Why the BBC calculator utterly failed to grasp the modern British nature of class


8:45 am - April 4th 2013

by Salman Shaheen    


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The BBC is right to conclude in its Great Class Calculator that simplistic brackets such as upper, middle and working class no longer accurately reflect 21st century occupations and lifestyles.

But the Beeb’s alternative shows a poor understanding of how class actually operates.

Relying heavily on home ownership, salary and savings, the BBC takes a snapshot of people at a particular time.

But conspicuously missing from the BBC poll are questions about education and family wealth and the power they convey.

Let’s take the example of Benedict Whitehall. He went through Eton and Oxford, his family own an estate in Surrey, a villa in Tuscany and a successful business empire which he stands to inherit. He’s just graduated and has landed his first job as a junior researcher at a think tank. Because the BBC’s poll takes a snapshot of his relatively low pay and the fact he doesn’t yet own a home, he is deemed to be of a lower class than a train driver on £40,000 a year with a mortgage.

But Benedict will go on to inherit millions. He will use the contacts he made at Eton and Oxford to propel him through the ranks of the think tank until he is parachuted into a safe Conservative seat and he works his way to the front benches where he will wield considerable economic and political power. By this point he will no longer be deemed an emergent service worker (second from bottom), but an elite.

In this way, the BBC implies a level of social mobility which sadly doesn’t exist in society for all that has happened in the last decades to break down traditional class structures. Benedict was born an elite and he will die an elite.

And what of the media which is meant to hold these elites to account? Most journalists must spend their first couple of years working for free building up credits and contacts to break into the industry. Working for little to no money and renting expensive London accommodation, the BBC’s class calculator would place them at the bottom of the heap in the precariat. But how many of those journalists are eking out their precarious existences without generous parental support? Is the media really as open as the BBC would seem to be suggesting to such poor, disenfranchised people?

This is the real social divide which exists with out-of-touch millionaire politicians and their media pals.

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About the author
Salman Shaheen is the editor of International Tax Review magazine, co-editor of The Third Estate and a freelance journalist blogging here. Also at Left Foot Forward, New Statesman and on Twitter.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Economy ,Our democracy

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Reader comments


1. David Moss

Salman, I really like your writing generally, but there are a few problems here.

You seem to have missed the fact that the study (published in Sociology) has 3 dimensions: including social and cultural capital. Your Etonian would doubtless score very highly for cultural capital and social capital- all the advantages you mention (with the possible exception of his inheritance), are covered by those bases.

“Benedict” could just as easily be parachuted into a safe Labour seat of course.

He would only need to change his name to Ben.

Thanks David. I have a lot of time for Pierre Bourdieu – I did add a little caveat on the importance of social and cultural capital which seems to have been edited out. Nevertheless, having played around with the class calculator, it’s clear that much greater weight is given to economic capital than social and cultural capital. This in itself is fair enough, but the economic element does not factor in family wealth and the social/cultural does not factor in education. This results in an appearance of greater social mobility, when in reality middle and upper class people are just ageing into the positions they were always likely to attain.

4. Chaise Guevara

All of the outrage in this article is kinda reliant on ignoring the fact that the calculator allows for people changing class during their life. Benedict Whitehall’s class, “emergent services workers”, is blatantly designed to catch born middle/upper-class people who currently have low assets due to being young. In other words, they’ve made some effort to address the very issue you’re talking about.

Also, class is tricky to codify, especially if you’re trying to do it in a way that will work with a brief and easy online survey, so making a big deal out of its imperfections is a bit pointless unless you’re offering to replace it with a better calculator. You’re complaining about other people’s work without offering any alternatives, i.e. not helping.

Thanks Salmon. I don’t think that they do give more *weight* to economic factors. You can read the methodology in the full article. Having low economic capital would rule you out of the high E groups just as much as having low cultural or social capital would rule you out of the high C/S groups.

