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Society, Politics & Law

Languages of class

Updated Wednesday, 6th June 2012

The Open University's Geoff Andrews explores the revived interest in class

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Council estate Creative commons image Icon By James Hay via Flickr under Creative Commons license under Creative-Commons license Council estate in South London It is often said that Britain is a country obsessed with ‘class’, by which it is usually meant social distinctions derived from habits and behaviour, taste and lifestyle are primarily reduced to class backgrounds or aspiring membership of ‘class’ groups.  

Whether these are reflected in enthusiasm for tattoos, home furnishings, arts and recreation, conforming to peers is seen to be all-important. Political parties, market researchers and social media outlets take them seriously enough to stake whole campaigns on them, seemingly helping to both  reproduce and reflect  such ‘class’ identities. 

Such representations of class do carry important social meanings and have been present (amongst other things) throughout the history of British situation comedies, where the class attitudes, dialect and family circumstances of the characters are the one constant theme, whether we think of The Likely Lads, Only Fools and Horses or the Royle Family.  

Yet, representations of class take us only so far and while situating the place of class within popular culture is important, do not really help in explaining the rather incongruous popularity of TV programmes like Downton Abbey and Upstairs Downstairs at times of widening social inequality and with another public school generation running Britain’s coalition government. 

The current economic crisis and the impact of austerity measures have combined to revive interest in class. Putting class back at the centre of analysis will help our understanding of social change and provide rich explanatory frameworks for making sense of inequality, power and the role of the state. Some of the most significant social science research has focused on class.

There has been much recent discussion of Charles Booth’s pioneering study of poverty in London at the end of the 19th century which not only revealed the social conditions of working class Londoners, but also identified the importance of place in our understanding of class, where the industrial heartlands based on shipbuilding, docks and steel have shaped the economic geography of Britain’s cities. 

Booth uses distinctive language to describe London’s poor which also demarcated the streets they inhabited. The streets were colour-coded to distinguish the ‘lowest class, vicious, semi-criminal’, from ‘very poor, casual, chronic want’, to ‘poor’; ‘mixed (some comfortable, others poor’), to ‘fairly comfortable (good ordinary earnings’;); ‘middle class (well-to-do’) and ‘upper-middle and upper classes (wealthy)’.

Similar contentious language has been attached to class at other times which has underpinned many social assumptions, while place continues to be a social indicator for stereotyping class, as the ‘postcode lottery’ debate over access to health and education resources has demonstrated.  

In his book Chavs; The Demonization of the Working Class Owen Jones strongly contests the use of this term for the way in which it stereotypes and dismisses groups of (white) working class people as members of an apparently ‘feckless’ ‘class’ (or ‘underclass’) whose lifestyle choices and values are said to depart from the mainstream middle England ethics of work and aspiration.

Jones argues that these are people largely from the former industrial heartlands which have been centres of unemployment and depression with higher than average rates of economic inequality and insecurity. As such, Jones argues, their demonization is a form of class hatred, which ignores the structural constraints imposed on them. 

Though he places his arguments within the realm of structural inequality, that is to say a conception of class that is explained by divisions derived from economic constraints, he also addresses what might be called ‘cultural representations’ of class, and indeed the term ‘chavs’ has often been portrayed by others as a primarily cultural phenomenon linked to attitudes and values.

In fact, the meanings and uses of ‘class’ has been subject of much debate amongst sociologists and historians, whether over the number of classes in capitalist society, the nature of the relationship between them, and, increasingly, the extent to which identity is constructed by gender, ethnicity, and generation as well as class. 

As Raymond Williams pointed out in Keywords, the terminology itself has evolved and adapted according to historical and cultural change. Research by the historian David Renton has revealed several different terms used to describe the development of the working class between 1800-1870, including ‘industrious classes’, ‘labourer’, ‘proletariat’, ‘operative’ ‘worker’ ‘working classes’, and ultimately ‘working class’. 

This evolving language was partly shaped by the active interventions by working people in the making of their own ‘class’ identity in their responses to the economic and social conditions in which they found themselves.

This is discussed at length by E.P.Thompson in his seminal work The Making of the English Working Class. Other historians, notably oral historians, have drawn on memory to investigate the lives of ordinary people and places they inhabited; often referred to as ‘history from below’. 

The revival of interest in class owes much to a reconsideration of Karl Marx’s work and its contemporary relevance. After the periods of stable capitalist growth, the fall of the Berlin Wall and new perspectives in social sciences -  all of which contributed in different ways to a declining appreciation of his work - Marx’s ideas have become influential once more.

If his ideas had a bearing on many of the governing regimes which have now been discredited in eastern Europe, more recent anti-global and Occupy movements have also drawn inspiration from his work.

The current global crisis, which has brought comparisons with the 1930s, has also renewed the appeal of key economic thinkers, including Marx, whose analysis of the capacity of capital to conquer global markets, and the polarisation between unequal classes in an inherently unstable system, is being heard once again. 

Further Reading

D.Harvey: Rebel Cities Verso 2012

K.Marx and F.Engels: The Communist Manifesto (Penguin 1985 edition)

D.Renton ‘How Words Have Been Used: Notes on the Re-making of Class’ Socialist History 40 Rivers Oram Press 2012

E.P.Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin 1991)

R.Williams: Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society Oxford University Press 1984





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