Acting and Social Mobility

Acting seems to be in the headlines a lot at the moment. The issues of who gets to be an actor, who actors represent on stage and on screen, and what kinds of social groups are excluded from acting, have been major sources of media discussion. From Lenny Henry and David Morrissey, through to Edward Kemp and Judi Dench, high profile figures have shown a great deal of concern about the diversity and openness of the British acting profession.

Reflecting on these concerns, Sam Friedman (LSE), Daniel Laurison (LSE) and Dave O’Brien (Goldsmiths) are conducting a research project about acting and social mobility that aims to contribute to these debates. They have been working with data from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey and are now looking to interview actors about their experiences of becoming an actor, the trials and tribulations of getting work and how acting relates to other areas of their lives, such as their social networks and cultural tastes.

The project isn’t funded by anyone and is supported solely by the free time and hard work of the research team. We are looking to interview actors from a range of different social backgrounds, but are particularly keen to hear from actors from minority ethnic and/or working-class origins. Unfortunately we cannot pay, but we are happy to offer coffee and lunch in exchange for an hour of your time!

If you’d like to participate in an interview please contact: or

Dr Dave O’Brien, Senior Lecturer Cultural Policy, Goldsmiths
Dr Sam Friedman, Assistant Professor, Sociology, LSE

Review of Gregory Clark, ‘The son also rises’

Gregory Clark, The Son also Rise: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility, Princeton, Princeton UP, 2014, xii + 364

We have entered the exciting world of ‘big data’. Currently, however, social scientists are divided about its potential for rigorous research. On the one hand, it promises the prospect of assembling vast data bases offering the prospects of detecting distinctive patterns across time and space and with the capacity to provide granular findings. On the other hand, however, it can be argued that through this very process of abstracting data, context and specificity can be subsumed into superficial accounts which flatter only to deceive.

Clark’s high profile and much publicised book is therefore a fascinating test case to reflect on these issues. His premise is a simple one.  By examining the patterning of distinctive kinds of surnames and their association with markers of status in different times and places, it is possible to offer new light on the extent and character of social mobility. And so it is that this book ranges across nine nations (Sweden, the United States, England, India, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea and Chile), goes back in time as far as 1170 (in the English case), and comes up to the present day. The kind of data which is marshalled to extract surnames include student records (such as for Oxford and Cambridge Universities), professional bodies (such as the American Medical Association or of doctors in Bengal), registration data (including death records, as well as population registers such as the Swedish case), probate records, censuses, the Domesday book, political and military records. How can this remarkably wide ranging assemblage be anything other than a bravura performance?

Clark decides that he has discovered a ‘social law’, that ‘there is a universal constant of intergenerational correlation of 0.75 from which deviations are rare and predictable’ (p 12). It has been a long time since it has been thought that laws could be detected in historical analysis, and in this respect the book harks back to an older positivist style of thinking.  His fundamental tool for detecting this law is also simple. By extracting unusual surnames which can be shown to occupy high (or low) status at a certain moment, Clark examines how the status of such surnames changes over time. He shows that there is a slow but steady ‘regression to the mean’. This trend can be interpreted both to indicate a remarkable stability in elite (or ‘underclass’) reproduction, but it can also be interpreted as indicating that there is always a tendency towards elite (or ‘underclass’) dilution as well. The glass is either half full or half empty, depending on taste.

The book contains some lovely vignettes. For my taste, the account of the changing distribution of Norman names who arrived in England after the conquest, amongst Oxbridge graduates over succeeding centuries is very nicely done. In 1170, such names were over represented amongst Oxbridge graduates by 16 times, showing in concrete terms how the Normans dominated this elite educational institution. In the following decades the proportion of Norman names steadily declines, but very slowly. Three hundred years later, Norman names are still four times over-represented. Amazingly, even in the 1980s, Norman names are slightly over-represented. There is still a Normal elite afterlife 900 years after the Conquest.

However, whilst recognising the book’s ambition and verve, ultimately, it can only be seen as a failure. Most fundamentally, Clark’s intellectual range does not stray away from his home discipline of economics (and is selective even within that discipline). To say that ‘(d)iscussion about the mechanisms that drive the inheritance of social mobility has been limited’ (126) can only be regarded as an embarrassing admission of ignorance of the range and quality of sociological and historical research which has addressed this very question in recent decades. This is not simply academic point scoring. It matters because research in these disciplines has presented alternative arguments and theorisations which are considerably more sophisticated than Clark’s. This can be seen in at least four ways.

Firstly, structural approaches to social mobility are often seen to be more powerful than those which focus on individual attributes (as here). By placing social mobility within the context of structural shifts in the division of labour, analysis need not rely on vignettes but can provide accounts of mobility which are able to examine what proportions of social groups are (e.g) self-recruiting, open to the upwardly mobile etc. From Clark’s account, however, we learn nothing about how ‘closed’ different elite sectors are. More broadly, a structural approach would also allow Clark’s own measures of status, such as belonging to specific professions to be put in better historical context. The relative standing of doctors, university students and such like is not historically invariant as Clark implies but itself needs to be contextualised. Oxbridge students are not an equivalent kind of elite in the 12th and 20th centuries.

Secondly, building on this point, sociological and historical accounts have argued that actually there are substantial shifts in the extent of absolute mobility, at least in modern times. It would have been interesting for Clark to have engaged with such an argument (if only to criticise it), but in fact he talks entirely past it. This point is also important in the context of Clark’s reliance on male names alone. Whilst recognising the pragmatic defence of this, given that gender relations are historically variant, and that there are differences in the extent to which, and the means by which, women are associated with elite positions, it becomes more difficult to read off from Clark’s findings to make more general claims about universal laws.

Thirdly, Clark’s conceptual terminology is very loose. Rather than framing mobility within an analysis of social classes (as in Goldthorpe’s class structural approach) or in a clearly defined occupational hierarchy (as with the Blau-Duncan or the CAMSIS approaches), or within a ‘social space’ perspective (as with Bourdieu), generic terms such as elites and underclasses are bandied around as if they are self-evident groupings. It is assumed that status can be measured hierarchically on a scale, with no recognition of the argument that it might be better rendered as mobility between groups which are not always hierarchically ordered.

Finally, and most controversially, there is Clark’s biological account of patterns of social mobility. As he admits, he has no direct evidence of any biological factor which might allow him to prove this. Instead, his argument is dependent on the logic of his statistical approach where he (understandably) differentiates underlying factors (‘competences’) from empirical observations which may be dependent on luck, contingency etc. Clark then assumes a biological basis to such competences, but this is entirely gratuitous. They could equally well be economic, cultural or social capital, in Bourdieu’s terms, for instance.

In the latter chapters of the book Clark throws caution to the wind. In a remarkably cavalier way he seizes on examples of Christian, Jewish, and Gypsy/traveller experience to argue that the persistence of advantage or disadvantage do not disprove his ‘social law’. He thus argues that endogamy amongst the Jewish population, combined with high population growth, explains why their relative high status persists and does not regress to the mean. This interpretation which sums up Jewish history into a three page synopsis based on a handful of sources entirely evades how the relationship between Jewish people and other social groups is organised, and notably the role anti-Semitism. Even more bizarrely, a photograph of two travellers is used to report that ‘they do not look like people of Indian descent’. It is to be hoped that readers are not offended by this kind of cavalier treatment which appears dismissive of the role of racist forces in history.

Ultimately then, Clark’s ambition and confidence proves to be his undoing. Because he puts all his eggs in one basket – of identifying his ‘social law’ – it follows that the book as a whole fails if this law is not convincing. It would be a great shame to disparage the work that has gone into this book. With the remarkable wealth of data at his disposal, Clark could have attempted a more modest but surely more valuable project of elaborating his data sources more contextually, so that they are used to explicate mobility processes in particular nations and times, rather than being yoked to an one grand purpose. It would have been fascinating to see much more detail on any of the data bases he has assembled and sensitive reflections on social mobility in any particular context. In fact, we rarely get details of the overall size and descriptive features (most common names at different times, for instance). Perhaps if the big data had been examined with greater attention to detail, a more satisfying book would have been written which could have more clearly identified the power of potential new data sources.

Mike Savage

London School of Economics.

Understanding Everyday Participation: Towards a more democratic approach to Cultural Value?

Understanding Everyday Participation:

Towards a more democratic approach to Cultural Value?

Andrew Miles

University of Manchester

What does it mean to participate in culture? Why are some activities seen as culturally valuable and others not? How does cultural participation inform issues of personal, social and community identity? In what ways are understandings of spaces, places and so-called ‘creative economies’ rendered through participation?

These are the core questions being addressed by the ‘Understanding Everyday Participation – Articulating Cultural Values’ (UEP) project. UEP is a five-year research project that began in 2012 and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of its Connected Communities programme, with further investment provided by Creative Scotland. A collaboration between the Universities of Manchester, Leicester, Exeter and Warwick, it brings together an 11-strong team of experts from History, Sociology, Museum Studies, English, Drama and Cultural Policy Studies, supported by a group of 16 national and local partner organisations spanning the cultural and third sectors.

UEP starts from the proposition that the relationship between participation and value needs radically rethinking. Orthodox models of cultural engagement are based on a narrow definition of participation, one that focuses on the ‘high’ arts and traditional cultural institutions but which, in the process, neglects the significance of more informal hobbies, pastimes and other, ostensibly mundane, day-to-day activities. Our work sets out to explore the value of such everyday cultural practices through a five-part programme of interdisciplinary, mixed-methods research.

Reflecting a particular concern with the ‘situated’ nature of participation, the empirical core of the project focuses on a set of six case study areas, or ‘cultural ecosystems’. These are Manchester-Salford, Aberdeen, Gateshead, Dartmoor, Peterborough and Stornoway; locations chosen for their contrasting profiles in official statistics for levels of participation and investment in formal cultural activities. On one side, these local studies are being contextualised by new historical research on participation and value and by the reanalysis of existing survey data offering new perspectives on time use and the spatial dimensions of participation. On the other side, we are examining the policy applications of the case study findings in partner-led projects on local participation issues and by reviewing how the processes of partnership working across the project might inform dialogue across different communities of practice (research, policy, production) in the cultural sector.

Our work on the ground in the case study locations is predominantly inductive. We are not pre-determining what constitutes cultural participation but looking to identify key domains and emergent themes in each setting. To enable this approach, we are deploying a suite of, mostly, qualitative methods, which can offer different but complementary perspectives on how people and groups come into participation and what is at stake in this process. These methods include two waves of in-depth interviews with a representative sample of local residents, ethnography, social network analysis, community focus groups, local histories and cultural assets mapping. Currently, we are nearing completion of the Manchester-Salford case study, which has focused on the ethnically mixed and economically deprived wards of Cheetham Hill and Broughton, while work in a urban village community on the edge of Aberdeen and on a central corridor of Gateshead adjacent to the city’s formal cultural amenities is well advanced.

The data being produced in these locations are phenomenally rich and these are still early days in terms of moving towards worked up findings. In Cheetham and Broughton the ethnographic work has identified the particular importance of parks and open spaces as cultural resources, partly because they provide neutral, liminal ground for participation in areas defined by cohesive but in many respects mutually exclusive communities. In the Aberdeen case study the ways in which participation is mediated by changing working patterns and the importance of club life and volunteering in sustaining a sense local identity in the midst of economic, physical and cultural transformation have come to the fore. Initial readings of the in-depth interviews – the first wave of which focuses on people’s life histories and participation narratives, together with issues of identity and belonging – emphasise the sheer diversity of people’s participation practices, along with the cultural resonances of their social activities. Bearing out previous work carried out by UEP team members, they are also indicating the remoteness of the formal cultural sphere to the lives of the great majority, for whom ‘the arts’, at least in an institutional sense, hold little if any interest.

This last theme will be of particular interest to the Cultural Value project because it calls into question the privileging of traditional cultural forms and venues of the kind funded by government bodies.In an earlier post on the AHRC ‘Cultural Value’ project website Geoff Crossick suggested that by placing too much emphasis on participation in the everyday sphere we run the risk of neglecting the consequences of unequal access to the arts in divided societies. Given the association between the possession of established cultural capital and life chances in societies such as our own in the UK (Bennett et al 2009, Scherger and Savage 2010), this is a legitimate concern. Equally, however, this is a position that is unlikely to disturb the status quo, since it fails to challenge the role that existing hierarchies of cultural value play in shaping and reproducing the wider system of inequality in the first place (Bourdieu 1984).

A narrow focus on the importance of the conventional canon in cultural policy obscures the contested and divisive nature of the cultural field and the way in which ideas of cultural value are socially constructed. Policies that prioritise access to the arts in the name of social inclusion are at the same time part of a process of discrimination, marking out social boundaries according to establishment norms and understandings of what is to count as ‘legitimate’ culture (Miles 2013). By taking an empirically grounded, methodologically diverse approach to revealing those practices (and practitioners) marginalised in this process, the UEP project is attempting to develop a more democratic understanding of cultural participation and its values.


