The old new politics of class by Mike Savage
The old new politics of class
Mike Savage reflects on a remarkable month in public discussions of class triggered by the BBC’s publicising initial results from the Great British Class Survey. He lightheartedly considers what the popularity of the study tells us about the changing – and unchanging – cultures of social class in Britain.
In 1954 the writer Nancy Mitford published an obscure article about the English aristocracy in Encounter, the new monthly journal which set out the stall for the modernist avant garde in the bleak years of post-war austerity Britain. She discussed the way that the British upper class spoke differently from other social classes, through their ‘upper class’ or ‘aspiring upper class’ inflections (famously, ‘lavatory’ (or ‘loo’) and lunch are ‘u’ whereas toilet and dinner is non ‘u’). This decoding caused a sensation. The journal sold out, and had to be reprinted as a book. Encounter published numerous critical ripostes, and the hullabaloo was taken up across the media. The differentiation between ‘U’ and non U’ became a reference point for middle class dinner party conversation for years to come – I remember my mother talking about it when I was growing up in suburban London in the later 1960s. Debate focused not on whether Mitford was right or not, for the fact that the British upper classes have distinctive voices was hardly a revelation – but over the etiquette of her intervention. Evelyn Waugh chided her lack of taste
“Were you surprised that your article on the English aristocracy caused such a to-do?… class distinctions in England have always been the matter for higher feeling than national honour, the matter for feverish but very private debate. So when you bought them out into the open, of course everyone talked, of course the columnists quoted you and corrected you. Surely delicacy should have restrained you, your friends anxiously ask? There are subjects too intimate to print. Surely class is one”.
Polite people were not meant to talk about class. Nancy Mitford was the progeny of the aristocracy – and unlike her sisters had the good taste to avoid the political temptations of fascism or the communist left. If she had been an upstart sociologist, or a socialist agitator, then ranting about class would be understandable, if not excusable. It would just be a sign of ‘the chip on their shoulder’ (to coin another of my mother’s favourite expressions). But surely a lady should know better?
I have thought of this incident many times since early April, when the release of the first findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey (GBCS) caused huge critical consternation across the media. The headline figures tell their own story. 6.9 million unique visits to the BBC website, making it the most popular story of the year. Ticket sales to London theatre soared as people decided to enhance their ‘cultural capital’. ‘An Emergent Service Workers Party’, taking its name from one of the new classes rallied to a new banner in a festival of techno music, situationism, and improvised protest outside Google UK headquarters.
The dominant tone of academic opinion, certainly from the ‘left inclined’ was more guarded and at times critical. Some of these criticisms focused on alleged deficiencies in the actual analysis, but the major objections centred on the simplification of the findings, the a-political nature of the work (‘silly sociology’), and the apparent pandering to research ‘impact’ which the project was seen to be complicit in. Few of the critics protested that actually class did not matter. To this extent, the debate is now very different from that in the 1990s when it was widely thought that Britain had become a classless society. Rather the issue is that ‘educated people’ (such as myself) should have known better than to talk about class in the way we did. One does not go out and design a clunky web survey (which is anyway highly skewed towards the chattering BBC audience) asking people about their favourite music or holiday destinations, and whether they know a bus driver socially. And one certainly does not then boil this down a new list of seven classes with silly names. And worst of all, putting a widget called ‘the class calculator’ on the BBC website which allows people to find out – and then dispute – which class they are in at the click of a few buttons, is beyond the pale. A useful lesson to learn. Evelyn Waugh rides again.
So, has the culture of class changed at all in the last sixty years? Despite the best efforts of globalisation, the end of the cold war, consumerism and neo-liberalism are we still locked into the culture of transparency so brilliantly dissected by the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern in her book After Nature in 1990? The English, she argues, are fascinated by the naming and classification process, as means of delineating relations. This is seductive and compulsive. Family historians, stamp collectors, football fans, wine lovers and antique collectors all thoroughly partake. Yet this very same naming process generates its own contradictions. It cannot transparently uncover some kind of reality behind it. It generates further classifications, qualifications and criticism. We want to describe ourselves, but the description is unstable and changes the very things it is meant to describe. Are we are locked into an infinite regress of classification and re-classification?
