| | |

What Your Fridge Says about Your Social Class?

What does the contents of your refrigerator say about your social class? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explains how the contents of a fridge might indicate something about one’s social class position. 

Scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day, I saw this image shared by a friend:

Fridges with and without food inside

The intent of the person who created this image is to reinforce the image of the working person as going without while the unemployed person is literally getting fat off the government (as if there are no valid reasons why a person might be unemployed and in need of asssitance). The focus of today’s post, is to disucss how this image illustrates the meaning of social class in America and enables to think about research methods.

If a person believes they are middle class and they really do have an empty fridge because they can not afford the food to fill it, they probably are not actually middle class. See, in America, everybody thinks they are middle class, though that perception is declining. No one should be blamed for their own misperception. I did a quick google image search for “middle class family on TV” and the families from The Middle, The Cosby Show, Modern Family, and Roseanne all showed up. I distinctly remember an episode of Roseanne where their power was cut after not paying their bill. I don’t ever recall money problems on The Cosby Show. Can a family that can’t pay their power bill and a family that can really be in the same social class grouping?

Let’s consider what social class even means. As a budding sociologist, you know that sociologists give very specific meaning to terms such as social class and middle class. This is called operationalizing our variables. Sociologists typically measure a person’s social class based on income, education, and occupation. Instead of using the term social class, sociologists use the term socioeconomic status (SES).

Why do sociologists use income, education, and occupation to measure SES? Why don’t we just use the content of a person’s refrigerator to measure it or whether or not their power has been cut?

While most people immediately think of income and maybe wealth when they think about SES, research shows that education and occupation are also good markers of social class groupings and they often correspond with income based groupings. Sociologists are often forced to use education and occupation to measure social class because people really don’t like telling us how much money they make. In many ways it is taboo to discuss our income with others. In fact, some companies discourage employees from discussing salaries among coworkers. Given that we can’t talk about our income in polite conversation, we rely on status symbols (e.g. fancy cars, nice clothes, lavish vacations, etc.) to communicate to our income to others. One way to think about the picture above is, refrigerators and the contents inside it are status symbols.

If fridges are status symbols, then we should consider how sociologists might use a household’s refrigerator to measure socioeconomic status? As the photo above indicates, a researcher might begin by looking at the contents of the refrigerator. But, would the researcher stop there? What else should they consider?

The researcher should consider:

  • Time: What day of the month was the fridge observed? The researcher should take multiple photos over the course of the month. In particular, the researcher should take photos right before and after a person recieved a paycheck or government assistance and the day before and the day after a person shopped for groceries.
  • Food inventory: What types of foods were in the refrigerator? Why these foods? Were the foods mostly perishables? Foods with a shorter shelf life have to be purchased more frequently. This in turn, may lead to a fridge that is less full than one full of processed foods. A food inventory also helps get around the fact that refrigerators come in different sizes influencing how full they appear.
  • Other food in the home: I would ask to see a second fridge, deep freeze, office fridge, and cabinets. I would want to see all the places that the household stores food to make sure I had an accurate accounting of all available food.
  • Eating meals out/take-out: I would ask about how many meals the household eats out each week. I’ve already eaten two meals out this week and it’s only Tuesday. More food eaten out, means less food I purchase for my fridge.

Using a refrigerator as an indicator of socioeconomic status is possible, but not with the photo above. Without additional information, one can not reach the conclusion that the person with “no job” has significantly more food than the “middle class” person.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Sticking with the fridges as a measure social class idea, what other aspects of the fridge or it’s content could we look at to measure a household’s social class?
  2. In your own words, define what it means to operationalize a variable? Why don’t sociologists just use income to measure socioeconomic status?
  3. Do different types of foods indicate different class positions? Explain. Give three examples of food that indicates a particular social class position.
  4. Explore Peter Menzels’ photography project, What I Eat. What are other variables he includes in his descriptions of each photo? Would any of these variables be useful to our sociologist studying food and socioeconomic status? Why or why not?