How relevant is social class in Australia? An investigation using psychological essentialism

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Publication details

Rana, R & Moloney, G 2017, 'How relevant is social class in Australia? An investigation using psychological essentialism', abstract presented to the Southern Cross University 14th Annual Honours Psychology Research Conference, Southern Cross University, Coffs Harbour, 5-6 October.

Abstract available on Open Access


The hypothetical construct of psychological essentialism has been invoked to understand the theoretical underpinnings of social class, however, never within the context of Australia. In light of the growing income inequalities within Australia, psychological essentialism could explain how the perceptions of social class relate to the widening gap between the ‘rich’ and the ‘poor’. Aim: The aim of this research was to investigate whether social class was a relevant construct in Australian society and, if so, the extent of the relationship between self-identified social class and the endorsement of psychological essentialist beliefs about social class. Psychological essentialism suggests people are predisposed to attribute an inherent and invariable “essence” to social categories. Method: An online survey was administered to a university population (N = 127). The survey comprised of a word association task about social class where participants were given a common definition of social class and then asked to write the first words that sprung to mind in relation to this definition. Participants then completed 10 Likert type scale items that measured essentialist perceptions about social class. Results: Analysis of the word associations revealed the most frequently elicited term was ‘class’. Exploratory factor analysis of the scale items revealed three sub-scales: ‘identification’, ‘biological beliefs’ and ‘external characteristics’. The identification scale, measuring the extent to which individuals identify social class, revealed that participants self-identifying with no social class reported significantly lower mean scale scores than those self-identifying with ‘established working class’ and ‘established middle class’. Participants mean scale scores were below the mid-point for the identification scale. No significant differences were found for the other sub-scales. Conclusion: The term ‘class’ was frequently elicited in relation to a definition of social class, suggesting participants were familiar with the meaning of this term. Self-identified social class was only related to the endorsement of psychological essentialism beliefs for the identification scale; with differences in the strength of disagreement between those identifying with no social class and those identifying with established working, and middle class. Overall, the results suggest that participants were aware of social class, but do not prescribe to essentialist beliefs about social class.