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32. Individualised class

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This time it’s personal: Savage argued that individualised lifestyles did not signal the death of class but were in fact a new way of displaying class.

In the 1980s ‘death of class’ debate, it had been suggested that rising affluence and consumer choice meant  that ‘class’ was now irrelevant. For Ulrich Beck, affluence and consumer choice had led to increasing individualised and diversified lifestyles, which he saw as breaking the influence of economic ‘class’ on cultural identity, resulting in unequal but also ‘classless’ societies (Beck, 1986: 88). Central to such accounts was the notion that class as a collective, communal phenomenon had been undermined.

Writing in his book  Class Analysis and Social Transformation  (2000) Mike Savage had some sympathy with these criticisms because he saw weak evidence of any kind of collective class identities or communal awareness.  But he rejected the idea that individualisation had undermined the significance of ‘class’ because he did not think that ‘class’ should be seen solely in economic terms nor just as a collective enterprise.

Drawing inspiration from the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu (1984), and his notion that ‘class’ inequalities are reproduced through lifestyle choices, Savage set forward an alternative view of class individualisation. He saw this as  a process of  making claims to ‘social distinction’, in which lifestyle preferences and cultural hierarchies are related to social divisions and the competition between people in different class positions for social esteem and status.

All this required a substantial expansion of the concept of ‘class’, and conceded considerable ground to the ‘death of class’ critics, in accepting that ‘old models of class collective cultures are indeed dead and buried’ (Savage, 2000:101). But class and individualisation were no longer seen as incompatible, as long as ‘class cultures’ were ‘viewed as modes of differentiation rather than as types of collectivity’ (Savage, 2000:102). Savage set forward an alternative view of individualisation as itself a classed process, entailing claims to ‘social distinction’, seeing  ‘class as implicit, as encoded in people’s sense of self-worth and in their attitudes to and awareness of others – on how they carry themselves as individuals’ (Savage, 2000:107).

These influential arguments helped give a new and distinctive direction to British class analysis, and represented an ingenious solution to the challenge that social change presents for class analysis.  Many of the practices once taken as signs of the death of class societies (lifestyle differentiation, the information revolution, home ownership, rising educational qualification, the flexible worker) could now be understood as themselves part of class distinction and struggle, and evidence of the durability and adaptability of class advantage.

See also: Cultural Class Analysis


Beck, U. (1992)[1986] Risk Society, London: Sage

Bourdieu, P. (1984) [1979]. Distinction, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Savage, M. (2000) Class Analysis and Social Transformation, Buckingham: Open University.




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