The Great British Class Survey

The GBCS found seven ‘objective’ social classes based on economic, cultural and social capital. However, most people do not identify with these social classes!

The results of the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) were first published in 2013 based on a sample of 161 000 responses.

The survey used a range of questions to measure three types of Capital:

  • economic capital (wealth and income, especially housing wealth)
  • cultural capital (of which there are two types: highbrow and emerging)
  • social capital (who people know, and the status of who they know)

The survey drew heavily on the work of Bourdieu in its design. One of the key aims was to measure the three types of ‘capital’. This is because social class in Britain today is a matter of advantages that people have accumulated over decades, and even generations as economic, cultural and social capital are passed down to children.

The results of the survey were analysed using ‘latent’ class analysis to group responses into clusters of overlapping answers and revealed that are seven broad social class today as below:

  1. Elite (6% of the population): the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals which sets them apart from all other classes. Typical jobs include lawyers, doctors and higher-level managers. Much of their wealth is in property (they are typically home owners), and their income and wealth are double that of the next class down. Also one of the oldest classes in terms of age with an average age of 57.
  2. Established Middle Class (25% of the population): members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class. Average age of 46.
  3. Technical Middle Class (6%): a new class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged. Average age of 52.
  4. New Affluent Workers (14%): this class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group with an average aged of 44.
  5. Emergent Service Workers (15%): a new class which has low economic capital but has high levels of ‘emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are the youngest class with an average age of 32 and are often found in urban areas.
  6. Traditional Working Class (19%): this class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The oldest class with an average age of 66.
  7. Precariat (15%): the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. These are the most likely to rent and will typically be in unskilled temporary jobs, with an average age of 50.

Key findings from the Great British Class Survey

  • The elite class, the top 6% is far removed in terms of economic, cultural and social capital from all the other classes. For example, they are twice as wealthy on average as the next class down. 22% of respondents in the GBCS were from this class.
  • The elite are happier to identify as elite than other classes: they recognize themselves as distinct.
  • The precariat is also distinct from the other 6 classes: they are much more likely to rent rather than be home owners and much less likely to know someone in the elite class.
  • The other five classes are less distinct, and there is ambivalence among respondents about whether they are working or middle class: more than 60% of respondents were reluctant to identity with a social class.
  • Age plays an important role in determining class, mainly because of property ownership: most people in the elite are over 50, most people in the technical middle classes are much younger.
  • Mike Savage (2015) saw the GBCS as an act of symbolic violence against the Precariat: only 1% of respondents were precariat, they were reluctant to do the survey because they saw it as an act of labelling them as inferior; the elite flocked to do the survey and then tweeted about their status afterwards: for them it was an act of class-affirmation.

Ambiguous Class Identities

The results of the survey give us a set of ‘objective’ class positions, however in terms of identity very few people identified with their own social class position.

The elite were most likely to identify as elite and think of themselves as superior, however they tended to play down the significance of money in their lives and emphasise the people they knew from different classes and the eclectic tastes they had rather than just ‘highbrow tastes’ .

This mirrors how cultural and social capital work: their importance is played down and not spoken about, they confer silent and subtle advantage on the children of the elite, but they themselves attribute their success to meritocracy and hard work.

‘Lower down’ the social class order more than 60% of people didn’t identify with a social class at all. People today are reluctant to identify with social class because of the negative labels associated with social class: Chavs for the working classes and #middleclassproblems for the middle classes.

There was also a significant tendency for people to identify themselves as being ‘somewhere in the middle’ of the social class scale: rich and poor alike tended to say ‘I am somewhere in the middle’, possibly people tended to compare themselves with people of a similar age, or with people in their local community rather than social class.

In the lowest social classes, especially the Precariat, people recognised the economic constraints on their lives and how these limited life chances but they were reluctant to take part in the survey because they knew it would label them as inferior.

The rest of this post provides an overview of Bourdieu’s cultural class analysis and then summarises the findings of the survey for economic, cultural and social capital.

