Sociologists should stop talking about social class
Once upon a time it meant something when we talked about social class. The concept was useful in describing social inequalities, or predicting outcomes such as illness and premature death. But the turn towards cultural and symbolic approaches to class in recent sociology has made ‘social class’ increasingly meaningless and empirically unhelpful.
For most of its history, sociology has explored the stratifications and inequalities it has observed among members of societies, most notably in terms of gender, race and social class, though also by ageing, education, occupation and sexual orientation. Of these, class has been considered the most purely ‘social’, both an outcome and a determinant of other social processes.
However, the importance of social stratification for the study of social divisions poses an immediate ontological question for sociology. Are ‘gender’, ‘race’, ‘class’ and other stratifications simply social constructs, figments of a sociological imagination, or representations of actual divides that have real effects on people’s lives and upon the way that society has developed?
One answer to this was supplied by Weberian sociology: sociological categorisations of people in terms of gender, race or class were ‘ideal types’. In this view, people ‘in the real world’ did not conform absolutely to the classifications described by the ideal types – ‘working class’, ‘man’, ‘Asian’ and so forth. For other sociologists, the aim was to model much more closely the ‘reality’ that their studies sought to reveal. Marx’s historical materialism is a good example – the class categories in his analysis: proletariat (workers) and bourgeoisie (owners of capital) were not ideal types, they were descriptions of real classes defined by their relation to the capitalist economy (Marx, 1959: 70).
Another was the Registrar General’s Classification, later refined into the National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC). This differentiated people into six and then eight categories, reflecting employment status from professionals to non-employed. This schema linked social class closely to income level, and demonstrated a strong class gradient when assessed against measures of ill-health, disability and mortality. This latter association led sociologists, epidemiologists and others to recognise the powerful effect of class position upon health.
More recent efforts at class analysis have been influenced by Pierre Bourdieu’s emphasis upon ‘symbolic capitals’. For Bourdieu (1984), ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ capitals – alongside economic resources – are stocks upon which a person or a group may draw to establish a social position, or to differentiate themselves from others. So for instance, a network of professional associates and interest and knowledge concerning literary fiction and classical music might serve as symbolic markers of class distinction. Participation in a trade association and a season ticket to a local sports team’s fixtures might define a different class position.
This perspective underpins a recent effort at UK class analysis, the ‘Great British Class Survey’. Based upon statistical analysis of a large dataset of people’s social, cultural and economic circumstances, a team led by sociologist Mike Savage (Savage et al., 2013) aggregated the UK population into seven classes, including a ‘precariat’ (a low income group often without a secure income), ‘emergent service workers’, ‘technical middle class’ and an ‘elite’ class. In Savage’s model, social capital is a measure of the breadth and social value of a person’s social networks (who and what occupational class of person they know), while cultural capital marks out their engagement with different cultural forms, from opera to sport to video games (Savage et al., 2013: 225-227). Economic resources are- household income, property and savings.
Social classes derived by Savage et al (2013)
Established middle class
Technical middle class
New affluent workers
Traditional working class
Emergent service workers
My criticism of this approach is that these classifications have divorced ‘social class’ almost entirely from the material circumstances of life. The ‘classes’ that emerge from the statistical techniques are artefacts rather than indicators of actual social divisions. To support this critique, let’s return to the correlations noted earlier that indicate a strong ‘class gradient’ in measures of health and well-being when class is defined by economic capital alone.
Studies paint a contradictory picture when symbolic capital is introduced into analysis of associations between ‘class’ and health inequalities. Story (2014) found that social capital could inhibit use of antenatal care, while increasing uptake of professional delivery care. Christensen and Carpiano’s (2014) study of body weight suggested that stocks of cultural and social capital were associated with higher BMI (via interest in cooking), but also with lower BMI through regular exercise! In their systematic review of 44 studies, Villalonga-Olive and Kawachi (2017) perceived a ‘dark side’ to social capital, when highly networked groups (especially among young people) generated ‘social contagion’ of unhealthy behaviours.
Such studies undermine the clear association between material conditions of life and a wide range of health measures identified in earlier studies: an association that has served policy-makers well in designing interventions to reduce health disparities and focus attention on materially-disadvantaged groups. These recent findings could be used to argue the complexity of social determinants of health. I would argue instead that they throw doubt on the concept of symbolic capital itself, given that it appears to act in such contradictory ways when its influence on health and well-being is put to the test.
For this reason, I suggest that the turn away from a materialist focus on objective social divisions toward concern with the symbolic and subjective significance of social networks and cultural practices has been retrogressive, and risks undermining projects to ameliorate social disadvantage.
But rather than advocating a return to a simplistic focus on economic capital alone, we need to acknowledge fully the materiality of social divisions and concomitant disparities in well-being. Social divisions emerge not only from people’s access to financial resources from work or other sources, but also from interactions with the natural and built environment; with the materialities that comprise workplaces, schools, hospitals and other institutions; with public and private transport; with consumer goods, with animals, food, technologies and many other elements.
Consider the range of interactions in the daily life of a professional such as a senior manager or an established academic. In addition to the economic capital of a good salary, pension rights and so forth, these professionals work in generally good-quality, well-regulated and amenable spaces and places: offices and laboratories, boardrooms or libraries, and indoor and outdoor communal spaces. Universities and corporate head offices are often located on landscaped campuses, leafy suburbs or central business districts, with good transport and associated infrastructure. Offices are well-equipped with desks and phones, communication, information and other technologies, and stationery supplies. Professionals will have access to public or private transport, to them to and from homes similarly equipped with comfortable and comprehensive facilities, with consumer goods and food and drink. Compare these material contexts of the professional life with those of a lorry driver, a call centre employee or a shop worker.
These interactions with the non-human are not symbolic markers of class distinction: they are foundationally material. And though it is hard to see why these aspects of daily life have been sidelined for so long in sociological class theories; it is clear that the turn to symbolic capital has moved us further from such a focus on materiality.
However, my aim with this counter-balancing ‘turn to matter’ is not to establish a new improved classification of social positions. Rather, it is to suggest that the sheer complexity of human interaction with the human and non-human material world requires that we abandon efforts to define three, four or seven classes. Instead, let’s get on with the serious business of making sense of how social divisions are produced and reproduced by material forces on a day-to-day basis. This work will be done not by factor analysis of big data, but by exploring the daily lives of people in all walks of life; making sense of how the materialities of these lives produce social and health inequalities; and using this understanding to find ways to close the gaps.
Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. Harvard University Press.
Christensen, V. T., & Carpiano, R. M. (2014). Social class differences in BMI among Danish women: applying Cockerham’s health lifestyles approach and Bourdieu’s theory of lifestyle. Social science & medicine, 112, 12-21.
Marx, K. (1959). Economic & philosophic manuscripts of 1844. Moscow: Progress.
Savage, M., Devine, F., Cunningham, N., et al. (2013). A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey experiment. Sociology, 47, 219-250.
Story, W. T. (2014). Social capital and the utilization of maternal and child health services in India: a multilevel analysis. Health & place, 28, 73-84.
Villalonga-Olives, E., & Kawachi, I. (2017). The dark side of social capital: A systematic review of the negative health effects of social capital. Social Science & Medicine, 194, 105-127.
Nick J Fox is Professor of Sociology in the Department of Behavioural and Social Sciences, University of Huddersfield, and Honorary Professor of Sociology in the School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR), University of Sheffield.