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Sociological ruminations on Piketty

A sociologist reflects on Thomas Piketty.

Mike Savage, July 1st

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


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

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

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

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

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


1: Economics and Social Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2: Time, History and Social Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


3: Piketty and Class Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cultural Capital and the City: reflections on Manchester

Cultural Capital and the City: reflections on Manchester

Mike Savage

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

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

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


  1. Manchester and cultural innovation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


2: Manchester and popular culture 

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

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

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

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

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


3: Manchester and the social science narrative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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Gunn, S., (2000), The public culture of the Victorian middle class: ritual and authority in the English industrial city, Manchester, Manchester UP.

Gurney, P., “The Sublime of the Bazaar”: A Moment in the Making of a Consumer Culture in Mid-Nineteenth Century England, Journal of Social History, Volume 40, Number 2, Winter 2006, pp. 385-405,

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Harker, B.,(2005)  ‘The Manchester Rambler’: Ewan MacColl and the 1932 Mass Tresspass, History Workshop Journal, Issue 59, Spring 2005

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Savage, M., (1987), The dynamics of working class politics: the Labour movement in Preston 1880-1940, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Savage, M., (2008), ‘Elizabeth Bott and the Formation of Modern British Sociology’, Sociological Review, 56 (4), 579-604.

Savage, M., (2010), Identities and social Change in Britain since 1940: the politics of method, Oxford, Oxford UP.

Savage, M., (2011), ‘The lost urban sociology of Pierre Bourdieu’, in G. Bridge and S.Watson (eds), The New Blackwell Companion to the City, Oxford, Blackwell

Savage, M., Bagnall, G., Longhurst, B., (2005), Globalization and Belonging, London, Sage.

Savage, M., Warde, A., Ward, K., (2003), Urban Sociology, Capitalism and Modernity, Basingstoke, Palgrave.

Shils, E., (1995), ‘The intellectuals’, Encounter

Simmel, G., (1903), ‘The metropolis and mental life’, in K wolff (ed), The Sociology of Georg Simmel,

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Taylor, A.J.P., ‘Manchester: world city’ in Essays in English History, London, Penguin.

Taylor, I.,  et al (1996) A Tale of Two Cities: Global Change, Local Feeling and Everyday Life in the North of England – A Study in Manchester and Sheffield, Routledge, London

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Williams, G (2000) Rebuilding the Entrepreneurial City: The Master Planning Response to the Bombing of Manchester City Centre, Environment and Planning: Planning and Design, Vol. 27, 485-505

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

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

[iii] Hodges, Alan Turing, 428-429

[iv] Hall, Cities in Civilisation, 347.

[v] See variously Haslam, Manchester, England

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

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

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

[ix] Casanova, World Republic of Letters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[xix] See notably, Joyce, Rule of Freedom

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

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

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

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

[xxiv] See Morgan and Hargreaves,

Cultural Sociology in the UK: a draft note inviting comments

I have been asked by Claudio Benzecry to write a short note on the state of cultural sociology in Britain to go into the American Cultural Sociology newsletter. I have drafted this rather rapidly and would welcome comments, especially on possible omissions, but also on the claims made about the sub-discipline, either as comments to this post, or via email.

Cultural Sociology in the UK

Mike Savage, London School of Economics



Cultural sociology in the UK has an unusual profile compared to the US. It does not exist as exist as a specialist sub-field, there are no section conferences, and no study group of the British Sociological Association is devoted to it, for instance. Yet, cultural sociology infuses the discipline as a whole and has indeed been identified as one of the strengths of British sociology tout court by the first ever international benchmarking of the discipline (carried out by the Economic and Social Research Council in 2010). The British Sociological Association has also published a special journal devoted to the field, edited by David Inglis (Aberdeen, now at Exeter) first appearing in 2007, and some of the top Departments in the UK make a point of emphasising their interests in culture. In this short note, I suggest that fluidity about the place of culture in British sociology is indicative of its highly productive role in generating new areas of inquiry and in cross-fertilising international debates.

There are some distinguished British based scholars who do conduct sociological analyses of distinctively ‘cultural’ phenomena such as art and music on the American model. Thus Tia de Nora (perhaps not incidentally, an American, who was worked at the University of Exeter since 1991) and Georgina Born (strictly speaking, an anthropologist who worked for many years in the Department of Sociology at Cambridge before moving to Oxford in 2010) are leading international authorities on music.).  Janet Wolff (who not incidentally worked for two decades in the US before returning to Manchester in 2008), Gordon Fyfe (Keele), Nick Prior (Edinburgh), and more recently Laurie Hanquinet (a Belgian Wallonian who now works at the University of York) have conducted influential studies of the historical development and contemporary significance of art galleries, art audiences and art works. Fyfe has played an important role in the influential journal Museums and Society  John Thompson (Cambridge) is a leading international authority on the book trade.

On the whole, however, cultural sociology does not exist as a discrete sub-discipline focusing on the aesthetic or on distinctively cultural phenomenon, but instead intersects with key areas of sociology where it acts as a ‘ginger’ which disrupts more conventional and mainstream perspectives. This is the reason why it appeals to large numbers of graduate students who wish to work on the ‘cutting edge’ and the appeal of culture has over the past thirty years acted as a magnet for passionate and committed followers. This can be seen especially in three domains which I will discuss in turn, firstly the significance of the cultural studies tradition, secondly in the distinctive position of cultural theory in British sociology, and finally in the development of cultural approaches to stratification and inequality, sometimes identified as ‘cultural class analysis’. I will discuss each of these currents in turn, before making some more general remarks.


Cultural Studies

A point of departure for cultural sociology in Britain lies in the relationship to cultural studies which blazed a remarkable trail in the UK, from its inception in the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham in the 1960s. The CCCS led a critique of narrow conceptions of culture which focused on literature and the arts and thus insisted on addressing the cultural practices and routines of everyday life, especially those found in the working or subaltern classes (see notably Willis 1975; Hall and Jefferson 1975; Hebdidge 1979). The key intellectual influences were from the cultural wings of Marxism, and especially Gramsci and the Frankfurt School. Many founding studies of youth culture, music, race, gender and lifestyle were forged from this tradition whose glory years were in the 1970s. On the one hand, this entailed that the development of cultural analysis was led from outside the discipline of sociology which left the discipline somewhat in the shade. On the other hand, there was a huge exodus of the cultural studies generation into senior positions in British sociology, where they played key leadership roles. These included Stuart Hall, who occupied a chair in sociology at the Open University from 1981 to 2002; Paul Willis (for many years a Professor at Wolverhampton University, now at Princeton), Tony Bennett (also at the OU) 2002-2010; Celia Lury (Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths 2002-2011, now at Warwick), and Paul Gilroy (Professor of Sociology at LSE 2004-2012, now at Kings College London).

One of the residues bequeathed by this tradition is that way that concerns with music, the media, and audiences, which elsewhere might be taken up within cultural sociology, are more likely to be elaborated in Britain within the cultural and media studies tradition, where they interface closely with humanities disciplines. Figures who exemplify this current might include Simon Frith (on music), Tony Bennett  (on museums), Paul Gilroy (music and literature). Within the study of the media, key figures might include Roger Silverstone (who founded the LSE’s influential Media and Communications Department), Nick Couldry (who has worked variously at LSE and Goldsmiths) and Angela McRobbie (also Goldsmiths). One result is that the kinds of quantitative methods which are increasingly commonly applied to cultural sociology in the US and parts of Europe (such as the Netherlands) – and which are regularly found in the journal Poetics for instance – have not been extensively deployed in the UK, and there is an overwhelmingly ethnographic and qualitative perspective which commands the high ground. Indeed, British survey data sources continue to relatively eschew questions on cultural participation and taste, with the exception of surveys commissioned by the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. There is a big contrast here with the much more elaborated survey sources found in many European nations as well as in the United States, as well as the centrality of quantitative researchers such as Paul DiMaggio and Richard Peterson within the sub-discipline.

It follows from this particular intersection with cultural studies that the study of popular culture was a central theme of cultural sociology. There is a clear lineage here originating in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy – which largely originated the cultural studies tradition – through to Raymond Williams’s studies of ‘ordinary culture’, and to Paul Willis’s Learning to Labour and then onto more recent studies of what might be termed mundane cultures of domination and subordination exemplified in Skeggs’s (1997) Formations of Class and Gender. The central component of this body of work probes the apparent acquiescence of popular culture in the status quo and represents an imaginative re-working of the ‘dominant ideology thesis’. Rather than seeing the apparent acceptance of the social order as the imposition of hegemonic norms, it is rooted in pragmatic features of daily life and seen as embodying forms of indirect class awareness. This general orientation has proved a major plank of enduring interest in British sociology, as I discuss below.

