Different Class

BBC research: new UK “class” system

Middle Class Revolt

The other side of the counter (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Our traditional three classes are now seven. A research unit within the BBC, BBC Lab UK, has conducted a study delving into class identity in Britain to come up with a more meaningful, contemporary sets of groupings. Prof Mike Savage of the London School of Economics and Prof Fiona Devine of Manchester University helped design the study, with the fieldwork carried out by GfK. According to the BBC website story on this:

The new classes are defined as:

  • Elite – the most privileged group in the UK, distinct from the other six classes through its wealth. This group has the highest levels of all three capitals
  • Established middle class – the second wealthiest, scoring highly on all three capitals. The largest and most gregarious group, scoring second highest for cultural capital
  • Technical middle class – a small, distinctive new class group which is prosperous but scores low for social and cultural capital. Distinguished by its social isolation and cultural apathy
  • New affluent workers – a young class group which is socially and culturally active, with middling levels of economic capital
  • Traditional working class – scores low on all forms of capital, but is not completely deprived. Its members have reasonably high house values, explained by this group having the oldest average age at 66
  • Emergent service workers – a new, young, urban group which is relatively poor but has high social and cultural capital
  • Precariat, or precarious proletariat – the poorest, most deprived class, scoring low for social and cultural capital.

It’s worth going on the BBC website and doing the quick test to check where you come out.

The categories are really interesting, if only to provoke much needed thought about what has happened to the old “working class” and to suggest something more nuanced than the massive “middle class” we now have. This provides some interesting answers about how these groups have morphed, split and morphed again.

The New Affluent Workers and Emergent Service Workers in particular ring true as groups I’ve seen a lot without ever defining them quite like that. I’m less convinced by the distinction between Established Middle Class and Technical Middle Class, though I recognise it. I’m not sure the latter is worth its own status, it doesn’t seem quite unique enough.

Alex Ferguson, manager of Manchester United F.C.

Alex Ferguson, working class millionnaire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s been a bit of chat about all this today within my ICG group of research consultants (weblink: the ICG). As I commented there, I can’t help thinking the BBC calculator goes for practical over “cultural” definitions of class. I wonder if it’s really “class” at all it’s talking about, but lifestyle and financial capability. A phrase like “social sector” might be more accurate for what these categories really are.

It doesn’t seem to allow for example for people from what you might call upper middle class backgrounds who are out of work and on benefits (I’ve interviewed a few recently). Likewise, millionnaire high achiever Sir Alex Ferguson is working class Glaswegian to the core – though he would surely be classed as Elite by the BBC test, alongside the likes of Gideon Osborne and David Starkey. Are they really the same class, in the sense we all think of the word?

It begs the question, can you be in several groups at the same time? Class, while a stubborn limpet of a thing, often isn’t a single completely fixed quality, but can manifest itself in different ways in the same person. I’ve long noticed especially in C1 and C2 groups people flitting between competing forms of class identity.

That’s partly because they had out-dated models of the class system in their heads, no doubt; but also because, no matter how you redefine the class boundaries, there are many people who in reality carry several class-related identities in parallel. Myself included.

It will take a lot to dislodge the ABC1C2DE socio-economic gradings from their primacy in the research world. Not that they aren’t flawed, but they provide a ‘good enough’ system for the purpose of identifying people by social class as it is lived and experienced. As a qualitative research moderator, it is important to have a system that is roughly right, because people gel better and talk more freely in groups when they are with peers, as a rule. This is an uncomfortable truth for some I talk to outside research – isn’t it patronising to think people can only be themselves with people of their own ‘class’? We’re not all that class-obsessed are we?

Well, no we’re not – and many ‘mixed’ groups can develop a good dynamic. But you only need to witness a few times the social embarrassment and awkwardness that can happen to resolve to be very careful with this aspect of group recruitment in future. We are still so laden with assumptions about people from backgrounds other than our own – for good or ill (usually the latter) – that everyone’s negotiating around it just becomes a big distraction, when you’re actually there to talk about cheese packaging or the third runway at Heathrow.

Getting everyone into the picture

Getting everyone into the picture

At the moment, the ABC1 system provides a common, if clunky, language that is understood by recruiters and researchers alike. It’s not the be-all and end-all of recruitment, but it does a basic job. In this country, educational background and job type still count for an awful lot in the class stakes. It will be hard for a more accurately descriptive, modern system to replace it without bigger tectonic social shifts than we have seen so far – and importantly, these shifts having a few decades to solidify and establish themselves.

And I think the phrases themselves of “middle class” and “working class” will long outlive their literal usefulness as social categories. They are so much a part of how British people think of themselves, even decades after the working class / middle class borders became hopelessly blurred, that they will continue to have resonance for many decades to come, even if one that slowly fades. We’re certainly no nearer to being a “classless society” than we were when John Major talked about it in the 90s. In some ways, we’re further away than ever.

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About Simon Riley

Qualitative researcher in the UK. I listen to people from all walks of life and think about what it all means. I work for leading brands, media companies and government.
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