Thursday, 4 April 2013

A new measure of "social class"

There you go! In the first paragraph of Mike Savage et al's paper on a new model of social class they cite Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett as authorities on health inequality. As pointed out in my last blog, Wilkinson's work has never been about health inequality.
Anyone who read my last blog will also anticipate my reaction to using the term 'social class' to refer to cultural dimensions of social inequality. I just think it is so much less confusing to stick to calling social class what the official UK Statistics Office has defined and validated, i.e. employment relations and conditions.
But OK, let's call the new measure a measure of social position, the general term I like to use to refer to all dimensions of inequality whether they be cultural, economic or occupational.
It is great that the authors start out from a sound knowledge of Goldthorpe and colleagues clear definition and measurement of social class which has provided the present official UK measure (the NS-SEC). Why after all this do they think we need another measure?
Firstly, the NS-SEC does badly in predicting cultural activities and identities. The simple answer to this is that it is not supposed to. Whether or not a class measure based on occupation is related to cultural identity is an empirical matter. Secondly, the NS-SEC does not tell us who is in the 'elite'. I think anyone who uses it would agree with this. Thirdly, economists don't like the NS-SEC. I can surely attest to the truth of this: no record of occupation was recorded in the whole of the English Longitudinal Study of Aging (ELSA) life-grid while the sociologists took their eye off the design. Economists only think of income and wealth, not social class, which is fine, that is their discipline. Another criticism of the Erikson-Goldthorpe-Portocarrero (EGP) class schema (from which the NS-SEC is derived but in a rather distant form) is that it overdoes the manual-non-manual divide. I think John Goldthorpe would agree with this, I certainly do, and it is one reason why the NS-SEC does not have a manual-non-manual divide at all.
Perhaps the ultimate irony of the study is that the authors actually used the NS-SEC to validate their sample distribution! (page 6 Table 1). And this is the correct schema too, not the old EGP, and so it does not have any 'manual workers', or indeed 'skilled or 'unskilled' workers'. Managers are divided into 3 classes  and professionals into 2.  On the basis that the BBC audience survey (161,000 people) was biased (compared to what I wonder?) the BBC did a face to face survey with a sample of 1026 chosen to be nationally representative. It was on this representative sample that the authors carried out their multiple classification analysis of cultural capital rather than the much bigger BBC audience sample.
Seven classes emerge from the latent class analysis, the result of allowing income, wealth, house price, number and average social prestige of social contacts, highbrow culture score and 'emerging culture' score to cluster together and seeing how many groups 'naturally' emerge'. As far as I understand it, occupational title did not enter into the group of variables used to establish the classes. However, information on occupation is present in the data set so it is possible to see which occupations fall into which classes. But the classificatory criteria really are at the household level. This is different from any other social classification I know of, as all of these are based on characteristics of occupations one way or another. It would have been interesting to see a bit more information about the occupations whose members fell into several different Great British classes. Presumably it would be possible for an office worker, for example, to be in the precariat if they had no house and no savings mixed mostly with people in low status jobs and never went to the opera, and in the established middle class if they had greater income and wealth and different cultural tastes and friends.
Most interesting to me was to see that not all the other variables had a simple graded relationship to income. Table 6 shows an interesting set of relationships. For example, the 'technical middle class' has 3rd highest income and house price, but 2nd highest savings, and lowest frequency of social contacts. Traditional working class households have a higher score on highbrow culture than do 'new affluent workers' or the 'technical middle class'. Presumably this is one of the reasons why people tell me you can change your social class by, for example, saying you like a different kind of music (Morten Wahrendorf offered to lend me some jazz records).
I hope that, for now, this blog has raised some questions in people's minds.

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