The Concept Of Social Class
This report is going to discuss the concept of ‘Social Class’ and answer why it is difficult to conceptualise and measure. According to Bryman (2012:162), ‘a concept is a key building block in the construction of a theory and represents the points around which social research is conducted’. For concepts to be part of quantitative research, they have to be measured. Once they are measured, they can provide an explanation of a certain aspect of the social world or they may stand for things we want to explain. However, as Bryman (2012:168) significantly points out, ‘what is crucial is whether measures are reliable and whether they are valid representations of the concepts they are supposed to be tapping’. The process of operationalising and measuring any concept presents several challenges, particularly in the case of a complex concept such as social class (Barata,2013). There is large criticism around quantitative research and the measurement process as it possesses an artificial sense of precision and accuracy. It is also argued that the connection between the measures developed by social scientists and the concepts they are supposed to be revealing is assumed rather than real (Bryman, 2012). Once establishing what Social Class is and its relevance to social science research, the report will then go onto discuss the difficulties of measuring social class, looking specifically at the attributes of this concept.
Although class is one of the most used terms in the discipline and has always been among sociology’s strongest unifying concepts, there is no agreed definition (Roberts, 2011). However, according to the Oxford English dictionary online, ‘Social class is a division of a society based on social and economic status’. Whatever their areas of specialisation, economic life, the family, crime, politics or education, sociologists have always been interested in researching social class and understanding the consequences of class positions. Class positions make a considerable difference to people’s lives, from their health, their lifestyle and even their education. For example, compared with unskilled workers, professionals are twice as likely to have made a will, whereas the unskilled are twice as likely to worry about being a victim of crime (Roberts, 2011). Class theory seeks and delivers significant explanations of these class differences and ultimately, ‘without class theory the differences remain inexplicable’ (Roberts, 2011: 10). Another agreement amongst sociologists is that class makes a difference in most areas of people’s economic, cultural, social and political lives and as Savage (2015) argues, people’s subjective understandings of class are influenced by understandings of cultural, social and economic capital, thus fundamentally, class matters. Furthermore, all methods of social class analyses can potentially contribute to a much better and holistic understanding of the micro and macro social processes involved in the production of social inequalities (Barata, 2013). In 2014, the World Economic Forum highlighted income disparity as one of the principle risks to economic and political security today, and ‘non – governmental organisations have drawn public attention to the continuation of advantage transmitted across generations and pointed to the unequal opportunities that reinforce privilege’ (Savage, 2015:84). Savage (2015:30) looks specifically at the 21st century and how these ‘spiralling levels of inequality are remaking social class today’. Therefore, in any society with wide economic inequalities class is unlikely to ever become a redundant concept. Bulmer et al. (2010:14) argues that from an academic perspective, ‘class should be theorised and measured in ways that allow it to describe differences across and between populations.’ In order to carry out this macro-sociology, it is vital that there are frequent large-scale surveys that collect relevant data, and that this is recorded and coded with sufficient reliability to allow analysts to produce descriptive statistics that are scientifically credible.
Social class can be operationalised into the attributes of economic capital, occupation and political behaviour; however, class theory and research currently face serious challenges and thus, these attributes are difficult to conceptualise and measure as will be explored in this section of the essay. According to Roberts (2011), today people are less likely to identify themselves with any particular class and are usually ambivalent and hesitant when asked to place themselves in a class (Surridge, 2007). There are several found reasons for this, however, one of the main reasons is because people may be reluctant to claim superiority by describing themselves as Middle class or Upper class and simultaneously, people may be reluctant to accept the stigma of being lower class. Roberts (2011) stresses the relevance of the standard language of class analysis changing from the past which has led people to perhaps be uncertain as to where class boundaries lie and thus where they are positioned. Additionally, there is evidence that suggests ‘people have preferred to stress their individuality and see themselves as ‘’ordinary’’ rather than submerge themselves into a class that may mix up their identity’ (Roberts, 2011:12)