Multiplying the Old Divisions of Class in Britain (N.Y.Times)


Published: April 3, 2013

LONDON — Class in Britain used to be a relatively simple matter, or at least it used to be treated that way. It came in three flavors — upper, middle and working — and people supposedly knew by some mysterious native sixth sense exactly where they stood. As the very tall John Cleese declared to the less-tall Ronnie Corbett in the famous 1966 satirical television sketch meant to illustrate class attitudes in Britain — or, possibly, attitudes toward class attitudes — “I look down on him, because I am upper class.”

From left: John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett in a video still from a satirical British TV sketch illustrating class. And height.

It is not as easy as all that, obviously. The 2010 election was enlivened at one point by a perfectly serious discussion of whether David Cameron, now the prime minister, counted as upper upper-middle class, or lower upper-middle class. But on Wednesday, along came the BBC, muddying the waters with a whole new set of definitions.

Having commissioned what it called The Great British Class Survey, an online questionnaire filled out by more than 161,000 people, the BBC concluded that in today’s complicated world, there are now seven different social classes. (“As if three weren’t annoying enough,” a woman named Laura Phelps said on Twitter.) These range from the “elite” at the top, distinguished by money, connections and rarefied cultural interests, to the “precariat” at the bottom, characterized by lack of money, lack of connections and unrarefied cultural interests.

That might sound kind of familiar, but Fiona Devine, a sociologist who helped devise the study, said, “It’s what’s in the middle which is really interesting and exciting.”

The middle categories, as the study defines them, include the “technical middle class,” a group that has a lot of money but few superior social connections or cultural activity; the “emergent service workers,” a young, urban group that has little money but a high amount of social and cultural capital; and the “new affluent workers,” who score high on social and cultural activity, but have only a middling amount of money.

“There’s a much more fuzzy area between the traditional working class and the traditional middle class,” Ms. Devine, a professor of sociology at Manchester University, said in remarks accompanying the research. “The survey has really allowed us to drill down and get a much more complete picture of class in modern Britain.”

Not everyone sees it that way. In a country that is not sure whether it is (a.) obsessed with class, or (b.) merely obsessed with whether it is as obsessed about class as it used to be (if it ever really was), the survey got widespread attention. But some Britons thought the researchers had not considered the correct criteria.

“There are only two classes: those with tattoos, and those without,” said one Daily Mail reader, commenting on the paper’s article about the new categories.

Another wrote: “What are they called in ‘Brave New World’? Alphas, Betas, Gammas and Epsilons? That’s well on the way to becoming a factual book. We already have most of the population on ‘Soma,’ ” a reference to the antidepressant in the book.

The study was published in the journal Sociology and conducted by Ms. Devine in conjunction with Mike Savage, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, and the BBC Lab UK.

Throwing out the old formula by which class was defined according to occupation, wealth and education, it created in its place a definition calculated according to “economic capital,” which includes income and savings; “social capital,” which refers to whom one knows from among 37 different occupations; and “cultural capital,” which is defined as the sorts of cultural interests one pursues, from a list of 27.

In the 1950s, the author Nancy Mitford argued that it was possible to tell which class people were in — upper class (“U”) or not upper class (“non-U”) — according to their choice of vocabulary. U-speakers said “rich” and “jam,” she observed, while non-U speakers said “wealthy” and “preserves,” among other things.

(“Almost everyone I know has some personal antipathy which they condemn as middle class quite irrationally,” Evelyn Waugh wrote in response. “My mother-in-law believes it is middle class to decant claret.”)

Mitford was being mischievous, except that she kind of wasn’t, since she was describing the way people actually spoke. In conjunction with today’s study, the BBC offered a modern adaptation of the Mitford test, a handy do-it-yourself online class calculator.

In their report, the researchers acknowledged that their Web survey showed a large amount of bias, in that the type of people who filled it out were the type of people inclined to fill out BBC surveys (well educated, and 90 percent white, for instance). So they conducted a separate face-to-face survey of 1,026 nationally representative people and then combined the two sets of results, arriving at the seven categories.

Cary L. Cooper, a professor at Lancaster University and the chairman of the Academy of Social Sciences, said that what he found intriguing was not what the study said about different social categories, but rather what it said about people’s desire to place themselves in one or another such category .

“People love filling in questionnaires,” Mr. Cooper said in an interview. “From a psychologists’ point of view, it’s very interesting that they love to pigeonhole themselves — ‘I am that kind of person,’ ‘No matter what people like to say, I am an X.’ ”

Britain remains a “status-conscious society,” he said, especially at times of social and economic insecurity. He attributed the public’s love of “Downton Abbey” and other class-related nostalgic entertainment to a yearning for a time when things were simpler, when “even though there was a rigid class system, at least it was stable.”

Back on the Daily Mail Web site, readers continued to debate the conclusions, and the limitations, of the BBC research.

“I couldn’t find ‘awesome’ class,” one commenter complained.

Another wrote: “What rubbish. Only three classes, working, middle and wealthy. You either have money, no money or some money.”

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