Social class and inequality in the UK -- an introduction

It is important to note that sociologists think of social class in a more technical way than do most people in Britain. Social class for most people is still a matter of judgement of the worth or social standing of an individual or group. The judgements often on ranking somebody according to their clothes, appearance, accent, jewellry, body size or manners. In commonsense terms, these judgements often involve embarrassment or guilt, so that when sociologists refer to  'working class leisure pursuits', students often feel uncomfortable, or imagine that their particular interests are being judged as inferior. In fact, what we often mean is that certain leisure pursuits are engaged in predominantly by members of a particular social or economic group. Similarly, matters of clothing or appearance are probably fairly changeable, so that students can sometimes judge that dividing people by social class is out of date. However, on sociological criteria, this may not be the case.

Empirical studies
The usual way in which social class is studied by sociologists, by contrast, involves trying to classify people according to largely economic matters, such as average income or wealth. Sometimes, the data is presented in terms of  'income slices', such as the average wage of the richest 10 per cent of the population, for example. It is more common to use one of these scales based on the main occupation of the head of household. Occupations are a convenient way to assess social class, because they are closely linked to income, and also to power and status. There are a number of classifications of occupations currently in use.

We can start to get our bearings about the position of social classes in Britain by considering some data about economic inequalities. It is important to insist right away that describing inequalities does not necessarily mean we are condemning them or urging political action to do something about them: there may be perfectly sound sociological or political reasons for having an equal incomes or ownership of wealth as we shall see.

There are a number of official and semi-official bodies which gather data about inequality, such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (the IFS), or the UK Cabinet Office. The IFS has produced a recent study which shows that there has been a noticeable amount of  'wage dispersion' in the UK since the 1970s, for example. What this means is that wage rates have diverged between the richest and poorest groups, (but also that wages have become  more different inside each occupational group). To put some numbers on this, Social Trends, a government publication, shows that median incomes in the UK have grown from £180 per week to £310 per week from 1971-2001 (the median level of income is that level which exactly divides the population in half in terms of their income). However, within this overall picture, if we take the richest 10 per cent of the population, their median income has more than doubled, from £310 per week to £640 per week over the same period. If we look at the incomes of the poorest 10 per cent, they have also increased their income, but to a much lesser extent, from £100 a week to £150 a week.

The data on the ownership of wealth shows an interesting range. According to an IFS study, the poorest 50 per cent of the UK population have £1,000 or less in savings, and no investments. By contrast, the richest 10 per cent have savings of £18,000 or more, and investments of £15,000 or more. Whereas 50 per cent of the population has an average of £600 worth of wealth, the top 10 per cent have £35,000 worth.  According to the Rowntree trust, the richest 15 people in the country own £3.4bn of wealth -- as much as the poorest 3.4m people in Britain put together! A recent Office of National Statistics (ONS) report shows that 'the welsth of the super-rich has doiubled since Tony Blair came to power' ( the Guardian December 8th 2004), and that the richest 1% now own £797bn worth of assets, 23% of the total wealth of the nation -- the poorest 50% used to own 10% in 1986 and now own only 5%.

Turning more to matters of obvious social and political importance, a recent study by Aldridge, commissioned by the UK Government's Strategy Unit illustrates that  'the UK has one of the highest levels of relative poverty in Europe -- increasingly concentrated in households with children'. Note that poverty is defined in relative terms here, as an income below 60 per cent of the median. Relative poverty like this is an important factor in social exclusion, the feeling that you cannot participate in the normal life of the society around you. Of course, on a world scale, even this level of poverty is probably pretty comfortable compared to the starvation wages earned by many others, but it is also true that the UK requires a certain level of income in order to participate in the delights it can offer. Aldridge's data show that about 24 per cent of UK families, with 33 per cent of UK children in them, are on this level of income.

NB Aldridge's work is available online, and I suggest you download it now and refer to his charts and diagrams on the pages mentioned.There is much more information than I can deal with here, including data on gender, ethnicity and education For example, there is a nice chart giving all the data on the proportions of UK families living in relative poverty on p.33, relating to the paragraph above, and another on life expectancies on p.13. To summarise that one, as an  obvious rough measure of social welfare, average life expectancy also varies by social class. The average life expectancy has increased for all groups since the 1970s, but there is still a difference of about six years between those in professional occupations and those in unskilled manual occupations.

Please note that the Government have issued several other relevant reports since Aldridges's. You can browse for them on the Cabinet Office's publications archives page
Try especially the 2008 paper on social mobility. I have a digital learning object introducing some of the more technical debates and issues about social mobility here

A British journalist, Polly Toynbee, has done much to root around in these rather abstract statistics and put them in a more understandable way for a broader audience. Her writing is possibly not as precise or technical as some sociologists would wish, and she does clearly move on to issues of British party politics. Nevertheless, a recent article of hers is worth quoting:

Polly Toynbee
Friday April 30, 2004 The Guardian

A startling graph this week from Alissa Goodman, of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, illustrates income distribution since 1997. Swimming hard against strong forces of inequality, the government has managed, more or less, to stop the gap growing worse for most people, helping the poorest. Except at the far top end…[according to the ]… Sunday Times rich list; the top 1,000 enjoyed an "explosion of wealth" last year, with assets soaring by 30%...Gordon Brown's major cash redistribution to the poor has only managed to freeze inequality at the unjust levels created in the 80s, while the top 1% are vanishing out of sight in a gold-gated society of their own. Historically, we are back to inequality levels of the 50s. In a decade, unless top tax rates rise, we shall be back to 1932's gulf between top and bottom.

Who are the top 1%? They earn over £100,000. There are over half a million of them, and two-thirds live in London and the south-east. Most are in jobs, with only a quarter self-employed. This 1% earns 8% of the nation's income, while the bottom tenth earns just 3%. The rich pay a smaller proportion of their money in taxes, and that of the poorest is much higher due to regressive VAT.

Our FTSE 250 CEOs are not global, as they like to claim, but mainly home-grown and in no great demand abroad…[but]…most big media groups have newsrooms run by someone earning over £100k.

The LSE's Tom Sefton found that that over 80% of the population think the gap between rich and poor is too large, with concern spread across all incomes. Asked what people should earn, voters award more to lower-paid occupations and less to the higher paid Even a modest tax increase on earnings above £100,000 - say, 50% - would bring in nearly £5bn. 

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

Explaining the differences
As I said earlier, this level of inequality is often seen as a social problem requiring government action, but, turning to the issues in a more technical way, differences in income and wealth between social groups might actually be both inevitable and even desirable. One particular approach to  'social stratification' argues that, in the long term at least, we will evolve towards a pattern which make sure that the most responsible jobs in our society are filled by the most conscientious and able people [see file]. This would clearly be functional and desirable, since no one would want incompetents occupying senior positions in finance, industry, politics, education, or anywhere else. A system that permits the most able people to proceed to occupy the most responsible jobs, solely on the basis of their merits, and with no part been played by parental occupation, gender or ethnicity, is usually called a  'meritocracy'. It could be argued that unequal rewards is one way to guarantee that this functional pattern occurs. The most responsible jobs should attract the highest incomes and the best chances to accumulate wealth and enjoy oneself, otherwise no one would undergo the lengthy and laborious training required. The actual data we have cited shows how this might be happening. We shall be discussing one particular implication of this model below, but it has proved to be quite controversial as an explanation of actual existing economic inequalities.

Another model might explain the differences better. A marxist model would argue that the economic and social differences between groups that are apparent on the surface arise from a more fundamental model of class struggle that lies beneath. To be brief, marxist theory suggests that the only source of profit in capitalism is the exploitation of labour, which means a necessary division between exploiters and exploited [see file]. The exploited themselves can be further divided into occupational groups earning slightly different amounts, and there might even be other divisions based on gender or ethnicity [as a good American study argues] . What we see in the sort of statistics gathered by the government is a very imperfect and flawed picture, largely focused on these differences within one group of exploited. The very rich hardly appear at all, since they are often tucked away inside a much larger group of  'professionals and managers'. Nor do occupational classifications really get to the main issue of who is exploiting whom -- capitalists have long employed a special group of managers and professionals, technicians and clerks, white-collar workers and others to help then discharge their exploitative activities even though they are not being exploited in the same way themselves. Again there are implications of this model, the main one being that class differences are essential and will not disappear in our present capitalist system no matter what social reform or progressive tax regimes arise.

