Fun with the Great British Class calculator, and serious lessons for education

Last night, I asked my students to look at the BBC Class Survey. It was ideal for the course, as we had scheduled a session on Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of inequality. The Class Survey uses Bourdieu’s three-part model of capitals – economic, cultural and social – as the basis for its model of stratification.

It was a fun way of getting across the basics of Bourdieu’s concepts. We particularly enjoyed playing with the two-minute Class Calculator, a much shortened version of the survey that was used to inform the stratification model. The full survey also used Bourdieu’s basic concepts and the design was led by sociologists that I greatly admire, including Yaojun Li, Fiona Devine and Mike Savage.

The findings have generated huge popular debate, and are already provoking discussion among academics as well. Some are angry that we are still talking about class at all, or interested in the existence of a ‘precariat’, or comment on the restructuring of the working and middle classes. One group has so far attracted less attention: the elite, which comes out on all three dimensions as ‘the most advantaged and privileged group in the UK’, estimated at 6% of the population.

Of course, we have always had elites in Britain. What is striking about the survey results is the degree of social closure surrounding the elite. It is the least ethnically mixed group in the survey, its origins are geographically concentrated (parts of south-east England, and to a lesser extent rural/suburban settlements like East Lothian), and over half come from families where the main earner was a senior manager or professional.

Today’s elite, in short, neatly fit Bourdieu’s original model, based on data from 1960s France, of a group that successfully excludes outsiders and is immune from social mobility. Speculating for a moment, I would add that this class is probably characterised by a weakening sense of social solidarity.

Older mechanisms of cohesion – religion, nation, civic identity – don’t much matter to people whose assets are highly mobile, and highly institutionalised through remote interests in global corporations, and whose lifestyles may be highly cosmopolitan. But if they spend their lives in ethnically homogeneous enclaves, perhaps their last remaining bonds are those of perceived race.

As I say, this is speculation. The survey is a fascinating exercise, and we can learn a great deal from the results – particularly if we remember that the seven social classes are, in the best Weberian tradition, ‘ideal types’. And among many practical lessons, here are two for education:

  • Growing social advantage at the top of our society demands that we look again at the relationship between education and social mobility. At the moment, I conclude that education is reducing levels of mobility into the elite.
  • The identification of a distinctive precariat – 15% of the population – with limited economic, social or cultural capital suggests that schools are simply not doing enough to improve the life chances of the most excluded and stigmatised, and that our lifelong learning system is too weak to provide effective second chances.

And yes,  I took the test, and found myself in the ‘technical middle class’.  The most worrying thing about this group is that while we may have lots of connections, they are mostly with people from very similar backgrounds. I’ve said this before – academics need to get out a lot more!

Here’s a link to the class calculator: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22000973

Here’s a link to the article in Sociology: http://soc.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/12/0038038513481128.full.pdf+html

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10 thoughts on “Fun with the Great British Class calculator, and serious lessons for education

  1. John How hard did you have to work to avoid being in the elite group, where to my horror I find myself? I agree it is a powerful exercise Alan

    Sent from my iPad

  2. I use Guy Standing’s book on the ‘precariat’ in my teaching at Glasgow. It’s a concept to which the students, who are from a wide range of countries but almost all middle-class and in their 20s, can relate. It’s interesting that only 15% of the population fits into this group – I would have expected more. I haven’t read the Sociology article yet, but it would be interesting to see if it breaks the classes down by age.

    Incidentally, I took the test and came out as ‘established middle-class’.

    • There is an age dimension, which they present on the website. The elite is relatively old, which we can explain by time – housing wealth and career status tend to rise as people age. The established working class is relatively old, mainly because the number of jobs in this category has either shrunk or remained stable, so that there are few young new entrants.

      I am interested that Mark and Alan came our in different groups from me, but don’t take it too seriously. The two-minute calculator is fun, but is much too crude to make much sense, in contrast to the full survey questionnaire.

  3. I was classed as ‘traditional working class’, seemingly because I’m an owner-occupier (with a hefty mortgage I hasten to add) on a very low income, the result of being made redundant last year. The categorization seems to have identified my lack of income as retirement and that I don’t go out much as an accepted social practice, rather than the result of being skint, since the ‘traditional working class’ was defined as a group of older people of decreasing ‘relevance’, whatever they meant by that. Liking both hip-hop and classical music must have cancelled each other out, I guess.

    I did the test using my pre-redundancy circumstances and was classified as a “new affluent worker”. This on a salary of about £25k.

  4. Interesting and thought-provoking stuff as usual John.

    You’ve probably seen Danny Dorling’s article on this at: http://www.dannydorling.org/wp-content/files/dannydorling_publication_id3691.pdf

    It includes alternative categories: “our wise and beautiful masters’, ‘decent middle England’, ‘striving if frankly oikish’, ‘ever so slightly deserving scum’, ‘undeserving scum’, ‘freakshow scum’, and, lastly, ‘expendable’.

  5. This far avoided it but was enticed to do it by your post. Now done it and slightly surprised to be classified as Elite. I reckon it’s the cultural interests, diverse social circle and combined household salary combo, that did it. Is that an elite? Mmm!

  6. I find that the wealthy resist social solidarity when it entails redistributing income to the less fortunate but suddenly rediscover it when it comes to maintaining public order and the continuity of the state.

  7. I remember carrying out the original survey around a year ago and thought it would make a good exercise for my Advanced Methods class – as an exercise in how not to design a survey – asking two questions as one – not enough exclusivitiy in options for many question meant you had to choose an option that was not really correct or indicative of true position and have they never heard of tenements!

  8. As a colonial, I’ve always been intrigued by the class distinctions I’ve encountered on my visits to Britain. In fact, on my first visit, almost three decades back, the wife of a well-known adult educator made it quite clear at a dinner party where she believed Australians belonged in the scheme of things – and it wasn’t among the elite! We don’t brook with class in Australia, of course. We’re all equal here, mate…

  9. I decided to do this survey as a bit of fun and found to my surprise that I was in the bottom 15%. Being retired and having a very low income and renting property seemed to signify that my husband and I also had a poor social and cultural life. We are university educated, go to many cultural events, paint, write and have a good social life with like minded friends. Many years ago I read Jilly Coopers book called Class and we were called X Class then ie: Alternatives. I do not recognise the description given about me in this survey!

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