Bourdieu’s cultural class analysis

Class is fundamentally tied up with inequality, but not all economic inequalities are about class. For example, if someone wins £10 million on the National Lottery, this does not automatically propel them into the elite or upper classes.

What determines someone’s class goes beyond one single transaction. If that same lottery winner invested their money in stocks or set up a business and sent their children to private school, we might then, several years afterwards, start to talk of them having moved up the social class hierarchy.

According to Bourdieu, social classes are fundamentally associated with the accumulation of advantages over time, a view which reflects the trajectory of his own life as he was born the son of a rural French postal worker and ended his career as an illustrious professor at an elite university.

He was interested in the symbolic power of class and the shame and stigma that were bound up with forms of domination. For him class was associated with how some people feel ‘entitled’ and others ‘dominated’, thus recognising the cultural elements to social class.

Bourdieu saw class privilege as being tied up with access to ‘capital’ which he defined as having ‘pre-emptive rights over the future’. Some resources allow people the ongoing capacity to enhance themselves and the processes associated with the uneven distribution of resources are crucial.

In the words of Bourdieu himself: ‘Capital, in its objectified or embodied forms takes time to accumulate and has a tendency to persist, so that everything is not equally possible.’

For Bourdieu it is essential that we understand class historically rather than as a series of transactions as snapshots in time; in any one moment we come to social life with different endowments, capacities and resources, and thus social classes are historically forged.

Thus life-chances (such as your chance of getting into a good university) are NOT like playing roulette. In roulette two individuals place a bet, one on black and one of red, both have an equal chance of winning. And if they do so for another round, they have an equal chance of winning again. The odds are reset to the same after each round. Who wins in round two is NOT affected by who won in round one.

With economic (and cultural) capital whoever wins round 1 (generation 1) passes on a greater chance of winning to whoever bets with them on round 2 (their children)

Cultural Capital

Economic capital is one important form of capital Cultural capital is another.

Cultural capital is a form of inheritance, associated with educational qualifications. Well-educated parents pass on to their children to capacity for them to succeed in education and get qualifications to get them into the best jobs. This is not a direct inheritance but a probabilistic one.

Cultural capital is passed on, but in a opaque way, dressed up in the language of meritocracy and hard work, and thus its existence is denied. This opacity is part of how it works, because it makes it impossible to challenge.

This is like gift economics in gift-based societies: gift-giving tacitly demands reciprocation at some point in the future, and is, in reality, about someone with ore capital (the person able to give gifts) manipulating or dominating the person they give the gift to, because by doing so everyone knows they owe the gift-giver something.

Yet this is never spoken about, and it appears that the gift-giving is voluntary and altruistic, and the maintenance of this narrative-myth in public is key to the gift-giver maintaining their power.

According to Bourdieu, to accept the gift as a gift is a form of symbolic violence, it is an acceptance of domination, but as soon as we refuse to see gifts as voluntary and altruistic, they become a form of domination or manipulation.

This is similar to they way in which cultural capital works: in reality middle class parents pass on their higher level academic skills and ‘highbrow’ cultural tastes to their children and THIS is what gives them an unfair advantage and helps them be more successful, but in public we DO NOT TALK about this, instead we prefer to believe that it is simply the hard work of the middle class children that accounts for their success.

Social capital works along similar lines to both cultural and economic capital: the upper middle classes have more contacts their children can use later on in life to get them jobs in, for example, hospitals, law firms, and finance firms.

Capital accumulations and social class

These three forms of capital: economic, cultural, and social take decades to accumulate, they are the result of careful accumulation over the lifespan of parents, who then pass them on to their children, who pass them on to their children and so on.

For those born with little or no capital, it is very difficult to catch up all on your own. It can be done, but you have a long way to go compared to the children of the upper middle classes.

Economic capital

Britain is more unequal than most comparable nations and 78% of Britons are in favour of some forms of redistribution, but when it comes to viewing their own lives, people do not straightforwardly place themselves as winners or losers despite this intense inequality.

