The Persistence of Class

The idea of “class” has been revived in recent years. The massive popular response to projects like the Great British Class Survey, as well as the critical and popular success of works such as Owen Jones’ Chavs and Selina Todd’s The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010, have demonstrated a public appetite for “class” as a worthwhile topic for discussion. This has also been true for academic research with class analysis returning to prominence, no more so than in the wider project which incorporated the Great British Class Survey and sought to build a new model of class in the 21st century. These developments are reflected in the Defining Mass Observation research team’s decision to explore and analyse the ways in which MO writers understood and used class in their responses to the 1990 Social Divisions directive, which asked a series of questions about and related to class. (See https://definingmassobservation.wordpress.com/2015/10/12/mass-observation-in-the-new-times/ for an image of the directive).

In order to do this we have followed the inductive thematic analysis model outlined by Christina Silver in an on-going series of blog posts (see part 1 below). For the Social Divisions directive, and in relation to “class” in particular, we have analysed 95 scripts to develop a coding system which takes account of how class is discussed by the writers themselves. This takes the place of imposing an existing class model, such as the Bourdieuean model employed by Mike Savage et al. in the Great British Class Survey.

What became clear immediately through this approach is that all of the MO writers in our sample discussed class in one form or another in their responses to the directive. Whilst this seems extremely significant at first glance, it important to remember that the directive asked about class directly and therefore to not write about it would have required a conscious rejection of this aspect of the directive. Indeed, when compared to other explicitly mentioned topics for discussion (Table 1), such as race or gender, it is apparent that the MO writers were likely to discuss all the topics mentioned in the directive with class only slightly more prevalent at the level of individual scripts.

The Importance of Class

Table 1

 

However, a different picture emerged when we compared the number of occasions when class, race or gender is mentioned by the writers. As Table 2 illustrates, the MO writers discuss class almost twice as frequently as race and nearly eight times as frequently as gender. Coupled with the fact that class is discussed by every writer on at least one occasion, this tells us that “class” is a concept that the MO writers felt more comfortable defining and musing on than any of the other ‘divisions’ suggested by the directive.

The Importance of Class (3)

Table 2

The dominance of class within the scripts suggests that despite the responses having been written during the ‘New Times’ of industrial decline, rising cultural and ethnic diversity, and significant changes in gender and sexual identities, it was class that was the most prominent and familiar topic of discussion for the MO writers. Thus, news of the ‘death of class’ emanating from academic circles at this time did not seem to have greatly influenced the attitudes of the Mass Observers.[1] Instead, class persisted as an understandable reference point for writers young and old, in every socio-economic group in our sample, and irrespective of gender. It may have been written about differently by different individuals and groups within the sample but its presence was inescapable.

 

[1] The ‘postmodern turn’ in the social sciences and humanities in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s saw the concept of class come under attack from theorists who argued that it was ceasing to serve any useful analytical function. See for example Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, The Death of Class (London, 1995) or Patrick Joyce, Class (Oxford, 1995). For an overview of the debates see Dennis Dworkin, Class Struggles (Harlow, 2007).

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