Bennett, T., Savage, M., Silva, E., Warde, A., Gayo-Cal, M. and Wright, D. (2009), Culture, Class, Distinction, London: Routledge

Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Miles, A. (2013), ‘Culture, participation and identity in contemporary Manchester’, in Savage, M., Wolff, J. and Savage, M. (eds), Culture in Manchester: Institutions and Urban Change since 1800, Manchester: Manchester University Press

Scherger, S. and Savage, M. (2010), ‘Cultural transmission, educational attainment and social mobility’, The Sociological Review, 53:3

Mike Savage on Paul Morley’s ‘TheNorth

I have prepared these notes as part of my discussion with Paul Morley on September 3rd at the CRESC conference at Manchester. Perhaps they might be of interest to others. Comments welcome!   


Paul Morley’s book, The North, represents the most impressive popular reflection about ‘Northerness’ which currently exists. At a sprawling 582 pages it ambitiously mixes snippets of personal autobiography, with extensive vignettes of iconic northern people, and selected urban biographies, focusing especially on his Stockport and Manchester boyhood but also ranging further afield to Liverpool and occasionally into Yorkshire (though rarely into the Geordie heartland of Tyneside). The book is easy to dip into though perhaps harder to read from cover to cover, but this, is a very real sense, its point. The North, in Morley’s hands, is not just an easy going pastoral for southerners to enjoy at the weekend after a hard week’s stint in the City of London. Nor is it simply an opportunity for northerners who now moved south to give a sentimental and nostalgic rendering about their origins. Rather, the North is spiky, disconnected, cheeky and irreverent, sometimes jarring, even offensive. And it is these very qualities that should be celebrated. As I will argue here, they offer a more productive set of terms to understand the stakes of northern-ness today.

Morley’s places his narrative in a strongly personal frame as a means of making sense of his own identity and life story. But it would be wrong to read it simply in these terms, for its wider purpose is also clear. In a context of a powerful metropolitan point of view, with increasing southern English condescension towards the north, this is a massive act of commemoration and recovery. It stakes out the North’s claim to Englishness, tracing how key cultural, social and political movements can only be understood as associated with their northern heartland, and that any account of the nation which neglects these is fundamentally also complicit with a fundamentally metropolitan framing which can only positions the north in its shadow and in fundamentally subordinate ways.

How then, do we construct an alternative, a ‘better’ north? Morley’s starting point is crucial: it is a refusal to essentialise the North or reduce it to a set of qualities or attributes, whether natural, social or cultural. Rather he insists on the way that the north exists relationally, versus other locations and places, and it is only through such mobilities and instabilities that it can be effectively construed. It is for these reasons that he makes his own movements, and those of his family, notably his father, into and out of the north as a key part of his story. He therefore offers an account which is not seeking to revive a ‘forgotten’ or ‘neglected’ North, but to put the North to work, as it were.

And it poses this issue within the context of the impossibility of the English north claiming a ‘national’ base from which to establish its own ‘canonical’ traditions and identities. Over the past two centuries, the main mechanism by which those in subordinated territories can seek to counter the power of the metropolis is to adopt a specific national identity. Thus, the post-colonial critique of imperial power was associated with the rise of nationalist movements in Africa, Asia and South America. Within the UK, Scottish, Irish and Welsh nationalism have been powerful vehicles to resist London based idioms. More recently, in various parts of the world the deployment of national idioms has been supplemented by the revival of religious identities which can also be used to mobilise against the view from the metropolis. But neither of these repertoires are possible for the English north which can neither claim a distinctive national or religious identity . Similarly, ethnic identities, though clearly highly significant in parts of the north – as in other parts of the UK – do not themselves clearly articulate an account of the north itself. This is the key issue which Morley excavates here in his reflections on what alternative bases for identification there might be. In order to explore his approach to this issue, let us first clarify his frame of reference.

1: Morley’s reference points

We can take our bearings by considering which figures Morley singles out in the various vignettes in his account. All those who are mentioned on five pages or more of his book are listed in the Appendix. Some perhaps predictable patterns stand out: not surprisingly given the autobiographical focus, the list is predominantly of those who were feted or came to recognition in the time of Morley’s childhood, is nearly entirely male (only Gracie Fields and Queen Victoria intrude), entirely white, and predominantly Lancastrian. But these are easy points to make: to criticise Morley for being his selectivity is to misconstrue his enterprise. As I have already emphasised, he is not trying to give a representative account of the North, but is instead using it critically. In this spirit let me tease out some intriguing additional points.

First and most importantly, it is most unlikely that any reader will know all the figures listed in the Appendix. Some of them, to be sure, are familiar northern icons, ranging from LS Lowry (to whom I will return), to JB Priestley, Morrissey and so on. However, the Labour politician and MP JR Clynes – the last major figure from the Victorian world of cotton textile trade unionism to tread the political stage, or the businessman Edmund Shaa are hardly household names today. The same might be extended to figures such as comedian Frank Randle, the scientist Bernard Lovell, and so on. Even Anthony Burgess is hardly one of Britain’s most feted novelists today and would not necessarily figure on the reading lists of many current book clubs. This is all evidence to the dispersal of any kind of ‘Northern’ canon and the way that figures become lost when not united by some kind of ‘tradition’ which thus might link or fuse them. To this extent, this is a paean to a lost and fragmented world.

A second point also stands out. Many of Morley’s chosen individuals are not themselves northerners. He avoids the sentimental trope of fixing the north in terms of its ‘native’ voices. The north is also composed of those who have commented on the north – George Orwell, Charles Dickens – as well as those such as Daniel Defoe, Bob Dylan, Mark Bolan, or Charlie Chaplin whose connections to the north are at best tangenital. What Morley is doing here, is to elaborate an account of the north which does not fix it, spatially, but sees it as the co-construction of those ‘born and bred’ in the area, but also others too. It follows that the north is the product of mobilities across boundaries, and needs to be placed in terms of the interactions between those living in the north and those outside. Morley’s own position here is of course emblematic, as someone whose career has been based in London and the south, who was indeed born in the south, and who now views the north from inside-outside, as he makes clear (e.g. Morley 2013: 533).

Finally, and even whilst recognising this mobility and fluidity of the north, we can nonetheless see a certain familiar construction of it as oriented towards somewhat individualistic, cantankerous, obstinate, men. Burgess, Lowry, Morrissey, even Priestley and Lennon fit somehow into this mould. And Ken Dodd, Bernard Manning, Roger McGough are all mavericks within their own field. And so on. Doubtless, Morley might see himself – as pop Svengali – in this mould too. But simply to therefore dismiss this construction as partial completely misses the point. There is no alternative to this kind of strategy of counter-mobilisation in order to contest the metropolitan point of view which presents itself as universal, and hence any kind of regional or local perspective as ‘partial’ and hence limited. Morley is not claiming an ‘authentic’ or ‘essential’ north, but is rather using these figures agonistically to claim stakes. He is thus seeking an account of the north which is of the landscape but not conflated with the landscape, one which is not fixed or ‘authentic’ but which is an active part of cultural life and identification. He is thus refusing to simply ‘primitivise’ or ‘naturalise’ the north.

In reflecting on the stakes here, we can adapt Pascale Casanova’s (2002) crucial emphasis about the way that cultural stakes are vested in specific locations. In her account of world literature, following from Bourdieu, she shows how the dominance of Paris within the ‘world republic of letters’ entailed that writers from other locations could only take up their pens through recognising, authorising and contesting the dominance of the Parisian perspective which is also implicitly the world perspective. In our case, the metropolitan point of view is represented through the power of London (including its surrounding hinterland) to define the benchmarks of legitimate and recognised cultural excellence and value. From within the metropolitan perspective, the English north is inevitably deficient. What strategies are there for those located outside its remit to gain recognition? Let us reflect on some possible strategies, using Morley’s account as a prompt. How can one authorise the North, using this relational and contested perspective?

2: Contesting the north

Firstly, we might evoke the sentimental rendering of ‘ordinary’ Northern life – of humble ‘folk’, of ‘community’, and of a context in which people know their neighbours, and know where they fit. Here, the contrast is with the sophistication, complexity and subtlety of the metropolis. Over many decades this motif has massively proliferated. It can be found in Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy, in Coronation Street as well as in the social science of community studies (such as Coal is Our Life).

But one only needs to raise this vision to immediately recogjnise that this kind of ‘authentic’ ordinary north is also massively parodied. Alan Bennett’s dramatic world, Monty Python’s ‘four Yorkshiremen’ sketch, Philip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency, and a host of others, including Coronation Street all debunk the idea of any kind of northern community, or rather they play on it only to explore its limits. The northern poet Simon Armitage might also be seen in this ilk. Thus, the motif of northern community exists only to be immediately debunked, one might suggest, so testifying to its instability and limitations. Stuart Macione’s books on the north are a classic example of this approach, in which the north is simultaneously rendered as mythical through its very debunking. Macione’s own promotion of his popular book ‘Pies and Prejudice’ indicates the politics of this perspective.

‘My name is Stuart Maconie, and I am from the North Of England. Some time ago, I was standing in my kitchen, rustling up a Sunday brunch for some very hungover, very Northern mates who were ‘down’ for the weekend. One of them was helping me out and, recipe book in hand, asked “where are the sun-dried tomatoes?” “They’re behind the cappuccino maker,” I replied. Silence fell. We slowly met each other’s gaze. We did not say anything. We did not need to. Each read the other’s unspoken thought: we had become those kinds of people, the kind of people who had sun-dried tomatoes and cappuccino makers, the kind of people who did Sunday brunch. In other words: southerners. A northerner in exile, stateless and confused, hearing rumours of Harvey Nichols in Leeds and Maseratis in Wilmslow, Stuart goes in search of The North.


The north exists here only, as the ‘other’ to the metropolitan south from which this perspective is inevitably based. We can further note that its own irony makes it a more difficult platform to effectively critique without appearing sour and thereby limited. It is precisely this approach which Morley avoids through resisting any kind of ironic referencing in his account and his refusal to stereotype. Morley’s account which proceeds through particularities – of specific cultural figures, landscapes and experiences seeks to avoid any reference to a ‘mythical’ north is necessarily no sooner constructed than it is critiqued.

Secondly, and certainly more arresting, is the more tragic view of the north as a certain kind of lost world. Once more, Morley’s account shares elements of this motif without subscribing to it fully. Arguably, the leitmotif of this framing remains Ted Hughes and Fay Godwin’s astonishing Remains of Elmet (1979). Hughes’ preface runs as follows

The Calder valley, west of Halifax, was the last ditch of Elmet, the last British Celtic kingdom to fall to the Angles. For centuries it was considered a more or less uninhabitable wilderness, a notorious refuge for criminals, a hide-out for refugees. Then in the early 1800s it became the cradle for the Industrial Revolution in textiles, and the upper Calder became “the hardest-worked river in England”. Throughout my lifetime, since 1930, I have watched the mills of the region and their attendant chapels die. Within the last fifteen years the end has come. They are now virtually dead, and the population of the valley and the hillsides, so rooted for so long, is changing rapidly.’ –


The point is again not that this is some ‘authentic’ northern vision. Hughes of course lived most of his life outside Yorkshire, and Godwin was born in Berlin and highly cosmopolitan. And what is also evident from Hughes is his awareness that this is a rhetorical rather than an ‘authentic’ move: just as the lost world of Elmet has disappeared so has the world of textile Yorkshire. It is the ways that this loss can be deployed productively in the present which is important, not a simple nostalgic move. This is therefore a powerful refrain which allows questions of belonging and loss a voice, and in ways which can be mobilised for different purposes. Madeleine Bunting’s The plot: a biography of an English acre might be seen as a more personal rendering of this perspective through her account – where she specifically positions herself as a Londoner but also reflects on her father and his Yorkshire acre allows the tension to be a productive and revealing one.

Morley’s book offers a fascinating resource to reflect on this perspective here. As some adverse critics have pointed out, significant parts of the book appear rather tedious. They discuss his own experience of growing up within the minutiae of the Stockport environs. And here, it is sometimes said, that some of the detail might be wearing for at least some readers: are we really that interested in the intricacies of the Nico Ditch, the relationship between Reddish and Stockport, and so forth. Morley’s insistence on local particularity is one of the key messages of his book . But of course, this is the point. If these were areas of London, then such differences between Hackney and Stoke Newington, for instance, would become canonical reference points. Why shouldn’t the South East Manchester conurbation be equally important? Morley is deliberately challenging the reader, most of whom will have no knowledge of Stockport nuances, with their own prejudicial perspectives and lack of interest in specific locations. Through this mechanism he is further refusing a simple essentialising of the English north.

Thirdly, there is also the possibility of drawing attention to the simple ‘othering’ of the English north, in which it is held up as the opposed location to the metropolitan point of view. In Morley’s book, as in much other work, Liverpool is held up as the quintessential site for this operation. In his most lyrical chapter, Liverpool is evoked as the ‘other side’ of English respectability, but also as the ‘other’ which can never fundamentally be known about from outside and is hence fundamentally indefatigable. It ultimately exists beyond the gaze of the metropolis, even whilst it is inevitably implicated by it
A city representing the bleak, brilliant, narrow, open north of England, but on its own, a compression, distortion and extension of the stubborn energy of pioneers, immigrants, outlaws, artists, entrepreneurs, labourers, dockers, sailors, teachers, drinkers, travellers, politicians, thieves poets, celebrities, comedians…. I sat on the bus….. eager to reach Liverpool, which was something else, and undefeated, undeterred, by war, indifference, all forms of hostility, intolerance and condescension (Morley 2013: 390).

