9 May, 2016Issue 31.1Politics & Society

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The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same?

Edward Hicks

Social Class

Social Class in the 21st Century
Mike Savage
Pelican, 2015
ISBN 9780241004227
£8.99 (paperback)


Whilst I was reading Social Class in the 21st Century a story broke in the Guardian about admissions to Brasenose College, Oxford, amongst whose alumni is David Cameron. The headline emphasised this connection, alongside the claim that Brasenose had the lowest acceptance rate for state school applicants in the whole of Oxford. The acceptance rate for these applicants was 11%. Upon subsequently reading the article, the reason for this low rate became clear. Brasenose had the lowest admission rate of any college in Oxford for any applicant, at 12%. Another important fact which subsequently came to light was that around 20% of state school Brasenose applicants gained a place at Oxford, either at Brasenose or at another college, suggesting a high standard among their applicants for relatively few places. Unsurprisingly the student press, Brasenose College and its undergraduate cohort erupted in indignation at the misleading story peddled by a paper whose website proclaims “Facts are sacred.”

It would be easy to view this as yet another Oxbridge-bashing story penned by Oxbridge alumni, soon turned into the apocryphal fish-and-chip wrapping paper. But this story is instructive for several reasons: it reminds us that class is a live and combustible political issue in 21st century Britain (why after all pick on Brasenose save for its Cameron connection?). It reminds us of the influence attached to an institution such as Oxford University and to universities as instruments of social mobility and social hierarchy. The use, misuse and contestation of the statistics used, their interpretation and context, were also highlighted by this controversy. These themes also run throughout Social Class in the 21st Century (in Britain): the importance of class as a useful descriptive tool in understanding contemporary Britain, its political significance, and the endeavour to use statistics to refashion our understanding of the class structure. The book is primarily authored by LSE Professor of Sociology Mike Savage, in conjunction with a team of sociological collaborators: Niall Cunningham, Fiona Devine, Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison, Lisa Mckenzie, Andrew Miles, Helene Snee and Paul Wakeling. The sweeping title disguises its exclusive focus on social class in Britain.

A work under such a title would seem to have three requirements. An effective methodology: a strong approach to coming up with results which are reliable and form the basis for useful and accurate analysis. Solid and comprehensive description, describing the results and the classifications that are at the heart of this new class system. Lastly prescriptions, the ‘political’ part of the work in terms of making comments, criticisms or policy recommendations, the more subjective and opinionated aspect. The book is flawed in the first, weakest in the second through its lack of true comprehensiveness, and fairly sparse in the last requirement.

The methodology is divisible into three sections. The first was the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), hosted by the BBC website in 2011. It received 161,000 responses, and when its results were publicised in 2013 another burst of responses brought the total to 325,000. The 2011 responses were the ones primarily used for analysis. Savage states that the 2013 responses are unlikely to lead to major revisions in the conclusions of the book. The second tranche of research sought to redress the disproportionate responses that grossly under-represented the poorest. Therefore a more representative survey was conducted with 1,026 respondents. Thereafter fifty in-depth interviews were used “across the social range, though with a particular focus on the two social classes we thought of particular interest…namely those at the top and bottom of the social structure.” The interviews are liberally quoted to reinforce the book’s argument. Unfashionable though it might be, more information about the methodology would have been helpful: for example, how was the share of the population for each of their new social class groups estimated? How much might a regional disparity between Londoners compared to Scots, or residents in the Home Counties hinterland of the metropolis, or rural-dwellers, have warped their analysis on the strength of London universities or the London-centric residences of the elite?

The researchers sensibly eschewed relying solely on economic criteria for class categorisation. Alongside income and wealth they asked questions about social and cultural capital. Hence chapters are included outlining the sociologists’ ideas of economic, social and cultural capital. Thus an important component of cultural capital are notions of ‘knowing’ that appear linked to whether cultural activities are viewed solely as entertainment or analysed more abstractly, with an unspoken but understood hierarchy. An interesting chapter is also included on how universities have arguably reinforced social differences based on a hierarchy of institutions, though regrettably no reference is made to the regional imbalance in the British schooling system given London schools’ increasing lead over most other places.

As an historian, I was unsurprised that the threefold class structure of the industrial age may no longer apply in the internet age. Gone therefore are the upper, middle and working classes. Banished is the unhelpful term ‘Establishment’, too resonant of the landed aristocracy whose star has waned so considerably in the last century. Ended also is the threefold structure manifested over the centuries. Ancient Greece had its slaves, the demos, and the aristocrats. Rome had the slave, the plebeian and the patrician. Medieval society was simplified into those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. More recent descriptions have used the word ‘class’, which dates from the 1770s (supplanting ‘degrees’ or ‘ranks’). Its greatest fame and most potent politicisation were found in the Marxist triad of feudal lords, the thrusting, acquisitive Bourgeoisie, and the oppressed masses of the Proletariat. But modern Britain, this new research posits, has seven class categories: elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emerging service workers, and precariat.

Yet despite the need for a new description of class, the new labels sound suspiciously similar to the old. Furthermore, the Disraelian 19th century idea of Britain being divided between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ is evidently one driving the analysis, with particular attention paid to the elite and the precariat, to the neglect of the heirs of medieval craftsmen, yeomen farmers and Victorian shopkeepers. This is the most disappointing aspect of this book. For while they acknowledge a large central group, Savage and his accompanying researchers suggest the interesting events are in the growth of an elite increasingly dominant and a precariat they see as increasingly isolated and demonised. The elite and precariat receive disproportionate attention, each having their own separate, interesting chapter. In terms of population the elite reputedly constitute 6% of the population, the precariat 15%. But neither the quarter of the population reckoned to be the ‘established middle class’, nor the nearly a fifth labelled ‘emerging service workers’ are apparently deserving of similar focus. This is where I think this book fails in its descriptive capacity. It ought to have described in greater detail and with equal comprehension all seven categories. The reluctance to do so makes you wonder whether ‘class’ really is a useful description for almost four-fifths of the UK population, or whether a ‘social spectrum’ would be a better label?

The book’s subject matter, and occasional comments, makes its anti-austerity, anti-capitalism views unsurprising. The final chapter throws off the velvet glove to reveal the clenched fist of hostility. Savage contends that class creates and entrenches inequalities in economic, social and cultural capital. To redress these inequalities, the final page prescription is that “we need to question the competitive, capitalist, neo-liberal market system itself.” A whiff of inverse snobbery does pervade the work. A few policy suggestions, borrowed from Thomas Piketty, are all too briefly mentioned. However, a new politics of class will be limited by three features. First, there is the claim that Britain today constitutes a meritocracy, albeit with limits, though the book’s argument would suggest this is in decline. The book’s dissatisfaction with meritocratic ideas such as equality of opportunity, and its stressing the psychological harm brought by social mobility may not be shared by the majority. Secondly, a large portion, even a majority, of Britons reject the idea of belonging to a social class. They have done so for half a century. Thirdly, and linked to the preceding point, if the majority of the electorate fall into these amorphous middle categories, will explicit appeals to class resonate with voters, especially given the decline in class-based voting over the last forty years?

This work is undoubtedly an interesting read. However, its title and the fanfare surrounding it raises expectations that this will be a more authoritative and comprehensive work than it proves to be. Authoritative in the effectiveness of its methodology. Comprehensive in its coverage of all parts of Britain. Bluntly put it would have been better entitled The elite and the precariat in 21st Century Britain. This reviewer doubts whether that really constitutes a sufficient survey and description of social class in modern Britain.

Edward Hicks is in his third year of a DPhil in history at St Anne’s College, Oxford.