Britain's Class System More Complicated Than Once Thought

A new study finds that the socio-economic class system in Britain is more complicated than previously thought. Instead of the standard categories of lower, upper, and middle class, the study identifies seven social classes. Audie Cornish talks with researcher Fiona Devine about the findings.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

The British have long mocked their own class system.

JOHN CLEESE: (as Commentator) Oh, it's certainly looks as though we're in for a splendid afternoon sport in this, the 127th upper class twit of year show.

CORNISH: Beyond "Monty Python," Americans have fallen in love with more romantic depictions of the vaunted upper class in TV shows like "Downton Abbey."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

DAN STEVENS: (as Matthew Crawley) There are plenty of hours in the day and, of course, I'll have the weekend.

MAGGIE SMITH: (as Lady Violet Crawley) And what is a weekend?

CORNISH: If Maggie Smith's character, the dowager countess, had too leisurely a life in the 1920s to know what a weekend was, well, times have changed. And now a huge study by the BBC, a survey of more than 161,000 people, offers a redefinition of the British class system. Gone are the standard working, middle and upper class tiers. The report argues there are now seven social classes and here they are. Robert?

SIEGEL: OK. We'll start at the bottom. The precariat, the proletariat whose everyday lives are deemed precarious.

CORNISH: Next, we have the traditional working class.

SIEGEL: Moving on to emergent service workers. Relatively poor, but culturally in the know and urban dwelling.

CORNISH: And new affluent workers, young and active and stuck in the middle.

SIEGEL: There's the technical middle class. They have more money, but they're not likely to attend the opera.

CORNISH: And the established middle class, also well off, but more likely to attend the opera.

SIEGEL: And finally, the last and highest social class, the self-explanatory elite.

CORNISH: Well, earlier today, I spoke with Fiona Devine, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and one of the co-authors of what the BBC is calling its great British class survey. She explained the criteria for establishing this new seven-tiered system.

FIONA DEVINE: Well, what we did is looked at class in terms of three types of capitals. So we looked at economic capital, social capital and cultural capital and tried to incorporate all of those into our definition of class.

CORNISH: So with economic capital, you know, that's probably how much money people make, how much wealth they have, that kind of traditional ways we might look at class. But what's cultural and social capital?

DEVINE: Yes. So, cultural capital is looking at people's cultural interests and leisure activities, ranging from visiting stately homes to what kind of food they enjoy when they eat out. And then, social capital is looking at the number of contacts that people have and the occupations of those contacts to get a sense of the social world in which people live.

CORNISH: So literally how many nurses and plumbers you know versus CEOs and teachers.

DEVINE: Yes, exactly.

CORNISH: Fiona, can I ask what you scored on the British class calculator?

DEVINE: Yes. I scored as established middle class.

CORNISH: It feels weird to talk about. Does it make you feel uncomfortable talking about it?

DEVINE: Yeah. It's quite a funny thing because, of course, when it is a snapshot, you know, I'm just saying where I am now, that I am the daughter of a postman, so I have working class origins and I've enjoyed social mobility. So it is a funny thing to say I am middle class, because people have a strong identity with the place that they've also come from and it's tied in with your family and so on. And so it does feel strange, yes.

CORNISH: That's Fiona Devine, co-author of the BBC's great British class survey. She's a professor of sociology at the University of Manchester. Fiona, thank you so much for speaking with us.

DEVINE: Thank you very much.

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