Contemporary Wales
Contemporary Wales

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Contemporary Wales

5 Class

Class is not something which crops up very often in polite conversation. Most people would not ask someone they had just met what their social class was. It would be seen as rude and an obstruction to getting to know the person as an individual. But sociologists and historians commonly use the word and most of us understand generally what it means. It helps us to think about the general pattern of our society and how we place ourselves within it. Class is certainly something which is often asked about in social surveys, and market researchers like to place people in groups according to what they are likely to buy and consume. Interviewers have some licence to ask impertinent questions!

Figure 8 Self-identification of social class in Great Britain by area.

Activity 10

First, answer these questions:

  1. What social class do you think you belong to?

    • upper class
    • middle class
    • working class
    • I don’t think classes exist any more
  2. Why did you give that answer?

    Now look at Figure 8, which provides answers (gathered from the various regions of Britain) to the first question.

  3. What is distinctive about the answers given in Wales compared with other parts of Britain?

Discussion

In this survey, reported in 2008, 54 per cent of people in Wales identified themselves as working-class and 32 per cent as middle-class. The remaining 14 per cent either refused to answer (it’s a rude question!) or identified themselves as belonging to another class. Wales has one of the highest percentages in Britain of people identifying as working-class; in south-east England and London around 50 per cent of people think they are middle-class and less than 40 per cent see themselves as working-class – more or less reversing the percentages in Wales. Only Scotland and the far north of England have a greater percentage of people who identify themselves as working-class: around 60 per cent.

So most people in Wales can place themselves in a class and think of themselves as working-class.

Answering the second question in Activity 10 is much more difficult; and we don’t know why the people in Wales who were surveyed answered the way they did. But we do have the answers which some people in Swansea gave to interviewers around 2002.

A female headteacher from Morriston, aged 58, identified herself as middle-class but added:

I was obviously born working class. I obviously have, if you are thinking in more, sort of, social categories, typical of the Welsh working class, aspired to be a teacher and so on ... I’m not a fan of class. It’s one thing I don’t like really.

(quoted in Charles et al., 2008, p. 86)

Behind the simple answer to a question lies a very complex personal history, which is often the case. Like many people, the respondent is uncomfortable with the idea of class in some ways. A 31-year-old woman from a deprived area of social housing said this:

I wouldn’t think I’m better than anybody else, you know, if somebody is, you know, better off than me, or hasn’t got as much or whatever, I wouldn’t say, “Look I’ve got more than you so I’m better than you.” No, I wouldn’t have thought so.

(quoted in Charles et al., 2008, p. 87)

Many of us call ourselves working-class or middle-class because both are seen as ‘ordinary’ categories rather than placing ourselves in a superior position to others (Savage, 2000). This is exactly what this woman is doing.

Why might so many people in Wales opt to call themselves working class, rather than middle-class– especially compared with people in the south-east of England? Here is a possible clue from a study of redundant steelworkers in the 1980s:

Southern English middle-class readers, like the present writer, may have difficulty in grasping that to be working class (at any rate in South Wales) is not to ... lack ... the ‘badges of achievement’ which all others possess, but is, rather, to occupy an honourable status which gives you dignity and entitles you to respect. As one of our respondents who had been out of work for over a year put it: ‘I used to be working class, but I can’t claim that any more. I’ve fallen below that.

(Harris et al., 1987, p. 15)

This is similar to the answer given by a 34-year-old woman from a deprived estate in Swansea almost twenty years later: ‘Not working class any more, common’ (quoted in Charles et al., 2008, p. 87). By becoming unemployed she thought she had lost her social standing. A couple in their late 60s living in Oystermouth (which most people would see as a solid middle-class area) and in comfortable circumstances saw no reason to reject the label of working-class:

Wife: I wouldn’t like to say I’m not working class because we come from strong Labour working class backgrounds. ... My father was a miner. Leighton’s [her husband’s] father was a red.

