The issue of why there are inequalities by ethnicity in the UK is a topic which runs all the way through the A level sociology syllabus. This post simply presents some sources which provide information on the extent of inequality in life chances by ethnicity in contemporary Britain.
As it stands, in 2017 it seems that:
ethnic minorities are less likely to be offered places at Britain’s top universities
ethnic minorities have higher rates of unemployment
ethnic minorities are more likely to be arrested, charged, prosecuted and imprisoned.
Ethnic minorities are less likely to be offered places at Britain’s top universities
Russel Group universities are less likely to provide ethnic minorities with offers of a place, even when grades and ‘facilitating subjects’ have been controlled for.
NB – It’s worth mentioning that the Russel Group universities, and Oxford University explain this away by saying that ethnic minority students are more likely to apply for more demanding courses for which they don’t necessarily have the grades, hence their higher rejection rate.
In January – March 2017 the unemployment rate was 4.1% for white people compared to 7.9% for people from a BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) background.
There are significant variations by both specific ethnic and group and age: for example, Bangladeshi and Pakistani Britons have the highest unemployment rates relative to other ethnicity in all ages.
This difference is at least partially explained by the relatively high levels of unemployment among Pakistani and Bangladeshi females, which is significantly higher than male unemployment, a trend on found in these two ethnic groups.
Ethnic minorities are more likely to be charged for comparable offences
According to a recent study headed by David Lammy MP, ethnic minorities are more likely than white people to be arrested by the police, to be prosecuted by the CPS, and to be sentenced and jailed by judges and juries.
‘Disproportional outcomes were particularly noticeable in certain categories of offences. For every 100 white women handed custodial sentences at crown courts for drug offences, the report found, 227 black women were sentenced to custody. For black men, the figure is 141 for every 100 white men.’
NB – It’s particularly interesting to note the disparities in sentencing for black women, suggesting a truly massive ‘intersectionality effect’
This is just a brief ‘update post’ providing links to some recent statistical evidence on ethnic inequalities across a range of topics in A-level sociology.
You should always question the VALIDITY of these statistics – the drug offences stats, for example, do not tell us the severity of offence. It may just be that all of those black women were caught smuggling drugs whereas white women are more likely to be caught ‘merely’ dealing them… not inconceivable!
Also, even if you accept that the stats have at least some validity, you’ll need to dig even deeper to deeper to find out why these inequalities in life chances by ethnicity still exist!
Does society shape the individual? Do class, gender, ethnicity influence our life chances? How and why do societies change?
One way of introducing sociology is to introduce some of the ‘big questions’ that sociologists asks. These questions get students thinking sociologically before they even start studying sociology!
Big Sociology Questions
To what extent is the individual shaped by society?
Is there such a thing as a social structure that constrains individual action, or is society nothing more than a figment of our imaginations?
To what extent does our social class background affect our life chances?
To what extent does our gender affect our life chances?
To what extent does our ethnicity affect our life chances?
What is the role of institutions in society – do they perform positive functions, or simply work in the interests of the powerful and against the powerless? (a related question here is why do our life chances vary by class, gender and ethnicity)
How and why has British society changed over the last 50 years?
What are the strengths and Limitations of macro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
What are the strengths and limitations of micro-scale research in helping us to understand human action?
Is it possible to do value free social research and find out the ‘objective’ knowledge about society and the motives that lie behind social action?
Is British Society today better than it was 400 years ago?
OK there are 11 questions in fairness, but top ten makes for a more classic title!
Getting Students thinking about Social Theory
The questions above get students thinking critically about social theory, social inequalities, research methods, social change and social progress.
Questions one to six introduce students to the main sociological theories: Functionalism, Marxism, Interactionism and Feminism, and to the basic stratifications in society: class, gender and ethnicity.
Depending on how they answer (even before they start studying sociology) you can explain to them either ‘this is what Functionalists think’ you clearly disagree and get them involved in some early days critical dialogue.
The later questions move on to social change and progress (questions 7 and 11) and this brings up the topic of postmodernism.
Finally there are some questions on research methods – and yes, these are a little dry, but I think it’s good to be up front about the centrality of social research in sociology!
When to ask these questions…?
I used to use these at Open Evening events for prospective A-level sociology students.
Typically at these events there’d be too many students for staff so these questions (among other things) could be something for them to ponder while waiting to chat with a staff member – and then you’ve got something to ask them about when you have a discussion.
You can basically use the questions to introduce the main themes of sociology.
And of course you can return to these questions at the end of the course too, to see what students think about them after almost two years of studying!
