How do you identify new types of class?

People moving up and down stairs in an office The Great British Class Survey is the biggest scientific investigation into social class in the UK

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Sociologists are interested in the idea that class is about your cultural tastes and activities as well as the type and number of people you know.

These factors are important when put alongside people's economic position.

Professors Mike Savage and Fiona Devine explain how a BBC Lab UK experiment allowed them to better understand class in the 21st Century.

Measuring Class

Pierre Bourdieu Pierre Bourdieu investigated what propelled people into the upper strata

Understanding classes as amounts of different types of 'capitals' helps us to see class across a number of dimensions.

The French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu first developed this approach in 1984, suggesting there are different types of capitals which give people an advantage in life. Economic, cultural and social capital may overlap but they are different. Using this approach, we distinguished between people with different amounts of each of these three capitals.

It's been difficult to test this approach in Britain because comprehensive questions on cultural and social capital are rarely asked in national surveys. Sociologists need large amounts of data to unravel the complicated way the different capitals interact with each other, in many different people.

So we were excited to test this approach for the first time by designing a survey with BBC Lab UK.

The Great British Class Survey

We wanted to find detailed ways of measuring how much economic, cultural and social capital people possess.

The Great British class calculator

Class calculator graphic
  • The original survey contained more than 140 questions and covered wealth, recreation and social networks
  • See where you fit in the new model
  • Find out how Britain is segmented

The questions we asked about people's leisure interests, musical tastes, use of the media and food preferences helped us build a picture of Britain's cultural consumption.

To investigate social capital, we used a 'position generator' developed by the American sociologist Nan Lin in 2001 to measure the range of people's social ties. We asked our participants whether they knew anyone in 37 different occupations.

The questions on economic capital asked about household income, whether you owned your own property, how much it was worth, and your savings. This meant we had unusually detailed measures of the different types of economic capital.

We also collected extensive information about people's household composition, education, social mobility and political attitudes. This data allowed us to understand our measures of economic, cultural and social capital in the context of other important aspects of people's lives.

Measuring Your Capitals

Cultural Capital
People enjoying a gig Going to gigs is an emerging form of cultural activity

It was complicated working out how to measure cultural capital because we needed to understand how some cultural activities tend to cluster together and how some are associated with being advantaged in the first place.

To find out which cultural activities tended to go together, we did some statistics called multiple correspondence analysis on the 27 cultural activities listed in the survey. This analysis was based on the interests participants said they liked or disliked and the activities they told us they did or didn't do.

From this analysis we could determine the people interested in 'highbrow' culture, like going to the theatre or listening to classical music; and those attracted to more 'popular' or 'emerging' forms of culture, like using social media or going to gigs. We found that there were three distinct groups; those who engaged with 'highbrow' culture, those interested in 'emerging' culture and those who were pretty uninterested in culture of any kind.

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Classes are bundles of economic, cultural and social capital that convey advantage for individuals and families from one generation to the next”

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We decided to use engagement in 'highbrow' and 'emerging' culture as measures of cultural capital. We measured how much 'highbrow' culture people consumed by scoring how engaged they were with classical music, attending stately homes and so on. We measured how much 'emerging' cultural capital people owned by scoring their engagement with video games, a preference for hip-hop and so forth.

Social Capital

The 37 different occupations listed in the online survey for people to identify as friends were taken from the very well established Cambridge Social Interaction and Stratification (CAMSIS) scale. For each participant, we were able to assess how many of the 37 occupations they reported, the average importance of their contacts and their range of people they know.

We decided to focus on two ways of measuring social capital. We measured the average status or importance of people's social contacts and the number of occupations people said they knew.

Economic Capital

We asked people about their household income, household savings and the value of their house. We combined this information to make a 'score' which represented each participant's economic capital.

It's important to emphasise that these measures are for the household and it is possible for some people who aren't in well-paid jobs themselves to achieve high scores because of the income of other members of the household. They might be members of the same family although they might not be related.

The findings have been published in the journal Sociology and were presented at a conference of the British Sociological Association.

Find out more about the results of the Great British Class Survey here.

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