(quoted in Charles et al., 2008, p. 86)

How we see ourselves in terms of class is influenced by our past lives as well as by our current circumstances. While some people may revel in feeling ‘superior’, others will be uncomfortable with the idea. We may be generally uncertain about where we stand in society and don’t like to place our very individual lives in little boxes made by others. The idea of class involves a sense of hierarchy. The term ‘social stratification’, another way to refer to class, is borrowed from geology where each stratum of rock is laid over another.

How would I answer the questions posed in Activity 13? I’m middle class, I suppose.

Why do I say that? I had a professional job which was paid at a level comfortably above the average wage. I had much freedom within it; I was trusted to do it without detailed supervision. That put me in what some sociologists call the ‘service class’; that is, I was paid quite well, could look forward to annual rises in my salary and promotion, and was expected, in return, to not limit myself to simply being in work at fixed times but in some ways to invest much of my life in it (i.e. to serve). My working conditions were pleasant and safe. To get a job like that I needed two university degrees. Now I’m retired, I have a reasonable pension. Most of my close friends are in a similar position and our children have both got good degrees and achieved similar social positions. My wife’s father was a university professor. We live in a fairly large house and have some savings. I listen to Radio 3 and Radio 4, like classical music and jazz and read what are usually regarded as serious books, not to mention The Guardian and The Observer.

In placing myself like this, I’m drawing on the kinds of criteria which social scientists use to assess class. Education is usually a critical factor in this, as is your job and the networks of people which you’re part of. Class is also related to culture; Radio 4 is often seen as the middle-class (and middle-aged!) station. We’ve had advantages which have been passed on to our children. Less often raised in talking about class is the fact that I’m a man. Certainly in the past class was seen as a status which male ‘heads of household’ conferred on the whole family. Despite the gains achieved by feminism and equal opportunities legislation, men still tend to have advantages over women in gaining opportunities.

So if I can place myself in a social position in this way, why did I add that grudging ‘I suppose’ at the end of my answer? My reasons are very much like those of the interviewees from Swansea quoted above. To say you’re middle-class, at least in Wales, might seem pompous and pretentious. I was trying to be honest and realistic – and to use what I know about the way in which sociologists discuss class.

More important, I grew up in the south Wales Valleys where everybody seemed to be working-class; my father was a coach driver for part of his working life. That meant long hours, low wages and no occupational pension. In jobs like that people tend to leave work behind them once they are at home; they do a fixed amount of work for a fixed wage and often don’t have prospects of advancement. They are expected to earn but not really to serve. I was the first in my family to go to university; and in the village I come from, education and ‘getting on’ were valued at the very least because (as many miners told me) they could save you from going down a hole in the ground every day of your working life. But I grew up with comics rather than books, the old Light Programme (effectively Radio 2), pop music, ITV and Cardiff City football club. I still like lots of those things, too. Indeed, it is much too simple to imagine that our class positions equate with whether we like so-called ‘high’ or ‘low’ culture. Many of us appreciate mixtures of the two.

So they might have taken the boy out of the Valleys but they haven’t taken the Valleys out of the man. If I’d grown up in a middle-class home I would probably have had advantages from that background, such as accent, connections, books, musical education: things referred to as social capital [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] and cultural capital. These ideas are associated with the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), whose work explored the cultural dimensions of class in particular. As he stressed, social and cultural capital can be passed on through the generations and clearly give advantages; my children have had these to a greater extent than I had.

So my life – like those of the people whose interviews were quoted above – raises issues about social mobility; that is, that people might end up in a social class different from the one in which they started. Usually we mean moving up in the social scale when we talk about this, but it is important to know that people can go down as well as up. Moving up in society often means moving to another place. A study of middle-class people conducted in the 1960s opened by observing: ‘[Swansea’s] role in social and geographical mobility is that although it may appear in the first chapters of the autobiographies, it rarely appears in the last. Provincial Britain is somewhere to get away from ... ’ (Bell, 1968, p. 10). This alerts us to an important facet of Welsh society: many people have moved out of Wales in order to advance their careers and opportunities. Far fewer have moved in to do so.

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