‘Capital, what?

A cursory look at the Great British Class Survey

GMW Wemyss


‘Capital, what?’:
A cursory look at the Great British Class Survey

GMW Wemyss


less. An earnest group of red-brick academics, brigaded with the BBC Right-On Regt (‘Auntie’s Own’), have beavered away at redefining class in Blighty, after, no doubt, much diligent lucubration (and, I hope, lubrication with the old neck-oil down the local). I am not – I shouldn’t on a bet – I am absolutely not going to

do a boffiny turn of back-room boy swotting over it, but I really think one needn’t exert oneself, really, to realise that there are – how shall I say this delicately – some rather evident difficulties with their results. I was, actually, encouraged when I heard that they intended to measure social capital and cultural capital in their survey, as well as simple mun. I hoped this should prevent and preserve them, and should mean the thing didn’t turn into an Americanised survey of simple dosh. Some hopes. I had hoped, moreover, even in the teeth of those oiks at the Beeb, that this shouldn’t end by being yet another myopically metropolitan view. Well, a chap can hope. The New Model of Social Class – sounds vaguely Cromwellian, doesn’t it – no doubt meant well. It ‘found’ (or created) seven new classes, from an ‘elite’ to a ‘precariat’ (an ugly cod-Latinate portmanteau for ‘precarious proles’), and has been trumpeted (more by Auntie than by the boffins) as abolishing boom and bust – oh, sorry, that was that gurning idiot from Fife – as abolishing the old division into Upper, Middle, and Lower Classes. Pull the other one, it has a full ring of six on it. If you slog through the findings and the methodology, 1 you do, I
1 Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, Mark Taylor, Yaojun Li, Johs. Hjellbrekke, Brigitte Le Roux, Sam Friedman, and Andrew Miles, ‘A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment’, Sociology 0038038513481128, first published on April 2, 2013 doi:10.1177/0038038513481128 (alt. citation, published online before print April 2, 2013, doi: 10.1177/0038038513481128 Sociology April 2, 2013 0038038513481128) (http://soc.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/03/12/0038038513481128) [and why in buggery does it employ ‘April 2’ rather than ‘2 April’ in its citation form, I’d like to know: damned un-British, that].


think, begin to question some things. (This is not new: I, for one, have neither place nor existence on the NRS social grade schemata, or the ONS’ NS-SEC in any version, or CAMSIS, and I am hardly alone in that. Much of the countryside is in much the same boat, actually.) I am not one to dismiss a finding simply because I find it counter-intuitive or outside my personal experience; I am however inclined to question findings that are simply stark unreason. Part of this is definitional. Perhaps because of the weighting given to economic capital – and we shall look at methodology after we’ve disposed of definitions – the ‘elite’ identified by the researchers, bless their cotton socks, is distinguished (if that’s the word) by ‘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’ (p 16; vide Table 8, pp 13 – 15). These are also, allegedly, persons who ‘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’ (p 15). I’m sorry, but this simply shan’t and won’t do. Marketing directors are bad enough – but dentists? In an ‘elite’? These – all of ’em – are people who should, at best, have been in one’s grandmother’s book as ‘GPO’, and she didn’t have the postie in mind with that acronym: they were ‘Garden Parties Only’, not to be asked to dine (although barristers might make the list). I am not at all saying that these people ought not, perhaps, to be regarded as being of high status and lovely people; I am saying that in the world in which we actually live and move and have our being, they are not. It may be news to provincial dons and Islington party-goers, but we have not come as far as they think, and as no doubt we ought to have done, from the days when some fellow lamented Wilde’s fall by saying he’d been turned out of Society, only to be corrected: ‘Oh, Oscar was never taken up by Society: the Devonshires never had him to dine’ (and one can only imagine how that should have gone. Pear-shaped, I should think). In fact, it is the assumptions and the methodology that are the problem here. If you wish to survey economic status and marketing preferences in the UK, have at it: although there are commercial firms that have been doing so, quite successfully, for yonks. But you mustn’t pretend it is a new intellectual insight, or that money-plus-a-bit-of-what-theirremediably-middle-class-might-hope-should-pass-for-polish in fact defines social class as such. A cultivated tycoon from Azerbaijan may be a balletomane and richer than Kroisos, Pheidon, and Gyges together, or a pop-star be able to buy and sell a duke twice over whilst scoring points for ‘frequently attending musical performances’: this doesn’t make him a gentleman. If you define an elite as people with a large circle of acquaintances which includes others to whom you assign high status, a lot of dosh, and, say, tickets to Glyndebourne, you can find enough people with mun, acquaintances, and museum passes to represent the elite class you’ve defined; but this exercise in petitio really hasn’t save by accident anything to do with reality on the ground. The plural of anecdote is, after all, data, quite often, and it behoves us to look at reality. By way of example, one of the survey questions for ferreting out cultural capital – and which gives a very high score if


