Is the UK becoming a classless society? Part 5 of 6

Part Five  The Great British Class Survey , the  Precariat and the British Social Attitudes Survey


  1.  The  GreatBritish Class Survey

 These links provide useful introductory information on the Great British Class Survey.

What is your 21st Century Social Class?

The BBC Great British Class Survey

BBC TV clips on the Great British Class Survey

These links provide more detailed information on the Great British Class Survey:

Thinking Allowed on the Great British Class Survey

Article by Danny Dorling on the Great British Class Survey

Click here for the 2013 article by Mike Savage and Associates, which summarises in considerable detail the key findings of the GBCS.

Click here for a discussion with Professor Mike Savage on Social Class in the 21st Century (a book on the nature of British class structure focussing on GBCS findings).

Click here for an LSE Lecture Event on Social Class in the 21st Century.

Click here for slides accompanying the LSE presentation.

Useful set of Guardian items including David Rose and Guy Standing.

Click here for Thinking Allowed on the nature of the Precariat (Discussion between Lisa McKenzie and Guy Standing on the nature of the Precariat).

Click here for a recent article on the working class and the Precariat from Lisa Mckenzie, and here for some information on her recent book Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain (2015).

Click here for links to complex theoretical articles. Some are accessible, some are not.

 The following items use a Bourdieusian approach to the analysis of the UK class structure:

Click here for Thinking Allowed: Dr Sam Friedman on “The Class Ceiling”.

Click here for LSE Podcast “The Class Ceiling: Why it pays to be privileged”, Dr L Ashley, Dr S Friedman, Dr D Laurison, Dr F Shaheen.

The Great British Class Survey (GBCS) was devised by Professor Mike Savage and a large team of researchers with the intention of developing a distinctive approach to the analysis of the UK class structure based upon the theoretical ideas of Pierre Bourdieu. Consequently, in this new model of the UK class structure an individual's social-class position was to be assessed by his/her possession of economic, cultural and social capital rather than by the criteria used in the well-established official NS SEC class schema. There would thus be a measure of controversy among analysts committed to the different approaches, although Professor Savage has emphasised that his aim has always been to complement the NS SEC schema rather than to replace it.

 The GBCS questionnaire form was published on the BBC website on 21st January 2011, where it was and completed by 161,458 respondents. However it soon became abundantly clear that the questionnaire had been completed disproportionately by respondents from higher levels of the occupational structure, and a smaller nationally representative sample of 1026 people was therefore constructed by the market research company GFK and launched as a face-to-face survey in April 2011.  Also, it was soon found that although the researchers classified about 15% of the population as belong to the Precariat (see later), members of the Precariat were highly unlikely to have completed the survey, and so further ethnographic research was carried out by Dr Lisa McKenzie to collect information on members of the Precariat.

 Once the analysis of the survey data was completed, its results were publicised in sociological journals and in a public lecture at the LSE, and in 2015 the authors of the GBCS published Social Class in the 21st Century, which combines information from a variety of sources of British class analysis with the detailed data from the GBCS. The authors also outlined their findings in a public presentation at the LSE immediately prior to the publication of their book.

In this document, I aim first to summarise some of the main conclusions from these sources on the GBCS, and then to summarise some criticisms which have been made of the GBCS.

