Class

Britain remains the only Western nation where a majority of people define themselves as working class. IN 2002, for example, a MORI poll found that 68% of Britons – black and white, male and female – called themselves working class and were proud to be so. Not all of these people fitted the stereotype of the ‘traditional’ working class manual worker. So why do so many people choose to call themselves working class?

The postwar period provides some clues. After 1945, the study of society was fashionable, and as well as a proliferation of sociological investigations, postwar Britain witnessed the development of documentary art, photography, and television programmes. Although social scientists and journalists had conducted social investigations before the 1940s, they tended to focus on the working class as a ‘problem’ group: the poor, the unemployed, the delinquent. In the 1950s, though, the methods and focus of these researchers changed. They were more concerned to consider the entire ‘working class’ (often defined as manual workers, or those living in families headed by manual workers paid weekly wages rather than salaries) than just the poorest or the unemployed. This reflected a wider eagerness to discover how important change s in postwar society – such as the welfare state, and the rise in wages – were affecting ‘ordinary’ people’s lifestyles. It was also a legacy of the Second World War. Politicians and social scientist, motivated from pressure from ‘ordinary people’ themselves, believed that working class people’s role in the war effort deserved recognition. These people’s welfare became a key concern in the postwar decades. 

The methods used by social scientists and journalists began to incorporate in-depth interviews with working class people themselves. What is clear from those interviews is that many people didn’t share sociologists’ and politicians’ complex understanding of class as a hierarchy of subtle stratifications. Rather, people tended to distinguish between ‘the rich’ and ‘those who have to work for a living’. On that basis, most people identified themselves as being in the latter group – the ‘working class’, defined by hard work, integrity and ‘having your feet on the ground.’ The interviews in this section of the website demonstrate that despite economic changes, this belief is still widespread today, and continues to shape British people’s views of what class means. Although postwar research into the working class tended to focus on male manual workers, and on white communities, this understanding of class as being a division between the rich and those who have to work, a division based on inequality and with far reaching consequences, is shared by many women, young people, and non-white Britons. The notion of the ‘white working class’ adopted by the media and many politicians does not seem so dominant in these interviews. Although racial and gender differences and tensions are often apparent, it does not seem that identifying oneself as working class is a shorthand for bigotry or racism. In fact, many of the people who talk thoughtfully here about being working class make the point that they have lived their lives in very mixed communities, and have experienced many changes in their neighbourhoods and workplaces that they have had to adapt to. They see themselves as being neither the stereotyped heroes or victims that journalists and social scientists have sometimes depicted – but instead as survivors, campaigners, and above all real people with insights that might help us all better understand how to cope in periods of economic uncertainty and global social change.

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