Britain’s New Ordinary Class Elite

The top 6% of the UK population by wealth and income make up a new elite class who also have the most cultural and social capital

In Britain today, there is an ordinary wealth elite who make up the top 6% of the population by wealth. Their mean household income is £89 000 and the average values of their homes £325 000. They have average savings of £142 000.

These figures mean they have wealth and income more than double that of the next class down on the Great British Class Survey, and they have got there by reaping the rewards of steady accumulation of their capital assets. The rise of rentier incomes from second homes forms a significant part of this.

Among the elite, meritocratic justification about wealth ran deep. They tended to stress that their success, income and wealth reflected their hard work, rather than it being down to the advantages they had because of the generations of accumulated cultural, social and economic capital they had benefitted from.

Others played down their wealth by positioning themselves in a relative sense, pointing out they were not as well off as their friends, and some deflected the issue by pointing out ‘accidental accumulation’: house prices having increased so much in London and the South East for example.

However, the top 6% do not see themselves as united, but are more aware of their differences There are fractures as well as solidarity at the top. In other words, the upper class layer is not a coherent and cohesive group but rather a scene of internal contestation between those with the most resources.

Cultural Capital and the Elite Class

The contemporary class elite defies traditional ‘upper class’ presumptions. It is a differentiated and heterogeneous formation which lacks a unitary defining feature.

Its cultural motifs vary and its members conform to a highbrow norm, although they are the most likely to express a preference for opera, classical music and so on.

While the traditional elite of the past marked their distinction by selectively consuming only the visible prestigious forms of culture, members of today’s elite are also in tune with contemporary and popular culture.

Occupational diversity also makes up part of this constellation. There is no unitary group to be found among the wealth class. Different professions such as business, law, academia, media and science compete with each other to assert their authority in the public domain.

These elite occupational blocs may have distinctive cultures of their own and so form niches, and this is especially true for some of the older professions such as architecture and law.

In spatial terms London is where the elite class predominately live. Having a relationship to the London scene and being prepared to work in London are essential. There are also regions within London, niches dependent on property prices.

You don’t necessarily have to have been born in London, but living close to it and being familiar with its geography are important.

There are also cultural elite bubbles in places such as Hampstead and Hackney and a legal elite around Waterloo station for example.

The elite class and meritocracy

The ordinary elite class strongly believe they got to where they are through meritocratic means, through their own hard work and effort, and they often contrast themselves to those who are not, like them, hardworking, but we shouldn’t take these beliefs at face value.

While it is true that they often got into their current high paying jobs by performing well in the education system and then succeeding in the cut throat professions they have also benefitted from their parents’ economic, cultural and social capital.

Many of them went to private schools and Shamus Khan has pointed out that private education is today about imparting the ‘meritocratic skills and practices’ that are required to get ahead in corporate and professional jobs. Ironically because these skills are taught most effectively in fee-paying private schools this means this is NOT meritocratic.

However there is still recruitment to this class from the outside: 25% come from comprehensives.

Elite universities play a role in separating out the very top professions: a boundary separates those who went to Oxbridge from the even those who attended Russel group universities.

The ordinary elite is not very glamorous nor glittering or self-recruited. It is not socially closed. However, people do have to perform to join it. They have to display knowingness, it is hard work being a member of the ordinary elite!

The Elite and the GBCS

The elite were more likely to do the Great British Class Survey. Despite making up only 6% of the objective class structure, 21% of the sample doing the GBCS were from the elite class.

Due to technocratic confidence they have the intellectual confidence and interest to take part, and taking part was a chance to obtain the private gratification that they had made it to the top.

They saw doing the survey as self-affirming, as a chance to have their elite status confirmed and flocked to it in disproportionate numbers, and the GBCS obliged them by awarding them with an ‘elite coat of arms’.

picture of the elite class summary from the great british class survey

Many of them then flocked to Twitter to communicate their ‘official’ elite status to the world. One example:

‘According to new #bbcclass survey I am elite. Nice to see a long-obvious reality reflected in hard data at last. Knee! Bow! And so on…’

What this (representative) tweet shows us is that the elite wanted to boast about their now socially recognised status, but dressed it up in a tongue in cheek way with humour to deflect away from this bragging.

It was also as if doing the survey gave this group a kind of scientifically based legitimacy to brag about their status: rather than them judging themselves as ‘elite’ the survey had done it for them, so all they are doing here (apparently) is stating ‘facts’.

This material was summarised from Savage (2015) Social Class in the 21st Century.

This material is relevant throughout A-level sociology but especially relevant to the Culture and Identity module.

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Unequal parental choice

marketisation policies mean unequal parental choice as middle class parents have more cultural capital

Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1) examined the effects that marketisation policies which introduced competition and parental choice were having on the education system and on the opportunities for different social groups.