This presentation of the north as sheer ‘other’ is important but it also reproduces the very framing that it opposes and is hence ultimately limited by the terms of reference itself. Hence, whilst rhetorically powerful in some contexts, it can hardly stand as an effective response in and of itself.

3: Contesting cultural hierarchy

I want to champion a further perspective on these issues which we can find embedded in Morley’s text. Here, evoking the north is about challenging the ‘rules of the game’, finding alternative ways of establishing cultural value which contest established views and which allow the opportunity to present new kinds of identities, motifs, and perspectives. This is an inevitably fraught and complex process as I want to show, but one which recognises the stakes of identity politics but seeks to challenge them in ways which can, in certain cases, permit the cultural field, and the attribution of value, worth and dignity, itself to be redefined. Let me discuss this with several examples.

Perhaps the most striking example of this move can be seen through the politics of the ‘middlebrow’, represented in Morley’s pages most emphatically by JB Priestley, but possibly also evident in the art of LS Lowry (whose tutorship under the more conventional artist Valette is brought out by Morley). The middlebrow can, of course, be seen in condescending ways, precisely as inferior to the highbrow culture of the metropolitan centre. However, and this is my point, such cultural modes can also be mobilised more powerfully to critique ‘highbrow values’, as indeed they were by Priestley himself, and can thereby open the potential for such a position to generate progressive and dynamic sorts of cultural identities. Lowry’s own career is indicative of this move, in which the values of established and legitimate artists play no part in construing his reference points: he is driven by rules of art which are different from those of the arts establishment, a point Morley brings out lovingly.

A further example might be useful here. Interestingly, despite his love of cricket, Morley does not evoke the figure of Neville Cardus, whose autobiography remains one of the classical northern narratives, the one which avoids both constructing his Manchester roots as sentimental or as abject. Consider, by contrast, the plethora of northern figures, including Morrissey, Terry Eagleton, Hilary Mantel, Andrea Ashworth, and others who explicate the horror of a northern upbringing. Or contrast this with the sentimentality of Hoggart, Robert Roberts (The Classic Slum) and so forth. Both of these repertoires can be seen to be trammelled by the tensions discussed above. In Cardus’s case, his account refuses these oppositions. Brought up in grim circumstances in Rusholme, Manchester, the son of a prostitute, who nonetheless goes onto teach at private school before becoming music and cricket critic for the Manchester Guardian. And from this arena straddling popular and high culture he contests the very terms in which these are understood. Thus, the popular sport of cricket is fully aestheticized and defined as a possible mode of cultural as well as sporting excellence. Whereas the popular appeal of classical music was also championed as something accessible to a wider audience, and attention drawn to northern venues, including the Halle orchestra, as much as its southern bases. Cardus, archetypal ‘middlebrow’, thus challenges cultural boundaries and hierarchies themselves through seeking to redefine the cultural terms of reference.

It is worth noting how he did this. This intervention was dependent on the Manchester Guardian for which he worked for many years, in the days when this was a northern newspaper which also enjoyed national provenance. In short, he relied on an institutional platform – one of the relatively few, arguably – which could itself challenge the terms of reference between the metropolis and the provinces. The Manchester Guardian could see it itself as more serious than its southern rivals, and so it was that Cardus could write from an ‘authorised’ position.

I am seeking here, to make more than a specialised historical claim about the middlebrow aesthetic. Rather, my argument is that the kind of positive northern identities that Morley seeks to elaborate are effective when they challenge the attribution of value itself through identifying with some kind of nascent or denigrated form and championing its value. Thus, rather than accepting the definition of cultural hierarchy and seeking to elevate the significance of northern figures within it, this requires contesting the definition of cultural hierarchy itself.

There are numerous other cases. In the world of climbing it was the northern white, working class men such as Don Whillans and Joe Smith who played a key role in making this a fashionable sport (Perrins 2002). Or we might rehearse the role of northern suffragettes in challenging the exclusion of women from the vote (Liddington and Norris 1978).

This, of course, is precisely Morley’s claim regarding popular music and its power in the northern imagination. Once again, it is necessary to insist that he is not seeking some kind of northern essentialism here, whereby the Beatles represent some kind of Liverpudlian authenticity, but he is rather making the case that the very extension of cultural repertoires which are necessary for renewal and innovation could only take place from venues outside the metropolitan heartland. It is in this way that huge swathes of crucial cultural innovations can only be understood in terms of their association with the English north: popular music (in several waves, ranging from George Formby through the Beatles, and then through punk, and into the 1980s indie and music scene), serious but popular television (from Coronation St onwards, with Granada TV playing a central role, and so forth), comedy, and so forth

I have myself pursued this line of argument in claiming that the emergence of the British social science apparatus itself, i.e. new modes of conducting social research drawing on interview and survey techniques need to be contextualised in their association with research outside the metropolis and on the marginal borderlands of England. I have argued this specifically with reference to the role of the Welsh border (Savage 2010) but the same is true for the English north, with pioneering studies of northern English industries and communities.

4: Northern stakes today

In my final set of remarks I want to bring out one implication of my reflections for understanding the north today. I begin by noting that Morley’s account, premised on his own experience, largely ends in the 1970s and we get little sense of the contemporary stakes of the north. But we might be able to draw inferences. If the argument I have made here about the productivity of the North lying in its capacity to challenge cultural hierarchies, and if we also see this as linked to an infrastructural apparatus which makes this possible, then a gloomy conclusion seems warranted.

Morley’s book excavates the power of numerous popular idioms, and the way their association with the English north allowed them to contest established forms of cultural value. The question today is whether such a dynamic remains significant. Is Morley in fact the last of a generation? I speak as someone born in 1959, one year later, who has also trammelled the English south and the north – brought up in suburban London, finding my undergraduate studies in York an opportunity to explore true urban life in all its messy vitality, then finding my doctorate at Lancaster a remarkable opportunity to work close to the Lake District. But, after many years working in the north, at Manchester and York, I am now working at the London School of Economics. As I have endeavoured to bring out in Identities and Social Change, my own thinking is closely marked by these movements.

However, is such mobility accross the north-south dialectic so salient for younger generations? This is an open, empirical question, but I am not aware of such strong evidence that it is. The north – south divide has been sentimentalised and naturalised rather than become such a key motif for contestation and dispute. If this is true, the reasons for this are no doubt many and various, ranging from the economic dominance of the south, but also the institutional restructuring of large organisations. Insofar as northern institutions have been rendered into figures in league tables, then their distinctive capacity to challenge such hierarchies is less clear. Rather than striving to change the ‘rules of the game’ such institutions, positioned within a more ‘managed’ institutional environment are more constrained. The Manchester Guardian today no longer has a northern identity. Northern universities are all fully integrated into hierarchical circuits of evaluation – in which they lie subordinate to institutions at the metropolitan core – which forces their hand and limit room for manoeuvre and the capacity to challenge the parameters of action.

We might more broadly reflect on the declining significance of national fields of reference. For the metropolite today, ‘otherness’ takes an increasing range of forms, notably those deriving from different global encounters, and the power of the English north is notably diffused. The opening up of national fields and the increasing complexity of cultural interaction (see e.g. Savage and Silva, Cultural Sociology 2013) suggests the possibility that from the perspective of the metropolitan gaze, the English north has a reduced cultural power today.

These are open questions for further reflection and investigation. But I hope these remarks have indicated the significance of Morley’s individualistic yet also highly pertinent account of the English north.

Casanova, P., (2002), The World Republic of Letters, London, Verso
Liddington, J., and Norris, J., (1978), One hand tied behind us, London, Virago
Perrins, J., (2005), The Villain, Hutchinson
Savage, M., (2010), Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the politics of method, Oxford, Clarendon

Richard Arkwright 6
W H Auden 7
Mark Bolan 7
Anthony Burgess 25
Lewis Carrol 9
Charlie Chaplin 5
Winston Churchill 7
John R Clynes 19
Richard Cobden 6
Thomas De Quincey 10
Daniel Defoe 8
Charles Dickens 16
Ken Dodd 10
Bob Dylan 7
Frederick Engels 12
Gracie Fields 9
George Formby Senior 9
George Formby 14
Alan Garner 6
James Joyce 6
John Lennon 16
Bernard Lovell 5
LS Lowry 44
Paul McCartney 7
Roger McGough 5
Harold Macmillan 6
Bernard Manning 9
Karl Marx 7
Morrissey 12
George Orwell 10
John Peel 12
JB Priestley 19
Frank Randle 8
Jack Rosenthal 5
Sir Edmund Shaa 8
George Stephenson 10
Laurence Stern 10
AJP Taylor 7
Queen Victoria 10
Alfred Waterhouse 7
Harold Wilson 17
William Wordsworth 17
Source: index

Sociological ruminations on Piketty

A sociologist reflects on Thomas Piketty.

Mike Savage, July 1st

Authors note: this is a stream of consciousness set of reflections, which i hope to work up for publication. Comments very welcome!


In the short time since Capital in the twenty first century was published in English, it is clear that Thomas Piketty has opened up a moment of fundamental possibility for contemporary social science to satisfy the thirst for wide ranging social analysis which has not been slaked in recent decades. Rather than play to specialist academic communities, mired in their own paradigms and technical toolkits, Piketty displays, in a series of gripping tables, figures and charts, interspersed with pithy and cogent prose asides, the long term patterns of economic growth, wealth and capital across numerous nations over the past two hundred years. In this venture he connects fundamental research interests across the social sciences. He places questions of accumulation and inequality at the heart of his interpretation.

I should come clean at the outset. I had originally been invited by Jerome Bourdieu to Paris in spring 2014 to speak at an event to mark the launch of Piketty’s book in English. Having initially agreed, in the end, confronted with a busy diary and numerous competing demands, I passed up the opportunity, little realising what I was missing. When the public tumult began I was initially bemused, feeling marginally shamefaced that I had missed my opportunity to be at the stage from the outset. It took me a little while to get hold of the book. Beginning it in a spare hour one weekend, I was immediately consumed and read it from cover to cover in pretty much in one sitting over the next day or so. I have not done this for many years – not for Bourdieu, or Deleuze, or Latour or any of the hallowed soothsayers of our times. Put simply, Piketty’s book is fundamentally the most riveting and accessible work of social science which I have read for decades.

Why is the book so fascinating to me? Certainly, it captures a certain zeitgeist associated with the growing public recognition that the rising significance of the very wealthy is one of the defining issues of our time. And its interests in elites chime closely with my own concerns with conceptualising the elite groups[1].  Its unusual willingness to offer policy recommendations – notably in his call for a wealth tax – alongside its academic pronouncements is striking. But for me, it is the way that he also raises fundamental social scientific questions in addressing his concern with the nature of capital that is so striking. Although he is not a Marxist, his spirit of inquiry has a certain sweeping power which reminds me of the best work of this tradition.

It has become clear that debate on Piketty has settled into political disputes about the value of his proposed wealth tax, and reflections on the quality of his data sources, his (lack of?) economic theory and so on. These foci are not surprising given the nature of his book. However, I want to avoid the debate concentrating completely on these economic issues as I think he also offers an unusual – and I will argue highly insightful, even though not uncontentious – angle to explore fundamental questions of historical change, social class and inequality, and indeed the nature of the sociology and the social sciences themselves.

In this blog I therefore want to approach Piketty sociologically in order to bring out three features of his work which I think offer challenges, and also resources to sociology. These are firstly, his descriptive mode of presentation, and the way that he has elaborated a kind of ‘sociology of inheritance’; secondly his conceptualisation of time, history and social change – which seems massively at odds with sociological orthodoxy; and finally his conceptualisation of social classes and privilege in general. In all three of these areas, I will suggest, Piketty unsettles sociological perspectives in ways which are profoundly important and in my view offer resources for better kinds of sociology. This is not to say that there are no problems with his perspective, and indeed I will seek to bring these out, but it is to argue that he poses a set of fascinating opportunities for reflection.


1: Economics and Social Science

It is the fact that Piketty writes as an economist that is fundamental to his appeal. A book of this kind – though not this actual book – might have been written by a social policy researcher, a political scientist, and perhaps even by a sociologist. Indeed, many of his central ideas, that there is a key difference between income and wealth, that the latter is more unevenly distributed than the former, and that the accumulation of wealth lies at the heart of social inequality is standard fare, even mundane in these disciplines. However, a book of such a kind not written by an economist would not have commanded such authority.

The fact that Piketty has spent fifteen years assembling the transnational data base on income and wealth from across the globe (though especially Europe and North America) rightly stands out. Even his critics (sometimes grudgingly) concede the scholarship. His most vociferous critic, The Financial Times, appears to have been firmly rebutted. But fundamentally it is the fact that he speaks from the highground of economics which allows him an unusually prominent platform. Let us tease out the kind of economist that Piketty is. He himself makes it clear that he distances himself from mathematical versions of the discipline towards more interdisciplinary framings. ‘I see economics as a subdiscipline of the social sciences, alongside history, sociology, anthropology, and political science’ he proudly declares (Piketty 2014: 573). However, we can also suggest that his relationship to economics itself is more agonistic than even this statement suggests.

