Twentieth-century middle-class and working-class stereotypes are out of date. Only 39% of participants fit into the Established Middle Class and Traditional Working Class categories.
Elite: This is the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.
Established Middle Class: Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.
Technical Middle Class: This is a new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
New Affluent Workers: This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.
Emergent Service Workers: This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of 'emerging' cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.\
Traditional Working Class: This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
Precariat: This is the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.
What do you mean by 'class'?
Mainstream conceptions of social class, such as the BBC's list of seven, are largely descriptive. There's another, radical, approach
guardian.co.uk, Thursday 4 April 2013 / http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/04/class-what-do-you-mean-bbc
Is it time to throw conventional class dogmas aside? The BBC, which has just published a detailed survey of social class in the United Kingdom, produced by academics at the London School of Economics and the University of Manchester, says it is.
Using some of the ideas of the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the researchers claim that while people "think they belong to a particular class on the basis of their job and income", those are merely "aspects of economic capital. Sociologists think that your class is indicated by your cultural capital and social capital."
The survey reaches a bold conclusion: the traditional tripartite division of people into working, middle and ruling classes has eroded. The "traditional" working and middle classes account for a mere 39% of the population. The new classes include the "precariat", or precarious workers; emerging service workers; new affluent workers; and the technical middle class.
This is the sociologist's dream: a stale, simplistic schema giving way to a more novel and complex understanding. However, these findings aren't quite as groundbreaking as they would seem to be.
The emergence of the concept of "social class" in official censuses took shape in the UK in the 19th century, settling in 1851 with a list of seventeen classes and sub-classes that were principally concerned with occupational status. In 1911, these classes were condensed into a system of social grades that are similar to the "social classes" used by the registrar general in recent decades. These split society into grades of occupation, from professional to intermediate to skilled, partially skilled, and unskilled.
Since 1951, there has been a list of 17 socio-economic groups with no particular order among them. Government surveys have tended to use a compressed version of these categories. Social grades used by market researchers, which are based on occupational gradings, have until recently formed the dominant contemporary definitions of social class.
What principle underlies this conception of social class? In 1928, the statistical officer at the General Register Office argued that "any scheme of social class should take account of culture", which he felt occupational gradings had "a wholesome tendency to emphasise".
Mainstream classifications, then, have often sought to distinguish themselves from more radical conceptions by reference to their willingness to incorporate culture as a factor. However, this is misleading. What mainly distinguishes radical from official conceptions of class is that the former are antagonistic, whereas the latter treat class as a form of stratification or, with sufficient social mobility, a "ladder of opportunity". Take the Marxist analysis, for example, which holds that the central class antagonism in capitalist society is an exploitative capital-labour relation. This antagonism cuts across and structures every field of human production and consumption, from the economy to politics and culture.
This relates to a deeper underlying disagreement. The radical ontology of social classes holds that classes do not exist prior to coming into relationship with one another. It is impossible to imagine a working class without a capitalist class, or serfs without feudal lords. These classes have very specific mechanisms of reproduction, but only in relation to one another: the working class reproduces itself by selling its labour power, which it can only do if there is someone to buy it. On the other hand, it's quite possible that an emerging service worker could exist with or without any relationship to a new affluent worker, or precarious worker. As these "classes" are empirical, statistical constructs, their existence implies no necessary relationship to other classes, nor any specific principle of reproduction.
This leads to a final divergence, which is over what the concept of class is for. Mainstream conceptions of social class are largely descriptive, based on a composite of certain conditions of existence. As a result, they produce a profusion of classifications and rankings, describing different social experiences, but not explaining their relationship to one another. The theoretical parsimony of radical accounts of class is sometimes mistaken for oversimplification, but it arises from a desire to make class categories explain more. While official accounts of social class merely demand explanation, radical accounts can help explain the real development of societies.
