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Work, employment and society

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BSA Publications Ltd®
Volume 24(1): 9–26
[DOI: 10.1177/0950017009353667]

Class and employment

■ Rosemary Crompton
Retired (emeritus City University)

Influential critics still argue that ‘class analysis’ is no longer relevant to the under-
standings required in ‘reflexive modernity’, while others argue for ‘new’, improved,
approaches to the linked topics of class and employment. This article identifies and
examines three related critical themes: continuing criticisms of employment-based
class measures, the persistence of pseudo-debates (that is, ‘debates’ between authors
using different definitions of ‘class’), and the adverse outcomes of the turning away
from structural explanations associated with the rejection of employment-derived
class. In the concluding sections, the negative consequences of the ‘individualist turn’,
and the need for a continuing emphasis on structural measures such as employment
class, are emphasised.

class / employment / inequality / institutions


Tesco, Old Kent Road, in the year 2000:

Young white guy (about 16–18 years old, fed up, stacking shelves): ‘I’m sick of this
job, I wanna proper job, ya know where ya have to wear a suit and all that and you
get to tell uvver people what to do’.

Young black guy (similar age, laughing, stacking shelves): ‘Yeah but what do yer
mum and dad do for a livin’?’

Young white guy (stops stacking shelves for a moment): ‘Me dad drives a van and
me mum works in a caff’.

10 Work, employment and society Volume 24 ■ Number 1 ■ March 2010

Young black guy (laughing): ‘So what d’ya expect then?’

Young white guy (silent, stacking shelves, fed up).

(Adapted from Evans, 2006: 1)

As the above extract demonstrates, for most people, ‘class’ outcomes are in
large part a consequence of the kinds of employment available to them, which
is itself closely linked to the kinds of employment available to the adults in
their families of origin. Empirical research demonstrates that occupational
class situations are important ‘causal components’ in the lives of their mem-
bers (Scott, 2002). Class variations in mortality, health and educational
achievements continue to be demonstrated (Reid, 1998; Scott, 2002) and
indeed this information is routinely incorporated into all general sociology
texts. In short the association between ‘class’ and ‘employment’ is firmly
established. The aim of this article, therefore, is not to re-assert the continu-
ing significance of the linkages between class and employment. Rather, it is to
address a number of themes that still recur in contemporary debates relating
to class and employment, and are associated with continuing confusions
and ‘blind alleys’ as far as academic and policy discussions are concerned.
These themes include: continuing criticisms (and rejection) of employment-
based class measures, the persistence of pseudo-debates, and the negative con-
sequences of the turning away from structural or institutional explanations, a
move frequently associated with the rejection of employment-derived approaches
to class.
Most social scientists would accept that there can be no single, ‘correct’
definition of the class concept. Wright (2005: 180), a self-identified Marxist
class analyst, argues that specific and particular elaborations of the class con-
cept are shaped by ‘the diverse kinds of questions class is thought to answer’.
As he continues: ‘A concept whose task is to help answer a question about
broad historical variations in the social organisation of inequality is likely to
be defined quite differently from a concept used to answer a relatively narrow
question about the subjective identity of individuals in contemporary soci-
ety’. Thus, for example, Goldthorpe and his colleagues, whose major research
focus has been on the association between social mobility and occupational
class (Erikson and Goldthorpe, 1993), are working with a different defini-
tion of ‘class’ as compared to Skeggs (2004), whose major focus has been on
class cultural processes and their consequences. Moreover, definitions of
‘class’ will vary not only depending upon the questions being asked, but also
on account of differences in the theoretical frameworks adopted by different
authors (Crompton, 1998). This de facto plurality of definitions and
approaches is reflected in recent articles in Work, Employment and Society.
For example, Warhurst and Nickson (2007) draw on Bourdieu’s conceptual
framework in making the point that the middle classes are more likely to be
seen as acceptable for jobs incorporating ‘aesthetic labour’. In contrast,
Bonney (2007) defines class in straightforward occupational terms in his
Class and employment Crompton 11

defence of Goldthorpe and Marshall’s approach to ‘class analysis’.1 However,

despite an apparent acceptance of this plurality, there is nevertheless a tendency
for individual authors to argue for the superiority of their own particular
In relation to the three themes previously identified, employment-derived
measures of class are inherently problematic, and we will critically examine some
recent suggestions as to how they might be improved or replaced. ‘Pseudo-
debates’ (the focus of our second theme) occur when sociologists (and others)
argue with each other from the basis of very different definitions of basic con-
cepts, including ‘class’. As a consequence, the protagonists end up talking past,
rather than to, each other (Crompton, 1998: 115). For example, rapid changes in
employment have been closely associated with ‘end of class’ debates (Beck, 2007),
but on closer examination, this proves to be an argument about the end of class
consciousness, (or specific class identities) rather than the end of class-related
inequalities (or the causal capacities of class) – in short, a pseudo-debate.
The continuing debates about the utility of ‘class analysis’, together with
intellectual shifts and changes in fashion within the discipline of sociology itself,
have been associated with a sidelining of the significance of material structures –
including employment – and a growing emphasis on cultural explanations as well
as an embrace of individualist interpretations (Savage, 2000). The third theme of
this article, therefore, focuses on the negative consequences of culturalist and
individualist ‘turns’, and the need to retain a continuing focus on the structural
causes of class inequalities in which employment relations play such a major part.

