The Great British Class Survey – what comes next?

It seems a safe assumption that most people who read this blog will be familiar with the Great British Class Survey. For anyone who managed to miss it, this is how the LSE’s Mike Savage described the project in a post on the LSE Politics Blog:

In April 2013, the first results of the BBC’s Great British Class Survey (GBCS) will be launched, in a simultaneous publication in the British Sociological Association’s (BSA) journal Sociology, and in a plenary address at the BSA’s annual Conference. The BBC are anticipating that the results will be a very important social science story and plan to feature them on their news channels, including radio, television and the web.

The Great British Class Survey is one of the most exciting ventures in digital social science which has yet been attempted. Launched in January 26th 2011, more than 161,000 people have completed a 20 minute web survey, which makes this the largest ever study of class in the UK, with unusually detailed information on how social class maps onto specific occupations, geographical locations, and even the particular university which respondents went to. In a period when there is an intensifying interest in the accentuation of social inequality, this project promises to deliver the most sophisticated and detailed understanding of ‘the state of the nation’ that we might posses.

Lots of people didn’t like the Great British Class Survey. Personally I loved the fact that for an entire week millions of people up and down the UK were debating sociological conceptions of class. Furthermore, a lot of the objections I personally encountered  seemed to amount to little more than “I think I’m X and the GBCS said that I was Y”. Nonetheless there clearly were a lot of criticisms that could be made of the GBCS and as the full time editor of a politics blog at the time I was  in the privileged position of being able to sit round all day drinking coffee and reading the many online responses while getting paid for it.

As someone in the presumably quite unusual position of reading what I’m sure was a substantial proportion of the online debate about this while having pretty much zero intellectual investment in debates about class (I’m a class struggle vulgarian when it comes to political issues and pretty satisfied with Margaret Archer’s work in the 80s+90s when it comes to treating these questions in my own research) it was easy for me to remain detached and see the whole episode as a pleasing reflection of the academic blogosophere’s growing maturity. But it was obvious to me throughout that this debate was going to run on beyond the confines of academic blogs and furthermore that it was an important one given a range of underlying tensions reflected in it, particularly the influence of Bourdieusian theory in British sociology. Leaving aside the vituperativeness of some on Twitter there are really interesting broader issues tangled up in the criticisms of the GBCS as a specific project. For instance the LSE Politics Blog hosted a thought provoking interview with John Goldthorpe:

The first thing to say about the recent paper by Savage and colleagues on social class is that the analyses they report are only marginally dependent on the BBC Great British Class Survey. This was a – quite predictable – flop because of the self-selection bias of respondents. To try to save the show, Savage et al. resorted to asking the same questions of a small quota sample, from which their results essentially derive – with the link then made to the GBCS data being of only a quite tenuous and largely inconsequential kind. Second, their presentation of their data and analyses is disturbingly unprofessional – as must also have been the reviewing of their paper. No details are given of the quota sampling (let alone any explanation of why this largely discredited method was accepted) nor of the crucial ‘latent class’ modelling from which their seven classes derive. Third, this attempt to define class boundaries ‘inductively’ from data on various forms of ‘capital’ à la Bourdieu amounts to little more than a data-dredging exercise – resulting in much conceptual confusion. For example, in one of the seven classes the average age is 34, in another 66! The dredging is simply picking up variance that has nothing whatever to do with class inequality or differentiation on any coherent understanding.

NS-SEC provides a sound basis, conceptually and methodologically, for analysing class inequalities in Britain – in mobility chances and likewise in life-chances in education, health etc – and one from which the unduly narrow approach of economists, focussing on income inequality, can be questioned. The Savage model is an unfortunate distraction, bringing quantitative sociology down to the level of market research. But it will, I believe, find little use outside the circle of Bourdieusian true believers.

Given all this it was very interesting to see a recent post by Mike Savage on the Culture and Stratification network’s blog explaining the future agenda for the GBCS team:

The publication of our paper ‘A new model of class? Findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey experiment’ in Sociology in April 2013, allied with a simultaneous press campaign led initially by the BBC has led to unprecedented interest in the nature and significance of social class in Britain. This reception of our work has been remarkably wide ranging, straddling academic disciplines, and a great variety of non-academic groups. We would like to thank the numerous people who have contacted us with their thoughts, written blogs, and more generally commented on our study. Some of the reception has been critical and has posed challenging questions about our purpose, methodology and data. We are pleased to have inspired such an engaged reception, and are aware that we need to respond to the criticisms and comments made. Furthermore, given the extent of public interest in this project, we feel responsible for explaining how we will be developing our research in the coming period. This note briefly spells out our plans.

A statement on future research from The Great British Class Survey

Anyone even vaguely interested in the GBCS should definitely read the above post and find out more about what they’re planning. I’m particularly interested in the “popular and accessible – though also serious and critical” book they are under contract with Penguin to write on social class. I find it really exciting how much of this debate has been playing out in the academic blogosphere and hope this continues.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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1 reply »

  1. That all sounds a bit ‘never mind the quality, feel the width’. And folk have short memories. I know I’m parti pris, but the announcement of the NS-SEC received similar publicity in the media and public involvement via BBC. But that’s no more to the point with NS-SEC than it is to the GBCS. The fundamental questions about the GBCS can’t be answered till we all have access to the data it was induced from.

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