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  • Writer's pictureSam W. Govan

Social Class That Gets Lost in Translation

Sam W. Govan

It is common for people to downplay how circumstances out of their control have provided them with advantages over others. Problems arise, however, when they perceive themselves as being on equal footing with those who have fewer social advantages.

Britain’s conception of class has since the Victorian era been divided into three umbrella groups: working class – which is associated with those engaging in industrial and manual labor jobs, middle class – which is largely categorized as inhabiting higher-skilled specialist jobs and being more likely to pursue further education and upper class – which is understood as the elite who inhabit the highest status roles and prestigious institutions, earn the most money and wield the most power. These three groups are at first glance clearly defined and simple. But why, according to the latest British Social Attitudes survey do almost half of Britons holding middle-class professional and managerial positions identify as working class? Why did 60% of a representative sample of 1000 Britons consider themselves working class on the strength of their family background, as opposed to their occupation or whether they went to university? Why are people identifying as working class when on paper they meet sufficient criteria to classify as middle class, such as university education, professional expertise, and income consistent with middle-class professionals?

Harm is caused when people underestimate the advantages they have over others in society. When two or more distinct groups with varying levels of social mobility are conflated into “the working class”, individuals with fewer social advantages can be unfairly held to standards of those with a more advantageous position. A reframing of the way class is necessary in order to foster realistic expectations of what people can achieve based on their personal circumstances.

The Danger of Reductionism

The reason why so many Britons identified as working class is due to the oversimplification of the class structure in the UK. The model of working/middle/upper is too open to interpretation, and allows people who enjoy the advantages of what many consider “middle class” to claim they belong to the “working class”; there is a pervasive stereotype and meme of what a British “middle class” person’s life involves, which understandably deters many from identifying as such for fear of being labeled a snob.

The three-class models have since 2013 been shown to be outdated: the Great British Class Survey, a comprehensive survey conducted by the BBC, identified not three but seven distinct class groups. Published in 2013, the survey analyzed a representative sample of 350,000 British adults and was built on work by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu identified three forms of capital that individuals could possess: cultural capital, social capital, and economic capital. These capitals are what comprise a person’s class; different ratios of these capitals constrain and facilitate individual agency – the amount of control an individual has over their circumstances. Cultural capital is the level of understanding and involvement a person has in art, history, language, and culture. Economic capital refers to financial assets, including both inheritance and earned capital. Social capital refers to the connections and networks a person has, extending therefore to their influence and reach over others.

The Great British Class Survey sought to expand these three models into seven distinct groups, each with its own unique ratios of capitals. As the first group, the Elite occupy such roles as CEOs and Judges, hold high cultural social and economic capital, are often graduates of prestigious universities and are often from families who also shared this elite status. The second group, the established middle class, are characterized by such professions as electrical engineers and occupational therapists and enjoys relatively high capital in all three categories. Thirdly, the technical middle class is represented by roles including research scientists and medical radiographers, enjoy high economic capital but low social and moderate cultural capital, and is often graduates of universities such as UCL and University of Warwick.

A fourth group, New affluent workers, hold moderate economic and cultural capital but low social capital, inhabiting roles such as electricians and plumbers, and graduates among them hold degrees from universities such as University of West England. The traditional working class are the fifth group; they hold relatively low capital of all types, inhabit roles such as van drivers and care workers, with those seeking higher education doing so part-time or in Open University. Sixthly, the emergent service sector holds low economic capital but moderate social and high emerging cultural capital, filling jobs such as chefs, bar staff and nursing assistants; graduates among them are from places like SOAS and Birkbeck. Finally, the precariat holds the lowest scores of all three capitals, inhabit positions such as caretakers and cleaners, and few have attended university.

Clearly, this is a lot more complicated than the previous model of three groups placed on a linear scale of diminishing capital; these seven classes are not simply on a sliding scale of slowly reducing capital but rather varying levels that each constrains and promotes their agency in a myriad of ways.

In light of these seven groups, a simplified three-class framework is automatically harmful to those at the bottom end of the scale. Reductionism invites several distinct groups to be conflated together, with important variations of intergroup capital being lost in translation. These distinct categories exist for a reason, distinguishing groups using a comprehensive framework of how their varying levels of capital shape the extent to which they have agency over their lives. Oversimplification invites a (nonetheless) hardworking person in the “new affluent worker class” to believe themselves of superior work ethic to an equally hardworking person in the “traditional working class”, by blurring distinctions and seeing themselves as on exactly equal footing.

To obfuscate differences between class groups can lead to false senses of superiority in some and for others can lead to believing negative assumptions about your own work ethic. For the simplest example, you need only look at the difference between those with the ability to pursue university education and those without: those belonging to classes with higher levels of capital across the board (such as Established Middle and New Affluent Workers) are more likely to perceive university education as worthwhile and are therefore more likely to pursue it, leading to a greater proportion of those groups holding degrees and graduate jobs. The opinion of one’s class of higher education should not be ignored, and groups with differing attitudes and priorities such as the Traditional Working Class or the Precariat should not be looked down on for not meeting the expectations of others with entirely different perspectives.

Embracing The Complexity of The Updated Class System

To promote a better understanding of how these factors manifest themselves, a more holistic class framework such as the Great British Class Survey should be given a larger presence in public consciousness and dialogue; one way this could be promoted would be through teaching primary and secondary age students about the findings of the Great British Class Survey, to introduce the complexities of class at an earlier age. Furthermore, news outlets could give the updated class framework more public attention by avoiding blanket terms such as working/middle/upper class and talking instead about the more specific groups identified in the survey. It is worth exploring whether, if the term “middle-class” could be demystified and deconstructed into more specific terms, more people would be comfortable identifying as such without feeling a need to perform or protest their right to identify as “working-class”. If society gains a deeper understanding of how the three capitals inform our choices, we will be more likely to acknowledge that groups such as the “traditionally working-class” and the “emergent service sector” should be each understood in their own contexts, not compared against one another.

In our personal lives, we can embrace our updated class terms rather than trying to justify belonging to another one. For example, a university graduate with a state-schooled background working a heavily blue-collar job while maintaining moderate cultural capital would understandably feel ill-suited to the umbrella of the middle-class but feel uneasy about purporting to be working-class. However, this person would likely embrace terms such as “new affluent worker” or “emergent service sector worker”, two classes that hold moderate cultural and social capital such as university education and specialized professional employment but do not enjoy the same financial stability and established social connections of groups such as the “established” or “technical middle-class”.

It is important for everyone to acknowledge how their environment and class determine how much agency they have, and to admit that circumstances might have worked in their favor in ways that weren’t present for someone else. If groups such as “New Affluent workers” are able to embrace their position as such rather than considering themselves to belong to the “Traditional Working-Class”, the achievements of traditional working-class individuals will not be unfairly compared to those with relative social advantages.

Lower amounts of all three capitals make individuals more susceptible to work precarity, as the avenues of work that are open to them are constrained by the limits of these capitals. Understanding class in terms of capital provides an optimistic framing of social mobility, as it identifies which groups are most lacking in capital while providing guidelines for how this can be rectified by the provision of professional training opportunities, apprenticeships, and formal education.

Understanding class as a malleable state that can be altered by access to opportunities for growth provides a middle ground between right- and left-wing values; acknowledging how societal circumstances constrain individual agency while providing individuals with tangible options for changing their circumstances themselves without infantilizing or patronizing them, presents a viable means of reducing inequality somewhat.


Sam W. Govan is a Social Anthropology Graduate from the University of Kent


This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 02 — June 2022


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