Class and social distance as markers of stratification

We are currently in a boom time for public discussion of social class, largely thanks to the BBC Great British Class Survey, which received over 7 million views on the BBC website and was the most shared world news story on the New York Times website. Academically, it has also started numerous blogs (such as those by Colin Mills, Danny Dorling and ourselves), a feature on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed and a meeting at the RSS.

The public understanding of social class is something which I always find interesting. I recently came across a section on the Guardian’s website asking ‘Are you Middle Class?’, which invited an open discussion of what constitutes ‘middle class’, which slightly predates the discussion from the BBC Class survey. Whilst the comments section of newspaper websites aren’t the best place for sensible, reasoned discussion, nor necessarily representative of wider public perception, I was interested to look at how the discussion flowed.

Somewhat inevitably, much of the discussion focussed on entangling socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-political constructs, believing if they experienced social mobility, or voted differently to their peers, they were devoid of a social class. Occupations were rarely mentioned as a demarcation of class position. Indeed, most of the discussion focused on an ‘us and them’ stance, demarking the boundaries by characteristics they generally shared with people like themselves or distanced them from those they viewed as other.

For instance, the middle classes were often portrayed as eating cous cous, humus and vegetable boxes, sipping lattes and shopping at Marks and Spencers, IKEA, Waitrose or farmer’s markets. The working classes, meanwhile, are portrayed as eating beans on toast, burgers or other fried foods, often from fast food joints, and shopping at British Home Stores and Ebay. These differences were perhaps best summed up by the post asking if class can be measured if you eat both Waitrose muesli and Lidl cornflakes.

Other divisions between the middle and working classes included fashion (birkenstocks versus jogging trousers), newspaper readership (Guardian versus tabloids), car ownership (4×4 and Volvo versus white vans and Fords), accents and cultural identifiers such as frequenting bookmakers, having tattoos or littering. Many of the comments framed such dichotomies not just as ‘us /them’, but also as ‘acceptable/unpleasant’, defining their social class in terms of their difference from those they disliked. This is consistent to comments I’ve seen on similar websites and also the views Owen Jones quotes from Daily Mail readers.

It seems what was discussed wasn’t so much social class as social distance. Class and distance are two different, if related, concepts. Class refers to aggregating individuals into classifications (classes) based upon their socio-economic position. Social distance refers to the creation of social clusters based upon multidimensional forms of homophily and dissimilarity, cutting across socio-economic, socio-cultural and socio-political concerns.

We can think about the difference between class and social distance by thinking about music, particularly the way that musical tastes aren’t strictly bound by genre. Belle and Sebastian and the Fratellis are both Glaswegian Indie bands. Adapting a methodology recently suggested by David Beer and Mark Taylor, Spotify allows us to see the 20 artists listeners of those acts also most commonly listen to. What is interesting is that whilst the two bands share a genre, they do not share any common acts amongst the top 20 recommendations. The suggested artists themselves aren’t restricted to Indie (or Scottish) bands, but show links to common genres but different bands. Based around Scottish indie, US rock and Britpop, for instance, we see that Belle and Sebastian fans listen to Camera Obscura, Velvet Underground and Pulp, whereas Fratellis fans enjoy Franz Ferdinand, Wheatus and Toploader. It’s not the genre which is driving musical tastes but some multifaceted aspects of appreciation.
This is similar to how the Guardian readers view social class – it’s not so much the sharing of social positions and circumstances (social class) which is perceived but rather some multifaceted constructs of social connectivity (social distance). Whilst it is easy to be disappointed by the public understanding of social class, and the mixed ways it can be used in the popular press, it’s perhaps refreshing to view it as a mislabelling of a sociological construct and assume that when people present uninformed views on social class they are actually making valid comments about social distance.

Large-scale social surveys enable us to explore the various facets of social distance and piece together their interconnectivity. Such research could help us understand more fully the relationship between class and social distance, and ascertain how far the public misunderstanding of class is away from the sociological meaning.

Dave Griffiths, 7 June 2013


About Dave Griffiths

I am a lecturer in Quantitative Methods in the School of Applied Social Science at the University of Stirling.
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