A Place in Class: The Rising Gap of the Rich and the Poor

A Place in Class: The Rising Gap of the Rich and the Poor

Group 7: Starr Burroughs, Ruby Fung, Mathis Jessen, Vanessa Yuan


Income inequality is becoming a phenomenal problem in the United States and is representing the underlying issue of the Occupy movement. Our goal is to understand more about both the cause of the rising gap between the rich and poor in the U.S and how it is talked about in the public. By analyzing how National Public Radio (NPR) represents the Occupy Movement, we can then uncover the ways social categories are portrayed in these texts. We also want to examine how social categories are determined or defined. We are interested in how NPR, being one of the first news sources to cover the Movement, positions its readers to think of themselves and how it places readers in a certain place in society through its discourse. It is important to study the role of mass media outlets such as NPR because they play a key role in how we understand the world around us.

In our analysis, joblessness is portrayed as the cause of income inequality, which is the driving force of the Occupy Movement.  We argue that NPR categorizes groups of people into social classes regarding income inequality, and that it creates power relationships through binaries. Our findings show us that income inequality leads to classification of social categories; which are defined by money and often expressed as opposing binaries.

We will now examine the patterns we found in our corpus that support our thesis. We will illustrate this claim by using discourse analysis tools from the Corpus Linguistics (CL) and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) approaches. This approach will allow us to narrow the focus of our large corpus to a more specified and in depth sub-corpus that deals specifically with income inequality.  We will also provide examples and explanations for the patterns and key findings we discovered during our research.


Discourse Analysis is a wide variety of styles of approaches to the study of texts that have developed from theoretical traditions and disciplinary locations (Gill, 1997). Although discourse analysis does not produce broad empirical generalization, the detailed argument and attention to the material produces an interpretation and they influence and shape society (2000). Among different discourse analysis approaches, Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and Corpus Linguistics (CL) will be used in the following analysis.

Corpus linguistics (CL) will give us the quantitative data we need to examine how the text is socially constitutive (texts as organizing society) in the way that NPR classifies and categorizes groups of people into certain social classes (Van Dijk, p. 358). We utilized the CL tools: paradigmatic choice, semantic preference, collocation and concordance, and cotext. Corpus Linguistics helps us analyze concordance lines and what we could learn from the cotext. Word choice around social class labels can tell us what is said about these social classes and how they are defined. We are using collocation to see what kinds of words—the semantic prosody around the texts about social classes and the inequalities around the social categories. Semantic prosody will show us the meaning a word like “middle class” takes based on the company it takes, and how it is different compared to the meaning another class might take. These differences can show us the inequalities between the classes through text.

We then switched towards the Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) approach, which is known to be a more qualitative and in depth method where one takes into account the context surrounding the codes (Baker et al., 2008). This means that Critical Discourse Analysis looks closely at the relation of society and language in order to understand the concepts of power relations (Fairclough, Mulderrig and Wodak, 2011). There is always a relation of power between the poles of a binary opposition as there is hardly any neutral binary opposition.  Binary opposition consists of two poles of matters and can be used to analyze the notation between the rich and the poor. CDA sees discourse as a form of social practice as that it is socially constitutive as well as socially conditioned. Since it’s socially consequential, it gives rise to important issues of power. (Wodak, 2009). Our analysis showed us how much we were influenced in the meaning making process by using the in-depth Critical Discourse Analysis approach.

Our group is focusing on NPR,  National Public Radio. We think that it is an important news sourse to focus on because it is dominant with its position as a national syndicator to a network of 900 public radio stations in the United States. NPR is politically influential, and it stands out among other publications because of its conversational tone – individuals’ words are recorded verbatim, and allow the reader/listener to get a realistic understanding of their struggles and frustrations about the unequal income distribution in our country, as well as first-hand experience in the 99% Movement.  Moreover, NPR is widely accessible for almost everyone. Since it is radio broadcast, one does not need to be able to read, which allows to reach an even larger audience than newspapers could. This means that its discourse can be very influential in its meaning making process across the country regarding the issue of income inequality and the Occupy Movement. We were able to use transcripts to do a discourse analysis on the language that is used in their reports of the Occupy Movement about social class. An in-depth discourse analysis can show us how millions of U.S citizens form their understanding of our current political and economic situation regarding social classes and inequality.

We collected our data using LexisNexis through the library database in the University of Washington. We used “Occupy Wall Street” as our search parameters and have sampled a total of 120 texts from October 2011 and November 2011. There are a total of 185444 words in our corpus. The type/token ratio is calculated by dividing token (185444) by type (9139), which is 20.29. The higher the type-token ratio, the less varied the text in its level of lexical complexity. (Adolphs, 2006) We chose this sampling frame because the 99% Movement really gained momentum and became popular in October of 2011, and we wanted to see if the momentum remained through November, and it did. We also thought that “Occupy Wall Street” is frequently mentioned in the media, and having a broach search term allowed us get as much information as possible.  More specific terms were included in texts that already had our broad search term.  The mainstream genre, NPR, gave us view into vulnerable individuals who are struggling as the 99%.


