Social Class – Culture and Identity

Lesson objectiveTo explore social class in relation to culture and identity.
Lesson outcomes• Compare social class to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nationality, disability and age.
• Assess to what extent social class is still relevent today.
• Explain characteristics of different social classes in relation to culture and identity.


We have to remember that social class is a social construct and therefore, we shall be exploring just three main classes (as the exam board wants): Working (remember not to call it lower – this is from a Bourgeoisie perspective (thinking they are higher than everyone else)), Middle-Class, and Upper-Class. Crompton (2003) notes “Employment position has long been used as a proxy for class”.


The value of the working-class is focused on gaining skills for employment. Harris (2005) suggests “The idea of gaining qualifications for work gets opposed, discredited and de-valued”. This was demonstrated and supported further by Willis’s (1997) who showed that ‘lads’ wanted to leave school and look for employment as soon as possible.

Goldthorpe et al (1968) and Lockwood (1966) suggested the emergence of a “New Working-Class” which identifies a flattening curve economically. New Working-Class is different from the traditional working class as they have economic optimism and believe in social mobility (that they can move up the class system). Macmillan’s (1957) and Zweig’s (1961) coin the term “Embourgeoisement thesis” which claims that most classes are converging into an expanded middle class. Goldthorpe et al is critical of this idea and states that even though economically this “Embourgeoisement thesis” is visible, there are more factors that create a class identity eg. attitudes, values and

behaviours. These are still very different between the middle and working-class which still creates a distinction.

McKibbin (2000) characterises as “…a fairly distinctive lifestyle and cultural life; industrial villages such as those around coal mining or the industrial areas of the big cities typified this lifestyle with their terraced housing, pubs and working men’s

clubs, keenness on sports and…a rigid sexual division of labour”

Peele (2004), created the term “Privatised working class” which was the idea that “affluence had affected working-class attitudes, making workers more instrumental and less solidaristic”. In short, the working class are no longer linked to strong trade union membership and have become more capitalised (focusing on themselves). Linking to Goldthorpe et al (1968) and Lockwood (1966).

Peele (2004), for example, notes that “The shrinking of Britain’s manufacturing base and the rise of the service economy created a different social environment even

from that of the 1960s”. To summarise, by Britain moving towards alternative produce, rather than manufacturing, this weakened social bonds within the class creating fragmentation. Peele argues that this has resulted in “a blurring of traditional class identities”.


  • The characteristics of working-class culture has changed over the years with the transition of the UK economy from manufacturing to technology. This has changed the working class from having a close-knit community lifestyle and has made the class more focused on the individual rather than the collective.
  • Despite this, there is still some evidence to suggest the class still has some collectivism within it. There is often a view of them vs us.
  • There is a strong link between the working class and folk culture e.g. underground/ brass bands. 
  • Working-class tend to seek ‘immediate gratification’ (wanting results now). This is because they have an ethos of ‘present orientation’ where they focus on the now, rather than planning for the future.
  • This can lead to ‘Fatalism’ which is where working-class individuals tend to accept their fate and situation, rather than believing in social mobility.
  • Their education is work-based focused e.g. gaining skills for manual labour, rather than seeking qualifications to get into university.
  • The New-Working Class, as stated, has become more privatised as a result of economic principles. This means that working-class homes have become more focused on their household, rather than working with the community.
  • Individualism rather than collectiveness is now the norm.
  • There is a high consumption of popular culture – Prandy et al (2004) suggest “there is a gradual shift amongst the population from seeing themselves as working class to middle class”.
  • There is a weak focus on work and a higher status placed on consumer and leisure activities.
  • There has also been the creation of an ‘underclass‘ who are considered to be an emergency at the very bottom of the working-class. This has been as a result, again, of economic changes in Britain. Murray identifies some criteria:
  • 1) Higher levels of instability and/or single-parent households.
  • 2) Drunkenness or yobbish behaviour.
  • 3) Poor educational record e.g. getting excluded – Harris (2005) suggests “The idea of gaining qualifications for work gets opposed, discredited and de-valued”.
  • 4) Poor employment record.


Self and Zealey highlight that the middle-class accounts for 60% of the population.

Following Crompton’s (2003) lead about the relationship between occupation and class, middle-class identities are shaped by economic factors and we can identify a range of “occupational identities”. In summary, this demonstrates that there is a clear link between income and class. Brooks (2006) claimed that there were three identities that middle-class possessed.

  1. The idea of creating a middle-class identity interestingly according to Brooks (2006) was formed in opposition to working-class. Anyone who didn’t want the working class label identified themselves as working.
  2. They look down on the working-class. As Bourdieu (1984) put it “Social identity lies in difference, and the difference is asserted against what is closest, that which represents the greatest threat”.
  3. Social capital. “Catts and Ozga (2005) call the “social glue that holds people together in…communities and gives them a sense of belonging”. Bourdieu (1986) calls Cultural capital – the various (non-economic) resources, such as family and class background, educational qualifications, social skills, status and the like, that give people advantages and disadvantages over others.


  • Middle-class have a stronger commitment to education, instead of working-class. They understand the importance of using education as a stepping stone to a better future and success.
  • There is less of a collective approach and individuals are instead ushered into being more independent.
  • Individuals are encouraged to aim for deferred gratification rather than focusing on the here and now.
  • There is an increase in cultural capital allowing individuals to have more skills to succeed in life as well as education.
  • There is a sense of superiority where individuals think they are better than the working-class.


There tends to be two major groupings 1. Landed aristocracy (those who own large estates of land) and 2. Business elite (those who hold prominent positions in business).

Self and Zealey (2007) highlight the distribution of wealth for the upper-class.

Galbraith (1977) puts it: “Of all classes the rich are the most noticed and the least

studied”. Relationships are integral to the way the upper-class functions. This is called social capital. Cohen and Prusak’s (2001) observation that “…the trust, mutual understanding, shared values and behaviours that bind the members of

human networks”.


  • There is a strong focus on staying and operating within the same class e.g. marrying only upper-class individuals and not mixing with working.
  • Most socialisation (secondary) takes place at private institutions e.g. boarding schools.
  • Higher levels of cultural capital mean a lot of success is ‘who you know, instead of what you know’.
  • Individuals are encouraged to become leaders in society and aim for work positions like that e.g. MP.

Is social class still important?

Garfinkel coined the term “cultural dope” which is his way of criticising the extent that structural approaches believe people are. He believes that people are active in their decision making and can reject norms, values and other cultures.

Social class is not important. 

  • The influence of social class has become weaker and other factors e.g. ethnicity, gender are becoming more important.
  • Postmodernists believe that the metanarrative of social class has become insignificant as capitalism allows individuals to change class with relative ease.
  • Because of globalisation, identities are now more individualistic. It is no longer so simple as to blame one metanarrative for creating an identity, there are now too many factors.

Social class is important.

  • In the UK, class is still an important identity and many people ‘know’ what class they are in and use that as a label.
  • Social class will always be important as many mechanisms revolve around it e.g the area someone lives in, their pay, life expectancy etc.
  • Postmodernists treat all factors easily e.g. gender and ethnicity, however, they underestimate the importance of capitalism as a social factor e.g. low income may turn individuals to crime.

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