“Researcher: research thyself”
This week a petition opened which challenged Ian Duncan-Smith to live on £53 per week after he said that he could if he ‘had to’. At the time of writing over 370,000 people have signed it, over 18 times the number of people who voted for him at the last general election. Although it is very unlikely that he will actually pull off the stunt, he seems to have a clear conscience about impoverishing the most vulnerable in society whilst benefiting from his own personal inherited wealth.
Continuing the ‘Go on, do it yourself’ theme of the week – and in a blatant rip-off of the ‘Physician, heal thyself’ proverb – I decided to use some of my leave time this morning to undertake a bit of self-research. Coming across the BBC News feature on the UK now having ‘seven classes’, provided an ideal opportunity so I decided to take the test myself.
As in the presentation of all my research findings, I will start with the methodology first.
The survey of over 160,000 people included questions on three forms of capital – economic, social and cultural. Clearly inspired by Pierre Bourdieu – whose work has also inspired the Connecting People study – the researchers measured individuals’ levels of capital in order to group people into classes.
To measure social capital, they used the Position Generator. This is a commonly-used research tool which asks respondents if they know people with certain occupations. Each occupation assumes a different position in the occupational hierarchy from which can be derived a proxy of social capital accessible within one’s network. A collaborator of mine, Martin van der Gaag, has a website of useful information on Position Generators if you’re interested in finding out more. I have also written a post about a paper I wrote with Martin last year on the reliability of Position Generators.
In the Connecting People study we are using the Resource Generator. This is a variant of the Position Generator, but asks respondents about access to resources rather than occupations. It too provides data on an individual’s access to social capital.
I find it interesting that social capital is now being used as a measure of class. Not only does this emphasise the importance of social relationships, social networks and social connections, it suggests that we can influence our class position by changing the people we know socially. This reflects research findings that social capital is important for socio-economic position, so it is perhaps not unreasonable.
So, to the test itself. I took both the short and long tests available on the BBC website. The short test is not as reliable as the long one, but I found that it came up with the same result as the long one the first time I took it. When I repeated the short test two more times it came up with different results each time, showing that your first answers are the ones that count and you shouldn’t waste your time repeating the test to see if you can improve your class position!
I fell in the new ‘technical middle class’ group, estimated to be only 6% of the UK population with an average age of 52. This group are described as being relatively prosperous but are “less culturally engaged”. Also, they “have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged”. This kind of fits. I have a decent job, but don’t get out much. Or, in other words, this is a polite way of describing me as a ‘geek’! Just as we are promoting social engagement in the Connecting People study, I think I need to take a dose of my own medicine.
The important thing about this survey is not which group you are in, but the bigger picture of UK society it presents. It shows us that traditional class stereotypes are outdated as both the working and middle classes have evolved. The authors suggest that the extremes of our class system – the ‘elite’ and the ‘precariat’ – are very important. Tantalizingly, they don’t say anything more about this and the full paper, published today in the journal Sociology, is not yet available online.
Bringing us full circle to where we started, the gulf between our ruling elite and the poorest in society is an enduring feature of British society. But the huge inequality it creates is harmful to the health and wealth of the UK. Rather than retreating to their inherited mansions, politicians need to wake up to this and do something about these harmful social divisions.