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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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).