Class and employment: historical antecedents

‘Class’ and employment have been sociologically linked from the ‘founding
fathers’ onwards. Marx described the emergence, with capitalism, of a prole-
tariat who had only their labour power to sell, exploited by the bourgeoisie
who bought and controlled this labour. Like Marx, Weber identified the selling
of labour as crucial to the definition of ‘class’, but specified a range of ‘market
situations’ with which the sale of this differentiated labour was associated, asso-
ciated with different levels of rewards and giving rise to different classes. In par-
allel with these academic and political commentaries, from the early 20th century
onwards official statisticians have divided up the occupational structure to
create employment aggregate ‘class schemes’, such as the Registrar-General’s
classification, first developed in 1913.
In the second half of the 20th century, ‘official’ occupational classifications
such as those of the Registrar-General were augmented by explicitly sociological
class schemes, particularly those attached to the cross-national research pro-
grammes of Goldthorpe and Wright (Erikson and Goldthorpe, 1993; Wright,
1997). However, it should be recognised that there have been from the first a num-
ber of difficulties in using occupation (or job) as a measure of ‘class’ (Crompton,
2008: 51). First, there is the problem of how to ‘classify’ those without a job.
12 Work, employment and society Volume 24 ■ Number 1 ■ March 2010

Second, although class processes have an important impact on the occupational

structure, other (ascriptive) factors, particularly gender, race and age, are also very
important in determining who goes where and who gets what. Third, occupational
title does not give any indication of capital or wealth holdings, and fourth, at the
highly aggregate level of occupational classifications, the identification of both
class ‘interests’ and ‘consciousness’ is rather problematic. This last point of criti-
cism is often found yoked to the wider argument that employment-based classes
are excessively ‘economistic’, and fail to encompass the cultural dimensions that
also shape classes in the real world. Employment-based class schemes, therefore,
are best regarded as useful proxies for ‘class’, rather than as actual descriptions of
concrete classes.
However, the linkages between concrete classes and the structure of
employment were brought closer together, sociologically speaking, as a conse-
quence of an influential corpus of research and writing in Britain from the late
1950s onwards, including Lockwood (1958), Dahrendorf (1959), and
Goldthorpe and Lockwood (1963). Goldthorpe and Lockwood’s 1963 article
gave notice of a major empirical project, on the ‘affluent worker’ (see
Goldthorpe et al., 1968, 1969, 1970). The ‘affluent worker’ research was a case
study of Luton which included three major manufacturing organisations
(Vauxhall, Skefco and Laporte). The researchers examined comparatively a
range of manual occupations – skilled, routine assembly, chemical process work
– as well as ‘white-collar’ employees (the study focused on male workers only).
One of the major objectives of the research was to examine the thesis of
‘embourgeoisement’, or ‘the worker turning middle class’. Using a three-dimen-
sional approach to class (economic, normative and relational), the researchers
concluded that although there were normative overlaps, economic and rela-
tional differences between the different ‘class’ groups of workers were such as
to reject the ‘embourgeoisement’ hypothesis (for example, although manual
workers’ salaries overlapped with those of white-collar workers, in the 1960s
these returns were only achieved by working extensive overtime).
This influential study, as those mentioned above, contributed to the emer-
gence of a model of class analysis that was highly influential but ultimately
flawed; the structure → consciousness → action (S → C → A) chain (Pahl,
1989). The ‘S’ includes the occupational (work) structure, which plays a crucial
part in generating the conditions from which class consciousness arises, leading
to action on behalf of the class so identified. There were persuasive grounds for
the viability of this model – for example in quantitative studies of class and vot-
ing behaviour, in which occupational class was seen as the major basis of party
alignment (Butler and Stokes, 1969). While the affluent worker research was
under way, Lockwood’s influential article Sources of Variation in Working
Class Images of Society (1966) also did much to consolidate this kind of think-
ing. He developed a typology of working-class images of society (‘traditional
proletarian’, ‘traditional deferential’ and ‘privatised’), which corresponded to
variations in the characteristic ‘work’ and ‘community’ situations experienced
Class and employment Crompton 13

