The Many Faces of Class

In the previous blog (‘The Persistence of Class’), I outlined how we have found that the idea of class held a really important place in the identities and observations of Mass Observation writers when they responded to the 1990 Social Divisions directive.  However, this is only part of the story.  Of equal significance to our analysis has been our exploration of how class is discussed by the MO writers.

What we have discovered is that MO writers have complex, multi-faceted and ‘vernacular’ understandings of class that do not fit neatly within any systematic sociological models.  Thus, as with the contrasting way in which class continued to be really important to MO writers whilst the significance of class declined within academic scholarship, we see another discrepancy between the views of ordinary people and academic thinking.

The models of class constructed in writers’ responses do not seem to reflect any particular sociological model of class, contemporary or otherwise.  Instead, the models of class are exceptionally complex and use an extremely wide range of indicators.  This is demonstrated in the breadth of class codes in our coding system, which includes Patterns of Consumption, Income, Housing and Region, Exploitation, Accents + Vocabulary, Social Networks, Class Background, Education, Politics, Leisure and Travel, and Work.  The importance of these factors varies from writer to writer but multiple factors feature in almost every script.  This is illustrated in Table 1, which demonstrates how commonly cultural, economic, social and political aspects of class occur across the documents.  Although factors such as ‘Work’ and ‘Education’ – key tenets of most sociological models of class – feature heavily, they are rivalled by more intangible factors such as ‘Accent + Vocabulary’, ‘Politics’ and ‘Housing and Region’.[1]

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This has a number of consequences for our analysis.  One that is immediately apparent is that these ‘vernacular’, or ‘everyday’, understandings of class mean that there are clear distinctions between where individuals place themselves within the British class structure and where social scientific models of class would place them.

Let’s take the example of A22: the Social Census classifications in 1990 – the closest classification model – positioned A22 in group 4 of 9 (1 as highest class, 9 as lowest), ‘Clerical and Secretarial Occupations’.   However, A22 defines herself as working class because ‘with my Lancashire accent I am never going to achieve “middle classness”.’  Similarly, B1106 identifies as working class despite being positioned in occupational group 3, ‘Associate Professional and Technical Occupations’, because he ‘always felt a great affinity with my maternal grandmother and her struggle through life.’  Rather than a straightforward relationship between occupation and class position, the MO writers use complex and varied models of class that make use of cultural, social, geographical, economic, political and background factors to define themselves and others.  Moreover, the MO writers are much more comfortable developing their own models of class to understand society and define their class identities than they are with adhering to existing sociological models.

However, we have noticed that writers do refer to sociological definitions of class, sometimes overtly and openly, sometimes implicitly.  This is reflected in the consistency with which they use certain sociological frames, such as work and education.

Therefore, in the next stage of our analysis we will explore themes and patterns in the ways in which class is constructed across the sample of writers.  We will examine whether social factors such as age, gender or self-defined class identity affect the way in which people think about and construct their own models of class.  This will enable us to explore how class is understood, defined and constructed from the ‘bottom-up’ and how these ‘popular’ systems relate to existing models in social science.  This will provide us with insights into how class was felt and lived in 1990.

[1] For examples of dominant sociological models of class see the Social Census (http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/classifications/current-standard-classifications/soc2010/soc2010-volume-3-ns-sec–rebased-on-soc2010–user-manual/index.html) or the Eriksen-Goldthorpe model in R. Erikson and J. H. Goldthorpe, The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Societies (Oxford, 1992).

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