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Not such a class act

03 May 2013

AS IF we hadn't got enough labels in the world, thanks to the BBC and some sociology professors, we discovered recently that we had seven more.

Instead of the traditional three classes in Britain - upper, middle, and lower - we now have seven, apparently. At the top are the Elite - six per cent of the nation, with savings of more than £140,000; at the bottom, the Precariat - the precarious and the proletariat, who comprise 15 per cent of the population and earn about £8000 p.a. after tax.

In between these two are the forgettably-named Established middle-classes, (the largest class - 25 per cent of the population); Technical middle-classes, New affluent workers, Traditional working class, and Emergent service workers.

Economic, social, and cultural considerations all play a part in discerning your class in the world. The BBC-sponsored report, produced with the help of academics from six universities, follows the lead of the French philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, who said that class depends on culture, taste, and whom you mix with, as well as the kind of job you have.

It is also about whether you like jazz, classical music, and Shakespeare, which are termed "highbrow culture"; or sport, going to the gym, and social media, which are termed "emerging culture".

And then, on the morning the report was published, a presenter asked one of its creators this bombshell question: "Why is this interesting?" And, cards on the table, I was wondering the same. As the social commentator Jill Kirby reflected: "This survey has kept sociologists busy, but it is a doubtful use of BBC resources. It does show how difficult it is to categorise people." And The Daily Telegraph reports that just over 50 per cent of those who had done the test online disagreed with the result.

In response to the presenter's question, the Professor spoke about its presenting a "more sophisticated, nuanced picture of what class is like now". Maybe. But when it comes to class, are seven labels really more holy than three? Assessing people by their relationships to the external world is not an exact science. More interesting would be the following groupings: those who are happy in their skin, and those who are not.

The class of people who are happy in their skin will be known for their kindness, openness, courage, objectivity, happiness, and identity. Those who are not will be known for different behaviours. A study of those two classes would be interesting.

In the mean time, in the search for identity, we are left with shallow, news-grabbing frippery, a party game pretending significance. I am sadly reminded of the old saying: sociology, the study of those who do not need to be studied by those who do.


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