Pattern 1: Jobs are portrayed as very difficult to get and the cause of income inequality in our society

The excerpts taken from our corpus revealed that the individuals interviewed found many reasons why jobs were hard to come by, and the frustration and anger it caused.  Reviewing the context of those who were interviewed allowed us to more fully understand their point of view, and what they were suffering from.  As the 99%, they were open about their personal lives, and used examples of what they were going through to explain their frustration about a jobless market.  In an NPR article, Jeffrey Sachs said,

“It means that for the typical young person right now who is a high school graduate – but on average will not get a Bachelor’s degree – life is extremely challenging to find a foothold with a stable job, with an opportunity to have a reliable income, health and other benefits, and a chance to have the kind of middle-class life that we once took for granted.”

The high school graduate he’s describing would be part of the 99% because of the degree of difficulty of actually getting a job.  Without a job there is no income, and without a decent job it is likely one would struggle financially, therefore, being part of the 99%. This excerpt reveals how challenging it is to find a job in our society today. We believe Sachs is summing up the nature of our economy and the bleak outlook of our future. By looking at the context in these excerpts we were able to find commonalities.  For example:

“With debt, with joblessness, with living at home with our parents well into our mid-20s, being told that we’re likely to be less better off than our parents, there is a great deal of frustration there.”

Both excerpts deal with the individuals’ views on the job market and how difficult it is to find a good job, or even a job at all.  This excerpt shows us that there seems to be no hope – again, dealing with a bleak future.  Paradigmatic analysis helped us to know that the word choice used, “frustration,” “challenging,” “joblessness,” and “take for granted,” adequately shows their true feelings towards the circumstances of the 99%.  David Chandler (2003) said, “Paradigmatic analysis involves comparing and contrasting each of the signifiers present in the text with absent signifiers which in similar circumstances might have been chosen, and considering the significance of the choices made” (para. 3).  If less emotional words were used then the reader wouldn’t understand how terrible the situations are.  Another commonality in an excerpt we found was:

“And it also seems to be a key part of all this frustration and anger that’s being directed at Wall Street and the big banks. For many people it’s not so much about high finance as it is about just finding a job.”

Finding a job seems to be the cry of the 99%.  There may be frustration directed at the rich, and towards those who seem to be in charge of our economy, but we believe the point behind this particular excerpt is that the 99% simply needs jobs.  The context of these excerpts is all about the difficulty of finding jobs and the frustrating impact it has.  These excerpts are a representative sample of our corpus in that the 99% are overwhelmingly dealing with a jobless economy and/or the difficulty of finding a job.  A lack of jobs has created the gap between the rich and poor and has increased the income inequality of our nation, and these excerpts prove just that.

Pattern 2: Social class categories are created and defined by money and economic capital

The second pattern that we have identified is the presence of classification when addressing the middle class in relation to the Occupy movement. The middle class is the major population focus of the Occupy movement in NPR. One way reporters create or reinforce social categories in our society is by speaking about labeling people in these groups, and the cotext around these social classes are all about money and income. The texts labeled people in these social groups such as “lower class”, “middle class”, and “upper class”, and the cotext around these groups reveal to us that money is usually the determiner of who belongs in these groups. For example, one of the Occupy Wall Street articles from Oct. 24, 2011 said:

“The middle class Americans didn’t invent the financial instruments that blew up this economy. Middle class Americans did not make a pile of money on these very strange derivatives. I think that the anti-Wall Street movement is drawing that line because they’re right, that the first and primary cause of this will lay on Wall Street and in the financial community, while a lot of middle-class Americans were trying to do the right thing.”

The middle-class was mentioned three times and the cotext around that social category was all about money, ie. “financial instruments”, “economy”, “pile of money”, “Wall Street”, “financial community”. These paradigmatic choices and the semantic preference around the middle class is all about money, this tells us that social categories are generally defined by money and economic capital. In this example, the semantic prosody, the meaning “middle class” takes on is one about money and capital. Similarly, another text broadcasted on October 17, 2011 said:

“Basically, they’re still in a game of heads they win; tails, taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have put people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower tax rates than middle-class families. This special treatment can’t bear close scrutiny, and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny.”

Once again, the text around “middle-class” is about money, this time about taxes. The pattern occurs over and over again, where we see that the cotext around class categories is usually about money and economic capital. This pattern that social categories are defined by money means that, “In contemporary American society,” class is defined “in terms of positions within capitalist social relations of production.” (Wright, p. 33)

Although there is a pretty representative collection of the category of middle class, it is worth noticing that neither of “upper class” nor “lower class” were present in the corpus when examining the code of “class” carefully. However, the terms “lower middle class”, “upper middle class”, and “working class” sometimes appear. It is worth noticing how the mainstream media neglect the extremes of the class categories in our society when reporting about the Occupy movement, while the “middle class” is represented in more than one form. In some ways, the media is trying to empower the middle class by the presentation of different speakers while critiquing the powerful ones (i.e. the one percent).

“And the percentages if you look, I mean, obviously the middle class, the upper middle class, everybody has suffered in the great recession..”