I do agree with you that their measures don’t fully take into account the effect of young age though. Hence why almost everyone I know (young Oxbridge graduates) has been bemoaning the fact that they’re Emerging Service Workers (even one youngish Oxbridge fellow) just like your young Tory heir. I think that these people (impoverished academics largely) are a small minority: the ESW group is mostly represented by bar workers. So I think the model largely works, it’s just that any survey is going to miss out a few outliers, e.g. people with no savings, but just about to inherit a fortune or with a huge stash of gold under their bed. In this case the exceptions will be clustered around young graduates, but if you look at the other categories, class mobility looks like it will be pretty fixed. Partly the problem is caused by their deliberate choice of ‘inductive’ analysis, seeing what classifications best fit the data. If they were more ‘deductive’ they could have gerrymandered the classifications to fit other factors a bit more.

Sorry: Salman (autocorrect)!

Chaise Guevara, I think my alternative is implied in my criticism. Include education and family wealth as factors.

8. Derek Hattons Tailor

Having completed it (Technical middle class which is middle class minus “culture”) I though it did account for social capital as in what sort of people you know socially ? His friends are unlikely to be cleaners and van drivers which would drive his score up. I thought the test was fairly good, it got away from this old fashioned idea that whatever job you do, if you go to tate modern and own an ipad you are somehow middle class. This has resulted in a large number of people suffering from what Marx called “false conciousness” believing you are middle class (and therefore voting accordingly) even when you are not.

9. Chaise Guevara

@ 7 Salman

OK, but even then you’d be able to come up with counterintuitive examples, because this kind of tool is always a rough guide.

And I still think you’re overlooking the fact that the “emerging service worker” category appears designed to prevent people like Benedict Whitehall being disingenuously labelled “working class”.

Chaise: ‘You’re complaining about other people’s work without offering any alternatives, i.e. not helping.’

Specious logic.

If a research scientist were developing a cure for cancer, yet one of the side-effects of his treatment was, say, heart failure, then another researcher would be ‘helping’ if all she did was identify the problem. She wouldn’t need to offer an ‘alternative’ to be helping. You falsely assume all help need be ‘positive’.

And there are a number of flaws in this methodological approach to class structure that need to be highlighted:

>it does not take age nor family background into account;

>its questions on home ownership do not properly draw out the shared living aspect – either with parents or friends;

>its questions on social and cultural capital completely miss the point – it matters little if I know a banker or listen to classical music, what matters is if I am part of a specific social and cultural environment where bankers meet against the backdrop of the opera and form networks which benefit each other in terms of personal and group advancement.

This is the type of methodology which privileges the superficial over all else. I really doesn’t tell us very much.

11. Fool on the Hill

@8 Derek Hattons Tailor

I came out as traditional working class – which is pretty much spot on.

I was amused to read the comments in the Guardian about this though – the first comment was from some geezer who had thought he was working class on the grounds that he worked – and commuted too, and it had told him that he was “elite”.

He was outraged – made me laugh.

12. Chaise Guevara

@ 10

“Specious logic”

No it isn’t. I’ve withdrawn the statement about the OP, but I’ll defend the logic behind the basic principle.

“If a research scientist were developing a cure for cancer, yet one of the side-effects of his treatment was, say, heart failure, then another researcher would be ‘helping’ if all she did was identify the problem. She wouldn’t need to offer an ‘alternative’ to be helping. You falsely assume all help need be ‘positive’.”

Identifying the problem is not the same thing as complaining. I have absolutely no issue with people identifying flaws. What I mind is people saying something is bad without offering an alternative, because “bad” is a relative concept. Bear in mind that “it would be better to do nothing” is a valid alternative.

So your researcher could say “we’ve found a side-effect, but I think the benefit outweighs it”, or “we’ve found a side-effect and I think the drug needs to be adapted/withdrawn” or just “we’ve found a side-effect”. All are fine. What would be unreasonable is if she agreed the drug was better than nothing, but still complained that it wasn’t good enough while not offering any suggestions to improve it.

I agree with your first two flaws, but not this one:

“its questions on social and cultural capital completely miss the point – it matters little if I know a banker or listen to classical music, what matters is if I am part of a specific social and cultural environment where bankers meet against the backdrop of the opera and form networks which benefit each other in terms of personal and group advancement.”

I can’t say I blame you, considering you’re posting on a political blog, but what you’ve done here is assume that the BBC has designed the survey with the idea that class is *only* about power and privilege. It isn’t. It’s also about how we categorise human beings (of course, there’s plenty of overlap). That’s why it’s not as simple as just comparing someone’s assets and opportunities to their age and being done with it.