Cultural Theory

Partly on the coat tails of cultural studies, Britain also saw the distinctive development of interests in cultural theory, which generally proved higher profile within the discipline than sociological theory more narrowly conceived, which is largely seen as dated. This interest in cultural theory can be traced to the introduction of Foucault’s work into the UK, institutionalised by the short lived but influential journal Ideology and Consciousness in the later 1970s. From the early 1980s, a key force became the journal Theory, Culture and Society, edited by Mike Featherstone (who has worked at the Universities of Teesside, Nottingham Trent, and more recently moved to Goldsmiths), which proved highly significant in making debates about post-modernism, globalisation, and cosmopolitanism central to the discipline. Unlike the US, where the ‘cultural turn’ was predominantly led from outside the social sciences, mainly in humanities departments, in the UK, the result was that cultural theory occupied a central place within sociology. This was marked especially at the leading British Departments of Lancaster, where Scott Lash and John Urry collaborated in the 1980s, and later at Goldsmiths College in London, where Scott Lash moved in the 1990s, and where Celia Lury and Beverley Skeggs also worked from the early 2000s. The fact that Michel Foucault’s thinking proved so prominent in British sociology is especially revealing, given that Foucault was interested in the political archaeology of the human sciences, and thereby placed cultural theory outside the sociological mainstream.

A further sign of the appeal of strength of cultural theory in British sociology is the fact that the leading exponent of sociological theory, Anthony Giddens (Cambridge and the LSE), increasingly oriented his thinking towards cultural theory’s concerns with lifestyle and identity in his later work, notably in The Consequences of Modernity, and was also marked in the prominence of  Zygmunt Bauman (who retired from the University of Leeds in 1989 but has remained a prolific writer) who did much to elaborate on distinctively sociological perspectives on post-modernism and consumerism.

Furthermore, this cultural turn, proved hugely influential in British sociology during the 1980s, becoming a major plank of qualitative sociology. This helped generate a distinction between Departments wedded to cultural analysis – notably Lancaster and Goldsmiths college – and those wedded to what were seen as more traditional and conventional modes of sociology, focused for instance in the study of class and stratification (such as Oxford). In this way, issues of culture fed into fundamental debates about the scope and nature of the sociological discipline itself as well as competition between the leading Departments.

This interest in cultural theory has spawned distinctive, more empirical areas of research in especially two areas. The first of these has been in discussions of post-colonialism, race and ethnicity, which have been unusually strongly informed by Edward Said’s work on ‘orientalism’, the arguments of the ‘subaltern studies’ collective and interests in cultural hybridity and mobility. There have been a number of feted ethnographic studies in this vein, for instance by Les Back (Goldsmiths), and Michael Keith (Oxford). Scholars such as Paul Gilroy enjoy an international reputation. Gurminder Bhambra (Warwick) have exposed the colonialist assumptions of the sociological tradition.

A second more applied area is the unusually strong British tradition of research on the sociology of consumption. Intellectually, this was rooted in the concerns with lifestyle which emerged in debates about post-modernism and cultural change. Colin Campbell (York) famously revised Weber’s protestant ethic thesis to link it to the development of consumerism. Bauman gave the argument that consumer culture had replaced the work ethic as the axial principle of contemporary society particular clarity. This inspired extensive theoretical reflections about the role of consumption, but also, notably in the work of sociologists such as Don Slater (LSE) and Alan Warde (Manchester), applied empirical studies of consumption, in Warde’s case based on food, in Slater’s on the media.  Urry’s work influential work on tourism, though less empirical, is another case in point.  The University of Manchester has been an especially important base for this work, with sociologists such as Warde and Dale Southerton playing lead roles major funded research centres CRIC (ESRC Centre for Research on Innovation and Competition) ( and on Sustainable Consumption (


Cultural Class Analysis

A final example of the way that cultural analysis infused British sociology has been in the development of Bourdieusian perspectives on stratification. In most parts of the world, the sociology of stratification is predominantly quantitative and originally based in the debate between Marx and Weber regarding theorisation of class and status. Stratification research was traditionally strong in British sociology during the 1960s and 1970s, leading to influential studies by Goldthorpe , Halsey and their associates on social mobility, and the link between education and social mobility. Much of this important tradition of work deployed case studies to explore the association between class structure, class consciousness, and politics, and works such as the Affluent Worker thesis commanded major international interest.

During the 1980s and 1990s, this focus on class was subject to serious critique, much of it from proponents of cultural theory discussed above, who saw class as a throwback to industrial capitalism increasingly left behind by de-industrialisation and globalisation. It is however, since the late 1990s that a new current has become dominant in British sociology, which sees a hybrid fusion of interests in class and stratification with Pierre Bourdieu’s sociology.

Interests in Bourdieu have a long history in Britain, but until the 1980s he was mainly seen as a specialist in the sociology of education. During the 1980s he was taken up by authors writing in Theory, Culture and Society who wanted to explore how his arguments about cultural capital could be configured to provide an explanation of cultural change, and especially the significance of post-modernism. Featherstone and Lash and Urry thus rooted the more fluid and unstable cultural hierarchies in the new middle classes whose ‘cultural capital’ was being reworked. From this initial entry into cultural sociology, Bourdieu’s thinking has come to play an enormous role in British sociology, where, since his death in 2002, he has become probably the single most popular theorist in British sociology. Here British sociology has been an intermediary between his widespread adoption within more quantitative and formal models within American (and some European) sociology, and that deriving from his original French context.

This reception of Bourdieu as a kind of cultural theorist is, of course, very different from the way he is read in France and the US, where he is normally seen as a mainstream sociologist with somewhat sociologically determinist views about the link between cultural consumption and social position. By contrast in the British case, Bourdieu has generally been seen as offering a critique of the more mainstream sociology of stratification through introducing questions of culture into the analysis of social class and gender. The interest of feminists in Bourdieu’s work was a striking and rather unusual feature of the British reception (see Adkins and Skeggs 2005).

A foundational work here was Beverley Skeggs’ Formations of Class and Gender (1997) which sought to explain how young working class women in the English midlands saw their place in the dramatically restructured conditions of the later 1980s and early 1990s. Her influential argument was that these young women dis-identified from class through vesting in ‘respectable’ and ‘feminine’ identities. In some respects this was a classically British work from within the cultural studies tradition, in keeping with Willis’s arguments about the way that the subordinate fail to recognise their own disadvantaged position. But it helped to generate interests in identities which came to have considerable appeal. An important application was in the study of ambivalent class identities, for instance in my own studies of class awareness (Savage 2000) which emphasised how the British middle classes are typically reflexive about their class position.

Bourdieu became a key force behind the distinctive British elaboration of what is sometimes called ‘cultural class analysis’. This body of work, associated with writers such as Bev Skeggs (Goldsmiths), Fiona Devine and Alan Warde (Manchester), Diane Reay (Cambridge), Andrew Sayer (Lancaster), as well as myself reflects on how cultural analysis poses a highly productive challenge for the understanding of class. This work has led in the last decade into major programmes of research on ‘identities’ which was funded as a major research programme by the ESRC and has led to several highly significant books  and articles

A particularly important institutional base for this body of work was the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC), based at the University of Manchester and the Open University which had multi-million pound core funding from the Economic and Social Research Council for ten years between 2004 and 2014 ( This brought together many of the currents discussed above, including that of cultural studies (led by Tony Bennett), cultural class analysis (myself), consumption (Alan Warde), as well as leading anthropologists, historians, and experts in management studies. A very important feature of the research programme of CRESC was the ‘Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion’ project, which involved a major attempt to replicate Bourdieu’s own study of Distinction using a nationally representative survey, focus groups and qualitative interviews.  Bennett et al’s Culture, Class, Distinction has been an internationally acclaimed study which underscores the continued centrality of social class divisions in generating cultural inequalities, and has also helped to introduce the use of multiple correspondence analysis into Anglophone sociological research for the first time. This intervention has also generated more interest in the use of formal quantitative methods for cultural sociology, where Alan Warde, Andrew Miles and Tony Bennett have shown more concerns to deploy statistical methods for the analysis of cultural phenomenon. The University of Manchester has proven an especially important base for this work, for instance through the recent use of social network analysis by Nick Crossley to examine musical taste and Andrew Miles has led extensive projects re-thinking the nature of cultural engagement and its relationship to social divisions.  A range of innovative studies have extended this Bourdieusian tradition to consider how emergent cultural forms can be associated with the reworking of cultural capital. A good example is Sam Friedman’s study of the audiences for comedy, or Laurie Hanquinet’s work on changing audiences for the visual arts. This tradition spawned the BBC’s Great British Class Survey, based on a very large web survey of 325,000 respondents, and with unusually detailed questions on cultural tastes and participation. The launch of the first paper analysing this research led to 7 million web hits on the BBC’s interactive quiz and can claim to be the most popular piece of sociological research ever conducted in the UK.

In 2013 an informal Stratification and Culture network was formed to develop this current of work, led by Sam Friedman (City, and soon to be LSE), Laurie Hanquinet (York), Andrew Miles (Manchester) and myself. This has held an active programme of seminars bringing together an international audience of experts (see



Cultural sociology in the UK has a distinctive hybrid identity. I have shown how questions of culture are not easily demarcated into distinctive sub-domains, but have instead informed key areas of sociological debate more generally. This potential continues to the present day, a recent example being the growing interests in the cultural dimensions of social research methods. Work begun in CRESC on ‘the social life of methods’ (e.g. Savage 2010), which sees as infusion of currents from science and technology studies and Bourdieusian perspectives. These concerns can also be found in the recent elaboration of ‘live methods’ (Back and Puwar 2013) and in Warwick’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies, led by Celia Lury New interests in digital sociology, for instance elaborated by Dave Beer (York) and Evelyn Ruppert (Goldsmiths) are associated with this framing.

