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The ‘Re-making’ of Great British Class

By James Dowsett

Britain is a nation peculiarly obsessed with social class. And not, perhaps, without reason, as Professor Mike Savage’s new book Social Class in the 21st Century argues: “classes are indeed being fundamentally remade.” [1] Really, one might argue that social class never really went away. Those of us wise to the cynicism of the British political elite likely look back with bemusement upon the naïve, millenarian, endorsed fiction of a “classless society” (John Mayor), matched with pre-emptive declarations that “class war is over” (Tony Blair). [2] This delusion of classlessness was born out of a barely-contained triumphalism upswing in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the wrenching down of the Iron Curtain, and the end to half a century of cold-war antagonisms and polarised world-views.

Social Class in the 21st Century presents in published form the findings of the ‘Great British Class Survey’ (GBCS), a sociological experiment dreamt up by the Professor Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester, and Professor Mike Savage of the London School of Economics. With 161,000 participants, the Great British Class Survey was the “largest survey of social class ever conducted in Britain.” In 2013, its results were popularised in the form of the BBC’s interactive Great British class calculator. Attracting over seven million clicks and unprecedented media interest, the experiment of Devine and Savage expertly illustrated how an academic discipline can, seemingly out of nowhere, utterly engage and enervate an enthusiastic public in a remarkably profound way.

Rejecting antiquated, purely occupational, sociological approaches, Social Class in the 21st Century derives a distinct typology from the theories of late French thinker, Pierre Bourdieu. This ambitious attempt at a unified theoretical model incorporates his concept of ‘capital’, in an economic dimension (occupation, wealth, income), a social dimension (relationships, networks, affiliations), and a cultural dimension (‘taste’). By thoughtfully applying this framework to the empirical findings of the GBCS, Savage extrapolates seven distinct social classes – elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service workers, and precariat (a portmanteau of precarious proletariat). Although differences in economic, social, and cultural ‘capital’ among the middling-sorts are altogether ‘fuzzy’, the findings nevertheless reveal profound inequalities between the extreme poles of elite and precariat.

To conclude: British society is shamefully unequal. Who knew? Yet, this is exactly the point. Social Class in the 21st Century tells us what we already intuitively know. It is only the sheer scale of inequality presented in the data that surprises us. The epiphany of the sociologist is the begrudging ‘told-you-so’ of the historian. Antagonism between both respective disciplines is nothing new. In the eminently quotable preface to The Making of the English Working Class (1963) – perhaps the single most important contribution of any historian to a distinct historical methodology of class analysis – E. P. Thompson quipped that “the finest-meshed sociological net cannot give us a pure specimen of class.” What Thompson recognised was the capacity of history to enter realms of explanation altogether closed to the theoretical and quantitative toolkit of the sociologist. This was a radical envisioning of class, not “as a ‘structure’, nor even as a ‘category’, but as something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships.” Class does not float free as a “Thing”; it is the evolving historical process of complex interaction within human societies.[3]

Perhaps more fundamentally, sociology can only offer perspectives on social class in stasis. As Thompson eloquently outlined, the notion of class as a historical relationship entails: “a fluency which evades analysis if we attempt to stop it dead at any given moment and anatomise its structure.” Of course, class relationships do necessarily change over time as society itself undergoes political, socio-economic, and cultural transformation. Marx and Engels’ diagnosis of the chronic malady associated with British industrial society in the nineteenth-century has only limited purchase in twenty-first century society: a society comparatively de-industrialised and affluent, yet still plagued by the misery and evils of wealth and income inequality.

While class is certainly being ‘re-made’, it must not be forgotten that people themselves are doing the ‘re-making’, not invisible forces. Savage’s discussion of ‘new cultural snobbery’ is enlightening in this respect, reinstating the crucial role of agency in ‘class consciousness’, as well as the way in which people act in ‘class ways’ more generally. Similar moments of clarity cluster around the told experiences of real people, both lived and relational. But isn’t this – the experience of ordinary people – the remit of the social historian? That sociology as a discipline is confidently assuming the authoritative mantle of class analysis is of no real surprise. For decades, part of the historical profession has contended itself with the worst kind of navel-gazing, the ‘post-modern turn’ (too purposefully convoluted to warrant further explanation here).
Yet, all around us can be felt the first tentative ripples of sea-change. Historians are once again critically re-engaging with the concept of class. Last year witnessed the publication of Selina Todd’s magisterial volume, The People, a sweeping grand-narrative of the “rise and fall of the working class” from 1910 to 2010.[4] That Social Class in the 21st Century tries so hard to formulate a historically minded approach to the subject of class is telling. Indeed, the historian’s occasional antipathy for the sociologist is not all that often mutual. The late, great Pierre Bourdieu was himself aware of the insightful benefits of history’s unique place somewhere between the humanities and social sciences. We only need to recall Bourdieu’s famous adage – “the social world is accumulated history” – to understand the crucial role history has to play in class analysis. If sociology can tell us where we are, history where we have come from, then both approaches combined may be able to tell us where we are going.

Notes:

[1] M. Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century: A Pelican Introduction (2015).

[2] A. Anthony, “Class war is back again – and British politicians are running scared” The Observer, 30 November 2014.

[3] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London & New York, 1963).

[4] S. Todd, The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010 (London, 2014).

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