Photo: Monotony Board @ Occupy London by Ewen Speed

As an undergraduate I was introduced to theories and concepts of social class that took off from Marx and Weber. But while I absorbed this ‘classical tradition’ I also became familiar with the Registrar General’s (RG’s) ‘Classification of Occupations’, which purported to operationalise class. It amounted to a ‘best guess’ at the differential prestige associated with different occupational groups. A hierarchy of occupational or socio-economic groups summed it up better than a hierarchy of classes. But what the RG’s Classification did do was expose a remarkably consistent series of ‘demi-regularities’. In the health domain for example, the prestige associated with your job seemed almost unerringly to anticipate your future health prospects and longevity.

Acknowledging the RG schema’s limitations around validity, a team of scholars came up with the (neo-Weberian or Goldthorpe-oriented) National Statistics Socio-economic Classification (NS-SEC), also based on occupational groupings. The final version – above all epitomizing employment conditions/relations – was more satisfactory by a number of criteria. The most advantaged of the NS-SEC ‘classes’ typically exhibit personalized reward structures, have positive opportunities for promotion and enjoy high levels of autonomy and security relative to those least advantaged. Using the ONS figures for ‘usual residents’ aged 16-74 in the 2011 Census for England and Wales, I have calculated the NS-SEC (updated in 2010) breakdown as follows: higher managerial, administrative & professional (10%); lower managerial, administrative & professional (21%); intermediate (13%); small employers & own account (9%); lower supervisory & technical (7%); semi-routine (14%); routine (11%); never worked & long-term unemployed (6%); unclassified (9%).

I entirely accept the value and explanatory potential of socio-economic classifications (SECs) like NS-SEC; but their positives trail negatives in their wake. Where did the classical tradition go? Some sociologists have openly eschewed social class as a concept with explanatory power. Others have put class on a level with other factors like gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality and so on. My own view is that classical (Marxian) relations of class: (a) have more not less explanatory power in the post-1970s world of financial capitalism, but (b) play a reduced role in both identity-formation and as what David Kelleher and I once called a ‘mobilizing potential’ for collective action. So class relations are more salient objectively, but less salient subjectively. If I am right in judging its objective relevance to have grown over the last generation, then what does this mean for the theorization of classical (Marxian) relations of class today? I return to this question towards the end of the blog.

The headline-hitting by-product of the ‘Great British Class Survey’ (GBCS), the BBC’s ‘class calculator’, may seem a bit of fun, but I doubt that it is entirely harmless fun (you only have to complete it to have concerns). The research study on which is based is explicated most comprehensively in Mike Savage et al’s paper in Sociology. This paper promises ‘a new model of social class’, one that incorporates social and cultural as well as economic capital. It is a very strange hybrid in many ways. In terms of methods, the web-based GBCS, though large (161,400 respondents) was (predictably) so skewed as to be inadequate to the task, so a national study of 1026 respondents recruited using quota sampling techniques was appended (called GfK by Savage et al after the survey firm used). The ‘corrective’ GfK seems to drive the GBCS in much of the analysis.

The measures of social capital (how many people one knows socially from a list of occupations), cultural capital (which of a series of high- to low-brow activities one likes/engages in) and economic capital (one’s household income, household savings and house price) seem oddly fashioned (and inevitably one wonders how accurately questions were answered). Subsequently, a latent class analysis of social class was conducted

‘to most parsimoniously differentiate between our measures of economic, social and cultural capital to assess where the main class boundaries are placed’ (p.11).

While latent class analysis is primarily used for the analysis of categorical data, the authors claim that it can also be used for clustering with continuous variables.

The results are as follows: elite: very high economic capital (especially savings), high social capital, very high highbrow cultural capital (6%GfK, 22%GBSC); established middle class: high economic capital, high status of mean contacts, high highbrow & emerging cultural capital (25%GfK, 43%GBSC); technical middle class: high economic capital, very mean social contacts, but relatively few contacts reported, moderate cultural capital (6%GfK, 10%GBCS); new affluent workers: moderately good economic capital, moderately poor mean score of contacts, though high range, moderate highbrow but good emerging cultural capital (15%GfK, 6%GBCS); traditional working class: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable house price, few social contacts, low highbrow and emerging cultural capital (14%GfK, 2%GBCS); emergent service workers: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable household income, moderate social contacts, high emerging (but low highbrow) cultural capital (19%GfK, 17%GBCS); and precariat: poor economic capital, and the lowest scores on every other criterion (15%GfK, 1%GBCS).

I forego comments on the acquisition of the two samples and the chosen mode of statistical analysis, which have been covered in other blogs, and merely mention Standing’s objection to the misappropriation of his term ‘precariat’. My main concern is that the classical notion of social class once again goes missing. It no longer explicitly underpins SECs, and in this new model it is meshed in with possession of economic, social and cultural capital. For me, the strength of flow of material, social and cultural assets tend to vary with class location, but do not themselves comprise relations of class.

I have in the past expressed a preference for Clement and Myles’ typology of classes. They draw on Carchedi to re-emphasize that classes are formed at the point of production and reproduced throughout social life. Central to class formation are the ‘criteria of real economic ownership of the means of production and the appropriation of surplus value through ‘control and surveillance’ of the labour of others’ (the ‘global function of capital’). This exercise of control and surveillance in relation to the labour process is distinct from the accomplishment of ‘co-ordination and unity’, which is part of the ‘creating surplus value/labour’ (the ‘global function of the collective worker’). They distinguish four classes: capitalist-executive: those who have specific economic powers of real economic ownership, the power to direct production to specific purposes and to dispose of its products (ie command over ‘strategic decision-making’); new middle class: those who exercise ‘control and surveillance’ as an extension of real economic ownership (ie command over ‘tactical decision-making’ about administrative processes affecting others or control/surveillance over the labour power of other employees; old middle class: those who own their own means of realizing their labour, but work outside the dominant relations of production; and working class: those who have no command over the means of production, the labour power of others, or their own means of realizing their own labour. The primary relationship is between the capitalist-executive class and the working class.

For all my preference for Clement and Myles operationalisation of class over SECs like NS-SEC and the new model of Savage et al, it could do with ‘refining’ for financial capitalism. Moreover it shares a fault with its rivals: it does not permit the identification of a ruling class. John Scott’s 20 year old estimate of a ruling class comprising 0.1% of the adult population falls well within the Occupation Movements’ 1% (‘against’ the 99%). I have argued that a hard core or cabal of increasingly transnational CEOs, directors, financiers and rentiers within the capitalist-executive (CCE) have come to hold more sway over a more national but nevertheless more regulatory and repressive power elite at the apex of the state apparatus (PE). Thus: CCE + PE = OLIGARCHY. We are now ruled by a barely accountable oligarchy (with little prospect of a crisis of legitimation). How can we as sociologists embrace SECs and other conceptualizations of social class like Savage et al’s new model that sidestep these issues?

Perhaps Mike Savage and co have more to offer. These are early days and they seem to have plenty of data at their collective disposal. Moreover they have made impressive research contributions in the past. Maybe they will cause me to rethink my provisional sense that they may have been tempted by the BBC collaboration to deliver pop rather than public sociology and that they have deflected attention from the reality of class even as the word ‘class’ crosses more people’s lips.

About the Author: Graham Scambler is a sociologist at UCL with research interests in social and critical theory, the politics of protest, health and healthcare, stigma and deviance, sex work and sport. He has his own blog and can be found on twitter @grahamscambler.