They found that middle class parents had more effective choice of schools because of their higher levels of cultural, social and material capital.

Researching parental choice

They studied 15 schools in neighbouring LEAs in England between 1994 and 1991 using a range of research methods including visiting the schools, attending meetings, interviewing teachers and parents and examining documents.

Central to the research study was a series of interviews with 150 parents whose children were in the final year of primary school, and so were in the process of choosing secondary schools. Some areas had mainly middle class populations, some mainly working class and some had significant ethnic minority populations, so the researchers were able to compare parental choice across these groups.

Marketisation: the effects on schools

The overall effect was a shift in the value framework of schools from comprehensive to market values.

The publication of league tables meant that schools were more keen to attract those more able students who could boost their position in the league tables. There was more of a focus on what prospective students could do for the school rather than what the school could do for the students.

Some schools had introduced setting and streaming so as to more effectively focus resources on those students who were judged likely to succeed and some schools had started to view students like commodities.

Schools were also putting more resources into marketing to promote a positive image of the school: producing glossy brochures to attract parents and staff were expected to spend more time on marketing activities, mainly opening days and evenings.

Neighbouring schools had stopped co-operating with each other and there was a new attitude of suspicion and hostility in some cases.

Schools lower down the league tables were more obsessed with trying to attract pupils, while the more successful schools were able to be more complacent and selective with the students they chose.

Budgetary concerns such as cutting costs were becoming more important than educational and social issues.

Marketisation and unequal parental choice

Gewirtz et al argued that not all parents had equal choice of schools. The amount of choice was limited by the availability of schools in the local area and the capacity of parents to make informed choices.

They identified three types of parents based on their ability to choose:

  • Privileged or skilled choosers
  • Semi-skilled choosers
  • Disconnected choosers

Skilled choosers

Skilled choosers were strongly motivated to put energy into choosing the ‘right’ school for their child and had the ability to make an informed choice.

Skilled choosers are mainly middle class and some had inside knowledge of the school system, such as those who were teachers themselves and tended to choose the most successful schools for their children.

They had both the knowledge to evaluate schools and the money to be able to move to into the catchment area of a particular school they wanted their child to go to.

Semi-skilled choosers

Semi-skilled choosers have a strong motivation to choose by limited capacity to engage with the market. They are less likely to be middle class than skilled-choosers.

They have just a strong a desire to get their children into the best schools but lack the cultural skills and social contacts to be able to make their choices stick.

For example semi-skilled choosers feel less at home at parents evening, less comfortable asking difficult questions and and are less likely to appeal if they don’t get their first choice of school.

As a result this group are more likely to settle for their child just going to a local school rather than a better school that they originally wanted.

Disconnected choosers

Disconnected choosers are just as concerned with their children’s education and welfare but don’t get involved with the school-choice market because they don’t believe it will benefit their children as they think there is little difference between schools.

They tend to consider a smaller number of school options, typically only the two nearest schools to where they live, and their child typically ends up going to one of these local schools which is unlikely to be the best academically.

Disconnected choosers are more concerned with their child’s happiness than them going to a school with a good academic record, and so sending them to a local school where their friends are also going makes sense.

Disconnected choosers are typically working class and the most likely group to send their children to undersubscribed, underperforming schools.

definitions of skilled, semi-skilled and disconnected choosers

Cultural and material capital and differential choice

Marketisation policies have made education less equal. Middle class parents are in a better position than working class parents to send their children to a school of their choice.

Because middle class parents have more cultural and social capital they are more able to play the system effectively:

  • they can make a better impression with the head teacher at open day.
  • they are more likely to make private appointments to discuss school choice.
  • they are more likely to appeal if they are not successful in their application.
  • In some cases they are more likely to actually know staff at the school.
  • They have more time and money to research and visit schools.

They also have more money which can help with:

  • moving into the catchment areas of the best schools.
  • Extra tuition to get their children into grammar schools.
  • Paying for transport or driving their children to schools which may be several miles away.

In contrast working class parents were more likely to want their children to go to local schools because then they didn’t have to make long and dangerous journeys (which maybe expensive) and they had access to their local community which was a support network.

In Bourdieu’s terms both middle class and working class parents made school choices based on their habitus, or their different lived experiences. And this meant the middle classes having free choice over a wide area, and the working classes simply choosing to stay local, which effectively meant no real choice at all!


This material is relevant to the sociology of education topic, it is especially relevant to demonstrating how social and cultural capital give the middle classes an advantage in education.


(1) Ball, Bowe and Gewirtz (1994) Parents, privilege and the education market‐place

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

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.