Simply noting that Britain is unequal and is getting more unequal tells us nothing of how people experience these inequalities. Economic divisions stamp themselves in complex ways in people’s identities.

Based on interviews with the Great British Class Survey, people in very different economic circumstances all place themselves in the middle, but if you dig down into it ‘being in the middle’ has different meanings depending on their objective position in the economic class structure.

In general, those with modest amounts of money are aware of how a relative lack of money has shaped their life in the past and continues to constrains their life in the present.

Whereas those with money tend to downplay the importance of it. Those who have money report caring less about it. They are able to stand back from the brute power of money itself.

People do not want to show off, nor do they want to recognise the shame and stigma of being at the bottom. Yet despite this, economic inequalities are central in shaping people’s lives.

Wealth inequalities and social class

Britain has got a lot wealthier in the 20th and 21st centuries, so much so that income from employment in the present is increasingly overshadowed by the influence of wealth accumulated from the past.

The absolute gap between the top 1% and bottom 50% by wealth increased threefold from 1976 to 2005.

The absolute increase in wealth is divisive: it means that those who start today with no wealth have a larger hill to climb in order to reach the top and this makes breaking social inequality difficult.

Bringing wealth into an analysis of social class has three major implications:

  1. It makes us realise that income is not the only, or even the main way economic capital influences people’s lives.
  2. The gap is getting bigger, so it is harder for people at the bottom to climb the ladder.
  3. Wealth is accumulated, and so your parent’s wealth matters – we need to understand class in terms of transfer of resources from young to old

The power of income inequalities

According to the Spirit Level Britain is a country of gross high income inequalities.

The Higher Managerial Class earns three times as much as those in routine manual occupations, but within the top class there is a group of especially well paid occupations such as CEOs, doctors, lawyers and financial intermediaries, and these occupations have pulled away from similar occupations which require similar education and skill levels.

The top 10% earn nearly 17 times as much as lowest 10%.

Is there a new aristocracy?

The GBSC shows us that there is a strong overlap between those who have extremely high incomes, savings and wealth.

In social terms those with the most economic capital are only slightly more likely to have degree-level qualifications. Those who have the most economic capital really do have the most privileged backgrounds.

The very wealthy also tend to have a strong awareness of themselves as either upper or upper-middle class, and they are more likely to identify as such.

Those with the most economic capital also have distinctive social and cultural characteristics too, they have more exclusive social networks.

House ownership and social class

One of the most important things which makes positioning oneself on an economic scale is whether one owns a house or not, something which is especially true for the over 50s, many of whom bought houses when they were much cheaper back in the 1990s.

There are many people, for example, who have had traditionally working class jobs for their entire lives, but by virtue of having bought a house in the ‘right area’ 30 years ago, are now sitting on property worth more than half a million, with no mortgage.

On the other hand there are also many people who have worked in traditionally middle class jobs but are sitting on cheaper properties with huge mortgages.

By way of an example: where would you place the following two people on the class scale?:

  • A builder with no qualifications earning £30K a year with a property worth £700K and no mortgage.
  • A teacher with two degrees earning £45K a year with a property worth £300K and paying £15K a year on their mortgage for the next decade?

These two examples demonstrate how difficult it is to place people on class scales today and show the complexity of class identities, and that’s just factoring in income and housing wealth, and before we even look at the cultural and social aspects of class identification.

looked at more broadly, owner-occupied housing is now thoroughly implicated in the accumulation of economic capital, creating a powerful categorical divide between those who are owners and those who are tenants.

The housing divide also tends to increase the significance of age and location in terms of social class divisions.

The meaning of economic capital revisited

People’s perceptions of economic inequality might not involve comparing themselves with those in other occupations but rather those in certain geographical locations or age.

In this way the effects of economic capital can be naturalised so that monetary differences are associated with a range of personal, social and spatial factors which may make them appear ‘natural’ in the minds of many.