We can understand these anxieties to the GBCS in part as the reaction from those claiming a certain kind of cultural distinction. Classification is vulgar. True distinction lies in being so discerning that one discriminates in ways which avoid lumping and grouping. This has been the hallmark of ‘good taste’ over many centuries. But even allowing for this instability of the classificatory project itself, some classifications are more unstable and politicised than others. In Britain since the 18th century, it has been class which has served this role. Even the politically charged arena of ethnicity has been written down into a series of questionnaire categories which in the UK have largely been publically accepted (though in France, most famously, they remain illegal). Class, however, remains curiously recalcitrant at the same time that it is compelling. The resulting disputes and qualifications actually become central to defining a sense of Britishness itself. Just like families cannot have their intimate secrets and tensions written into a simple code, so class evades classification at the same time that it invites it.
This is why it is strangers who are so important in initiating classification projects. Puzzled by what they find, they seek clarification and tools to dissect what they see. In 1950 the Canadian anthropologist Elizabeth Bott moved to Britain to study social anthropology, having completed her graduate studies at Chicago. Fascinated by the culture of opaque and unstated class distinctions which confronted her, she projected into a set of household interviews an interest in what ideas of class actually meant to people. Rather than taking class as an unstated given, she examined how different people used class classifications in their ordinary day to day evaluations, which led her to argue that they arose as a means of navigating their social networks and relationships. Her resulting book, Family and Social Network, was to be one of a pioneering exemplar of social network analysis.
Another Chicago educated Canadian, Erving Goffman, also moved to Britain at the same time, and became fascinated in the culture of class. In seeking to make sense of how British people used class to present themselves, he became interested in modes of self-presentation and the dramaturgical aspects of social interaction, and in the process played a pivotal role in the elaboration of symbolic interactionism. Bott, who had earlier been Goffman’s lover, relates how they used to meet up on occasional weekends (she travelling from London, he from Edinburgh) to tease out together the strangeness of the British. And so, out their puzzling came two fundamental contributions to contemporary social science in the form of social network analysis and symbolic interactionism, which are indeed now mundanely enacted through digital communication platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The British class system, it appears has generated some most unexpected spin-offs.
In yet another way, the development of an analytical language to make sense of class has to be seen as the product of the American imagination. Early British social scientists puzzling to understand the peculiarities of hierarchies avowedly introduced American models, notably those of the Lynd’s Middletown studies, and Lloyd Warner’s Yankee Town. I am no different, of course, except that we are perhaps importing French republican models, courtesy of Pierre Bourdieu. Indeed, Nancy Mitford’s reflections on the aristocracy which caused such consternation were written from France where she had moved in 1946 after falling in love with General de Gaulle’s chief of staff. The British obsession with class is fundamentally an international co-production, in which puzzled outsiders try out the intellectual tool kits available to them, innovate, and see what comes out. This explains why the story has such resonance across the world. Observers in other nations indulge in the British obsession with class, and they facilitate this co-production.
Nothing much changes. In 2010 it was another Canadian, Philip Trippenbach, who was to instigate the Great British Class Survey in his role as BBC Current Affairs journalists seeking to develop an inquiry into class which would interest BBC news as well as be the product of a science intervention hosted by BBC’s Lab UK which specialises in web interactive surveys. He tells the story.
“My first job when I moved to the UK was as a receptionist at a TV production company in Kentish town. (Well, I was actually hired to move in furniture, but worked up to answering the phones.) The boss there was an energetic, garrulous guy named Ian. He could spin off a dozen concepts for reality TV shows with his first sip of Pinot Grigio, drove his Jag to work every day from his house in Islington – and he was very proud of being working class.
I never really got that. How could the Cambridge-educated managing director of a TV company consider himself working class? In Canada, the class system doesn’t work like that”.