We can conclude, therefore that cultural sociology in the UK has been a highly successful, if hybrid, formation which has come to play a distinctive position within global sociology as a clearing house for more demarcated traditions which predominate elsewhere.


Key references

This is not a comprehensive bibliography, and only lists a few of the sources mentioned above.

Adkins, L., and Skeggs, B., (ed), Feminism after Bourdieu, Oxford, Blackwells.

Back, L., and Puwar, N., (2013), Live Methods, Oxford, Wiley-Blackwells.

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

Hall, S., and Jefferson, T., (1975), Resistance through rituals: youth sub-cultures in post-war Britain, Birmingham, CCCS.

Hebdige, D., (1979), Subculture, the meaning of style, London, Routledge

Savage, M., (2000), Class Analysis and Social Transformation, Milton Keynes, Open University Press.

Savage, M., (2010), Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940: the politics of method, Oxford OUP

Skeggs, B., (1997), Formations of Class and Gender, London, Sage.

Willis, P., (1977), Learning to Labour, Farnborough, Saxon House.

Response to Bradley, Mills, Dorling and Rollock.

Authors Note: This paper has now been accepted for publication by Sociology. We have taken the opportunity of making minor corrections, and clarifying, the latent class analysis.


On social class, anno 2014

Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Andrew Miles, Helene Snee, Mark Taylor.


This paper responds to the critical reception of the arguments made about social class in Savage et al (2013). It emphasises the need to disentangle different strands of debate so as not to conflate four separate issues, (a) the value of the seven class model proposed; (b) the potential of the large web survey – the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) for future research; (c) the value of Bourdieusian perspectives for re-energising class analysis, and (d) the academic and public reception to the GBCS itself. We argue that in order to do justice to its full potential, we need a concept of class which does not reduce it to a technical measure of a single variable and which recognises how multiple axes of inequality can crystallise as social classes. Whilst recognising the limitations of what we are able to claim on the basis of the GfK/GBCS, we argue that the seven classes defined in Savage et al (2013) have sociological resonance in pointing to the need to move away from a focus on class boundaries at the middle reaches of the class structure towards an analysis of the power of elite formation.


Keywords: social class, elites, age, Great British Class Survey


On social class, anno 2014.

At the end of our paper reporting our analysis of the BBC’s Great British Class Survey (Savage et al 2013: 244), we concluded

‘We hope that our new model of class will prove a valuable resource for future social researchers in exploring the com­plex and multi-dimensional nature of social class inequality in the UK in a way which permits us to recognise the ongoing salience of social class divisions in the stratification of British society’.

Have our hopes been realised? Writing less than a year after our paper was published, it is premature to answer, but the interim answer can only be highly ambivalent. On the one hand, the breath-taking scale of interest in the paper, mainly a product of the BBC’s press campaign, revealed a public as well as academic fascination for the topic which far exceeded our expectations and demonstrated an astonishing hunger for talking about class. Within academic debate, as marked by the four critical papers published in Sociology, a signal achievement of which we are proud is the way we have taken the study of class out of different intellectual silos and to have facilitated engagement from different traditions of research.

On the other hand, much of this academic reception has been highly critical. The scale of this criticism varies from the outright hostility of Mills[1] to the more nuanced scepticism of Bradley and the ruminations of Dorling and Rollock. These commentators (as well as others) have raised serious questions about the GBCS as a data source, our mode of analysis, and our conceptualisation of class. To date, few academics (though see Payne 2013 as a partial exception) have seen our seven fold class model as a useful tool for sociological analysis, and in general most academic critics have defended their prior conceptualisations.

How do we make sense of this ambivalent reception? In order to make a considered reply it important to distinguish at least four different issues which are present in our paper but which need analytical separation, as we think that our commentators don’t always realise that a criticism of one does not entail a criticism of others.

Firstly and most obviously are the claims we made about the value of distinguishing ‘our’ seven classes, derived from the latent class analysis of the national GfK data and fleshed out using the GBCS. These were the main focus of our paper, and certainly the centrepiece of the BBC’s press campaign. Whether these seven classes are analytically useful forms the focus of Bradley’s reflections, whilst Mills expresses doubts about the point of developing this classification in the first place (since the NS-SEC is a well-tested and validated measure of class already).

These seven classes, however, are also the lightning conductor for broader issues. Secondly, we need to distinguish the seven classes from the potential of an unorthodox data set – the BBC’s Great British Class Survey (GBCS). As Mills emphasises (and as we made amply clear in Savage et al 2013), our seven classes are very largely derived from the small national GfK survey. Even if our seven classes are found unconvincing, the GBCS data set, which should shortly be in the public realm, might still be a remarkable resource which any researcher will be able to use. We should also note here that our paper was only the first intervention in what we expect to be a much more extensive string of publications based on it. Thus, we have just submitted a batch of articles to Sociological Review conducting more detailed studies of the GBCS, focusing especially on the elite, where the sample skew aids ‘granular’ analysis. As part of this exercise we are also examining the micro-skews in the GBCS (towards particular occupational groups, university graduates, etc). In short, even if our original paper is found problematic, it would be premature to write off the potential of the data itself. We need to play a longer game….

Thirdly, we need to further distinguish what might be termed Bourdieusian, (or ‘capitals, assets, resources’ – see Savage et al 2005) approaches to class analysis from the specific elaboration of the seven classes in Savage et al (2013). The past decade has seen a striking elaboration of these perspectives, sometimes called ‘cultural class analysis’ which seek to make cultural issues central to the analysis of class. These studies include investigations of the cultural aspects of class reproduction (e.g. Devine 2004; Scherger and Savage 2010), of the relationship between class and identity (Savage et al 2005; Savage 2010), as well as conceptualisations of class itself (Savage et al 2005; Devine et al 2004; Bennett et al 2009; Le Roux et al 2008; Atkinson 2010; Atkinson et al 2013; Flemmen 2013). One of the leading aspects of this work is the elaboration of a ‘social space’ approach to class, where geometric methods are used to derive social class groups using clustering methods. Whilst sympathetic to this approach, we actually used latent class analysis in Savage et al (2013). Our point is therefore that the power of Bourdieusian perspectives in general should not be conflated with the specific arguments which we made in Savage et al (2013), and we note that Will Atkinson, is critical of our arguments from a Bourdieusian perspective. This having been said, it is striking that none of the response papers make any reference to the value of the ‘capitals, assets resources’ approach which informed our work. In particular, many of Mills’ questions about how we see the nature and scope of class analysis have been amply outlined in this literature which he does not address (even though much of it is cited in our reference list).

Fourthly, and finally, we also need to observe that the passions sparked off by our paper can only be understood in the context of the huge media interest in the story itself. After all, our previous writings which also include critical reflections on the problems of NS-SEC class categorisations (notably Le Roux et al 2008) have not generated such critical interest. What the media interest in the GBCS has bought to the fore is a contestation over the ‘politics of authorisation’. What is now at stake is the monopoly of the NS-SEC, institutionalised through the Office of National Statistics, to be the only public measure of class. We take this to be one of the reasons for the aggressive tone which Mills adopts in his response, which does not appear to be explicable as a reaction to the tone of our paper which is respectful to different parties, including the proponents of NS-SEC, throughout. In short, this is not simply an ‘academic’ debate, but is itself testimony to the charged nature of class analysis itself in 2014. We have moved well away from the idea that ‘class is dead’. In fact, the sociological analysis of class is now central to public debate. This is a fact which we should celebrate. It is our view too, that having different ways of conceptualising and measuring class – and a recognition of what they can and can’t do – can only aid this welcome development.

We hope we have emphasised that there is more to our paper than simply the ‘seven classes’ which has been the focus of the critical response. In order to recognise the importance of this widening of the debate, we firstly return to the general issue of what classes actually are. This leads us on to our second section on how classes need to be linked to an analysis of inequality. Having conducted this ground work, our third section reflects on how we operationalised the concept of capitals in our paper in order to explicate how our measures of class were derived. The fourth section responds to the challenges about our data and our methods of analysis, addressing both the second issues above. It is only in our fifth and last section that we turn to the specific question of the possible sociological significance of our seven classes.


1: What is class?

It is hardly original to note that class is a contested concept (Calvert 1973; Crompton 2008). Indeed we see the difficulty of domesticating the concept of class to any one paradigm as one of its defining and attractive features. Class spans public and academic discourse, raises issues of politics and science, and is brutally contested within academic paradigms (see e.g. Crompton 2008; Wright 2005). Good! This unruliness is in our view highly productive, being indicative of the telling power of the class concept itself to challenge hegemonic modes of academic expertise and to facilitate a genuinely public sociology in which the expertise of sociologists is itself a matter of public concern. In unravelling this contested approach to class we can identify three different ways of delineating class, all of which are evident in the reception to our study.

Firstly, and amply marked in Mills’ paper, is the emphasis on (i) class as a ‘discrete’ variable, which needs to be delineated and differentiated from any other property with which it might be contingently affiliated. This endeavour to define class as a unitary variable can then lead to a broader project of empirically assessing its significance for other outcomes through using various kinds of multivariate model. It follows that for this perspective, class needs to be differentiated from anything else with which it might be associated (for instance, status, gender, age, ethnicity, residential location, or whatever) so that it is stripped bare as a unitary phenomenon and its net significance registered. Much of Mills’ hostility to our paper appears to be – no doubt deeply and genuinely held – bafflement that class could be anything other than a discrete, validated variable of this kind.