At the heart of Capital in the 21st century is the formula r<g. This simple equation summarises the book’s argument that ‘the central contradiction of capitalism’ is that the return on capital is usually higher than the economic growth rate and therefore that we can expect an historical default towards returns on accumulated wealth exceeding those on current income. This is a very simple idea, and it is one which is of great sociological interest in gesturing towards a sociology of inheritance, or perhaps a sociology of ‘haunting’. The past will always exceed the present. I will return to this shortly. But for now, let us note that this is a strange equation. Piketty gives no obvious theoretical reasons for it, and in this respect Marxist critics are quite right to point out that there is no analytical foundation, such as a theory of value, underling his magnum opus. Really, the equation can only be understood as an empirical generalisation inductively derived from the mass of data gathered here. But this is precisely the point. Is Piketty actually ironising economist’s favoured tools in order to reassert his fundamental point about the significance of history?

Methodologically, Piketty is conducting a fundamental critique of the repertoires used in much of what currently passes as social science.  This is nowhere marked more strikingly than the way he invokes literary figures ranging from Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac, and Orhan Pamuk more than Simon Kuznets, Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes to explore the nature of wealth accumulation and inheritance in the 19th century. From an economist, this is brilliant chutzpah. Perhaps he might be accused of using these novelists as illustrating (his) history, but arguably his thinking about wealthm inheritance and accumulation draws directly on these literary models.

Furthermore, at its heart, Piketty’s book is fundamentally descriptive. Rather than the typical social scientific insistence on causality as the holy grail, the book’s ample figures and graphs present only uni and bi-variate distributions. There are no complex causal multi-variate models, no ‘variable centred’ attempts to distil the relative significance of various bundles of independent variables and the like. There is no league table of causal variables which pop out at the end of the book. Instead, Piketty relies on descriptive figures showing trends over time with no attempt to explain the trends through introducing independent causal variables.

This strategy is interesting given the current methodological debate regarding the relative merits of ‘descriptive’ versus ‘causal’ strategies in the social sciences (see for instance Abbott 2000; Savage 2009). Piketty is far from alone in championing description (in Savage 2009 I also explored the use of descriptive approaches by Andrew Abbott, John Goldthorpe and Bruno Latour and of course this could be extended to include Clifford Geertz and others). Within this debate, it will surely be the case that his book is now the best example of what one might be able to achieve using description and the fact this appears so powerful is indeed telling.

What are the merits of this descriptive strategy? Firstly, we need to get away from the view that this is an empiricist approach, or that Piketty’s strength lies in assembling ‘facts’ (for which argument see Just like all social scientists, Piketty is well aware that facts do not speak for themselves. What is distinctive to Piketty’s work is his repertoire of assembling his data to a particular visual template. Bruno Latour drew attention to the way that natural scientists are happy once they have visualisations of their findings, and so it is here. Piketty, in Latour’s terms mobilises a powerful set of visual inscription devices and uses these to great effect. His trademark is the way that he uses estimates of national income as a benchmark against which estimates of types of capital and wealth are measured[2]. Piketty rarely uses any absolute measures, the main exception being his careful and important account of population growth in chapter 2. He characteristically sets out one variable of interest with respect to its relationship to a national benchmark.

This reliance on relativizing his key data against measures of national income matters in several ways. To be sure, there is the minor point that this may encourage additional error, as he is benchmarking one set of estimates against another, rather than reporting either of the estimates in absolute terms. More than this, he essentially removes the absolute growth of the world economy from his account. He is controlling for history, one might sceptically suggest. This matters because the absolute, rather than relative, patterns might be important as they can be associated with sociological factors such as an expanded division of labour, a complex state infrastructure, welfare provision, and so forth. Thus, in his now famous arguments that forms of inequality are returning to those of the late 19th century Belle Epoque, we are not reminded that absolute levels of prosperity are now much higher, with the implication that this might give greater capacities to the billionaires of today (e.g. through cost efficient ways of investing their money[3]) compared to the magnates of yesteryear).  We might also note the way that his reliance on national measures also smuggles in a certain kind of methodological nationalism, and that even though he extends his range of national case studies relatively widely, and is also attentive to the significance of international flows of capital, this nonetheless complicates his analysis[4]. And finally, we might also note the how this kind of analysis is typical of the economists’ move to strip out context from history through the use of abstracted cross temporal and cross cultural measures, to render historical change as somehow outside history, as it were.

These are serious issues to which I will return, however against these problems I want to also mention a number of striking advantages. Firstly, it allows him to descriptively unpack ‘outliers’. Such outliers are notably revealed by Piketty’s figures which indicate how far the top few percentile of the wealth distribution tends to be distinctive compared to the rest of the distribution[5]. It is for this reason that he criticises the gini coefficient as the best measure to examine wealth. Whilst in principle there is no reason why multivariate causal models should not also reveal top end outliers, in practice Piketty’s inscription devices do a readily accessible job and are excellent tools. Given his argument about the distinctiveness of the distribution at the very top wealth, his visualisations are highly fit for purpse

Secondly, Piketty’s benchmarking of different kinds of capital against national income is of profound theoretical as well as substantive interest in allowing a way of empirically assessing the ‘inheritance’ effect.  The relationship between ‘structure’ and ‘agency’, between the ‘fixed’ and the ‘mobile’, or between ‘de-‘ and ‘re-territorialisation’ has been amply explored in social theory over many decades in the work of Giddens, Bourdieu, Deleuze, Delanda and numerous others. However, it has proven very difficult to empirically make much of these distinctions in concrete research, however analytically valuable they might be. Yet, Piketty gives us one way – imperfect, but valuable – way of operationalising some kind of distinction which allows us to grasp ‘the power of the past’. If we take his measures of capital as in a sense the ‘fixed’ stock of value from the past, and ‘income’ as current forces, we hence get some kind of assessment of the relationship between the past, historical forces as opposed to the role of current forces over different periods. Of course, I appreciate that this is at best a loose analogy. The realisation of past stocks of stored historical capital relies upon contemporary conditions, whilst current income is of course actually measured annually rather than simultaneously.

Nonetheless, even allowing for this, Piketty’s argument that there is generally a ratio of six times capital to one times national income is a nice way of operationalising some kind of way of assessing the relationship of the past over the present. Six times structure to one times agency would be a lovely, albeit tongue in cheek, way of resolving this long term sociological dispute. And the fact that this ratio falls in the middle decades of the 20th century when the wartime destruction of infrastructure, as well as the shock of war itself visibly shatters the hold is also suggestive about how historical factors can shape this relationship in different contexts. I return to this point below.

Piketty’s insistence on demography is also striking. Much economics, and indeed much sociological research on stratification and inequality seeks to abstract from age, family and kinship dynamics in order to discern the ‘pure’ effect of variables such class, status and so forth as if these can be delineated separately from the other ‘contaminating’ forces. Demography is then shunted off into a separate (and often not very glamorous) siding where it does not cross fertilise systematically with debates about inequality. Piketty demonstrates by contrast that demographic dynamics have fundamental significance in shaping patterns of inequality. This comes out both in his analysis of the demographic transition, and also in his contrast between Europe and America, the latter where population growth is more marked (from a much less dense base) and leads to the ratio of wealth to savings being markedly less than in Europe. Piketty’s focus on inheritance and the significance of transfers within families is further evidence of his re-orientation of social scientific analysis towards demographic, kinship, and household analyses. Whilst highly ‘macro’ in its orientation, nonetheless Piketty recognises the significance of the ‘micro’ strategies of individuals, families, and households. Here, he is pushing at a gate which is also being opened in studies of social mobility which increasingly emphasise the way that wider kinship dynamics cannot be abstracted from the analysis of mobility itself (Mare 2011).

My opening contention therefore is that Piketty’s book is interesting not only as an argument about capital and wealth, but also as a model of descriptive social science that might be able to explore the relationship between past and present within an elaborated perspective on what he terms ‘serial history’. In this way, perhaps Piketty might best be seen as the contemporary representative of French Annales School history with his classical Braudelian insistence on the ‘long duree’. His work can be read as is therefore a fundamental insistence on the need for an historical social science and a powerful demolition of the kind of ‘presentist’ sociology that abounds.  Let me pursue this theme through reflecting on Piketty’s arguments about social change


2: Time, History and Social Change

The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.

In these suffocating conditions, Piketty offers not so much a breath of fresh air but rather a vital infusion of oxygen. His work is a powerful and extended critique of the conceit that our present time has somehow left behind history behind. Actually, is Jane Austen’s world so different from ours[6]? Have we really left behind the elitism and pervasive inequality characteristic of aristocratic society and the Belle Epoque? Don’t the strategies for wealth accumulation developed by Bill Gates and other billionaires share some common characteristics with the very wealthy of previous centuries? Page after page of Piketty refuses the glib temptations of ‘presentism’ and insists on the need for careful historical study.

The kind of historical interpretation that Piketty articulates is worth setting in contrast to the sociological orthodoxies of social change, for the differences are very arresting. Sociologists of all hues classically identify the onset of modernity, associated with the Industrial Revolution, as a fundamental transition. To be sure, Piketty shows that that the period between 1700 and 1802 did see an acceleration of growth rates. However, they did not reach their peak till well into the 20th century and were only modest at the outset (Piketty 2014: Fig 2.5). Where the Industrial Revolution did make a difference was in permitting Europe to challenge the centuries old domination of Asia within the world economy, and here Piketty’s account is germane to the post-colonial critique of theories of modernity. Here, the recent revival of Asia as the most important region of the world economy is also revealing.

Sociologists have not developed a theoretical account of social change in the middle years of the 20th century, which are normally seen as the extension of ‘industrial capitalism’. Piketty however emphasises the historical distinctiveness of these decades. These are the blip years which defy economic expectations. There are the most striking rates of growth and remarkable economici dynamism. These are also the years of communist revolution[7], fascism, world war and anti-colonial struggles, which makes the neglect of them by sociologists all the more remarkable. Piketty thus brings

In recent decades, those that sociologists have normally characterised as marked by deep and profound epochal change, Piketty argues that we are actually reverting to much older patterns. History, it seems, is reasserting itself. Established and substantiated at great length, he claims that there is in fact there is striking persistence in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and that we are now returning towards the Belle Epoque of the early 20th century after a brief blip in the middle decades of the 20th century linked to the two World Wars and inflation. Whatever social theorists might claim about ‘new spirits of capitalism’, the epochalist remaking of network society and so forth, there is actually a remarkable and enduring regularity which needs to be placed at the forefront of our understanding of contemporary – as much as classical – capitalism. Nothing much has changed, and in fact we are becoming rather more like our Victorian forbears than was the case fifty years ago.

As part of this scepticism towards epochalism, we might also note that Piketty has valuable side reflections about the significance of globalisation, which has become a mantra throughout the social sciences. However, insofar as it is measured by the amount of capital invested abroad from within different nations, Piketty’s evidence appears to be that globalisation is of remarkably little significance. His Figure 5.7 suggests that net foreign assets are of little significance for eight leading nations[8] and that in general their significance is declining vis a vis other sources of capital.

Let me dissect this argument further about his anti-epochalist leanings, as its implications are profound. We are surrounded by arguments that we live in a society of ‘acceleration’ (Rosa 2013), and of intensifying mobility and speed (see Urry 2007 and many others within the ‘mobility paradigm’). In fact, the picture Piketty paints is the complete opposite, because he is able, through benchmarking wealth against income, to contrast current with inherited capital. Therefore, Piketty suggests, there was less inheritance (as a higher proportion of the national income) during the middle years of the 20th century. The ratio of capital (i.e. historic, accumulated value) against current income is switching towards the former, so that the balance of historical forces over contemporary ones is increasing. This is notably true with respect to the growing importance of inheritance, where literally children are handed down the residues of resources accumulated by their forbears. In the French case, Piketty argues that inherited wealth was 80-90% of total wealth in the 19th century which fell to slightly less than half by 1970, but is now climbing, has reached nearly 70% and is expected to reach 80% by 2050. Similar patterns obtain elsewhere.

In similar vein, Piketty notes how wealth accumulates dramatically even once entrepreneurs cease direct activity. Thus, Bill Gates wealth has increased far more since he ceased being CEO of Microsoft. Rather than economic capital being the reward for active engagement in the world of business and finance, it is actually the significance of rentier income which is striking. Accumulation takes a form which is highly familiar to the Victorian landed class, it appears.

These findings are not only arresting insofar as the dispute the grand sociological narratives, but also in questioning the moralisation of speed up itself. The dominant motifs – evident notably in movements such as that of ‘slow food’ – around acceleration is that it this has problematic consequences (e.g. being harried, stressed), and that being ‘slow’ is preferable (see Nichols, forthcoming). Piketty’s data suggests a rather different interpretation, that slowness is associated with the declining significance of merit based income and the growing power of inheritance. Slowness is associated with a greater inheritance from the past, and hence the inter-generational reproduction of inequality.

