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The class society is alive - and so what?



The class society is alive - and so what?

Despite widespread agreement that the class society is a thing of the past, the class consciousness of Danes is alive and well and has hardly changed in the past 60 years. And this is not unimportant.

04.12.2018 | SANNE OPSTRUP WEDEL

FOTO: Colourbox/Kim Christensen

When Anders Fogh Rasmussen gave his first speech as newly elected prime minister in the Danish Parliament on 4 December 2001, he spoke in no uncertain terms:

“[The general election on 20 November 2001] was a break with the old-fashioned left-right division of politics. It was a break with the old-fashioned division of people according to the professional, educational or social group to which they belong. [...] It was a break with the class struggle.”

This statement reflects an unambiguous perception of society as a place where the labour market dynamics - supported by the welfare state - have dissolved the social classes so that class differences are no longer related to people’s convictions and ways of life.

“For the past decades, the so-called ‘death of class’ thesis has been predominant among researchers and in the general population. There has been widespread agreement that class is not something you think about; that the concept is in fact terribly antiquated,” says Rune Stubager, professor of political science at Aarhus BSS.

However, Rune Stubager was not convinced that the concept of class was merely a thing of the past and nowadays only applies in the Indian caste society. In fact, other studies have shown that social groups differ objectively on aspects such as level of income and state of health. For that reason, he decided to explore whether the concept of class even exists in people’s mind. Do people actually believe that society is divided into classes?

Spontaneous class categorisation

The preliminary results have been published in the research articles ”Danskernes klassebevidsthed 1954 og 2015: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”* and ”In the eye of the beholder: What determines how people sort others into social classes?”

So far, the conclusion is that:

“Classes exist in people’s consciousness, and in many ways the perception of class is just as strong as it was in the 1950s. People know how to navigate the concept and have no trouble categorising other people into classes. People are primarily categorised according to their income and occupation - similar to how it’s done in classic sociological theory,” Stubager sums up.

Initially, two of his colleagues** explored whether people were even able to relate to the concept of class. They found that the focus group participants across various social levels would start discussing different classes spontaneously even though the researchers had deliberately avoided using the term directly. Among other things, the participants were asked to make a drawing of society. They ended up drawing different kinds of pyramids and other hierarchical divisions - and they would talk about a top, middle and a bottom.

“The conclusion that could be drawn from the focus groups was that, yes, Danish people do have a conception of class. And yes, we can refer directly to the concept of class. This makes it a lot easier for us to work towards an increased understanding of the concept as it now has a name and we can pin it on literature,” says Stubager, who subsequently embarked on two parallel studies:

In one study, he used theories of class consciousness and the 2015 Danish Election Survey *** to create an overview of people’s class consciousness by exploring their mental images of (the class) society, their class identification and their perception of class conflict. This overview showed that despite significant societal changes, the results were on par with a similar study conducted in 1954.

In the second study, Stubager and a group of colleagues decided to dig a bit deeper and find out what people actually associate with the classes they refer to. The assumption of the ‘death of class’ thesis is that although people might be able to apply the concept, they are not able to imbue it with meaning and put the class categorisation into words.

"Contrary to the predominant ‘death of class’ thesis, our results show that the class consciousness of Danes is alive and well and has hardly changed for the past 60 years"

Rune Stubager - professor, Department of Political Science, Aarhus BSS

Mental chart in the class categorisation

The researchers conducted a two-step analysis and started out by asking participants a number of open-ended questions that offered them spontaneous information about what people associated with the class terms. These questions were followed by an experiment in which the researchers included the information that dominated the open-ended questions to uncover what the spontaneous descriptions of the different classes actually mean. The respondents were presented with small vignettes containing information about fictitious persons who varied systematically on four factors - education, occupation, income and their father’s profession. On the basis of these vignettes, the respondents were asked to sort the fictitious persons into classes. By analysing the relative strength of the four factors, the researchers found that income and occupation are most important factors out of the four in terms of how people divide each other into classes.

