Thursday, 4 April 2013

Class consciousness

Britain's famed obsession with social class is alive and well. That at least seemed apparent from the response yesterday when the BBC unveiled its swanky new class calculator. The scheme, designed by a couple of academics on the back of an online survey of around 160,000, divides the country into seven groups defined by a combination of money, social behaviour and cultural interests. There's a financial and cultural elite at the top, and an economically and socially disadvantaged "precariat" at the bottom. In the middle there are five supposedly distinct forms of middle class.

To judge by the reaction on my Twitter timeline at least, the result was widespread head-scratching and dissatisfaction. And to judge by my own experimentation, the scheme is fairly arbitrary. Many people are fairly borderline. Tweak a couple of results - express an interest in jazz, say, or discover an acquaintance with the BHA's Andrew Copson - and you might move from the "emergent service workers" category into the "established middle class", or even the elite. Lose interest in the theatre and you might be consigned to the outer darkness that is the "technical middle class", where dwell computer geeks, friendless civil servants and, apparently, the Spectator's Nick Cohen. A mortgage can make all the difference between the "precariat" and the "elite". Which I suppose kind of makes sense.

The devisers of the new class system, Mike Savage from the LSE and Fiona Devine from Manchester University, claim that the scheme "doesn't define class just by the job that you do, but by the different kinds of economic, cultural and social resources or 'capitals' that people possess." But it doesn't really define "class" at all; rather it seeks to redefine it as lifestyle.

The traditional tripartite division into aristocracy, middle class and proletariat may be anachronistic, but it does at least describe something real. Historically, the upper classes enjoyed not just power but cultural prestige, while the middle classes may have envied the lifestyle and taste of the aristos but at the same time cultivated their own distinct moral values, as did members of the working class who, if (as the immortal sketch had it) "knew their place", also knew that place to be one of strong and authentic community life. Even in a society in which "everyone is middle class" (or at least in which most people are supposed to be middle class) the psychological pull of the old system remains, so that Labour peers and millionaire Guardian columnists preen themselves on their working class credentials, while old ladies living in penury and afraid to turn the heating on consider themselves solid members of the traditional middle class, though they may be thinking of breaking the habit of a lifetime by voting for UKIP.

Meanwhile, the utilitarian ABC1-C2-DE demographics used by advertisers, pollsters and social scientists, with its occupational division of society, may miss the subtlety of separating out the "technical" from the "established" middle class, but again captures the brutal reality that whatever one's cultural affectations in the final analysis it all comes down to cash. Money is the one class indicator that can't be faked - unless you're a banker, of course, in which case faking money is more or less what you do for a living. Congratulations.

For once I'm tempted to agree with Liberal Conspiracy, which concludes that the BBC class calculator "shows a poor understanding of how class actually operates" in this country (or, for that matter, in any other). For LibCon, the problem is that the widget "takes a snapshot of people at a particular time." Thus an indebted think-tank intern with a privileged background and a first in PPE from Oxford isn't likely to come out of the calculation well, even though in twenty years' time they may well be in the cabinet, while a train driver with his own home and a decent household income ranks highly (as "technical middle class", probably, unless he has an unstereotypical interest in opera and hangs out at the weekends with Andrew Copson).

At the very least the scheme looks designed to give maximum comfort to members of our preening liberal elite that their tastes and social milieu renders them superior to the benighted technocrats who have "high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged". It also seems calibrated to reassure the generation of young urban strivers that their "high levels of emerging cultural capital and high social capital" (ie, the fact that they have friends and go to gigs) compensates for their hand-to-mouth existence, minimal savings and daily-shrinking chance of getting onto the housing ladder.

The full paper on which the calculation is based is available here. It's a much more sophisticated piece of work than the "class calculator" which derives from it might suggest, and there's a good introductory section that looks at the changing understanding of class within sociology. That reveals that the authors took their inspiration from Pierre Bourdieu, who devised the categories of economic, cultural and social capital in a 1984 paper. In other words, the new model is almost thirty years old. Even if Bourdieu was on to something, the world was a very different place then.

On the plus side, the scheme does enumerate the characteristics of the elite quite accurately (not hard!) and concludes that the country is now dominated by a socially rather narrow group. Members of the elite went to Oxbridge or one of the top London colleges, are predominantly white and live in the South East. They are "a relatively exclusive grouping, with limited social mobility into its ranks"; more than half of its members were born into it. This is obviously true, and truer with every passing year.

But ironically, what this survey defines as "elite" is what most people in this country, and certainly most members of the elite, would call "middle class".

This song sums up quite neatly the characteristics of the new elite.  Note the title: