Class act: Is class that important?

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This blog explores the contemporary relevance of the concept of class and explores whether class is still a useful tool to analyse socio-economic inequality, or voting behaviour, or if it now holds a different meaning in society.

Introduction

Historically, British cultural scholarship has discussed class in terms of inequality, social mobility and voting behaviour. But is class still useful in analysing this phenomena, or does class hold a different meaning now?

We are arguably living in an era which is dominated by identity politics. Although the election of President Trump, and the Brexit vote has been ascribed to the notion that (white) working class people were being left behind in favour of ‘multiculturalism’ and globalisation, demographics which overlaps with values (e.g. age and education) were also important in influencing voting behaviour.

This blog argues that class is now operating as a different kind of identity politics, whereby within the trend of dis-dentification with class, to identify with one is to make a political statement. Furthermore, it argues that due to the decline in class identification, voting intentions may be shaped by other values and are less based on socio-economic background.

The dis-identification with class

Although social grading has been based on occupation, class itself is inherently subjective, and importantly it is self-defined. Research shows that class identification, and class consciousness is in fact declining. A study in 2010 showed that only 33% of the public aligned themselves to a class; a fall from 2008. This is called “dis-identification”, whereby most people would use class to define others, and there might be a resistance to self-identifying, in particular as middle class.

Age
22% of 18-24-year olds 37% Over 65-year olds
Gender
29% Women 37% Men
Education
29% No educational attainment 39% University graduated

 

The groups that were least likely to identify by class are those considered disadvantaged; women, young people, and the poorly educated. The table below shows the proportion of those aligning to any class.

Source: Savage, Mike; Silva, Elizabeth and Warde, Alan (2010). Dis-identification and class identity http://oro.open.ac.uk/21486/2243/SYM_Ch_05_Savage_Silva_Warde%5B1%5D.pdf

Class and voting

When analysing the Brexit referendum results, one piece of evidence suggested that it was social status and not social class that predicted Brexit support. It stated that while class predicts voting left or right, Brexit voting patterns represented authoritarian vs liberal values. Moreover, those that define as working class but are occupationally not, have similar attitudes towards income redistribution to middle class people, however, they differ on social/cultural issues such as immigration. Equally, other research points out that, both middle and working class people are prejudiced to immigrants when they perceived them to be an economic threat, demonstrating that it is just not class, but also values that shape attitudes.

Class: a different form of identity politics

What about those that identify as any class? Research shows that some define as working class, even if their occupation says otherwise, and they often identify as such when it is linked to a “mobility story”. This is when a person moves between the class brackets, yet still define as what they were initially.

Another study shows that when prompted to identify as a class, 53% of the population define as working class, while 39% define as middle class, and the proportion has not changed since 1983. This perhaps reflects the earlier point made about the reluctance of defining as middle class (considering the fact that 47% those that are defining as working class are in ‘middle class’ jobs). Research in the US found that 56.5% of millennials defined as working class in 2014, a greater proportion than in any generation since 1982. Only one third of millennials called themselves middle class, compared with 40% of generation x and 44% of baby boomers. Alongside a decline in any form of class identification, the waters have been significantly muddied when it comes to the usefulness of social class as a tool of social research.

Conclusion

Our evidence of the decline in class identification could suggest that voting intention as well as other attitudes can’t be as accurately predicted using class, a change on the decades before. Rather, it could be suggested that class has become a different form of identity politics, a development which needs to be reflected in research looking at how class intersects with policy and politics.

 

Amna Riaz, Research Assistant, ILC-UK

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