“The more money you make, the more likely you are to be perceived as upper class by people from other classes,” says Stubager.

Subsequently, the researchers compared the Danish results with results from the UK. Despite considerable differences in the level of economic inequality, the conclusions are much the same - however, with one significant difference, namely that people in the two countries use the class terms in different ways. In the UK, far more people perceive themselves as being working class and others as belonging to the working class than in Denmark. However, the terms that people use to describe the working class in the UK are very similar to the terms used to describe the middle class in Denmark. This suggests that in comparative studies, researchers need to be careful when comparing results across borders. When measuring people’s perception of class, it might be best not to focus on value-laden terms such as “working class” but rather to explore the underlying structures, i.e. what characteristics people associate with the class categories.

“This comparison teaches us something new as we can demonstrate that the same mechanism exist in a country very different from Denmark in a number of key aspects such as the level of economic inequality. This is high in the UK and low in Denmark. This suggests that more overall mechanisms are in play and that these are not driven by a specific Danish context. This indicates that people divide others into classes according to an underlying mental chart that is shared across borders. In other words, regardless of what people might call the specific class categories, they have a clear idea of class and of the people belonging to the different classes,” says Stubager and adds:

“Contrary to the predominant ‘death of class’ thesis, our results show that the class consciousness of Danes is alive and well and has hardly changed for the past 60 years.”

Awareness of class perceptions important for democracy

So why is this actually relevant? Why do we even need to concern ourselves with whether or not Danes are conscious of class and what they associate with the concept?

According to Rune Stubager, we need to do so because the answers to these questions allow us to conclude whether or not classes and how they are perceived influence our political behaviour such as our choice of party or our attitude towards key political questions. In short, why people vote the way they do, where their attitudes come from, and what they express by voting for a specific party.

Voting is, in fact, a rather blunt tool: You select a party to carry your views into parliament, but apart from that you do not express your wishes. It is up to the parties to try to interpret your vote and subsequently give you the politics that they think you want. But in fact they have no idea what the election result represents.

“When we know how people perceive the different classes, we get a better understanding of why they vote the way they do. This also enables politicians to get a better sense of the voters’ mandate and of what voters actually want to gain from their vote. And this offers great potential: We know that the voters have a class consciousness and if parties start talking about class again, which they have virtually stopped doing, the individual voter might feel more spoken to. Ultimately, this might lead to political decisions that express the actual wishes and needs of the population. Knowledge about the role of class perceptions is useful for politicians and thus also for the voters - not as a value that affects the bottom line, but as a value for democracy,” says Stubager and adds:

“So far we’ve only done the preliminary work and we’ve not yet tested the political influence. We still don’t know whether the fact that class perceptions still exists has an effect on politics. However, we have to start here to be able to proceed to the next step. If we had reached the opposite result and found that the ‘death of class’ thesis was right, there would be no reason to carry on studying class as a factor that affects political behaviour,” he explains.

Notes:

*’The more things change, the more they stay the same’ was formulated by the French journalist Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr in 1849.

** see (Gitte Sommer Harrits og Helene Helboe Pedersen: Class categories and the subjective dimension of class: the case of Denmark, The British Journal of Sociology 2018 Volume 69 Issue 1)

*** The 2015 Danish Election Survey takes an in-depth look at the question on how family influences the voter’s party choice in parliamentary elections. It explores the impact of family on people’s political socialisation and class affiliation, and how the cycle of disadvantage affects a person’s choice of party. Furthermore, the project is a continuation of the Danish National Election Study, which has conducted a study after each Danish General Election since 1971 in order to uncover the main reasons for why voters vote the way they do.

Sources:

Rune Stubager: Danskernes klassebevidsthed 1954 og 2015: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Politica, 49. årg. nr. 2 2017, 99-119

Rune Stubager, James Tilley, Geoffrey Evans, Joshua Robison, Gitte Sommer Harrits:  In the eye of the beholder: What determines how people sort others into social classes? (Stubager, R., Social Science Research (2018))