To return to the homepage –

The working class don’t feel like they fit in middle-class jobs

People from working class backgrounds who are socially mobile and make it into middle class jobs are less likely to feel they fit into those jobs than those from middle class backgrounds.

This is according to some contemporary sociological research which suggests support for the view that lack of cultural capital not only hinders working class children in education, but this carries on into the workplace…

Cultural Capital effectively means that the middle class who get middle class jobs just feel like they fit – the subjective experience for them is more natural, and less stressful because there is more of a fit between their home lives and their working lives.

But for the socially mobile working classes, the differences between their home lives and new middle class working lives means they find work more challenging.

Research Methods

The researchers first sent out a survey to 161 participants in a variety of sectors – both private and public. The survey asked about their subjective perceptions of their class background and their levels of engagement at work. 20 respondents were then interviewed in more depth – 12 of whom were women with an average age of 47.


Some working class respondents talked of not feeling like they fitted in – and felt under pressure to change their working class mannerisms and habits – such as switching to drinking wine rather than beer at work social events.

One respondent reported that she was actually ridiculed for her accent by colleagues – one had put in a formal complaint about the way she spoke to clients as being ‘unprofessional’ – she just thought it was due to her working class speech codes (effectively).

Some also felt the need to conceal their background from their colleagues, resulting in them having less to say and engaging less.

At home there is also less of an advantage to being socially mobile for the working class – their peers either aren’t interested in or don’t understand (the two are related) their jobs and so there is less to talk about there – essentially the working class are less able to ‘celebrate’ their social mobility because it means less to others in their home lives.

In contrast the middle classes moving into middle class job just felt ‘authentic’

When social mobility can work…

Some who were socially mobile felt they had learned new skills from the challenge and it had broadened them out as people and employees.

Finally, one crucial factor that made mobility work was the support of employers and colleagues, which is hardly surprising!

Find Out More

You can read the full details of this research here: A Bridge over Troubled Borders: Social Class and the Interplay between Work and Life, published in the Journal of Work, Employment and Society in February 2022.

You might also like this excellent summary article in The Conversation: The real life challenges of social mobility.

How to Break Into the Elite

Why don’t working class graduates with good degrees get the best jobs?

This documentary focuses on social mobility, and the myth of meritocracy, focusing on why working class graduates with good degrees struggle to get into the top jobs.

Statistics mentioned in the documentary

  • About 1/3rd of the population come from working class backgrounds, but only 10% make it into Britain’s top professions, and they earn 15% less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds.
  • Put another way you are 6 times more likely to land an elite job if you’re upper middle class.
  • Russel Group University students with 2nd class degrees are more likely to go into a top profession than those from working class backgrounds and got a first.
  • Oxbridge candidates from privileged backgrounds end up earning more than those from less privileged backgrounds.
  • Banking and finance – 34% educated privately
  • Private equity – nearer 70%

Top employers want cultural capital as well as qualifications

The stats suggest that top employers are not rewarding what the universities are rewarding, and this is preventing working class kids from getting the top jobs.

City recruiters are looking for ‘polish’ in the way they present – if we break this down this means accent, mannerism, behavior, dress.

One of the areas most affected by this is sales in finance: it is felt that if employees don’t look and feel ‘reassuringly expensive’, this will undermine the firm/ sector.

To illustrate this we have an interview with one independent recruitment agent who has a woman with an Essex accent on her books who she ‘can’t get a job for love for money’

This also applies to the The Media Sector – 60K of last years grads aspired to a career in media, but working class students are at a disadvantage because they don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’. With the media, there’s a kind of ‘studied informality’ and way of being ‘knowingly hip, and those from WC backgrounds are just confused by it… lack of being at ease.

It seems that having cultural capital is crucial to breaking into a job in Media: If you have a parent who works in film and television you’re 12 times more likely to work in the Media, and 60-70% of those who work in The Media come from professional and managerial backgrounds. Tacit knowledge, no explicit rules about how you get in.

The problem with all of this is that this set of rules are ‘tacit’ – they unwritten, a set of social codes which are quite ‘knowing’ (to with dress/ speak) and without being brought up with them, working class people struggle to make the leap of selfhood required to get into the top jobs.

Why the working classes lack confidence….

People from disadvantaged backgrounds have more unstable lives, those from more advantaged have more stable lives and are more likely to have been brought up being listened to and having their opinions valued as a peer, that breeds familiarity and confidence – knowing that everything’s going to ‘be OK’ tomorrow.

Three contrasting case studies

The documentary uses case of students who have just graduated, some working class and struggling to get good jobs despite their top degrees from good universities, and one middle class student:

Amaan – has a degree in Economics from Nottingham and has wanted a i equity sales in an investment bank (since he was 13), also world kickboxing champion at 17, but he struggles with a lack of confidence in interviews.

