BBC class survey: Old wine in new bottles

Eddie Ford is not impressed by the BBC’s ‘great British class survey’

Excitingly, a survey conducted by the BBC has discovered that people in the UK now “fit” into seven social classes.1 Whether this is meant to be reassuring or not is hard to discern. “Amazingly”, we read, a total of 161,458 people from around the UK completed the survey - making it one of the largest ever studies into class stratification.

Apparently, using a methodological technique called ‘latent class analysis’ and allegedly utilising some of the concepts developed by the prominent French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, the BBC Lab UK unit worked with a team of academics primarily from the London School of Economics and the University of Manchester to produce the Great British class survey - the findings of which were published in the journal, Sociology,2 and proudly presented at a conference of the British Sociological Association on April 3. The researchers declare that the “traditional categories” of working, middle and upper class are “outdated”, as they account for only about 39% of the population.


In explanation, the authors of the report warn us to reject “simplistic” definitions of class predicated on occupation, wealth and education (strangely, relationship to the means of production is not mentioned). Rather, it is argued, class has “three dimensions” - economic, social and cultural. Presumably this is meant to be something of a revelation. Carrying on, the researchers claim that, while people “think they belong to a particular class on the basis of their job and income”, those are merely “aspects of economic capital”. Instead, our sociologists think that your class is “indicated by your cultural capital and social capital”. For example, whether you have a preference for ‘highbrow’ culture such as theatre and classical music/opera or rather ‘popular’ - and ‘emerging’ - culture in the form of video games or hip-hop (for some strange reason).

From this dubious premise, we now see that at the top of the social tree is the “elite” - that 6% of the population having, it seems, the highest level of all three ‘capitals’ and whose members have “extensive social contacts”, are educated at top universities and have average savings of more than £140,000. On the other hand, right at the bottom of the pile, are the “precariat” - the “poorest, most deprived class”, scoring extremely low for social and cultural capital. A sort of ‘underclass’, to use an older and previously very fashionable sociological term - or insult - which makes up 15% of the population. On average their net income is just £8,000 and they have savings of £800, with just one in 30 having a university qualification. They do not listen to classical music - or even jazz, we can only deduce.

As for those wedged in between these modern-day Eloi and Morlocks, living in near separate universes, there is the “established” middle class - the largest and “most gregarious” group comprising 25% of the population, with a household income of £47,000 and a scattering of ‘highbrow’ tastes. Next is the almost pitiful sounding “technical” middle class, a “small” and “distinctive” new class (6% of the population) which is “prosperous”, with an average income of £38,000 and average savings of £66,000, but “scores low” for social and cultural capital - indeed, it is distinguished by its “social isolation” and “cultural apathy”.

Further down the line are the new “affluent” workers” - about 15% of society and a mainly young class group which is socially and culturally active, possessing “middling” levels of economic capital (an average house value of £129,000). Then, of course, we have the “traditional” working class, making up just 14% of the total population, which scores low on all forms of capital, but is not “completely deprived” - maybe only having a mean household income of £13,000, but fortunate enough to have “reasonably high house values”, due to the fact that they have the oldest average age at 66. We are solemnly informed that this category is “fading from contemporary importance”.

Finally, there are the “emergent service workers” who compose 19% of the population - a predominantly urban group which is “relatively poor”, but has high social and cultural capital and is the youngest of all the groups, with a mean age of 34 and high proportions of ethnic minority members (£21,000 average household income). Furthermore, the survey contains other “unique” findings - like the astounding fact that “people consume culture in a complicated way”. And the argument that the new affluent workers and emergent service workers appear to be the children of the “traditional working class” - which has been “fragmented” by deindustrialisation, mass unemployment, immigration and the restructuring of urban space.

Amusingly - or offensively, depending on how you look at it - the survey breaks down these social groups into sitcom terms. Hence the elite is represented by general Melchett from Blackadder; the established middle class appear as Margot and Jerry Leadbetter from The good life; the technical middle class is David Brent from The office; new affluent workers are Miranda Hart from Miranda; the traditional working class, almost inevitably, is Jim Royle of The Royle family; emergent service workers resemble Maurice Moss from The IT crowd, and the precariat - showing a slight lack of imagination - look like Rab C Nesbitt, despite the fact that only 8% of those who participated in the study lived in Scotland.

According to the compilers of the Great British class survey, the “conventional approaches” to social class analysis were unable to properly identify the “extremes” of the contemporary class system - fixated as they were on the middle and working classes. An error now corrected. Coming to our rescue, Fiona Devine, professor of sociology at Manchester University, said the BBC study presents a more “sophisticated, nuanced picture of what class is like now” - things are really complex, you know.

Unsurprisingly, the survey seems full of anomalies and methodological lacunas. There is no direct question about education, for instance - even though the type of school attended (the old school tie) is a critical determinant when it comes to ‘social mobility’ and ‘success’ in Britain. For the poorest fifth in society, 46% have mothers with no qualifications at all, whereas for the richest it is only 3%. Not only that, the categories listed seem fairly arbitrary - why no ‘industrial workers’ or ‘self-employed’ workers?

