Social and Cultural Inequalities in Britain: A Relational Analysis

Lead Research Organisation: London School of Economics & Pol Sci
Department Name: Sociology


Over the past 30 years there have been very different views as to whether social class still matters in contemporary UK. Influential sociologists such as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have emphasised the 'end of class'. Other sociologists such as John Goldthorpe have emphasised the entrenched nature of class inequalities. There are also uncertainties as to whether social class still affects cultural tastes and practices, and over how class conscious we are today.

In the context of current worries about the possible entrenchment of social inequality linked to the recession, my Fellowship will pursue a distinctive approach which explores both the objective and subjective/ cultural dimensions of class and stratification. I will further unravel 'the paradox of class' (Savage 2000), where class inequalities appear more marked in their effects on health, educational attainment, and income, but appear relatively unimportant in terms of people's overt identities, cultural tastes and values. I will pursue my research which argues that these apparently different findings can be reconciled through a 'relational' approach to social stratification. Thus, although the content of people's activities and identities (e.g. whether people identify as middle or working class, or prefer heavy metal or classical music) may appear to be relatively independent of class, their form (e.g. the way that they appreciate music, or claim to belong to a social class) remains highly socially specific.

My Fellowship will pursue these ideas into a major research statement through three specific projects, each to lead to a major book, and each to last a year. The first two of these will take advantage of two very important but relatively under-used data sets which I have helped to generate.

1. The BBC's Great British Class Survey (2011) on which I and Fiona Devine were consultants. This has generated a remarkable 161,000 valid responses and offers a very detailed source of data for examining inequalities in cultural, social and economic domains. I will build on the initial report written for the BBC documenting striking class divisions in cultural and social, as well as economic capital, to examine the coherence of social class groups and whether alternative occupational categories might give a better fit on the detailed BBC data.

2. The qualitative study on the 1958 National Child Development Study. In 2008-09 I was involved in a project collecting 230 qualitative interviews with a sub sample of the NCDS. I will examine this data, and link it to the panel data in order to explore the kinds of identities which these respondents articulate, and how they are related to their life histories and social backgrounds.

3. Finally, I will write a major research monograph which will elaborate a relational approach to social stratification avoiding the reductionist tendencies of traditional approaches to social stratification. This conceptualises the class structure not in terms of fixed attributes, but in terms of the complex relationships between social, cultural and economic factors. This approach to social stratification draws on important currents in social science theory, notably field analysis, social network theory, and assemblage theory, and I expect a monograph drawing these themes together will have major interest.

In pursuing these projects I will also make distinctive methodological contributions. These will include using multiple correspondence analysis to elaborate mixed method research strategies where individual qualitative interview accounts can be linked to survey responses. I will also contribute to developing strategies for the archiving of digital data. Through holding user workshops and international seminars I will also ensure that this research has the maximum possible reach.

Planned Impact

The BBC will be a major beneficiary of my work, drawing on, and extending, the excellent partnership we have developed as part of their Great British Class Survey (GBCS). This will involve (a) developing substantive findings about social class inequalities in the UK which are newsworthy and which they might want to promote in future broadcasts, (b) writing high profile scientific papers which they see as vital to establish the legitimacy of their web surveys and which they will take as evidence of the effectiveness of their education and public service missions, (c) developing specific methodological skills, using multiple correspondence analysis, in order to show how sample skews can be effectively controlled for.

Secondly, a wide range of non-academic organisations will be interested in how my findings shed light on social inequality and social mobility. These are areas of great policy and media interest, and my experience is that high quality academic research is prized by non-academic organisations (my research has featured in the Guardian, the Daily Mirror, and the Yorkshire Post). These bodies will include groups such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, as well as related Government Departments (such as the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the Department of Education and Skills). They will also include 'think tanks' such as the Institute of Public Policy Research.

Thirdly, it is likely that our GBCS findings exploring the specific effects of studying at particular universities will be of great interest to these universities, as well as to HEFCE. This will be the largest study of its kind, which will be able to distinguish how particular kinds of university attendance is correlated with economic, social and cultural profiles, and especially in the context of increasing student fees my findings are likely to have considerable coverage. Although I will only release findings which are of general interest and which do not promote or denigrate particular universities, it is still likely that they will generate considerable interest in the media, in policy circles, and amongst the universities themselves.

