A model of social class from BBC survey data

A New Model of Social Class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment (pdf):

We analyse the largest survey of social class ever conducted in the UK, the BBC’s 2011 Great British Class Survey, with 161,400 web respondents, as well as a nationally representative sample survey, which includes unusually detailed questions asked on social, cultural and economic capital. Using latent class analysis on these variables, we derive seven classes. We demonstrate the existence of an ‘elite’, whose wealth separates them from an established middle class, as well as a class of technical experts and a class of ‘new affluent’ workers. We also show that at the lower levels of the class structure, alongside an ageing traditional working class, there is a ‘precariat’ characterised by very low levels of capital, and a group of emergent service workers. We think that this new seven class model recognises both social polarisation in British society and class fragmentation in its middle layers, and will attract enormous interest from a wide social scientific community in offering an up-to-date multi-dimensional model of social class.

We standardised the six variables specified in the previous section (mean status scores of contacts, total number of contacts, highbrow cultural capital, emerging cultural capital, income and assets), and we carried out a latent class analysis on this basis. In order to overcome the problem of sample skew, we combined cases from the GfK, for which we use the original weighting values, and the cases in the GBCS, which we weight with a value of 1/161400 for each case, so that combined they contribute the weight of a single case to the overall analysis. This means that the latent class analysis is derived from the nationally representative GfK survey, and that the results are not distorted by the unrepresentative web survey. However, the cases from the web survey can be classified within the same clusters as the cases from the nationally representative survey and hence we are able to allocate classes to all the respondents from the web-based GBCS derived from nationally representative data. The Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC) is minimised at seven clusters (BIC = 12991.8): we therefore take this as our solution. [. . .]

Class 1: Elite

These are, on all dimensions, the most advantaged and privileged group in the UK. They are characterised by having the highest levels of every form of capital. Their mean household income is £89k, almost double that of the next highest class, and the average house price is £325k, considerably higher than any other class. Their average savings are also exceptionally high, well over double that of any other class. Fundamentally, this is a wealthy class, set apart from the other six classes on the basis of their economic advantages.

The elite have close to the highest number of social contacts, though partly for this reason their mean status score is not the highest of all the classes, but the second highest (since if one knows a large number of people, this makes it more likely for them to know both high and low status people). They also score the highest on ‘highbrow’ cultural capital, though by a less marked margin than for their economic capital, and they have moderately high scores on emerging cultural capital – so it would be unwise to just see them as highbrow.

Table 7 also reveals how membership of the elite is associated with other social advantages. They have the lowest proportion of ethnic minorities, the highest proportion of graduates, and over half come from families where the main earner was in senior management or the professions. They are clearly a relatively exclusive grouping, with restricted upward mobility into its ranks.

Table 8 underscores the occupational narrowness of this group. There are major over-representations of (especially) chief executive officers, IT directors, marketing and sales directors, financial managers and management consultants, along with elite professions of dentists and barristers. Graduates of elite universities are over-represented amongst their ranks, especially from Oxford, City, Kings College London, LSE, Cambridge, Bristol, London South Bank, Imperial College and Trinity College Dublin.13 Strikingly, six of these universities are located in London, only Trinity is from outside the south of England. Geographically (see Figure 3), their residences are all over-represented in the south east of England, and especially in areas close to London in the affluent Home counties.

Our findings thus clearly demonstrate the power of a relatively small, socially and spatially exclusive group at the apex of British society, whose economic wealth sets them apart from the great majority of the population. This finding allows us the prospect of re-integrating class analysis with the study of elites in a way which has not been possible over recent decades where no elite class was distinguished within the EGP, although its existence was recognised (Erikson and Goldthorpe, 1992: 40).

The authors point out that in their "elite" category "over half come from families where the main earner was in senior management or the professions" and assert "restricted" upward mobility into this elite. However, 52% "from prof or senior management families" is not dramatically higher than the 41% on that measure for the "established middle class" or 40% for the "technical middle class".

Class 2: Established middle class

This second most advantaged class has a household income of £47k a year, owns a relatively expensive house worth £177k, and has moderately good savings of £26k. These are all good scores for economic capital and it competes with the technical middle class in being the second best well-off class. This is a much larger class than the elite, with a quarter of the population in its ranks, and might be seen as the comfortably off bulwark of British society, even though they do not share the extreme wealth of the elite. It might be seen as comprising the bulk of what Goldthorpe (1982; Goldthorpe et al., 1980) identifies as the professional and managerial ‘service class’; it has a higher proportion of members working in management and the professions than any other class except the elite.