The fact that it takes so long to accumulate economic capital is why people place their situation in the context of life histories rather than draw direct ‘relational’ contrasts with the wealthy or poor, and thus people see their economic fortunes tied up with their life histories rather than global economic forces.

In the minds of respondents property was a very important form of economic capital, especially as it could be passed onto the next generation.

The continued importance of economic capital

An increase in economic capital clouds the boundary further between working and middle classes and it means those at the top are further apart.

One cannot make simple judgements based on occupation alone. Economic capital especially housing has an impact – age and region.

We can only understand economic capital by recognising it is the result of long term accumulation. In every dimension the better off are more closely associated with historically resonant forces: social cultural or coming from a senior managerial background. Economic capital is about long term investments.

Finally, growing relative proportions in economic capital might reduce general awareness of where they stand in relation to other people. It’s not just about income and employment anymore: people compare themselves to those of a similar age and neighbours!

Cultural Capital: Highbrow and Emerging

Most people are aware that economic capital (wealth, especially housing today) are assets that can be accumulated and invested to give oneself and one’s children advantages in life.

However most people don’t think of cultural tastes and interests as being forms of capital, but for Bourdieu they are, and what matters is the extent to which one’s tastes and interests are seen as legitimate. There are countless cultural pursuits, but not all are valued equally.

For example, there is a widely held notion that classical music and literature, fine art, opera and have more legitimacy and value and show better taste than Big Brother and computer games.

Traditionally three factors have cemented the notion that ‘high culture’ is superior:

  1. High culture has been deeply promoted by the state through subsidies from bodies such as the Arts Council.
  2. The education system reinforces the idea that classical literature and music are superior.
  3. Cultural critics and other taste makers further reinforce the idea.

Social Engagement: the new divide

The GBCS believes that cultural capital still exists today but that it has changed its form.

We see this from a cultural mapping exercise which shows us which kinds of activities are NOT done together and from that we can see which are furthest apart and even in contrast from each other and a hierarchy emerges.

Cultural activities ACultural activities B
Liking fish and chipsGoing to the theatre
Eating out rarelyGoing to the gym
Not going to restaurantsGoing to rock gigs
Not liking pop musicPlaying sport
Disliking Indian foodGoing to art clubs
Not going out with friendsWatching live sport
Disliking jazzLiking French and Italian restaurants
Disliking world musicLiking world music
Not going for a walkGoing to museums and art galleries
Disliking reggae musicGoing to the opera and ballet

Cultural mapping shows us that it is more likely that your choice of activities will ALL come from one column in the table above rather than finding equal numbers of activities from both columns.

On the right hand side of the column, the activities involve going out into the world of public, cultural institutions, such as going to the theatre and eating out at restaurants and on the left hand side there is an aversion to these, and most readers would probably recognise there is subtle social pressure to view the activities on the right as more socially legitimate.

Those on the right are socially approved of and supported, those on the left abstain.

This is not quite the same as ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture because also on the right we find activities such as going to the gym and rock concerts.

Those who are well educated and have a high income tend to engage in pursuits on the right and vice versa, so cultural tastes do map onto social position. The activities on the right require, in general a lot of money, those on the left do not.

For those on the left, they do not simply sit at home passively watching T.V. but their cultural activities are more likely to be informal, and kinship or neighbourhood based, done in private and with less of a public profile.

For those who engage in the activities on the right, it involves taking part in public life, they are more visible and this may lead to more confidence and assertiveness. They have more of a public profile.

Someone on the left may well be very culturally engaged, but they are more likely to play themselves down as lacking ‘culture’ as not being very informed. Those with lower income are more tentative about what good taste is as they tend to lack confidence.

Those with ‘good taste’ are more likely to be confident that their tastes are legitimate and may use this to ‘inflict’ their taste on others. They are sure they have ‘good taste’. They are at ease. They are much happier to communicate this conviction in public.

