The role of class in shaping social attitudes
How do the British public’s attitudes and values differ according to the social class they are in? And how similar is the relationship between attitudes and class to that which existed in the early 1980s?
The proportions of people who identify as working and middle class have remained stable since the early 1980s.
In 2012, six in ten people in Britain think of themselves as ‘working class’ while a third think they are ‘middle class’; the proportions were the same in the early 1980s.
The belief that class affects opportunities has remained stable since the early 1980s.
66% of people say that a person’s class affects their opportunities “a great deal” or “quite a lot”. In 1983, 70% thought class affected an individual’s opportunities.
In the early 1980s social class had strong correlations with a person’s attitudes to welfare and how liberal they were.
In 1984 lower socio-economic groups were more likely to support increased government taxation and spending, and be less liberal on issues such as premarital sex.
Over the last 30 years, the attitudes of the British public have become less strongly linked to their social class.
Ethnicity and religiosity are now more salient than class in affecting liberal attitudes – notably on sexuality and household relationships.
This chapter addresses the question of how far British people's attitudes and values differ according to the social class they are in, and whether the relationships we see now between someone's attitudes and their class are the same as we saw 30 years ago, when British Social Attitudes began in 1983.
The last 30 years have seen profound political, economic and social changes. The context in which the British public forms its views has altered. Moreover, as a result of some of these changes, what it means to be in a particular social class now is not necessarily the same as it was three decades ago.
In the early 1980s, Britain was in a deep recession, where unemployment hit traditional industrial and manual jobs especially hard. In these early years of Margaret Thatcher's first Conservative government, class politics were clearly evident, with the Labour Party moving dramatically to the left and the trade union movement seeking to resist government policy, as became apparent in the miners' strikes in 1984 and 1985. A sign of the times was that, in 1981, nearly 20 per cent of the British population thought there was a "need for revolutionary change", the highest proportion in Europe (Ginsbourg, 1990: Table 30, p445).
In 2012, Britain is once again in recession, but this time the focus is on the financial sector and the services rather than on manufacturing, and there is little overt sign of class polarisation between the political parties. In the intervening period between the early 1980s and 2012, there has been notable deregulation of the economy and of welfare provision. The radicalism of the trade union movement has become more muted and New Labour plays down any specific links it might claim to the working class.
What was a strong relationship in the early 1980s between someone's social class (measured according to someone's socio-economic group) and their identification with a particular political party is now a weaker one (Tables 7.1 and 7.2). In 1984, managers and professionals were twice as likely to support the Conservatives as to support the Labour Party (around a half compared with around a quarter did so). By contrast people in the manual working classes were twice as likely to identify with Labour as with the Conservatives (again, around a half compared with around a quarter). In 2012, the professional and intermediate classes are actually more likely to support the Labour Party (38 per cent) than to support the Conservatives (29 per cent). The identification of the manual working classes with the Labour Party has shrunk considerably (to around 40 per cent), although it remains well ahead of their identification with the Conservatives (which is around 20 per cent). Perhaps most strikingly of all, the proportion of all classes who do not identify with any party had risen substantially since 1984: for instance, in 2012, a third (31 per cent) of people in the semi or unskilled manual working classes does not identify with a particular party, compared with seven per cent in 1984. The Politics chapter includes more detailed analysis of trends in party identification.
Wider social changes, notably with the proportion of ethnic minorities increasing from four per cent in 1981 to 10 per cent in 2011 (Office for National Statistics, 2012a), and the diversification of household structure (where the proportion of households consisting of couples with children fell from 39 per cent to 27 per cent between 1981 and 2011 (Office for National Statistics, 2012b) have also changed the social landscape.
We thus have an interesting paradox. On the one hand, it is clear from Tables 7.1 and 7.2 that contemporary Britain is marked by strong and pervasive class divisions, measured 'objectively' according to someone's socio-economic group. In turn, these lead to sustained and possibly increasing inequalities across classes, evident in key measures of life chances ranging from educational attainment to health and morbidity. People with working-class jobs are, for example, more at risk of unemployment than those in professional jobs. Increasing disparities in income are driven by accentuating occupational class inequalities (Williams, 2013). Yet, on the other hand, as Tables 7.1 and 7.2 show, the traditional relationship between class and political affiliation has declined, and fewer people identify with any political party. Plus, although we can 'classify' people according to their socio-economic group, when we ask people to classify themselves into a particular social class - what we refer to as someone's 'subjective' social class - nearly half of the British population is reticent to do so. And this is no different now to how it was when the questions were first asked in 1983. Over the past 30 years, surveys (formerly the British Election Study latterly British Social Attitudes) have asked the following questions:
Do you ever think of yourself as belonging to any particular class? Which class is that?
If respondents do not spontaneously put themselves as either "middle" or "working class", they are prompted to do so with the question -
Most people say they belong either to the middle class or the working class. If you had to make a choice, would you call yourself middle class or working class?
