The past thirty years in Great Britain have been marked by some major economic and social changes, most notably de-industrilisation, decline in job security, a transition to service economy, and the rise to dominance of the financial sector. These developments have occurred to differing degrees in other Western countries as well but perhaps not in as a dramatic way as in the UK. Only in the past month we have witnessed the awakening of a heated public debate on these socio-economic developments in reaction to the death of late Baroness Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK between 1979 and 1990, due to her reforms in the 1980s. Most people would describe themselves nowadays as “middle class” and yet people are at difficulty to define and agree on what that status means. The gross division of the British society into upper class, middle class and working class does not seem to hold any longer.
The BBC’s research branch Lab UK launched in 2011 a major research project, the Great British Class Survey (GBCS), in co-operation with an academic team led by Professors of Sociology Mike Savage of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester. They embarked on developing a new model of social class whilst taking, however, a different approach to defining the determinants of social status that is not based solely on occupation and other economic variables. At the core of the project the BBC underlines the large Web survey it has carried out, in which 161,400 respondents in Great Britain participated; this survey was accompanied nevertheless by another national survey in a representative sample of about 1,000 respondents interviewed face-to-face (the use of two data sources is discussed later in the post-article).
The model developed by the research team working with the BBC includes seven classes. The model still identifies layers of social class but their organisation is different from previous models that relied primarily on indicators of education, occupation and economic wealth; the model thus reveals new types of class segments. Most remarkably, the “middle class” is more diffused, splintering horizontally across more unique and distinct class segments, also replacing the reduced traditional working class.
The unusual structure of this social class model can be attributed primarily to the acknowledgement by the researchers that the social standing of people depends not only on the stature of their occupation and their economic wealth but also on additional personal resources that people develop over time. They rely on a schema developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu that recognizes in culture a crucial pillar contributing to a person’s competences and stature. Bourdieu identified three forms of capital: economic capital (wealth and income), cultural capital (based upon educational upbringing, it defines a person’s tastes and ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods such as arts and food), and social capital (the breadth and nature of contacts and connections in a person’s social networks that can benefit him or her). The expansion of the concept of “social class” hereby suggested by the researchers deviates from the concept’s “classical” economic foundations but it nonetheless enriches the model by bringing it closer to the concept of “lifestyle” — a connection that should be well appreciated in a marketing context. It allows one, for instance, to account for whether a person has more fine tastes or a stronger tendency to open-mindedness that may enhance his or her standing in society. Savage and Devine and their colleagues argue in favour of their approach that:
“This recognition that social class is a multi-dimensional construct indicates that classes are not merely economic phenomena but also are profoundly concerned with forms of social reproduction and cultural distinction” (2, p. 5).
A quick review of the new seven class segments (1):
- Elite — The most privileged group with highest levels on all types of capital, but particularly distinguished by the greatest economic capital. The largest (over-) representation of CEOs and other senior managers is found in this class.
- Established Middle Class — Not as wealthy as the elite but still very high on all three capitals. The most gregarious group that also scores the second highest on cultural capital.
- Technical Middle Class — A small but distinctive new class that is prosperous but more secluded, concentrating on its links to other profession experts. They are distinguished by their social isolation and cultural apathy.
- New Affluent Workers — A rising group of young people who are successful in their jobs, with middling levels of economic capital though without acquiring higher education; yet, they are socially and culturally active that appears to give them a leverage.
- Traditional Working Class — Relatively older people, they constitute the remaining working class of the past (their offsprings are believed to belong in the new segments of New Affluent Workers and the Emergent Service Workers.) They are low on all forms of capital though not completely deprived, reliant especially on current high values of their houses.
- Emergent Service Workers — They are young and urban though less well-off economically than the new affluents, positioned in relatively basic and low paying jobs in services (e.g., at call-centers, bars and restaurants); they are also characterised as highly active socially and culturally.
- Precariat — The most poor and deprived group of precarious proletariat with low scores also on social and cultural capital.
The young segments that represent the newer generation of the “working class” seem to be a more savvy generation, less indifferent to or accepting of their social status, better connected, and working to improve their well-being, not only at their jobs. Are they types of “middle class” or “working class”? This is unclear — those familiar classes seem more confounded. The place of the lowest social class is taken now by the Precariats. Division in the British class system may have changed in form and structure but it remains powerful: Savage argues that the society is increasingly polarised between the elite at the top and the ‘precariat’ class at the bottom and with divisions growing deeper (3).
Hereafter a question is raised: What does this model imply for consumer behaviour? The model provides a new foundation upon which marketing researchers and managers may develop better understanding of consumers’ motives and drivers, and the background to their behaviour. It can help answer not just what consumers can afford but what they may aspire for. It may further reveal how consumers aim to achieve their goals or implement their interests, suggesting specifically what kinds of products and services are utilised in the course of doing so. But the social class model is not sufficient to that end — it has to be joined by another model that elaborates on consumer lifestyles. The new opportunity for improvement that unveils with the new model is in creating a more meaningful and congruent bridge between a social class model and a lifestyle model. This bridge would be primarily cultural but there may also exist a social common denominator.
