How can I tell what social class I belong in?

My post on social class for TheQuestion UK.


The answer this question depends on several parameters. Firstly, it depends on the way you define classes or social groups. Secondly, it depends on the social structure of the society you are a part of. Thirdly, it depends on your class consciousness or your subjective class self-identification. I’ll outline four main sociological approaches to social classes here.

1) In Marxist theory, classes are understood as large groups of people differing in their positions regarding the ownership of the means of production and social division of labour. In other words, a class position is determined by the role of an individual in the public organization of labour. Marx divides the capitalist society of the 18th century into three classes:

  • Bourgeoisie, which is a dominant class owning the means of production and feeding on the exploitation of wage-workers;
  • Petite bourgeoisie, which is a class of small owners living on their personal (mostly family) labour (e.g. craftsmen, substantial peasants, etc.);
  • Workers who make up a class of employees without the means of production, who sell their labour power, producing surplus value and being exploited by bourgeoisie in the process.

In Marxism, class position forms class consciousness. But since the 18th century, the concept of class has changed significantly and new social classifications have been invented.

2) In the latter half of the 20th century, French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu built on the Marxist concepts of class and capital. According to Bourdieu, social class should be understood as a collective position in the multi-dimensional space of social distinctions, which is a configuration of various volumes of capitals:

  • Economic capital (money, valuable material objects),
  • Cultural capital (level of education, specific knowledge, diplomas),
  • Social capital (connections, social networks),
  • Symbolic capital (recognition).

In Bourdieu’s approach, social classes look like clusters of points. It means that individuals with the same social characteristics and the same volumes of capitals cluster together in social space and have similar “class habituses.” “Class habitus” refers to an incorporated history and a set of social practices (manners, styles of behavior, etc.) that are determined by both the general of society and the biography of the individual.

To understand Bourdieu’s vision of classes, you can the graph from his book “Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste”:

3) British sociologist John Goldthorpe suggested yet another class model centered on employment status. He distinguishes three main classes differing by type of labour contract:

  • Employers who buy labour forces and control workers;
  • Employees who sell their labour power to employers;
  • Self-employed who are relatively independent and work for themselves (e.g., businessmen, freelancers, etc.).

With R. Erikson and L. Portocarrero, Goldthorpe has elaborated an eleven-class scheme (EGP) containing several service classes, working classes and transitory classes. (See more about EGP here). Today, the EGP class scheme is widely used by sociologists in research on social stratification, social mobility, and social inequality.

4) In recent research on social structure in British society, a group of enthusiastic sociologists under the leadership of Mike Savage constructed a new classification of classes, building on Bourdieu’s approach of capitals. On the basis of vast empirical data Savage and colleagues have defined seven classes in contemporary British society, each involving specific social traits:

  • Elite: very high economic capital (especially savings), high social capital, very high highbrow cultural capital;
  • Established middle class: high economic capital, high status of mean contacts, high highbrow and emerging cultural capital;
  • Technical middle class: high economic capital, very high mean social contacts, but relatively few contacts reported, moderate cultural capital;
  • New affluent workers: moderately good economic capital, moderately poor mean score of social contacts, though high range, moderate highbrow but good emerging cultural capital;
  • Traditional working class: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable house price, few social contacts, low highbrow and emerging cultural capital;
  • Emergent service workers: moderately poor economic capital, though with reasonable household income, moderate social contacts, high emerging (but low highbrow) cultural capital;
  • Precariat: poor economic capital, and the lowest scores on every other criterion.

If you would like to know which class you belong in according to the classification developed by Mike Savage and his team, just take the test “The Great British class calculator: What class are you?”

But beware! Do not forget that this test is designed for respondents from Great Britain. Other societies might have other class structures, or the social classes in those societies might involve a different set of social traits 🙂

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