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How Class Conscious Are People Today Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3186 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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When thinking about how class operates in our lives today, we might feel that it holds little or even no bearing upon the ways in which we think, act and move around in the social world. That class, as a means of understanding our social position and shaping our identities, is an altogether dated, weak or unimportant social category, carrying little weight in a society in which seemingly anyone can get to the top if they ‘put their minds to it’; where neo-liberal discourses of individuality and self-responsibility circulate in the media market place de-emphasising social difference, yet celebrating social mobility (Kendall 2005; Crompton 1998); and where traditional, distinctive and politically salient – working – class cultures have, almost unarguably, appeared to have disappeared through the back doors of history, alongside the radical economic, cultural and social shifts that occurred throughout the development of the latter half of the 20th Century. That in many respects, we feel we are individual – ‘just me’- and thus, classless. Today, whether we see ourselves in class terms or not forms a significant part of the sociological canon, and is invariably linked to the question ‘how class conscious are people today?’. However, as this essay will attempt to show, by concentrating too heavily on the conclusions drawn by older research that has either explicitly, or implicitly examined the strength of class consciousness, that is, the expression and mobilisation of collective class interests, we are at risk of ignoring the more illuminating debates that have begun to emerge over the past fifteen years or so over the actual processes of classification, production of hierarchy and social worth, and the salience of class in people’s lives. This essay will thus outline briefly some of the classic sociological studies that have been traditionally concerned with issues surrounding class consciousness and identity, notably the Affluent Worker series in the 1960s, moving precariously into recent debates about the individualisation of identity and the ‘death’ of class, to contrast this with some of the renewed empirical attempts of class analysts, particularly Savage (2000; 2001; 2005; 2007; 2008) but also the work of Devine (2004;2005) and Reay (1998) to understand the ways in which class is lived today in ways that move above and beyond collective class consciousness and action, pointing to the ongoing ambivalences of class in shaping identity, and the need, as Savage and his colleagues (2001) have stressed, to read carefully behind the ‘defensiveness and the unstated in people’s views on class’ (2001: 878). Of course, due to the limitations of this essay, it is regrettable that no new findings can be presented in response to the question, however it will attempt to bring together some of the most insightful perspectives about the ongoing salience of class to people in the contemporary situation. In conclusion, the methodological difficulties that question inevitably sets will be touched upon bringing to light the considerable research bias that has thwarted investigation in the past, to present what is hoped as an up to date picture of the subjective realm of class today.

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As it was, during the 90s interest in class consciousness and class identities dwindled, especially as arguments that Marshall’s study was merely just re-stating some of the conclusions of the Luton research, came into play (Saunders 1989). Plus, the embourgoisement thesis had, even all those years and studies later, failed to be curbed in popular discourse, acting as a platform to the more radical conclusion that the organisational features of the social world were actually becoming classless. It was, memorably, in 1999, at the turn of the new millennium and the height of the New Labour government’s first term, that Tony Blair – in a move that compounded the Labour party’s upheaval from its working class roots – made the now (in)famous speech, that we were ‘all becoming middle class’, claiming that ‘slowly but surely, the old establishment is being replaced by a new, larger, meritocratic middle class’ characterised by ‘greater tolerance of difference, greater ambition to succeed, [and] greater opportunities to earn a living’ that would include ‘millions of people who traditionally may see themselves as working class’ but whose ambitions would be ‘far broader than those of their parents’ and grandparents’ (Blair cited in Mackintosh and Mooney 2000: 104). And it was not just Labour exporting these sentiments, both faces of the political coin have tried to put the idea of class to bed. It was under his leadership of the Conservatives in the early 90s, that John Major stated that Britain had become ‘classless’. Even the royal family had caught on to the debate, with the Daily Express running the news that the likes of Prince Edward, nonetheless, had declared the ‘class system to be dead’ (cited in Crompton 1998: 10).

In the academic realm, debates surrounding the dwindling interest and relevancy of class took further purchase as a result of its supposed lack of ability to engage with more salient aspects of identity such as race and gender (Pakulski and Waters 1996). The decomposition of traditional politically organised class based bodies, and the national communities that centred around them – trade unions, political parties and the like – were the markers that led Pakulski and Waters (1996), most famously, to express the need for theorists to abandon the analytic framework of class altogether, calling into question the validity of the Marxist, structuralist theory belying a significant proportion of class analysis, arguing that to use class as a concept in explaining social divisions and inequality is problematic (1996: 668-669), because of its failure to live up to ‘its emancipatory promise’ (1996: 684). That essentially the decline of the collective expression of class interests and absence of class in shaping measures of inequality, were the failed mechanisms that had contributed to its dissolution. Indeed, a few years prior to this, the results of a previous survey study by Emmison and Western in 1990 seemed to pre-empt these sentiments, in which they concluded ‘the discursive salience of class’ to be ‘almost minimal’ (1990: 241); noting that when asked to place themselves into groups they felt they belonged to, or shared a high affinity with – such as gender, ethnicity or even sports groups(!) – in order of importance, most of the respondents did not cite class to be particularly important. Beck (1992), quite famously rendered class to be ‘zombie-category’, asserting that its influence on the actions of social agents is hardly felt because, stating that:

… reflexive modernization dissolves the traditional parameters of industrial society: class culture and consciousness, gender and family roles. It dissolves these forms of the conscience collective, on which depend and to which refer the social and political organizations and institutions in industrial society…Against the background of a comparatively high material standard of living and advanced social security systems, the people have been removed from class commitments and have to refer to themselves in planning their individual labour market biographies (Beck 1992: 87).

However simply because different categories of identity are felt to be more important to people than others, does not necessarily make those that aren’t as strongly felt irrelevant. There is, in fact, consistent agreement – and evidence – within sociology that class identities are no longer strongly felt by individuals (Savage 2000). The debates that suggest that this can be read as indicative as to the disappearance of class from our life-worlds altogether, are highly contentious, pointing more to the failures of the minds behind the theory, than to anything else. As Savage quips ‘it might be that if leading academics think that the cultural importance of class is declining, this can be better read as a telling commentary on the nature of the contemporary academic career rather than as a perceptive means of addressing the contemporary situation’ (2008: 467) and he has rejected the claims of the “classless” thinkers, particularly Beck, on the grounds, for the most part, for failing to fully explain how material inequalities relate to identity formation (Savage et al 2001:877). Reay (1998) also criticises these perspectives, stating that ‘discourses of classlessness are in effect class discourses in so far as they operate in class interests’ (p. 261) by acting in the interests of privileged positions of those in society by masking their advantages. Structural perspectives do not get off scott-free either and have been criticised for ignoring highly important cultural aspects of class, particularly its intersections with gender, and the ways in which social class differences contribute to social inequalities (Reay 1998). Leroux et al (2008) have also noted that, “by insisting on a deductive measure of class, validated by demonstrating that it differentiated workers on the basis of aspects of their employment relations’ work such as Goldthorpe’s (1969) and Marshall’s (1988) – although their discussion here has been brief – ‘ignored how the class schema affected key dependent variables, such as cultural values, practices or tastes’ (2008: 1050) – variables, which are all unarguably, necessary to the task of understanding . Their study found that

The new cultural perspectives that shall be examined in this the latter portion of our discussion, take into account these disparities and offer a way into class beyond the objective, essential and quantifiable definitions that the Luton and Essex team’s deployed, and that many of the above thinkers did not manage to see beyond, and have provided a fresh batch of sociological research over the last 15 years or so that can be applied to our question. Reay’s (1998) interviews with a mixed sample of working class mothers, for example, focused on the class influences on their involvement in their children’s schooling, and found that even though “class” was not often referred to explicitly, many of the mothers drew upon class resources in their talk to create, understand and apply distinctions between themselves and others. Providing a convincing argument to recognise how class functions at the mircopolitics of the women’s lives lives. As she so wonderfully notes in the discussion of her study:

‘while we need to question the extent to which collective class consciousness ever existed, class has always been both a social filter and a key mechanism individuals utilise in placing themselves and others, regardless of whether a majority of the population identify in class terms’ (1998: 265)

A prominent figure in cultural class analysis in the last twenty years, his research conducted in Manchester with colleagues in 2001 found considerable evidence to show that in fact many people do not see Britain as a classless society: when asked, only 16 per cent of the 178 people that were interviewed agreed to the statement. A similar conclusion was drawn in Skeggs (2004). Certainly, what was most interesting about Savage’s et al’s research, was that where many respondents were keen to disagree that Britain was not marked by class, they found that a considerable amount of ambivalence was expressed when it came to placing themselves with a class. When talking to respondents they found they expressed high levels of competence about class issues, with many being able to draw upon popular references and anecdotes, about the existence of a nebulous class structure that acts to sustain and reproduce social advantage, privileging the very rich and disadvantaging the very poor, but casting it ultimately as one that exists as ‘out there’; an otherworldly form, that, in the defensive accounts of many of the respondents, did not encroach too heavily on the course of their own, everyday, ordinary lives. This ran consistent Savage’s (2000) argument in his earlier work that stated ‘although people can identify as members of classes, this identification seems contextual and of limited significance, rather than being a major source of their identity and group belonging’ (Savage 2000: 40). Certainly, as Devine (2004) notes, The question, as such might not be ‘how class conscious are people?’ – looking at the salience of class in people’s lives – but more to do with how class is used by individuals to understand themselves and others, for it is very possible for class to still act as ….even if

