Weberian stratification scholar, published a theoretical article, “Women and Class Analysis” (Goldthorpe 1983), which emphasizes “family” as the basic unit of analysis in studying social stratification. In Goldthorpe’s view, the social status of a family is mainly determined by the status of the male head of the family (Goldthorpe 1983). In other words, women do not have an independent social class perception, and their husbands’ social status largely influences women’s perceptions of their social class identity.
Goldthorpe’s traditional view of women’s social status has been widely controversial (Baxter 1994), and while some studies have supported his view (Velsor and Beeghley 1979), many scholars, especially feminist scholars, have harshly criticized it (Stanworth 1984). Whether Goldthorpe is correct is beyond the scope of this study. However, an essential contribution of this viewpoint lies in proposing a family-based analytical perspective and in pointing out the vital role of the spouse in determining one’s subjective class identity. Inspired by Goldthorpe, many Western scholars began to examine the relative influence of the social status of the respondents themselves on the social status of their spouses in determining one’s class identity, and the analysis was applied to both men and women.
For example, in a classical study, Davis and Robinson (1988) grouped the class identities of couples into three ideal types: the first was “independent,” i.e., couples’ class identities were determined solely by their own social status, independent of one another; the second was “shared,” i.e., couples considered both their own and their spouse’s socioeconomic status when forming their social class identities; and the third was “dependent,” i.e., couples determined their class identities solely by their spouse’s socioeconomic status. Davis and Robinson’s study found that the class identity of married men in the United States gradually shifted to “independent” in the 1970s and 1980s, while that of married women shifted from “dependent” to “shared.” They also argue that the prevalence of feminist attitudes and the increase in women’s labor force participation are the main reasons for the shift in the type of couples’ class identities. In another study, Wright’s point of view is similar to that of Davis and Robinson (Wright and Shin, 1988). As a leading scholar of the neo-Marxist theory of social stratification, Wright continues the Marxist view that one’s subjective class identity is primarily influenced by his or her objective class position. In Wright’s view, however, one’s class positions can be either direct or indirect. The direct class position is the direct connection of the person to the means of production, while the indirect class position is the connection to the means of production through others, such as one’s spouse. Through a comparative study of the US and Sweden, Wright found that in Sweden, women’s direct class position had a more significant effect on their subjective class identity, while in the US, women’s class identity was primarily determined by their spouse’s class position, which was mainly due to the different economic independence of women in the two countries. Swedish women’s labor force participation rates are much higher than American women’s, so Swedish women are also more independent in forming their class identity.
In summary, many studies since Goldthorpe’s have demonstrated that both the objective social status of the person and the spouse affect an individual’s perceptions of one’s own class identity, which inspired the theory of “mixed” subjective class identity proposed in this article. Combining those above theoretical and empirical findings of Western countries, I argue that in studying Chinese subjective class identity, the following hypotheses should be made by combining the factors of respondents and their spouses.
Hypothesis 1: Both one’s social status and the social status of one’s spouse affect an individual’s subjective class identity in China.
Another important finding of the literature is that the relative importance of one’s own and one’s spouse’s social status on an individual’s subjective class identity varies considerably across gender. The relative importance of one’s own and one’s spouse’s social status may vary across counties with different gender inequalities and females’ varying degrees of economic independence. China has a long tradition of patriarchism, and the traditional notions of “male dominance outside (the home) and female dominance within it” and “male superiority over females” have a profound impact on Chinese outlook and values on life. Therefore, I argue that Goldthorpe’s traditional view of female class identity may still be valid in China and thus propose the following research hypothesis.
Hypothesis 2: In China, one’s own social status has a greater impact on the class identity of men, while the social status of one’s spouse has a greater impact on the class identity of women.
The impact of parental status
The study of the impact of parents’ social status or family background on individual status attainment has been an important topic in the research of social stratification and mobility since Blau and Duncan (1967) developed the classical “status attainment model.” However, in both Western and Chinese studies, scholars tend to focus only on children’s attainment of objective social status, such as education, income, and occupation, and rarely on their subjective status attainment when exploring the impact of family background on children’s social status (Ganzeboom et al. 1991). In addition, Western scholars’ studies of individual class status have extended the scope of analysis only from the individual to the spouse and rarely further to the parents (Davis and Robinson 1988). This may be because the nuclear family is predominant in Western societies; after reaching adulthood, children mostly leave their parents and live with their spouses, so that they and their spouses form a common living unit, while the ties between parents and adult children are not strong (Chu and Yu 2010). In China, however, the situation is very different.
First, China has a tradition of extended family and multigenerational co-residence, and many children live with their parents even after marriage (Logan et al. 1998). China’s sixth census in 2010 showed that the proportion of stem and joint families with multiple generations was 23.57 percent (Wang 2013), and the proportion of those aged 65 and above living with their children was nearly 50 percent (Wang 2014). In multigenerational families, where children live with their parents, the social status of the parents naturally becomes an important factor in influencing their children’s social status and life opportunities. Hence, the social status of the parents is likely to have a direct impact on their children’s class identity in China.