Table 7.3 shows people's propensity over the years to identify themselves as being middle class or working class. The proportion of people feeling that they are middle class (around a third) or working class (around six in ten) has not changed much over the 30 year period. Nor has the fact that only half of the population spontaneously places themselves as belonging to either class, with others only doing so when prompted to put themselves into one camp or the other.
Although people are no more or less likely in 2012 as in 1984 to self-identify with the working or middle classes, the salience of class has declined substantially for people. When asked how close people feel to particular social classes, there is a marked albeit slow decline over time (Heath et al., 2009). This tallies with substantial qualitative evidence suggesting that people are ambivalent about which class they belong to (see for instance, Savage et al., 2001), or even more, that disadvantaged working-class people actually 'dis-identify' with belonging to a social class (Skeggs, 1997).
Uncertainties about the contemporary cultural and social relevance of class as traditionally defined were very evident in the recent public debate about the findings of the Great British Class Surveywhich was launched by the BBC in April 2013 (see Savage et al., 2013). These findings attracted great interest, with most commentators recognising that class divisions were strong. Yet at the same time there was much critical commentary about whether the actual classes defined in these new analyses were accurate and whether people felt they actively belonged to any of the newly-defined classes.
In the context of this Savage (2000, p.xii) has identified the "paradox of class" that the structural importance of class to people's lives appears not to be recognised by the people themselves. Culturally, class does not appear to be a self-conscious principle of social identity. Structurally, however, it appears to be "highly pertinent".
Our chapter therefore reflects on the significance of class - both objective and subjective - for a range of people's attitudes on welfare and liberal attitudes. There are at least four possible reasons why we might expect the relationship between someone's social class and their attitudes to have weakened in the last 30 years, each of which we explore in this chapter:
Reason 1: class is no longer politically mobilised. One line of reasoning might run that while objective class differences remain strong, powerful institutions and agencies do not seek to mobilise people on the basis of these inequalities. Marshall et al. (1988) and Evans and Tilley (2012) argue that the decline of class alignment in the political arena is due to the way that political parties themselves have moved to the centre, rather than because people themselves have changed in their political preferences. This leads us to wonder whether people's attitudes and values on issues where political parties used to give a strong lead to their supporters have also become more weakly associated with social class.
Reason 2: class no longer means the same thing. A second possibility is that perhaps the apparent importance of social class as an indicator of someone's attitudes has weakened artefactually, simply because our classifications of social class have become outdated. It may be that social class needs to be re-conceptualised, and that, if we did so, stronger associations with attitudes would be found. So, is the traditional distinction between middle class and working class no longer the relevant dividing line? Should we now be thinking in terms of distinctions based on income levels, between say the rich, the 'squeezed middle', and the poor? Or along the lines of Savage et al. (2013) should we be differentiating between different kinds of middle-class groupings, and distinguishing between an 'elite' at the top and a 'precariat' at the bottom? Has education now superseded class as the key source of social attitudes?
Reason 3: people's backgrounds do not influence their views any longer. A third possibility is that in a post-industrial, postmodern society (Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1991; Giddens, 1994) attitudes themselves have simply become more individualistic and less tightly tied to people's social positions. Since, according to Beck, identities can be freely chosen, attitudes too might have become more indeterminate. Perhaps class has not been replaced by income or education or by any other social cleavage, but, rather, attitudes more generally have become more amorphous and unpredictable? This might be tied to Inglehart's (1990) famous argument that contemporary societies are becoming more 'post-materialist', or 'expressive' in their orientations, with the consequence that the kind of material interest-based attitudes deriving from class become less important.
Reason 4: other things matter now as well as class. A fourth and final perspective might claim that society has become more fragmented and differentiated with multiple bases of social attitudes rather than a single all-embracing division between middle and working class (or between rich and poor). This might be consistent with the significance of immigration, the rise of multiculturalism and diversity. This is a point discussed in the recent Government Office for Science's report on the Future of Identity (Foresight, 2013). Thus class, education, income, ethnicity and religion may each structure a limited set of attitudes, each within a relatively narrow sphere. We could interpret this, in Bourdieu's terms, as the increasing differentiation of cultural fields (Bourdieu, 1993). In other words we may be seeing a British society emerging in which there are multiple, cross-cutting lines of social cleavage rather than any one dominant line of division in the way that class used to operate.
In order to evaluate the merits of these four possibilities, this chapter focuses on a range of attitudes and values towards traditional class issues such as redistribution and welfare, as well as issues around family and civil liberties. We compare results from the earliest British Social Attitudes surveys of 1983 and 1984 with those for the most recent surveys from 2011 and 2012 (focusing on questions that were asked in identical formats at the two time points). We look at how far responses to these questions are structured by social class (firstly as it is objectively measured and later by people's subjective view of themselves) and by other measures of social identity and social position (referred to later as social cleavages). In particular we consider what may have changed in the last 30 years, and how the importance of social class in shaping attitudes competes with other ways of defining people's social position, such as their religion, ethnicity or age.
