Culture & Democracy

Paper presented at the Public Forum on Culture and Democracy held as part of the 13th Assembly of Council of Europe/ERICarts experts, Compendium of Cultural Policies and Trends in Europe (December 14)

Click here:  Hanquinet Cultural Practices & democratic issues

Thanks to the Council of Europe for the translation

The Class Problem in British Acting: Talking at Camden People’s Theatre

By Dave O’Brien, Goldsmiths College, University of London

Camden People’s Theatre is running a season exploring some of the issues surrounding the general election. They were kind enough to invite Sam Friedman and myself to discuss some of the very early findings from our work on acting and social inequality. We presented some initial thoughts after a performance of No Milk for the foxes, a piece which connected directly to the issues we have found in our research. This post is a chance to share some of those initial thoughts as we begin the process of writing up.

Obviously questions of inequality and culture have been in the news recently, whether in the form of arguments between politicians and musicians about social class, or in questions of the representation of particular social groups in contemporary culture. This was the basis for research looking into how inequality operates in the acting profession.

The project is a combination of Daniel Laurison’s analysis of actors (404 in total) in the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) and 47 in depth semi-structured interviews with actors that we’ve conducted between November 2014 and March 2015. Our interviews were from a range of ages, class backgrounds, career stages, and ethnic backgrounds and with a gender balance too.

The headline figure from our GBCS data was clear: The majority of British actors have come from what might be termed middle-class backgrounds, with 73% having parents who did professional or managerial jobs and only 10% from manual working-class backgrounds. Coupled with the underrepresentation of the working class in acting was a clear pay gap. We found those from working class backgrounds earned £10,000 a year less than those from senior professional and managerial backgrounds. This pay gap was clear even when other factors are adjusted for, such as the age, gender, ethnicity, and education and geographical location of different actors.

How do we explain these findings? The fieldwork suggested that acting is a difficult profession; no matter what the background or the advantages of the individual actor. However, those without advantages of wealth or connections faced specific barriers to success within acting. These took the form of their experiences in childhood, getting into drama school, getting an agent, getting paid (or working for free) and being typecast. The rest of the post will give a flavour of each of these five issues as a way of showing where our analysis is going as we write up the work.

It was really clear that different social backgrounds had different access to cultural resources- cultural capital- as children. For some of our interviewees this took the form of working with National Youth Theatre or having strong support for drama in private school. For others it was about their access to high culture more generally, meaning they had knowledge of literature and theatre that those from less affluent beginnings did not.

Cultural capital was important in shaping both the visions of the sorts of careers our interviewees felt were possible, as well as entrance to the elite drama schools that are very important in determining who gets on and gets ahead in acting. Often this sense of cultural capital was very subtle, from the confidence about which drama schools to apply to, through to not having the right accent to fit into these spaces. Drama school was then, in turn, important in getting an agent and getting paid work.

An actors’ ability to get paid work was dependent on many factors. What was particularly interesting from the interviewees was how much this could be related to having existing resources, often from parents. In part this was to survive periods between jobs and the high living costs of cities such as London. However it also meant more affluent actors could properly prepare for parts or auditions as short notice.

The other side to paid work was the experience of unpaid labour. This, based on the interviews, is stratified by career stage and age, as well as class. For the older, established, actors in the sample unpaid work was an affront, a refusal to recognise their value. However for the younger actors unpaid work was endemic, as recent surveys by equity have suggested. However the experience of unpaid work was very heavily related to both social origin and an actors’ drama school or agent. For the more affluent younger actors who had been to a good drama school unpaid work was akin to the fringe, a form of creative expression and opportunity. For those without these advantages unpaid labour was, at worst, exploitative of their desire to enter the profession.

Finally there is the issue of the sorts of roles actors might get. This was where social inequality was made clearly visible. For the white, male, middle class origin actors typecasting and choice of part was a frustration, but not one that had stopped them taking good, well paid roles. For other interviewees, such as the BAME women we spoke to, there was a clear political question and sense of frustration, whereby roles could be accessed but often only at the price of playing stereotypes that individuals were uncomfortable with. For some this was to do with the expectations that BAME women would play nurses, rather than doctors. For others it was the lack of recognition that their might be roles that spoke to the BAME, female and working class experience in Britain that went beyond what was perceived to be a white, middle class, cultural establishment’s view of their lives.

These initial findings make it clear that inequality is a major concern for the acting profession, mirroring broader issues across the cultural sector. Moreover, culture tells us, as a nation, who we are. On the basis of our research it is clear that the stories we tell about ourselves are coming from a worryingly narrow set of voices.

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.


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