However, as we thought we made clear, our preferred definition of class is different to this[2].  We are seeking a measure of class as (ii) class formation. Here, the crystallisation of different properties renders a class as having a social existence over and above the different factors which make it up. It is in this sense that historians have been interested in classes, not as ‘pure’ variables stripped of contaminants, but as distinctive social formations. In Edward Thompson’s (1963) famous formulation, the English working class was a crystallisation of the cultural traditions of the ‘freeborn Englishmen’, handicraft skills, experiences of state repression and so forth. Subsequent historians have also pointed to other features which Thompson largely ignored such as the masculinist gender cultures (Clarke 1997). In more recent sociology, this perspective has been instantiated by feminist research showing how class identities are simultaneously deeply gendered (Skeggs 1997; 2004), and by arguments by scholars of race and ethnicity that race is ‘“the modality in which class is ‘lived,’ the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought through’” (Hall 342). Rollock’s discussion is an exemplary reflection on how ethnic and class identities are intimately interwoven in this spirit. It follows from our preferred definition of class that our model is a heuristic one which is designed to shed light on the nature and significance of class boundaries in Britain today. The seven classes are not ontological or structural entities, but are the product of the interplay of the three different capitals which comprise them. They can thus be seen as the outcome or the effects of these capitals.

Finally, it is also clear that there is a third significant meaning of class, which has come to the fore in the recent debate. Here class is (iii) an ideological contradiction of democratic capitalism. Intense public interest in class resonates with a deep tension between the supposed inclusive and egaliatarian ethos of democratic society on the one hand, set against the stark – and accentuating – inequalities of capitalism on the other. Dorling’s paper valuably explores some of these contradictory dimensions of class in this vein. Here, admitting that classes exist as discrete social groups is offensive to the public’s deeply held egaliatarianism, to believing that ‘everyone is as good as anyone else’ and to resisting snobbish and elitist motifs (on which see  Savage et al 2001; 2008; Warde 2012). As Warde and others have shown, it is now deeply unpopular for people to openly deport themselves as if they are superior to others. Yet just as this populist and democratic motif symbolically predominates, contemporary capitalism simultaneously generates massive divisions and economic differentiation, and fundamental inequalities of life chances. Class, therefore, taps a nerve, as an inclusive democratic sensibility confronts the mundane existence of inequality. Therefore, the recognition of class acts as a lightening conductor of profound, though often unacknowledged, cultural dynamics which simultaneously resist the idea of there being ‘classes’, whilst being highly attuned to processes of ‘classing’ and ‘classification’.

It is, we would argue, this third sense which explains why people resist identifying as member of a specific class, at the same time that they are aware of, and often fascinated by, the project of classification. And it is this which explains the kinds of ambivalences around classification which are illuminatingly discussed by Rollock and Dorling. The public response to the GBCS itself is testimony to the way that many people are intrigued by understanding how class operates, at the very same time that they resist the idea that there are in fact distinctive social classes in which people can be categorised. Therefore, whatever model of class is produced, it would be resisted and cause offence. We don’t have the possibility of defining a class schema which would meet public approbation and assent. This is, paradoxically, because of the fundamental centrality of inequalities in the production of class.


2: Class and inequality

This discussion directs us, willy nilly, to the crucial relationship between class and inequality. For, in all three senses above, classes can only exist in relation to other classes, and it is the structural asymmetry between them which is central to understanding them as classes, rather than simply as groups or categories. It is precisely because of this intersection with inequality that the concept of class is different from that of market research typologies, of forms of segmentation, which Mills briefly mentions. As he correctly points out, one can always produce typologies out of a complex data set, but for us to see such typologies as classes, an additional step is needed. But the way that classes are seen to relate to each other is a matter of contestation. Bradley accuses us of having a ‘gradational’ approach to class and argues for a relational perspective. Writers, such as Mills who support a measurement of class associated with the NS-SEC generally see class as a categorical variable, in which different classes have different qualities or properties, here defined by the nature of people’s employment relationships, notably by differentiating employers and employees, and those on wage contract or a more diffuse service relationship, see Goldthorpe 2007).

The fundamental question here how class is related to inequality? None of our critics address this issue head on, though Dorling helpfully recognises its centrality. In this section we want to spell out further our own attempt to provide a more adequate resolution to this question, though we are aware that there is plenty more work to do. Let us pose the issues as starkly and directly as we can, recapping on earlier arguments (Savage 2000; Savage et al 2005).

Historically, the most direct approach to linking class to inequality was through the Marxist theory of exploitation, in which one class is held to derive its privileges by exploiting another. This is presumably how Bradley is invoking the idea of relationality in her comment. The concept of exploitation which underpinned Marx’s theory of class depended on a labour theory of value in which one class was held to derive its resources by systematically appropriating the surplus value from the working class, who did not receive in wages the equivalent value to that which they had spent in producing the commodities for their employers. The labour theory of value was therefore a neat way of linking the theory of capitalism to a theory of class. However, the problem is that the labour theory of value has largely been superseded by economists and even if it appears attractive at an abstract (as well as a rhetorical) level, it is hard to operationalise concretely (see generally, Sorensen 2000; Wright 2000).

The problem with using the labour theory of value as an underpinning for theories of exploitation (and therefore of class) have caused class researchers to move in two different directions. On the one hand, Erik Olin Wright (1985) sought to place the concept of exploitation on a different footing through defining it in game theoretical terms (see the discussion in Sorensen 2000; Savage et al 2005)[3]. However, this approach has stalled because game theoretical terms allow numerous axes of exploitation to be defined and followed to their logical conclusion provide the concept of class with no specificity as the concept becomes tautologous. Any difference in pay or conditions could be seen as due to the exploitation of the more deprived by the more advantaged.

The alternative path was pursued by Goldthorpe who sought to pull the concept of class clearly apart from any reference to exploitation at all (see e.g. Goldthorpe and Marshall 1992; Goldthorpe 2000). Increasingly indebted to economists’ analysis of the nature of labour and employment contracts as means of monitoring their workers, he specifically insists that there are no ‘zero-sum’ conflicts between classes. He sees class as associated with employment relations without being committed to the view that different classes are necessarily structurally in conflict. A considerable programme of research shows that his measures of class do indeed map on to significant differences in the nature of employment, such as job security, the nature of remuneration, the regulation of work (e.g. McGovern et al 2007).

This approach deals with the theoretical uncertainty over the concept of exploitation but at the disabling cost of disarming the concept of class itself. In this formulation, there is no analytical added value in defining these categories as ‘classes’ rather than (for instance) as ‘groups with similar kinds of employment contracts’. Using the label of ‘class’ to define such groups is entirely arbitrary[4]. And indeed, when institutionalised into the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification the term ‘class’ was dropped altogether, apparently with no analytical loss of any kind[5]. Thus, the cost of sundering the concept of class from some kind of theory of inequality is to remove the fundamental point of the concept altogether.  Here, we agree with Bradley’s emphasis on the need for the concept to be relational.

Approaches to class therefore need to be anchored in a theory of dis/advantage, our version of which was articulated in Savage et al (2005) but can be re-stated here.  Given the problem of operationalising the labour theory of value, we prefer to focus on mechanisms of accumulation as lying at the heart of a relational approach to class. It is the potential of some assets to augment, store, transmit, and convert advantages which is central to the operation of class. Those without such assets are thereby limited relative to those with them. This formulation hence avoids a zero sum conception of class exploitation (where one class gains directly at the expense of another) whilst also endorsing a relational contest in which some groups have unusually marked opportunities to accumulate and hence gain increasing advantages over those who do not.

Let us build on this point to draw out some implications. Firstly, we dispute the view of Flemmen (2013) that our perspective removes the study of class from that of employment or the labour market. Processes of accumulation are hugely dependent on the organisation of the capitalist economy, albeit in ways which vary according to specific organisational contexts. Following the lead of Sorensen (2000) and Grusky and Weeden (2001; 2008), we regard the most promising way of recognising this point that accumulation takes the form of the sequestration of rents, so that certain occupations or employment situations have the potential to allow their incumbents to have future rewards and expectations inbuilt.

However, secondly, we also think that there are other mechanisms of accumulation other than those arising from the labour market alone. Bourdieu’s concept of economic capital usefully broadens out our understanding to incorporate other forms of wealth accumulation, for instance income from savings, investments, housing and the like. In our view, it is quite conceivable that someone who has never been in paid employment, but who has the capacity to draw upon sources of capital such as this can be seen as highly privileged in class terms.

Thirdly, we further follow Bourdieu in seeking sources of accumulating advantage other than those of economic capital. Here, his concepts of cultural and social capital allow those people with certain cultural dispositions and capacities, and with certain kinds of social networks, the potential to accumulate and acquire – for instance educational qualifications, information, skills, etc. Indeed, it is possible that in an increasingly symbolic economy, such kinds of cultural and social mechanisms of accumulation become even more significant.


