Class: the issue that some people wish would go away

The Cat was immediately suspicious when the BBC announced the findings of a new report into social class in Britain. The new social hierarchy being proposed, which is based on research conducted by the London School of Economics’ Mike Savage and Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester and was commissioned by the BBC, has been concocted to deflect attention from the reality of everyday life. Since the Blair years, there has been much eagerness on the part of the dominant culture to redefine class broadly along lines of consumption, but some of this eagerness also comes from a desire to claim that we’re “all”, as John Prescott once put it,”middle class now”.

This idea that everyone, or most everyone, is middle class has worked well in the United States, where the promotion of the image of a classless country serves to obscure the day-to-day economic reality of the lives of many Americans and their true relationship to capital. Indeed, the fantastic idea of the much-promised American Dream is a nightmare for the vast majority of ordinary people.

The BBC commissioned research into social class has determined that social hierarchy be reconstructed thus,

  • Elite: This is the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.
  • Established Middle Class: Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.
  • Technical Middle Class: This is a new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
  • New Affluent Workers: This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.
  • Emergent Service Workers: This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ’emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.
  • Traditional Working Class: This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
  • Precariat: This is the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

The idea behind this kind of social realignment is nothing new. Pierre Bourdieu (1989) proposed that taste, or the judgement of distinction, should be reconstructed according to a person’s levels of non-material capital. These were: social, cultural, economic and symbolic forms of capital; there are also subsets of these forms: for  example, subcultural capital (Thornton, 1997) is a subset of cultural capital. These forms of capital are employed on fields and some can used as a medium of exchange: consider the example of the old school tie, which is a form of social capital that can unlock many doors (think of John Lloyd and how he sold Spitting Image to Central Television and you’re there).

Naturally, the BBC nor the researchers, don’t tell us how capital is used on the field nor do they mention habitus or doxa. Instead, we are given new social designations – the ugliest of which is “precariat”. But “Emerging service workers”?  What does that mean, exactly?

The BBC has the summarized findings here. The page also invites you to assess your social class but using its handy class calculator.  I’ve used it twice now and each time, it’s told me something different. Oh, but it’s a bit of coffee-time fun, surely?

Well, I’m not so sure.

What this report has done is to add new strata to an already stratified British society. It makes no attempt to discuss or even apologise for the way in which the same stale ideas circulate on the field of cultural production and how cultural production is controlled by a small group of people who project their ideas of taste on the public. Furthermore, the report fails to take into account how political power remains in the hands of the dominant ideological group, nor does it offer any explanations about how the power of the dominant culture is reproduced in its educational institutions: Oxbridge and the public (independent) schools.

The authors of this report and the BBC should hang their heads in shame for gutting and filleting Bourdieu’s concepts and presenting them as a silly parlour game. Catherine Hakim, who was also at the LSE, did a similar thing with Bourdieu’s ideas of capital by proposing the slippery concept of “erotic capital”. This idea falls apart when one interrogates the claim that anyone can use their erotic capital to advance in life. It is clear that working class women will only be able to use their erotic capital to make it as a stripper or sex worker. There is no social mobility involved in a working class deployment of erotic capital.

Try as they might, the ruling class cannot reorder the class structure of this country. By isolating the issue of class from the production and reproduction of power, any attempt on their part is mere navel-gazing. Furthermore, the fact that this research was commissioned by the BBC tells us that, for all its pretensions to inclusivity, the corporation remains stubbornly bourgeois and works to reproduce the power of the dominant culture.

I was listening to Radio 4’s Today programme a month or two ago when I heard the very bourgeois Harry Mount (I think it was him) declare that class was dead and we should be identified by what coffee we drank. Oh, how I laughed.


Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.

Chester, L. (1986) Tooth and Claw: The Inside Story of Spitting Image. London: Faber and Faber

Thornton, S (1997) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity Press


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Filed under BBC, Media, social class, Society & culture

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