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20. The Great British Class Survey


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Manchester Sociologists were involved in the largest ever study of class in Great Britain – the Great British Class Survey (GBCS). In collaboration with the BBC, this resulted in one of the most successful pieces of popular sociology ever, challenging public understandings what class means and resulting in an unprecedented public interest in class inequality.

In 2011, with the help of BBC Lab UK, the research team (led by Mike Savage, then at Manchester, now at the LSE, and Fiona Devine of Manchester) asked the BBC audience to complete a unique online questionnaire on different dimensions of class. More than 161,000 people took part in the first wave of the survey with nearly 360,000 going on to complete it. The study revealed a new structure of class in Britain with seven social divisions, ranging from an “advantaged and privileged” elite to a large “precariat” of poor and deprived people.

As well as the very large number of people who completed the survey, a massive 6.9 million people engaged with the research by using an interactive online ‘Class Calculator’ – which lets you work out where you might fit in amongst the new categories.  The GBCS was extensively discussed in print, broadcast and online media, nationally and internationally, creating real debate within and beyond academia about social inequalities and what ‘class’ means.

The study used a ‘cultural class analysis’ approach, which looks at different dimensions of class. The survey asked about people’s wealth, income and work situation but also about their friendships and social networks and about their cultural tastes and leisure-time activities. Rather than seeing lifestyles and social networks as somehow separate from economic inequalities, the GBCS looked at how overlaps in different kinds of  economic, cultural and social ‘capital’  work together to produce social advantage and disadvantage. By providing a richer picture of people’s resources and practices than traditional, occupational models of class allow, it offered a new way of thinking about contemporary social divisions.  The very large size of the sample also permits a more fine-grained analysis of class categories and ongoing research work is looking in greater detail at the ‘elite’  – a group who rarely turn up in other surveys. The study was not without its critics – and the construction of the class categories has led to a lively debate and set of responses:

The initial findings in the journal Sociology:

Mike Savage, Fiona Devine, Niall Cunningham, Mark Taylor, Yaojun Li, Johannes Hjellbrekke, Brigitte Le Roux, Sam Friedman, Andrew Miles (2013) ‘A new model of social class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class survey experiment’ Sociology , 47(2): 219-250.

Responses to the study: http://soc.sagepub.com/site/British_Social_Class/British_Social_Class_Homepage.xhtml

And the authors’ response to critics: https://stratificationandculture.wordpress.com/2014/04/08/response-to-bradley-mills-dorling-and-rollock/


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