Class: old wine, new bottles?

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Classing Britain: why defining social status is so difficult
As a country historically obsessed by social class, a new online class calculator is likely to pique our interest but research such as this has its limitations
• More data journalism and data visualisations from the Guardian

“Toffs and Toughs” symbolised the British class divide in 1937. Today, differences in clothing might not be so stark, nor so reliable as an indicator of social class. Photograph: Jimmy Sime/Getty Images
Mona Chalabi & Ami Sedghi

The notion of class is notoriously difficult to pin down. In the 19th century, the gentry were those that never worked but today, people that have never worked, along with the long-term unemployed, form the lowest rung of socio-economic classification for the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The Great British Class Survey results published by the BBC today claims to brush away the traditional upper, middle and working class categorisation and, based on the responses of over 161,000 people, attempts to replace it with the (less catchy?) Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Traditional Working Class, Emergent Service Workers and the Precarious Proletariat.

Changes in definition aren’t just about changes in the socio-economic make up of Britain. They’re as much about changes in the way we perceive what constitutes difference and similarity between ourselves.

So, where once riding a bike and having only one pair of shoes may have been an indicator of meagre earnings and weak social status, they might now suggest the ethical choices of a highly skilled professional. This is partly because the architecture of British social hierarchy has undergone huge shifts as a result of broader changes in social, economic and cultural life.

The fact that there are so many components that make up class – and that they are based on perceptions and belief as well as fact – makes social class extremely difficult to measure. The Great British Class Survey has nevertheless had a go. Here, we consider some of the merits and limitations of their research.

Class room
Education was one of the topics omitted from the online class calculator launched today. Despite the huge success of a handful of uneducated entrepreneurs, level of education completed as well as the type of school attended remain huge determinants of social mobility in Britain. For the poorest fifth in society, 46% have mothers with no qualifications at all whereas for the richest it’s only 3%.

And parents remain a powerful predictor of what class you’re in and the class you’re capable of moving to. From the two most primitive of indicators – how much money you have and how many generations you’ve had it for – there has been a gradual shift over the years from placing importance on the latter to emphasising the former. Despite this, inter-generational changes in class are still small. In 2010, the link between individual and parental earnings was found to be the strongest in the UK than any other OECD country. Many argue that the British educational system can reproduce and reinforce these trends. A 2012 report, also from the OECD found that British schools were more socially segregated than in any other developed country.

As well as education, questions about spending habits were omitted from the online class calculator. Though these might not be entirely accurate (individuals who can afford private healthcare may choose to use the NHS all the same) questions about where someone goes on holiday and where they do their supermarket shop might provide clues about their socio-economic status. What’s more, asking about savings, annual earnings and home ownership (included in the class calculator) might not provide the full picture of wealth as they omit to ask about debt.

Working class
The online class calculator does not ask about your own job title. Professor Mike Savage from the London School of Economics (LSE), one of the authors of the survey, was reluctant to rely on this in the research claiming that “our economy and our lifestyles have changed profoundly since these categories were invented so this may no longer hold true.” However, the online calculator does use professional titles when asking ‘which of these people do you know socially?’ This in turn, has several problems of its own.

Knowing someone ‘socially’ is open to interpretation. A casual acquaintance or a close friend could equally be included under this question. So, the way that a respondent interprets the question may be influenced by their desired outcome. In other words, if a person perceives themselves as a particular class or is hoping for a particular result from the class calculator the way they define their social network may be biased.

World class
Almost every study measuring social class is of limited use when making comparisons between countries. Whilst going to stately homes may be an indicator of class in Britain, it doesn’t mean much in non-Western countries where stately homes don’t exist or where religion plays a crucial role in determining social status. Even economic indicators are not without their limitations. For example, asking about home ownership might not prove so helpful in a country such as France which has a long culture of renting.

A Class of one’s own
Some have argued that whether you use seven categories or the traditional three, class is not as important in British society as it once was. A report by the think tank Civitas published last year titled ‘Social Mobility Delusions’ claimed that “more than half of us are in a different class from the one we were born into”. Just as the subjects chosen and the wording of questions in the online class calculator influenced results, the definition of class can make an enormous impact on a report’s findings. Real life can be similarly influenced by hypotheses. The way that someone interprets their own place in British society can affect self-esteem, ambition and achievement.

Perhaps that’s why class is still a crucial tool for those in marketing trying to sell us products or those in politics trying to buy our votes.

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