Traditionally Britain has always been recognized as a ‘class society’, characterised by widespread awareness of social class membership, class inequality and the influence of class inequalities in employment prospects. However it has been argued that with “growing affluence, levels of education, social mobility and post – industrial economic development, class identities are losing their salience.” Saying this there is still substantial amounts of evidence to suggest that class inequalities are still very much inherent in British society especially with regards to social mobility.
One of the first factors in explaining class inequalities in Britain would have to be the differences in wealth and income. Carl Marx’s theory on income and wealth in western societies can be used to help explain this.
Marx believed that maturing of capitalism would bring about an increasing gap between the wealth of the minority and the poverty of the mass of the population. According the Marx the wages of the working class would never rise far above survival level, while wealth would pile up in the hands of those owning capital. Marx also believed that those in the low levels of society would suffer, “accumulation of misery, agony o labour, slavery, ignorance, brutality, moral degradation….” (Marx 1970. p 645).
From this quote we can see that to a certain extent Marx was right, especially about the persistence of class inequalities in industrialized societies such as the UK and in anticipating that great inequalities of wealth and income would continue. He was wrong however to assume that the income of most of the population would remain low. Most people in Britain today are much better off materially than comparable groups in Marx’s day. To examine how far, and why, this is the case we have to look at changes in the distribution of wealth and income of the past century in the UK.
From these figures we can see that wealth is concentrated in the hands of the very few. In Britain the top1% own 17% of all personal wealth. The most wealthy 10 percent of the population own half the total wealth. These figures indicate to what extent the gap between the rich and the poor is, and the distribution of wealth among the population.
The changes in the structure of work and employment are also very important in explaining class inequalities. Britain, America and other parts of Western Europe have now for a long time witnessed the decline of manufacturing industries and primary sector employment. The reasons for this decline are highly complex, although major contributing factors have been technological innovation and shifts in the global division of labour. The collapse of heavy industry in the west and the rise of industry in the east followed on from the 1970’s oil crises to plunge the Western world into recession, thereby stimulating a massive economic restructuring of society.
As the economy picked up once again, employment was created in the service sectors of the economy, in the tertiary and quaternary sectors, resulting in a dramatic decline in the numbers of what had long been considered to be traditional ‘working class’, and replacement by the white collar workers of the ‘middle classes. Due to these changes in occupational structure it has been argued that ‘work’ as employment has become considerably less important in the structuring of social attitudes.
Due to technological change and the expansion of state provisions, people are spending less time in paid employment and are therefore less dependent on the sale of their labour in order to obtain the services they need. Work as employment is therefore a declining importance as a source of social identity in the second half of the twentieth century.
As work declines in importance in the twentieth century, so too do other factors become relevant for the analysis of stratification systems. The most notable of these is consumption. People’s identities are increasingly expressed through consumption rather than production, and as a consequence it is argued, that outdated nineteenth century class theories, obsessed with productivism, should be finally abandoned. It is important to note here that the arguments do not suggest that the capitalist system is not highly unequal.
Some of the more recent debate concerning the concept of class has involved two main authors, Goldthorpe and Marshall. Goldthorpe and Marshall , in “The Promising Future Of Class Analysis: A response To Recent Critiques (1992)”, show the importance of social mobility in explaing class inequalities. Goldthorpe and Marshall argue that different social classes exhibit different ‘mobility characteristics’, or differing propensities to upward social mobility.
In terms of ‘inflow’ the crucial factor lies in the homogeneity of the class origins of those who make up the current class, and in ‘outflow’ terms, the degree of retentiveness or ‘holding power’. Whereas service classes of modern societies are highly heterogeneous and tend also to have great holding power, the working classes are highly homogenous in origin and show lower holding power. These mobility characteristics indicate a natural history of growth or decline in relation to the structural development of the economy and also a propensity for showing why it is difficult to understand class inequalities in Britain. .
The fact that classes show distinctive mobility characteristics is argued to indicate that classes can be defined by boundaries more concrete than purely arbitrary categories. The analysis of class and political partisanship exhibits similar evidence to support the usefulness of class as a concept.
Those who believe that the impact of class on life chances is in decline must follow the natural progression to the further claim that class is also of reduced importance in the determination of the response of individuals to their social situation, particularly through political partisanship. Class, it is suggested, is dissolving as the basis of political partisanship, and this is most evident in the declining support of working class for the parties of the left. Goldthorpe and Marshall cite the Conservative election wins of 1979 and 1983 as evidence of this, yet argue that this class change is due not to a disappearance of the working class, “instead a change in the shape of class structure, most importantly the growth of the services sector and decline in manufacturing”.
Again it is suggested that class maintains its role as a useful analytical tool. It is in my opinion therefore that the concept of class is still a valid concept. However it is a clouded concept with tremendous difficulties of definition in the context of the UK. We have to consider if social call really matters anymore? Goldthorpe and Marshall define their vision of class as a modern analytical tool and work within that framework. It is in this way that the concept of class will maintain its validity. Sociology is a dynamic subject, and although theories may have their roots in the nineteenth century, their relevance to British Society can be enhanced through definition and revision.
Overall one of the reasons class structures still exist in British society, is that the ides of class is embedded in people’s nature. Despite recent talks by politicians of the aim of a classless Britain, it appears that expectations associated with class structure, reflecting experiences of the reality of class differences in opportunities, have a persisting and significant influence on the publics understanding of who gets where in their society.
- Sociology (Anthony Giddens) 1997 Contemporary British Society p 168
- “The Promising Future Of Class Analysis: A response To Recent Critiques (1992)”
- “Political Ideology and popular beliefs about class and opportunity” (BJS) VOL 48 SEP 1997