Sunday, 11 March 2012

British Class

The subject of social class has recently piqued my interest. I don't know why it interests me. I wouldn't (although others might?!) describe myself as being class conscious. I certainly don't have well formed opinions on the subject. I can't make up my mind whether it is good or bad, necessary or out-dated or something we should aspire to eradicate altogether.

I started reading an excellent book by the anthropologist Kate Fox titled Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. In this book she attempts to define a set of rules which underpin the everyday behaviour of the English. What makes this book so good is that instead of just recycling age-old stereotypes and clich├ęs she has undertaken her own social experiments to really test her hypothesis. This includes what must have totalled weeks of observations in various locations and environments ranging from pubs to railway stations. Beyond mere observations some of her experiments included deliberately bumping into people in the street, jumping queues and interrogating confused tourists, baffled by the nuances of English social habits.

Back to class.

Running throughout this book is the omnipresent subject of class. In almost every social situation we seem to have invented ways of classifying people. Kate Fox goes to great lengths to explain the sometimes bizarre and hypocritical indicators of class and status which we are all somehow aware of yet are bound from explicitly indicating or referencing. Kate Fox is obviously not the first person to write about this. Class and the class system is something that writers, reformists, politicians and historians have observed, opposed, debated and interpreted forever. It is this very fact which has got me thinking. Is there really anything British about Class?

To my girlfriends annoyance I've been pondering this recently and something she said really struck me. She is Canadian and she said something along the lines of:
"Of course you get upper/middle/lower classes in Canada but its not like in Britain where its such a big deal"
There clearly is something different about Class or the way it is perceived in Britain compared to North America or Europe and perhaps the rest of the world but what it is? Every society has people at both extremes of the social scale some kind of distribution in between. The nomenclature of upper, lower & middle as class labels translate readily into other cultures so whatever the difference is, it must be more than just the labels we use.

I can see one difference. The wealth of indicators we have in our repertoire for classification and for describing class is vast. One thing which is certain and which Kate Fox points out many times is that class is determined by more than wealth. It is clearly influenced by your parents and personal aspirations. The method of identifying peoples class must therefore be more complicated and detailed. As we've become more cultured, accumulated more material wealth and removed barriers to class entry through schooling and reform it has become harder to identify someone's class. This is not a bad thing. But just having lots of ways of determining someone's class doesn't explain why we as British people care more than anyone else about it (if in fact we do?). Instead it is just another symptom of its importance in society.

It is my suspicion that class matters as much to the rest of the world as it does to the English. Having only ever lived in England I'm not in a position to test this hypothesis! One stumbling point is that the term class is ambiguous, subjective, ill-defined and often read as class prejudice. The definition you use to describe class is itself influenced by your own class! This whole subject is a quagmire!

In this blog and in my head I define class in the mathematical sense as a collection of people with similar properties. This allows for people to have properties which qualify them as members of more than one class.

Melvyn Bragg, broadcaster, social/scientific historian and author has recently presented an excellent three-part documentary series looking at class and culture in Britain over the last 100 years. You can currently watch all three parts on iplayer (geographical restrictions apply):

1 comment:

Gavin said...

A bit slow on the uptake but a very well-written article. Having teetered on a class boundary for most of my life I find class an interesting idea and it sounds liek I should read Kate's book!
I think there is a certain "Keeping up with the Jones'" British-ness about it, but we do seem more focussed on it than other countries