Social class in the 21st century
Mike Savage, one of the minds behind the Great British Class Survey, talks identity, inequality and education.
In 2011, Mike Savage, then a sociology professor at the University of York (he’s now at the London School of Economics), alongside Fiona Devine, a professor at the university of Manchester, designed and launched the Great British Class Survey on the BBC website. The objective, using the 160,000 responses, was to come up with a ‘more up-to-date model of class’ in the UK. And so they did. The survey revealed that class was no longer a matter of upper, middle and working – it was more complicated than that, featuring what Savage and Devine were to categorise as seven classes: elite; established middle class; technical middle class; new affluent workers; traditional working class; emerging service workers; and the precariat.
Savage himself followed up this analysis in 2015, with Social Class in the 21st Century. The spiked review decided to catch up with Savage to discuss his thoughts on the meaning of class today, the nature of inequality and class as an identity. Here’s what he had to say…
spiked review: In your recent work, you’ve developed a seven-class schema. Why did you move away from the more familiar, middle- and working-class, bourgeois and proletarian, distinction? And why is there this fragmentation?
Mike Savage: Those old terms, middle class and working class, really hark back to an industrial society. The categories then were concerned with the divisions between manual occupations (working class) and non-manual occupations (middle class or lower middle class). And the assumption was that your occupation was the key defining feature of your class.
And I think that way of thinking about class has become a bit outdated. This is partly because industrial and factory work has declined, so there are fewer classical working-class people in those terms. But also because there is an increasing range of factors that influence your situation in life. So, it’s not just the money you earn from your job, it also includes your inheritance, the money in your home, your savings, and also your education and qualifications.
The way we think about class is multi-dimensional. It takes a number of different aspects that influence your life chances. We don’t assume that the old occupational divisions are the prime ones.
review: Your work draws on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, particularly his three ideas of capital – economic, cultural and social. How do the latter two – the cultural and social– confer advantage on some and disadvantage others?
Savage: The idea of capital for Bourdieu is that you have capital if that capital can convey advantages vis a vis other people. So if you’ve got a certain kind of capital, you are put in a position in which you are advantaged, and those advantages can be accumulated and passed on. And obviously we know about economic capital, we know that people with more money have got more advantages. You can convert economic capital into a better quality of life. But Bourdieu was very important in saying that it’s not just a matter of money, though money is crucial.
There’s also cultural capital, and the argument goes that people who are socialised, by their parents mainly, into being able to appreciate culture in an abstract way, understanding abstract principles and abstract ideas, taught in their home to value art and culture, then they’re better able to convert their interests into educational achievements – that is, they’re able to do better in school and university. This means that those qualifications can be turned into better jobs. Bourdieu argues that how well you do in education isn’t just to do with how clever you are; it’s also to do with whether you’ve been given the right dispositions and attitudes when you’re young. And whether those convey the potential to do well in education.
And then social capital is the idea that your social networks are an important resource which might allow you to gain certain advantages. So the obvious example of this is the Old Boys’ network. If you went to an elite university and know lots of elite people in different walks of life, like a top judge, a top bank manager and a top doctor, you’re better placed to use those connections to benefit your own interests. So Bourdieu is really arguing that across these three categories of capital – economic, cultural and social – you can see how different sorts of advantages play out for certain people who’ve got the right kind of capital. And if these three kinds of capital work together, they can create add-on advantages as they spin off each other.
review: Do the classes tend to associate and mix solely within their class? (For example, established middle-class types mixing with established middle-class types.)
Savage: It’s not as exclusive as that, no. We should not exaggerate how exclusive people’s social networks are. Chances are, people will know other people from different levels of the social structure. Having said that, particularly at the top level among the elite, they are more likely to know other people with high-status jobs. The same with the very bottom – the precariat – who are very unlikely to know people from a higher social-status group. So it’s not a hard and fast rule. It’s not like saying you only know people like yourself. But the chances of you knowing more elite people are significantly raised if you are yourself elite, and similarly with the bottom sections of the social structure.
review: How do you assess the relations between the classes? Is there a widening division between top and bottom? A bunching and blurring together in the middle?
Savage: That’s exactly right. Our big argument, which we tried to get over quickly in the class survey, is that the old model used to be focused on upper, middle and working class with the big dividing lines in the middle. But what we’re saying now is that the top levels are pulling away, the elite people are much better off than they were 30 or 40 years ago, and all the data on economic change confirms that. People at the bottom aren’t much better off, possibly even worse off because benefit levels haven’t really always kept up with inflation and so forth. So you see the two extremes pull apart, with the elite being a lot more elite compared to the precariat than used to be the case. And the middle is much more confused and fuzzy, so the dividing lines are much less easy to draw.
The class structure today is a bit like a diamond shape. You’ve got the small elite class at the top, a long way apart from the precariat at the bottom, but in the middle it’s more complicated.
review: There’s a striking paradox here – as inequality has increased, as the top and bottom social classes’ pull away from each other, the actual awareness, the actual consciousness of class, of inequality, has declined. Why do you think this is?
