Sociologist discusses why the BBC’s “class calculator” can help the field of sociology

Check out the BBC’s class calculator and this argument from a sociologist about how the calculator matters for sociology:

As an academic sociologist, this take-up, while exciting, is also disconcerting. I am more used to debating social class with my academic peers than seeing the topic taken up so actively in the public arena, and it has been subject to much biting comment. We are deluged by emails complaining about how the calculator puts you in the wrong class, with the wrong labels. Eminent sociologists such as David Rose are concerned with the quality of the social science lying behind the work (do we really need Bourdieu rather than Weber?). Guy Standing is not convinced about our use of his “precariat” (precarious proletariat) term as the label for the most disadvantaged class that we uncover. There are already numerous spoofs and take-offs of the class model and its measurement. Given this furore, I want to explain what we are trying to achieve sociologically with this project. Is this a model of a new kind of accessible social science? Or is it a worrying case of pandering to media headlines?

We are relaxed about people having fun “placing” themselves and discussing this with family and friends, and arguing with us sociologists along the way. It has led to a wider collective discussion on Twitter and Facebook, which we see as a desirable resource for a public-facing sociology in a digital age. We do need to set the record straight, however. The Class Calculator was designed by the BBC to mimic the more complex model we had developed on the basis of the survey data, and the two should not be conflated. As numerous people have pointed out, changing just one response can shift you between different classes. This would not be possible within the latent class analysis we deployed, where all six measures are simultaneously used to allocate class membership. Actually, this kind of simplification was deliberate, as the measures used in the Class Calculator were chosen precisely to make respondents aware of the most important factors in placing people into classes. But it still poses questions about whether we have been simplistic.

Let me be blunt. The concept of class matters, because we need a way of connecting accentuating economic inequalities to social and cultural differences which permeate our society. Rather than seeing our lifestyles and social networks as somehow separate from economic inequalities, there are overlaps that can work together to produce social advantage and disadvantage. For all its problems, the concept of class remains fundamental to making these connections. Sure, we would all rather not live in a class-divided society. But in reality, the markers of class cannot be doubted. Our model seeks to find a way of making these connections, arguing that occupational measures alone are too blunt a tool for this purpose…

In my view, probably the most important finding from our research is the existence of a distinctive “elite” class. We are so used to turning the telescope on the poor and disadvantaged that sociologists have had little to say about those who are at the apex of British society. Sociological studies of class have no specific place for an elite category. What we have shown is that this very wealthy class is now clearly distinguished from all the other classes in Britain, and the economic differences are huge. That is a powerful and unsettling finding.

It is a simple little survey (it took me a few minutes and this was a little longer than it had to be because I was trying to do some mental conversions from dollars to pounds) but it sounds like it might have some potential for research and reflection.

I wonder how well this might work in an American setting. Compared to the United States, Britain is known for being more conscious of class. In contrast, most Americans would prefer to say they are middle class. So, what would happen if PBS or the New York Times or an equivalent news source ran such a survey? Would it be beneficial in that it could help show people where they really fall in society rather than the middle-class aspirations many claim to have?

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