Understanding social inequalities: Social Class Patterns & Trends


Social Class

  • Stratification system
  • Share a similar economic position - occupation, income, ownership of wealth
  • Similar levels of education status and power
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Measuring or operationalising social class

  • Sociologists address class differences to identify why inequalities come about
  • advertisers target particular groups
  • governments formulate social policies to address inequalities 

Government and advertisers have operationalised in a different way:

  • governments approach as objective reality, patterns of behaviour and inequality in health, life expectancy and education
  • advertisers subjectively interpret class position - affects consumption patterns and leisure pursuits
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  • = majority pop have in common
  • occupation governs:
  • education
  • newspapers they read/ TV watch
  • income 
  • standard of living
  • housing
  • chances of contracting heart disease, cancer, suffer stroke, life expectancy, cause of death
  • Criticism:
  • leaves out those who do not work - extremely rich/long term unemployed
  • objective measures using occupation enabled social class to be measured statistically still fails to present a true picture of class structure
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National statistics socio-economic classification

  • Until 2000 gov used Registrar-General's (RG) classification of occupations to measure social class
  • 6 groups
  • higher professional and managerial, lower professional and managerial and white-collar clerical = middle class
  • skilled, semi-skilled, unskilled blue-collar workers = working class
  • replaced by NS-SEC in 2000
  • By John Goldthorpe, Mike Savage - class occupations according to 'employment relations' - whether people are employers, self-employed or employed and 'market conditions' - salaries, promotion prospects, pensions, job security and control over hours worked

NS-SEC acknowledges long term unemployed (Underclass as defined by Murray and Saunders - New Right)

NS-SEC recognises women workers - no longer classes women according to the occupation of their fathers or husbands 

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Standing - 'Precariat' group

  • Standing identified new socio-economic group, 1990s = Precariat
  • Low skilled, low paid jobs, insecure
  • often enjoy fewer rights
  • no occupational identity or community to take pride in because forever moving in and out of jobs
  • forced to do jobs they would not normally choose - often take on menial work, long unsociable hours for little reward - preferable to claiming benefits, may have 2/3 jobs
  • Precariat not an underclass, do not spend enough time together to construct a shared identity, outlook or community 
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Savage and Marshall research

Savage, unstructured interviews, 170 people, Manchester, 2001:

  • minority had confidence to express class position in articulate way
  • second group not identify with particular class - saw themselves as individuals rather than wider social grouping
  • majority idenitified partucular class in 'muted' way rather than enthusiatic committment 


  • 53% identified as working class despite most of them having white collar jobs
  • those who do not have to work (inherited wealth, upper class) no included in NS-SEC
  • critiques: obscures differences in pay and status - categories too wide
  • college principals in same category as classroom teachers despite considerable differences in pay, status, authority and control over everyday wokring conditions
  • critics argue ethnicity, gender more important in inequalities 
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Trends in income distribution

  • income unequally distributed 
  • 1979-1997 inequality widened - most unequal since records began
  • UK = fifth most unequal in terms of income distribution (of worlds 27 leading economies)
  • net income of richest 10% = 10x bigger than net income of poorest 10%
  • top 1% of earners increased share of UKs income from 7 1981 to 13% 2011
  • poorer sections pay more tax as a proportion of their income because indirect taxes such as VAT on food and duty on alcohol, tobacco and fuel = greater proportion of a poorer persons income 
  • British Household Survey since 1991 - depends on answering honestly. Respondents more likely to under report income because they fear that tax authorities may use this to tax more
  • Tax returns to HM Revenue and customs likely to under report income especially if wealthy are using accountants and lawyers to move cash around the world in an attempt to avoid paying tax
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Trends in wealth distribution