Piketty’s work also debunks claims that the economic role of the state has changed. In fact, with remarkable regularity, the ratio between private and public wealth is in the order of 6:1. This changes very little, if at all, despite changes in the politics associated with state intervention, the shift to neo-liberalism and so forth[9]. This point is so important because of the obsession of the social sciences towards studying the state. Of course there are good reasons for this which reflect the strategic importance of the state for many decisive outcomes, especially militaristic and geo-strategic ones. Nonetheless, and by contrast the private world of wealth accumulation, both at the macro scale in large corporations but also in the smaller scales of household and petty business is also massively significant.

Finally, Piketty’s analysis allows us to recognise the power of small scale, household based accumulation. For, notwithstanding the significance of large corporate forms, in most nations it is household savings which outstrip corporate savings[10]. Similarly, it is wealth tied up in housing which now comprises a very large part of the capital stocks of modern nations.

Now, we need to recognise that Piketty’s practice of controlling for population density and national income has the effect of flattening the historical record in the way we discussed above, but nonetheless it is still useful to work within his parameters. Because he is, in fact, able to detect some striking social changes, as well as continuities, though these are not the kind that dominate in sociological epochalism. What kind of social change does he reveal? The most fundamental shift is that from capital tied up in agricultural land to that tied in housing. By the early 2000s, housing was the single largest source of capital in all nations except the US. This is the clearest possible evidence of the profound shift from rural to urban society that we have, and is a remarkable response to those who claim that urbanism ‘as a way of life’ has somehow become less significant in a globalised world. In fact, urban stakes now appear more important than ever before.


3: Piketty and Class Analysis

Let me turn now to consider the implications of Piketty’s arguments for class analysis. There is an interesting growth of dialogue between sociology and economics in exploring social mobility and social stratification in recent years, and Piketty pushes this dialogue much further than his predecessors. However, the logic of his arguments are also rather disruptive of sociological orthodoxy in an interesting and provocative way.

Piketty directly invokes the language of class in distinguishing between upper, middle and lower classes in terms of their income distribution (on a 10: 40: 50 ratio). Piketty admits this is a largely ad hoc and arbitrary classification which large follows the economists’ general approach, which has been, and continues to be, extensively criticised by sociologists who prefer occupational and employment based approaches to class (see Erikson and Goldthorpe 2010), most recently.

It would, however, be wrong to think that Piketty’s use of income based approaches to class is the central feature of his approach and it does not, in fact, figure very extensively. In fact, there are several other more pertinent issues at the heart of his analysis, and which I will bring out here. Most importantly of all, Piketty’s focuses on accumulation rather than exploitation as the central dynamic of capitalism[11]. This move is controversial in some quarters, but I have argued elsewhere (most directly in Savage et al 2005), this framing has great strategic advantages in moving debates about inequality away from abstractions towards the kind of empirically nuanced perspectives. Rather than fixating on dividing lines between exploiters and exploited, dominators and dominated, and so forth, and which defaults to a problematic politics of ‘class antagonism’ that cannot do other than reproduce the very same kind of divisions which it seeks to dispel, a focus on accumulation recognises that class relationships are not zero sum games, that all agents, differentially positioned within society, develop sensible (in their own terms) strategies to secure and advance their position. However, the overall result of such accumulatory politics can nevertheless be to generate structural inequalities. Without class conscious agents or overt antagonisms, powerful inequalities can nonetheless be generated. Piketty’s is the most elaborated and thought through explication of what an approach based on accumulation might deliver to class analysis. It allows us to see how fundamental inequalities can be generated by agents who are completely oblivious to class and who are not necessarily collectively organised.

At the most general level, Piketty’s arguments are consistent with a powerful move which is evident in contemporary social theory which fuses philosophical pragmatism with Bourdieu’s field analysis. Most clearly articulated by John Levi Martin (2011), in his The Explanation of Social Action, this refuses the conventional social science temptation to read behind what actors actually think so that only social scientists really know the interests of social protagonists. The history of class analysis is littered with appeals to ‘depth models’ , where social agents are seen to be the product of underlying forces, notably in claims about false consciousness which ultimately lead to groups claiming to act on behalf of the less enlightened, with all the problematic totalitarian politics that this can lead to. Martin instead insists on the way that if social life is seen as based in fields of ‘organised striving’, it is always those agents who know best about the nature of these fields and how they can operate within them. Thus, the routine talk about house prices, legal testimonies about inheritance, and watching stocks and shares is the very stuff which drives the economic fields which generate inequality. Therefore, it is the mundane small (and big) scale strategies which people deploy for investment, inheritance and such like that is the stuff of class culture and practice. This is an appeal for a kind of ‘flat’ descriptive social

Next, sociological theorists have class – from both Marxist and Weberian persuasions – have nearly entirely focused on the labour market as the arena in which class divisions are forged, and therefore typically categorise class according to employment position and occupation. Piketty starkly shows that this approach misses the role of wealth and inheritance in the definition of class, notably at its upper reaches. Here, Piketty’s perspective is one which Marxists should find congenial. Rewards to income – i.e. those which are usually seen as the arena of class contestation – are now falling in Britain and France (Figures 6.1 and 6.2) and income from capital is now a quarter of total national income. Interestingly, in both nations, class conflict over incomes, notably through trade union conflict, is at its peak when the proportion of labour income in the national income reaches its highest levels (in the decades after the Second World War). The decline of overt class conflict in the workplace might thus be seen in part as linked to the growing role of income from capital.

Piketty also insists that income differences are more invariably more moderate than are those from wealth. The scale of this difference between income and wealth is profound and getting larger, even whilst recognising that is getting more marked and intense amongst income earners too. Yet, analysis of class rarely, if ever, register the significance of wealth or income based inequalities directly.


An important implication of this argument is that rather than seeing class as based on the labour market, and hence as associated with a public sphere (which is often associated with male adults), in fact classes are also bound up with households and family life. By re-introducing household wealth into the study of class, it becomes possible to link family dynamics to class in a way which might recognise the significance of non-employed household members and provide a richer and more wide ranging perspective on class[12].

What, then, is the implication of Piketty’s analysis for identifying the key class divisions of contemporary nations? Firstly, and most obviously, he identifies a very small, very wealthy class of households which are becoming markedly more wealthy at a great pace. Yet, because this small very wealthy class is so internally divided between its excruciatingly wealthy top 0.1% (or even more, it top 0.01%), this is a class which is unlikely to be coherent amongst itself, and indeed probably experiences more internal division than any other class. Bill Gates is unlikely to think he has much in common with a mere billionaire, let alone a relatively impoverished multi-millionaire. Just like the Duke of Northumberland would have seen himself in a very different situation to a member of the lesser aristocracy, we need to see this internal demarcation and differentiation of the very privileged. To this extent, the Occupy movement which sought to define a top 1% have found a rather insecure target.

Secondly, Piketty draws attention a larger ‘elite’ class who have benefitted extensively from property ownership and inheritance, and are a significant group of a few percent, perhaps up to 10% as in his reckoning. This is the proportion who can expect to receive in inheritance an amount equivalent to the lifetime labour income of the bottom 50% of the labour force (Figure 11.11) and is hence highly privileged to the extent that they can expect a major windfall during their lives which will insulate them from any serious economic concerns. The fact that such a high proportion of people can expect an inheritance of this amount is striking demonstration of the need to make careful differentiation within the ranks of the very wealthy, and to recognise that whilst the super wealthy are a distinctive group of their own, there is also a much larger (though still very small) class who are extremely privileged. This larger elite class might co-incide in some ways with Savage et al’s (2013) elaboration of an elite class (which they see as about 7% of the population) which is set apart economically from all the other classes they detect.

Within the remaining 90% of the population, it is difficult to draw hard and sharp economic boundaries, since compared to those above them, people’s economic capital shades into each other. In fact, Piketty says little about differentiation within the ranks of the larger 90% and this is perhaps one of the reasons why his book has been so popular as it largely – and in many respects, entirely reasonably – identifies the very wealthy as the big winner that it has little to say about the stakes and tensions between those at lower levels of the wealth distribution. Yet, there still remains a very marked difference amongst these groups, and here sociological class analysis has much more to contribute and where Piketty’s focus on the top of the distribution is less helpful. Piketty’s is a republican tract which could unite the vast majority of the population around populist themes. Whether this adequately deals with the extent of structural division within this larger group – amongst gender, ethnic, age occupational and other axes is a point for discussion and elaboration.

The fundamental point which Piketty’s class analysis leads to, therefore, is the need to focus on the very wealthy, and how far this group might indeed by crystallising as a class. Rather than the traditional sociological obsession with the boundaries between middle and working class, and so the dividing lines in the middle reaches of society, we instead need to turn our gaze much higher up the social distribution in order to focus on the very wealthy and a broader elite class. And here his references to the world of Austen and Balzac are very pertinent. Given that he argues that economically we are returning to a period of wealth stability such as they wrote about, are we also likely to see the resumption of the kind of status based, kinship and inheritance dominated, and ritualistic society that they delineate? And if so, what kinds of rituals and symbolic life is characteristic of the super wealthy and the broader elite? What is the role of elite education, of residential and consumption patterns, of friendship and social networks amongst these groups? This is arguably the fundamental sociological question of our age, in exploring the kinds of closure and social and cultural elitism which might now characterise the very highest levels of the social structure. What kind of kinship alliances, elite rituals, and institutional powers do we see around us in 2014?

We do have one vital clue here. Piketty’s recognition that capital is now articulated through urban infrastructure rather than agricultural land is telling. The elite circles of today will not be those of landed society, even their urban and spa haunts which form Jane Austen’s stage. Are we instead seeing the true crystallisation of a new breed of social elites inhabiting very distinctive elite zones in elite global cities, finding ways to mark themselves off and defining themselves as members of a super elite. This is the fundamental question for contemporary sociology.



I have suggested that whatever one makes of Piketty’s economics, and his political framing, his book is also a remarkable intervention for sociologists too. He proffers fundamental reflections on the changing (and unchanging) contours of wealth, income and inequality, but, also great insights for reflecting on social change more generally. I can think of few books that empirically minded sociologists could read to better advantage and which offers antidotes to the banal epochal theorising of sociologists such as by Bauman, Beck and Castells. There is a danger that the political reception of the book colours this contribution. And indeed, the fact that he has been criticised both by orthodox right wing and left wing positions is striking of a danger that his capacity to open up questions will get closed down. For those who smugly feel they know the answers to today’s economic predicament already, Piketty’s work can only be a diversion.  I have argued that his book is fundamentally a remarkable work of historical scholarship which inductively makes a case about the nature of economic relations within a wider set of arguments about social change in which history and the power of inheritance occupies central stage. He does not start from theoretical first principles but instead teases out a set of arguments which place the current situation in historical context. Of course, his is far from being the final word. I have shown, he  needs to make assumptions – notably that of controlling for population growth and income levels – which are bound to flatten his historical framing and which (necessarily, and perhaps productively) limit what he can say. Nonetheless, at the very least, we can still follow his path to see where it leads. I would say that this turns out to be a highly illuminating journey.



Abbott, A., (2000), Time Matters, Chicago, University of Chicago  Press.

Erickson, R and Goldthorpe, J.H., (2010), Has social mobility decreased? Reconciling divergent findings on income and class mobility’, British Journal of Sociology, 211-230

Mare, R. D. 2011.  “A Multigenerational View of Inequality.”  Demography 48: 1-23.

Martin, J-L, (2011), The Explanation of Social Action, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

Nichols, G., (forthcoming), ‘Cultures of time in advanced engineering’.

Rosa, H., (2013), Social acceleration: a new theory of modernity, New York, Columbia UP

Savage, M., Class Analysis and Social Transformation, Milton Keynes: Open University Press. 2000, pp 208.

Savage, M., Alan Warde and Fiona Devine (2005), ‘Capital, Assets and Resources; some critical issues’, British Journal of Sociology, 56, 1, 31-48

Savage, M., ‘Against epochalism: numbers, narrative and socio-cultural change’, Cultural Sociology,: 2009. 3,1, 217-238.

Savage, M., ‘Sociology and Descriptive Assemblage’, European Journal of Social Theory, 12, 1, 144-174, 2009

Savage, M., Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Taylor, M., li, Y., Hjelbrekke, J., Le Roux, B., Miles, A., Friedman, S., (2013), ‘A New Model  of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Sociology, 47, (2), 219-250.

Savage, M.,  and Karel Williams, (eds), Remembering Elites, Sociological Review Monograph, Oxford, Blackwells, 2008

Urry, J., (2007), Mobilities, New York, Wiley


[1] See Savage and Williams (2008) as well as the work I am collectively embarking on with numerous colleagues on the analysis of elites in Britain using the BBC’s Great British Class Survey.

[2] Piketty predominantly uses figures benchmarking against national income in his chapters 3 (public and private capital in Britain and France), 4 (public and private capital in Germany, Europe, US and Canada) 5 (public and private capital in different nations), 6 (the capital-labour split), 8 (the composition of top earners in France and the US), and 9 (income inequality in different nations). This kind of benchmarking is his operational trademark

[3] Which is an issue which Piketty reflects on in

[4] It is interesting that he is most attentive to the question of international transfers when in his policy chapters, when talking about the need for global financial transparency.

