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