Political problems with the Great British Class Survey

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).[1] The chief claims are that the layperson’s subdivision of British society into upper, middle, and lower classes is out of date, and that the people exhibiting qualities associated with those classes make up less than half of the current British population.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

  1. It represents a tendentious interpretation of the material experience of contemporary Britons;
  2. It obscures the role of exploitation in society;
  3. 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]


  1. Mike Savage, et al., ‘A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Sociology (pre-print), available here.  ↩
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2 comments

  1. Hi

    I’m one of the authors of the study, so obviously what you’ve written here is interesting to me. There’s a few things that you’ve written that I disagree with, but there’s also a few positions that I think you’ve ascribed to us that I’m not sure we hold. I’m only speaking for myself here, obviously, and it might be that Mike or one of the other authors doesn’t hold the same position as me, but I think it might be useful to explain in order to better identify our points of divergence. I’m grateful that you’ve given us the benefit of the doubt in relation to the web widget and its subsequent discussion, so everything that I say from here on in will be to do with the paper.

    “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.”

    I don’t think we do this, really. While it’s obviously a nice way to frame the discussion for the BBC (and it’s been no surprise that the image of John Cleese and the Two Ronnies has been recurrent in subsequent coverage) this isn’t really the goal of the paper – we focus on the official measurement of class in Britain, which is the NS-SEC schema, and its relative strengths and weaknesses in terms of understanding inequality. So, to an extent, “Britain now has seven classes” is an odd headline as officially it has done for a while.

    “To determine the status of an academic, then, it asks questions about social contact.”

    This is part of a broader discussion about how the measurement of social capital is circular. I don’t think it is, as this relates to the distinction between class and status – we’ve used Lin’s position generator here as a measure of social status, as opposed to a measurement of social class (instead, as a determinant of social class).

    “The implication is that once those stragglers from history have died, there will be no more working class.”

    I don’t think this is right – and the fact that you haven’t mentioned our discussion of the precariat in your posts is a bit of a concern, as the discussion of what we’ve called the “traditional working class” is not to claim that the working class is unlikely to last long, but that, for a large number of people on the sharp end of inequality, the unpredictability of the labour relation is a major issue.

    “This focus leads to an insistence that society is largely made up of different forms of middle-class experience: established middle class, technical middle class, and so on.”

    I think your use of “and so on” here is misleading, as these are the two groups that we’ve called middle class. The remaining four groups (having excluded the elite) can all be described as working class to greater or lesser extents, and it’s these greater or lesser extents which are important.

    “On the contrary, the closeness of fit between the assumptions underlying our politics and research like this demonstrate the incredible ideological efficiency of postmodern capitalism, which so distorts our politics and economics that we worry about catering for tiny differences in the comfortable middle classes at the expense of addressing the structural exploitation by the elite of the middle and in particular the lower classes.”

    I’m not sure about the extent to which I disagree with this. The obvious shortcoming with Kettle’s piece is that he claims that it would be easy to associate the three biggest parties with three traditional class groups, when they’re all working with the interests of different bits of the middle class. I don’t see why it’s an issue to investigate the ways in which this works.

    “Far from shrinking as a proportion of society, it’s clear that the percentage of the working class, or the proletariat, is actually growing. The old forms of exploitation still exist, but new forms are being developed as the privatization of shared social space continues at full tilt.”

    Again, I don’t disagree with this, and I don’t think the paper disagrees with this either. In identifying groups that experience capitalism in different ways, most of which are exploited in the process, we’ve investigated some of the different patterns through which inequality manifests itself.

    “The highbrow tastes that are implicitly disdained by this study…”

    Do we?

    Beyond this, I’m hesitant to go much further – I was just hoping to clarify some points. I’d be interested to see your responses.

    Mark

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