Friday, 5 April 2013

Social class in Britain

So after two days the Great British Class Survey is still the most visited page on the BBC News website. And to think, we’re a society not interested in class. When I first did the test I misread the income question and put my pre-tax household income in and came out as Elite. Now I’ve adjusted this I’m now Established Middle Class. And you all know how much I like the middle classes.

It would be rude of me not to comment on this given our work on the middle classes. I’ve also recently finished reading Mike Savage’s book Identities and Social Change in Britain Since 1940 so I have a good idea where the analysis of the GBCS is coming from. So, in this post I just want to briefly comment on the GBCS and link it to our own work on the middle classes and then do a mini review of Identities and Social Change.

The response to the GBCS on twitter was bemusement followed by many questions that sociologists of social class ponder about a lot: does one’s social class change over time? What does social class mean? Is it linked to occupation? Or is it all about social status. And then there were the Marxists pointing out there are two classes – the exploited and the exploiters. If you haven’t, I’d recommend reading the article in Sociology that supports the news coverage – it’s a good run-through of the theoretical presumptions behind the study and answers most of these questions.

As a tangential point – I think this is a really excellent example of open-access done well and sensibly. There will be thousands of people who want to read this article because of its news coverage; it’s written in a very accessible way; and no one will have to pay $30.

One of the very telling things in the article is how vastly skewed the self-selected sample in the first, BBC run, Great British Class Survey compared to the population of the UK. People who read the BBC news are wealthier and in higher-status occupations than the general population. This is self-selection seems to be repeating itself in the people who are now seeing if they’re “Established Middle Class” or not and then moaning about it. Given the emphasis in the research on cultural capital, the irony cannot be lost.

So, how does this align with our own work on class. One of the questions we always get asked is “what do you mean by the middle class”. At the stage our research is at (a review of existing evidence) we can get away with saying “it’s what the studies defined it as” but it is something that troubles us. The Bourdieuan perspective of Savage’s work really helps us though in thinking through what our definition of middle class might be. In particular, our evidence shows that is the cultural capital of the middle classes, but even more importantly the alignment of cultural capital between service users and service deliverers that means the middle classes benefit disproportionately from the state’s services. In Savage’s new framework, this is the established middle class talking to the established middle class.

A lot of the comments on Twitter around the GBCS on Wednesday morning focused the methodology. And this brings me onto Identities and Social Change and my mini-review. I’ll start with a nice anecdote. I studied A’ Level sociology and I’m very glad I did – I have a working knowledge of the various main theories and methods of sociology that have stood me in very good stead indeed. In the bit of the course on stratification we studied Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s famous Luton study of the Affluent Worker. When I came to study history at university I did a course (I initially was going to refer to this as a “paper” to reveal my elite education) on modern British socio-economic history and studied the Affluent Worker as a historical text. This amused me quite a lot and I Yahoo’d (those were the days) John Goldthorpe and discovered his email address at Nuffield College Oxford and dropped him an email explaining all this. Amazingly in about two hours I got a very nice reply, which I included as an appendix to my essay. He commented that this was a sad indictment of the state of British sociology and made some cutting remarks about Fiona Devine’s study of Luton.

Anyhow, when I launched into Identities and Social Class I immediately fell in love with it as it’s not a book on sociological methods, it’s a history of sociological methods and a historiography of sociological methods. As a historian I was quite shocked to be faced with my presumption that the sociological method had been “always there”. The novelty of the large social survey was something I’d never really considered before. And the story of how the qualitative interview came to dominate sociology in Britain was compelling and made me understand all the more why my dissertation students are ready to run out and do a handful of interviews, of dubious merit and quality, at the drop of a hat.

So, if you really want to understand the GBCS I really would recommend reading Identities and Social Change. However, it does end on an interesting note, that even three years later is beginning to be dated. Savage points out that in the World of Big Data companies like Tesco and Experian have more data on our society than a sociologist can ever hope to capture. With the rise of Google even the Tesco Clubcard database is surely paling into insignificance. And that’s what I wonder about the GBCS – Sian Campbell, in a somewhat light-hearted discussion on twitter, commented:
And I think that’s quite a telling critique. In inductive class surveys you can use whatever data you want and chop it up using advanced statistical methods to divide society into classes. I actually think the methodology of GBCS was more nuanced than the likes of MOSAIC particularly because it brings in social capital. For me, this is where the Marxist and deductive class theorists are possibly right as what matters for me isn’t so much what class distinctions there are, but recognising that there are class distinctions and this has a major impact on people’s lives around things like the delivery of public services.

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