The supposed sophistication or ‘complexity’ of the survey is undermined somewhat by the realisation that the questionnaire consists of nothing more than a whole series of essentially vacuous multiple-choice questions (‘Do you play bingo or go to museums?’ Answer: never/rarely/sometimes/often), at the end of which it spits out your ‘social class’. Tagged and bagged. Naturally, top bourgeois journalists have had all sorts of fun by feigning delight or shock at being classified or not as one of the ‘elite’.

Old news

Ultimately, the BBC survey is just old wine in new bottles. It is hardly a new idea that you can divide and classify any given society into numerous social groups. Indeed, if anything, you could argue that the survey is a bit of a step backwards with its measly seven ‘classes’. After all, long before anyone had even heard of Pierre Bourdieu, the 1851 British census listed 17 classes and sub-classes that were largely connected with occupational status. By 1911, these had been further refined into a system of social grades that are roughly analogous to the ‘social classes’ talked about in the BBC survey. ‘Cultural capital’ is hardly a new concept either. In 1928, the statistical officer at the general register office wrote that “any scheme of social class should take account of culture” - so hardly an invention of Bourdieu or professor Devine.

Nor is the idea of the “precariat” novel. Sorry, professors. At any given time, sections of the working class - whether you care to call it “traditional” or not - have always led an insecure life. Periods of employment alternated, sometimes wildly, with periods of unemployment. Constant insecurity. Even the most basic familiarity with working class history should tell you that. In the 19th century, dock workers were effectively thrown into a cage each morning and had to fight it out for work - only to do the same again the next morning. A generalised employment practice that carried on well into the 20th century. But a situation that obviously suited the interests of the bosses - why would they want to change it? It was only determined working class struggle and the intimidating power of the trade unions - not the nature of the work - that put an end to the callous casualisation of the workforce.

Now that the power of the organised working class has ebbed dramatically, it is only to be expected that the bosses will do whatever they can to re-introduce wretched employment conditions. Makes perfect, profitable sense. Therefore, according to the latest government estimates, 23% of employers with more than 100 staff have adopted ‘zero-hours’ contract terms for at least some of their staff following a surge in the number of public-sector services being contracted out to private providers. These iniquitous contracts keep workers on permanent standby and deny them regular hours. They are used by employers to avoid more normal agency-worker regulations - which entitle staff to the same basic terms and conditions as permanent employees after 12 weeks.

In a truly terrible article for The Guardian, erroneously perceived as a leftwing paper in many circles, Martin Kettle praises the BBC survey on the grounds that its “new models of class are no longer rooted in what Marxists used to call a person’s relationship to the means of production - and remember that a person in this context invariably meant a man” (April 3). You can always rely on an ex-Eurocommunist for philistine anti-Marxism. Anyway, Kettle argues - with a sort of perverse logic - that a “century ago, to put it very simply, industrial Britain had three classes and three political parties”. Today, however, “we still have essentially the same three parties we had a century ago” despite the fact that Britain “has changed” - become more ‘complex’.

Yes, no doubt, the Great British class survey contains elements of truth - pointing towards various divisions and societal developments that do exist in some shape or form. It would be a very odd sociological survey that completely ignored reality. But for us the real question when examining any society past or present is a relatively straightforward one - who exactly extracts the surplus labour from whom and how?

Looking at contemporary Britain, the crucial and deciding determinate for Marxists is the antagonistic relationship - and social dynamic - between two main classes, the working class and the bourgeoisie (capitalist ruling class). We do not think of this strictly in terms of numbers or sociological categories, but rather in what actually characterises and drives a particular society - in this case, the exploitative capital-labour relation. An antagonism that cuts across all other societal divisions and every field of human production and consumption, from the economy to culture, politics, sexuality, sport, etc.

Of course, Marxists have no problems with accepting the existence of any number of gradations within classes or between classes - we would be useless idiots if we failed to do that. Nothing ever stands still. In any human social structure - at least until we arrive at socialism - there will be numerous strata and ever changing variegation. Russia Marxist literature debating the nature of the peasantry often broke it down into poor peasants, rich peasants and middling peasants.

As Marx and Engels argued in the 1848 Communist manifesto, the central task is to organise the workers into a class, not on the basis of income/occupation, but as a collectivity acting and thinking together. In that way, and only that way, can the very real divisions that exist within the working class be transcended - skilled and unskilled, secure and insecure, part-time and full-time, employed and unemployed, manual and intellectual. Equally, this is also true of the bourgeoisie - no matter how many divisions or factions, it is capable of acting as a collectivity - only in this way can it exploit and rule us.

Which is precisely why we think the middle class(es) cannot think or act as a collectivity in any real sense. It is destined to operate either as a faction of the bourgeoisie, sometimes acting as a direct agent of the bourgeoisie, or be won to the proletariat. One or the other. The middle classes can never act independently in accordance with their common interests, let alone the general interest. In the British context, this should present no intractable problem for the working class movement. The middle class (and the petty bourgeoisie) cannot and should not be ignored - we need to provide them with programmatic answers. However, objectively speaking, its numbers are in historical decline and the working class - those are who compelled to sell their labour-power - now constitute the majority globally. The working class is the historic class.

That class needs to build a party that attracts millions to its red banner - inevitably including more rational non-working class elements.



1. http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/0/21970879

2. http://soc.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/12/0038038513481128.full.pdf+html