Class is under your skin
Mike SAVAGE. Social Class in the 21st Century. London: Penguin, 2015
The research project from which the book Social Class in the 21st Century emerged, was a rare collaboration between the BBC and a group of UK sociologists led by Mike Savage. The BBC participated in the gathering of data through a web survey in which some 160,000 people participated. In 2013, the findings of this study, aptly called the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), were presented by the BBC in several ways, one of them being the online class calculator through which people could find out, by filling out a few questions, to which of the ‘new’ classes they belonged. Within a few weeks, seven million people took the test. Issues regarding the sampling bias of the GBCS aside (this was corrected in a second, smaller study also including in-depth interviews), class was put once more at the center of attention in the UK.
So what is the point in constructing a new class typology? Is anything wrong with the existing National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification or the equally famous EGP scheme, both based on the work of Oxford sociologist John Goldthorpe? This is in fact the topic of an ongoing dispute in British sociology that revolves around different understandings of the extent to which culture should be incorporated into the notion of class itself.
Savage and his colleagues observe what they call a new snobbery based on taste and being ‘knowing’ and argue that such instances of what Pierre Bourdieu called ‘cultural capital’ are insufficiently accounted for when classes are conceptualized as ‘bundles of occupations’. The authors want class to be more than an indication of economic differentiation and also acknowledge that not all economic inequalities are about class. They contend that classes are ‘fundamentally associated with the stored historical baggage and accumulation of advantages over time’, which is nicely illustrated with the example of a person who wins a lottery and becomes wealthy overnight but will not immediately belong to a different class.
The impossibility to change classes overnight is due to the fact that class is not just about economic inequality, but also about culture and social networks. Class positions reflect processes by which resources are unevenly accumulated into a ‘baggage of history’ which strongly affects people’s opportunities in life. Cultural capital is passed on from generation to generation and offers symbolic power to those who possess it. It can be converted into economic or social capital and this process does not stop in postmodern times where cultural hierarchies are increasingly contested.
Although critics wonder if this broader conception of class, including cultural and social capital, does not conflate the class concept by mixing up different causes and consequences of inequality, the scope provided by this approach makes the book a fascinating read on a broad range of class-related issues such as social networks, social mobility, wealth versus income, old versus new money, identity, place of residence, the role of universities in elite formation, etc.
By stressing the relevance of cultural capital for understanding inequality between classes, the authors must of course look at taste. Cultural tastes differ in their perceived legitimacy and legitimate taste provides one with cultural capital that is likely to generate further resources and social advantages. But things are becoming increasingly blurry here, with old distinctions (e.g., highbrow – lowbrow) becoming less meaningful and others perhaps more so. Nevertheless, people still talk about good taste and one of the main differences may be that those with more cultural and economic capital do so with more confidence and ease as they believe their taste to be legitimate.
Highbrow culture, however, still distinguishes between people but it seems to be linked up with (old) age as much as with class. Younger upper-middle class people are more likely to be involved in what the authors call ‘emerging’ cultural capital, emphasizing flexibility and a commitment to hip and current forms of culture such as exotic cuisine, indie music or contemporary art. Yet even here, popular culture preferences are extensively accounted for by making clear why specific movies or musicians are way more interesting than most (other) popular cultural products, allowing people to demonstrate their skill is discerning quality even in unlikely cultural fields. What brings distinction more than anything here is a certain detached, knowing, at times ironic style of appreciation rather than the object of appreciation itself. This may be why class differences in cultural lifestyles may seem less visible today; they have changed shape and are perhaps more at work in how one appreciates culture than in what one appreciates. Thus, there can be snobbery in irony, making distinctions ever more subtle but not less powerful.
Once economic, cultural, and social capital have been discussed in separate chapters, the new class ‘landscape’ that is based on the interplay between these three types of capital is presented. Again following Bourdieu, it is argued that economic, social and cultural capital are linked by means of mutual reinforcing processes, although not perfectly so. Successful soccer players are rich in economic capital and intellectuals are rich in cultural capital, but not vice versa. Given such differentiations in total capital composition, it is obvious that no one-dimensional class ordering (e.g., upper, middle, working class) will suffice.
Combining information on income, savings and house value, highbrow and emerging cultural capital, and the number and status of people’s social ties, seven classes are distinguished that cannot be ordered entirely hierarchically. They are labelled 1] the elite; 2] established middle class; 3] technical middle class; 4] new affluent workers; 5] traditional working class; 6] emerging service workers; and 7] precariat. While the elite and the precariat (precarious proletariat) stand out on all indicators, the other five show more mixed profiles.
The new affluent workers and the technical middle class have high levels of economic capital relative to their cultural (affluent workers) or social (technical middle class) capital. The emerging service workers, on the other hand, have extensive cultural and social capital but little economic capital. With the established middle class and the traditional working class, the profiles are more balanced.
Thus, the classes differ in interesting ways from the more traditional middle- and working class, which also indicates a shift in class relations seeing that the elite and the traditional working class have the highest average age while the new affluent workers and the emerging service workers are relatively young, with relations to culture that are different from those of their ‘predecessors’. This will affect notions of class identity and antagonism in ways that are still not entirely clear.
Near the end, the book focuses on the two extreme classes. The contemporary elite are little like the old aristocracy. They are focused on achievement and are not closed nor internally homogeneous even if chances of joining it still depend in part on one’s family (class) background. The precariat are aware of the negative discourse directed to them by those ‘above’ struggling with the ‘ambivalences and complexities of class identities today’. Perhaps, as the book argues, ‘it matters more which class you do not belong to, rather than which one you think you do belong to’. Class and snobbism are not phenomena from the past; they just went underground to work in ever more subtle ways.