within the working class. Thus, particular cultural and employment locations
are seen as corresponding to particular ‘class’ images (or consciousness).2 The
taken for granted convention that the ‘class structure’ might be adequately
mapped by the occupational structure was reinforced by developments in the
USA. Braverman’s (1974) work on the ‘proletarianisation’ of work in the mid-
20th century was hugely influential, and Wright, like Goldthorpe, based his
operationalisation of the class structure on the structure of employment.
Lockwood’s framework generated a number of important studies (Brown
and Brannen, 1970; Newby, 1977), but was subject to increasing criticism as
empirical research demonstrated that ‘class’ consciousness was incoherent and
often contradictory, rather than being capable of being ‘read off’ from work
and community locations (see Bulmer, 1975). In any case, changes in the nature
of work and employment (as well as in neighbourhood and community) have
seriously undermined these arguments. De-industrialisation, associated in
Britain with the introduction of neoliberal economic and social policies in the
1980s, cut a broad swathe through traditional industries and communities
(such as in mine working and steel working), and trade union membership has
fallen dramatically. The composition of the labour force has been transformed.
Managerial, professional and service employment has risen, and women are
now nearly half of all employees. Much of manufacturing industry has shifted
overseas. Management styles have been transformed, and employees are now
encouraged to become ‘entrepreneurs of the self’ (Du Gay, 1996; Rose, 1989) –
techniques hardly likely to facilitate the development of collective class – or
even trade union – consciousness.

Replacing occupational class schemes

Continuing criticisms of employment aggregate class schemes have led to sug-

gestions that new measures and approaches, better able to encompass dimen-
sions of inequality as well as and beyond the ‘economic’, might be developed
(Scott, 1996). Much of this revisionist work has been influenced by Bourdieu,
whose approach may be seen as synthesising, via his conceptual trilogy of field,
capital and habitus, both economic and symbolic (cultural) forms of social dif-
ferentiation and inequality. Although Bourdieu recognises that occupation is
generally a ‘good and economical’ indicator of position in social space, and pro-
vides information on occupational effects such as the nature of work, the occu-
pational milieu, and ‘its cultural and organizational specificities’ (1987: 4), he
nevertheless argues that the classes (aggregates) so identified are not ‘real,
objectively constituted groups’ (1987: 4). Bourdieu’s empirical strategy, in
Distinction (1986), was to develop an account of these ‘objectively constituted’
groupings via a national case study (drawing on survey data that included occu-
pational information) of tastes and consumption in France, a strategy that has
recently been repeated for the UK (Le Roux et al., 2008).
14 Work, employment and society Volume 24 ■ Number 1 ■ March 2010

However, this kind of procedure is dependent on specialist surveys. Such

work does give us a richer descriptive account of concrete classes, encompass-
ing both economic and cultural dimensions, but it does not imply the aban-
donment of occupational class schemes. More recently, however, Burrows and
Gane (2006) have argued that geodemographics are an effective empirical strat-
egy whereby the ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ dimensions of class may be synthe-
sised. Geodemographic classifications are software classifications, based on
postcodes, which create (via cluster analysis) detailed classifications that can
incorporate over 400 spatially referenced data items (Burrows and Gane, 2006:
796). These classifications are extremely detailed (Mosaic, extensively used in
Britain, has 60 subcategories) and encompass both economic and cultural fac-
tors, as indicated by the labels employed to describe them. The ‘Suburban
Comfort’ category, for example, includes (among others) the subcategories
‘close to retirement’ and ‘small-time business’. In their discussion of geodemo-
graphics, Burrows and Gane (2006: 805–6) argue that such measures simulta-
neously incorporate both class and status and:
we suggest that it is no longer possible to divide ‘class’ … from ‘status’ … In the
ACORN and MOSAIC classifications market positions are mapped out according
to fine-grained differences in consumption, lifestyle or cultural values, rather than
through analysis of economic standing alone [i.e. occupational classifications].

In a further contribution, Savage and Burrows go even further, arguing that:

It turns out that knowledge of the spatial location of someone is increasingly an
important proxy for all manner of sociological information; indeed to the extent
that there is no need for other social measures. (Savage and Burrows, 2007: 892)

Savage and Burrows, therefore, although not rejecting the significance of

‘class’ as such, seem to be suggesting that as far as sociological research is con-
cerned geodemographics can replace occupational, employment-based classifica-
tions. It is true that, in combination with other sources of information, postcodes
can generate precise contemporary social mappings. However, as with any mul-
tiple measure deriving from consumption patterns, the measure is likely to be
unstable, and to consume considerable resources in its maintenance. Houses now
considered ‘desirable’ may have been slums in the recent past. In a similar vein,
‘white van culture’, for example, (Burrows and Gane, 2006: 806) has emerged
relatively recently, but will ‘white van culture’ still be a relevant social category in
20 years time? It is true that any socially constructed measure – including occu-
pational classifications – will be liable to become outdated, but employment-
based schemes have proved relatively robust, particularly as far as empirical
research is concerned.
In contrast, the Mosaic categories are simply too numerous to be utilised in
any conventional survey analysis. For all its shortcomings, it may be argued that
in relation to a range of topics (e.g. health, education, social mobility), occupa-
tional class remains a very useful way of operationalising class inequality, and
has been successfully deployed in cross-national research. It is of considerable
Class and employment Crompton 15

