Income is generally accepted as the key measure of class, but is it the only consideration? asks Sam Bright.
I would like to start with a couple of questions - what social class do you think you belong to? And what would you consider to be the most important reason for why you are of that social class? Now, I imagine that the majority of people who considered those questions will have deliberated the influence of money, whether it be their income or their parents, as a significant factor which guided their decision. Indeed, there has been an increased perception in society, ever since the economic neo-liberal reign of Margaret Thatcher, that income and wealth are the most crucial determinants of social class. However, is this an over simplification which fails to recognise more subtle factors relating to class? Or is it an accurate reflection, as it takes into account what our society values most- money?
Well, it would be argued by those who see money as the most important factor that it demonstrates a societal ranking, where those who earn more money are able to purchase better quality material goods and thereby increase their status as a successful member of society. Furthermore, it would be said that high levels of income and wealth are what the majority of members of current society strive to achieve, and therefore it is only natural that the social scale reflects how well individuals succeed in realising these aspirations.
On the other hand though, I for one would argue that this is a far too basic way of looking at society. Social class encompasses many different elements; money is merely used as a single judge because it is easily measurable and comparable, not necessarily accurate. For example, even though premier league footballers earn millions of pounds a year I can’t think of any I would determine to be middle- or upper-class. For my mind, those in the middle- and upper-classes have to hold a certain intellectual level, one which allows them to think, speak and write in a lucid and informed way, although, not to single footballers out as the only high-earning dim-wits, there are also many other people who earn large amounts of money who can’t understand words of more than two syllables. Furthermore, doesn’t class, to some extent, also take into account taste? For instance, I would question whether spending on vulgar, ostentatious supercars and overly sized designer sunglasses actually reflects a higher social class. Surely, if an individual decides to indulge themselves in a less expensive, yet more elegant, investment such as a stunning classic car, or on a more high-brow pastime, such as a trip to the theatre, then they are of a higher class, even if they have less income to spend.
On top of this, there is also the question of whether social class takes into account the occupation which creates this income for the individual? It certainly did in the past, as an individuals’ social class was seen to be largely determined by the relationship they had to the means of production, an interpretation taken from Marxist views of society. This meant that those who created wealth for others, such as manual labourers, were seen as working-class, with managers and owners of companies seen as middle- and upper-class. This concept has declined in prevalence over recent years, as the status of modern occupations have become increasingly hard to judge in terms of social class, due, substantially, to the decline of the manufacturing industry. However, occupation status is still a vital reflection of the class of an individual, as it demonstrates how much responsibility we have in the advancement of society and the economy, something which may not be taken into account by income.
Therefore, personally, I would say that middle- and upper-class professions would still be those which encompass some sort of ownership or management over others, as well as intellectual professions where there is a basis placed on critical analysis and the development of thought. The difference is that manual workers have now been replaced by office workers and those working for large corporations in the service sector as the stock-standard working classes, and although these occupations may entail an increasing amount of intellectual work, or financial management, the workers are still individuals whose surplus value is exploited in order to create wealth for others and whose views, on their own, aren’t vital for businesses to run. Although, of course, there are always many interpretations regarding the nature of certain jobs and how they rank on the social scale, we will never universally be able to assume a particular job belongs to a particular class, there are always anomalies, and any analysis of social class should take this into account.
Finally, there is also the issue regarding how much our social class depends on our family background; whether we are in any way linked to past generations in terms of our social standing. Well, due to the influence which our parents have over the ways in which we think, act and the morals we hold, it would be naïve to think that they have no influence whatsoever over what class we belong to. Therefore, background could be said to have an impact, as each generation influences the next, creating a chain of beliefs and even traits which are likely, at least in some part, to be carried through to the present day. Although, due to the social mobility which we see in current society, some would say that social tradition and family background have much less of an influence than they previously did. For example, there is now very little evidence to suggest that a person with the surname Botherington-Smythe is of a higher class than someone named Baker, we have now a society where the classes are increasingly integrated and social movement can occur within a generation, therefore, to assume that we are of a certain class because of our backgrounds could be misleading. In my view though, although an individual can move upwards through the class system at a remarkable rate in current society, they rarely fail to recognise the roots from which they came from as an influence in shaping them as an individual, indicating how background shapes social class.
So then, back to the original question, does dosh equals posh? Well, although money does have an influence on social class, there has been a confusion in recent times regarding the true importance of money on social ranking. Money is a factor which has been used as a simplistic tool, due to its ability to easily compare one individual with another, rather than due to its credibility as a precise measurement of social class. Indeed, social class isn’t a simplistic concept, and in any case, it isn’t influenced by a single unchangeable factor. Although, different people may have widely varying opinions regarding what the central factors are, this being one reason of many why I find it so fascinating. For instance, in my mind, the fundamental elements which influence social class are: your occupation, your intellectual ability, your mannerisms and tastes, your family background and lastly, and probably least significantly, your material wealth. No matter what your views are though, it has to be recognised by everyone that social class has influenced British society for hundreds of years, and while in recent times its significance has waned somewhat, it still has a considerable importance in how we conduct our lives and view our roles within society.
read more: Does Dosh equals Posh?