Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The BBC's new class system - a vanity project of no value or purpose


When you’ve been involved with direct marketing, marketing planning and profiling for as long as I have, you will know that every so often another ‘radical’. ‘ground-breaking’ and ‘innovative’ new scheme of social classification is launched. Usually this is from an advertising agency, a data management business or something called a “strategy consultancy” and is essentially a jolly good wheeze to get lots of press coverage and thereby to promote the business launching the classification.

To make this work we have to have funky names for the classes – none of that ABCDE malarkey, that’s far too boring. Instead we get value-loaded words that play on our stereotypes of certain ‘class’ groups – terms like ‘proletariat’ or ‘elite’ pop up thereby summoning up either gap-toothed ‘Shameless’ wannabes or waistcoated Bullingdon Boys. Such designations do not help in our understanding of social class and such studies do not guide our knowledge of how society changes over time.

Indeed, the BBC – who seem to think spending money on such work is what we pay a licence fee for – have fully understood the point. This creates some jolly headlines, a load of people on Twitter trill about which class they’re in and it fills in some gaps in an otherwise quiet week.

So folks, a great deal of fun has been had by everyone with the BBC’s new class system:

The BBC teamed up with sociologists from leading universities to analyse the modern British class system. They surveyed more than 161,000 people and came up with a new model made up of seven groups

This, says the BBC, replaces the three group system - the three group system that was replaced in the 1950s by a five group system of social class (ABCDE) and then, in the 1960s, with a six group system (ABC1C2DE). Apparently this is some sort of great advance in our understanding of social class in Britain, we are blinded by fancy on-line tools and the involvement of professorial types and told that this is so much better because it involves surveying 161,000 people!

The problem is that it’s nonsense. The size of the sample doesn’t make it better than, for example, a social classification system based on census data or one using transactional and behavioural data from millions of people. More to the point, the system encompassed information (cultural choices, for example, that more reflect affordability than class per se). Indeed, this wonderful new seven class system really doesn’t improve on the established and widely used six class system – a six class system that is used all over the world not just in the UK.

Compared to the well-known geodemographic systems – ACORN, MOSAIC, etc. – this new classification is useless. It is inflexible – fine for targeting mass market television advertising – but worse than useless if you want more precise analysis, say for retail location choices or direct marketing. For academics that system is interesting, there’s a lot of data to play with and it may contain some genuine insights. But it won’t replace the established social class classification (for all its flaws) because it largely fails to improve on that classification.

Let’s make that appraisal by matching the seven BBC classes to those traditional six socio-economic classes:

  • Elite - the most privileged group in the UK, distinct from the other six classes through its wealth – this is wholly indistinguishable from Socio-economic Class A
  • Established middle class - the second wealthiest, scoring highly on all three capitals – ah, yes, this would be Socio-economic Class B
  • The next three groups Technical Middle Class; Emergent Service Workers and Newly Affluent Workers fit less well but are essentially the old Socio-Demographic Classes C1 and C2
  • Traditional working class - scores low on all forms of capital, but is not completely deprived Here we have Socio-economic Class D
  • Precariat, or precarious proletariat - the poorest, most deprived class. That would be Socio-economic Class E

It’s not a precise comparison but it’s plain to see that this expensive piece of taxonomic research is essentially an indulgence that sheds almost no light at all on the issue of social class and how it affects the economic, social and cultural development of the nation.

Of course, it goes without saying, that the system ranks me as part of the "elite". I suspect this reinforces the system's daftness!

It really is a vanity project of no purpose and with the validity of a horoscope.



Anonymous said...

Welcome to the 'elite' club, Simon.

As one raised in an industrial working-class, back-to-back terrace 'slum', where the gas-man's quarterly visit to empty the coin-meter and leave a few precious pennies of rebate was eagerly anticipated, I'd never felt entitled to an 'elite' status, but now it's official. Deep joy.
What nonsense it is.

Beermat Scribbler said...

I'm more confused than I ever was. I suspect they're still a fair way off the mark. I did have a think though, in a rambling way:

Surreptitious Evil said...

I find it really quite interesting.

Under their actual definitions, I am a moderately successful member* of the "technical middle class", with vague extensions towards the "established middle class". Of course, taking the survey, I'm "elite". Which I'm not. Even in BBC terms.

Both sets of grandparents were 'working class' in the then appropriate terms. My parents were probably on the B/C1 boundary, my wife's (although richer) on the C1/C2 boundary.

If it is useful for targeting marketing or other things then, fine, use it, or the established system. This just seems to have been a bit of socialist sociologist mutual masturbation.

* Like Beermat-S, I've got a house that is 'worth' way more than it is rationally worth.

Verena said...

This is cool!