value in that it is a highly accessible and well documented measure (Office of

National Statistics, 2002). Another difficulty that might be anticipated in using
geodemographic measures is how they might be applied in cross-national, com-
parative research, as local specificities will not travel. Systematic cross-national
comparisons are an invaluable tool if we are to understand the impact of poli-
cies of class amelioration as well as more general issues such as the inequality
outcomes of different ‘varieties of capitalism’. We may live in a globalised world,
but governments and their policies still have a significant impact on the life-
chances of their citizens (Gornick and Meyers, 2003; Hills, 2004).
Another indicator that combines material and associational dimensions is
the Cambridge occupational scale (Cambridge Social Interaction and
Stratification: CAMSIS), which is a measure of lifestyle advantage. It is derived
from a factor analysis of the occupations of an individual’s closest associates and
reflects the social choices people make about their way of life (Prandy, 1991).
The Cambridge scale may be argued to be an ‘improvement’ on occupational
aggregate classifications as it encompasses social, as well as economic dimen-
sions (see Bottero, 2005). Rather than making classifications on the basis of the
occupational structure, it uses patterns of social interaction to determine the
basis of the structure. Strictly speaking, the (hierarchical) CAMSIS scale is of
stratification, rather than class, although it correlates highly with occupational
class (categorical) classifications. It may be suggested, however, that although
occupational class classifications are far from perfect, they retain the advantage
(over CAMSIS) of being relatively cheap, widely available, and easy to use.
Both geodemographics and CAMSIS approaches argue that alternative
measures are superior to those of occupational class schemes. A further revi-
sionist approach, however, concerns itself not so much with measures as with
occupations themselves. Grusky and Weeden (2001; see also Grusky and
Galescu, 2005; Grusky and Sorenson, 1998) are highly critical of what they
describe as the ‘class analytic’ approach – that is, a ‘class analysis’ based on
aggregate occupational categories. In brief, Grusky and his colleagues seek to
replace nominal class analytic categories with the analysis of real social group-
ings – that is, occupations. In respect of employment, their suggestions hark
back to Lockwood’s 1966 analysis of working-class ‘images of society’, in that
their focus emphasises the class significance of ‘real’ (Gemeinschaft) occupa-
tional communities, which have both meaning and consequences for their mem-
bers.3 This disaggregated approach, they argue, has a number of advantages
over aggregate ‘class analysis’ in relation to class identification, closure, action
and outcomes.
As with many other criticisms of ‘class analysis’, Grusky and his colleagues
focus on the absence, at the aggregate level, of a coherent class identity (or con-
sciousness). In contrast, they argue, although ‘class’ identities may not be strong,
occupational identities are. Furthermore, patterns of social closure operate at the
occupational level and indeed are often accompanied by representative associa-
tions and organisations. ‘By contrast, there are no analogous organisations that
represent aggregate classes’ (Grusky and Weeden, 2001: 205). In a similar vein,
16 Work, employment and society Volume 24 ■ Number 1 ■ March 2010

occupations often act collectively on behalf of their members, and there is evidence
of ‘more occupation-specific consciousness and action than cross-occupational
combination’ (Grusky and Weeden, 2001: 205). These local, occupational cultures
of class generate real, gemeinschaftlich groupings, and ‘the forces of occupational
structuration have been too quickly dismissed’ (Grusky and Weeden, 2001: 206).
Aggregate level analyses have revealed, largely because of the expanding middle
classes, extensive social mobility. However, at the occupational level (for exam-
ple in medicine and law), boundaries can be deeply institutionalised, these ‘pockets
of rigidity’ giving rise to ‘“micro-inheritance” so that it is possible … that con-
ventional analyses understate the rigidity in modern mobility regimes’ (Grusky
and Weeden, 2001: 209).
Grusky and his colleagues are arguing that on a series of issues and topics
generated by the discourse of ‘class analysis’, the ‘employment aggregate’
approach is not an appropriate research tool: ‘Critics of class analysis have too
quickly dismissed the power of class analytic language, whereas defenders of
class analysis have not appreciated that such language, for all its power, yields
little insight when applied to conventional, highly aggregate classes’ (Grusky and
Weeden, 2001: 203). Grusky and his colleagues, therefore, advocate a ‘quasi-
Durkheimian’ third road that refocuses attention on local forms of structuration
within the division of labour’ (2001: 214). There is a long tradition, within the
sociology of work and occupations, of empirical research that generates insights
into particular employment circumstances, thereby illuminating wider social
processes structuring employment-related inequalities (e.g. Taylor et al., 2002).
However, such work does not actually replace employment aggregate ‘class anal-
ysis’, contrary to the arguments of Grusky and his colleagues. Two rather sepa-
rate issues are being addressed by these different approaches. For Grusky and
colleagues, issues of class structuration are central, while analyses using occupa-
tional class schemes are more concerned with class outcomes. Indeed, Grusky et
al.’s critique of the employment aggregate approach to ‘class analysis’ might be
characterised as engaging in a pseudo-debate, which brings us to our next theme.