Elvis from East London – has a degree in political economy at Birmingham, wants a city job in finance, he ends up getting onto a graduate training programme with bank (if I remember correctly).

Finally, Ben from Dulwich, screamingly middle class who charmed his way into London Live and the local press – he was just pushy, winged it, and looks set to get a career in the media despite his degree in Classics.

Ian Wright and the Internal Class Ceiling

Unexpectedly the documentary has a section featuring Ian Write, from a working class background who talks about the prejudice he has faced in his media career.

He even says we should abolish private schools and ‘give the working class guns’ to get over the middle class advantage, and that interview training and soft skills are bullshit – you shouldn’t have to be someone you’re not.

Relevance to A-level sociology

There are very obvious links here to the cultural capital topic within the education module!

Sources/ find out more

  • Sam Friedman* – researches the link between social class and higher professional and managerial jobs
  • And a link to the documentary.

Mary Berry Doffs Her Bonnet – and Legitimates the Class Structure (Again)

I’ve blogged about how Mary Berry’s uses her middle class cultural capital to maintain the class-order through demonising working class taste , but in her latest series of outings – Mary Berry’s Country House Secrets, she takes this to another level…

Mary Berry Age.jpg
Mary Berry’s Country House Secret Hegemony?

I could only stomach one episode, which I watched to confirm my suspicions about the general format and broader function of this series – it basically consists of The Berry visiting Lords in their large estates, and having a jolly nice time cooking for them and dining with them….. making it seem as if ‘they’re just like us’.

From a Marxist Perspective the narrow and uncritical agenda of this show perpetuates the class structure through suggesting that we should identity with the elite.

The truth is, according to a broadly Marxist analysis, that these Lords and Ladies are are not like us- they mix in their own privileged circles and ‘fine dining’ is precisely one of the mechanisms they use to distinguish themselves from us ‘plebs’.

The deeper truth is that this ascribed status, which people are born into through sheer luck, is an affront to meritocracy – and needs to be challenged, or at the very least questioned, rather than ‘doffed’, like The Berry does.

Then again, and again from a Marxist point of view, what would you expect from The Berry? Doffing to the elite class above you is a widely used tactic by the upper middle classes (you see it in the Daily Mail a lot, when they defer to the royals), suggesting that the majority of the rest of us, like Gregg Wallace, in The Berry’s case, should doff their working class caps to her.

At least according to Marxism… these views in no way represent my own on the matter!

Cultural Capital, Practical Intelligence and Success

Being an analytical genius is not necessarily enough to achieve success in life – it also helps if your parents have sufficient cultural capital to provide you with ‘practical intelligence’. 

In this post, I continue my summary of Malcom Gladwell’s most excellent ‘Outliers: The Story of Success’ (chapter 5: the trouble with geniuses part 2).

Chris Langan started talking at 6 months, and taught himself to read at the age of 3. He was born with high levels of analytic intelligence, and and as a child he always wanted to be an academic, but he never managed to make it.

Langan came from an incredibly disadvantaged background and him and his four brothers endured severe material deprivation. Despite this, Langan won a scholarship to Oregon University at 18, but had the scholarship removed when his mother didn’t complete the appropriate forms for its continuation: he dropped out and returned to Montana to do manual work.  He later enrolled in Montana State University but again had to drop out due to poverty related issues (his car broke down so he couldn’t get to class).

Gladwell contrasts Langan’s  life course to that of the nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer:

Oppenheimer managed to complete his PhD in physics despite attempting to poison his tutor half way through because they didn’t get on: he talked the board into sending him to a psychiatrist rather than to jail); years later Oppenheimer managed to talk his way onto the Manhattan Project  – despite not being the best qualified person for the job.

The difference between Langan and Oppenheimer is their respective amounts of  ‘Practical Intelligence’  which Robert Sternberg says includes ‘knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it to maximum effect’.

Where does Practical Intelligence Come From?

Perhaps the best explanation comes from sociologists Annette Lareau who conducted a study of third graders.

Laureau selected a sample of both black and white children, from both rich and poor backgrounds, zeroing in on 12 families and the research team visited each family at least twenty times, for hours at a stretch, following them as they went about their daily routines.

Lareau found that there were only two parenting philosophies, and they divided almost perfectly along class lines: the wealthier parents raised their kids one way, the poorer kids were raised another way.

The wealthier parents were heavily involved in their children’s free time: shuttling them from one activity to the next and quizzing them about their teachers.

This kind of intensive scheduling was almost entirely absent from the lives of the poor children. Play for them involved making up games with their siblings.