“I guess, he’s saying to stimulate the economy they should forgive all these student loans because we’re generally creating a working class of well-educated poor people. And I mean, I only make $35,000 a year, which isn’t bad, but I’m never going to be able to pay $100,000.”

Paradigmatic choice is the trends in word choice in multiple texts. From the preceding excerpt examples, we can tell the obvious presentation of inequality with regards to income by the choice among words and phrases used, such as the word “economy”, “percentages” and the usage of numbers.

Classification is used to classify the social world. It places people, processes, events and ideas in categories. (Fairclough, 2003) This has made crucial effects where the relation of the middle class is predominantly represented. This is related to the discourse theory. Our culture gives things meaning by assigning them to different positions within a classificatory system (Hall, 1997). Class is therefore one of the major concepts that classify human society with regards to the economy.

Pattern 3: The binary oppositions: “the rich/wealthy” and “the poor”, are used to describe income inequality.

Binary opposition consists of two poles of matters and can be used to analyze the notation between the rich and the poor. There is always a relation of power between the poles of a binary opposition as there is hardly any neutral binary opposition. (Hall, 1997) In the previous pattern, we did not see a comparison between the dominant and non-dominant poles because only the target population is represented. However, the categories of the rich and the poor perfectly captures this power dimension in discourse, as power always operates in conditions of unequal relations. According to Wodak, power is mostly perceived as a systemic and constitutive element/characteristic of society, as suggested by Foucault, who is one the theoretical ‘godfathers’ of CDA. (Wodak, 2009) The issue of income/economic inequality is perfectly demonstrated by the following excerpts:

“The richest 10 percent control two-thirds of Americans’ net worth.”

“The richest 1 percent of Americans control 40 percent of this country’s wealth”

By looking at the concordance and collocation table again, it is obvious that “the rich and poor” are often mentioned together with the concern of the rising gap in income inequality. The binary opposition of “the rich” and “the poor”, which are also sometimes used as social categories, is used to express the income inequality or income gap that is present in our current economy. This excerpt from a broadcast titled, “Income Disparity And The ‘Price Of Civilization’” on Oct. 18, 2011 said:

“The Occupy Wall Street protests that have spread across the country and around the world have taken up many different causes, but the protests share some common themes, including the gap between the rich and the poor. Once you adjust for inflation, the median income in this country has stagnated for about 38 years – almost two generations, even as people at the top have grown wealthier.”

The critique of the distribution of wealth is deduced down to just two social categories of “the rich” and “the poor”. More specifically, the pattern tells us that in discourses, people often generalize income inequality or income gap with the opposing binaries of “the rich” and “the poor”, thus creating very limiting mental schemas about the social actors involved in this issue. As a result, if this kind of language surrounding social class, such classification is how the society typically categorizes people, with regards to the amount of money and property they are entitled to.


Our jobless economy has greatly influence the widening gap between the rich and the poor.  NPR’s classification and reinforcement of binaries, as well as description of joblessness further widens gap between the rich and the poor. These findings are the driving force of the Occupy Movement.

In our analysis, we have identified three key findings from the categories of social classes regarding income inequality.  The continual frustration and anger expressed by the 99%, as seen in the above excerpts, reveal that our jobless economy has caused many to struggle existing at the bottom of the financial ladder.  The difficulty of finding a job has impacted the majority and has resulted in a rising gap between the rich and poor.   Therefore, the financial struggle of the 99% continues as income inequality widens.  We have found that differences and inequalities between social categories are defined by money and economic capital. Through examining the cotext around social categories, the paradigmatic choices surrounding social category labels proved to be about money and income. Economic capital was the main determiner of who belongs to these social categories. The classification of social class has shown the difference across classes by the lack of presentation of the certain categories such as the upper class and the lower class.  The inequality between these social classes is often expressed as binary oppositions. The income gap is represented through two social actors, “the rich/wealthy” and “the poor”. This generalized social schema reduces the issue of income inequality into only two social groups.

The rich are getting richer, while the middle/lower class and poor are getting poorer.  The lack of jobs and the lack of good jobs are causing this shift in our economy.  The excerpts in this paper are a representative sample of the majority opinion that is the 99%.  Joblessness affects one’s wealth, affecting her place in society, which then places her among the 99% or the 1%.  Jobs, or lack thereof, determine where we lie among the gap between the rich and poor. We have looked at the corpus both quantitatively and qualitatively and have found that the issues of joblessness, money, and income are often coded simultaneously with the classifications labeled. Through corpus linguistics and critical discourse analysis, we were able to find out more about how text can both create and reproduces meanings about social categories in our society. We were able to see that social categories are defined by economic conditions and what kind of social schemas are associated with different social groups (“the rich” or “the poor”) in these texts. The analysis also gave us a deep look into the power relations between the social classes in the context of the Occupy Movement. The relation of power has provided a broad picture of how the media has actually emphasized the gap between classes and between the notation of the rich and the poor. On one hand, power is obviously given to the dominant group (the rich), while on the other hand, the media has also been disempowering the dominant group by critique for the purpose of empowering the other group (the poor), as this is also centric to the goal of the Occupy movement, to fight for equality between the classes, or between the rich and the poor.


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