The working-class individual is squeezed from both sides: from the top down and from the ground up, both from without and from within. The cost of negotiating this double bind is, for many, a period of estrangement — from oneself, or from others — and turmoil. I experienced this bind first-hand, while growing up, swotty and desperate to ‘get out’, on the large, 1960s-built council estate just outside Birmingham where I attended primary and secondary school.
As a body of schoolchildren, we were insulted by the education we received, in a half-empty school that was falling down, in a society which itself, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, appeared to be falling down. We spent our formative years being insulted and we knew it. Individual teachers didn’t insult us. Many of them took us seriously, or at least as seriously as we were able to tolerate: the problem was that we couldn’t or wouldn’t take ourselves seriously. The conditions in which we were expected, and were trying, to form ourselves and our futures didn’t warrant it. The institution, the set-up, the joke of it, was the insult.
My childhood experience was not an isolated one: rather it was typical of a deeply — and increasingly — divided society. In the fields of sociology of education, epidemiology, demographics and human geography, the facts and processes of widening inequality are exposed for all to see. Danny Dorling is arguably the preeminent social scientist of his generation, bringing together the disciplines of geography, sociology, and epidemiology to create a troubling portrait of Britain as it becomes ever more polarised through region and neighbourhood. In his book Identity in Britain: A Cradle-to-Grave Atlas (2007) — published by the academic imprint Policy — Dorling and his co-author, Bethan Thomas, report that there is not a single large neighbourhood in the UK in which under-fives from the highest social class mix socially with children from the classes below.
They also found that young people from some high-income neighbourhoods were 50 times more likely to attend an elite university than those in low-income areas, while there were some areas from which (at 2007) not a single young person attended an elite university. Dorling sees these figures as a symptom of widening economic inequality between rich and poor areas, in which resources — in the form of good-quality public amenities such as schools, surgeries and libraries, and a safe living environment — are overwhelmingly concentrated in the former.
Against this backdrop of structural stagnation in British society, reflected in the gap in opportunity between those in better-off and worse-off areas, is the more subtle, yet arguably more profound, impact of social class as it’s experienced — as it’s felt — by those seeking to improve their fortunes through education, or moving upwards through the labour market.
Will Atkinson, a sociologist at Bristol University whose work examines the relationship between class and education, has found that for all the UK Government’s Big Society spin — the claim that ‘we’re all in this together’ — there is still a deep class bias to how people get on, which in turn underpins their confidence to embark on the escalator of economic and social mobility, how far they feel entitled to ascend and, of course, whether they can manage to get on the escalator in the first place.
Some, of course, will regard the very idea of climbing a ladder away from one’s roots towards a supposedly elevated position as insulting and deferential. As with anything to do with class relationships, the politics of social mobility are tricky and sensitive to negotiate. Yet advocates on the political right and centre continue to promote social mobility as a panacea for inequality.
Social mobility is, by its nature, an ideal of improvement for the individual, not society as a whole, and creates an intolerable tension for individuals caught up in its demands. This pressure is especially visible in the field of education, where the state, operating under the guise of neighbourhood schools, informs working-class schoolchildren that they must reject the values of their parents and community if they can ever hope to be a worthy part of society.
Back in the 1950s, the sociolinguist Basil Bernstein argued that working-class and middle-class people communicated in such entirely different terms that the former were tacitly disadvantaged by an education system that valued abstract learning over the affirmation of shared experience. One style was not superior to the other in his view; it’s simply that schools and teachers often unwittingly reinforced the idea that a child must get rid of one in order to learn the other.
Analysing the way in which working-class and middle-class people used language in everyday situations, Bernstein, who worked at the Institute of Education in London, realised that working-class speech focused on describing acts as they were taking place or, if they took place in the past, as if they were taking place in the present. Working-class speech aimed to include you, the listener, in the flow of the telling, whereas middle-class speech gravitated towards classifying and contextualising events: it aimed to assert the speaker’s presence and significance at the centre of the story.
Working-class speech, in my experience, is fragmentary by nature. By sticking with the description of individual events rather than unifying them into a larger narrative, you accept the contingency of things, as it might all change by tomorrow, and because what you’ve said is only likely to have significance in the specific context in which you said it. Middle-class speech, by contrast, smacks of grandeur, because it seeks to place feelings and events in a more universal context, with the inference that the speaker and his perceptions matter in the greater scheme of things.
What gives middle-class speech its power, you might argue, is not its ‘formality’, as Bernstein describes this ‘elaborated’ code (in opposition to the ‘informal’ or ‘restricted’ code of working-class speech), but its ability to translate material security into security of the self. It affirms the greater effect that the middle-class person tends to have on the world.
Adapted from https://aeon.co/essays/what-price-does-the-uk-s-entrenched-class-system-exact