To what extent do people of different social class backgrounds identify with their objective social class position and feel as if they share anything in common with people of the same class?
According to the Great British Class Survey (GBCS) there are seven objective social classes in Britain today, based on the amount of mainly economic but also cultural and social capital people have, which crucially has accumulated over time and is passed down the generations.
An individual’s objective class position impacts their life-chances but while most people can recognise the existence of social class and may recognise the class they are, most people today DO NOT consciously identify with that class position: they are more likely to be ambivalent about their own social class, and are unlikely to feel any sense of shared identity with those from the same objective class background.
This is especially true for those in the middle of the social class scale: there is widespread uncertainty around working and middle class identities, but the Elite class are more likely to see themselves as ‘elite’ and the precariat more likely to recognise that they have been labelled as such by wider society, but seek to distance themselves from that label.
Only 32% identify with a social class and the proportion rises the higher up the social class ladder you go, which is a sort of inversion of class consciousness.
- 50% of the elite identify as elite.
- 25% of the precariat identify as working class.
Of those who do did identify:
- 25% of people identify as upper middle class
- 41% identify as Middle Working Class
- 62% identify as Working Class.
So people shy away from identifying as middle class: People are most likely to identify as being ‘somewhere in the middle’ irrespective of where they fall in the objective class structure.
This post with take a brief look at the history of social class identification in Britain before exploring social class identities in contemporary British society, looking at ‘elite’ identity, working and middle class identities, and the Pecariat.
A Brief History of Class identification in Britain
Historians have shown that class awareness has a long history in Britain. Compared to other nations it is the persistence of working class identities that stands out.
In Britain the early onset of capitalist agriculture in the sixteenth century produced a large group of wage-earning farmers who also moved into part-time handicrafts to supplement their incomes.
Thus even before the industrial revolution there were a lot of independent skilled and unskilled trades people in Britain, and this cross fertilised with the socialist and labour movements in the 19th century, producing a strong shared identity.
In contrast to this was the British upper class which was not shattered through revolution as was the case in France. The British upper classes pursed a form of ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ which was embedded in industrialism and colonialism and they prospered through innovation and free-trade enterprise.
The expanding middle class of businessmen, managers and white collar workers existed in an uncertain position in the middle of the aloof upper classes and proud working classes, and they were in a sort of mediating position between the two.
The franchise being extended in 1832, 1867 and 1885 to gradually incorporate more of the middle classes did something to distinguish the middle classes from the working classes who still could not vote.
Gradually throughout the 19th century the middle classes engaged in conspicuous consumption to differentiate themselves from the working classes below them, but their position remained somewhat uncertain and insecure.
During the 19th century the class position of women was even more ambiguous than that of men. Women’s occupations consisted of mainly domestic work (such as cleaning) for upper-middle class and upper class families, nursing and teaching. They thus occupied either working class positions in closer contact with higher classes compared to men, or lower-middle class positions which didn’t command the same status as men.
For much of the 20th century there was a preoccupation with who was working class and who was middle class, further fuelled by the changing nature of work during that period.
The work of George Orwell is a good indication of the fascination and complexities surrounding understanding class in the early 20th century.
Elite class identity
Britain’s ordinary class elite is the top 6% of society who have the highest levels of economic, cultural and social capital. They are most likely to own their own homes (a crucial source of wealth) and be in high income professional occupations such as law, finance and journalism.
Britain’s ordinary class elite are most likely to positively identify as ‘elite’, although they also tend to ‘play down’ how important their enormous amounts of economic, social and cultural capital have been in providing them with better life chances, preferring to delude themselves that their success is purely down to their hard work and talent.
While Britain’s ordinary class elite makes up only 6% of the population, they made up 25% of the British Class Survey sample. They were queuing up to do this in droves, and Savage (2015) suggests this is because the survey was a self-legitimating activity for them: it was a chance to get quantitative/ scientific/ objective confirmation that they were at the top of British society.
And this class were the most likely to share their class status to social media, suggesting again positive identification with and a sense of pride in their social class status. However, they usually did this with a sense of irony or humour, in an attempt to distract from the bragging aspect.
The elite don’t really identify with everyone from the same class: they tend to identify more with people in similar occupations and in their local neighbourhoods: so those with similar value properties, they also tended to stress that they had some friends outside of the elite too to demonstrate that they weren’t living in an isolated social class bubble.
It is very important to recognise that NOT actively recognising that their elite status is important is the primary means whereby this class maintain their dominance. They benefit from high levels of cultural, economic and social capital, but in playing down the existence of these advantages, they help to keep such advantages hidden, but the GBCS revealed just how obvious such advantages were in keeping this class and their children at the top of British society.
Working and Middle Class Identities
The traditional view of class is that people would identify with their objective class position. This was the view of THOMPSON: the working classes would unite in tight knit working class communities and come together around collective political campaigns for labour interests. However, in the 21st century there is a more muted, individualised and complex set of class identifications.
The GBSC found that people were ambivalent about class, preferring to say that they straddle middle class and working class boundaries.
Class is not important as a badge for most people, but its mention does prompt emotional reactions, especially negative ones. People wanted to avoid the labels of CHAV or as someone who has ‘middle class problems’.
People also felt a sense of shame if they were from a lower social class background but had not climbed the class ladder.
People shy away from identifying as middle class. They were most likely to identify as being ‘somewhere in the middle’ irrespective of where they fall in the objective class structure.
Identity among the Precariat
The Precariat were well aware of the negative labels attached to them by the mainstream media and the widespread dislike of them by many in mainstream society.
They were the most reluctant to take part in the GBSC, probably because they had little to gain from doing it: they didn’t want to take part in what was effectively ritual humiliation the end result of which was receiving a formal label which placed them at the bottom of the social class scale.
In terms of identity, the Precariat didn’t positively identify as Precariat, and had no interest in shouting about their low social status (unlike many members of the elite) and they were reluctant to even talk about social class, preferring instead to identify in other ways, such as with other members of their local community or through using other markers such as gender.
Savage, M (2015) Social Class in the Twenty First Century.