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]

Untitled

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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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).

Prescient Observers

It is very difficult to predict the future in politics. In recent months the Conservative Party won a parliamentary majority in the General Election whilst almost every polling organisation predicted a hung parliament. Meanwhile, the Scottish National Party lost an independence referendum but nevertheless gained enormous electoral support. Latterly, and perhaps most surprisingly of all – certainly for political pundits and bookmakers alike – veteran Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party despite beginning the contest as a 100-1 also-ran. Political expertise, it seems, is overrated.

So are the ‘ordinary’ Mass Observation (MO) writers any better at this? Much like contemporary commentators in both print and social media, MO writers are not shy of making political predictions about the future of their society. This was especially true of the Social Divisions directive in 1990. This directive, as the October 12 blog referred to, touched on broad issues of social, economic and demographic change, issues which encouraged some MO writers to respond in a ‘state of the nation’ manner which considered political ideologies and human nature. Take, for example, H1806’s thoughts on Communist societies:

‘It is virtually impossible to create a society of equal opportunity… A uniform society would produce a most boring way of living similar to Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia. The human race needs variety and stimulation from different sources. We need competition in our lives which inevitably create rich and poor. As long as we do not go to the extremes this state would prove more colourful and exciting for as I have previously stated life would be dull if all our speech, colour, finances were roughly equal.’

The inevitability of competition and inequality in human societies due to our nature remains a commonplace view. For example, in a recent article for the Guardian, the campaigner and author George Monbiot, quotes a soon to be published report by the Common Cause Foundation which found that 78% of people believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

However, amongst the general political trends foreshadowed in the MO archive there are occasional moments of prescience in which our present appears to be repeating the past with uncanny similarities. The Conservative Government’s support for academies over local authority schools and the recent decision to approve a new grammar school has received an enormous amount of media coverage and analysis from proponents and critics. The latter though needed only to consult R470 who outlined the same critiques twenty-five years earlier:

‘There is an inbred desire to get back to the Grammar School , the nursery of the middle class. The opted out school is the future school of the ‘haves’.   The remaining Council schools will be just as the Council schools of my childhood, the place to dump kids to comply with the descendants of the 1877 Education Act. With minimum staff, facilities and equipment to educate the future working class to read and write (not too well).’

R470’s perspective may be more emotive than the mainstream press but its ideological foundation is much the same. This shows that you don’t need to be a highly educated Guardian journalist to critique public policy. Sometimes, like R470, you just have to live it. MO writers like R470 often used their personal accounts to reflect on the politics of their own period as well as the problems they surmised correctly would persist in our contemporary society. Thus, they do not see their role as just ‘observers’ of their everyday lives but of their whole society.

Mass Observation in the ‘New Times’

At the start of the 1990s, the Mass Observation Archive sent out two directives. The first was titled ‘Social Divisions’ and the second ‘A Retrospective View of the Eighties’. Though different in content, both directives marked a chronological and social turning point. The Social Divisions directive began by asking Mass Observation (MO) writers:

‘Are there some major divisions in your own environment – class, race, gender, religion, “culture” etc – that invite comment and are typical of contemporary society?’[1]

Page 1 of the Social Divisions directive

Page 1 of the Social Divisions directive

This question, and those that followed, conveyed a sense that changes had taken place in British society in the preceding decade, which were being discussed by influential writers from the political Left, particularly in publications like Marxism Today. Theorists like Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques argued that the end of the 1980s seemed to mark a point at which longer trends, such as deindustrialisation, the replacement of blue collar jobs with white, immigration and rising ethnic and cultural diversity, and struggles for women’s rights, could be taken stock of. The world, as Hall and Jacques asserted in 1989, had changed, ‘not just incrementally but qualitatively… Britain and other advanced capitalist societies [were] increasingly characterised by diversity, differentiation and fragmentation, rather than homogeneity, standardisation and the economies of scale which characterised modern mass society.’[2] In short, these were ‘New Times’.

The wording of the Social Divisions directive interest, and the way in which it reflected the contemporary debates on social change, has really excited the project team. ‘Class’, for example, long thought to be the key division in British society is no longer the only social division to be recognised. Instead, race, gender, religion and ‘culture’ now sit alongside class as potential forms of division, thereby mirroring the demographic, economic and social changes that had taken place in the 1980s and before. The wording of this 1990 directive, and the MO writers’ responses to it, therefore gives us a fascinating insight into how these New Times were received by the British people. The MO writers came from a variety of backgrounds across many of these social divisions and they can consequently help us explore how these New Times were understood, or indeed whether they were seen to be ‘New’ at all.