The middle class parents talked things through with their children, reasoning with them. They didn’t just issue commands, they expected their children to talk back to them, to question adults in authority.

One child Lareau followed just missed qualifying for a gifted programme, so the mother had her re-tested privately, petitioned the school and got her a place on the programme, whereas poor parents are much more reluctant to take on authority.

Lareau calls the middle-class parenting style ‘concerted cultivation’ – an active attempt to foster and assess child’s talents, opinions and skills, whereas working class parents engage in a strategy of ‘accomplishment of natural growth’ – they see it as their responsibility to care for their kids, but to let them grow and develop on their own.

Lareau states that these two parenting styles are morally equivalent, and in fact the working class kids are often better behaved, less whiney and more independent and creative, but concerted cultivation has enormous practical advantages – it helps them deal with authority, to speak up and gives them a sense of entitlement.

Although ‘entitlement’ has negative connotations – Lareau means it in the best terms – middle class kids know the rules and they know how to pursue their self-interest within institutions – they have ‘practical intelligence’, they have the attitudes they need to succeed in the modern world…..


Bourdieu’s Structuration Theory

Bourdieu didn’t like the label ‘social theorist’ because he insisted that there was a fundamentally important relationship between empirical data, research methods and ‘theory’.

He was not interested in making grand theoretical claims, but rather was engaged in examining particular substantive areas (fields) of social life that existed at particular times and places, such as fields of education.

Drawing inspiration from Marx and Weber, Bourdieu argued that all aspects of social life must be examined in terms of the power relations they embody – the main aim of sociology is to expose the power of elite groups, which would normally not be visible without sociological analysis.

This ‘exposure’ element is different to Giddens’ structuration theory, who generally assumes the knowledgeability of subjects, while for Bourdieu actors are not necessarily conscious of the operation of power.  Bourdieu also focused more on the group, rather than the individual agent.

Bourdieu has been criticise as just being  a Marxist, for seemingly analysing power relations in terms of how structure and ideology reproduce individuals. However, Bourdieu saw his position as successfully mediating between objectivism and subjectivism. He claimed these are transcended by his key concept of habitus – a term meant to describe how social conditions act upon and shape individuals’ actions and how also people are –within certain limits – capable of creative responses to the situations they find themselves in (Reay 2004).

A habitus is the characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, acting and experiencing shared by all members of a certain group.  It describes how social structures act on individuals in a group and how individuals actively respond to the social situations created by those structures – a person’s practices can either maintain or transform the social situations people operate within.

For Bourdieu the primary groups in society are social class groups. He understands power as the domination of one class over another, via attempts at legitimising their world view.

For Bourdieu, the habitus encompasses both  objective and subjective, passive and active, material and ideal elements.

The more objective elements concern wealth and power, and the socialisation processes – socialisation happens at a mental as well as a bodily level — the tiniest details of how we walk, or blow are knows signify aspects of our socialisation, mostly our class background, and for Bourdieu we are not fully aware that everything we do is expressive of the habitus into which we’ve been socialised. Instead the habits disguises itself by making people see the world in common sense ways, and these do not allow critical attention to be paid to it. People just experience what they experience as ‘common sense’.

We do not even realise we have a habitus until we step outside it, into a different context – e.g. a working class person going to a society wedding, realising their ordinary ways of being just don’t fit.

The habitus ‘adjusts expectations to reality’ – so that our subjective outlook meshes with our objective conditions – thus a working class person would just not expect to eat caviar for breakfast, we just accept this.

Bourdieu maintains that habitus does not simply constrain individuals – it also allows action to take place, but it always provides a limited set of possibilities, most of this happens within the realm of practical consciousness.

Bourdieu has been criticised for understating the extent to which people are reflexive today – i.e. it appears that people do increasingly reflect on themselves and their habitus and consciously seek to change what they are.

More to follow>>>

Related Posts 

Cultural Capital and Educational Achievement

The Apprentice Final Five and Class Inequality

The Apprentice – The Final Five demonstrates some of the subtle ways in which the class structure disadvantages those from working class backgrounds –


To focus on just one example, Frances was a straight A student who dropped out of the University of Durham because ‘it sounds ridiculous’ but she didn’t feel liked she fitted in.

Frances Bishop – eventually fired after the interview round

Here’s some class-based theorising about why she may’ve dropped out… of course it’s just theory, with any luck she’ll comment and say whether there’s any truth in it or not, can’t beat a bit of qualitative feedback after all…

From a broadly Marxist perspective, the 18 year old Frances’ naive lack of awareness of the class structure may have played a role in her dropping out – had she realised in advance that elite universities are are chock full of hot-housed middle class students then she might have been better prepared to endure three years of alienation and anomie.