These are big issues, but one aspect of them is worth pursuing fairly quickly here. Social and economic inequalities are more tolerable and less damaging if there is a good chance of social mobility, that is a chance to move out of an impoverished group into a better paid one. Social mobility data can also be used to test the relative strengths of the two models we have discussed -- functionalist and marxist. This can be a rather technical and involve matter and there has been a series of very interesting iof rather technical exchanges between rival sociologists who wish to champion different approaches  [see file]. However, a glimpse of the issues can be gained by turning to Aldridge again, especially the charts on pages 23 and 24.

Social mobility
As he shows, the British occupational system has changed considerably in the last 100 years, with manual occupations shrinking, and clerical and professional occupations growing in importance. This has left considerable  'room at the top', providing real opportunities for people growing up in families in manual work to leave that location and get a  'better' job [better in terms of income and life chances]. There is no doubt that substantial numbers of people have done exactly that over the past 100 years. To use technical terms, there has been a considerable increase in  'absolute social mobility'. This might be evidence to suggest that the marxist model over-emphasises the effects of social class on the final occupation of children .

However, the picture is complicated, since those in middle class and professional occupations have also benefited considerably from this opportunity to advance the cause of their offspring as well. As a result, the chances of doing well are still affected by the social class of your parents ('relative social mobility') . Middle-class parents seem to be able to pass on advantages in at least two ways:  (a) their offspring take full advantage of any opportunity to do well, for example following the expansion of university places;  (b) they managed to enable offspring at least to stay in a middle-class occupation and not to slide down the occupational scale. As Aldridge's data show, there is very little downward social mobility out of those middle-class groups. This data does not fit the functionalist model, since we would expect quite a lot of mobility both up and down the scale as offspring both inherited and developed their abilities in ways which were different from their parents.

Annoyingly, and as is so often the case, sociological data seems to leave us without total support for any model. It is not surprising that politicians often turn to a combination of policies rather than to one of the models outlined above.

Aldridge's policy recommendations are found in charts like those on his p.41. This one argues for the significance of 'cultural capital', defined rather broadly as the sort of knowledge required to understand dominant culture. Families play a major part in transmitting such cultural capital, but so do educational institutions. Cultural capital affects chances in later life too, and you are limited if you do not possess sufficient knowledge of matters such as the arts, music -- or sport. Here is an important but often minimised role for sports education and development courses then -- to pass on valuable cultural capital as well as to provide more vocational qualifications. Other charts point to the importance of financial capital and social capital -- access to networks and contacts (p. 42), especially in achieving a set of diverse and 'weak' ties to a wide range of people . Maybe sport can help here too?

Some idea of the importance of social capital is given in the account of the ongoing public dispute between the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and his former lover Kimberley Quinn. According to the Guardian 6th December 2004:

[Kimberley Quinn's]... mother was an actor... in the long-running American sitcom the Life of Riley... she met and married Michael Fortier, an American investment banker... took a job... as secretary to Helen Gurley Brown, the founder of Cosmopolitan. There she met Stephen Quinn, who launched GQ magazine... Through associates at the publishers she met Conrad Black, then owner of The Spectator and Telegraph group, and his wife Barbara Amiel. In 1996 she became publishing director of The Spectator. Here her circle of associates includes Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson... who went on to edit the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph. Through Stephen Quinn she became a close friend of Nicholas Coleridge, managing director of [the parent company for these publications] Conde Nast. She met Blunkett at a Spectator dinner. In late 2001... [she married]... Stephen Quinn, now the publisher of Vogue. The guests include Boris Johnson... Nicholas Coleridge... [and]... John Humphrys presenter of the Today programme. Her best friend was Julia Hobsbawm  [the daughter of Eric Hobsbawm, a well-known Marxist professor!], the former business partner of the wife of Gordon Brown.

