It's said that the British are obsessed with class, but does the traditional hierarchy of ‘working’, ‘middle’ and ‘upper’ class really exist anymore? And does social class even matter in 21st century Britain?
Professor Mike Savage explains what The Great British Class Survey aimed to find out.
Can a Victorian system still be relevant today?
The labels ‘working’, ‘middle’ and ‘upper’ first appeared in the 19th century as a way of classifying the sharp social differences that arose in Britain as it led the world in the Industrial Revolution. But can a Victorian system designed to describe the relationship between industrial workers, managers and owners still be relevant today?
It’s clear that social divisions have far from disappeared, and the traditional language of class still pervades public affairs, shapes political thinking, and influences our personal careers. So what does class really mean in Britain in the 21st century?
It’s an important and pressing question, and and more than 100,000 of you helped to answer it.
You and your social class
It used to be thought that social class was defined by your occupation. Teachers or doctors, for instance, have different income levels, job security, and social experiences than ambulance drivers or gardeners.
Is society still divided in the ways it used to be?
Another way of putting this is to say that people in professional occupations have different lifestyles to people who earn money by physical labour. But our economy and our lifestyles have changed profoundly since these categories were invented, so this may no longer hold true.
Indeed, some sociologists have come to see classification by occupation as too simplistic, and argue that social class actually has three dimensions: economic, social, and cultural. To measure an individual’s ‘resources’ in each of these dimensions, sociologists look at many factors (see below) which can collectively be referred to as ‘capital’.
With your help, our investigation explored all three dimensions: economic capital, social capital and cultural capital.
This was about wealth. Here, we asked you about your occupation, earnings, your assets and your savings.
The global financial crisis and subsequent recession may even have acted to make class divisions more, rather than less defined.
This was about social connections. Here we asked about the sort of people you know, how many people you know and whether you are engaged in any organised groups, like political parties, sports teams, shared hobbies or social clubs.
This was about interests. Here we asked about your education, your participation in cultural activities and how you spent your free time.
Like wealth, social and cultural capital are resources that can give you the opportunity to do things you would not otherwise be able to do. The Great British Class Survey revealed a person’s position on each dimension.
This perspective was developed in France by the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It had attracted a lot of interest, but up until now there had not been much in the way of research involving large numbers of people. The Big Class Survey aimed to provide the first large-scale test of Bordieu’s ideas.
Why did your participation matter?
The survey provided incredibly valuable data to help leading experts understand whether class was still relevant today and, if so, what Britain's class system really looks like.
There is strong evidence to suggest social class divisions have not disappeared from British life. Indeed, there is some evidence that class matters more in contemporary Britain than it did a couple of decades ago. The global financial crisis and subsequent recession may even have acted to make class divisions more, rather than less defined.
Your data helped sociologists discover whether class is still important in 21st century Britain.
Policy makers tend to focus primarily on the economic dimension of class. Concepts like progressive taxation (taxing richer people more heavily than poorer people) are a good example of this.
Increasingly, the social dimension of class is receiving some attention, with initiatives to improve networking opportunities for people who are otherwise socially excluded.
But the cultural aspect of class has so far largely been ignored, perhaps because it is a broad yet subtle concept that can be difficult to measure. The problem is, if we don’t measure it, we can’t know how important it is and how much it influences people’s chances in life.
The Great British Class Survey measured the cultural dimension of class for the first time.
BBC Lab UK's Great British Class Survey was designed by Professor Mike Savage and Professor Fiona Devine. Professor Mike Savage, a Fellow of the British Academy, is Professor of Sociology and Director of the York European Centre for Cultural Sociology at the University of York. Between 2004 and 2010 he was also Director of the ESRC Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) at the University of Manchester. Professor Fiona Devine (OBE) is Professor of Sociology and Head of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester. The data from this survey will be analysed by Professors Savage and Devine and the findings will be published in a suitable peer-reviewed journal.
Find out what some well-known people had to say about the class system.
What are our sociologists hoping to learn?
Who designed the Great British Class Survey?
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