I quite like being classified as an “emergent services worker”, despite the stupid name, because it’s more accurate than a finances-based test would be. Going purely by my income and assets, you’d categorise me as working class. But if I went around calling myself working class, people would laugh in my face and call me a poser. I’m one of those fairly young people who doesn’t earn much due to age and a lack of any huge interest in money, but from my manner, some of my interests, and especially my accent, people would instantly label me as middle class. The thing about the superficial is that it can be quite important in how humans perceive the world.

So me calling myself working class would be poser behaviour, and me calling myself middle class, while more reasonable, might belie my financial circumstances. Hence the usefulness of “emergent services worker” as a category. Not that I’m going to go around calling myself that, but it’s a useful distinction for a study.

On the flipside, the “technical middle class” category covers rich people who lack stereotypical middle-class trappings – they might otherwise be in the Elite set. And don’t tell me that we’re as likely to see a rich footballer or rock star as a member of the “elite” as we are a rich banker or owner of inherited wealth. If you have a local accent, call people “love”, drink Carling etc people are less likely to see you as “elite” compared to someone with an RP accent who calls people “darling” and drinks red wine*, even if you earn the same money and own the same value assets.

*Apologies for lazy list of working- and middle-class stereotypes, but it’s kinda the point.

13. Chaise Guevara

Yikes! Apologies for long post also.

14. Derek Hattons Tailor

Footballers are a good test of any classification system. They are as rich as merchant bankers but most are from traditional working class families, few got beyond secondary state education, their cultural interests are probably quite narrow and they associate mostly with other footballers and minor celebs. By wealth they are elite, by every other measure they are working class, but it would be absurd to categorise Wayne Rooney with a van driver, they live in different worlds.

Chaise: ‘Identifying the problem is not the same thing as complaining. I have absolutely no issue with people identifying flaws. What I mind is people saying something is bad without offering an alternative, because “bad” is a relative concept. Bear in mind that “it would be better to do nothing” is a valid alternative.’

No intention of having a big debate on this, just thought your comment was a little too flippant.

You need be more forgiving of the author: they identified some flaws and offered a critique, thus if they thought it ‘bad’ and wished to complain, at least they did so on an analytical basis.

I’m sure they’d say more, however this blog’s word limit policy means writers have to condense themselves into little more than a catchy tagline. You seem to expect a lot, Chaise, whereas Sunny expects his readers to be satisfied with a paragraph – it’s unfair to blame the writer for the editor.

Chaise: ‘I agree with your first two flaws, but not this one:’

I think you’re missing my point. Probably lack of clarity on my part.

The point is that if, e.g., we compare cultural tastes, then how on earth can a preference for classical music over, say, rap be a solid indicator of class, esp. in this day and age of ‘mass culture’?

The only reason we associate certain cultural pursuits with certain classes, is that around them has arisen a particular social network which has a logic separate from the activity itself – indeed the activity is inconsequential: one could just as easily have rap societies as one has operatic. (Think of the different class connections of rugby in England and Wales, e.g.)

This is what the survey misses, not least because it is very difficult to properly gauge, though they could have made a better effort. E.g., don’t ask what specific cultural tastes one has, but whether one pursues them through particular clubs and associations. That, I believe, would be a more worthwhile approach.

Furthermore, I don’t quite understand your assertion that class is twofold: on the one hand, about power and privilege, on the other, about ways to categorise humans – because class analysis is a way to categorise humans based on power and privilege, often with power and privilege in economic affairs/the workplace given primacy.

I do think it important to take social and cultural capital into consideration, but from what you say, it seems your picture of the cultural tastes of a working person is based on the sort of modern caricature of the Vick Pollard-esque yobbish estate dweller.

There is, however, in both this country and elsewhere a rich tradition of working-class culture based on ideas of intellectual and cultural improvement, and just because you’re a bright young lad with wide cultural tastes doesn’t mean you’re not working class – and nor does it mean the working class rejects you. 🙂

It is flawed, but at least it’s an attempt to look in greater detail at the issue of class.

The thing is, it fails to take account of varying degrees of mobility. A working class person with “cultured” tastes would fall under “emergent service worker” and stay there. Benedict is passing through in a purely technical sense – he’s absolutely one of the elite. Neither of these people’s real class is going to change.