Persisting pseudo-debates

As is well known, the emergence of the social sciences at the end of the 19th
century was accompanied by a sustained debate as to the nature of the disci-
plines themselves (the so-called Methodenstreit, or disputes about methodol-
ogy). Some scholars argued that similar general principles applied in the social
as in the natural sciences, and that law-like generalisations could be established
in the social realm. This approach came to be known as ‘positivism’. ‘Humanist’
critics of this position argued that, because of their subject matter, the social
and natural sciences were radically different. As human beings are capable of
independent thought and action, the nature of the social means that hermeneutic
(interpretive) understanding, rather than establishing law-like generalisations, was
the appropriate objective for sociological endeavour.
Class and employment Crompton 17

This methodological debate was associated with a series of binary divisions

(fact/value; agency/structure; culture/economy; social/economic) that continued
into the 20th century, culminating in the ‘paradigm wars’ of the 1970s and 1980s.
Two contrasting, and conflicting, models of sociological research and theorising
were offered: positivist/quantitative versus interpretive/qualitative. Although
McLennan (2000) has argued that these ‘paradigm wars’ are over, they neverthe-
less continue to have an impact on current discussions. More constructively, it may
be argued that the diametrically opposed positions revealed by the Methodenstreit
are not in fact ‘binaries’ but interdependencies (Crompton, 2008: 134).
Within class analysis (broadly defined), this kind of binary thinking was
from the first reflected in debates over class consciousness. Some argued that
consciousness was integral to the conceptualisation of class: ‘I do not see class
as a “structure”, nor even as a “category”, but as something which in fact
happens’ (Thompson, 1968: 9). Others (particularly researchers working with
occupational class schemes) often used variants of the Marxist distinction
between a class ‘in itself’ and a class ‘for itself’, particularly when examining
changes in employment (as in, for example, Braverman’s account of ‘deskilling’).
The question of class consciousness emerged as a major topic in the British soci-
ology of work in the second half of the last century and Savage (2000) has
argued that the question of class consciousness – specifically, ‘working-class’
consciousness – became something of an obsession in British sociology during
the 1970s.
However, the apparent failure of working-class consciousness to materi-
alise, together with changes in the occupational structure, has been important
in arguments relating to the ‘death of class’. Beck is explicit (following Thompson)
that consciousness is integral to his definition of class. ‘Capitalism without
classes’ means ‘more precisely’ a capitalism ‘without classes for themselves’
(emphasis in original, Beck, 2007: 686): ‘If institutionalised individualization
means that there is a growing pressure towards reflexive life styles and individ-
ualised biographies … can there still be a collective identity of class?’ (2007: 685).
Beck is insistent that ‘old’ sociological concepts, such as class (and nation), must
therefore be jettisoned and new approaches, such as the ‘cosmopolitan vision’,
must be endorsed.
Beck’s clarification of his approach to the class concept demonstrates that
his definition of ‘class’ is very different from that of Goldthorpe. For Goldthorpe
(2002), ‘classes’ can be identified independently of ‘consciousness’ and the
absence of class consciousness does not imply the end of class. Goldthorpe and
Beck may be using the same word (class), but they are talking about different
things. As others (e.g. Atkinson, 2007: 713) have argued, therefore, it would
be more fruitful to dissolve these false antagonisms between different
researchers, and recognise that ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘class analysis’ (for
example) ‘are simply addressing different, though mutually implicated, forms of
Given these different definitions of, and approaches to, the class concept,
there can be no real debate here. Those who argue for a ‘cosmopolitan sociology’
18 Work, employment and society Volume 24 ■ Number 1 ■ March 2010