3: Defining and measuring capitals

According to Mills, and to other critics such as Goldthorpe (2013), our findings are simply a ‘data dredging exercise’. Now, as we emphasised in our paper, it is definitely the case that our analysis is as good as the construction of the variables, and hence ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ definitely applies. Because our latent class analysis has established seven classes out of the mix of measures which were used to construct them, it does not follow that we have defined seven ‘formed’ classes. For this to be the case, we need to reflect on whether they appear to make sociological sense, whether they might be identifying a group which potentially has some coherence. Mills is of the view that the classes are partly an artefact of our variable construction. In our defence, let us firstly explain why we think our measures of capital are sociologically robust, and then go onto consider the plausibility of the kind of class groupings that the latent class analysis produces.

We think we are quite clear about how we derived our measures of capital in our original paper. Whilst acknowledging that they are not the only way that capitals might be operationalised, we re-iterate that there is extensive prior thinking and research which went into their construction. Our questions of social capital need to be placed in the context of the evaluation and critique of Putnam’s (2000) work over the past decade. Putnam emphasised the significance of membership of voluntary associations for the generation of social capital, but also recognised the role of informal ties, and this has become increasingly recognised in later research (see for instance, Li et al 2007; 2008). This recognition has led to interests in finding a mechanism to measure the nature of people’s social networks using questions on a sample survey. Questions on specific ‘best friends’ or the like, which are used in Understanding Society do not tap the ‘weak ties’ that Granovetter (1973) famously emphasised. The use of the position generator question in the GBCS follows the model which was used in Culture, Class Distinction and has been proven to be effective by Li et al (2008). This approach is drawn from Nan Lin (Lin et al 2001). The idea is that by asking how many people someone knows of a particular occupation it is possible to get a summary measure of the range of connections they possess. By measuring each of these occupations on the Cambridge score, we also found a way measuring whether respondents knew from predominantly high or low status occupations.

Similarly, our thinking about cultural capital is informed by extensive previous research, notably that reported in Culture, Class, Distinction (Bennett et al 2008) and we are surprised that few of our critics, notably Mills, seems to have sought out this book to inspect more fully the underpinning of our thinking. We briefly repeat some especially salient points.

Firstly, whilst obviously recognising that questions on cultural tastes and practices entail measurement error, we still think that they can be used to identify ‘objectified cultural capital’ in a useful way. We recognise Bradley’s point that it is difficult to recognise some informal practices through structured survey instruments[6], but because the MCA operates relationally, this does not affect the finding that certain practices are relatively associated with specific social groups. Thus, we are not claiming that those without cultural capital in our senses are in some ways un-cultured[7], we are only claiming that there are some practices which are systematically associated with the advantaged which might allow them to be construed as cultural capital. Mills’ argument is that the our questions on cultural practices (for instance, a taste for certain kinds of music) conflates age and class, but he seems to assert an almost ‘naturalist’ view that being young or old necessarily imparts a pre-disposition to certain cultural practices.

Secondly, Mills claims that the cultural tastes and practices revealed in our Figures 1 and 2 are actually the product of the NS-SEC class divisions which we are supposed to ‘disdain’.  We would never deny –  and indeed have ourselves argued that – NS-SEC classes are associated with these patterns (as are income, educational qualifications, and other indicators of social hierarchy, see Bennett et al 2008). However, for Mills to make the claim that NS-SEC is ‘predictive’ of these cultural patterns, he needs to engage with the extensive research which we cited in our paper (such as by Chan, Goldthorpe, as well as by ourselves) which argues otherwise. Our own comment which he cites was a discussion of these other sources.

Thirdly, we see the link between age differences and class as a positive merit in our approach, rather than a conflation, as Mills argues. As a side note, in many nations recognition of fundamental cleavages of generation is widely recognised, nowhere better than in France where Louis Chauvel (2006) has emphasised the difficulties of the younger generation compared to their parents. In Britain, class analysis has typically abstracted age from class, seeing these as independent and separate issues. This is despite the fact that class motifs – from yuppie to chav – typically depend on idioms of age. The result of this analytical separation of class from age is that generational divisions have been subsumed in Britain into an anxiety about ‘declining social mobility’, which acts as a proxy for worries about the prospects of the younger generation. In our terms, bringing age more directly into the understanding of class is to be welcomed.

This having been said, it is clearly important to distinguish age, cohort, or generational effects at work. It is unclear whether the younger will become more ‘highbrow’ as they get older. Previous qualitative research suggests that in fact canonical musical forms may be ageing out, and we are struck by the way that these canonical cultural forms, although they are referred to by young professionals, do not convey the intensity and passion of contemporary culture (see Savage and Gayo 2012, and more generally Prieur and Savage 2011). It was from previous research and reflection on these issues across a range of European sites that the concept of ‘emerging cultural capital’ was elaborated (Prieur and Savage 2012)[8]. We can also note that we do not regard cultural

It follows that we do not view the association between age and class as a defect of our analysis, indeed the reverse. We do not find it surprising that, or unimportant, that older people might have more expensive houses (and hence more economic capital) than do younger (and Dorling discusses this with respect to house prices, for instance. But it is quite erroneous to see our classes as simply the product of age divisions, as in Mills claim that ‘(L)ife cycle plays a role in distinguishing what Savage et al. term the ‘elite’ and the ‘established middle class’.  Because the elite are eleven years older than the established middle classes, he thinks this will explain the superior economic capital which the older ‘naturally’ accrue. But in fact, at least as far as household income is concerned, Goldthorpe and McKnight (2004) show that 57 year olds in class 1 and 2 are actually likely to have marginally lower income than 46 year olds.


4: Data and method

Let us now turn to the vital question of our data and modes of analysis, which is the basis of Mills’ important critique. Mills protests that we actually used the small national GfK sample to derive our classes, and hence that the large GBCS plays no analytical role and is largely therefore, a red herring. He doubts that the GBCS can be used for any substantial sociological purpose. In fact, what we did in Savage et al (2013) was to use the GBCS to explore some of the sociological contours of the seven classes which were indeed derived from the national GfK sample. However, our linking of the two data sets was central to our purpose and ten pages of our paper (pp 233-243) examines each of the classes in turn, explicating their characteristics through drawing on material drawn from the GBCS. This allowed us to reflect on whether the latent classes derived from the GfK are actually sociologically meaningful, and hence is a crucial part of our analysis.

There is no doubt that the GBCS is an unorthodox data set which is not nationally representative. The issue is what follows from this? Do we refuse to have anything to do with data which departs from the ‘gold standard’ of standard large scale nationally representative data sets, or do we try to make the best of what we have and explore using innovative methods to deploy it to its best advantage (notably through its potential granularity because of its large sample size). Our view on this is clear. We do not think it is wise for social scientists to limit their research repertoires at the moment which digitalisation is throwing up a proliferation of possibilities and challenges (see Savage and Burrows 2007; Law et al 2013). We specifically identified our work as part of an ‘experiment’ and we hope that the results will be instructive, even if the GBCS is seen, ten or twenty years down the road, as a white elephant.

Mills asks for more information about the national GfK sample in order for us to judge the extent to which it is nationally representative. This is provided in Appendix 1. In brief, GfK’s quota samples seek to ensure representativeness by controlling for age and sex, and by using geographical location of the interviews as a proxy for social class. Their data included a weight variable which they included to ensure that the sample was representative in their terms (and which we used in our analysis). Following the increased scrutiny of the sample in April we did additional tests (which we report in Appendix 1) which show that the GfK appears representative using NS-SEC measures, as well as those controlling for demographic characteristics and educational qualifications. Given its limits as a relatively small quota sample, we are therefore confident that the GfK is a reasonable nationally representative source.


5: The sociological resonance of our seven classes

It is a striking point that none of the four responses, with the partial exception of Bradley, reflect on whether the seven classes we delineated might have be sociologically resonant or not. We need to make it clear that the latent class analysis does not provide ontological guarantees that the seven classes exist as social formations. They give us a set of patterns, and our challenge was to consider, through sociological reflection, whether the different classes were simply a ‘dogs dinner’ spat out by the LCA.  We see this interpretative aspect as crucial to our work, and we remain hopeful that the seven classes offer revealing insights into the fault lines of contemporary British society. Let us recap on what we think the main sociological implications might be.

Probably the most important implication of our work is that the fundamental centrality of the divide between the ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class which has underpinned class analysis since its foundation in the thinking of Marx and Weber needs to be reviewed. Class analysis has developed through a pre-occupation with this ‘collar line’. 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 in articulating these divisions. These debates about the boundary between middle and working class were underscored by the debate between socialists and reformists about the political potential of the industrial working class in contemporary capitalism, which traces a lineage through EP Thompson (1963), TH Marshall (1951), the industrial sociology of John Goldthorpe and David Lockwood (1968/69), and then into cultural studies through Richard Hoggart (1956), Raymond Williams (1961), Paul Willis (1977), Bev Skeggs (1997) and beyond.

Alongside this classic tradition focusing on ‘the problematic of the proletariat’, and juxtaposed to it, lies a second kind of mobilisation of class. Here the middle classes were held to be the backbone of society. Dror Wahrman (2002) 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 (see further, Savage 2010).

From the middle years of the 20th century further anxieties were forged around gender, ethnicity and immigration. The male preserves of middle class work were increasingly penetrated by women. But perhaps these women were a ‘white collar proletariat’, leaving the male middle classes in privileged managerial positions (Crompton and Jones 1984; Savage and Witz 1992)? Increasing amounts of immigration caused further anxieties regarding the racialisation of fractions of both middle and working classes, marked in discussions of the putative ‘underclass’ as well as the possible emergence of a ‘black middle class’.