We begin by introducing the attitude questions we have used in the chapter to explore the relationship between attitudes and social position. We also present the range of measures we use to explore social class and social position. We present tables showing the associations between someone's attitudes and the different measures of their social class and position, followed by analysis to assess the most significant drivers of attitudes at the beginning and the end of our 30 year period. We finish by discussing the relative importance of people's subjective social class in shaping their attitudes, and drawing conclusions about which, if any, of our four possible reasons for the declining importance of social class, might explain stability and changes in the past 30 years.
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- The reduction in the strength of the association between socio-economic group and party identification is clear from the Cramer's V score in each year. Cramer's V is a chi-square based measure of association. While a chi-square coefficient depends both on the strength of the relationship and on sample size, Cramer's V eliminates the effect of sample size by dividing chi-square by N, the sample size, (together with a further adjustment) and taking the square root. V may be interpreted as the association between two variables expressed as a percentage of their maximum possible variation. In 1984, the Cramer's V was 0.180 (Chi2 = 179.7 (20 df), p < 0.0001). In 2012, it was 0.125 (Chi2 = 181.4 (20 df), p < 0.0001).
- The seven classes identified by Savage et al. (2013) are the elite; the established middle class; new affluent workers; the technical middle class; the traditional working class; emergent service workers and the precariat.
- Our analysis of the responses to the items on the first and the second priority for government spending (cross-tabulating the two variables and inspecting the adjusted standardised residuals) indicated that the responses "health" and "education" were highly significantly associated, while the responses "defence" and "police and prisons" were also significantly associated. None of the other responses showed a distinctive pattern of association. In our analysis we have therefore constructed three categories: health and education; defence and police; other.
- Factor analysis (see Technical details for more information) confirms that the questions we selected do indeed belong (in both periods) to two distinct ideological dimensions, the structure remaining largely unchanged over time. See the appendix to this chapter for the results of the factor analysis.
- Chi-square is very sensitive to the sample size, and sample sizes vary both between surveys and within surveys (since some items were asked only of randomly chosen subsets of respondents). We cannot therefore use chi-square to tell us about the strength of association, only about its statistical significance. As a measure of strength of association we use Cramer's V (explained in note 1).
- We also explored alternative 'objective' measures of class and reached the same conclusion.
- Since the factor analyses indicated that attitudes towards tax and spending and towards premarital sex had the strongest loadings on the two ideological dimensions (both in 1984 and in 2012 - see the appendix to this chapter), we focus on these two issues in our more detailed cross-tabular and regression analysis.
- The 1984 and 2012 datasets were pooled and a loglinear model fitted to the data. The model was one which assumed that there were relationships between social cleavage and attitude, between social cleavage and year, and between year and attitude, but that there was no three-way inter-relationship. In effect this tested whether the relationship between cleavage and attitude was the same in both years (allowing for changes in the marginal frequencies over time). It is analogous to the 'constant social fluidity model' in social mobility research. If the model does not give a good fit to the data, as judged by the deviance, then the null hypothesis of a constant relationship has to be rejected.
- Deviance 14.0 with 8 df, p > 0.05.
- Null hypothesis that the relationship is unchanged is rejected: Deviance = 9.9 with 2 df, p < 0.01.
- Deviance 76.9 with 16 df, p > 0.001.
- The measure of education level is different in the two years, so we therefore hesitate to interpret the changing pattern.
- The only measure available in 1984 was age when education completed, namely 19 and over (plus "still at college or university", equated to degree), 18 (equated with A levels), 17 (equated with GCSE), 16 (equated with CSE) and 15 or less (equated with CSE). These are very crude equivalences but do capture the hierarchical nature of education.
- Deviance 76.9 with 16 df, p > 0.001.
- We used ordered logit modelling, which is the appropriate technique when we have dependent variables such as attitudes towards premarital sex which are ordered (responses ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree).
- Variance explained, or R squared, is a statistical measure of "the proportion of the total variability of the outcome that is accounted for by the model". It is used in OLS regression, where continuous, normally-distributed variables are assumed. The OLS interpretation has no formal equivalent in logistic regression (which does not assume that variables are either continuous or normally distributed). However, if some heroic assumptions are made, a statistic that looks like R-squared, and which has the same range from - to 1, can be developed. (They are essentially counterfactuals - what might the variance explained have been if this were a continuous normally distributed variable?) Lots of different pseudo R-squareds have been developed, and none has become standard. We use the Nagelkerke version. These measures should not be used to compare different datasets but only really to compare goodness of fit of different models within the same dataset.
- See note 8.
- We also found some evidence, from the measures of variance explained (the pseudo R2 statistic) that the overall explanatory power of the predictors has declined somewhat between 1984 and 2012. We have to be a little cautious here, since the multivariate analyses reported in Table 7.16 only cover two of our nine attitude measures. To check our results we constructed composite measures of the two main ideological dimensions, using all the available attitude items. This composite analysis confirmed our individual analysis of government spending on the welfare state (R2 for the government spending dimension falling from 0.061 to 0.022) but it did not confirm a decline in explanatory power for the liberal dimension (R2 actually increasing when a composite measure was constructed from 0.264 to 0.301).
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