Savage: It’s a good question. People are generally aware of inequality and most people know that the gap between the rich and the poor is great. Many of them will say, ‘we have inequality and I don’t like that’. One of the reasons for people supporting Brexit was the idea of an elite not representing us. So there is that consciousness of people being quite polarised. But when you ask people what class do you yourself belong to, that’s when people are much more hesitant. I think the reason is because if you are in the middle, if you are of the 60 or 70 per cent of people in the middle of the class structure, it’s much more confusing to know where you lie, whether you’re in the established middle class or the technical middle class. And therefore you’re much less aware of where you stand.
Again, the two exceptions are the top and bottom. The elites are pretty much aware of themselves being privileged and much more likely to say that they’re upper class or middle class – they wouldn’t say they were working class. At the top level there is quite a strong sense of class awareness. And similarly, for people at the bottom, the precariat, people are aware of themselves being at the bottom so to speak. They may not call that being working class, they may use different labels to capture that, but they do have a feeling of being the ones who have lost out or not had the advantages that others have had.
So I think that people are class conscious in a way, but they’re not class conscious in the older ways of thinking I’m working class and proud of it.
review: Do you think in this changing relationship to class, class has become a label and an identity, rather than a lived reality?
Savage Absolutely. It’s a kind of an identity, isn’t it? It’s a label you can use to mark yourself out. You’re right, that label isn’t exactly a realistic one. We all know people who say they are working class, even though they’re in quite privileged jobs. I think it happens particularly to people who are upwardly mobile. They are more likely to use these labels as a means to mark themselves out from people who they think are thoroughly elite. So people do use these class labels to bring out how they’re different from the herd in all sorts of ways.
But, as we were saying, those labels aren’t always accurate in terms of people’s position in the social order.
review: Education, especially higher education, has long been championed as a way to overcome rigid class divisions – that is, more people into universities, therefore more cultural, social and economic capital accrued by more and more people. Why do you think this has been unsuccessful? Has the higher education sector created class divisions within itself, between, for example, elite univesities and middle-ranking unviersities, etc?
Savage: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. There is this belief that education would get rid of class divisions and allow people with the right talents to get the right educational outcomes. But in fact what’s happened is that as education has become more competitive (it’s more difficult to get into the top universities, and more important to do well at school), only a few people can get into Oxford and Cambridge, to give an example – and it’s those people who can mobilise all their advantages who are best placed to do that. So if you can mobilise private tutors, if you can mobilise parents who are very supportive with a huge house so you can study undisturbed without being stressed by the TV, and if you go to the best school and know the right friends who know the tips on to how to get into Oxford and Cambridge, you’re more likely to get in. So a competitive education system allows those people with the most advantages to do well. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy – it’s not as if the elite are trying to keep top educational institutions for their own kind (though that occasionally happens); it’s more just that the most advantaged people will tend to do well. And what we’re also seeing in the UK, and we’ve seen this over a number of decades now, is that as the proportion of people going to university is increasing, so the higher-education system is getting differentiated between elite universities and less elite ones. And so it doesn’t just matter that you went to university and got a degree, it also matters which university you went to. Did you go to a Russell Group or Oxbridge? And if you did go to one of those elite universities, the chances of you getting a job are significantly raised.
So, it is the case that education has acted to create the same class inequalities, rather than erode them.
review: Do you think class divisions are now more apparent geographically than they ever have been? It seems like there’s a massive concentration of the upper classes in your schema in London.
Savage: Indeed, it’s a very important point. Class divisions have always been geographical, of course. We’ve always tended to think about the working class being in the north of England and the elite being southern-based. The people with the most resources and the most money and the nicest houses do indeed tend to be living in London or near London.
There has been an important shift. If you go back 50 or 60 years you would have found a broad distinction between middle-class south of England and working-class north of England and Scotland and Wales. I think now the differences are more fine grained, and I also think that the elite tend to be living in cities. So this is true when you talk about the middle of London, where most elite properties tend to be. It’s also true if you go to Manchester or Leeds or Newcastle that many of the new developments in the middle of the cities tend to be geared towards the top end of the market. So we’re finding not just the big division between the north and the south, we’re also finding division between elite city centres and more deprived areas around and outside the cities, and so those class divisions are becoming more and more marked at a more micro scale.
review: Given you’ve sought to look at class in the 21st century, how does this feed into the emerging politics of the 21st century? Do you see a new class politics emerging in, say, the Brexit vote? Is it important to talk about class today?
Savage: I think it is important. In the old-fashioned terms of working class and middle class, it is less important, because those terms aren’t so powerful. But if you think about the Brexit vote, a lot of the people who voted to leave the EU, didn’t like the idea of an elite running things. They didn’t like the idea of the EU as a kind of elite institution. And so they were reacting against a feeling that the elite class is aloof and well off and doesn’t understand us. So that kind of populist politics reflects the fact that we’ve seen this class polarisation against the elites.
I also think at the bottom end, among the precariat and the working class, there is a sense that we’ve been marginalised, we’re fed up. And that can go in different directions. For a while, it went to UKIP, and I think it fed into the Brexit vote. I also think the Labour Party picked up on certain aspects of that. It’s a volatile sense of politics but I think that feeling of Britain being a very divided society, of us not all being in the same boat – that is a strong feeling that explains the polarisation of politics today.
Mike Savage is Michael White professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. He is the author of several books including, most recently, Social Class in the 21st Century, published by Pelican. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)