- Economic capital is measured by household income, household savings and house value (the latter two are joined in a ‘wealth’ index).
- Cultural capital takes in consideration leisure interests, taste in food, taste in music, use of media, and travel destinations for holiday. The researchers have borrowed the conceptual distinction of Bourdieu between elevated “highbrow” genres of culture and “popular” culture, but they apply it in a more flexible manner. First, following recent research, the model assumes that respondents from any class may simultaneously practice genres of both “highbrow” and “popular” culture (i.e., each type receives a separate score). Second, they furthermore refrain from making judgement about forms of culture that may appear degrading and use the term “emerging” instead of “popular” for describing culture forms like sports, playing video games, browsing the internet and participating in social media networks. Forms of “highbrow” culture include among others engaging with classical music or jazz, visiting museums, art galleries, theatres, and French restaurants. On these facets “social class” and “lifestyle” meet.
- Social capital is evaluated through two metrics: the number of occupation groups (out of 34 possible groups) of the people with whom a respondent has social connections and a mean status score of those occupations. Models of lifestyle should now also relate to socialising activities and the kinds of information consumers share, given the significant place in time and content that social media networks fill in their lives. A lifestyle model may contribute some additional information on connections in the “real world” and/or in the “virtual world” that the social class model does not seem to distinguish (though it accounts for use of social media under “cultural capital”.)
It is not proposed to build a single integrative model that stands the risk of diluting either construct of “social class” or “lifestyle”. Rather, the new social class model and a lifestyle segmentation model should be married by crossing one with the other, the former focusing on the resources consumers hold and the latter elaborating on how those resources are expressed and employed in reference to consumer behaviour.
We would want to know more about the psychographics of members of the new social classes to understand how they can be expected to behave as consumers. Here are two issues to consider for probing:
What kind of shoppers the New Affluent and Emergent Service workers are likely to be? — more critical, cautious and price-conscious or more easy-spending on any products and services and their brands? They may choose products and brands they believe can improve their well-being or their image in the eyes of others. How do these two segments differ? (hint: the emergent service workers are said to be more eager to “live the day”, more seeking experiences rather than products (1)).
Consumers in the Established and the Technical middle class segments both have plenty of economic resources but the former has a much more varied range of social connections and is more culturally active, mixing highbrow and emerging forms of culture — how does that distinguish them as consumers with respect to time and money they spend with family and friends at home or outdoors, on their personal interests and hobbies, on the Internet, etc.?
It should be noted that this model outcome could not be obtained if based only on the web survey of the BBC’s GBCS. The researchers found a strong selection bias in the large web sample, lifting it socially upwards, that is, the web sample exhibited over-representation of Britons from well-educated social groups. It means that this sample could not be adequate for modelling social classes of the whole British society. The GBCS received high publicity in media channels of the BBC which may have served well for recruiting a sample of its audience but not beyond that. However, the bias may also be due to low rates of Internet literacy and usage in older and less privileged social groups.
Compared with the second national sample in a parallel survey conducted by GfK, it clearly shows how the web survey is biased upwards with respect to occupations, household income and ‘wealth’. The model was built by a method of latent class analysis on an integrated sample dataset where respondents in the national sample received their original weights to reflect the correct composition of the population, while respondents in the web sample were “fragmented” by giving each a weight of 1/161,400. All cases are classified simultaneously, yet the class system structure is based more heavily on the national sample and the GBCS sample serves primarily to provide greater detail on the profiles of those classes.
- The differences between the two samples remain clear: the Established Middle Class is the largest segment, 25% of GfK national sample but it “grows” to 43% of GBCS web sample; the Elite is just 6% of GfK sample but 22% of GBCS sample; conversely, the New Affluent Worker is 15% of GfK sample but just 6% in the GBCS sample; and the Precariat segment that takes 15% of the GfK sample is almost non-existent in the GBCS sample. (2)
The new British social class model recently published reveals additional important facets to social standing, based not just on economic resources but influenced also by social relationships and cultural capital. The enriched model also offers a bridge to associate with a lifestyle model that would shed more light on implications of the classes for consumer behaviour and marketing. It may also give encouragement to consumers that they can invest in their social and cultural capital to improve their well-being and social standing before they are able to increase their economic capital.
Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)
1. The Great British Class Survey (GBCS) Special Section on BBC News Online:
(a) “Huge Survey Reveals Seven Social Classes in UK”, BBC News: UK, 3 April 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-22007058
(b) “Class Calculator: Can I have No Job or Money and Still Be Middle Class?”, BBC News Magazine, 4 April 2013 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-21953364
2. “A New Model of Social Class: Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey Experiment”, Mike Savage, Fiona Devine et al., Sociology (Online), April 2013 (link is available on BBC website, 1b)
3. “The British Class System is becoming more polarised between a prosperous elite and a poor ‘precariat'”, Prof. Mike Savage discusses the results of the research, London School of Economics: British Politics and Policy at LSE (Blog), 4 April 2013, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/32264