David Blunkett... [is a friend of]... Sarah Macaulay  [the former business partner and now wife of Gordon Brown referred to above]. The two women ran Hobsbawm Macaulay PR -- known for its links with New Labour and its fashionable parties attended by the likes of Gordon Brown, Rory Bremner and Kimberly Quinn.

While the Sunday Telegraph run stories from Kimberley Quinn's camp, the Daily Mail produces the story of her nanny... who has fallen out with her former boss... Paul Dacre, editor of the Mail, is a long-time friend of Mr Blunkett... the Home Secretary hires Geoffrey Bindman, former chairman of the Society of Labour Lawyers. One of the partners in his firm is Katherine Gieve, the wife of John Gieve, Mr Blunkett's permanent secretary.... Mr Blunkett's principal private secretary and John Toker, the head of the Home Office press office turn up at the meeting... with Mrs Quinn at the offices of her lawyers Simpkins

More generally, there is a sensitive discussion on the dangers of  pursuing single policies -- for example, focusing on educational attainment to promote social mobility can leave low standards and a sense of exclusion among the underachieving and immobile groups (p.52) (Again, sporting involvement is a classic source of status compensation for these groups). Prosperity might best be achieved by allowing more economic inequalities, and there is the familiar dilemma between State intervention (eg in child rearing), and the need to allow individuals to develop responsibilities for their own lives and families.

Policies already in existence and those that might be further developed are illustrated in charts on pp 55 and 56.. The former include campaigns against child poverty, attempts to inmprove educational standards and to renew neighbourhoods. The latter include more of the same in the three key areas -- tackling poverty (eg improving training to escape from low pay) , improving educational opportunity and social mobility ( eg smaller primary school classes, more social mixing to raise expectations), and working on social inclusion ( eg lifelong learning, better public services).

Sport England

The website is a major sourcce for policy documents specifically on sport and social inclusion (which is the euphemism for dealing with inequalities)
I want to end by considering some recommendations for sports policy in particular. I found a number of downloadable docuemts of special interest --
  • The Equity Index  is an attempt to measure particiaption in sport by various categories. As quick examples, if average participation rates are rendered with the index number 100, white able-bodied males in classes AB have an index of 123, while white able-bodied males in classes DE have an index of  86. The most excluded groups are disabled young males in classes DE (index below 50).
  • The reports of the Sports Action Zone Teams evaluate a particular policy aimed at areas of special interest. The document contains some useful information about what they expect good managers to be able to do to increase particiaption -- that includes knowing the background of social inequality.
  • The Equality Standard --A Framework for Sport, and the Framework for Sport suggest ways to monitor the impact of inclusion policies and offer templates for organizational structures and policies at different levels of engagement.
These documents offer insightful and realistic discussions of policy. They recognise how complex it is to remove barriers to particiaption - what works well for one group might not do so for others, for example.


1. The first problem is whether social class divisions (or other forms of inequality) are going to go away, to change dramatically, or stay more or less the way they are at the moment. Clearly, sports policy is going to vary as a result. If class divisions are likely to be important, we might need to focus resources on those groups that are on the margins of poverty, who own the least wealth, and to seem to have the poorest life chances. Or we might decide that the richer groups can afford to pay for their own access to sport -- which many of them do already -- while we go for social inclusion.

2. We might do what we can to use sports policy to encourage social mobility. This is where policies like 'social mixing', mentioned in Aldridge, might be helpful. If we can encourage members of different social groups to enjoy sport together, as participants, spectators, or even people who like talking about sport ( to pass on the 'cultural capital' Aldridge describes above, and alsop to help build up 'social capital'), this might raise the ambitions of those from the poorer groups, and generally increase respect between the groups. This is one reason for the development of comprehensive schools, in fact, and, again, the evidence on social mixing is not always very optimistic.

3. It might be worth re-thinking what 'participation' means. For most of us, just joining in different sports is not enough -- we want to play them well enough to enjoy our particiaption. Participation might mean watching as well as playing, or working behind the scenes to support sport, or even watching on TV. There may be a hope that watching escalates to include playing -- but  does it matter if it doesn't?
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