Better days?

I imagine her first sense of dislocation came from her material disadvantage – it’s likely that many of her peers would be familiar with going for regular meals-out/ regular wardrobe changes/ maybe even ski-holidays, which someone from a poorer background (her step-dad was a truck driver) wouldn’t be familiar with – I’m sure Francis’ weekly budget was considerably lower than the average, and with no middle-class-daddy safety net to back her up, her days keeping up with the fillees were always going to be numbered.

Then you have to add to this her lack of cultural capital – Frances’ lack of knowledge of middle class values and tastes would further alienate her – I’m sure concepts such as weekend breaks , ponies, and ski holidays would be misnomers, for example, hardly grist for her conversational mill.

(UPDATE 30/12/16 – Frances did comment, and my speculation seems to have been ‘close to the mark’! What can I say – looks like social class barriers are a social fact!)


If only Frances had read some Bourdieu in advance of going to uni, she might not have expected to fit in at all,  and maybe this would’ve helped her to endure and get her degree – then again, maybe that would’ve left her worse off, she seems to have done alright for herself in the end, even if she doesn’t win Sugar’s cash.

Frances isn’t the only media celebrity to fall fowl of the evils of cultural capital – Mary Berry tried doing the same to Gregg Wallace as the Durham fillies did to Frances, but Gregg seemed to be more able to resist the affront.

I feel like I’m gradually collecting celebrity victims of cultural capital, maybe one day we’ll all find each other on the front line of the coming class war… it’d make for a good selfie.

Related Posts 

Lies, Damn Lies and The Apprentice – How we’re supposed to think The Apprentice works compared to how it actually works

The Myth of Meritocracy and The Structure of Luck – The later half of the post focuses on the role luck played in Alana’s (the eventual winner of The Apprentice 2016) eventual victory – the blonde one to the left in the above picture.


The Hidden Privileges of Identity: On Being Middle Class

A summary of Steph Lawler’s ‘Sociological Perspectives on Identity’, chapter 7

During summer 2000 and in January 2001, there were two separate community-protests over the housing of child-offenders in the local community, one in a working-class area, by working-class people, another in a middle class area, by middle-class people.

The first protest took place in a working class housing estate in Palsgrove, Portsmouth, in which local residents were demanding the removal men believed to be sex offenders already living in the area; the second protest took place in middle-class Balham, London, where locals were protesting against a proposition to build a residential centre for sex-offenders, including child sex-offenders.

Both received press coverage, but both the amount and the tone of the reporting differed.

The working-class protest received an enormous amount of coverage, and commentary, with the women involved presented in dismissive and disgusted terms and not a single broad sheet newspaper reported their protest as rational or understandable, preferring to cast the protesters as a mob of rioters. In addition, frequent reference was made to personal aspects of their lives – such as their appearance, how they furnished their homes, their relationship status, as well as details of their past relationships.

In contrast, the middle class mothers in Balham were almost entirely sympathetic – they were presented as ‘vigilant’ rather than vigilante, and identification was invited so they became part of an imagined ‘we’ uniting against the sex-offenders; there was minimal reference to their personal lives – other than details of their children’ ages and their jobs, which were all ‘solidly professional’.

The Paulsgrave women were vilified across three different axes:

  • Their bodily appearance
  • Their ignorance or lack of understanding
  • Their inadequacy as mothers

And through this vilification their protests were rendered ridiculous through assumptions of immorality, incompetence and ignorance.

Lawler now asks what can these representations tell us about identity? They tell us nothing about the subjectivities of the people involved – but they do tell us something about how class is conferred on people: there is a long tradition of representing the working class as a mob, against which middle-class individuality is asserted, but it is doubtful that anyone identifies subjectively as part of a mob, so mob-identity is conferred on the working classes rather than coming from them and/ or how they feel about themselves.

One of the subtlest ways this works is through the middle classes claiming to ‘know’ the working classes, thus claiming the right to identify them (when in reality, they don’t know them at all).

One of the ways class works is through marking identities as ‘wrong’ or ‘right’, pathological or healthy, normal or abnormal, and classed identities are part of the stakes in class politics – working class people don’t know the right things, they don’t value the right things, they don’t look right and they don’t act right, while the middle classes silently pass as normal.

This chapter looks at how middle class identities are normalised, and defined as ‘right’ against a working class identity which is defined (by the middle classes) as wrong. This is important for two reasons

1. We have traditionally understood class in economic terms, but increasingly cultural markers matter.

2. Class still matters as a source of identity but recently it has taken a back seat as academics have focused on other aspects of identity – such as sexuality.

‘What we read as objective class divisions are produced and maintained by the middle class in the minutiae of everyday practice, as judgements of culture are put into effect’ (Skeggs, 2004, 118).