that ‘reflects on the ontologized premises and dualisms of a nation state sociology’,
and in which ‘key concepts like contingency, ambivalence, interdependence,
interconnectedness take centre stage’ (Beck, 2007: 701) are not going to be per-
suaded by any amount of evidence that demonstrates the persistence of national
and occupational class differences, as well as the importance of national poli-
cies in shaping them.
It may be argued, therefore, that statements such as ‘Class is dead if by
“class” we mean the huge employment-based aggregations of past decades’
(Wakeling, 2008: 763) are rather misleading. Such a statement assumes that
past practitioners (Wright, Goldthorpe) assumed such aggregations to be ‘alive’.
Although there may have been moments when this seemed to be the case, the
extended debate and critiques around the S → C → A ‘model’ have done much
to clarify the situation. Contemporary researchers who draw on employment
aggregate class schemes do not assume their measures will generate living,
breathing ‘classes’.
Part of the reason for continuing confusion and pseudo-debate rests in the
origins of ‘sociological’ employment aggregate class schemes. Wright has consis-
tently sought to ground his classification in his (changing) interpretation of
Marx’s account of exploitation within the capitalist mode of production (Wright,
2005). In seeking to ‘operationalise Marx’ in this fashion, one interpretation
might be that the application of a ‘correct’ Marxist class scheme does indeed iden-
tify real Marxist ‘classes’. However, although Wright is consistent in his theoret-
ical commitment to Marxist research and analysis, as already noted, he explicitly
recognises that actual definitions of the class concept are variable, depending on
the specific issue under investigation. Thus he is relatively relaxed about the
nature of various class schemes as such, and recognises that ‘for certain kinds of
questions there will be little practical difference between Marxist and Weberian
analyses’ and indeed suggests that ‘Inside every leftist neo-Weberian is a Marxist
struggling to stay hidden’ (Wright, 2005: 27).
This rather free mixing of theoretical insights may be observed in an exam-
ination of Goldthorpe’s theoretical account of the ‘Nuffield’ class scheme
(2000: 207), which forms the basis of the National Statistics Socio-Economic
Classification (NS-SEC) as well as a future Europe-wide occupational classifi-
cation. The Nuffield inspired (O)NS-SEC is grounded in the Weberian observa-
tion that ‘class situations’ reflect socio-economic differences as represented by
‘life chances’ in the market (Weber, 1948; see also Office of National Statistics,
2002). Class positions are defined by employment status (whether an employer,
self-employed- or an employee – crucial Marxist distinctions) and employment
relations.4 Goldthorpe addresses the question of ‘just why it should be that
different occupations do tend to be associated with differences in the employ-
ment relations engaged in them’ (2000: 207). Employment contracts are contracts
through which employees agree, in return for a wage, to place themselves under
the authority of the employer. However, the labour that is bought from the
employee cannot be physically separated from the individual person selling it
(as Marx would argue via the concept of ‘labour power’). From the employer’s
Class and employment Crompton 19

point of view, therefore, the major objective is not just one of enforcing
compliance, but also of inducing the employee to behave in a way that supports
the employer’s objectives. Employees always have some non-negligible amount
of discretion – that is, they are possessed of individual ‘agency’.
Thus as far as the employer is concerned, there are two main sources of
‘contractual hazard’. The first is the difficulty in monitoring the work performed.
The second is the level of specific skills, expertise and knowledge (‘human capital’)
possessed by the employee – described as asset specificity (or causal components
of ‘life chances’, as Weber might argue). How can the employer ensure that
these skills, etc. are used to the employer’s best advantage? The difficulties in
measuring the quantity of work done will be least when measurement can be
based on actual output. In these occupations, the payment of employees is calcu-
lated in return for discrete amounts of work done, and there is little to be
gained by encouraging workers to invest in the acquisition of human assets
(training, etc.). Such types of employment are, therefore, characterised by a
labour contract.
At the opposite pole to the labour contract is the service relationship. Here
the ‘problem of agency’ is at its most acute. There is an asymmetry of informa-
tion between employer and employee – that is, the particular skills and knowl-
edge of the employee are simply not accessible to the employer. The element of
discretion in professional work makes it particularly difficult to monitor
with any precision. It is therefore especially important for the employer to gain
the commitment of these kinds of employees. Thus the prospective elements
attached to such jobs are crucial – share option schemes, promotion opportunities
and so on.
Goldthorpe combines these two employer ‘hazards’ in a 2x2 cross-tabulation.
The service relationship is located in the high/high quadrant, whereas the labour
contract is low/low. Logically, there are two other mixed forms of the employ-
ment contract. First, difficulties of work monitoring but not of asset specificity.
Here Goldthorpe places occupations such as routine non-manual clerical work.
Second, there are circumstances in which there are asset specificity problems
but not of output monitoring. Here Goldthorpe places manual supervisors and
lower grade technical employees.
It is not too difficult to develop specific criticisms of the Nuffield/(O)NS-
SEC class schemes (see Crompton, 2008: 67; Prandy: 1998). In practice, the ‘life-
chances’ associated with the occupational positions or slots identified by
occupations located within the scheme cannot, in practice, be separated from the
characteristics (such as sex, or level of education), of the individuals occupying
the slots (Blackburn, 1998). As with all such measures, some distinctions will be
arbitrary. Why, for example, should a firm with 24 employees be ‘small’ and its
owner class 4 while one with 26 employees is ‘large’ with a class 1 owner? As
we have emphasised, such measures do not encompass all of the causal compo-
nents of ‘life chances’, as the originators of such schemes are well aware.
However, attempts to develop ‘multi stranded’ measures are beset with their own
difficulties, as suggested in our previous discussion of geodemographics.
20 Work, employment and society Volume 24 ■ Number 1 ■ March 2010

