Working with the BBC: the Great British Class Survey
Workaround: In current version of Panels 3.8, it seems this body field needs to be populated in order for title above to appear. This note is hidden by custom CSS style. Jack Latimer.
The GBCS: A Remarkably Rich Resource
BBC Radio and television has shown an increasing interest in the role of social class in Britain. The Great British Class Survey (GBCS) is perhaps the most significant manifestation of this raised awareness. The GBCS emerged in 2009-10 as a collaboration between the BBC and CRESC affiliates Mike Savage and Fiona Devine, who have pioneered studies of class in contemporary Britain. Over 160,000 people have taken the Survey since Mike appeared on BBC1’s ‘One Show’ in January 2011 to launch the project.
The GBCS is unprecedented in two key respects.
Due to a lack of appropriate data, studies of social stratification in Britain in the past have tended to focus on economic facets of class such as occupation or income. These are clearly important, but they present just one aspect of class. The GBCS has detailed information on the economic status of participants – for instance including household income, property value and personal savings. At the same time it has responses to over 40 other questions on a vast swathe of social and cultural matters. We have information on the size and scope of people’s social network, their cultural tastes and leisure interests, their educational and family backgrounds, media preferences and much else besides.
The extensive reach of the GBCS reflects the work of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu argued that a fuller understanding of the meaning and significance of class must involve an analysis of the complex interactions between social, cultural and economic factors. In terms of the breadth of its composition the GBCS is very unusual in social science.
The second extraordinary feature of the GBCS is the size of the sample. Over 160,000 people from right across the UK have completed the survey. The sample size combined with spatial data about where people live means that it is possible to explore very detailed social, cultural and economic geographies of class. This is particularly important as sociologists seek to extend the reach of the discipline through the adoption of new technologies such as Geographical Information Systems (GIS), which have the potential to provide not only alternative forms of visualisation, but also substantive new insights. It is also highly relevant in the light of an increasing public awareness of the importance of space in the formation and expression of social inequalities in Britain.
Rethinking Class in Contemporary Britain
A significant shortcoming of the GBCS is the considerable degree of bias which exists in the survey. While the sample is large, it is also heavily skewed towards middle-class respondents. However, through the analysis of a smaller nationally-representative sample commissioned alongside it, it has been possible to use the main survey to develop a new and more nuanced model of class along the lines proposed by Bourdieu. This incorporates not only economic indicators, but also cultural and social factors. In this model, we see that there exists a small elite characterised by very high levels of wealth, an ‘excluded’ rump, which scores low across the three domains of economic, social and cultural capital, and a large dichotomous middle-class. In this last grouping, the split is primarily defined socially. Some have large social networks, while some do not. The complex statistical work underpinning this work has been led by Yaojun Li of the Institute for Social Change at the University of Manchester. In addition to Yaojun, Mike and Fiona, the core academic team also includes CRESC’s Andrew Miles and Niall Cunningham. Andrew has an established interest in issues around occupation and class, while Niall is using GIS to explore the spatial potential within the GBCS. The GBCS has already garnered considerable attention from academics across a range of disciplines keen to collaborate in analysing the data.
With the input of the CRESC academic team, the BBC is currently developing a major website with a London-based new media consultancy, Applied Works. This should result in a popular and accessible website for the dissemination and exploring of data from the GBCS. The size and scope of the GBCS means it has the potential to provide material for an infinite number of publications. However, the academic team are planning a major book which will open up these vital issues to a wider readership than most traditional scholarship. The re-thinking of class and culture which underpins this survey is also informing innovations in market research, amongst think tanks, and in the cultural sector.