Reflecting on the later publicity for the Great British Class Survey he added,
“Well, it turns out it doesn’t here in the UK, either. So says Science”.
It is not often that I represent the voice of science, and it is not an entirely comfortable feeling. It was Philip who knocked on my door at the University of Manchester one morning in 2010 with the apparently wacky idea that he could help put in place a massive web survey asking about social class which would provide some amazing data for analysis. Since I had just written a notorious article with Roger Burrows arguing that sociologists should be prepared to innovate and think about using digital resources, I was not in a position to refuse his proposition. He then energetically won BBC funding and helped co-ordinate the launch of the survey in January 2011. He left the BBC shortly after the launch to pursue an independent career (his most recent self branding on his website claiming that he is where ‘Journalism, game design and social media meet at last’, which might indeed be the critics view of the GBCS itself). Philip’s recent reflective blog on the ‘success’ of the GBCS provoked the interesting comment ‘What class are you, Phil?’. To which he tellingly replied
“The system said ‘Elite’ but that must be some sort of error. Hey, in the UK I’m a ‘Foreigner’ right?”
At the end of the day, class is a matter for the Brits only and strangers stand aside to let them attend to private business.
The GBCS was therefore a puzzling mixture of the old and the new. Wacky computer digital informatics allied to the centuries old international co-production of the British (or is it the English?) class system. The GBCS follows in this lineage of being instigated by outsiders puzzled by what they see, and in the process generating new resources and devices to seek to render this strangeness in some kind of manipulable – but contested – form.
In our case, the innovation lay in being able to work with a much larger sample than usual – 161,400 respondents to the BBC Lab UK’s web survey (which has now risen to 360,000 in the aftermath of the recent media attention), making this the first sustained attempt to conduct class analysis on non standard quantitative data. Nearly all the discussion of the GBCS focuses on the seven classes which we delineated, after several false leads and dead ends, I hasten to add. The latent class analysis which finally gave us some kind of ‘crispness’ was to us a pragmatic advance after many months of puzzling over a large, messy and unwieldy set of data. (In this respects, we definitely were scientists of the kind that ethnographers such as Bruno Latour and John Law have drawn attention to in their studies of natural scientists). Our feelings, when we finished the paper, were not of triumph that we had discovered some new classes, but of relief that we had finally found some kind of story line. The focus on the seven classes is completely understandable given the focus of our paper as well as the publicity campaign launched by the BBC. However, these seven classes are fundamentally the hooks for talking more broadly about class relationships, and are not meant to reveal some underlying groups which have somehow been obscured until ‘silly sociologists’ get to work.
The seven classes are derived from latent class analysis, which seeks to reveal underlying patterns behind observed data. To this extent, we had no control over the delineation of these classes once we had decided what measures to use in the analysis. However, this does not (hopefully) mean we were simple minded empiricists. Indeed, what fascinated us as we sought to make sense of the patterns arising from the latent class analysis was the way that taken in combination, the set of classes offered us a powerful way of dissecting the axes of social change and re-stratification. I will try to bring out my broader interpretation of the patterns we revealed.
A key interest of ours reflects on the nature of the boundaries between the seven classes. There is no ontological claim involved that the seven classes exist as equivalent or symmetrical kinds of structural entities. It is precisely one of the virtues of this kind of latent class analysis that we are able to assess inductively how the seven classes relate to each other, whether some of the divisions are more telling than others, and such like. The labels we used to define the classes were deliberately and strategically chosen with this in mind. Even though the research team are hardly post-structuralist in their intellectual orientation, nonetheless the labels were not designed to represent some underlying ‘reality’ but were chosen to gain their meaning relationally, through reference both to terms which are used to describe social classes in other research, and also to each other. The classes we name are not some underlying essences of the social structure, but are the product, the effect, of the three capitals which we use to construct our model. This point has not been grasped by many critical commentators who seem to think that we are rather naive quasi market researcher – with the exception of the ‘Emergent Workers Party’ who clearly understand the politics of labelling, parody and pastiche. The report of the May Day for Emergent Service workers runs
“The festivities marked the establishment by the Hijackers of the Emergent Service Workers Party, borrowed from a term used in the recent Great British Class Survey. I discovered last week that I belonged to this class, so I’m happy that I now have a suitably tongue-in-cheek flag to wave. To quote from the survey: “This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ’emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.” The internet is arguably essential to ‘my’ class, just as home-owning is to the established middle-classes. How else could my friends work their part-time, temporary service jobs, and run pop-up galleries, host blogs and write music in what they once thought of as their leisure time”
This recognition of the situated politics of naming and classification is a welcome antidote to the relentlessly realist critique of the GBCS from more earnest commentators and in this spirit I want to pull out the implications of our findings which have not been fully reflected in the pubic debate so far.
