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Law and the Middle Class - Evidence From a Suburban Town

NCJ Number
Law and Human Behavior Volume: 9 Issue: 1 Dated: (March 1985) Pages: 3-24
M P Baumgartner
Date Published
22 pages
The relationship between social class and the use of law was examined in ethnographic data collected in a New York City suburb.
The town is polarized into a majority upper-middle class and a working class minority. This social class division is also an ethnic one, with the former being primarily of Northern-European extraction and the other of Italian extraction. Conflict management information was collected over a 12-month period during 1978 and 1979. Techniques included participant and direct observation, informal interviews, and examination of written materials. Formal interviews also were conducted with police, judges, clergy, and other social-control specialists. Relative to the middle-class residents, working-class residents were more likely to use criminal and administrative law in disputes with personal associates, such as neighbors and relatives. They also were more likely to make recourse to elected officials. Only the use of civil law diverged from this pattern. Middle-class residents took greater pains to handle personal grievances privately without resort to public and coercive forums. Thus, in this town, under conditions of intimacy, use of the law varied inversely with social rank. It appears that the greater transiency and atomization of middle-class people militate against their use of the law by reducing the amount of negative information antagonists have about one another and by making avoidance a more attractive means of personal conflict management. Because the middle-class residents are generally equal or superior to legal officials in social standing, they may be less willing than the lower-classes to submit to officials' judgment. It may be necessary to qualify the view that higher-status people have a greater propensity to use the law in conflict management: where personal matters are concerned, the opposite may be true. Included are 40 references. (Author abstract modified)