For example, consider today's experience of a Tory-led government filled with millionaires, implementing policies designed to enrich the ruling class, and depress the living standards of the working majority. Official conceptions of class, being descriptive, will evolve and chart the effects of these policies: new "classes" will be devised in their wake. But these conceptions cannot explain such policies. But by employing a radical class analysis, "austerity" can be seen as a political class strategy for redistributing the social product and consolidating the wider political and ideological power of the rich. This is not just a matter of interpretation: it is strategic, for it explains the doggedness of their clinging to policies that "don't work", and also calls into question what sort of class capacities and strategies we could activate in opposing "austerity".
This is what is at stake in class analysis today.
• This article was amended on 4 April 2013. It originally credited the research on social class to the LSE alone. It was in fact a joint study by the LSE and the University of Manchester. This has now been corrected
|The way to tell an Etonian, in casual dress, is that he tends to dress and speak down, not up: it’s a survival tactic born of trying to avoid being beaten up by Windsor boys|
The Great British Class Survey: which class are you?
A new survey thinks it’s got Britons squeezed into seven categories – but the glory of our class system is that it offers us endless opportunities to become whoever we want to be
By James Delingpol 03 Apr 2013 in The Telegraph / http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/9969550/The-Great-British-Class-Survey-which-class-are-you.html
Which class are you? I reckon I’m upper middle. Lower, fake, poseur, scumbag upper middle, to be more precise, because despite exhibiting many of the signs of reasonable-ish social smartness (public school and Oxbridge education; mildly fruity pronunciation; Georgian vicarage home), I’m secretly tinged with lots of hidden common.
For example, one of my grandfathers was the gaffer at the local electrical works – and that’s not posh. Nor are the Midlands and Black Country accents used by quite a few of my close relatives. Nor is having been born anywhere near Birmingham (as I was, arkid). Nor is the fact that I don’t own my gorgeous ironstone country rectory: I rent it because, while I have huge pretensions, I’m in fact totally skint.
Yet, were you ever to meet my upper-class landlord, you’d think I were the toff, not him. He dresses like a down-at-heel student; I wear a sturdy, Cordings hacking jacket. He’d happily spend his life chopping up logs or watching DVDs, whereas I’d rather be out huntin’, shootin’ or fishin’. I stride around his Capability-Brown-landscaped estate like I own it, whereas he acts more like the junior undergardener.
So where, exactly, would he and I fit in to the new study by the BBC Lab UK, and published this week in the Sociology Journal, which says there are now seven social classes in Britain: Elite; Established Middle Class; Technical Middle Class; New Affluent Workers; Traditional Working Class; Emergent Service Workers; and Precariat – or Precarious Proletariat? Nowhere, I’d say, for these definitions just aren’t up to the job. If you really wanted to capture the rich, glorious and oh-so-nuanced stratifications of the British class system, you’d need closer to 700 gradations than that measly, reductionist seven.
To be fair to the study, it does at least have a stab at finding a definition of class that extends beyond the usual “working, middle and upper”. Besides how well paid or wealthy you are, the study posits, your class is also a function of your social capital (how many people you know and what their status is) and your cultural capital (the extent and nature of your cultural interests).
All this is true and it’s one of the things that has always separated Britain’s social class system from, say, America’s, which is much more strictly income-dependent. This was evident even as far back as the 19th century, when the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville visited the US. He was at once impressed and appalled to discover a new kind of society where values such as noblesse oblige had no meaning: being upper class was more or less synonymous with being rich and since, in the land of the free, anyone could supposedly make their fortune through hard work, there was much less social guilt or sentimental pity for the plight of the poor.
But what the study doesn’t capture (how could it possibly? It would be the work of several lifetimes) is the degree to which, even in post‑Blair Britain, so many of us continue to eat, breathe, speak, work, play, dream, dress, make love and live every last detail of our lives in ways defined by an invisible code that no foreigner could ever hope to comprehend but which we all understand perfectly.