In looking at how ‘class’ was constructed and defined by the MO writers, we can consider whether they accepted or disputed the occupational models of class being developed in the same period by social scientists. We can see whether class, as well as other divisions like race and gender, was understood as cultural, economic or political, or an inconsistent and amalgamated version of all three. Within the diverse responses there are opinions and views on accent, patterns of consumption and styles of dress sitting alongside discussions of political identity and Thatcherism; virulent racism alongside hopes for ethnically diverse utopias; and tangential personal stories alongside pointed revelations of discrimination and inequality. As researchers for the ‘Defining Mass Observation’ project, it is our role to explore these narratives and understand which themes the MO writers believed important, both individually and collectively. What is clear at even this early stage in the process is that the rich and varied perspectives of the MO writers on these issues provide us with a complex tableaux of Britain at a point in which many of the social and political fault lines of our contemporary society were becoming visible.  Thus, as with all research concerned with the past, it is hard to shake the feeling we are not also examining the present.

Footnotes

[1] See image.

[1] Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, ‘Introduction’, in New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s (London, 1990), p. 11.

A New Team Member and a New World

 A Brief Introduction

My name is George Stevenson I recently joined the team on the Defining Mass Observation project as a research fellow. I’ll be analysing MO scripts from the 1990 ‘Social Divisions’ directive focusing on how MO writers responded to questions about class and race and what these responses can tell us about identity and inequality around the period. Prior to this, I have just submitted my PhD thesis, entitled ‘The Women’s Liberation Movement and the intractable problem of class, 1968-79’, at Durham University. In this research I explored the importance of class in its many different forms to feminists involved in the Women’s Liberation Movement and tried to recover some of the previously absent voices of working-class women active in and around the movement. I’m currently awaiting my viva.

Alien and yet familiar…

Starting work on the Defining Mass Observation project as a historian has been a very interesting and revealing experience. To my historian’s eyes, the world of social science research at first seemed an alien one. The literature and approaches to research, with their clearly demarcated terms and concepts – strewn through nearly every page and action – challenged my conception of what we do as researchers in a quite fundamental way. Whilst history is certainly not shorn of theory in its analysis and conclusions, the reflexivity of social science, particularly on methodology, is rare. When I’ve analysed themes I’ve simply being doing one of the things that historians do, not ‘thematic analysis’. For a social scientist, the latter is not so generic but is instead a particular and specific type of analytical approach amongst others that should be carefully selected.

To begin with, this depth of theory felt quite off-putting. Historians are clear and careful with concepts but we tend to use far fewer of them, and, as I’m also finding, we tend to use different labels to talk about much the same things. The dichotomy, for example, between essentialist/realist and constructionist approaches in social science will usually be described as poststructuralist and structuralist in history (if mentioned at all). More problematically, terms like ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’, used to denote deductive or inductive approaches in social science also have other meanings in history. A ‘bottom up’ approach is usually associated with Marxist, feminist, subaltern or other more explicitly politicised types of history in which the past is understood through the experiences of the oppressed and dispossessed rather than the elite. For these ‘historians from below’, a group I identify with, a ‘top down’ approach is a slur rather than a consideration of the merits of deductive or inductive theories.

Nevertheless, it hasn’t taken long for this new world to seem more familiar. After all, although I might not be used to detailing my analytical approach so overtly, I – and every other historian – was still doing the same thing. My PhD thesis was structured thematically and I was in perpetual dialogue with myself, my supervisors and my research data about whether these themes were being decided by me (deductively) or were arising from the sources (inductively). This was especially true when I was analysing the oral histories of the interview participants in my project. In the field of oral history, there is as rich and vast a seam of theory and concepts as any in social science, and again, though the terms used across the two disciplines are different, the issues they discuss are greatly shared. Thus, in contrast to the discomfort of the alien world I had first encountered, I have begun to feel very much at home and I’ve started to enjoy the challenge of a new language and style of thought. The gaps between the disciplines are more slits than chasms and I am certain that the interdisciplinary nature of the Defining Mass Observation team will produce insights that would not have occurred in social science or history independently. We hope that this will also enable the outputs we produce to be as accessible to those arriving from one discipline as any other.