The persistence of class

Class divisions and distinctions have not disappeared, class has not ceased to be a meaningful frame for analysis, instead it has become an absent presence – it circulates socially while being unnamed.

The drawing of class distinctions has become displaced onto individual persons and families who are approved or disapproved of.

As Bourdieu has demonstrated ‘taste’ is now one of the primary means through which class is configured – that which is tasteful is seen as middle class, and vice-versa for vulgar working class taste – the problem here is that there is nothing natural about taste – it is simply what the middle class say it is.

Expressions of disgust at working-class existence remain rife among middle class commentators and middle classness relies on the expulsion and exclusion of (what is held to be) working classness.

(Lawler thus adopts a relational approach to class and sees it as dynamic, rather than static categories dependent on economic position).

She effectively argues that the public bourgeoisie (mainly journalists and academics, and social commentators), those who are low in economic capital, but high in cultural capital, use their voices to express contempt for the working classes, and at the same time position their middle class selves against them.

Together this group, what Bourdieu refers to as the ‘dominated section of the dominant class’ construct a doxic understanding of class – they have a shared understanding of what working class and middle class means, and this is largely goes undiscussed.

This is ultimately all about power, about the middle classes trying to position themselves above the working classes by defining them as inferior along the axis of taste.

Having the knowledge

Lawler begins by quoting a definition of cultural capital form Johnson (1993)…

Cultural Capital refers to a specific form of knowledge which ‘equips the social agent with empathy towards, appreciation for or competence in deciphering cultural relations and cultural artefacts…. cultural capital is accumulated through a long process of acquisitions or inculcation which includes the pedagogical action of the family or group members (family, education), educated members of the social formation (diffuse, education) and social institutions (institutionalised education)’

For Bourdieu, it it is only the cultural capital of the middle classes which is legitimised and becomes symbolic capital – around which prestige and status are conferred – it is only middle class tastes, knowledges, and dispositions which are encoded as inherently ‘right’.

However, the fact that all of this is social in origin, and the fact that power is operating here is obscured, because

– part of this process of constructing middle-class ness (converting cultural capital into symbolic capital) involves using knowledge itself

– because the cultural capital is marked as ‘normal’ the fact that it is classed at all is obscured.

– the competencies and knowledges associated with the middle class are not generally seen as social mechanisms because they are believed to be part of the self, and thus class is not seen as an objective position but it becomes configured into ‘who we are’.

On this final point, Sennet and Cobb (1977) famously observed that class inflicts hidden injuries – in terms of the ridicule, shaming, silence and self-scrutiny which go along with a position of pathology.

What Lawler’s basically describing above, I believe, is the process of individualisation – the cultural capital dimension of class is social in origin and circulation, but part of that circulation involves sending out the message that these tastes are all down to the individual – thus if someone has ‘superior’ ‘middle class’ tastes they believe they have chosen this, and vice versa for those with vulgar working-class tastes – they are invited by the middle classes to feel a sense of shame about this and to blame themselves for their own inferiority.

Habitus and the subject

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus is central to his analysis of social identity and is his attempt to theorise the ways in which the social is incorporated into the self.

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus has been described as ‘second sense’, ‘practical sense’, or ‘second nature’ that equips people with ‘know-how’. Habitus refers to both physical and psychological aspects of the self – it is the way we stand, how we move, how we look and how we feel, and it is our dispositions, attitudes and tastes, so it is a concept which cuts across traditional mind-body splits, with much of its force deriving from non-conscious elements.

In short, the habitus is not only something someone has, it is learned in the mind-body, it is what one is.

The habitus has also been referred to as ‘socialised subjectivity’, or ’embodied history’, a result of ‘deep socialisation’. It is learned, but we have forgotten that it is learned and so as far as we are concerned what we do and who we are ‘just natural’.

What all of the above suggests is that ‘taste’ is not innate but learned through deep socialisation of the habitus, furthermore what gets to count as ‘tasteful’ is what the group with the power to name things as tasteful decide is tasteful.

Habitus is not determining, but generative. It is dynamic, so it does not reproduce itself perfectly.

Central to the concept of habitus is relationality – habitus only makes sense in the context of specific local contexts or ‘fields’ – a field is a network of objective relations between positions. Fields are the games for which the rules of the game equip us.

Habitus are also relational in another sense – they exist in relation to one another – they carry the traces, or the lines along which society is divided – class, gender, ethnicity, the whole lot.

Habitus are also hierarchical – some are normalised, some pathological and they clash, and part of the embodied sense of habitus is the judgement of other habitus – however, only some people have the power to make judgements stick.