Second, many studies on intergenerational relations have found that Chinese parents maintain close contact with their children regardless of whether they co-reside (Bian et al. 1998). These connections can be financial, instrumental, and emotional; they include both the support of children to their parents based on Confucian filial tradition and the various forms of help provided by parents to their adult children (Xu 2017). Complex intergenerational relationships not only bind Chinese children and parents together in daily life but also unify them psychologically. In such cases, children’s perceptions and behaviors are likely to be influenced by their parents, making them associate their life situation with their parents’ status when evaluating their own class affiliation, either consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, the social status of parents is also an important factor in influencing individual class identity in China.
Finally, many empirical studies on social stratification in China have found that family origin or parental social status significantly impacts many objective socioeconomic status indicators for children, such as education, income, and occupation (Zhang 2004; Li and Zhu, 2015). Unlike the intergenerational transmission model in Western societies, family background in China not only affects the ultimate status attainment of individuals indirectly through education but also has a significant direct impact on these indicators (Bian 2002). Some longitudinal studies also found that the effect of the family background was stable and showed no signs of weakening, both in terms of the indirect effect via education and the direct effect on final status attainment indicators (Li, 2007; Li, 2010). Taken together, these studies reveal a strong relationship between parental status and children’s class identity in China, a relationship that not only exists de facto but is likely to have been imprinted into Chinese mentality, thus influencing their subjective perceptions of their class identity.
Taken together, I argue that in addition to one’s own social status and that of one’s spouse, the social status of one’s parents is also an important factor influencing Chinese people’s class identity and thus propose the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 3: The social status of the parents has a significant impact on the subjective class identity of the individual.
Although the social status of parents generally affects an individual’s class identity, the strength of this influence may show some degree of heterogeneity depending on the individual’s age and co-residence status.
First, young people who have just recently become independent from their original families tend to be more financially and emotionally dependent on their parents. Studies of intergenerational relationships also found that parental support for adult children was more pronounced when the children were younger (Xu 2017). Therefore, I argue that the social status of parents has a greater impact on young people’s subjective class identity and thus propose the following:
Hypothesis 4: The social status of parents has a greater impact on the class identity of young people than older people.
Second, living with one’s parents means forming a community with them financially and instrumentally, and the sense of being a unit makes individuals more prone to take parental status into account when assessing their class identity. Therefore, we argue that when individuals live with their parents, their class identity is more likely to be influenced by their parental status, which leads to the following research hypothesis:
Hypothesis 5: When individuals live with their parents, their class identity is more influenced by their parents’ status than when individuals live independently of their parents.
Class identity bias
The aforementioned analysis of class identity also provides a new perspective to understand the subjective class identity bias prevalent in China. According to the definition of class identity bias, this bias refers to the extent to which an individual’s objective class status is inconsistent with his or her subjective social status (Fan and Chen 2015). In other words, the existence and magnitude of class identify bias are both relative to the objective social status of the individual. However, from the concept of “mixed” subjective class identity, a person’s socioeconomic status is not the only criterion for evaluating his or her class identity; the social statuses of his or her spouse and parents can also affect their class identity. Therefore, such deviations are inevitable if the social statuses of the person, the spouse, and the parents differ.
First, many studies on associative mating have found that although Chinese marriages are predominantly homogeneous, it is not uncommon for husbands and wives to have unequal statuses (Li 2011; Qi and Niu 2012). In the case of educational matches in married couples, many studies have indicated that the degree of education homogeneity of married couples in China has gradually increased over time. However, many studies analyzing the data of the past two decades find that the proportion of married Chinese couples in which the education levels of the wife and the husband do not match remains higher than 40 percent. In such heterogamous marriages, the proportion of the husband’s education level is higher than that of the wife’s in the majority of the cases (Li, 2008b; Xu et al. 2014). If, as noted earlier, the social status of a spouse also affects a person’s subjective class identity, then in heterogamous marriages, the higher the status of the spouse is, the more likely the individual is to overestimate his or her own class status, and the lower the status of the spouse is, the more likely the person is to underestimate his or her own class status. In addition, if women’s class identity is more likely to be influenced by their spouses’ status, we would expect that the effect of spouse’s status on class identity bias is also likely to be stronger for females than for males. Taking the above analysis into consideration, I propose the following research hypothesis:
Hypothesis 6: The higher the social status of the spouse is relative to the individual, the more likely the individual’s class identity is to be biased upward, while the lower the social status of the spouse is relative to the individual, the more likely the individual’s class identity is to be biased downward; the effect of the spouse’s relative status on class identity bias is stronger for females than for males.