The individualist turn and its consequences

Employment-derived class schemes group together individuals, whereas

arguably the most important motor of class reproduction is the family
(Crompton, 2006). Family relationships do not in and of themselves create
classes and class relationships, but they play the major role in reproducing them
and the family is the major transmission belt of social advantage and disad-
vantage (Bourdieu, 1996; Erikson and Goldthorpe, 1993: 233). We return full
circle, therefore, to the opening quote of our discussion. It is not just the work
you do, but the work your parents do and did, that makes a major contribution
to class fate. Indeed, declining rates of social mobility in Britain suggest that the
significance of family might be on the increase. The development in Britain of
a quasi-market in public education (an institutional change) has enhanced the
capacity of middle-class parents to ‘work the system’ given their ability to draw
on superior cultural, as well as material, resources (Ball, 2003; Devine, 2004).
Thus in raising our third theme we emphasise the necessity to retain a focus
on institutions and structures – including the structure of the employed labour
force – that contribute to the persistence of class inequality. Such a structural
focus has been somewhat obscured by the current sociological emphasis on
‘individualisation’ and ‘identity’, and the term ‘individualisation’ and the ‘death
of class’ are inextricably linked with each other. Beck (2007) characterises indi-
vidualisation as part of the ‘epochal shift’ to ‘reflexive modernity’. The causal
factors he identifies include the extension of individual rights, together with the
creation, then ‘roll back’, of the welfare state. The acquisition of basic civil and
political rights is certainly an important change, but this process has been ongo-
ing since the Enlightenment and cannot be said to constitute an ‘epochal shift’.
The transformation and ‘roll back’ of the welfare state since the 1970s has indeed
incorporated an ‘individualised’ refocusing of benefits delivery (Ungerson, 2003).
However, in explaining this shift, the political and economic significance of the
turn to neoliberalism in actively promoting ‘individualisation’ in the provision
and delivery of state services should be emphasised (Harvey, 2005).
To make the same argument in a slightly different way, it is not that no
changes have occurred in human societies, but rather that constant change
should be seen as ‘normal’ rather than ‘epochal’ (Goldthorpe, 2002). However,
the explanatory shift to the individual (and rejection of ‘class’ as an ‘outdated’
concept) has played its part in shifting the analysis of social inequality to the
individual level. Rather as, with the cultural turn, economic inequalities became
displaced onto cultural concerns (Fraser, 2000), in a similar manner, with the
‘turn to individualisation’, structural inequalities become displaced onto the
individual. This displacement was very apparent in the ‘underclass’ debates, in
which right-wing commentators squarely placed the responsibility for poverty
onto the poor themselves (Murray, 1990). These ‘blame the victim’ commen-
taries emerged alongside the political triumphs of neoliberalism in Britain and
the USA. Since 1997, however, Britain has had a ‘New Labour’ government.
Class and employment Crompton 21

Although this government has continued with many of the social and economic
policies associated with neoliberalism, it also has an explicit commitment to
tackling inequality, although income inequalities have widened during the ‘New
Labour’ administration (Hills, 2004). In the discourse associated with the
Commission on Equality and Human Rights, however, ‘equality’ is understood
as ‘fairness’ and there is considerable emphasis on ‘raising aspirations’ and
‘removing barriers’ (Equalities Review, 2007).
However, to return again to the fieldwork extract with which we began our
discussions in this article, even if aspirations are there, they matter little if the struc-
ture of occupational inequalities remains unchanged. Putting the matter somewhat
crudely, in Britain a mass, individualised ‘bootstrapping’ would have little impact
on the contours of inequality – someone would still have to occupy the low-level,
poorly remunerated jobs that characterise Britain’s liberal market economy.5 It is
important, therefore, not to take the structure of employment itself as a given. In
this regard, cross-national comparisons are essential to our understanding.
Capitalist societies are not all of a piece and some nation states (even at
similar levels of development) are much more equal than others (Wilkinson,
2005). In particular, national policies affect the structure of employment, and
work experiences. As Gallie (2003) has demonstrated, programmes for the
improvement of working life developed in Scandinavian countries have had a
positive impact, as far as employees are concerned, on both the quality of work
tasks and participation in decision-making within the organisation. Gallie and
his colleagues (Gallie, 2007) contrast two broad approaches that have empha-
sised the different directions of capitalist development,6 production regime the-
ory (Hall and Soskice, 2001) and employment regime ‘power resources’ theory
(Esping-Andersen, 1990). Both production regime and employment regime the-
ories focus on the significance of institutional variations in capitalist develop-
ment for employment outcomes. In power resource theories attention is
focused on democratic institutions as providing a non-violent channel for class
forces to modify capitalist social structure (Gallie, 2007: 16). In particular, it is
argued that the nature and extent of organised labour has played an important role
in shaping national labour markets.
These arguments are too complex to properly evaluate in a short commentary,
save to note that Gallie’s (2007) comparative empirical study (of Britain, Germany,
France, Sweden, Spain and Denmark) did demonstrate substantial variations in
skills, training and job security – in short, there are considerable variations in the
nature of employment within ‘varieties of capitalism’. However, Gallie and his
contributors found that the employment regime typology was particularly useful
in explaining class differentials, and that:

