Introducing the Great British Class Survey
The current explosion of interest in questions of class came home to us in 2013 when we published findings from the BBC’s Great British Class Survey, which was publicized by the media and provoked astonishing interest across the globe. When the BBC persuaded us to help them design their web survey, we truly did not know how much interest it would generate. Who could be bothered to give up twenty minutes of their time to answer a battery of arcane questions on their leisure interests, cultural tastes, social networks and economic situation? We were therefore gratified when within a few weeks the survey elicited over 161,000 responses – to become the largest survey of social class ever conducted in Britain.
Having downloaded the first wave of data from the BBC in April 2011, we spent nearly two years trying to make sense of its patterns. After several false starts, we elaborated a new sociological model in April 2013 which proclaimed the existence of seven new classes, which we discuss further in Chapter 5.2 The BBC promoted our findings with an impressive set of visual infographics. These were then hooked up to an interactive ‘Class Calculator’, whereby people could spend less than a minute tapping in replies to a few questions about their income, savings and house value, their cultural interests and their social networks, and were then told which of our ‘new’ classes they fitted into.
The results were staggering. Within a week seven million people – roughly one in five of the British adult population – clicked on the Class Calculator to find out which ‘new’ class they were in.3 Social media buzzed with debate and a tidal wave of popular and academic comment overwhelmed us. During our careers we have written extensively about social class for mainly academic audiences, but had never experienced popular interest on this scale. There was extensive blogging and media interest in the arguments on a level rarely – if ever – seen for sociological research. This is a prime message of this book – that social class is now a very powerful force in the popular imagination once again. People in Britain are aware of, interested in and also upset about class. During the media storm associated with the launch of the Great British Class Survey, we heard of train passengers chatting about which class they were now in and schoolchildren talking in the playground about class. There were some very odd incidents. Demand for theatre tickets in London increased by an average of 191 per cent in the week after the GBCS launch. Louise Mullock, spokesperson for Seatwave, remarked: ‘We recorded a near universal increase in ticket demand which we were at a loss to explain, until we realized that it corresponded directly with the BBC’s Class Calculator becoming public.’4 It seemed that large numbers of people responded to the Class Calculator’s questions treating theatre attendance as an indicator of cultural capital by deciding to get out more.
Scientific experiments are normally expected to stand back from the research they are conducting in order to provide distanced and ‘objective’ results, for instance using randomized control tests when comparing which medical interventions are effective. However, in the case of the GBCS, we could not do this. Interests in class are themselves so highly loaded that if we try to stand back, then we miss the energies, intensities, but also the hostility and insecurity that are bound up with class. Indeed, this is a fundamental argument of our book. We like to think of ourselves as living in a democratic society where individuals are supposed to have equal rights. Yet we also know that people’s economic fortunes can be strikingly different. Symbolically, class is a lightning conductor for the anxieties this discrepancy between economic realities and our beliefs provokes.