Second, the study of intergenerational mobility in contemporary China found that China’s overall social mobility rate has increased in the past 60 years. With the continuation of the reform and opening- up and rapid economic transformation, the overall social mobility in China is also accelerating (Li and Zhu 2015). It implies that the social statuses of many Chinese people have changed more markedly since the reform and opening -up and that many people’s social statuses have improved significantly compared with their parents’. If parents’ social status also affects the subjective class identity of Chinese, as mentioned above, it is likely that this inconsistency between parents’ and children’s social status caused by the social mobility of the offspring is also an important source of class identity bias for the offspring. This bias may be more pronounced in groups that are more affected by parents’ social status (e.g., young people and the people living with their parents). As such, I propose the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 7: The higher the social status of the parents is relative to the respondent’s own status, the more likely the individual’s class identity is biased upward, while the lower the social status of the parents is relative to the respondent’s status, the more likely the individual’s class identity is biased downward. The relative status of one’s parents is expected to have a greater impact on the class identity bias of young people and people living with their parents.
The “mixed” subjective class identity discussed above is, to some extent, based on the Chinese extended family tradition. However, according to the theory of family modernization, in the process of social modernization, the tradition of the extended family gradually declines, eventually being supplanted by the nuclear family as the primary model of the modern family; besides, the relationship between husband and wife will also change from the wife’s dependence on her husband to an equal relationship (Tang 2010; Goode 1963).
In recent years, empirical studies of family change have found that the shift from the traditional to the modern family, as predicted by family modernization theory, has been taking place in Chinese society. According to census data, China’s average family size decreased from 4.36 in 1982 to 3.10 in 2010. In terms of family structure, the proportion of older people aged 65 and above living with their children has also dropped from nearly 70 percent in 1982 to less than 50 percent in 2010 (Zeng and Wang 2004; Wang 2014; Xu et al. 2014), with the trend towards smaller families and nuclearization becoming increasingly prominent.
In addition, some localized field studies have also found a tendency of “individualization” of Chinese perceptions and behaviors in the modernization process of society. Yan (2012) pointed out that in the market-oriented reform characterized by “de-collectivization,” the concept of the “individual” has been rapidly rising, as noted in a decades-long observation of the northeastern countryside. Not only does this suggest that individuals have greater autonomy and mobility in their economic activities, but it also means that individuals have been liberated from the many constraints imposed on them by their families. Chinese society is experiencing unprecedented individualization.
If the theoretical predictions of family modernization and Yan’s (2012) portrayal of the trend of individualization that has taken place in Chinese society in recent years is correct, it is expected that the Chinese subjective class identity will also become increasingly modernized and individualized. In other words, the subjective class identity of the Chinese population will increasingly be determined by their own class status, and the influence of parents and spouses will gradually diminish. Therefore, I propose the following research hypothesis:
Hypothesis 8: The influence of an individual’s class status on subjective class identity gradually increases over time, while the influence of parental and spouse’s status gradually decreases over time.
However, we must also note that the theory of family modernization has been questioned and criticized in studies. Opponents of the theory argue that, on the one hand, it is too simplistic to divide families into “traditional families” and “modern families” and that there is a vast middle ground between the two (Shi 2016). On the other hand, the single-line evolutionary assumption that family patterns will change from traditional to modern in all societies is also unrealistic, and a large number of studies have found that the paths of family change in different societies vary significantly depending on the cultural traditions, social structure, and social institutions (Tang 2010; Thornton and Fricke 1987).
Research in China has found that although Chinese families have shown a trend towards downsizing and nucleation during the modernization process, multigenerational families remain an important type of family (Wang 2004), and even though more children choose to live apart from their parents after marriage, they do not entirely break the ties with parents. In fact, because of the high living cost and the prevalence of female employment, young adults have become more dependent on their parents in terms of finances, housing, and childcare (Xu 2013). Studies on intergenerational mobility have also found that the impact of parents’ status on children’s education, income, and occupational status shows no sign of weakening as society modernizes (Li 2007).
Moreover, gender equality predicted by modernization theory has not been fully realized in China either. Although the educational status of women has gradually caught up with or even surpassed that of men (Ye and Wu 2011), this has not eliminated the considerable gap between men and women in terms of income and occupational status (He and Wu 2015). Within the family, women still carry out more household chores than men. The traditional gender division of labor, which, as mentioned earlier, is “male dominance outside the home and female dominance within it” has not changed substantially either (Yu 2014; Tong and Liu 2015). Moreover, in terms of gender attitudes, there has been a clear trend towards a return to tradition after 2000 for both men and women, urban and rural, young and old (Xu 2016; Yang et al. 2014).
Taken together, I argue that the gradual diminishing of the family, as assumed by modernization and individualization theories, does not necessarily hold in China. Therefore, the influence of parents and spouse’s social statuses on individual class identity does not necessarily decrease over time. Accordingly, I propose a hypothesis that is opposite to hypothesis 8:
Hypothesis 9: The effect of individual class status on subjective class identity decreases, while the effect of parents and spousal status increases over time.
I will test whether the survey data support hypothesis 8 or hypothesis 9.