  • Office for national stats defines forms of wealth:
  • Property wealth - houses and land 
  • physical wealth - cars, jewellery, antiques, paintings
  • financial wealth - money in bank accounts 
  • private pension wealth - cash value of pension funds 
  • distributed more unequally than income
  • total wealth of top 10% 2008-2010 = 850x total owned by bottom 10%
  • Birmingham Policy Commission Report, Rowlingson and Mullineux:
  • concluded different ways in which wealth inequalities occur, some accumulate but do not spend, some invest in land and property rather having hard cash
  • wealth affects physical and mental wellbeing as well as education and job opportunities
  • wealthy people = greater political influence
  • expressed anxiety at level of debt accumulated by the poor
  • noted difficultuties young people, even from m/c, face getting on housing ladder 
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Trends in wealth distribution

  • ONS bases estimates on wealth and assets survey 
  • Sunday times rich list = compiled by experts = reasonably accurate in regard to business assets, information has to be lodged for legal reasons but information regarding personal wealth is thought to be speculative rather based on hard evidence 

Data on wealth is difficult to come by because:

  • not all agree what 'wealth' is 
  • calculating value of personal wealth difficult becuase value of property constantly changing
  • very wealthy = extremely secretive 
  • difficult to estimate value of stocks and shares
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Social class inequalities in work and employment

  • hierarchy of jobs, top enjoy advantages - 
  • financial rewards
  • higher status
  • greater power
  • greater opportunities for training, development, responsibility and promotion
  • higher levels of job satisfaction

Funks and NR think social class workplace inequalities reflect meritocratic nature of modern soc e.g. Work hard in educational system = deserve greater rewards

Marxist = income inequality perform two functions:

  • wages kept low to increase profits
  • managerial execs and professionals highly rewarded because are agents of bourgeosie and capitalist class

Weberian = stratification is caused by status inequality. Less common qualifications - professionals and proven leaders - greater bargaining power regard to salaries and working conditions than those with routine skills 

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Social class inequalities in poverty

  • Conservatives deny poverty exists 
  • Low Pay Unit and Child Poverty Action Group claim poverty major social problem UK
  • Wilkinson and Pickett 2014 - poverty = socio-economic disadvantages e.g. debt, poor diet, weak immune system therefore higher levels of illness and disability, lower life expectancy, high divorce rates, low educational achievement, poor housing, depression and a disproportionate number of suicides
  • Two approaches to define poverty - absolute and relative 
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Social class inequalities in poverty

  • Absolute poverty = lack of essentials e.g. adequate nutrition or food, clothing, housing and fuel
  • Working out what is essential and its cost = complex and controversial - experts rarely agree
  • critics argue poverty relative because what is luxury today may be a necessity tomorrow
  • critics also argue only allows for a persons physical needs, no account for social needs
  • Relative poverty = normal expectations or living standards of a society at a particular time 
  • socs change = more or less affluent = ideaa about poverty change too 
  • heavily criticised by conservative and NR about what should be included as social necessities 
  • critics argue relative approach is confusing inequality with poverty and because social expectations about living standards are constantly changing it is virtually impossible to eradicate this type of poverty 
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Social class inequalities in poverty

Measuring poverty: households below average income (HBAI)

  • variation on absolute poverty approach 
  • avoids using term 'poverty'- 'low incomes' instead - defined as being below 60% of median income
  • good indicator of poverty is childs eligibility for free school meals
  • criticised - 60% cut off is random - conservative say too high, liberals see it as too low
  • 4.7 mil in food poverty = not have income to afford healthy diet

Measuring poverty: the consensual measure of poverty

  • relative poverty approach
  • pioneered by Mack and Lansley - Breadline Britain 1993 & David Gordon et al 2000
  • Mack and Lansley classed something 'necessity' if over 50% of the sample said it was essential
  • survey identified 22 items for deprivation index - damp free home, fresh fruit and veg daily, warm, waterproof coat etc
  • Mack and Lansley said respondents who lacked 3 or more were 'poor' whereas Gordon et al decided to set poverty line at 2 or more 
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Social class inequalities in social mobility

