Worlds of Pain by Lillian Rubin

When did the United States as a whole first begin to consider its own class structure a subject to be studied in its own right…and when did that structure enter popular entertainment? What exactly is the correct distinction between working class, blue collar, middle class, and professional? While there have been studies prior to this time, there was an upsurge in popular interest in social issues, to put it mildly, in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1976, the television show Archie Bunker was about halfway through its successful run, although Roseanne would hot be broadcast for another twelve years.

Eight years (more or less) after Ronald Blythe brought out his book Akenfield1 and Studs Terkel Division Street, Lillian Rubin published her sociological study described in Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working-Class Family. Despite the title’s suggestions of generalization, this is a fairly specific snapshot: fifty Caucasian working-class families in twelve communities in the Bay Area (with the exception of Berkley), all intact (husband and wife married), none with more than a high school education, husband in blue-collar field, wife under forty and at least one elementary school aged child at home. Rubin drew on her experience as a marriage and family therapist and on her own youth as background when designing the interviews.

The chapters break down to a description of the families, the participants’ childhoods, marriage, the relationships’ early and middle years, sex, work, leisure and changing expectations–is it OK for women to work outside the home? should family members care for the children or a daycare center? While Rubin did interview a number of professional middle class families for background on this book, she does not quote from their interviews as she does the blue-collar families who are the purpose of the book. Overall, the people are dissatisfied with their lives; men and women alike found marriage to be not the release from their own families’ struggles with work, alcohol, relationships and broken dreams but merely a step into an adulthood identical to their own parents’ lives in all but the war in which the husbands were called upon to serve. The money struggles remain. The husbands’ frustration at having to work, the wives’ frustration at having to make do with little more money than their mothers had and a husband who can’t seem to understand the needs of a family. The hopes that the next job, the next purchase will provide happiness.

Interesting to read, but dated now and perhaps not a terribly rigorous sociological study, even when it first came out. I suspect that Rubin views her subjects’ take on their world and lives through the tinted glass of her own experience a continent away–she grew up in a working-class neighborhood in the Bronx–and assumes that the people she’s interviewing share her opinions of the American society in addition to sharing a similar upbringing. I think! In fairness, this is my own guess based on reading the book, and I’d love to hear from someone who knows more of the field, the book or the author. While the similarity in family backgrounds will possibly make her more sympathetic, it’s a mistake for any scientist, whether in the hard or soft sciences, to interpolate her experiences with those of her subjects.

I’d be interested to see a corresponding analysis of people in a similar socio-economic situation today; perhaps the children and grandchildren of the original subjects, or those of a corresponding group. I suspect that the intervening thirty-six years have brought changes in the lives of a number of people–I’d bet that televisions are more common today–but the shifts in manufacturing and technologies may affect potential employment. Secretarial work is vastly different today than at the time the book came out, for example. Cultural attitudes toward women in the workplace and in sexual practices have changed a bit, too.

Red Room

1later made into a movie


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