Class more than upstairs/downstairs

Class in Britain used to be a relatively simple matter, or at least it used to be treated that way. It came in three flavors — upper, middle and working — and people supposedly knew by some mysterious native sixth sense exactly where they stood, reports today’s New York Times “As the very tall John Cleese declared to the less-tall Ronnie Corbett in the famous 1966 satirical television sketch meant to illustrate class attitudes in Britain — or, possibly, attitudes toward class attitudes — “I look down on him, because I am upper class. images-2

“It is not as easy as all that, obviously. The 2010 election was enlivened at one point by a perfectly serious discussion of whether David Cameron, now the prime minister, counted as upper upper-middle class, or lower upper-middle class. But on Wednesday, along came the BBC, muddying the waters with a whole new set of definitions.

“Having commissioned what it called The Great British Class Survey, an online questionnaire filled out by more than 161,000 people, the BBC concluded that in today’s complicated world, there are now seven different social classes. (“As if three weren’t annoying enough,” a woman named Laura Phelps said on Twitter.) These range from the “elite” at the top, distinguished by money, connections and rarefied cultural interests, to the “precariat” at the bottom, characterized by lack of money, lack of connections and unrarefied cultural interests.

“That might sound kind of familiar, but Fiona Devine, a sociologist who helped devise the study, said, “It’s what’s in the middle which is really interesting and exciting.”The middle categories, as the study defines them, include the “technical middle class,” a group that has a lot of money but few superior social connections or cultural activity; the “emergent service workers,” a young, urban group that has little money but a high amount of social and cultural capital; and the “new affluent workers,” who score high on social and cultural activity, but have only a middling amount of money.“There’s a much more fuzzy area between the traditional working class and the traditional middle class,” Ms. Devine, a professor of sociology at Manchester University, said in remarks accompanying the research. “The survey has really allowed us to drill down and get a much more complete picture of class in modern Britain.”Not everyone sees it that way. In a country that is not sure whether it is (a.) obsessed with class, or (b.) merely obsessed with whether it is as obsessed about class as it used to be (if it ever really was), the survey got widespread attention. But some Britons thought the researchers had not considered the correct criteria.

“There are only two classes: those with tattoos, and those without,” said one Daily Mail reader, commenting on the paper’s article about the new categories.Another wrote: “What are they called in ‘Brave New World’? Alphas, Betas, Gammas and Epsilons? That’s well on the way to becoming a factual book. We already have most of the population on ‘Soma,’ ” a reference to the antidepressant in the book.The study was published in the journal Sociology and conducted by Ms. Devine in conjunction with Mike Savage, a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, and the BBC Lab UK.Throwing out the old formula by which class was defined according to occupation, wealth and education, it created in its place a definition calculated according to “economic capital,” which includes income and savings; “social capital,” which refers to whom one knows from among 37 different occupations; and “cultural capital,” which is defined as the sorts of cultural interests one pursues, from a list of 27.”

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