[5] See for instance the significance of outliers in the top 10%, top 1%, and even the top 0.01% that he examines in Figures 8.3 and 8.4)

[6] Here, interestingly, Piketty treads a similar ground to the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern.

[7] The fact that Piketty has no data on any of the (former) communist nations (with the partial exception of China) is a key limitation of his analysis, and it would surely be fascinating to bring these into his terms of reference.

[8] US, Germany, Britain, Canada, Japan, France, Italy, Australia.

[9] The fact that the word neo-liberal is never used once in the entire book is striking, and for me at least, highly welcome.

[10] The exception being Japan and Britain, see Table 5.2

[11] I need to explicate this point carefully. I have no necessary objection to the concept of exploitation in and of itself, and it certainly has some rhetorical and moral power. However, it is not easy to apply in empirical research since the labour theory of value, its main underpinning, is a very crude tool to deal with the complexity of economic positions that people find themselves in. See further, Savage 2000 and Savage et al 2014

[12] This having been said, Piketty’s complete absence of observations about gender divisons, within families and more generally, is worthy of note.

Cultural Capital and the City: reflections on Manchester

Cultural Capital and the City: reflections on Manchester

Mike Savage

Note: This essay was written for the volume, ‘Culture in Manchester: institutions and urban change since 1850′, edited by Janet Wolff with Mike Savage (Manchester University Press, 2013). In the end it was not included since it lacked rigour and depth and was too impressionistic. I have posted it on this blogsite as it may have some interest to those thinking about how forms of urban studies can be associated with Bourdieusian analysis. It also includes some of my own personal reflections on the city where I worked for 15 wonderful years. I may still work this essay up for publication, so comments welcome!

The formatting is not polished and there are a few missing references……



When I recall the great cities of Europe, I see myself, first of all, clambering in and out of a motor coach on a conducted tour. Some of these became places to live in, or belong to, but they began just as sites. Not so Manchester. There are no conducted tours, no coaches waiting in Albert Square, or touting guides in Piccadilly. Yet Manchester is as distinctive in its way as Athens or Peking[i]

Paris is often considered to be ‘the capital of the nineteenth century’, and other great cities, particularly London, have their claim too…. If we think of nineteenth century modernity as defined by the city of circulation…  then the claims of Paris are strong. But if we think of the city that has to do with production and distribution, then Manchester has its claims, if not to capital status, then to a peculiar sort of centrality’.[ii]

‘Traditionally, for the upper-middle class homosexual man, there was Paris, and going abroad was a double escape… But England had its opportunities too. Alan (Turing) always used to stay in the YMCA in London…. But Manchester was another story…. here merged many kinds of desire – for physical excitement, for attention, for a life outside family and factory confines and money’[iii]


This chapter reflects on how we can register the relationship between the city of Manchester, its cultural institutions, and the wider social and cultural space in which it is positioned. My aim is to resist an influential temptation to render the writ of urban culture as set by the great metropolitan cities which reads urban culture elsewhere in terms of how far it measures up to its standards. But I also want to avoid the obvious counter strategy, where those positioned from subordinate cities accept the terms of reference set by the metropolis and seek to ‘redeem’ the neglect of that city’s cultural life through rectifying the ‘neglect’ of their cultural life.

In the manner of the three quotes at the front of this chapter, I seek an alternative framing which is attentive to the different cultural stakes involved in cities such as Manchester. I therefore question the value of three ways of reading urban culture, none of which adequately renders the creativity of the city. Firstly, I question the association of urban culture with ‘modernist’ high culture. During the course of the 20th century, ‘highbrow’ urban culture became increasingly associated with those cities which were central bases of artistic modernism, and I explore how this marginalised Manchester. Secondly, I argue that to elevate the city as a site of popular culture is also problematic, because its popular heartlands are usually located not in the heart of the city, but in the industrial city region which surrounds it, in the former textile towns which straddle the Pennines. Finally, I reflect on the problems of a social science justification in which the city is defined as a location of ‘social problems’

Within any of these terms of reference, the city of Manchester necessarily fails to ‘measure up’. It is not as popular or plebeian as its surrounding towns and cities in its surrounding regional environment nor as culturally distinguished as a great capital city, and if its claims to distinctiveness lie in its social problems this is, at best, a mixed blessing. This necessarily ambivalent positioning has often led Manchester to be regarded in negative terms, as somehow lacking an essential quality that might allow it to gain a distinctive urban profile. What is needed, I suggest is a more radical concern to understand urban dynamism.

My paper explores how this ambivalence is articulated in several different registers.  I begin in the next section by briefly outlining how we might best conceptualise urban culture and identification, before turning, in the second section to reflect on the way that despite its size and importance, Manchester has been relatively neglected as a cultural centre in prevailing historiography. In the third section I deepen my account by considering Manchester’s muted significance as a specifically modernist city, lacking key features of cultural capital. In the final part of the essay I examine how the social sciences, whilst strongly established in the city, have also fed into this problematic rendering of the city by emphasising it as the site of ‘social problems’.


  1. Manchester and cultural innovation

On the face of it, Manchester’s role as a culturally dynamic city does not need to be underscored. It was the classic site of industrialisation, notably in the 18th and early 19th century where it emerged as the commercial centre of the cotton textile industry[iv]. Peter Hall identifies the city as ‘the first true innovative milieu’. This dynamic role persisted into the later 19th century with the innovative building of the Manchester ship canal, and into the 20th century where the Trafford Park industrial estate pioneered modern forms of consumer oriented business, and even into the early years of information technology where the city was the site of early digital computer. More recent icons abound; the global reputation of Manchester United FC, its gay village (regularly identified as one of the most important venues of its kind in the world); and its international musical profile, ranging from the Halle, one of the first modern orchestras in the world, to its’ music scene in the 1980s and early 1990s played a key role in the generation of the dance scene[v].

Alongside these iconic interventions lie its distinctiveness cultural politics, where over two centuries it has been the pioneering site of movements which came to have global significance. The Anti-Corn Law League, formed in the city in 1838 played a pivotal role in elaborating free trade politics during the 19th century. The modern Co-Operative movement originated from Rochdale in 1844 and sustained a very strong presence in the city and region thereafter. In the early 20th century the city was base to the suffragette movement which played a key role in winning British women the vote and championing second wave feminism. The location of the 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945, in the aftermath of the Second World War, was a central moment in the anti-colonial politics of the later decades. Campaigns over the development of Thirlmere reservoir in the Lake District in 1930s saw the city emerge as a pioneering site for modern environmental politics. Its place in championing a politics of public access to the countryside became legendary with the ‘mass trespass’ of 1932, and its climbers were pioneers in the development of the sport of modern climbing in the 1950s. It became a central beacon for gay culture in the years after the Second World War[vi].

Yet, it Manchester’s claims to cultural originality are so many, varied, and significant, why does an apologetic tone, so amply evident in AJP Taylor’s article, nonetheless prevail? Why is the city so often highlighted as the site of social problems? We might note the similarities, across time and media, of a number of iconic studies of the city. Frederic Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England is arguably the first work of urban sociology ever conducted. Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South uses Manchester as its model for Milton, the industrial town which stands in counterpoint to rural southern England. 100 years later, Coronation Street located in the fictional terraced housing of the conurbation, was the first ever ‘realist’ soap opera ever staged in England. In 2003, Shameless, explicitly set in Manchester, takes this realist approach to a further voyeuristic level, through a focus on the vicarious behaviour of the Mancunian ‘underclass’. These four examples indicate the cultural prominence of the city. Yet, although Manchester holds up a mirror to the nation, it is designed towards dis-identification in the mind of the reader or viewer who is symbolically positioned elsewhere. The partial exception is Coronation Street, where, intriguingly, the Mancunian reference is implicit, and the city is not named as such.

In order to understand this urban cultural politics I argue that we need to follow Pierre Bourdieu in seeing urban culture as organised in terms of fields – where different cities are located within force fields which symbolically place them in positions of dominance, subordination and contestation. In making this argument, I take my distance from classical, sociological interpretations of urban culture which identify this as generic to urban experience rather than as contested. It is thus a commonplace of urban sociology that the modern city is the fundamental site of ‘the experience of modernity’ whereby the transient bonds of capitalism are most manifest and far reaching[vii]. Classically, these urban cultures are janus faced. On the one hand they celebrate the freedom and possibility of urban life, the scope for creativity and improvisation as one lives alongside, and encounters a host of urban strangers. On the other hand, the shattering of face-to-face and communal bonds allows forms of anxiety and insecurity to come to the fore.

This influential sociological account of urban culture fails, however, to recognise the variegated nature of urban life. One way of registering this is through Henri Lefebvre’s insistence on the role of ‘representational space’, in which cultural producers had the capacity to seize on distinctive urban imagery to challenge dominant modes of ‘abstract space’. These impulses lead to battles over the symbolic construction of place[viii]. Yet the problem here is that such an account fails to recognise the way that cities have very different resources and capacities to define and identify themselves, and the different positioning of cities needs to be recognised in any adequate account.

My argument here proceeds by taking my cue from Bourdieu’s account of how cultural capital is defined vis a vis popular culture, I argue that cultural capital is also physically located in specific metropolitan cities. I further claim that during the 20th century, it is those cities which specifically embrace artistic modernism which become central locations for cultural capital. This argument has been elaborated with considerable sophistication by Pascale Casanova in her study of the global literary field which emphasises that globalisation involves inextricably defining centres (in her case, France as the guarantor of world literature) and peripheries[ix]. Here, I embrace Berman’s distinction between modernity and modernism, in emphasising that we need to understand urban meaning not as a generic quality of the modern epoch, but as contested between different urban sites.

Marshall Berman’s riveting account in All that is solid melts into air makes it clear that the modern urban experience can be rendered in both democratic and more elitist ways. On the one hand, the transitory nature of the urban experience undermines status hierarchies and allows urban experiences to be common to all its inhabitants as different people rub up against each other. ‘There is a mode of vital experience – experience of space and time, of the self and of others, of life’s possibilities and perils—–that is shared by men and women all over the world today. I will call this body of experience ‘‘modernity’’[x]. This democratic character of urban life leads Berman to draw attention to the particular ways that large metropolitan shopping streets were the palimpsest of urban modernity. On the other hand, Berman also claims that modernist art and literature has a key role in providing critical resources to allow people to make sense of this urban context: ‘To be a modernist is to make oneself somehow at home in the maelstrom, to make its rhythms one’s own, to move within its currents in search of the forms of reality, of beauty, of freedom, of justice, that its fervid and perilous flow allows’[xi]. Berman thus follows the modernists own project of using art to redeem the fractured qualities of everyday life through realising forms of abstraction which permit the aesthetic to be fully rendered

Berman thus yokes a conception of modernist art as a fundamentally urban form of analysis which chimes closely with the recognition that during the course of the 20th centuries, a few cities come to be iconic sites of cultural modernism: notably London, Paris, New York, St Petersburg and to a lesser extent Barcelona, Turin, Lisbon and the like. My fundamental point here is that Manchester, whilst being a classic city of industrial modernity – for the historian Asa Briggs it was a classic Victorian city – it never became one of these iconic modernist cities[xii]. The shift from Victorian urban culture to 20th century cultural modernism involved a complex redefinition of the city’s relative positioning in which it became seen as increasingly subsidiary to London and other major capitals.

Let me trace this argument through reflecting further on AJP Taylor’s evocative interpretation of Manchester as a form world city which has become an ‘agreeable provincial city’. As he makes clear, this is the loss of a certain kind of civic independence strongly enshrined during the 19th century in which the city saw itself as different from, and incommensurable, with other kinds of cities. The city did not seek to embrace the values of historic cities. Its university did not aspire to be like Oxford or Cambridge. It valued trade and commerce as worthy goals in and of themselves. This account is, of course, anchored in Taylor’s own association with the city as a young lecturer in University’s History Department in the 1930s.

Taylor’s is an account of the how the Victorian city becomes one seen in nostalgic terms, as a city of loss. For this is certainly a story which is familiar from other literary reference points.  Katherine Chorley’s Manchester Made them is an account of the golden age of Edwardian splendour of bourgeois surburbia in north Cheshire. We might note in passing the irony that Chorley’s suburban golden age is actually part of Taylor’s decline, since he sees suburbanisation as a key feature of the fall of Manchester. But we might also consider the cricket and music critic’s Neville Cardus’s famous autobiography which renders his early years in central Manchester, and his residential sojourn in Rusholme, as a part of unique cosmopolitan urban environment. We might stretch our literary gaze even further, to consider Alan Garner’s stories of Manchester and north Cheshire as entrees to another fantastic world (notably his Owl Service where the children stranded in a decaying inner Manchester zone become transported into a nether world). This is also a world rendered in Robert Robert’s Classic slum

“They’re knocking our lives and times away” said an elderly Mancunian. We stood together gazing over a wilderness on which still another vast slum had been razed, and he spoke in grief. A kind of culture unlikely to rise again had gone in the rubble, and he knew it.

