The results of the BBC-sponsored ‘Great British Class Survey’ were widely publicized yesterday (see the footnote for the academic study on which they are based, and a link). The chief claims are that the layperson’s subdivision of British society into upper, middle, and lower classes is out of date, and that the people exhibiting qualities associated with those classes make up less than half of the current British population. In place of the tripartite system we should establish a seven-part division of society (the seven types are described here) in which the traditional working class is disappearing and the population is largely made up of shades of middle-class experience. It is no surprise that this research should have been commissioned at the present moment of political and economic history (i.e. the Thatcherite epoch), and while surely not deliberate, it is a sickening irony that the diverting and soothing check-your-own-class online questionnaire should have been made public only two days after the government’s apocalypse of the British welfare system.
Many people on Facebook and Twitter have already observed that, if you tweak your answers a little this way and that, particularly concerning which cultural forms interest you, your class diagnosis can fly widely from low to high. I’m not so interested in this diagnostic failure of what is in any case a crude questionnaire (I’ll give the researchers credit for a much more sophisticated interpretation of contextual information than this simple tool allows), and will instead focus, in three short companion blogposts, on just three problems that I see circulating around it
- It represents a tendentious interpretation of the material experience of contemporary Britons;
- It obscures the role of exploitation in society;
- It demonizes counter-cultural forms of thought and feeling.
But before I start with these three points, the reason for this widely observed problems with the diagnostic tool should be explained. It is because there is a decisive methodological problem with the study, which purports to offer an answer to questions such as ‘What social status is an academic?’ by focusing on three ‘capitals’: social, cultural, and economic. The professed aim is to produce a more nuanced picture of class reality than a simple focus on the economics would do. To determine the status of an academic, then, it asks questions about social contact. Which people do you know? Cleaners? Accountants? Academics? If you tick ‘university lecturer’, you will find that the measure of the social status of your friends rises to the highest level. This might seem an unproblematic assumption: surely academics are of a high social status. But isn’t this what the methodology is meant to be determining? The assumed high status of academics is then fed into the calculation of the social capital of the individual (the academic) doing the questionnaire, and the outcome will be a nuanced picture of the social status of that individual (that academic). There is, in short, a circularity to the investigation. Certain jobs are assumed to be fixed to certain social statuses, and they cannot be statuses that have been determined by this methodology, because the methodology requires them to be in place already at the start. Identical problems exist with the cultural-capital questions, which assume that certain cultural forms are inextricably linked with certain social statuses. I’ll return to these later. But the tests for both social and cultural capital are so circular that they distort the outcome of the investigation. They should be removed, to leave only the measure of economics (suddenly the seven class types then begin to seem more accurate). Incidentally, I know four academics, all from working-class backgrounds, all earning more or less the same amount, who have done the test. Their results came out as ‘elite’, ‘established middle class’, ‘new affluent workers’, and ‘emergent service workers’ depending on the friends or cultural interests they admitted to. There’s no way that this methodology can reliably determine such a wide range of outcomes when the outcome is already assumed from the start.
On, then, to the first of the three main problems with this study: its tendentious outline of the material reality of contemporary Britain. [Click here]