Finally, I will work with non academic audiences in the cultural sector, such as DCMS and the Arts Councils, to use the especially wide ranging questions on cultural practices and tastes to help them reflect on their policies. Here I will build on my already strong relationships with these bodies established through my role at CRESC.


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Description I have developed a major contribution by linking debates on social class and stratification to wider conceptualisations of inequality, permitting inter-disciplinary cross-fertilisation with economists and other socia scientists. Of particular importance was the Great British Class Survey, which has had unprecedented public as well as academic interest - and led to a large number of publications. This work has argued for a new understanding of class, not as a set of categorical groups, but as linked to multi-dimensional processes of capital accumulation. Using this perspective, i have argued that class relations today are characterised by a breakdown of a clear divide between middle and working class, and pulling away of elites. i have insisted on the need to study elites, not only as economically advantaged groups, but also as having distinctive cultural and social advantages. This work also explored the value of using the concept of the precariat as a means of conceptualising those who are disadvantaged. I have been responsible for championing a new sociology of elites which is leading to numerous publications by myself and collaborators.

Linked to this work has been a series of interventions seeking to link the research of economists with that of sociologists. Rather than focus on social classes as defined by occupations and employment, we have followed Bourdieu in using a concept of 'economic capital' which allows measures of income and wealth to be seen as associated with social class.I have also drawn especially on the work of Piketty to develop an argument about the role of 'accumulation' in class formation.

My focus on class as multi-dimensional - the product of economic, cultural and social capital - and not as a unitary variable is offering a powerful platform for understanding what I have termed 'the new politics of class', which in my view offers a fertile way of exploring the politics of populism as articulated in Brexit. In my work on the GBCS, as well as the ongoing work using the National Child Development Study, I have shown how established ideas of class are generally resisted since they are seen as dated and no longer relevant. However, amongst disadvantaged groups there is a very intense feeling of being marginalised, and an anger directed at elites and experts. My forthcoming work will explore this further using mixed methods research from the NCDS

I have also sought to further theorise the importance of spatiality and temporality with respect to inequality. Much theorising of inequality, including the 'relational' perspectives which animated my proposal, focus on the spatial aspects of inequality - using concepts such as boundaries, fields, and networks. I have increasingly become interested - following Bourdieu and Piketty- in understanding how the temporal dimensions of inequality cannot readily be captured by these spatialising metaphors and how we need to develop a more process oriented perspective. Thinking these arguments through will be the main focus of my future research over the next 2-3 years.
Exploitation Route Given the extent to which inequality has emerged as a major public issue during the course of my Fellowship, my ideas are widely turned to by those looking to extend our understandings beyond purely economic dimensions to include cultural and social aspects. It is this part of my thinking which has interested philanthropic funders who wish to develop new expertise in the multi-dimensional analysis of inequality.

also, i have left an archived data set - the Great British Class Survey - available for public use. The very large sample size has allowed very granular studies, such as of artistic and cultural occupations, and has led to other projects - such as that developed by the Guardian - to examine class inequalities in creative occupations.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Creative Economy,Education,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Have informed media debates on inequality and social class, including discussions with MPs, Market researchers, school teachers, think tanks, 3rd sector organisations,
First Year Of Impact 2013
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description Atlantic Fellows programme - associated with International Inequalities Institute
Amount £64,500,000 (GBP)
Organisation Atlantic Philanthropies 
Sector Private
Country Ireland
Start 08/2016 
Description HEFCE award to International Inequalities Institute
Amount £32,500,000 (GBP)
Organisation NIHR/HEFCE Higher Education Fund for England 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2017 
Description Leverhulme Doctoral Studentships
Amount £1,000,000 (GBP)
Organisation The Leverhulme Trust 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 09/2015 
End 09/2020
Title Great British Class Survey 
Description This is the data gathered by BBCUK from 2011 to 2013 which formed the underpinning of the research on the Great British Class Survey. it consists of 325000 responses to the GBCS web survey and 1025 responses to a nationally representative survey conducted by GFK. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2016 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact See publication list for full details