The effect of these anxieties was to focus on the middle reaches of society as the main arena of social concern 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’.

Our analysis has interesting ramifications for this traditional problematic. To be sure, we have ample evidence that very significant divisions within the middle reaches of society can still be found, for instance in the contrast between our ‘established middle class’ and the ‘traditional working class’. However, our analysis suggests these are no longer the fundamental cleavages in British society. Previous models of class, with their concern over the boundaries between middle and working class are supplanted by three other dynamics which the latent class analysis indicate These are (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 us address these in turn.

On the first point, one of our most striking findings is the delineation of an ‘elite’. Here we are pleased that Bradley also wishes to re-introduce this ‘upper class’ back into class analysis. It is bemusing that Marxist critics of our work abound, given that our account has more affinities to a Marxist focus on the bourgeoisie than other sociological models of class. If one has to detect the most important cleavage in Britain today, it is not between ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class, but between a relatively small corporate (or ‘professional-executive’) elite and everybody else.  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. 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 (e.g. Scott 1982) for two main reasons. Firstly, because reference to an upper class conjures up images of the traditional landed gentlemen and senior professionals in their country estates and Mayfair clubs.  But this is not the elite which we reveal, 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.

At the extreme is the ‘precariat’. We borrowed this term from the academic Guy Standing (2008) who has done so much to promote 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 stereotypes. Our GBCS 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.

Next, we can see some significant age differentiated 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 the inter-twining of age into class which suggest a very different problematic is now shaping our debates about British society than the older concerns about the collar line. 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 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 and fashioned trends with no historical reference points, where the new and contemporary are held to be automatically the marker of excellence. This tension is amply demonstrated in our differentiation 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, or by Vice[9] for instance.

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. This ‘technical middle class’ has attracted increasing interest from historians in recent years. Mobilised around a range of technical interventions from new weaponry, research methods, and of course, information technology, this is a group who hardly fit old gentlemanly paradigms (Savage 2010).

This discussion has centred on unravelling the fault lines and points of anxiety and dispute which our model reveals – and suggests how in 2014, there are several sources of ‘classificatory anxiety’. These move us away from classes as ‘variables’ to the fundamentally more sociological issue of ‘class formation’. Here, our arguments can be crisply brought out. The ‘problematic of the proletariat’ has run its course. Although anxieties about crossing from working into middle class positions continue to abound, the fundamental structural division which emerges from our analysis separates out a powerful corporate class against all the other classes.  Within the middle reaches of the class structure, age and expertise are major modes of differentiation and contestation. The seven classes which we delineate were elaborated as a means of analytically drawing attention to new fractures and ambivalences which we face today. For, in early 21st century Britain, the politics of class reaches a new moment with the clear partitioning of a powerful and wealthy elite from other classes, and the compounding and fracturing effects of age and expertise, alongside gender and ethnicity, indicate the problems of any straightforward project of ‘working class’, or even ‘popular’ politics.


6: Conclusions

Let us conclude by noting initially that our critics have valuably pointed to important issues in our analysis reported in Savage et al (2014). We fully subscribe to the principles of social scientific analysis which involves re-testing (using similar or indeed alternative methods) on the same and different data sets. Social science advances through careful inspection, critique and re-specification. If it turns out that further analysis qualifies or indeed completely repudiates our depiction of the seven classes we have distinguished here, then so be it.

We remain confident that it is useful to reflect anew on the nature of class formation today in ways which may challenge more conventional approaches to class. In our paper we are respectful of other ways of conceptualising class, such as enshrined in the NS-SEC, though we also point to critical concerns regarding the limits of these approaches. These arguments about the value of developing new multi-dimensional approaches to class have been made in numerous other publications and we feel raise important issues about how we might conceptualise class formation today. It is interesting – and indeed sociologically revealing – that our paper has been subject to extensive criticism which rarely engages with the reasons we put forward as to why there might be value in developing new a model of class along the lines we sketch out. Anyway, we hope this paper has clarified how our paper (Savage et al 2013) needs to be situated as part of a much wider engagement with theoretical, methodological and substantive issues for class analysis in the current period. We have argued that our paper needs to be put in a wider context of previous research, rather than treated as ‘a bolt from the blue’ Notwithstanding the criticisms which can be made of it, we believe we have the potential to develop a rich understanding of class in fast moving contemporary societies and it is important not to remain in existing intellectual silos.



We are grateful to Magne Flemmen for his comments on this paper.



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Mills (2014) understandably requests more information on the GfK sample, which we did not have the space to elaborate in Savage et al (2013). The following tables gives details of the representativeness of the GfK sample, comparing it to the nationally representative British Social Attitudes Survey, 2011 (which was conducted at the same time).

Table 1: demographic representativeness

% female 50.9% 51.3%
% Asian[10] 6.7% 5.2%
% white 86.8 87.7%
% black 2.0% 3.5%
Mean age 46.7 47.7
16-24 19 15
25-34 20 21
35-44 22 23
45-54 21 22
55-64 18 19


We should note that the slight age differential is due to the fact that the GfK sampled down to age 16, whereas the BSA samples to age 18. Table 1 indicates that the quotas on age and gender have produced a representative sample in these terms.

With respect to the comparisons with the NS-SEC, we should note that the GfK survey (like the GBCS) asked for job information in free text entry. This does not make it possible for there to be exact comparison with other surveys where structured occupational categories are asked for. In some cases, the free text job is so imprecise that is difficult to pin down where it would fit in the NS-SEC formatting. We have however spent considerable time reflecting on how best to code to NS-SEC categories for every individual case within the GfK. The GfK N here is 935 because in some cases the information is not sufficient to come to a judgement. Overall, the NS-SEC distribution is reassuringly close.

Table 2: GfK and BSA: % in different NS-SEC categories

1.1 Large employers and senior managers 1.7% 2.2%
1.2 Higher professionals 8.1 8.7
2 Lower managers 24.1 24.0
3 Intermediate 14.5 13.4
4 Small employers 8.1 8.4
5 Lower supervisors 8.6 8.8
6 Semi routine workers 18.0 17.0
7 Routine 13.9 12.1
8 No class 3.0 5.4


The distribution of the NS-SEC between GFK and BSA shows great comparability, with the higher proportion of no class in GfK probably also explicable in terms of its wider age range.

Finally, we provide more details about the latent class analysis which we used in Savage et al (2014). After various tests, we used the weighted data where the BIC minimised the number of classes at 7. We also experimented with 8 classes where the BIC number was minimised at 8, but these proved difficult to explicate sociologically so we preferred the seven class model. The full details of the BiC minimisation at 7 classes are provided below.


# classes AIC BIC Classification error Entropy R-squared
2 14159.753 14283.113 0.098 0.6696
3 13278.848 13466.352 0.141 0.6791
4 12987.561 13239.215 0.173 0.6911
5 12834.654 13150.455 0.187 0.6973
6 12732.791 13112.738 0.198 0.7003
7 12547.688 12991.783 0.217 0.7096
8 12513.151 13021.393 0.206 0.7313
9 12424.367 12996.756 0.227 0.7241

“Classification error” is defined as E=(Σ_(i=1)^I w_i [1-maxP ̂(x│y_i )])/N, or a measure of the fraction of cases misclassified by modal classification (Vermunt and Magidson, 2005:62).


At the end of Mills’ (2014) paper, we are asked several critical questions. These are all addressed in our paper, though not in the order that Mills lays them out. For ease of reference, here are brief replies, including where they are more fully elaborated in our paper

What is your typology meant to explain?

Our goal in the paper isn’t to identify a latent variable with which to explain the variance in a cluster of other variables. As we explain in section 1, our concern is with understanding class formation. Notably, using a Bourdieusian understanding of capitals, our aim is to identify where the fault lines are in British society, and identify an alternative way of thinking about class boundaries.

This having been said, there are numerous ways in which the seven classes revealed by the latent class analysis might offer strong patterns of association with a range of variables which are not used to construct the LCA itself. In papers which we have submitted to Sociological Review, we have, for instance examined the association between the seven latent classes and attitudinal questions. We have also used the seven classes as a ‘destination class’ in which we can examine processes which might be associated with mobility into them, including comparing them with NS-SEC classes.


Why should we have confidence in a typology built on the basis of such a small amount of data?

We have made the typology in good faith on the basis of the data made available to us and it is for readers to judge how much confidence to place in it. The GfK sample was commissioned by the BBC (to whom we remain grateful for their support) and we believe it offers better prospects of deriving general patterns than the GBCS. The quota sample was selected by the BBC presumably for reasons of cost, and whilst we recognise its limitations, we still believe analyses derived from it have value. Appendix 1 provides more information on the comparability between GfK and larger national representative data sets which we think are relatively reassuring. We should note that there are a number of highly influential studies of class which use only slightly larger data sets, e.g. Marshall et al (1988) and Bennett et al (2008).

We’re aware of the fact that our sample size means the confidence intervals surrounding the estimates of the classes are larger than they would be for larger samples, and we recognise that this will necessarily lead to less precision about the specific size of the classes. However, the number of variables used to construct our measures from which the latent class analysis was conducted is actually very large. , and we couldn’t use any other existing survey to attempt such an analysis.


What will you do when your method is applied to a larger amount of data and you discover, as you undoubtedly will, a larger number of classes?