Let me give you one example of how obscure these nuances get. Waitrose is posher than Sainsbury’s; Sainsbury’s is posher than Tesco. But if you’re really über-posh you’re just as likely to go to bargain basement Aldi a) because if you’re really posh, you’re probably also asset-rich and cash-poor and b) because you’re so confident of your social status that you don’t need to show off, like lower-middle-class people do, by paying too much for your groceries at Waitrose.
Here’s another. The defining characteristic of posh English teenagers is that they have to dress head to toe in Jack Wills: this applies throughout, except at Eton – arguably the poshest school of the lot (except maybe Radley) – where boys wouldn’t be seen dead in Jack Wills because it has a branch on Eton High Street, which somehow renders it tainted and non-U. The way to tell an Etonian, in any case, is that he tends to dress and speak down, not up: it’s a survival tactic born of trying to avoid being beaten up by Windsor boys.
Another subtle signifier is the concept of shabby chic. To a visiting American, say, a big house that had been done up to the nines with everything beautifully finished by artisan craftsmen would be an obvious status symbol: this person has made it, they’ve arrived! To a certain kind of Englishman, though, it would mean the exact opposite. No one can be properly smart in a house where the furniture isn’t bashed and the carpets aren’t frayed and everything doesn’t smell of wet dog. Too much polish and cleanliness are vulgar.
The problem now – if you’re the sort of person who thinks it is a problem – is that socially ambitious oiks have cottoned on to this distinction. (How could they not? The concept of U and non-U goes back to the Fifties, and there have been loads of similar climbers’ guides since, such as my Eighties bible, The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.) Companies such as Farrow & Ball have built a lucrative industry on this, catering to aspirational wives of new-money City types who’ve twigged that all you need to rise a couple of notches is to paint your hallway Elephant’s Breath and your guest room Mouse’s Back.
This is an important detail missed by those earnest class warriors who bang on about the limitations of being born in a country where – allegedly – you only have to open your mouth for another Englishman to despise you. The glory of our class system is not that it’s constricting but rather that it offers endless opportunities to become whoever you want to be. It’s not a straitjacket. It’s the equivalent of that marvellous changing room in the magical shop visited by Mr Benn where he escapes the dreariness of Festive Road to become an astronaut or deep-sea diver or knight errant.
Did being born Welsh (in a place called Splott) – the son of a hairdresser and a self-employed French polisher – really hamper John Humphrys’ entry into the snooty, Oxbridge-dominated British media establishment? Not so that you’d notice. No more, I’d say, than having been born the daughter of a lowly Nigerian oil tycoon has prevented Emma McQuiston from becoming the future Marchioness of Bath. This is the point about the British class system: it’s porous and has been since at least the days when a lowly actress like Nell Gwynne could become the King’s mistress and become mother of the Earl of Burford (and later Duke of St Albans).
A good friend of mine spotted this very early on. Born into a desperately poor working-class household in Nottingham, he realised that he would never get on unless he learnt to mimic the ways of the middle classes. At university, he instructed his flatmates to correct his every error of pronunciation (for example, making him pronounce “pass” with a bourgeois long “a”, rather than a clipped Northern one), with the result that he can become whoever he wants to be at a moment’s notice. In legal circles (he’s a top barrister), he can play an Old Etonian smoothie (he has even memorised all the rules of the Wall Game); if he’s at a football match he can revert to broad Nottingham.
This same friend’s children, on the other hand, have to play an entirely different class game. Public school-educated in a world where “posh” people are about the last minority it’s socially permissible to persecute, they spend their social lives desperately trying to demonstrate how down-to-earth, ordinary and unsmart they are. They’d probably kill to have the authentic working-class credibility their father had – but which they can never benefit from socially because their dad has striven so hard to shake it off.
It was ever thus. If you could go back to a time as socially stratified as Victorian or Edwardian Britain, I doubt you would find it easy to tell who belonged where: not in an era when Earls and Dukes often spoke not in upper-class drawls but in the thick rural accents of their region; not with keen young Mister Pooters mimicking the affectations of their social betters. Class in Britain is a bit like a virus: just when you think you’ve pinned it down, it mutates into something else.