9.1. The Great British Class Survey: Main points

  1. The authors of the GBCS generate a Bourdieusian model of the British class structure in which individuals’ class positions are seen as being determined by their economic, cultural and social capital rather than by some combination of their occupations, incomes and wealth, as has usually been the case in other analyses of the British class structure.
  2. In the study, individuals' economic capital is measured by levels of income, home ownership and savings.
  3. Individuals' cultural capital is measured by questions seeking to assess "their ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods and credentials". Thus questions were asked about leisure activities, musical tastes, use of the media and food tastes as well as educational levels. The results of this aspect of the survey lead the researchers to draw a distinction between individuals who are culturally engaged and those who are culturally disengaged, and within the category of culturally engaged individuals a further distinction is drawn between those with high-brow tastes and those with emergent cultural capital.
  4. To assess levels of social capital, individuals were asked how many people they knew in each of 37 different categories, and their social capital was assessed using summary statistics measuring the average social status of these people such that individuals who know many higher-class individuals are said to possess greater social capital.
  5. The authors then argue that a model of class structure can be constructed in which social classes are determined not only by income and occupation but also by wealth and individuals' possession of cultural and social capital.
  6. It was argued that it was important to include cultural capital and social capital as dimensions of social class because these dimensions of capital contributed significantly to overall class identities and to the intergenerational reproduction of social classes. Thus, for young people the possession of high levels of cultural and social capital would facilitate their entry into high-status occupations, whereas for those with lower levels of cultural capital the reverse would be true.
  7. Furthermore, it is argued that members of the Precariat are likely to be hurtfully mocked because of their limited possession of cultural and socially capital, as in Bourdieusian terminology symbolic violence is inflicted upon them. They are themselves blamed for their own disadvantaged situation in a way that helps to create the political conditions for continuing low levels of welfare benefits for the poor.
  8. You can Click here for the 2013 article by Mike Savage and associates, which summarises in considerable detail the key findings of the GBCS.
  9. The following table taken from this article illustrates the shape of the class structure discovered via the GBCS. A 7-Class Model of the UK class structure is presented based upon the possession of different combinations of economic, cultural and social capital.

Table Summary of social classes

  1. Members of the Elite (who account for 22% of the population) have significantly greater levels of economic capital, cultural and social capital than the Precariat (who account for 15% of the population). The authors argue that their model gives greater attention to the characteristics of the Elite than has been given, say, in the NS SEC classification.
  2.  The other social classes occupy locations between the Elite and the Precariat.
  3. The Established Middle Class is a large social class which is clearly second in the hierarchy.
  4. Class 3 is not necessarily to be ranked above Class 4.
  5. Classes 5, 6 and especially Class 7 are the more disadvantaged classes.
  6. With regard to Social Class 7, Professor Savage and his colleagues state that they have chosen to use the term "Precariat" rather than "Underclass" because they see the latter term as particularly associated with versions of underclass theory which seek to associate the poor with cultural deprivation and welfare dependency, whereas Professor Savage and colleagues associate the Precariat with the structural inequalities endemic in capitalist society.

9.2. Some Criticisms of the GBCS


As we have seen, the construction of the GBCS involves considerable technicalities, and the discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the GBCS is itself highly technical. In the following section I list briefly some of the criticisms which have been made of the GBCS, but students requiring further details will need to consult the links which were provided above.

  1. It is argued that the NS SEC classification is to be preferred because it focuses on employment relations as the basic determinant of social-class position. In this view, cultural capital is not seen as a determinant of an individual's social-class position but as the effect of an individual's social-class position which is determined fundamentally by employment relations.
  2. It is argued that individuals' levels of social capital may not necessarily help to determine their social-class position. For example, parents with high levels of economic capital may nevertheless not attend operas and serious theatre productions because they feel obliged to take their children to football matches or Take That concerts.
  3. Guy Standing's definition of "the Precariat" differs significantly from that used in the GBCS.
  4. Marxists have argued that the economically dominant Bourgeoisie is also a politically dominant ruling class, and the distribution of political power has then come to be analysed in terms of the competing theories of Marxism, Pluralism and Elite Theory. It can therefore be argued that the GBCS has little or nothing to say about relationships between social class and political power.
  5. It is also argued that although the GBCS identifies an Elite comprising about 6% of the population, it is also necessary to focus on the economic and political power of a Super Elite comprising perhaps 1% or even 0.1% of the population. The GBCS has nothing to say about the political power of the Elite. . Click here for an article by Graham Scambler which points to the limitations of the NS SEC [ and subsequently the GBCS] for the analysis of the higher reaches of the UK class structure.
  6. The construction of the GBCS has raised many theoretical and technical issues. However, in terms of the discussion as to whether the UK is becoming a classless society, the results of the survey suggests that when social class is measured in a Bourdieusian framework based upon economic, cultural and social capital, the UK certainly cannot be regarded as a classless society.
  1. The Precariat: ProfessorGuyStanding

The Precariat: the new, dangerous class (Video Lecture by Professor Guy Standing) June 2015 ******

Three-part series by Guy Standing: one; two; three  (Once you click on the third link you will find also the links to parts one and two)