We will certainly be interested to see what results are produced if similar methods are applied to other, larger, data sets, and as is normal in social science, we will be happy to review the arguments here on the basis of this further analysis. We would emphasise that our approach was not to mechanically define the number of classes simply according to the model selection criteria as where BIC is minimised. As we explain in the paper, the identification of a plausible set of distinct classes isbased on sociological interpretation of the patterns it produces, and using the GBCS as a tool to aid our interpretation. Therefore, if analysis of a larger sample reveals say 10 (or however many) classes where BIC is minimised, we will also seek to explore whether these might be sociologically meaningful, whether some of these classes could be seen as fractions of ‘our’ classes and so on. We see this process of iterative review as central to best practice in social science.

What use can the GBCS (as opposed to the GfK) data actually be put to?

As we explained in Section 4, above, the GBCS is used to interpret the meaning of the seven classes in Savage et al (2014). As we discuss in the introduction to this paper, we have just submitted a series of papers using the GBCS to study the elite, which is a group over-represented in the GBCS. Given the problems of finding suitable data sources on this group, we think the GBCS offers unusual prospects, even whilst fully recognising the need to be careful in making any interpretations because of the possibility of skews based on unobserved factors.

We note that the unusually large sample size of GBCS does allow the possibility of unusually granular analysis. Whilst care will inevitably be required to make inferences from the GBCS given its sample selection bias it contains, in the absence of other sources, we continue to think that it offers potential for innovative analysis. No doubt this can be judged further when our additional analyses of the GBCS are submitted and subject to critical review.


Do you accept that your data show that cultural consumption is related to conventional measures of social class?

Yes. We have never denied this. As well as being something we drew attention to in our paper, there is also a range of other research which some of us have been involved with on this very issue – see for instance Bennett et al (2009) and Le Roux et al (2008) for a full discussion of class (using NS-SEC categories) and the relationship with cultural consumption. We note that our comment on this issue (Savage 2014; 222) was directed towards the findings of other research.


What is gained by relabeling age-cohort and life-cycle stage as ‘social class’?

This depends on our conceptualisation of class, which we have tried to further explicate in section 1 of this paper. As we discuss in Section 4 above, people with different stocks of certain capitals can be meaningfully understood as being in different classes. That these capitals are associated with age or cohort effects doesn’t change that.


Do you really believe that changing one’s social class can be a matter of getting out of bed and making a serious effort to like Brahms or to attract a few more Facebook friends?


Boundary issues are pertinent for any kind of social classification, including the NS-SEC. The point of using MCA to assess the role of cultural consumption in cultural capital is to recognise that entire groupings of cultural practices are involved and it is unlikely that a change of one practice alone would cause a significant enough shift to change class in the terms we use.

More generally, some classes are easier to move between than others – nobody’s going to move from the traditional working class to the elite simply on the basis of the number of Facebook friends they have – but if an individual is able to radically change their social and cultural capital in such a way that both can be exploited, then this is possible. It will be harder than adding a handful of Facebook friends and buying a few CDs if this is to be meaningfully put to work.


[1] Those especially interested in Mill’s critique, may wish to turn immediately to Appendix 1 which provides details on the GfK survey and the latent class analysis, and Appendix 2 which provides headline responses to the questions he poses in the  conclusion to his paper, and are grounds for which are unpacked in the body of this reply.

[2] See, for instance, ‘we should emphasise that this is a different kind of model to that developed by Goldthorpe and embedded in the NS-SEC, since it is an inductive, rather than deductive class schema’..

[3] In his more recent work, Wright (1997) invokes three principles of exploitation, firstly (inverse inter-dependence) that party A depends on the material deprivation of party B; secondly that party B are excluded from the productive resources which party A possesses, and finally that it is the appropriation of party B’s labour which allows the first two principles to work. However, this formulation could be applied to any economic differentiation within a market system and ultimately lacks clarity

[4] There is also the difficulty of deriving a seven fold model of class into a theoretical framework which only readily distinguishes between employees and employers, and between employees on a labour contract and ‘service relationship’.

[5] Or, to put this another way, the only possible analytic used by Goldthorpe to justify the NS-SEC as classes is to separate out the service class from those on labour contracts, yet this binary divide seems a crude instrument to register the complexity of class inequality.

[6] Indeed, we have made the same point ourselves, see Bennett et al 2008) Chapter 3 and especially 4, and in Savage (2010), chapter 3.

[7] Indeed, this view is explicitly contested in Bennett et al 2009 where we show that those who are not engaged with the measures of cultural taste and practice that we asked about on our survey were in fact more likely to be involved with informal ties with kin, friends and neighbours. See further, Savage 2010.

[8] Mills implies at various points that it is easy to change cultural practices (for instance, in his comment about how changing Facebook friends might entail a change of class) and therefore that these are not sociologically salient. Given the extent of sociological research which emphasises the powerful social structuring of cultural practices, it would be helpful for Mills to have produced sociological evidence for his alternative view.


[10] Ethnic categories not quite comparable between GfK and BSA. The latter includes options for ‘don’t know’ and ‘refusals’.

Progress on research on the Great British Class Survey

We have had comments asking us to update interested readers with news on the GBCS. in brief….

1. We have been putting particular energies into the archiving and making publicly available the GfK and GBCS. We hope the first tranche of data will be available by late spring. Discussions between the UK Data Archive and the BBC regarding licensing are proceeding with this date in mind. The first batch of GBCS will not contain the detailed occupational and university data as this still requires additional cleaning, but we expect this additional data to be included by the end of 2014.

2. Our article ‘On social class, anno 2014’ is now under review at ‘Sociology’. This replies to our critics (four of whom – Harriett Bradley, Colin Mills, Danny Dorling and Nicola Rollock – have papers accepted in ‘Sociology’) and expands on the implications of the GBCS for class analysis.

3. Once we know if our article is accepted, we will include subsidiary responses to critics (including the questions which Colin Mills asks us at the end of his critical response) on this blog site, as well as additional technical information about the GfK which there may not be space to include in our ‘Sociology’ paper.

4. We have drafts of all the papers which we hope will form a special issue of ‘The Sociological Review’ and which will be submitted to them by the end of March. We hope this will showcase the ability of the GBCS to allow granular analysis of the elite. The papers we will be submitting are:

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

Mike Savage (LSE), ‘Challenges for class analysis: from the ‘problematic of the proletariat’ to the classed analysis of elites’

Sam Friedman (City) and Mark Taylor (Manchester), ‘Breaking The Glass Ceiling? Social Mobility into the British Elite’

Daniel Laurison (LSE), ‘Political engagement and efficacy among the elite: lessons from the GBCS’

Andrew Miles (Manchester), ‘Elite occupations and the creative class’

Niall Cunningham (Manchester) and Mike Savage (LSE), ‘The secret garden?: elite metropolitan geographies in contemporary Britain’

Paul Wakeling (York) and Mike Savage (LSE), ‘Entry to elite positions and the stratification of higher education in Britain’


5. We have signed our contract with Penguin and are now working on a delivery date for our popular book on class of September 2014.

Thank you all for your continued interest….

A statement on future research from The Great British Class Survey

The publication of our paper ‘A new model of class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey experiment’ in Sociology in April 2013, allied with a simultaneous press campaign led initially by the BBC has led to unprecedented interest in the nature and significance of social class in Britain. This reception of our work has been remarkably wide ranging, straddling academic disciplines, and a great variety of non-academic groups. We would like to thank the numerous people who have contacted us with their thoughts, written blogs, and more generally commented on our study. Some of the reception has been critical and has posed challenging questions about our purpose, methodology and data. We are pleased to have inspired such an engaged reception, and are aware that we need to respond to the criticisms and comments made. Furthermore, given the extent of public interest in this project, we feel responsible for explaining how we will be developing our research in the coming period. This note briefly spells out our plans.

1. We are working with the UK Data Archive to archive the GBBC and GfK data so that it can be used by other researchers. This process is time consuming in part because the original sample of 161,400 has been increased by a further 200,000 cases since we were given our working data set in summer 2011. We are currently downloading the new cases, and will carry out exploratory analyses on these whilst also working to archive the complete data set, hopefully by spring 2014. A public seminar is being organised to coincide with the release of this data set which anyone who might be interested in using this data is welcome to attend. A further feature of this archiving is that the BBC will be depositing all their Lab UK experiments at UKDA and since significant numbers of respondents conducted more than one experiment, there is the prospect of innovative data linkage which might interest researchers with interests other than social class.

2. We are currently preparing a paper which will respond to the various criticisms which have been made of our paper in Sociology in the context of elaborating our arguments about social class more broadly. We see this as the most effective way of responding to our critics as it will allow us to systematically pull out our claims and rationale in the context of reasoned article. We therefore ask our critics to be patient. We plan to submit this paper to Sociology. If it is not accepted for publication then we will seek alternative means of publication, perhaps in extended blog format.

3. We have developed a new research network, Culture and Stratification network convened by Sam Friedman (City), Laurie Hanquinet (York), Andrew Miles (Manchester) and Mike Savage (LSE). This is specifically designed to link different universities and encourage debate around broad concerns with the intersection between culture and social stratification. This includes a blogsite which interested parties may wish to consult. It includes some discussion on the debate on the GBCS. We are keen to encourage postings on this site from outside the core team.

