The Mobility of Class Terms

Received notions of social class have been widely criticised as failing to reflect the complexities of Britain in the 1990s (see Joyce 1995). The crude image of class derived from occupation, designated A to E, ignores the plurality of positionings occurring within society which have been counterpointed by recently emergent black and feminist writings problematising older rigid ideas of identity (see Hall 1987). The inadequacy of the old economist class categories has been put down to material changes in social structures and the veracity and relevance of a class analysis has been questioned (see Pakulski 1995). However it will be argued that the inadequacy arises from its reductive definition as a diminishing and one-dimensional location in the labour market which, on its own, gives us few clues about how class effects socio-cultural relations.

"Academia has rarely developed complex understandings of working class people. Even celebrated studies like Willis (1977) can be read as an indictment of the working classes; they are so stupid they invest time and energy into ensuring their own oppression... There has to be better ways of writing about class in academia. For too long it has been trapped in the male, Marxist mode where the focus on materiality neglects the elaborate psychological complexities of social class. Unsurprisingly, the excellent examples which exist are all feminist texts written by academics from working class backgrounds coming from a range of disciplines (Steedman 1986, Walkerdine 1990, Hooks 1994, Skeggs 1996)." (Reay 1997a)

Nonetheless class is still one of the major formative forces within most of our lives (Devine 1992). Because the terminology is problematic and inadequate does not mean that we should avoid the area altogether. For some of us, who are caught on the sharper edges of class dynamics, the issue is one which feels urgent.

The view of class I will use is not one of an unproblematic binary opposition but one which imagines dynamic class relations as one aspect of a complex social world which is continually being formed by many dynamic forces. Generalisations must be used but should always be understood as indicating contested tendencies within a complex field of local realities (see Foucault 1980)

In looking at the way class relations impinge on any single life we can examine the usual sociological categories such as education, income, housing, occupation (past and present); but we should also examine the cultural and psychological value systems expressed in social networks, religious affiliations, leisure activities, consumer choices and aesthetic propensities. Clear working-class positions are indicated by council housing, manual work, lack of intellectual qualification, local dialect etc. However this is an out-dated base stereotype which is a classist reduction from the broad majority of the population who rely on work or dole to survive.

Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, refers to the boundaries between classes as being 'flames whose edges are in constant movement'. The problems in making clear identifications of class may not be surprising when we consider that the biological differences which serve to clearly define, although they do not equate to, racial and gender difference are not present to anchor class difference. Appearance altogether has become smudged and indistinct as a class index. Dirty finger nails, accent, flat caps, work boots, or even smell, which once existed as reliable signs for social commentators like George Orwell, can no longer be taken seriously. However to equate lack of apparent indices with a dissappearance of class, either as a state of economic coercion or cultural disposition, is surely an absurdity.

A close reading of the evidence of those who think of themselves as classless will often reveal that they carry the values of earlier class positions even more poignantly for their being repressed (see Reay 1997b)

To deal with the history of class as a term within broad written discourse we can see one major trend since the term working class came into use in the beginning of the C19th. This is the erosion of the group by an ever expanding definition of 'middle class'. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century middle class denoted the new capitalist class. By the mid C19th it included the professional instruments of the ruling class who took on the same culture as their interests became aligned with the establishment. By the end of the C19th there arose a new stratum of numerate and literate 'white collar' office workers who comprised 9.3% of the workforce by 1911  (Crossick 1977). The clerks and shop assistants were set apart from the dirt of manual work and although they were similarly exploited they escaped some the negative elements of working class identity and some took on a 'lower middle class' label. There was also a section of well-paid industrial workers, such as the Railwaymen, who could gradually afford to separate from base poverty and aspire to 'better' things. Unfortunately the aspirational images were successfully presented almost entirely in the terms of upper class culture. There arose a section of the working population which saw itself as 'respectable' rather than 'common'. With the increase in white collar work, especially since the 1960s this group, strategically labelled middle class by the state, has become a voting majority.

The other main contribution to the division of the working population has been the massive increase in higher education from the 1960s. The mechanisms of classism had defined the working class by their supposed lack of intelligence. The graduate certification therefore provided a magical elevation of class status. Graduates not only got their degree but a new identity to go with it.

Within the spectrum of identities commonly included within 'Equal Opportunities' working class identity is the only one that is contingent on education. In Diane Reay's study the working class women she interviewed drew on "metaphors of exclusion to describe their own and their children's experience of schooling. There were repeated mentions of being silenced, of being physically excluded from the learning context, analogies of communication with teachers as 'like talking to a brick wall', incidents of 'fobbing off' and infantilism and in two women's accounts actually being expelled"(Reay 1996a)

Working class people internalise the myth of their own lack of intellect. They do not on the whole have an image of themselves as intelligent.

Working class young adults who do manage to achieve academic success cannot be accepted back into the working class community. There is simply no place for them. In spite of this many of the value structures and cultural sympathies of working class culture are maintained in some way by those who have 'moved out'.

In addition to defining working class as 'all those who have to work for a living' I also need to define working class by negative effects, as all those people who have been on the receiving end of the stick of oppression that is classism... or who have had negative effects passed onto them. This includes the effects of poverty but also psychological conditioning violences such as the myth of inherent low intelligence and disruptions of community such as those inflicted by arbitrary relocations of industry or by land development.

And, positively, as all those people who have a heritage of working class cultural values and forms, however fragmented or buried.

See Additional Bibliography for references