The social scientific tradition of thinking about class in Britain fundamentally worries about where ‘the collar line’ is, notably in boundary disputes about the relation between middle and working class. This obsession was historically marked in myriad ways: the difference between ‘staff’ and ‘line’, between salary and wage, between manual and mental labour and between blue and white collar, allied to the role of gender and ethnicity within these divisions. Around this anxiety was a long term preoccupation with what admitting the working class into the polity entailed. As TH Marshall famously elaborated, these disputes were played out through franchise reform during the 19th century, and then through the expansion of welfare provision during the 20th century. A concern with whether the working class were incorporated into the polity, or whether they remain a potentially radical or revolutionary force, were fuelled by political debate between Marxists, socialists, Fabians and reformists. A common theme was that it was actually the working classes which were the bearers of democratic and national idioms. This argument inflected debates in social history, through EP Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, and History Workshop, into sociology through TH Marshall and the industrial sociology of John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood, and into English and cultural studies through Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams, Paul Willis and beyond.
Alongside these concerns with ‘the problematic of the proletariat’ (in David Lockwood’s famous phrase), and juxtaposed to it, lies a second kind of mobilisation where the middle classes were identified as the backbone of British society. Dror Wahrman has traced this motif back to the 18th century, and as Ross McKibbin and Raphael Samuel have shown how it was then adapted during the 20th century, notably by Conservative politicians seeking to define the middle classes as bastions of national virtue against the dangerous working class. In the post war years it gained further impetus through being injected with a technocratic emphasis on the need for skilled and qualified ‘human capital’ which played into the development of educational reform and managerialism from the 1960s onwards.
Increasingly during the 20th century further anxieties around the collar line were forged around gender and immigration. The male preserves of middle class work were increasingly entered by women. But perhaps these women were a ‘white collar proletariat’, leaving the male middle classes unsullied? As Beverley Skeggs has showed, issues of femininity and respectability came to focus around the differentiation of the middle classes. Immigration caused further anxieties and mobilisations around this social boundary. Numerous ethnic minorities found a way of claiming some kind of British identity by taking on the language of class, notably through proudly appropriating working class identities, especially in the case of Afro-Carribbeans and Africans. For other immigrants, claiming some kind of middle class status was a means of demonstrating they had secured some kind of place – albeit often fraught – within British society.
The effect of these contrasting mobilisations has been to historically focus on the middle reaches of society as the main points of anxiety and boundary drawing. This is nowhere marked so much as in the extensive use of the peculiarly British interest in the ‘lower middle class’ – on the one hand, differentiated from the world of manual labour, and on the other hand, not fully ‘middle class’. But the cultural ramifications go much wider. A few years ago my mother told me that in the course of dispute with a neighbour about noise, she had been told that she was a ‘middle class bitch’. In what other nation would being middle class be an insult? (Unfortunately, ‘bitch’ has much more transnational provenance).
In the context of this historical pre-occupation, our analysis has some very important ramifications. We have ample evidence that very significant divisions within the middle reaches of society can still be found. In our terms this is most clearly revealed in the contrast between the ‘established middle class’ and the ‘traditional working class’. We also still detected a ‘technical middle class’. To this extent, the old fractures remain visible.