Britain, as a market regime, did stand out as a country with the highest level of class
pay inequality and the only country that experienced class polarisation over time.
Its relatively low level of regulation, and its experience of deregulation in recent
decades, provides a plausible account of why it is the case. (Gallie, 2007: 231)7
22 Work, employment and society Volume 24 ■ Number 1 ■ March 2010

The ‘inequality impact’ of employment class, therefore, may be ameliorated

by institutions within which labour markets are embedded. In Britain, organised
labour has been severely weakened, and changes in the nature of employment
suggest that a resurgence of the ‘collective identities of class’ is rather unlikely,
as Beck has argued. Nevertheless, this is not to say that ‘counter-movements’
(Polanyi, 1957) against the negative impacts of market capitalism will not be
generated. Indeed, the ongoing recession and financial crisis have already pro-
voked important policy shifts.


The structure of employment, and the way in which employment is organised,

contributes to our understandings of ‘class’ in a number of different ways,
although it does not furnish a complete understanding of the complexities of class.
The organisation of capitalist production generates a structure of employment in
which material rewards, as well as other desirables such as autonomy, esteem and
capacities for self-expression are unequally distributed. Within this structure,
groupings that we may describe as ‘classes’ may be identified, corresponding
broadly to their roles in the processes of production (including the production of
services), distribution and exchange. Although both the contours and the content
of this structure have changed, differentiated and unequal rewards to relative posi-
tions within it have remained comparatively stable. However, this is not to assume
a position of unquestioning acceptance of the apparent status quo. Material
rewards, esteem and capacities for self-expression are not shaped solely by the
requirements of capitalist production. Governments can pursue policies that
attempt to narrow income differentials, as well as seeking to improve the quality
of life, including working life. Those wishing to promote such policies must con-
tinue to demonstrate the extent, and negative consequences, of class-based
inequalities in making their case. This can be achieved not only by demonstrating
aggregate (macro) outcomes, but also via meso- and micro-level explorations of
employment conditions and relations, particularly in new and emerging occupa-
tions. Little will be achieved, however, by engaging in spurious contestations (here
described as ‘pseudo-debates’) in which the protagonists are working with con-
flicting definitions of class, even though they might be using the same word.


1 Bonney’s conclusion is not surprising given that Goldthorpe and Marshall’s

general approach and definitions were employed in his analysis. As noted previ-
ously (Crompton, 1996), within the boundaries as laid down by the Nuffield
‘research programme’, Goldthorpe and Marshall (1992) are ‘correct’. The criti-
cisms that can be made of their approach are, rather, a tendency not to accept
the validity of any approach to ‘class analysis’ other than their own, in combi-
nation with a willingness to engage in ‘pseudo-debate’. Bonney also engages in
Class and employment Crompton 23

such a ‘pseudo-debate’, for example in directly engaging with the arguments of

Nash (2000), who is clearly working with a very different approach to ‘class’
from that adopted by Bonney.
2 In fact, Lockwood (1981) subsequently distanced himself from the S → C → A model.
3 Goldthorpe (2002) also notes this parallel in his critique of Grusky and Weeden,
citing Lockwood (1958).
4 It should be noted that although Goldthorpe has rejected the notion of employ-
ment ‘skill’ as a theoretical grounding for the class scheme, others, including
Tahlin (2007: 39ff.) have argued that the scheme incorporates a reasonable and
useful measure of skill levels.
5 As is widely recognised, economic migrants increasingly occupy these lower level
positions. Such workers are often at a particular stage of their employment and
family life cycle. As McDowell’s (2003) research has suggested, the problem, par-
ticularly for young men, is not one of a lack of aspiration, but rather, of never
being in an occupation that would generate a sufficient income to achieve them.
6 Universalistic theories, that all employment conditions are moving in a similar
direction in all countries (e.g. Kerr et al., 1973) are also discussed.
7 In Britain, there was also evidence of class polarisation in respect of skill.


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Rosemary Crompton

Rosemary Crompton was Professor of Sociology at City University, London. Her

most recent research-led book is Employment and the Family, published by Cambridge
University Press in 2006. Other books include Restructuring Gender Relations and
Employment (OUP, 1999), Women and Work in Modern Britain (OUP, 1998) and Class
and Stratification (3rd edition, Polity, 2008). She was until 2008 Principal Investigator on
the ESRC project: ‘Class, gender, employment and family’ linked to the Genet Research
Network (

Date submitted November 2008

Date accepted July 2009