They have more social contacts (17) than any other social class and these tend to be high status (the third highest of any class). This therefore appears to be the most gregarious class, especially with other generally high status people (see Erikson, 1996). They are also highly culturally engaged, both for highbrow culture (the second highest scores), and also emerging cultural capital (also second). This is therefore a culturally omnivorous and well-off group, with strong social connections. Its members are highly secure across all three forms of capital, though they lack the marked wealth of the elite.

Table 7 shows that they also have a high proportion of graduates amongst their ranks, and a majority of their members work in the professions or management. They also tend to come from professional and managerial families. However, in some areas they are more open than the elite, especially with a higher representation amongst ethnic minorities. Occupationally, this class does not see such marked over-representations of specific occupations as does the elite, though there are modestly high profiles for professionals working in public service, with some managerial jobs also scoring highly (see Table 8). However, in no case are these occupations more than 50 per cent more likely to be in this class than the GBCS as a whole, confirming that this class is recruited from a fairly broad occupational range. Educationally, a relatively large number of members are graduates. Geographically, the residences of this group tend to be located outside the south east of England, and mainly away from large towns or urban environments (see Figure 4). This is a ‘provincial’ formation, and is a sizeable bulwark of ‘middle England’: comfortably off, secure, and established.

Class 3: Technical middle class

This class is sociologically much more distinctive and original to our analysis. It is quite small, with only 6 per cent of the national population, but is relatively prosperous, with good mean household incomes (£38k), excellent household savings (£66k) and houses worth considerable amounts of money (£163k). It competes with the established middle class to be the second most prosperous class in terms of economic capital. This is clearly a prosperous group with a secure economic position in British society.

Socially and culturally, however, it is much more restricted than the established middle class. It reports the lowest number of social contacts of any of the classes (an astonishingly low average of four out of 34 possible contacts, compared to 17 for the established middle class), though these do tend to be high status. Its social circle is much more restricted than other social classes, and it presumably socialises nearly exclusively with other professional experts. This is an interesting riposte to those who think it is the poor or disadvantaged whose social networks are the most restricted. In fact, it is this comfortably off technical middle class who are by far the most limited here. Culturally, it also scores relatively low for both highbrow and emerging cultural capital and therefore appears to be relatively culturally disengaged. This class is distinguished by its relative social isolation as well as its cultural apathy.

Table 7 shows that it has a lower proportion of graduates and of employees in the professions and management, though the levels of over-representation are also relatively modest, and much less marked than for the elite. Aircraft pilots, for instance, are 78 per cent more likely to be in this class than in the GBCS as a whole. This seems therefore to be a group who has achieved good economic rewards often without distinctive credentials, or through working in established middle-class jobs. Perhaps surprisingly, it has an above-average proportion of women (59%).

We can obtain more detail by using the GBCS to focus our understanding of its profile. There is an over-representation of those doing research, scientific and technical forms of work (see Table 8). Amongst those graduates who are located within it, there are over-representations from established and prestigious universities with strong reputations for science, including Warwick, Cambridge, UCL, Southampton and Imperial. There is also a slight over-representation of graduates in science and technology. Members of this class are geographically located in the South East where scientific and technical jobs are likely to be found (Figure 5), but shun the centre of London and tend to be located in suburban locations (perhaps consistent with their social isolation?).

We might see this class therefore as a group of scientifically and technically oriented people who have used their skills to gain reasonably secure and well-rewarded work, but who might not be seen as part of a more established middle class. Even though they are as likely as the established middle class to come from middle-class families, their degree of social and cultural disengagement is marked. We could see this group as indication of Savage’s (2010) argument that in the second half of the 20th century we have witnessed the emergence of a distinctive technical group somewhat at odds with the larger section of the middle classes who are more oriented towards the arts and humanities.

[. . .]

Let us conclude by comparing our findings with more familiar measures of social class, to draw out the wider implications of our model. Firstly, although, as we have discussed, there are clear occupational profiles which map onto our seven classes, the fit is by no means clear. Given the way we have constructed our model, this is not necessarily surprising. Nonetheless, it suggests the need for caution towards those exercises, such as those of Grusky and Weeden (2001, 2008), which focus on micro-classes whereby specific occupations are clearly differentiated from each other. Leaving aside the particular case of chief executive officers who are predominantly located in our ‘elite’, we have found no clear affiliation between specific occupations and our latent classes. Perhaps, rather than seeking to locate class fundamentally in occupational ‘blocks’, the time is now ripe for a different, multi-dimensional perspective, in which occupational membership is spread (though unevenly) between different classes.