The secondary cultural divide: highbrow versus ’emerging’ cultural capital

Cultural mapping also reveals a second set of oppositional tastes and activities. Activities such as going to the opera, classical music and ballet correlate with disliking rap and popular music:

Cultural activities ACultural activities B
Liking fast foodGoing to the theatre
Being indifferent to classical musicDisliking pop music
Being indifferent to heavy metalGoing to stately homes
Liking rap musicLiking classical music
Liking vegetarian restaurants Disliking reggae music
Being indifferent to jazz musicDisliking rap music
Playing sportNot going to fast food restaurants
Not going for a walkDisliking rock music
Taking holidays in Spain Going to museums and art galleries
Watching live sportGoing to the opera and ballet

Those tastes and activities on the right are consistent with ‘highbrow taste’ and seems to support Bourdieu’s views on Distinction.

Those on the left who prefer such things as popular music are more likely to state they are ‘indifferent’ to classic music and so on.

Age is also a factor in this opposition, with younger people being more likely to fall into the left hand column, those with ‘highbrow’ tastes are more likely to be older. The average age of a Radio 3 listener is 62.

When we factor in both age and class, we see from this are two modes of cultural capital: ‘highbrow’ and ’emerging’.

  • Highbrow culture is more established, historically sanctioned and institutionalised in the education system, but is also an ageing mode of cultural capital.
  • Emerging is more hipster – adopted by the younger middle class – it has its own infrastructure in bars and on social media and sports and may be institutionalised in new professional workstyles which emphasise adaptability.

So with respect to cultural capital, younger people are not obviously disadvantaged compared to their elders: they partake in these new forms of cultural capital and are engaged.

People are also increasingly keen to express their eclectic tastes, the drawing of sharp boundaries was relatively rare, even among older respondents.

Sociologists in the USA have talked about the rise of the ‘cultural omnivore’ who is more culturally tolerant and less snobbish and more accepting of diversity. This is NOT what the GBCS reveals.

While the better off talked about their eclecticism there was a ‘knowingness’ about this diversity of engagement. For example, the elite tend to be very selective about which precise and particular ‘unusual’ aspects of popular culture they like, and explained in great depth why they like them.

They were off the cuff about their like of highbrow tastes, but had to legitimate their like of things falling outside this.

Emerging capital is thus not about liking popular culture per se, but rather demonstrating one’s skill in manoeuvring between the choices on the menu and displaying one’s careful selection of particular pop artists. Demonstrating WHY you liked something (in relation to your life) was as important as WHAT you liked.

Especially among the younger generation, no pop artist was out of bounds, but this was usually done with a lot of justification – exhaustively selective, even in terms of Burger King over McDonald’s.

In other words, emerging cultural capital is expressive, it is a performance.

For example on respondent: Henry said of his music tastes – ‘there is no cohesion at all’ and he was proud of this, but his play lists included such things as ‘obscure’ and ‘hopelessly poppy’. His collection of tastes was about having material to add to discussions in university halls.

You can consume ‘right pop music’ but also ‘wrong pop music’ in the right way by demonstrating an eclectic taste but a privileged understanding.

Ways of Seeing

There is a difference between activities which are immediate and sensuous and discerning.

Discernment is the ability to judge across genres and justify these: skills associated with education and professional jobs. These are not neutral skills and those who value them tend to denigrate immediate, sensual reactions.

There is a class differences in how things are enjoyed. The basis of a new snobbery.

Just getting lost in classical music at a sensual level is seen as inferior to engaging with it at a more highbrow level of appreciation: being stretched intellectually is seen as superior to merely being entertained.

The working classes are more likely to express just ‘getting lost in the music’ but for the middle classes, engaging in something just for pleasure was often tied up with guilt: being too knackered to do anything better after work, for example.

Cultural snobbery

Emerging cultural capital embeds its own form of subtle hierarchy.

People in higher class positions distance themselves from snobbery but they contradict themselves by showing a dislike of culture that was mass produced.

Reality TV and talent shows were frequently mentioned as things they didn’t like as was Bingo and certain fashion brands.