The Precariat : Today's Transformative Class: Essay by Guy Standing

Guy Standing and the Precariat: John Harris Guardian article

The Precariat: A bogus concept? by Jan Breman

Article by Guy Standing: response to Jan Breman on the Precariat

Is the precariat a class? by E.O. Wright

The Precariat (Thinking Allowed with Laurie Taylor, Prof Guy Standing and Dr Lisa McKenzie) NEW June 2015


 Guy Standing argues that "... leaving aside agrarian societies the globalisation era has resulted in a fragmentation of national class structures" and that "broadly speaking while the old classes resist in part of the world we can identify 7 groups", although he elsewhere includes as an 8th group, "The Plutocracy", who are a very small, extremely wealthy and politically powerful group at the top of the Elite. Among these groups, Standing focuses almost entirely on the analysis of the Precariat which, he claims, accounts for approximately 25% of the overall class structure of many societies. The following distinct groups are considered by Standing, although it is highly doubtful whether he wishes to suggest that each of these groups are actually social classes, and he sees the Precariat as "a class in the making" rather than a class in itself in the Marxist sense.

  1. The Plutocracy
  2. The Elite
  3. The Salariat: well-paid managerial and profession workers
  4. The Proficiens: professional technicians who may by choice sometimes prefer employment on well-paid but short-term contracts
  5. The Proletariat: individuals who continue to be employed in steady working-class jobs
  6. The Precariat
  7. The Unemployed
  8. The Lumpenprecariat: "a detached group of socially ill misfits living off the dregs of society".

The Precariat

 Standing analyses the Precariat in terms of the following 7 types of insecurity which he believes they may face:

  • The possibility of unemployment because governments no longer give as much priority as they once did to the maintenance of full employment.
  • The possibility of unemployment because the opportunities to appeal against unfair dismissal are now weaker.
  • The possibility that the status and hence the payment for their work may be downgraded.
  • The possibility that they may suffer accidents at work due to inadequate health and safety legislation.
  • The possibility that there are inadequate opportunities for training and career advancement.
  • The possibility that income may be too low to secure an adequate standing of living due to inadequate minimum wage legislation and/or inadequate welfare benefits.
  • The possibility of being unrepresented within the firm and within the political system.

 Consequently, members of the Precariat experience anxiety, anomie, alienation and anger and this is what, according to Guy Standing, makes them a class in the making and a dangerous class.

 Guy Standing argues that the Precariat contains the following main groups:

  • Some members of the Salariat who now feel that their conditions of employment are now relatively insecure. Examples may be managers who fear that will be made redundant due to industrial restructuring and academics who are employed on short-term contracts. However, the levels of precarity experienced by these groups may be less than that experienced by other groups within the Precariat.
  • Males who have lost once permanent jobs in manufacturing industry due to deindustrialisation in advanced societies and have been obliged to accept poorly paid insecure employment in routine service jobs, for example in call centres.
  • Women employed in poorly paid, often part-time routine jobs.
  • Immigrants who are discriminated against in the labour market and in society more broadly. Click here for information on the Windrush scandal. Click here and here for Yarls Wood. Click here for undocumented migrants and Covid 19.
  • Young unqualified males and females.
  • Young well-qualified males and females who are obliged to accept employment in jobs for which they are overqualified and do not enable them to make use of the knowledge and skills which they have accumulated via post-compulsory education.

 He states also that the Precariat is a divided class in the making, a divided class containing social groups which he categorises as Atavists, Nostalgics and Progressives and among which there currently exists considerable conflict.

 Atavists are members of the Precariat who have lost steady proletariat jobs due to the effects of globalisation and deindustrialisation, which has destabilised working-class communities in traditional industrial areas. These workers are likely to believe that their employment prospects have been worsened through immigration, and they may also espouse a range of authoritarian conservative beliefs which may predispose them to support emerging neo-Fascist parties. In the UK, they have been especially likely to support leaving the EU in the belief that this will result in reduced immigration.

 As we have seen, many immigrants are especially likely to lead a precariatised existence, and in particular they may be heavily discriminated against in the labour market and experience racism in society on a daily basis. However, they are unlikely to seek government assistance for fear that their immigration status may be questioned, and they may be forced to return to their country of origin. Consequently, Standing argues that this section of the Precariat is likely to avoid active participation in the political process, although they may be involved in sporadic demonstrations. This group is described as the Nostalgics: nostalgic in the sense that they feel they have been robbed of the economic, social and political rights which they thought would be available to them.