answered in the affirmative – is, Does one frequently visit stately homes. Well, that depends upon what you mean by ‘visit’, rather. If – as the question seems to be getting at – this means touring the damned things with a National Trust pass clutched in a sweaty hand, then it is, I should think, a fundamentally non-‘elite’ activity; whereas if, for example, one lives in one, and frequently stops for a Friday-to-Monday at one’s friends’ places, that should mean something else entirely. I’d like to see the earnest researchers putting that question to Debo, or, were he yet with us, dear old Johnny Buccleuch.... Or take the biases and questions in the ‘cultural capital’ part of the survey. I happen to like jazz – well, trad and swing – and opera, and classical music. I have been on good terms with composers and conductors (John Barbirolli was a fixture of my childhood), and have known jazzmen from Maynard Ferguson to Lionel Hampton. (I am now imagining, with no little amusement, Humph’s taking this survey....) Then again, I am also on good terms with indie-folk troubadours, Highland pipers, fiddlers, and music-hall-revival musicians, and am a firm supporter of the Wurzels. But let us be frank: I am a sport (in the botanist’s and biologist’s sense). One hates to shatter the innocent deference of academical persons, but the County – and for that matter, the peerage – are not notably frequenters of Aldeburgh and Glyndebourne. Cheltenham and Aintree, yes, but not Aldeburgh and Glyndebourne. And I say that who am fifty years in age. If you look at the rising generation … let’s be honest. Gemma and Charmian and Rupert and Torquil aren’t at Covent Garden or Sadler’s Wells: they’re incontinently and polymorphously shagging one another in the mud at Glasto, out of their tiny minds on one or another substance, to substantially the same soundtrack as shrieks and snarls through any council estate. Again, I am not suggesting, prescriptively, that this is How Things Ought To Be: the Great and the Good are quite often neither (rather like the Liberal Democrats...). (Certainly I have the County’s view of the peerage, which is rather deprecatory than otherwise. Thynnes, Herveys.... Since at least the deposition of Richard 2 d in England, and more or less

ab initio in Scotland, many creations and advancements in the peerage have been the mark of successful treason, or the
reward of an accommodating woman with a complaisant husband, or the prize – certainly in James 6 th and 1st’s day – of a lad with a pert bum, no gag reflex, and few moral compunctions. For every Nelson or Wellesley, there have been a score of Villierses, Ruthvens, Bothwells, Bentincks, Stanleys, Beauforts, Seymours, and, I blush to say, Pelham-Holleses, although, if miserable PMs, these last at least bred decent spaniels. Nevertheless, and much as one sympathises with the Thornes of Ullathorne and with Mr Badger in regarding De Courcys, Pallisers, and indeed County Toads as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, one must concede that if there is an elite in Britain which has set the pattern to which oligarchs and bankers aspire or which they ape – and if the occasional Russian exilarch goes to the opera, his thugs and his trophy wife are likelier to be at Boujis or places yet more louche – if there is an elite style in Britain, then, it is the creation equally of the County and the peerage, and it is therefore, indeed eo ipso, precisely not cultivated, cultured, and intellectual, unless one extends that descriptor to Newmarket, Ascot, Goodwood, and Test matches at Lord’s.) In fact, the entirety of the methodology for assessing cultural capital is questionable. The authors quite frankly admit that they felt it necessary to carry out ‘an inductive analysis of cultural taste to reveal the patterning of activity without


assuming a priori that certain kinds of activities were more “highbrow” than others’ (p 8); yet in the end, they – at p 9 – have a measure of ‘highbrow’ cultural capital, which scores the extent of respondents’ engagement with classical music, attending stately homes, museums, art galleries, jazz, theatre[,] and French restaurants. The maximum score which a respondent could obtain (if they ‘often’ engaged in all these activities) is 30. A second score is for ‘emerging’ cultural capital, which is based on the extent of a respondent’s engagement with video games, social network sites, the internet, playing sport, watching sport, spending time with friends, going to the gym, going to gigs and preferences for rap and rock. The maximum score here is 32. This won’t do. It is neither the one thing or the other. I have already noted that ‘attending stately homes’ in the fashion the survey suggests is meant, is precisely not an ‘elite’ activity. I must also break it to the researchers that going to ‘French restaurants’ is not an upper-class marker as such. Rules, Simpson’s, Wiltons, and one’s club are not French restaurants. Equally, the notion that playing or watching sport is a lesser form of cultural capital and that there is no class