4. We are in the process of signing a contract with Penguin to write a popular and accessible – though also serious and critical – book with the provisional title ‘Social Class in Britain Today’, using the GBCS but also other sources. We are delighted to be able to build on the popular interest in the study through a Penguin publication, and are hoping to complete this book by autumn 2014.

5. Since the value of the GBCS extends well beyond our analysis of the seven classes in our paper in Sociology, we are also working on a series of articles for a special issue of Sociological Review which showcases their research potential especially for exploring power and privilege.

6. Finally, we are involved in developing research networks where further research from the GBCS is showcased, and anyone interested is encouraged to attend. These notably include the Culture and Stratification network and the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) whose theme on ‘Trajectories of Participation and Inequality’ will hold workshops on linked topics over the coming year. We are also extensively committed to a series of talks and seminars over the coming year, notably an event at Manchester as part of the ESRC Social Science Week on November 8th.

We hope this note will be useful in making it clear how we will be building on our work on the GBCS in the coming period.

The Return of Britain’s Comedy Messiah

In the early 1980s Alexei Sayle spearheaded The Alternative Comedy Movement and pioneered a groundbreaking new approach to stand-up comedy. Pushing beyond the lowbrow styles that had previously dominated the field, Sayle and others rehabilitated British Comedy and made it an acceptable taste for the middle classes. 20 years on he tells Sam Friedman how he’s returning to reinvigorate the legacy of alternative comedy.

Alexei Sayle looks pleased with himself. He’s just metaphorised the Edinburgh Festival Fringe into a comedy warzone. Princes Street is no man’s land, he tells me, with Stewart Lee and ‘The Stand [Comedy Club] Radicals’ firing artillery at ‘all the others’ over in Bristo Square. Leaping into animation he fires an imaginary machine-gun at me, chuckling at his own surreal vision and showering me with remnants of his Sgiotella Italian Pastry. The godfather of Alternative Comedy will, of course, be siding with the Radicals for his first Fringe show in 20 years, playing a late run of 14 nights at Stand 3 in August. ‘Stewart [Lee] said I couldn’t go anywhere else,’ he deadpans. ‘No, really, he emailed me and said, ideologically, I couldn’t go over to the ‘other side’.

We’re sitting in Sfzio’s in Camden, a proudly ungentrified Venezuelan-Italian café that sits unassumingly on Theobold’s Rd amid a sea of trendy gastro pubs and soulless chain eateries. Sayle’s been coming here for years and the owners clearly adore him, humouring his pigeon Spanish and eagerly showing me the articles he’s written for them in the local press. ‘That was complete nonsense’, he confides with a grin as the waiter dutifully decodes his Spanglish coffee order. Sayle once famously remarked that ‘you can’t do comedy with a beard’, but today I’m finding it hard not to notice the elf-like silver goatee that he’s cultivated into a neat arrow formation, and which rises and falls in a not uncomical fashion as he speaks.

Sayle has just finished a run of early Edinburgh previews at the Soho Theatre, the first time he’s performed live in 17 years. Things nearly went terribly wrong, he tells me. On the press night, riddled with nerves, Sayle lost his voice and then in the opening minutes repeated the same joke twice. ‘At one point I thought of saying ‘look, I can’t do this’, and just walking off’. Happily, the Liverpudlian collected himself and the show was largely well–received by the critics. But the fear that he might have been about to debase his own legacy clearly got to Sayle. ‘I suppose the older you get, the legacy is all you have’, he says. ‘When you’re younger you think ‘well I can build another one’, but at my age I don’t have time so it all gets a bit scary. That’s probably one of the reasons that performers stop taking chances. Because it’s easier to stay in a comfortable rut. But equally when people try to replicate their glory days they invariably fuck up so the only way to be free, I think, is to face that challenge.’

Taking chances is something most people associate with Alexei Sayle. Brought up by Communist parents in Anfield, Liverpool, Sayle went on to pioneer the Alternative Comedy Boom of the early 1980s. Frustrated by the casual bigotry of the 1970s club comics and the hackneyed light entertainment of TV sitcoms, he and others like Malcolm Hardee, Tony Allen and Ben Elton championed a kind of post-punk political comedy that aimed to galvanise leftist activism and hone in on the escalating social divisions being cultivated in Thatcher-era Britain. More than just a political project though, alternative comedy was also united by an experimental aesthetic that attempted to push the boundaries of the art form. Sayle’s stand-up epitomised the alternative style, his ranting and relentless speed of attack demanding a constant intellectual participation ranging from Sartre references to Brechtian theatre. ‘For me it was always a way of making interesting art’, he says. ‘A kind of bloody-mindedness to push, to not settle for the ordinary, to always include the erudite reference. Not art that has some kind of didactic political purpose, but art that engages people and contains some truth.’

Watching one of Sayle’s previews at the Soho, it’s clear he retains a commitment to pushing boundaries. Particularly exciting is the quality of the satire. There is a tangible bite and clarity in Sayle’s political commentary, particularly when he lambasts the reproduction of class privilege and the myriad triumphs of our recent crop of Old Etonians (‘Maybe we should just hand back control to the upper class completely’). It’s a refreshing change from the limpness of much contemporary political comedy, I tell him. ‘I think there’s just a refusal in Britain right now’, he agrees. ‘I mean you can do the John Prescott’s a big-fat-idiot-thing, but otherwise you have to go deeper and that’s hard. I think a lot of comics go with the path of least resistance.’

Alternative comedy undoubtedly transformed British comedy, particularly at the Fringe, where Sayle’s 1980 late night double-billing with Tony Allen is widely considered the precursor to the now ubiquitous Fringe ‘hour’. Yet, the cultural stock of many alternative comedians fell dramatically in the 1990s. Many were accused of de-radicalising and assimilating into the lowbrow mainstream, a process epitomized by the trajectory of Ben Elton. Elton’s populist novels and musicals were roundly derided by artists on the left (including Sayle) and he was famously labeled the ‘biggest sellout of his generation’ by Toby Young. Interestingly, Sayle survived this backlash with his cultural legitimacy largely intact. This was perhaps because in 1996, when the commercial juggernaut was beginning to envelop comedy, he quit standup and focused on becoming an author.

Yet considering his enduring cultural currency, one of the most admirable aspects of Sayle’s show is that he doesn’t attempt to bask in this reputational glory. On the contrary, he happily questions his legend, acknowledging that he too is not a wholly uncompromised figure. In one memorable skit, he inverts a rant about Elton by pondering his own participation in a number of lucrative voice-over ads. ‘It would be easy to elide certain subjects,’ he reflects. ‘But I don’t want to pretend. Me doing voiceovers should really make you question my political pronouncements, because I’m clearly a hypocrite.” Again the infectious laugh, again the inevitable deluge of flaky pastry.

But it’s not just Sayle that has changed since he last performed live. The British comedy audience has also altered immeasurably. Sayle says that when he started doing comedy in 1979, ‘no university-educated person went to see stand-up’. Instead, most of the early alternative comedy audience was much like Sayle himself – young, radical and working-class. And Sayle says he still identifies strongly with the working-class, despite his own upward trajectory:

‘If you take a strictly Marxist sense of class there’s three classes, the bourgeoisie, who own everything, the petit bourgeoisie and the working class. And I’ve always accepted those distinctions. Those are the objective economic classes you are in. And I am petit-bourgeois in the sense that I own my own means to production. Culturally, of course, the petit bourgeoisie can go either way – you can be a shopkeeper in Knightsbridge where you’re serving the bourgeoisie or you can be a shopkeeper in Hartlepool where clearly you’re not. So I’ve always understood myself to be petit bourgeois, self-employed, but I’ve always seen my cultural allegiance with the working-class.’

The irony of this, of course, is that Sayle and the alternative comedians were instrumental in transforming British comedy audiences. Borrowing from high-art traditions to inform their style, they helped rehabilitate comedy and in so doing attracted a new generation of middle class audiences, many of whom will be clamoring to buy Sayle tickets in Edinburgh. Unwittingly then, I propose mischievously, does that mean the petit-bourgeois Alexei Sayle of 2013 may actually be serving the Edinburgh bourgeoisie rather than the working-class? Sayle smiles at this, but carefully sidesteps the provocation: ‘I don’t really mind where the audience comes from, to be honest. Audiences definitely seem better behaved now. They will sit and let complex ideas be related. And I suppose in the past I would have turned on them for that, but I let it stand now.’

This seems to epitomise the contemporary Sayle. While in the past he might have mounted a snarling counter-attack, today he seems more forgiving, more mellow. Gone, it seems, is a lot of the anger and bile, and instead there’s a thoughtful, self-reflective tone. ‘My impetus before was always to kill it, smash everyone else out of sight, be the greatest. I really had quite a malevolent streak. But I’ve worked really hard to get rid of that. And that’s a lot of what the show is about, about trying to project that idea, that attitude of forgiveness, understanding and acceptance.’

Sayle says he’s not going to Edinburgh with any ulterior motives of career kick-starts. He doesn’t want a return to TV or Radio, or to release a Christmas DVD. ‘I just want to do this. If it works, great, if it doesn’t, it will just be some sad old man capering around.’ Although you never know…’, he notes, suddenly grinning gleefully, seized by another mental vision. ‘Maybe I’ll end up on 8 Out Of Ten Cats or Team Captain for some Channel 5 panel show’. If only.