Pratiques culturelles et enjeux démocratiques : texte présenté au Public Forum on “Culture and Democracy”

En décembre 2014, j’ai été invitée à présenter les travaux sur la participation culturelle en Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles réalisés sous l’égide de l’Observatoire des Politiques Culturelles au Public Forum on “Culture and Democracy” organisé dans le cadre de la 13ème Assemblée des experts du Conseil de l’Europe ERICarts, Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe.  Le texte final qui explore les relations entre Culture et Démocratie peut se trouver ici : Pratiques culturelles et enjeux démocratiques

Une version anglaise devrait suivre bientôt.

Au plaisir,

Laurie Hanquinet

New Analysis and Publications from the Great British Class Survey

Exactly two years ago, the release of our initial research from the GBCS, linked to the publication of the paper in Sociology and a keynote address at the British Sociological Association conference generated unprecedented public interest in the potential of digital resources to explore contemporary social class relations. More than 9 million people have now clicked on the BBC’s class calculator to find out which of the ‘new’ classes they are in, making this the most popular piece of digital sociology ever conducted.

The interest provoked by the GBCS generated extensive reflection, criticism and debate. Along with all our many collaborators the past two years has been an amazing roller coaster. We have addressed this huge interest by embarking on an extensive programme of additional research which will be published in the coming months and which we hope will continue to generate interest and excitement. This blog reports on this work so that anyone interested in reading more will know where to look in the coming months.

  1. Sociological Review: special issue on the GBCS

In May 2015, the Sociological Review will be publishing a special issue devoted to the GBCS. This will contain seven original articles reporting fresh research on the GBCS and a series of critical responses. The six papers written by the GBCS team are

Mike Savage, ‘From the “problematic of the proletariat” to a class analysis of “wealth elites”’

Fiona Devine and Helene Snee, ‘Doing the Great British Class Survey’

Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison and Andrew Miles, ‘Breaking the ‘Class’ Ceiling? Social Mobility into Britain’s Elite Occupations’

Daniel Laurison, ‘The Right to Speak: Differences in Political Engagement among the British Elite’

Niall Cunningham (Manchester) with Mike Savage (LSE), ‘The Secret Garden?  Elite Metropolitan Geographies in the Contemporary UK’

Paul Wakeling and Mike Savage, ‘Entry to elite positions and the stratification of higher education in Britain

2: Social Class in the 21st Century

Authors: Mike Savage, Niall Cunningham, Fiona Devine, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Lisa Mckenzie, Andrew Miles, Helene Snee and Paul Wakeling.

We have now submitted the manuscript for this Pelican book which is expected to be published in November. This broadens out from GBCS findings, includes material from additional qualitative I interviews and ethnography in order to offer an introductory overview of class today.


Introduction: The Great British Class Survey and the return of class today

Section 1: The history of social class

Chapter 1            Contesting class boundaries: Differentiating middle and working class.

Section 2: Capitals, Accumulation and social class

Chapter 2            Accumulating economic capital

Chapter 3            Highbrow and Emerging Cultural Capital

Chapter 4            Social Capital: networks and personal ties

Chapter 5            The new landscape of class: the interplay of economic, cultural and social capital

Section 3:  Social mobility, education and location

Chapter 6            Climbing mountains: the social mobility expedition

Chapter 7            A tale of two campuses? Universities and meritocracy

Chapter 8            Class & Spatial Inequality in the UK

Section 4: The class divide in 21st Century Britain

Chapter 9            The View at The Top: Britain’s New ‘Ordinary’ Elite

Chapter 10          The Precarious Precariat: The visible, invisible people

Chapter 11          Class Consciousness and the New Snobbery.

Conclusion: The old new politics of class in the 21st century

3: Archiving of GBCS at the UK Data Archive

Led by Daniel Laurison, we have been working extensively on cleaning and organising the data for public release. Legal agreements with the BBC have now been reached and we are expecting an imminent release of the data in the next few weeks.

This intensive programme of research has now finished and we will no longer be focusing directly on the GBCS data in our future research. We are engaged on developing future strands of research linked to this work which include on social mobility (Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison), on economic capital (Mike Savage and Daniel Laurison), on ‘new forms of snobbery’ (Sam Friedman and Mike Savage) and on elites. The LSE’s new International Inequalities Institute (III) which opens in May 2015 will be an important vehicle for future work on these (and other) issues. Those interested in the III may wish to attend the event on May 11th with Thomas Piketty.

Mike Savage, on behalf of the GBCS team.

Introducing the ‘Class’ Ceiling

The hidden barriers, or ‘glass ceiling’, preventing women from getting to the top are well documented. But as Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison explain, the upwardly mobile also face a powerful and previously unrecognised ‘class ceiling’ within Britain’s elite occupations.

