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.
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.
- 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.