But Benedict has a middle-class equivalent. Like him, they’re passing through ESW on their way back to the class they were born in: unlike him, their relative financial embarrassment, though likely temporary, is real. They will stay ESWs longer (Benny will likely tick the “elite” boxes long before he’s 30), and have to devote genuine work to ending up the same class as their parents. Which isn’t all that “established” if whole generations drop out of it, even if they only do so temporarily.

These three people have very different life experiences. Does one designation really cover them all?

How do these new classifications explain the antagonisms between classes which ultimately cause their existence?

What about us Quiet Bat People?

19. Chaise Guevara

@ 15 Feodor

“You need be more forgiving of the author: they identified some flaws and offered a critique, thus if they thought it ‘bad’ and wished to complain, at least they did so on an analytical basis.”

Like I said, objection to the author withdrawn.

“The point is that if, e.g., we compare cultural tastes, then how on earth can a preference for classical music over, say, rap be a solid indicator of class, esp. in this day and age of ‘mass culture’?

The only reason we associate certain cultural pursuits with certain classes, is that around them has arisen a particular social network which has a logic separate from the activity itself – indeed the activity is inconsequential: one could just as easily have rap societies as one has operatic.”

You’ve answered your own question. Of course it’d because certain activities are associated with the affluent. There’s certainly nothing inherent to classical that makes it “classy”.

“This is what the survey misses, not least because it is very difficult to properly gauge, though they could have made a better effort. E.g., don’t ask what specific cultural tastes one has, but whether one pursues them through particular clubs and associations. That, I believe, would be a more worthwhile approach.”

Again, only if we’re talking in financial terms.

“Furthermore, I don’t quite understand your assertion that class is twofold: on the one hand, about power and privilege, on the other, about ways to categorise humans – because class analysis is a way to categorise humans based on power and privilege, often with power and privilege in economic affairs/the workplace given primacy.”

I did say that there was significant overlap. Here’s my theory: “classy” interests like opera are indeed seen as classy because the more powerful cliques tend to prefer them. But when people use a term, they don’t sit and think about every connotation. So while opera is classy because wealthy people attend it, if you hear your friend is going to the opera, you might think that’s a classy thing to do without thinking about relative financial circumstances.

The upshot is that people build impressions of themselves and others based in large part on things like accent and personal interests. There are probably rich and powerful people out there who would be outraged if you accused them of being middle-class, ditto some poor and prospectless people who would be outraged to be called working class (not saying working class people are prospectless, just controlling for the poor-young-adult-about-to-be-given-stella-job-at-Dad’s-accounting-firm model).

So when the Beeb tries to assess class, it has to take this other model of the concept into account – one that is indeed derivative of the financial-based one, but that has acquired a life of its own.

“I do think it important to take social and cultural capital into consideration, but from what you say, it seems your picture of the cultural tastes of a working person is based on the sort of modern caricature of the Vick Pollard-esque yobbish estate dweller.”

I’m sorry, from where in ” a local accent, call people “love”, drink Carling ” did you derive “yob”? If you’re going to insinuate prejudice on my part, at least try not to show prejudice on your own while you’re doing it.

Anyhoo, as I made pretty damn clear, I was deliberately invoking stereotypes. I’m not talking about my reaction to certain indicators, I’m talking about the reaction of people in general. I’ve been accused of poshness by people with more money and power than me based purely on accent and manner. I’m sure the reverse happens all the time too.

“There is, however, in both this country and elsewhere a rich tradition of working-class culture based on ideas of intellectual and cultural improvement”

Again, what is it about Carling, the word “love” or local accents that makes you think of intellectual and cultural apathy? I really don’t need an inspiring speech on this subject from you.

“and just because you’re a bright young lad with wide cultural tastes doesn’t mean you’re not working class – and nor does it mean the working class rejects you.”

Again, we’re down to definitions.

This is a very nice article. This class calculator doesn’t exist anymore.

I agree with Chaise’s comment no 4 – it’s a very difficult thing to codify class in a quick ‘one calculator fits all’ type way.

We have had another look at it from a spending point of view in our “Brass Not Class” article on the Huffington Post here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/david-royle/brass-not-class-its-under_b_3059436.html

see what you think…


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