differentiation in sport as there is, in the study’s assumptions, in musical taste, is simply ignorant. It depends very much
on the sport, and on where one lives. Membership of the R&A is, in class terms, different to being rostered on for darts down the local. Watching snooker is different to watching, much less having a runner in, National Hunt racing. The ‘old, exploded’ concept of ‘the upper classes’ does at least account, as the new scheme does not, for local rugger and the village XI (or Second XI, and in some parts of the country, Third XI. I have earnt my Primary Club tie many, many times over). Any berk, poon, oik, or yob can get into the House of Lords – from 1997 to 2010, it sometimes seems that most of them

did get in. Becoming a member of the MCC is another thing entirely. And if we are to take ‘sport’, and particularly active
participation in sport, as including the local Hunt, or shooting, or chalk-stream angling, or polo, well.... And this brings us to the social capital measure, as set out at p 9 et sequitur. The 37 occupations which respondents might report contacts with 2 were coded to the widely validated Cambridge Social Interaction and Stratification (CAMSIS) scale, so that for every individual respondent we were able to assess how many of the 37 occupations they reported, the mean status scores of the occupations of their contacts (where the scores range from 85.3, the highest, to 4.5, the lowest), and their range (the extent of the difference between the highest and lowest status scores). This is the most elaborate data ever collected in the UK on this issue. Table 2 reports these figures, omitting contacts who are students, who have never worked, and who are aristocrats (the categories have no CAMSIS scores). Oh, dear. I don’t think the omission of those respondents was wise, but that’s by the way. Let me simply make a few non-metropolitan points. The survey asked if one ‘knew socially’ persons in one or another occupation – without, I might add, and to my mind fatally, defining what the researchers meant by ‘knowing someone socially’. Imagine for a moment that one’s head gardener, say, is teetotal, Chapel, and wholly without any interest in cricket; whilst one’s undergardener is a sidesman, sings in the parish choir with one, and is one’s martinet of a captain of the village Second XI, who regards no man nor any rank or precedence when sweating his victims in the nets. Which of these does one ‘know socially’? Look here, damn it all, in country districts, a member of the traditional upper classes is very likely to know – and to know rather better than he cares to know his presumed fellows and connexions (who, if he be wise, he shall assiduously avoid) – garage-men, thatchers, greengrocers, notorious poachers, high street solicitors, the vicar, and that bugger of a
2 Or, indeed, with which respondents might report contacts.


bank manager who always manages not to buy his round, in a way alien to the most conscientious imaginings of dons, townies, Islington types, and Grauniad-istas. The market-town or village member of the middle-cum-professional classes is, far more than his fellows in Neasden or Kensington or some damned place, going to socialise down the pub and on the pitch with farriers, vets, butchers, working plumbers, farm labourers, JPs, retired colonels, and hereditary peers. Rural BT engineers, labourers, cowmen, and bus conductors are, simply as a function of location, going to know more, and know better, shopkeepers and old admirals, poets, MFHs, historians, blacksmiths, vergers, rural deans, market gardeners, RAs, dukes’ sons who are up at the House, chemists, publicans, and town clerks: from the village panto, from the RBL, from PCC meetings, from fêtes, and from Remembrance Sundays. And not only do I not see this controlled for in the survey, I don’t see it as having been so much as thought of and reflected upon. The aspiration of this study was noble. When the researchers found that the respondents to it through the BBC survey were anomalously self-selecting and unrepresentative, they quite properly sought to supplement their sample by other means (although the sample size was I think too small): vide p 6. Nevertheless, I am very much afraid that the experiment cannot be considered a success. It paints, perhaps, a just picture of metropolitan life and of the typical Beeb audience, whose biases and unexamined assumptions it at once incorporates and comfortably affirms; as a portrait of the nation, however, I cannot see it. And it in no way measures social class: merely mun, in the end, with a fillip of marketing research. But these things do look rather different, I suppose, from my coign of vantage in rural Wilts. For which, in the words of the General Thanksgiving (in the real BCP), I am unfeignedly thankful. I think I shall go have a jar with a socially diverse group of neighbours down the pub now, and commiserate over the bloody weather, the uselessness of the Government, Schmallenberg, lambing, the shortcomings of councillors, the looming disaster of the fête, and our increasingly deficient local standard of spin bowling. I’d like to see the buggers tick the boxes for that.


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