A study examined why British people would consider they come from the working class when they are not.
A study from the London School of Economics tried to understand the reasons why some people from privileged backgrounds would perceive themselves with modest class working origins.
To do so, Friedman et al., interviewed 175 individuals with middle-class occupations as referenced in the UK National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification. Almost all of them identified themselves in the middle or upper middle class. But several didn’t relate correctly to their origins.
According to an Ipsos study, the UK have become more middle class, with a roughly 55-45% split since 2000. However, in 2008, a poll highlighted 52% would still consider themselves as working class.
The perception of a social position against reality
In LSE’s research, the justification of a working-class background often came with a narrative around the origins of extended family members, such as the grandparents, who were actually blue-collar workers.
The interviewees “tend to downplay important aspects of their own, privileged, upbringings and instead emphasise affinities to working-class extended family histories“.
That way, people in more privileged ranks feel legitimate, through meritocracy, focusing on the hard work for instance.
This type of social class misconception is a bit of a British specificity, though.
In the western countries, people tend to misconceive their position in society, too. However, most people think they belong to the middle class.
As an example, people would rarely perceive themselves as rich, and the authors suggest it may be understood with the reference group theory.
Distortion of reality
The theory suggests that people compare themselves with their immediate social environment.
The persons often look like the social groups they belong to, such as their family or friends. In the end, it creates a normalization of someone’s social status and give the sense of being in the middle. As a consequence, rich people would often be found among the group of others.
In the end, both perceptions are a justification that someone’s own privileges are deemed legitimate.
Nevertheless, these distortions of reality can bring wrong perceptions of the society one may live in. Indeed, only 10% of the British with a working class background get to managerial occupations.
Media sources and useful links:
- The study: Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self, 2020, Free access
- The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged, Friedman and Laurison, 2019
- UK became more middle class than working class in 2000, data shows, The Guardian, 2016, Free access