This contributes to the second important point that the Manchester research rose, which was that because class is constructed as existing ‘out there’, as a social product, individuals were reluctant to put themselves into a class, simply by that very qualification. Because individuals saw themselves as autonomous and outside of class, was one of the reasons they found it so difficult to place themselves within one. Respondents did not just want to be defined as soley “working-class”, “middle-class” etc. but expressed concern with these labels. This is exemplar of what Savage et al term the ‘individualist ethic’ (2001: 883), in which autonomy is asserted by denying oneself as an outcome of the social system. In its simplest terms this essentially means that if we are individuals, then we are, by definition classless. To refer to the introductory quote at the beginning of this essay – which was pulled from this study – for a moment, we can see how the respondent finds it difficult to locate herself because she perceives herself as a person outside of class, denying any strong class affiliations or class consciousness. On face value perhaps this conclusion draws more similarity to the findings of Emmison and Western (1990) above – that class is not a strongly felt social identity – which is, this essay maintains at least, quite true. However the Manchester team, much like Reay, theorised beyond this, and rather than see class to be weak, they reconceptualised it in the respondents answers as a device that many people draw upon, as a means to cite their own ordinariness. The respondent at once accepts that she might be middle class, but her use of this term, is a strategy to mark herself out as normal, not to identify with . In this regard class becomes a “resource, a cultural device, with which to construct identity” (2001: 888).

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This idea was elaborated further in Savage’s (2005) later work which actually revisited the Luton study under the new themes of “ordinariness, hesitancy and individuality” (2005: 934). In the study Savage criticised the findings for taking a heavily analytic focus and by creating ideal-type categories of different class… rather than looking at some the confusion, difficulty and vagueness in the respondents accounts (Savage 2005: 932-3, see also Devine 2004: 198). When revisiting the feild-….Class identity is this a means of invoking difference and individuality, operating through individual biographies, to mark out their individual differences, rather than to cite collective membership or commonality. It is particularly profound that these themes could be recognised in the attitudes of people almost 40 years ago:

“Even among those respondents who identified a distinction between the middle and the working class, what still mattered was their concern to be ‘ordinary individuals’, people able to live their own lives without any given privilege but making the choice to live life their own way”

The strength of the ordinariness thesis is particularly strong. !!!!!!!)Devine (2004) responded to this research by focusing , ..for the research’s failure to elaborate on the ways in which people actually did bring up class to talk about the people who lived near or around them, which could also point to another way of examining the salience of class in people’s live. Middle class respondents were asked about their life histories, to describe their childhood experiences and work histories and current family situation in the education system. In many cases Devine found the respondents were silent about articulating their class background, and whilst in a few cases she found the working-class roots of their parents to be used as a marker of pride, and not hidden, consistent with some of the findings of Savage (2001) and an earlier study by Bradley (1999). What was interesting was that in Devine’s research the discussion of working class backgrounds were often anchored in frames of respectability and status, to defend against any potential moral judgements that might be made about themselves. This conclusion runs consistent with another important theme in Savage et al’s (2001) research which noted in their study “class is a moral signfier” …citied cutural captial had been thwarted by economic captial. Devine foun examples of class existing very close to home, in that some respondents spoke of the resentment of the class-system in putting restraint on their opportunites and lifestyles. A middle class identity was rarely articulated, and whilst this was …Older work by Devine did still emphasise the salience of class as an identity

Engaging in middle class practice prejoritive, snobbishness attached to it, trying to distance onself from this aswell. Middle class superiority was rejected at the same time as working class inferiority was rejected, too. Class was close to home in that class had played a significant factor in shaping their aspirations: i.e. frustration, anger or resentment at constraints . s Devine (2004) concluded “class evokes often powerful emotions and such strong feelings that people do not always want to express them or find it difficult to do so” (2004: 210).The moralising aspect of class is thus highly significant: how we recognise that class terms often carry with them connotations about ourselves based on negative evaluations, prescriptions …navigation between not citing snobbishness (i.e. middle class) but asserting respectability when working-class labels are used. A This moral significance of class – the way that class is coding the repellent

Lawler: cod …working class identity faulty consistent with Reay


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