We are here in the realm of the narrative construction of urban space as an arena of loss and (partial) recovery through narrative structures and forms of memory which are at best provisional and partial. These idioms are, of course, not unusual ways of dealing with urbanity. Walter Benjamin’s account of his childhood in Berlin, or Marcel Proust’s of his childhood games in the Champs-Elysees are fundamentally written from the same cloth. But in the case of Manchester, these nostalgic portraits are not so obviously challenged by the kind of alternative progressive and utopic urban visions that were seen as key dynamics of urban life by architects, planners, writers and artists[xiii]. As Marshall Berman so evocatively recounted, the boulevards and streets of the modern metropolis are sites for the kinds of fleeting encounters which are emblematic of contemporary times. In this modernist rendering of the city, a number of reference points recur: Paris, claimed by Casanova as the capital of cultural capital, but also London, New York, Berlin and other ‘world cities’ of this ilk.

During the 20th century, as cultural capital became increasingly institutionalised in educational establishments, in cultural institutions, and in the abstracted forms of artistic modernism, so industrial cities such as Manchester lost ground. In making this argument, the issue is not the sociological one as to whether there actually was a significant modernist movement in the city which might now be recovered and given due scholarly attention. There is an argument that the artistic currents around Valette and Lowry led to an impressionist rather than modernist rendering of the city (in contrast to for instance Wadsworth’s role in Bradford). Here, Taylor’s nostalgic article on Manchester is telling. It was initially published in Encounter, the magazine founded in 1954 as the vanguard of the modernist humanities intellectuals, led by Stephen Spender. As notably emphasised by sociologist Edward Shils, in his much cited paper on ‘Intellectuals’, this modernist movement became in the post war years fully complicit with the dominance of metropolitan values. Shils pointed to the increasing dominance of the metropolis as the emotional heartlands of modernist intellectuals

The movement towards London in the twenties and thirties was not merely a demographic fact. It was associated with the assertion of the cultural supremacy of London society – and with it, of Oxford and Cambridge – over the provincial centres[xiv]

Taylor’s account of Manchester was thus – unwittingly? – part of a broad programmatic of modernist disparagement of Manchester, now defined as a provincial city lacking the quintessential metropolitan formation. And this simultaneous construction of cultural and urban value, where the capital city becomes the necessary seat of urban value has increasingly become a modern ‘doxa’, as for instance in the emphasis that Pierre Bourdieu gives to the role of the capital city[xv]. This negative positioning of Manchester has been is an enduring refrain across a wide variety of media. Leaving the city is identified as a form of contemporary bildung – where the gaining of experience and wisdom involves removal from the city. This is something that Terry Eagleton’s autobiography, Andrea Ashworth’s acclaimed account of her girlhood experience of domestic abuse in Manchester, and climber Jim Perrin’s personal reflections on his childhood, (as well as his biographical reflections on Don Whillan have in common[xvi].

My point, then, is that the city of Manchester increasingly became bound up with a cultural force field during the 20th century which made it more difficult for it to occupy a secure position. Located between the highbrow and the popular, it proved increasingly difficult to articulate a distinctive highbrow urban vision during the course of the 20th century. Not all cities have the resources to define themselves as cultural centres. And, since making such claims is inherently relational, at the same times that certain cities elaborate their ‘specialness’, others are denigrated and downplayed. And so it is that the elaboration of the ‘modernist’ city from the later 19th century involved a differentiation from ‘merely’ ‘provincial cities’


2: Manchester and popular culture 

My suggestion above is that during the course of the 20th century, Manchester lost its earlier cultural prominence not due to its own limitations, but owing to the consolidation of a cultural field centred on the large metropolitan centres. This raises the question of how the city figures as a site of popular culture, in contrast to the highbrow. Several of the papers in this volume explore this issue in different ways, through interests in commercial sites of leisure which become key arenas for popular culture (Gardiner on theatre; Wyke and Powell on Belle Vue); contemporary alternative theatre (Todd), and the contemporary cultural engagement of the working classes (Miles). The appeal of the music scene and popular sport is a further marker of this possibility.

However, a fundamental problem for this positioning of Manchester is that it is often specific sites abutting the city which can more easily be defined as true habitats for this kind of popular, plebeian, culture. Thus – for those aware of the regional geography – the neighbouring city of Salford is often a more clear signifier of the popular – as indeed it is for Eagleton. This is precisely how Robert Roberts talked about Salford as The classic slum and articulates with Salford’s recent embrace of a cultural infrastructure through its hosting of the Lowry Centre. In a similar way, the truly industrial towns surrounding the city can be rendered as locales for working class industrial culture. Liverpool can often be identified as a more popular and unruly city. The city of Manchester itself, therefore, is caught in a force field in which it is neither as ‘cultured’ as a great metropolis, nor as popular as its immediate city region.

We can best see this intriguing set of tensions at work by reflecting on this historiography of the city. It seems undisputable that studies of the city region have proved fundamental in shaping our understanding of social change over the past two hundred years. More than any other county, studies of Lancashire have shaped influential visions of the remaking of class relationships, and the development of modern political systems, and notably about how forms of popular politics have played a key role in shaping modern cultural life.  A brief catalogue of the key interventions include John Vincent’s study of how the Liberal Party developed as the first ‘modern’ political party (based on a study of Rochdale); John Foster’s analysis of how Oldham became site for revolutionary mobilisation in the early 19th century; P.F.Clarke’s account of how the Liberal Party took on a social democratic form in the early 20th century; Patrick Joyce’s influential study of working class conservatism, which centred on Blackburn[xvii]. In all of these, the focus is on how the popular classes are involved in political mobilisation which comes to shape modern political cleavages and institutions. A similar story can be told for influential accounts of the redefinition of gender roles and politics, with Liddington and Norris’s study of the working class feminism and Gittins’ of domestic relationships in the textile industry. In all these studies Manchester is present, as the capital of the cotton textile district, yet also absent from the analysis.

These foci on popular engagement therefore largely side step the city itself. And we can see this tension play out even in those few studies which seek to focus directly on the city itself. One line of interest is Manchester as a quintessentially ‘middle class’ city – i.e. as positioned between the elite and the popular, and so implicitly taking up a consistent positioning given my argument above. This comes over in Alan Kidd’s historical textbook on 19th century Manchester, Simon Gunn’s work on The Public Culture of the Middle Class, and John Seed and Janet Wolff’s work on visual culture and the middle classes in these two cities. It also applies to my own collaborative study on middle class culture in contemporary Manchester where those in the suburbs see the city centre as articulating some kind of superior status.

My point, then, is that Manchester is uneasily positioned, neither a site of cultural capital (increasingly located in the metropolitan capitals), or popular culture (located in the poor industrial hinterlands of the city centre). However, over the last century the city has championed a powerful way of escaping this tension through its association with forms of youth culture which are deemed to be new, emerging, and fundamentally located in central urban sites. Through this deft move, the city champions a form of popular culture which is not aligned with industrialism or the working class, but with new generations. This association is not new: the city has, in fact been subject to an unusual number of studies demonstrating the resonance of youth culture over long periods of time, including Andrew Davies’s acclaimed Gangs of Manchester[xviii]. However, over the past thirty years the rapid expansion of higher education (in which the city now figures as having one of the largest student populations in Europe), and the high profile of the contemporary music culture has been very significant. The symbolic location of the Hacienda club in the centre of Manchester, yet also in dialogue with the city’s industrial remnants, is a notable example of the distinctiveness of this cultural move. O’Connor and Wynne’s advocacy of the city’s leisure and music scene  as marking the end of cultural hierarchy with the ‘margins’ moving to the ‘centre’ is a notable example of this trend  We might see this, in Bourdieu’s terms as allowing the city to seek a distinctive identity as capital of ‘emerging cultural capital’. However, it rubs up against the powerful motif of the ‘city of social problems’ which I now turn to consider


3: Manchester and the social science narrative.

Since the writing of Engels, Manchester has been seen, fundamentally, as a site of social problems, and it has thus entered the intellectual field as an icon of disadvantage and dereliction. This in large parts is associated with the city’s prominent location as a centre for a certain kind of social science. The ‘Manchester School of Economics’, with its legacy in the Manchester Statistical Society and the free trade movement has been prominent for well over a century. With the proliferation of the social sciences during the 20th century, this conception of the city has become pervasive.

From the early 20th century social science narratives which both jostled with, and also challenged those of literary narrative form. Associated with the writing of Georg Simmel, and then the Chicago School writings of Louis Wirth and Robert Park, these identified the modern city as a zone of sensory overload and as marking the formation of new groups: communities of ‘choice’ and social interaction. These were groups of people who could interact and socialise in ways not dependent on birth or background and thus exemplify modern forms of creativity

During the later 20th century, these kind of social science narratives have become increasingly influential vehicles for the articulation of urban meaning. Terms like ghetto, gentrified areas, communities, slums, and suburbs are all examples of how social scientific ideas circulate and inform our understanding of urban space. More recently, ideas of urban cosmopolitanism, of global cities, and of the role of the creative classes demonstrate the close association between the social sciences and strategies for urban development. Yet, I want now to show that they share an implicit moralism, and have also proved recalcitrant in specifying Manchester’s distinctive urban qualities.

For, although a quintessentially industrial city, Manchester has never been feted like Chicago as a sociological model for the modern city during the later 19th and early 20th century. Despite Engels’s pioneering study of Manchester, the prime case became Chicago – home of the famous Chicago School – who took the slums and ghettoes as its inspirations for the brilliant ethnographies which began in the 1920s with Park, Anderson, and continued into the 2000s with the work of Dunier and Wacquant. In Britain many of the key sites of research which sought to map social relationships across the entire population moved to London (as with Booth), to York (with Rowntree) and then to smaller towns which appeared to be more congenial to the analysis of sample surveys (as famously, Reading and Northampton). By the later 20th century, the social science narrative of world cities led to an even stronger focus on the large global metropolis’s as centre to contemporary urban belonging.

And, even though it became in the later 20th century a profoundly post-industrial city, nor has not it been treated as epitome for a the kind of de-centred suburban metropolis made familiar by the Los Angeles model, or the more recent discussion of the ‘global suburb’, even though its suburbanisation is one of the most entrenched and historically rooted in the world.

The story here, then, is of the failure of a distinctive social science rendering of the city of Manchester itself. This is, in many ways, a surprise. Manchester’s Statistical Society, formed in 1833, claimed to be “the first organisation in Britain to study social problems systematically and to collect statistics for social purposes” and in 1834 to be “the first organisation to carry out a house-to-house social survey’. The myriad inculcation of utilitarian knowledge in the city’s governing institutions was strongly associated with projects of minute projects of governmentality[xix].

The story here is a complex one: the interest of Manchester University in social research was established early, through the creation of a Department of Economics as early as 1851. Manchester school economics became synonymous with the hegemony of laissez faire. In 1930 this impulse led to the establishment of one of the UK’s earliest economics journals, which began with the famous observation that


has been thought for some time that there was not only room but need for a journal devoted to the work in economics being done at Manchester. Each University develops in time a technique of thought, a method of approach, and a convention of economic understanding peculiarly its own. Everyone passing through a University assimilates to some extent its mode of thought. In Manchester this outlook has been necessarily influenced by the industrial activities congregated around us, and by the special problems with which these activities have been brought face to face.


By the 1940s, indeed, economics at Manchester was one of the largest Departments in the UK, and had extended into pioneering interests in political science and social anthropology. This interest in the social sciences was highlighted by the role of the (one time) University’s Chancellor, Ernest Simon, who as well as being leading industrialists and philanthropists, also played a supportive role in encouraging social science research. Simon’s bequest to the University to support social science research remains one of the most generous of any British University[xx].

Despite the importance of this intervention, and its potential for energising social research, research on Manchester itself was limited down to the 1950s, and beyond.  There were striking contrasts with the London School of Economics and the University of Liverpool, the latter of which became the major centre for social sciences outside London. Here again, in a similar way to the city’s problematic identification as neither fully highbrow nor popular, it was caught in a pincer movement between two alternative definitions of modern urbanism: the capital London on the one hand, and the city of Liverpool – with what were deemed to be its abundant social problems, on the other.

In London, the LSE carefully capitalised on Booth’s poverty research from the 1880s and hosted Bowley’s restudy of London poverty in the 1920s. This concern to use the city of London as a key site for understanding social change fed into the demographic research of David Glass on social mobility and through the work of urban sociologists such as Ruth Durant, and indirectly also cross fertilised with the research of the Institute of Community studies. In Liverpool, building on the legacy laid down by Carradog-Jones in the 1938 Merseyside study, T.S. Simey began to champion the study of northern social problems. Liverpool pioneered the study of workplaces using interview and survey methods, and also developed innovative methods of community studies which involved interviews and simple social network studies. Manchester housing estates Liverpool social scientists became strongly involved with the older sociological journal in the UK, The Sociological Review, which moved to North Staffordshire in 1950, but Manchester interests were much more weakly felt, despite their proximity[xxi].

