Event: Measuring Social Class: Bourdieusian Approaches


On Friday 15th November 2013 the BSA Bourdieu Study Group in conjunction with the Centre for the Analysis of Social Policy (CASP) held an event at the University of Bath centring around measures of social class using a Bourdieusian approach.


Debates around ways of measuring social class recently gained momentum through the popularised ‘Great British Class Survey’, a major study of social class patterns in contemporary Britain. This work draws on the many criticisms that have persisted over the last decade or more about the inadequacy of models of class analysis that rely fundamentally on an economic measurement of class position. These criticisms flag up the complexities of social class measurement and suggest that other factors such as social and cultural capital are important in trying to locate someone’s class position. These multiple factors of analysis have become increasingly important as patterns of work and consumption have changed with the loss of industry within the UK and other capitalist societies. The event aimed to generate discussion about the best ways to try to define and measure social class in contemporary Britain. Speakers included Professor Mike Savage (London School of Economics) and Dr. Will Atkinson (University of Bristol), who each offered their own perspective on utilising a multiple capitals approach to ascertaining class positioning.


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Prof. Mike Savage made headlines this year when he presented the results of The Great British Class Survey (GBCS). At the event Savage spoke about how the help of BBC Lab UK gave them respondent questionnaire completion rates that many research projects could only dream of. The survey was launched in January 2011 and by the summer of 2011 161 thousand had completed a unique questionnaire on different dimensions of class. Savage reflected on the sample representativeness as it was skewed towards the middle and upper classes with 26% of respondents having a post-graduate qualification. One of the problems and the ‘Achilles heel’ of the project was that the working class were not representative, even through 13,000 people in that category completed the survey. However, the nature of the skewed sample was a finding in itself and will be built on in the research teams next phase of their work to unpick power and privilege. The centre of Savages et al analysis followed in the strength of Culture, Class and Distinction (Bennett et al, 2009) which drew on leisure, holidays, media use, music for example, as a way to analyse Bourdieu’s three forms of capitals.


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The results of the survey revealed that there was seven classes:

Elite: This is the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.

Established Middle Class: Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.

Technical Middle Class: This is a new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.

New Affluent Workers: This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.

Emergent Service Workers: This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ’emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.

Traditional Working Class: This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.

Precariat: This is the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.


Savage commented that the results gave them a class benchmark to use in later research. It also reveals how interested the British still are about social class. Since the results were launched on April 3rd 2013 the BBC class calculator has received over 7 million hits. Savage posed the question: ‘What does this reaction itself say about social class in Britain?’




Dr Will Atkinson started off his talk by highlighting the positive aspects of the GBCS as well as the problems with it. Atkinson’s own work re-aggregated codes from large datasets such as the: UK Labour Force Survey, General Household Survey and British Crime Survey, to mention but a few. He was interested in British ‘social space,’ so the indicators used incorporated: economic capital, cultural capital, social space, and field and occupation effects. The variables included: income, savings, parents education, primary earners occupation and employments status, as well as many others. Atkinson spoke about how he’s been looking towards Norwegian scholar’s work on social class and suggested that the alternative method to analysing social class might be the ‘Scandinavian option’.


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Atkinson stated that ‘Anything that challenges the “strangle hold” of the Nuffield theory of class can only be good’. This of course referred to the well-established Goldthorpe class schema which dates back to the early 1960s and has become a standard approach to classify class in Western sociology.


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Both papers led to a lively discussion between Savage, Atkinson and the audience. Discussions interrogated the problems and benefits of using these approaches and considered the best ways in which Bourdieusian theory can forward class analysis. What was clear is that, while for other Western societies social status is all about money and power, for Brits, birth, accent and culture are just as important as economic capital – if not more in many situations, making Bourdieu’s three forms of capital a valuable measure in analysing social class contemporary Britain .


One thought on “Event: Measuring Social Class: Bourdieusian Approaches

  1. […] events on the use of Bourdieu in ethnicity and migration studies, urban studies, education, social class, social theory, gender, Bourdieu as a public sociologist and special events for postgraduate […]

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