Assessing Class: Lifestyle Choices Research Paper Starter

Assessing Class: Lifestyle Choices

(Research Starters)

Leisure and recreational choices, consumer and financial options, family and social relationships, and participation in exercise and good health care are major factors that add up to a lifestyle, or the way we conduct our daily lives. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, affluence, greater societal freedoms, and the general availability of low cost goods and information technology tools have increased the variety of lifestyle choices. Contemporary sociologists see less of a correlation of lifestyle to social class than classic sociologists who believed that social class and lifestyle were one and the same. An exception is that healthy choices and health care access continue to be more available to the upper classes than to the lower.

Keywords Access; Class; Consumption; Cultural Capital; Leisure Time; Life Choices; Lifestyle; Socioeconomic Status; Stratification; Stylistic Unity



Income, wealth, occupation, and education are the factors most commonly used to define class, and the more abundant each of the factors, the more expansive are the lifestyle options; however, increased affluence and greater "openness" of society in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has allowed for many more permutations of life courses. Classic sociological theory showed how those of the same social class pursued the same lifestyles, but in our increasingly diverse, multicultural society, it has become impossible to make the same assumptions.

What is Lifestyle?

Michael Sobel (1983) defined the word "lifestyle" for sociologists as simply, "… a distinctive, hence recognizable, mode of living" (p. 120). Attempting to characterize and correlate those modes of living to social strata is increasingly complicated. German sociologist Dieter Bögenhold (2001) says that "what people 'are' and what people 'do' can no longer be conceptualized by a simple one-to-one fit." The concept of lifestyle is linked to social rank and practice, but how people spend their leisure time and incomes "… is not a simple mirror of income level but must be regarded as being embedded in social behavior" (p. 830).

Michael Sobel (1983) quotes Edward Shils when he says that "lifestyle reflects 'a voluntary participation in an order of values,'" and goes on to say that it is very much related to culture and "… is one of the most important bases of prestige because, like occupational role, it is among the most continuous and observable of the various deference entitlements" (p. 116). In his research, Sobel also links lifestyle to "ethnicity …race … age… subcultural affiliation … urban versus suburban residence, and sexual preference." He also presents the concept of "stylistic unity," by which he means "the patterns of behavior which constitute that lifestyle are empirically common; i.e., similar patterns are shared by a sufficient number of others, relative to all others" (p. 117). He also says that "lifestyle could be conceptualized as a property of an individual, a group, or even a culture. But sociologists, despite the assertions of some to the contrary, typically … use the concept at the individual level." He avoids ascribing lifestyle to social class and says that "[by] definition a lifestyle is expressive, and thus a lifestyle form is a function of individual choice."

Prosperity in Western societies increased steadily through the post–World War II era of the latter half of the twentieth century. Economies grew, standards of living rose, and the average number of weekly work hours was reduced. In theory, more time was available for personal consumption and leisure activities. In addition, as educational opportunities have increased, consumer choices have become seemingly limitless, and technology and medical advances continue enhance the quality of life; the configurations of life paths have become diverse and complex.


The theories of Pierre Bourdieu, first presented in the mid-1980s, are frequently cited by sociologists as they build new theories on lifestyles. Many reference Bourdieu's expansion on the concept of capital to understand how life choices affect one's advancement in social ranks. Economic capital, generally defined as accumulated resources or another definition of wealth, is, according to Bourdieu, only one of three types of capital — the other two are social and cultural (Gilbert, 2008, p. 94).

Dennis Gilbert (2008) explains that cultural capital, closely linked to lifestyle, is knowledge in its broadest sense, including formal education, but also manners, sports abilities, or other social skills; social capital involves obligations that are components of family and other memberships (p. 94). Further, in an explanation of Bourdieu's theory, sociologist Bögenhold describes the metaphor that there is one multidimensional social sphere for social position, but there is another for the sphere of lifestyles: "Material distribution … is portrayed in one sphere, whereas in the other sphere the provisions of cultural resources are staked out and manifested in the form of varying life styles" (2001, p. 835).


Growth of our economy is dependent on increased consumption, and consequently, Michael Sobel (1983) argues that consumption is “the best single index of lifestyle" (p. 123). He then differentiates the components of lifestyle into four groups:

  • Prestige acquisition,
  • Maintenance,
  • High life, and
  • Home life (p. 129).

Sobel believes that lifestyle "consists of expressive and observable behaviors," but this does not imply the existence of 'coherent' lifestyle forms, or what he calls "stylistic unity." Stylistic unity implies patterns or combinations of behavior that appear with such frequency as to not be unusual to observers. Stylistic unity, if it exists, he says, is “clearly the proximate cause of a lifestyle" (p. 124).

The economic health of a capitalist society is dependent on the levels of effective consumer demand. The production of goods must find a market, and Bögenhold (2001) theorizes that "contemporary discussion of the pluralization of life styles reflects the fact that the level of vertical differentiation in terms of financial resources has little to do with the level of cultural expression as a form of individual life practice" (p. 832).

Teen Consumerism

Research studies in sociology and consumer markets have long focused on social groups and their consumption patterns and preferences. As a very well-defined and lucrative market, American teenagers are consequently frequently the subject of that research. Tim Clydesdale (2005) attempts to make some sense of contemporary teenage consumerism. He interviewed a series of teenagers, from a range of social strata, who had part-time jobs to maintain their free-spending lifestyles. Most all worked to fund cars, clothes, entertainment, and technology. In response to questions, few understood what he meant by leisure, but instead responded to questions about "free time." The majority of this interview population responded that they had little of either.

Another interesting niche study by Karen Bettez Halnon (2003) explored the phenomenon of "poor chic." She found irony that young people of all classes were "dressing down" in an age of conspicuous economic inequality. The social phenomenon of "dress casual" among what used to be called "white collar" workers and the trend since the 1970s, where blue jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers have been the favored off-work wear of Americans, blur at least the superficial appearance of social classes.

Social Memberships

Gilbert also points to involvement in associations as a lifestyle indicator that is patterned by social class. Membership with explicit purposes and rules of membership attract individuals with similar social standing. The most active participants tend to be from the upper income ranges since it is theorized that lower classes do not have time or energy for them. As an example, Gilbert explains that typecasting of membership in churches continues to hold true. He says that higher-status individuals belong to churches with services of "quiet dignity" such as Unitarian or Episcopal; while the middle-class are Methodist, Mormon, and Lutheran. The lower class favors revivalist and fundamentalist denominations, and Catholics’ participation reflects the timing of their families' immigration to the United States (2008, p. 116).

Lifestyle may imply choices about leisure, but those, of course, are limited by resources and other constraints. Demanding occupations, even though well paid, do not allow for another scarce commodity of contemporary society — time. Postwar prosperity increased the number of recreational and leisure choices available to Americans as more education allowed the middle class to pursue a greater range of activities, whether as participants or observers. Electronic media brought the concert...

(The entire section is 3980 words.)