Responses to questions about such cultural tastes tended to start with a denigration of lifestyle (so not personal) but then moved on to a criticism of the people who liked them: such as audiences of reality shows being passive and easily duped by advertisers.

Towards the end of interviews, when they were more relaxed, the wealthier better-educated respondents often considered cultural tastes as powerful indicators of pathological identities, expressing even disgust.

They tended to commend themselves on their own flexibility and energy in choosing the ‘right’ cultural products, and in contrast saw those who watched shows such as the X factor as being lazy and non-discerning.

Cultural activities were not seen as just private enthusiasms, they brought with them social baggage.

Social Capital

Most of us understand the importance of networks in our lives, especially in the age of social media.

Most of us pride ourselves on having a wide range of social contacts, and especially for the elite it is seen as vulgar to stress that you only know other people from the elite, they stress the working class people they know.

However we are also aware of the strategic importance of knowing certain types of people.

Bourdieu’s conception of social capital is that it is something the privileged and powerful use to protect their interests and shut out those without social capital.

Three main findings from the GBCS about social capital were:

Social networks are not exclusive. Most people know someone a fundamentally different walk of life, so we do not live in a closed society.

However, there is a strong tendency for those in professional and managerial jobs to know people in similar jobs and the same is true for those in manual and routine jobs. People in the bottom quintile know just over one person in one of the elite 8 positions, for those in the top quintile, they know three.

The extremes are distinctive. The very wealthy are much more likely to know very advantaged people than everyone else, so these are more closed off. And those with no educational qualifications are much less likely to know those from other occupational clusters. The elite occupations are the most socially exclusive.

Social capital accumulates over time, and is passed down. Those with a parent ranking in the highest-status income earners know twice as many people in the elite professions compared to those whose parents belong to the routine manual class.

A Subtle shaping occurs: social capital determines who you socialise with, and how you think about your class position, but this is not immediately obvious in day to day life.

Social Class: the new landscape?

The interplay of economic, cultural and social capital generate the kinds of cumulative advantages and disadvantages which may fuse together in social classes more broadly.

Drawing links between these three kinds of capital is complicated because the three strands are organised on different principles.

Economic capital has accumulated massively in recent years, but it is difficult to see cultural and social capital accumulating in this sort of way. Technical innovation especially means people have more cultural and social capital than previously, but it is difficult to map this out because there is so much diversity, unlike with economic capital, which is more blunt.

Economic capital has been subject to more absolute accumulation, but with social and cultural capital the accumulation is more relative, in that people have become divided by different kinds of cultural interests and social ties.

We often fixate on where there is NOT a fit between these types of capital – such as with wealthy footballers or self-made working class millionaires, but Bourdieu tended to see these three types of culture as coinciding – there was a ‘homology’ between them, but the fit was never perfect.

The GBCS confirms Bourdieu’s view to an extent: it shows us that there are some common intersections between these three types of capital, but it is far from perfect, and age also has a significant impact on class location in the new class scale.

A new model of social class?

The responses to the GBCS were analysed using a model of ‘latent class analysis’ to group the three types of capital and show how they cluster.

The seven classes were then ranked according to their economic capital, the variable that is the most unevenly distributed.

The hierarchy here is not always that distinct, for example it is uncertain whether the new affluent workers should be placed higher or lower than the technical middle class.

The two most clearly differentiated classes are the elite and the precariat. These score highest and lowest on most of the measures of the three capitals.

The elite have incomes twice as high as any other class and by far the largest house values. They also have the highest amount of ‘highbrow’ capital, and extensive social networks. With the elite we see more of a ‘homology’ than with other classes.

At the bottom the Precariat refers to the precarious proletariat. This class has the lowest household income, little savings and is the most likely to rent property. It also ahs the fewest social ties, and least likely to know people in the elite. Its cultural capital is also more limited than other classes.

Signposting and Sources

This post was summarised from Mike Savage’s (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.

You can do the Great British Class Survey here.

This material is essential for A-level sociology, especially any topic relevant to social class inequalities, and the culture and identity module.

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