What gives habitus its power is that it’s not about what you do, or how you act, but about who you are, and some people (the middle classes) have more ability to make judgements about legitimate taste stick than others.

Disgusting subjects: narratives of lack…

Savage et al (2001) found that people were frequently uncomfortable and evasive when talking about class as a system, but middle class people consistently characterise working class people in the most horrific terms. The working classes being talked about are rarely named in class terms, but it is clear who the targets are.

Lawler now gives an example of Les Back (2002) who, when giving a paper on white working class youth was asked by an academic member of the audience whether ‘he was going to do the voices’ – imagine the outrage if this had been asked in relation to a study on an ethnic minority group, yet there was no such outrage surrounding ‘parodying’ the working classes.

Back observes that not only do the working class not deserve to be taken seriously, it is also assumed that they are easy to read and know, although they are seen as unable to know themselves.

The working classes are probably most obviously marked out by their appearance – their clothes and general demeanour – in the UK references are made to shell suits, large gold earrings and tightly permed hair – such easy signfiers do a great deal to code class difference and it is left to the reader (or viewer) to fill in the gaps by understanding that such appearances are the result of pathology.

Some commentators also comment with awed horror on the environments where working class people live and are often surprised that ‘people live there’, forgetting that for working class people these environments are completely normal.

There is also a discourse which has coded such working class areas as high-crime areas, given legitimacy through crime-mapping software.

Landscape and inhabitants are frequently described in terms of lack, but it in these discussions it is not so much money they lack, but taste.

On top of criticising working class landscapes and dress, character traits are also part of the construction of the working classes – Lawler now summarises the ways in which the working classes are demonised –

‘As cigarette-smoking teenage mothers, rearing children in deprived and arid backgrounds of instability, emotional chaos, parental strife, of moral vacuum.. whose children will grow up as socially autistic adults with little expectations and even less talent.’

Above all, she says they are held to lack everything perceived as having value.

This discourse of lack defines social policy – which mainly focuses around tackling social exclusion where social class is concerned.

Lawler is very critical of such accounts – especially of Simon Charlseworth’s (2000) account of working class life as picture bleak and empty, devoid of meaning – we have to ask – is this about working class life, or about a way of looking at it?

Two sociologists who argue coherently against such narratives of lack are Beverly Skeggs and Angella McRobbie

And narratives of decline…

Where discussion of the working classes is concerned, narratives of lack are accompanied by narratives of decline.

The narrative of decline is the tale that the working class used to be respectable, but that the decline of heavy industry has lead to the working class either moving upward to become middle class, or behind, effectively no longer having any value.

The working classes are also seen as suffering from outdated political values, or cultural lag, while progress and reason are on the side of the government and the middle classes. The characterisation of the underlcass has done little to change this.

All of this is worse for working class women get a double negative-label – not only working class but also characterised as unfeminine – and those who try to be feminine are themselves disparaged for it.

The move from working class to underclass also has a gendered dimension.

Representations of the working classes of the past emphasise masculinity – and radicalised, politicised male workers at least having respectability.

However, representations of the new underclass are feminised – with the teenage mother being the symbol of spite – hence we have a gendering of the ‘lower’ classes, all fundamentally tied into middle class attempts to empower themselves don’t forget.

We get the impression from current representations that the wc used to be OK but now they are a problem.

Savage argues that this is not the case – only a few wc members manage to claim the noble WC identity referred to above – the middle class have always seen an attempted to portray the WC as something problematic.

All that has changed is that today we don’t talk explicitly about ‘class’; instead the ‘disgusting’ traits are presented as the outcome of individual and familial pathology… representations of working class people are marked by disapproval or disdain not for the ‘objective’ markers of their position, but for (what are perceived to be) their identities. Their clothes, their bodies, their localities are all seen as tasteless, and faulty.

Lawler now notes that exactly how disgust comes to operate through class is relatively underexplored, but it is so important because it is an emotion which is literally experience in the body, so is very much part of us, but it is also social, because it needs collective affirmation – disgust is thus very much where the personal meets the social.

Lawler now reminds us that disgust does not arise because of something intrinsic within the object, but out of a relation between the disgusted and the ‘disgusting’ object.

Disgust is also bound up with identity – it works to push away others and establish one’s own identity as non-disgusting.

At the end of the day disgust is the opposite of taste, and the two are flexible – forever changing – what is tasteful today may not be so tomorrow – consider the way the middle classes adapt in the face of popularisation through mass consumption. This change however only serves to highlight the fragility of these classes boundaries via good taste and disgust – one is always aware that one can become the other, and hence the crucial importance of working on maintaining boundaries.

Concluding remarks

Basically a reminder that there lies an anxiety at the heart of all identities.

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