Finally, Standing identifies a group of Progressives who are the mainly young, well-educated members of the Precariat who support a range of progressive causes around economic, racial and gender equality, gay rights and environmental sustainability.

It is clearly that both the Atavists and the Progressives could represent a challenge to the existing political order from the Left and the Right respectively, but Standing hopes that the three separate distinct groups within the Precariat will eventually find a unity which will enable them to challenge the existing order much in the same way as Marx hoped that the Proletariat would challenge the existence of capitalism. It is for this reason that Standing argues that although the Precariat is as yet still class in the making, it will also become "the new dangerous class".

Several criticisms have been made of Standing's theory:

  • As he himself admits, his overall model of class structure is not developed in great detail, given his focus especially on the nature of the Precariat.
  • It might be argued that members of the traditional working class have themselves suffered increasing levels of precarity, especially from the 1970s onwards,, and that precarity is now increasing for members of the middle class who can no longer expect, once they enter employment, to have a "job for life". However, this does not necessarily mean that a new class (the Precariat) is developing.
  • It has been argued by among others, Lisa Mackenzie (one of the researchers involved in the Great British Class Survey) that Standing has given insufficient attention to differences in economic, social and cultural capital within the his version of the Precariat, and that for example young well-qualified individuals may experience a precariatised position only temporarily, after which they will be able to use their relatively high levels of economic, social and cultural capital to achieve upward social mobility within the class structure. However, Standing himself does recognise this possibility for some but not all of the young well-educated members of the Precariat
  • Instead, the GBCS theorists use the term Precariat to refer to a social class mired, in many cases, more or less permanently at the bottom of the class structure because of limited economic, social and cultural capital. As used by the GBCS theorists, the term "Precariat" is used as an alternative to "underclass" since these theorists wish to distance themselves from the kind of cultural pathology which is applied to underclass members, most notably in versions of underclass theory associated with Charles Murray.
  • Other theorists have argued that although a wide range of people may experience different forms of precarity their overall social class circumstances vary significantly such that they cannot be regarded as occupying a similar social class situation. Thus junior managerial workers and academics on short term contracts may well experience a degree of precarity but this does not place them in the same social class position as, say, poorly educated, unskilled workers on zero hours contracts.
  • Standing hopes that ultimately the Precariat might unite in the cause of a more progressive future, but critics, even if they support Standing's progressive ideals, see no reason to believe a disparate group of precariatised individuals will unite in support of progressive political action, desirable as this may be.

 These criticisms may well have some merit, but my own opinion (for what is worth) is that even if one does not necessarily accept that a new class is developing, Guy Standing's analysis of increasing precarity within modern capitalism is very enlightening. Noam Chomsky has said that The Precariat is "a very important book". That will do for me!

  1. British SocialAttitudes Surveys and Perceptions of Social Class Structure 

Click here for BSA survey no. 33 and see chapter on class, and here for BSA survey no. 30.

 Click here for LSE item.

 In their article for the 2016 British Social Attitudes Survey Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon have provided information on contemporary perceptions of the nature of the UK class structure. Among the key points which they make are the following:

  •  In unprompted questions, more than 50% of respondents stated that they did not see themselves of any social class, which on the face of it could perhaps be seen as giving at least some support to Ulrich Beck's perspective on the declining significance of social class.
  • However, once they were prompted as to the possible existence of social classes, 60% of respondents classified themselves as working class and 40% classified themselves as middle class.
  • Despite the fact that since 1983 the proportions of individuals in managerial and professional jobs had increased significantly, there had been little change since 1983 in the proportions of individuals classifying themselves as working class and middle class respectively.
  • Just under 50% of respondents who were in managerial and professional jobs (and could therefore be described as objectively middle class) nevertheless described themselves as working class.
  • Although it may have been more reasonable for respondents to deny the significance of social class differences in the era or relative economic stability one would expect perceptions of class difference to intensify in the aftermath of the financial crisis and subsequent economic recession

For Part 6 - Click Here