Secondly, it is striking that we have been able to discern a distinctive elite, whose sheer economic advantage sets it apart from other classes. Although this is not necessarily surprising, our analysis is the first time that this group has been elaborated within a wider analysis of the class structure, in which they are normally placed alongside a larger group of professionals and managers. Our finding here is an important critical intervention against the deployment of the ‘service class’ concept, which has failed to recognise the distinctiveness of elite groups within its number (see Savage and Williams, 2008), even though it does recognise the difference between an upper and lower service class. The fact that this elite group is shown to have the most privileged backgrounds also is an important demonstration of the accentuation of social advantage at the top of British society.

Thirdly, at the opposite extreme, we have discerned the existence of a sizeable group – 15 per cent of the population – which is marked by the lack of any significant amount of economic, cultural, or social capital. We have identified these as the ‘precariat’. The recognition of the existence of this group, along with the elite, is a powerful reminder that our conventional approaches to class have hindered our recognition of these two extremes, which occupy a very distinctive place in British society.

Fourthly, only two of our seven classes conform to older sociological models of ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class. We might see this as some evidence of a blurring and fragmentation of conventional ‘middle’ and ‘working’ class boundaries. Of course, the nature of the class boundaries between middle and working class has been much discussed in previous studies of occupational classes, as with the debate about the ‘labour aristocracy’, and ‘white collar workers’. Our way of interpreting these boundaries is to suggest that the ‘established middle class’ epitomises the characteristics of ‘service class’ as elaborated by John Goldthorpe (1982). As Goldthorpe anticipates, this is a large class, indeed the largest single class in our analysis, with a quarter of the population belonging to it. To this degree, the stable middle class are indeed a large group in British society. It does come over as secure and established across all our measures of capital.

The traditional working class might also appear to be its counterpart: the surviving rump of the working class, but they now only comprise 14 per cent of the population, and are relatively old, with an average age of 65. To this extent, the traditional working class is fading from contemporary importance, and clearly is less prominent than the established middle class.

However, only 39 per cent of the national population fall into these two classes, which conform most closely to these middle and working-class sociological stereotypes. Instead, the majority fall into classes which have not been registered by more conventional approaches to class, and require a more fluid understanding of the redrawing of social and cultural boundaries in recent years. Several of the classes thus have over-representations from white collar and blue collar jobs. The ‘collar’ line is of little value in unravelling these patterns.

Fifthly, some of these new classes do not embody conventional cultural or social capital, yet appear to have obtained moderate levels of economic capital. Here, a conventional Bourdieusian analysis which focuses unduly on the reproduction of educational advantage misses the way that both the new affluent workers and the emergent service workers have acquired certain levels of economic and social capital without access to conventional highbrow culture.

The technical middle class are also a powerful reminder that not all those with economic capital have extensive social networks, and the new affluent workers are revealing too as an interstitial class. We are thus able to challenge the perception that the problem of social and cultural engagement is more marked at the lower levels of the class structure.

The ‘new affluent workers’ and the ‘emergent service workers’ are an interesting focus. They seem, in many respects, to be the children of the ‘traditional working class’, and they might thus be said to exemplify the stark break in working-class culture which has been evident as a result of de-industrialisation, mass unemployment, immigration and the restructuring of urban space. They show high levels of engagement with ‘emerging cultural capital’ and have extensive social networks, so indicating that they are far from being disengaged in any conventional sense. To this extent, new social formations appear to be emerging out of the tendrils of the traditional working class.

Finally, in conclusion, our new model of class offers a powerful way of comprehending the persistence, yet also the remaking of social class divisions in contemporary Britain. Our multi-dimensional analysis reveals the polarisation of social inequality (in the form of an elite and a precariat), and the fragmentation of traditional sociological middle and working-class divisions into more segmented forms. We have been able to mine down into unusual detail about the educational and occupational profiles of these classes (and our future publications will do this further). We hope that our new model of class will prove a valuable resource for future social researchers in exploring the complex and multi-dimensional nature of social class inequality in the UK in a way which permits us to recognise the ongoing salience of social class divisions in the stratification of British society.


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Precariat, thanks for the new portmanteau.

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