According to Alan Milburn – the Coalition Government’s anointed ‘Social Mobility Tzar’ – one of the most pressing policy priorities over the next parliament is ‘opening up the top of British society’. Britain, he argued in a major report in February, ‘remains – at heart – elitist’[1]. These sentiments are shared by all the main political parties, it seems. Nick Clegg, Ed Miliband[2] and David Cameron[3] have all made impassioned speeches on the topic. As Clegg proclaimed in 2012, “We must create a more dynamic society. One where what matters most is the person you become, not the person you were born[4].”

The main issue that has emerged from this political posturing is the problem of ‘fair access’. There has long been a perception that Britain’s traditionally high-status occupations, such as law, medicine, and journalism, remain stubbornly elitist and research has continually shown that these occupations recruit disproportionately from the socially privileged and/or the privately educated[5].

Yet there is a danger of reducing social mobility to this one-dimensional issue of access. In particular it assumes that social mobility finishes at the point of occupational entry. But the reality is that while many working-class people may secure admission into elite occupations, they don’t necessarily go on to achieve the same levels of success as those from more privileged backgrounds. In a recent project, we have been investigating exactly this issue of social mobility within elite occupations.

In doing so, we have purposively borrowed the ‘glass ceiling’ concept developed by feminist scholars to explain the hidden barriers faced by women in the workplace. In a working paper published by LSE Sociology today[6], we argue that it is also possible to identify a ‘class ceiling’ in Britain which is preventing the upwardly mobile from enjoying equivalent earnings to those from upper middle-class backgrounds.

Our analysis examines data from the 2014 Labour Force Survey, Britain’s largest employment survey with a sample of 95,950. Here we analyse respondents in the 63 occupations that make up Class 1 of the Government’s National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC) – defined as ‘ about Britain’s elite. We then look at the class origins of those in these occupations, and most importantly how their income varies according to their class background (using NS-SEC classes 1-7).

Our results are very striking. They show that those in elite occupations whose parents were employed in semi-routine and routine working-class jobs (‘long-range upwardly mobile’) earn on average £6200 a year less than their colleagues from higher professional and managerial backgrounds (‘intergenerationally stable’) – even after controlling for a host of factors known to affect earnings such as human capital (educational qualifications, job tenure, and training), the ‘London effect’, ethnicity, gender, age, hours worked, firm size, and whether a person works in the public or private sector.

This pay gap, we argue, points to a worrying and previously undetected ‘class ceiling’ within Britain’s elite occupations.

But we didn’t want to stop there. The exciting thing about the LFS data is that we are also able to explore in detail various sub-groups. This reveals telling variations in the nature of the class pay gap. We show, for example, that the pay gap is more consistent and larger among professionals than among managers; that upwardly mobile women face a ‘double disadvantage’ when compared to stable men, and that the size of the pay gap is larger for older generations.

We are also able to look at individual elite occupations, where we find striking variations. At one end of the scale, engineering provides a notable exemplar of meritocracy, with negligible differences in pay regardless of social background. In contrast, our results reveal the arresting scale of disadvantage experienced by the children of the working classes in law, media, medicine and finance. The socially mobile (of any range) in finance have predicted earnings of £11,200 less per year than otherwise-similar privileged colleagues, in media £9440, law £8830 and in medicine £5050. This disadvantage also tends to increase the longer the range of mobility. In law, for example, the long-range upwardly mobile face a huge estimated annual pay gap of £19700.

These are damning figures and point towards occupationally-specific barriers that need urgent attention.

But how might we explain this class ceiling? Well, this is exactly what we will be investigating over the next year or so. Specifically, we will conduct four in-depth case studies, carrying out 120 interviews with socially mobile and immobile barristers, actors, bankers and national journalists. We hope this qualitative enquiry will help us understand the practices of the upwardly mobile – whether they choose less prestigious companies, less lucrative specialisms, and whether they are more reluctant to ask for pay rises. We will also look at the experience of upward mobility and whether these people actually feel disadvantaged. Finally, it will allow us to see whether the mobile are treated differently by others in elite occupations, in particular whether they are unconsciously given fewer rewards because cultural and social markers of their class background mark them out as different.

We are not suggesting here that the class pay gap is new. In fact, we are sceptical that this is the case. What we can say, though, is that we think this analysis highlights the need for new directions in social policy that move beyond the political rhetoric of ‘fair access’.

Despite what Nick Clegg says, there is no such easy distinction between “the person you were born” and “the person you become”. As our results show, individuals tend to always carry – at least in some shape or form – the symbolic baggage of the past. Moreover, the imprint of this history can have important consequences for both how people act in the present, and – perhaps more importantly – how they are evaluated by others.

If we really want to address elitism in this country we must be willing to look beyond access to what goes on within occupations, and take very seriously the existence of not just the glass but also the class ceiling.







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


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