However, it is not clear in our analysis that this is the fundamental cleavage in British society. Previous models of class, with their concern around the boundaries between middle and working class are supplanted by three other dynamics which run through our analysis. We can define these as (a) the role of the outliers and especially those at the ‘top end’ of the class structure, (b) boundaries of age and generation, and (c) the redefinition of expertise and technique. Let me address these in turn.
We felt that one of our most striking findings from the GBCS is the clear delineation of an ‘elite’. It is rather bemusing that Marxist critics of our work abound, given that our account of contemporary class relations has far more affinities to Marxist theories of capitalism than any other sociological models available (certainly compared to the NS-Sec). If one has to detect the single most important cleavage in Britain today, it is not between ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class, but between a small corporate elite and everybody else.
This distinctive elite has not been recently recognised in previous forms of sociological class analysis – though it is certainly manifest in the public imagination. As I have argued, this is due to the preoccupation with the middle reaches of society, which dramatically weakened the capacity to bring the purview of the ‘extreme’ social classes into the purview of class analysis. Although social science methodology increasingly insists on ‘outliers’, thresholds, and non-linear patterns, this has not previously filtered into the study of social class. Therefore, over the past thirty years British social science has hived off the study of social class (done mainly by sociology) from the study of elites (done mainly by political scientists). One struggles to read any sustained studies of the social composition of small elites within sociology even though it is clear that their relative income and wealth has increased dramatically, and their influence is apparent across large swathes of social and political life. This is why we think that our elaboration of a very wealthy elite at the apex of the class structure is so important. We preferred the label elite to that of the upper class for two main reasons. Firstly, reference to an upper class conjures up images of the traditional landed gentry and senior professionals in their country estates and Mayfair clubs. But this is not the elite which pops out of the GBCS, which is fundamentally a senior corporate managerial group. Nowhere is the impact of neo-liberal restructuring so apparent as in the power and extreme relative wealth of this small group. The second reason for choosing this term is precisely to strategically recognise the intersection of politics and economic position, to align the terrain of political science and management with that of sociology.
Let us turn to the other ‘extreme’ group, the ‘precariat’. We borrowed this term from the academic Guy Standing who has done much to promote a recognition of the role of the ‘precarious proletariat’ at the bottom of contemporary societies. This term was deliberately used in place of the more conventional ‘underclass’ label which has been used to stigmatise the poor and deprived for decades. And our ‘precariat’ does not fit many of the pathologising stereotypes. Our mapping of its distribution indicates that it is not particularly associated with urban locations, and indeed its location indicates relatively high amounts of rural and suburban poverty. Our model therefore disrupts conventional moralisation of urban poverty and points towards a more complex and systemic picture of social exclusion at the lower reaches.
If one of our concerns was to show how the accentuation of income inequality was changing the classes at the extremes of British society, a second important finding brings out the role of age. In many nations recognition of fundamental cleavages of generation is widely recognised, nowhere better than in France where Louis Chauvel has emphasised the difficulties of the younger generation compared to their parents. Many Latin American societies have similarly drawn attention to the significance of ‘emergents’, new classes of the younger affluent who have benefitted from the neo-liberalisation of their economies. In Britain, sociologists typically abstract age from class, seeing these as independent and separate issues. This is despite the fact that class motifs – from yuppie to chav – are typically premised on the assumed age of their incumbents. The result of this analytical separation of class from age is that debates about generational divisions in Britain have been subsumed into an anxiety about ‘declining social mobility’, which seeks to frame the issue of age as one of mobility between classes. In fact, the evidence that social mobility is actually declining is at best mixed, but the fact that this issue nonetheless captures such public interest is indicative of the way that it serves as a proxy for mobilising anxieties about the prospects of the younger generation.