Despite its size and research orientation, Manchester’s social science urban research interests took on a different form, being removed from minute examination of the urban form. From the later 1940s, the decisive contribution at Manchester was through the role of social anthropology, led by Max Gluckmann, in what became known as the ‘Manchester School’, which was to enjoy a major international reputation. This was a remarkable social science intervention. Gluckmann took insights from the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in Africa back to Manchester, through his interest in the role of urban social relationships. Gluckmann’s concern to critique colonial models of social analysis led him to become interested in how interests in African roles could be applied in the UK. Under his aegis innovative ethnographic methods were applied to a series of urban contexts during the early 1960s, notably into the workplace studies), and studies of schooling relations. These studies became highly influential in their own terms, inspiring specialist studies of business and educational research. Lupton became one of the early leaders of Manchester Business School, whilst Hargreaves led the Education department in the University. But these specialist foci did not authorise an interest in the social relations of the city itself.

This is not to say that social science research from Manchester did not develop some pioneering interests in the organisation of space and community relations, yet, tellingly, these took a more orthodox form of directing the gaze of educated researchers from the large metropolis to smaller local studies. Thus, Frankenberg’s study of the Welsh village Glynceriog, as well as the study of Glossop by Birch et al involved a focus on the small-scale locale. The Manchester school of anthropology, even with its distinctive interest in urban networks, thus ultimately did not generate a focus on the city itself[xxii].

And, even with the emergence of sociology at Manchester from the 1960s, a similar story can be told. The dominant foci of early sociology lay in the macro scale study of international development (led by Worsley and later Shanin)  on the one hand, and an interest in the micro scale study of social interaction and conversation analysis on the other (led by scholars such as Watson, Sharrock and Lee). When urban sociology was developed in the Department, under the aegis of Pickvance, Mellor and Stanley, these were of specific sites in the city (Withingon, in the case of Pickvance), or outside it (Rochdale in the case of Stanley). Pickvance left Manchester to move to Kent just at the moment that he was to play a lead role in championing the ‘new urban sociology’. When Rosemary Mellor, Manchester University’s pre- eminent urban sociologist committed suicide in 2001, she had recently completed her last article, a devastating attack on Manchester as a ‘hypocritical city’[xxiii].

My argument, then, is that Manchester remained stamped as a city of social problems, rather than being the site of social scientific research which sought to examine social relationships more widely. This continued, indeed into the 1970s and 1980s. Research in the ESRC’s localities programme focused nearly entirely on self contained towns rather than large urban sites. Rochdale was thus chosen as one of the case study areas (along with Teesside, Kirkaldy, Lancaster and Bournville). Therefore despite its’ iconic status, Manchester failed to generate a distinctive identity as an urban research site. Even in the post war years the wave of ‘community studies’ came to focus on other localities, even when, as with Birch et al’s Small Town Politics study of Glossop, it was led bv Manchester academics. There were only occasional – though telling – exceptions, notably offshoots of Manchester School anthropology which achieved worldwide renown during the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the research of this group was outside the England, but there were some fascinating offshoots. Anthropologist Tom Lupton (the founder of Manchester Business School) researched factories in Gorton as a means of understanding how workers might restrict output and David Hargreaves’s work on schooling in Manchester, notably Social relations in a secondary school proved one of the first ethnographic studies of schooling[xxiv]. Yet these studies, through being applied to particular contexts were predominantly read as generic accounts of workplace relations and urban schooling respectively, and did not address the specificity of Manchester itself.

This concern with the city as a ‘site of problems’ fed into new interests in urban regeneration from the 1970s. Research on inner city deprivation was conducted in Manchester during the 1970s and 1980s, but invariably this had the effect of focusing on a few locations which were deemed to be especially ‘problematic’ (Hulme, Moss Side).  This was all in striking contrast to the social science discourse on global cities and ‘creative cities’ whi

which were deemed to be especially ‘problematic’ (Hulme, Moss Side).  This was all in striking contrast to the social science discourse on global cities and ‘creative cities’ which generated extensive debate from the 1990s and which by-passed the city of Manchester. These interventions, owing much to the work of Sassen, Thrift, Timberlake and others elaborated a concern with the capacities of urban spaces to act as global attractors to financial, media, and corporate interests. To some extent, this work largely reinstated metropolitan images of the urban, and in this process they continued to leave opaque the role of other, ‘second tier’ cities in constructing images and perceptions of urban life[i].

I have emphasised that although a centre for social science for centuries, Manchester’s location as site of social problems has consistently weakened its profile. However, it wouild be wrong to end this section without reference to some work which has attempted a different, more productive tack. Some of these are comparative in vein[ii]. Ian Taylor et al’s A tale of two cities is undoubtedly the most extended treatment of the city in this vein, in its arresting arguments about the existence of a distinctive ‘local structure of feeling’ in which Manchester is identified with a more cosmopolitan and open orientation than the industrial city of Sheffield. Another example of this treatment of the city comes from probably the most important and sustained ethnographic intervention – Pnina Werbner’s ethnographic study of Pakistani’s migrants, and its cultural as well as social and economic aspects. Her ‘Manchester migration trilogy’, Pilgrims of Love; Imagined Diasporas among Manchester Muslims; and The Migration process, is the most comprehensive study of aspects of the city ever written, and testifies to the way that the city is better rendered not as a coherent entity but as part of a web of trans-national social networks. Indeed, if there was one enduring legacy of Manchester social science to urban analysis, it was the concern with networks. Indeed, the study of social networks is seen throughout the world as a central contribution of Manchester social science. We have seen this network approach surface in several of the studies referred to above – it figures in Werbner’s migration triology, as well as the comparative studies of Taylor et al. I attempted to develop some of the same sensitivity to the cultural imaginaries of white middle class Mancunians in my own study with Gaynor Bagnall and Brian Longhurst, Globalisation and Belonging



Looping round in one more curve, the roar of the engines steadily increasing, the plane set a course across open country. By now we should have been able to make out the sprawling mass of Manchester, yet one could see nothing but a faint glimmer, as if a fire almost suffocated in ash. A blanket of fog that had risen from the marshy plains that reached as far as the Irish sea had covered the city, a city spread across a thousand square kilometres, built of countless bricks and inhabited by millions of souls, dead and alive’ (Sebald….

In this essay I have offered a framework for understanding the ambivalent positioning of Manchester as a distinctive kind of urban space. Culturally, notwithstanding its striking and occasionally remarkable record in nurturing forms of cultural engagement (including those discussed in this book) Manchester is caught in a field of cultural positions from which it is routinely sidelined. It has never been defined as a key modernist city, a cultural icon on a par with other Western cities which branded themselves as sites for dazzling modern possibilities (see famously, Berman 1982). Its claims to be a centre of popular culture have historically been elided by the more marked claims of its hinterlands, and its frequent evocation as a city of social problems has sapped its profile. My emphasis has been on it being caught up in an intense cultural force field over which it has little control which has severely affected its capacity to define a distinctive identity for itself.

The points I have made in this paper have a resonance wider than Manchester. They firstly alert us to the spurious qualities of ‘urban boosterism’ which emphasise that any city, with the appropriate leadership can change its position in the urban pecking order. Contemporary urban planners argue that with the right kind of cultural investments, through seeking to attract the ‘creative class’, or stage the right kind of ‘mega events’, it is possible for a city to remake itself. Even approaches as fluid as Lefebvre’s or indeed Amin and Thrift run the risk of over-stating the degree of urban agency. Instead, my field analysis suggests an enduring positioning which constrain the relative evaluation and identification of cities.

Yet, this point having been made, I have also tried to render Manchester into a more progressive way of thinking. It is not my intention simply to point out that Manchester is somehow ‘absent’ from urban iconography. As the quotes from Taylor and Sebald indicate, and as I bring out in my own study of Globalisation and Belonging we can identify a haunting, brooding presence, which can unsettle our understanding of city space more generally. Firstly, I have drawn attention to the popularity of the refrain of loss, of nostalgia, and of memory and I have read this not as literal, sociological or historical accounts, but as interesting provocations to develop a different kind of unfinished urban identification, an invitation to re-imagine an urban space which is not constrained by the force field. I have noted the city’s association with emerging and youthful cultural forms, as a creative and effective means of championing a distinctive identity, especially powerful in recent decades.

We can deepen this point through a second intervention, in which the city can be seen from a network perspective, to understand the city as implicated in webs and networks of identification. This is the sense in which Werbner has examined the role of the city as site for Pakistani migrants. It allows us to render nostaligic narratives in a different kind of way, one which does not seek to define a teleologicial end-state of decline and fall, but which is attentive to the mundane webbing of the city into myriad social connections. This is the kind of account that Ian Taylor presents. It allows the city to be linked to its own landscape. Robert Roberts famously recounts the way that as a young boy the mountains circling the city were visible. Jim Perrin articulates this sense of the city as embedded in a quintessentially mountainous environment.

I sit around and look at a landscape I have known since the last golden summer of the 1950s. For me then, as a twelve year old…. the place was one I came to which I came time and again: a focal point, a magnet, a lode star. I would catch the cream coloured Oldham Transport double decker at Stevenson Square for the 10 mile bus ride from the centre of Manchester to Greenfield. All the way up from Oldham, excitement mounting, I could see the pennine moors rising in front’ (Perrin 2005: 354).

This allows us to take a different perspective to Manchester. Rather than regarding it as a distinctive bounded site of urban problems, as a kind of dystopia which contrasts with more cultivated and truly urbane cities, we can instead recognise the city as an open site, extensively webbed to global social and cultural networks, and which can define the city as a site of potential belonging. This delineation of Manchester is fascinating because of its projection as a city of the past or the future, not one of the mundane present.




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[i] AJP Taylor, ‘Manchester, world city’, p 307

[ii] Joyce, Rule of Freedom, 153-154,

[iii] Hodges, Alan Turing, 428-429

[iv] Hall, Cities in Civilisation, 347.

[v] See variously Haslam, Manchester, England

[vi] See variously on the anti-corn law league, Trentmann, The politics of free trade, Rivto, The Dawn of Green, Gurney, ‘The sublime of the bazaar’, .Worden, ‘Reappropriating the pace-egging tradition’,

[vii] See notably Georg Simmel, ‘metropolis and mental life’ and Wirth, ‘…’. for overviews see Savage et al, Urban Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity and Saunders, The City and Social Theory

[viii] See Lefebvre, Social Space, Massey, For Space,

[ix] Casanova, World Republic of Letters

[x] Berman, All that is solid melts into air, p 15

[xi] Berman, All that is solid, p 346.

[xii] Tellingly, Briggs’s influential book listed Manchester in premier position and London as taking up the last spot in his list of such Victorian cities.

[xiii] See Benjamin, ‘Berlin Childhood’, Dennis, Cities in Modernity

[xiv] Savage, Identities and Social Change, p 72

[xv] See the general discussion in Savage, ‘lost urban sociology of Pierre Bourdieu’

[xvi] Ashworth, Once upon a house on fire; Eagleton, Gatekeeper, Perrin, The villain

[xvii] See Vincent, Formation of the Liberal Party; Foster, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution; Joyce, Work, Society and Politics; Clarke, Lancashire and the New Liberalism  These examples can easily be extended: consider my own study of Labour politics in Preston (Savage, The dynamics of working class politics, or Kirk’s working class reformism in Stalybridge

[xviii] And indeed, as the hyper links on Amazon’s web pages make clear, Davies’s book is only one of several which focus specifically on Manchester’s gang culture

[xix] See notably, Joyce, Rule of Freedom

[xx] See generally, Savage, Identities and Social Change, , p 126 and f

[xxi] See the discussion in Savage, Identities and Social Change

[xxii] Frankenberg, Village on the border; Birch, Small Town politics

[xxiii] Cooke, Localities; Mellor, ‘hypocritical city’,

[xxiv] See Morgan and Hargreaves,

Tastes in Practice, University of York seminar, 15th July

Tuesday 15 July 2014, 9.15am to 17:45


The Stratification and Culture Research Network is pleased to announce a one-day seminar on tastes at York. The seminar is jointly organised by the Research Centre ECCE and the Sociology Department at the University of York.

Presentation of the event

Understanding people’s tastes has proved to be one of the most difficult tasks for cultural sociologists. This seminar will investigate the meaning of tastes – lying between the social, the aesthetics and morality – and show why studying tastes matters in the understanding of social inequalities, social values and conventions. Why and how do people develop tastes for certain cultural objects and activities rather than others? How do people make sense out of them? What are the subtle and complex links between tastes on the one hand and social stratification and identities on the other? How can we explore tastes to understand their social relevance?


  • Antoine Hennion (MINES-ParisTech/CNRS)
  • Mike Savage (LSE)
  • Steph Lawler (Newcastle University)
  • Lisa Mckenzie (LSE)
  • Aaron Reeves (University of Oxford)
  • Stijn Daenekindt (Universiteit Gent)
  • Thomas Franssen (Universiteit van Amsterdam)
  • Sam Friedman (LSE)



This is available on the Eventbrite website


Location: Research Centre for Social Sciences Training Room (YH/001b), 6 Innovation Close Heslington, The University of York, YORK YO10 5ZF

Admission: free


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