Hopefully their responses would be more critical and nuanced than two years earlier!
These questions run all the way through the AS and A-level sociology AQA specification – the idea of sociology is to develop a position on each of these questions, using a range of research-evidence, and be able to critically evaluate the validity etc. of the research evidence you have used to support your ‘position.
I use these questions at the end of the very first lesson of my Introduction to Sociology, and return to them frequently during the two years of study. They’re quite a good place to start and end!
From lower educational attainment to poor mental health, poverty negatively affects life chances in several ways.
Being in poverty has a negative effect on an individual’s life chances. Being poor means you are more likely to…
struggle to pay the bills and be financially vulnerable.
have to rent rather than buying your own house, which is correlated with poverty.
have to rely on Free School Meals for your children, which is correlated with lower educational achievement.
suffer poor health throughout your life and lower life expectancy.
suffer mental health problems throughout your life.
end up getting stuck in a debt-cycle, where you pay more to service the debt.
This post explores some of the statistical evidence on the relationship between poverty and life chances, looking at a range of evidence collected by the office for national statistics and other agencies such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The point of this post is simply to provide an overview of the statistics, and offer a critique of the limitations of these statistics. I’ll also provide some links to useful sources which students can then use to explore the data further.
What is Poverty?
There are different definitions and measurements of poverty, but one of the most widely used in the UK is relative poverty after housing costs (AHC). If household income is below 60% of the median household’s income, adjusted for family size and composition, they are in relative poverty.
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation uses this measure along with two other thresholds, tracking relative poverty using a total of three poverty thresholds.
Poverty threshold: 60% of median income
Deep poverty threshold: 50% of median income
Very deep poverty threshold: 40% of median income.
Relative poverty thresholds for 2020/2021
These are adjusted for household composition to reflect the different costs of living alone, compared to living in a couple, and with children.
Weekly median income 2020/2021
Poverty threshold (60% of median)
Deep poverty threshold (50% of median)
Very deep poverty threshold (40% of median)
Single adult, no children
Couple two children
Lone parent, two children*
Couple two children*
*Assumes one child is aged under 14 and one 14 years or older.
According to this measurement there were 13.5 million people, or 20% of the U.K. population living in low-income households in 2020 /21.
Life chances are your chances of achieving positive outcomes and avoiding negative outcomes throughout the course of your life – such as succeeding in education, being happy, or avoiding divorce, poor health and an early death.
Five ways poverty affects life chances
Poverty negatively affects people’s life chances. Being poor means…
You struggle to pay the bills (having to choose between heating or eating).
You have to pay rent rather than owning your own home.
You’re kids are more likely to fail their GCSEs.
You were more likely to die from Covid.
You’re more likely to suffer from poor mental health.
Poverty means you can’t pay the bills
Those earning lower incomes are more likely to struggle to pay their bills and suffer from other forms of financial vulnerability.
Someone earning £10 000 a year is twice as likely to report not being able to save or struggling to pay the energy bills compared to someone earning £50 000 a year, and four times more likely to report not being able to afford unexpected expenses.
56% of adults earning less than £10 000 a year reported that they found it difficult to afford energy bills compared to only 26% of adults earning more than £50 000 a year.
38% said they were unable to afford hidden expenses compared to 10% of the richest quintile.
What is social class? Outlining the Registrar General’s Scale, and the New British Class Survey.
Social Class refers to divisions in society based on economic and social status. People in the same social class typically share a similar level of wealth, educational achievement, type of job and income.
Social Class is one of the most important concepts within AS and A Level Sociology because of the relationship between social class background and life chances (or lack of them) and the debate over the extent to which social class background determines an individual’s life chances.
The concept of social class is certainly relevant today – according to the latest 2022 data from YouGov 68% of young people think that their life chances are ‘broadly determined’ by their parents socioeconomic backgrounds…
Many people in the United Kingdom have an idea of what social class is, but Sociologists define the concept in more precise terms.
Below I look at ‘common conceptions’ of social class before moving on to look at two ways of measuring social class – The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and The New British Class Survey
Common Conceptions of Social Class
The classic formulation of social class in Britain is to see Britain as being divided into three classes: working, middle and upper class. Social Class, is however, open to change, and most agree that the last two decades have seen the emergence of an underclass, with little prospect of full time employment. These four terms are in common usage and we have to start somewhere, so here are some starting definitions which you should aim to move beyond.
Definition/ Defining Features
Those individuals engaged in manual work, often having low levels of educational achievement. The classic, traditional working class jobs include heavy labouring and factory based work.
