Measuring Social Class in the UK: Bourdieusian approaches

By: British correspondent
The work of Pierre Bourdieu in the UK has been highly influential over the last twenty years, and has been highly regarded by many academics including Mike Savage, Bev Skeggs and Diane Reay as a seminal body of work in understanding and unravelling the complexity of the British Class System. The British Class System for many non-British citizens has always been a system of unfathomable complexity, duplicity, and wonder. However class in Britain is a definite lived experience, that all understand but may not be able to articulate because of its hidden nature, and because of the injuries that the British class system inflicts upon British society. Over the last 30 years class studies have been on the decline in the UK, and social class has become less important in Sociology. However through the use of Pierre Bourdieu’s understanding as class as both economically and culturally important in processes of power and domination, British Sociologists are winning the argument that Class really matters. In this context lie the scientific and political interests of the event "Measuring social class: Bourdieusian approaches”, that the BSA Bourdieu Study Group has organized in conjunction with the Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy (CASP) at the University of Bath on the 15 November 2013. Speakers included Mike Savage (London School of Economics and Political Science) and Will Atkinson (University of Bristol). The presentations of Mike Savage and Will Atkinson on their respective approaches to seize the multi-dimensional space of differences were followed by extensive discussions on the possibilities of using the conceptual tools provided by the work of Pierre Bourdieu to improving the understanding of the British social system.

Mike Savage discussed the ideas behind the BBC’s Great British Class Survey and reported on recent analyses conducted since the release of the Sociology paper in April 2013. He began by placing this intervention within a longer context of ‘the field analysis of class analysis’ so that the current stakes in its development could more clearly be identified. He noted that over the last thirty years, as class analysis has been seen as dated and old fashioned across the social sciences , so its main defenders – the ‘Nuffield’ paradigm or what Crompton identifies as ‘the employment aggregate approach’ - have succeeded in gaining considerable institutional legitimacy for the measurement of class as a product of occupation and employment. Mike argued that until the past few years there was a stand-off between predominantly quantitative research on large scale national surveys pursued by this group, and the growing interest in Bourdieusian perspectives which tended towards qualitative, historical and theoretical analyses.

Over the past five years, however, this stand-off has ended as Bourdieusian researchers have become more interested in using quantitative analyses, often using Bourdieu’s preferred multiple correspondence methods. This has generated increasing dispute, and it is this which fed into the intense and often critical reception of the GBCS. Mike recapped on the main arguments in the 2013 paper in Sociology. He discussed the seven classes which had been generated by the latent class analysis of the small national GfK survey and reflected on how these classes should be seen as the product of underlying capitals. Recognising the challenge posed by the extent of the skew on the web survey, he nonetheless argued that this skew was itself interesting in that it indicates the kind of people who feel motivated to do a 20 minute ‘experiment’ on social class. The geography of such people (strongly oriented towards London and the Home Counties) and towards the well-educated tells a story that it is the advantaged members of society who are more interested in talking about class. Mike also examined how the BBC’s class calculator had been caught up in a politics of satire and ironic pastiche on classifications which itself testified to what the research team had identified as ‘emerging cultural capital’ in their original paper. The recursiveness of the GBCS project – most marked by the fact that an additional 200,000 respondents had done the survey since the release of the story - itself poses telling challenges – but also unprecedented potential – to the research team

Mike then pursued this point by showing how the skew of the sample towards the upper reaches of the class structure could be used to explore the anatomy of the elites in contemporary Britain, even whilst recognising their descriptive and suggestive nature. The GBCS suggests that the small elite class is overwhelmingly a corporate and managerial group, is intrinsically associated with the metropolis of London, has distinctive and exclusive network ties, and is recruited disproportionately from a small number of increasingly elite universities.

Will Atkinson provided an alternative perspective on the shape of the class structure to that outlined by the Great British Class Survey research team. Starting out from a critique of the eclectic and pragmatic strand of ‘cultural class analysis’ from which it springs, he flagged the major shortcoming that, in defining cultural capital directly in terms of lifestyle practices rather than education level, the GBCS team conflated the social space and the symbolic space, or the space of social positions and the space of lifestyles, making it impossible to examine the homology or causal relation between the two. Rather than stick to criticism alone, however, he presented his own model of the British class structure. More specifically, he outlined a class schema designed to act as a proxy for class fractions within the social space, distinguished according to volume of capital and composition of capital, in statistical analysis, thereby offering those sympathetic to Bourdieu’s approach an alternative to the EGP scheme and its official derivatives. He went on to confirm the construction of the object by outlining the results of a multiple correspondence analysis, conducted on the Cultural Capital and Social Exclusion (2003) survey data in collaboration with Lennart Rosenlund from Stavanger University, of various indicators of capital. Finding the same two major axes as Bourdieu thirty years earlier, volume and composition of capital, the class scheme was then projected into the model as a supplementary variable and a good overall correspondence found.

The next step was to move on and demonstrate the usefulness of the scheme for making sense of cultural domination and political position-takings. First, a map of the UK symbolic space, again constructed through MCA and again using the CCSE dataset, was presented and its homology with the social space investigated. The three key axes, in order, were: exclusive practices versus practices premised on functionality or sociability; practices premised on economic exclusivity versus practices based on intellectual exclusivity; and youth practices versus those of older people. These corresponded with volume of capital, composition of capital and age (trajectory) respectively. In other words, precisely the same structure of cultural difference, symbolic domination and structural homology was found in 21st Century Britain as in 1960s and 1970s France. Second, a map of political position-takings was constructed, this time through MCA on a selection of indicators of political attitudes taken from the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey. The first axis opposed left versus right wing values on materialist issues, corresponding with volume of capital; the second opposed strong views to those undecided, corresponding with age; and the third axis opposed liberal versus ‘authoritarian’ views, corresponding largely with composition of capital. All three together confirmed Bourdieu’s hypothesis that the tendency to vote left or right follows a curve through the social space. Overall, the conclusion was that, so long as methodological and meta-theoretical principles are carefully observed, there is no reason to think the fundamental structures of Western societies are any different to those uncovered by Bourdieu three decades ago.

For more information on the BSA Study group, see the entry on it in the section "Resources" under "Projects and networks".