Our approach does not make an analytical distinction between age and class. Because we see class as the outcome of different stocks of capital, and because these stocks can be associated with age (for instance, one’s assets might increase as one gets older), then we found distinctive age profiles for some of the classes, especially the ‘new affluent workers’ and the ‘emergent service workers’. These are both relatively ‘young’ classes, who stand in contrast to other classes with similar economic resources (the established middle classes, and the traditional working class), respectively. What this recognition points toward is a fundamental recognition of the intersections between age and class which need much more attention.
A moment’s reflection clarifies what the stakes are in this recognition of generation. This is the question of historical reference. A wealth of research, including some done by ourselves, indicates that the historical cannon is no longer constitutive of cultural excellence, moral certainty, or the value of tradition. The avant garde, which used to define itself vis a vis the historical canon on which it depends, has been replaced by the themed, episodic and fashioned trends with no fixed historical reference points, where the new and contemporary are held to be automatically the marker of excellence. This tension is amply demonstrated in the differentiation in our analysis between ‘highbrow’ and ‘emergent’ cultural capital, but this only draws on extensive studies within cultural sociology which underscore the power of this divide. Our classes are fractured around this generational politics in a way which is thoroughly appreciated by the Emergent Service Workers party, at least.
Our final tension is that of expertise itself. We have already alluded to this in our earlier comments about classification. One of our classes, ‘the technical middle class’ appears different from the more traditional model of middle class life, oriented towards cultural activity and with extensive social ties. It is, instead a group with restricted social range and limited cultural interests, with tendencies to work in technical occupations and have scientific interests. Here, we might also see these groups intersecting with the elite in being bearers of what Boltanski and Chiapello identify as the ‘projective’ justification produced by ‘New Spirits of Capitalism’.
This technical middle class has attracted increasing interest from historians in recent years, in part because of the increasing interest in science and social change. Mobilised around a range of technical interventions from new weaponry, standard research methods, bureaucratic management and of course, information technology, this is a group who do not seem to find the project of classification as vulgar as Evelyn Waugh. We can increasingly trace the imprint of this class in post war Britain in the rise of technical and scientific modes of expertise, including within the social sciences, from the 1950s onwards. This grouping appears relatively small, but it is hived off from the more ‘established’ middle classes.
Behind the superficial reading of the labels of the seven classes, and all the scepticism which this provokes, I hope there are some telling suggestions about a new politics of class at work in British society which are worthy of interest. To be sure, contested cultural boundaries separating middle from working classes continue to resonate, but behind this lies the telling differentiation of a small wealthy elite from a much larger group of the middle classes. This elite cannot be seen as some upper class throwback but appears to have a distinctive location within senior management. In contrast to this elite class, however, numerous fractures separate and divide within the larger population. In addition to gender and ethnicity, which are unevenly spread between the classes we can identify powerful divides of age and expertise. There is plenty of evidence for the fraying and differentiation of groups within the middle and working classes.
Over the coming months we, alongside other collaborators will be working intensively to use the GBCS to explore these issues in more detail. We hope to have a special issue of the Sociological Review devoted to detailed findings, focusing especially on the elite. We are hoping to write a book not only on the findings, but how the public interest and reaction itself tells us about the power of class today. And we will be presenting further findings at workshops and conferences to come. We will post details on this website for anyone interested in knowing more.
 See Savage, M, Devine, F., Cunningham, N., Li, Y., Taylor, M, Hjellbrekke, J., Le Roux, B., Friedman, S., Miles, A, ‘A new model of social class: findings from the Great British Class Survey experiment’, Sociology, 47 (2), pp 1-32.
 To be sure, our model is the product of our data. In our view, the meshing of a large web survey with a nationally representative survey – even if a relatively small one with a quota sample – allows us the unusual prospect of linking breadth and depth. However, it would be foolish to overclaim the quality of our data. The nationally representative sample is relatively small and uses a quota sample which, whilst representative in terms of age, gender, ethnicity income and social grade somewhat over-represents routine occupations. Unquestionably, further research, both on this and on related data sets is needed to test and refine our findings. We will be publishing this research – both on this website, and in other publications over the coming months.