Those individuals engaged in non-manual work, often having higher levels of educational achievement. Classic middle class jobs include everything from doctors and lawyers to clerical workers.
The elite class that controls the majority of wealth and power in British society.
According to the UK government’s 2021 Social Mobility Barometer 48% of respondents defined themselves as working class, 36% as middle class and 0% as upper class. 79% of people said they felt there was a large gap between social classes today.
This means that 84% of respondents were prepared to identify themselves with a particular social class background, which suggests that these broad ‘class divisions’ have meaning for people.
The disadvantages of common conceptions of social class is that they lack clarity – although most of us have heard of social class and have some idea of what it means to be a member of a social class, exactly what constitutes middle or working class, for example, is subjective and varies from person to person.
This is precisely why socologists have striven to develop more objective classifications of social class – and below I look at two of these – The registrar General’s Social Class Scale and the New British Class Survey
The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale (1911)
Sociologists use more nuanced categories of social class, than the common sense conceptions above. The way in which sociologists group people into social classes has changed considerably over time, mainly because of the changing occupational structure. To illustrate this just two examples are provided below.
For most of the 20th Century social class was measured using the Registrar General’s Scale. When this was originally conceived in 1911 it was based on the alleged standing in the community of the different occupational groups.
Occupations were divided into the following:
Manual occupations – those that involve a fair amount of physical effort. These are also known as blue collar occupations and are seen as working class.
Non-manual occupations – those that involve more mental effort, such as professions and office work. These are also known as white collar occupations and are seen as middle class.
Registrar General’s Scale: 1911-Present Day
Examples of occupation
I Professional and managerial
III Non-manual – skilled occupations
Police officer, sales representative
III Manual – skilled occupations
Electrician, bus driver
IV Semi-skilled manual
Farm worker, postman/woman
V Unskilled manual
Strengths and Limitations of the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale
The problems with the above scale is that the occupational structure in the UK has moved on – there are many more unskilled non manual jobs – in call-centres for example, and there is no room for the long-term or intermittently unemployed in the above scale either.
However, even today the majority of occupations fit pretty unambiguously into one of the categories, and six categories broadly organised along educational achievement and income is very easy to manage if we wish to make comparisons, and if we stick to these six simple categories, there does appear to be a historical relationship between these social class groupings and life chances – especially where life expectancy is concerned.
The New British Class Survey
The New British Class Survey was an attempt to update the Registrar General’s Social Class Scale and make it more relevant to contemporary Britain.
The survey was conducted by the BBC in 2011, in conjunction with The London School of Economics, recently conducted an online survey of 161 000 people. The survey measured three aspects of social class – economic capital, cultural capital and social capital.
Economic Capital – Measured by a combination of household income, household savings and the value of house owned.
Cultural Capital – The level of engagement in ‘highbrow’ and ’emerging’ culture. The amount of ‘Highbrow’ culture people consumed was measured by scoring how engaged they were with classical music, attending stately homes and so on. How much ’emerging’ cultural capital people owned was measured by scoring engagement with video games, a preference for hip-hop etc.
Social Capital – Measured using the average status or importance of people’s social contacts and the number of occupations people said they knew.
According to this survey, there are now 7 new classes in the United Kingdom…..
Elite (6% of the population) – The most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.
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.
Technical Middle Class (6%) – A new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
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.
Emergent Service Workers (15%) This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ‘emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.
Traditional Working Class (19%) – This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
Precariat (15%) – The most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.
Strengths and Limitations of the New British Class Survey
This seems to be a clear improvement on previous class scales – it seems to describe social class divisions as they actually are in the UK (you might say it’s a more valid measurement of social class) – and the inclusion of ‘lowest’ class – the precariat reflects the important fact that many people are in low-paid work are in poverty because of the precarious nature of their flexible and/ or part-time employment. It also includes more indicators (or aspects of class) and reflects the importance of property ownership which only typically comes with age.
However, because it includes more aspects of class and because it is more subjective, it is simply harder to ‘get your head around’ – the divisions aren’t as clear cut, and it’s more difficult to make comparisons – of which there are few available because this is such a new measurement. Still, these aren’t necessarily weaknesses if that’s the way social class really does manifest itself in reality in contemporary Britain.
Research Task –Use this link to do the survey and find out more about your class background (you could either enter your parents‘ details, if you know them, or think about where you think you will be in 5-10 years time and enter those details.
Discussion Question: To what extent do you believe someone’s social class background affects their life chances in Modern Britain today?