  • refers to movement of people up or down social scale
  • inter-generational mobility = mobility between generations e.g. daughter of milkman (working class) could become a teacher (middle class)
  • intra-generational mobility = movement between classes by someone during course of their life e.g. shopfloor of facotry at 16 but in 50s become company director or chief exec by experiencing upward social mobility
  • UK supposed to be open, meritocratic soc = merit - ability, talent and hard work - main criteria for upward social mobility rather than social class inequalities
  • closed soc = little or no social mobility
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Social class inequalities in social mobility

Researching social mobility problems

  • little agreement on how to classify occupations. Different studies = different ways to categorise jobs into social classes which makes comparisons between studies difficult
  • feminists = most social mobility studies ignore women
  • some sections of pop e.g. wealthiest and poorest, missing from social mobility studies because they focus on jobs
  • current patterns are difficult to study - takes many years for impact of changing governmental policies to be seen 
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Social class inequalities in social mobility

Social mobility studies

  • Oxford mobility study - Goldthorpe and Halsey, 1970s, 10,000 men across 2 generations
  • 1:2:4 rule of relative hope
  • for every w/c boy who managed to climb into professional service class, 2 boys from intermediate or lower m/c would achieve the same, while 4 sons of professionals would themselves become professionals one day
  • evidence of 'absolute mobility' - increase in number of w/c boys who got better jobs than their fathers
  • however, 'relative mobility' - chances of w/c boy getting service sector job compared with lower m/c and upper m/c peers had not changed over course of 50yr period studied
  • 1980s - Goldthorpe and Payne confirmed 1:2:4 rule was still in place 
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Social class inequalities in social mobility

Roberts 2001 

  • data from National Child Development Study, longitudinal study of those born in 1958
  • concluded although w/c got smaller, chances of escaping from w/c not improved
  • 55% w/c men stayed in class although m/c had twice the chance of w/c children of getting m/c jobs 

Lee Savage, snakes and ladders, followed those in 30s in 1990s compared w/ group of 30s in 2000s 

  • chances of someone moving long way up ladder had improved by over 20%
  • negative - little overall mobility
  • low earners in 90s and 00s likely to remain low earners
  • 90s only 3% significantly improved earnings and 00s only 6% 
  • Social mobility and child poverty comission set up 2010 by gov observed 80% born in ealry 80s = different social class from that of their parents 
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Social class inequalities in social mobility

Wilkinson and Pickett 2009 

  • countries like UK high degrees of income inequality have lowest levels of social mobility
  • wealthy european socs e.g. Sweden have lower degree of income inequality comapred with UK and higher levels of social mobility 
  • Britain has some of lowest social mobility in developed world - got worse since 70s
  • 3% of richest fifth have mother with no qualifications compared to 46% of the poorest fifth 
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Social class inequalities in social mobility


  • Saunders accused Goldthorpe and Halsey of left wing bias - put too much emphasis on relative rates of social mobility.
  • Saunders claims absolute rates are more important because they show lots of w/c children making the most of educational opportunity and progressing to university and m/c jobs 
  • Saunders also argues that Goldthrope and Halsey neglect innate or inherited intelligence - his point, m/c children inherit higher levels of intelligence from their parents and this is why they are relatively more successful than their w/c peers
  • however, this ignores reams of evidence that suggests that m/c childrens access to economic, cultural and social capital is key to their success, rather than superior intelligence 
  • feminists criticised oxford study as focuses on men
  • Abbott points out women are now imporant wage-earners and social mobility study required that acknowledges disadvantages faced by women in workplace
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Social class and education and health


  • students from w/c achieve less than m/c counterparts
  • private schools educate 7% of British children yet private school pupils make up nearly three quarters of top judiciary, over two thirds of British-educated Oscar winners, 6/10 top doctors, over 50% top journalists, over 50% of cabinet and third of all members of parliment
  • these factors undermine view that UK is meritocratic


  • official stats - manual or w/c background generally more likely to die younger, age faster and encounter more long term chronic physical and mental illness 
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