Many historical and sociological studies have been conducted on the English class system. Therefore, the awareness of British people of the origin of this phenomenon has been increased. Many historians agree that the class in UK emerged from the feudal system which existed in the medieval period and was based on the military organization (Tomida n.d.). Traditionally, class, or, in other words, ‘socio-economic classification’ referred to the social stratification which determined certain groups of people who belonged to a similar economic and social position within society (Rose & Harrison 2014). English community formerly used higher and lower orders, while the phrases such as upper, middle, and lower or working classes appear later in the history of the social classification and are most commonly used with some modifications (Tomida n.d.). Despite the historic dilapidation of this concept, social class is still relevant in the 21st century Great Britain.
Class is a Relevant Factor in the Modern Britain
In the past, social class was an important factor in Great Britain. It was one of the critical sectors of the English society. Class has not lost its relevance in the 21st century Britain, even though the perception of it changed with time.
Social structure of the UK in the past
When talking about social classification, it is crucial to mention the models and indicators of it within society. According to Edward Royle, a history professor at the University of York, the actual concept of ‘class’ was practically introduced to the social structures in the second half of the 18th century. The ‘middle class’ phrase has been dated since 1766, while the term ‘working class’ appeared in 1789. By the 18th century, the social structure had been established according to ‘ranks’ and ‘orders’. Middle class, unlike the aristocracy, was a numerically important part of the English society. During the Victorian period (1837-1901), a British history era under the rule of Queen Victoria, middle-class people became increasingly influential in power. They often attempted to estrange themselves from the life of the lower working class. At the same time, new industrialists strived to become landowners through the way they dressed and their eating and drinking customs. Arranged marriages were commonly practiced in order to gain social titles. Class has become an important issue in the 19th century and it stayed that way well until the 20th century (Tomida n.d.).
Some thinkers tried to define social class. Karl Marx, for example, saw it as inseparable from ideology. From his point of view, this concept was never defined solely by reference to the source of income, status, education or occupation. Most certainly, these features formed a specific class structure which represented the economic inequalities within society (Evans 2013).
Economic inequalities were usually considered to be the main reason for increased poverty level in Britain because many social opportunities such as higher education were unavailable for the lower working class. As a result, some researchers correlated growing crime levels with increasing poverty (Johns 2013)
As the time passed, the appropriateness of the social classification was being questioned. As the poverty level and tensions between working class and government increased, Tony Blair was the one who attempted to put an end to such social structure (Shaw 2012). Under the leadership of Blair, Labor Party has started the strategy of appealing to both middle and working-class electorate. The redistribution of wealth and income has been the primary appeal of Blair’s party (Seldon & Kavanagh 2005).
The difference in perception of social class from the past and its relevance in UK today
Even though the very concept of the social class is still relevant in Great Britain, the perception of it has changed throughout the history. In some areas of the modern English society, social classification is extremely important while in others it does not carry that much of significance.
The main difference of how class was perceived in the past and how it is perceived now is that, traditionally, this concept has been defined primarily by occupation, education, and wealth, while, according to the BBC study, today it has three dimensions which are the social, cultural, and economic one. The research measured social capital that assumed the number and status of personal connections, economic capital that assumed income and house value, and cultural capital that assumed the disposition of the cultural interests and activities (BBC News UK 2013). Thus, nowadays, in Britain social class is not as important when it comes to education or occupation, as it was over 100 years ago. An individual may have a higher education but still be related to the lower class in the hierarchy. Today, the middle class does not attempt to separate itself from the lower social group as much as it was in the past. Besides, class is not that crucial when it comes to marriages. Even though, in some cases unwritten rules may be applied and people attempt to find a potential spouse within the class they belong to (Biressi & Nunn 2013).
Today, according to the largest research on class in the UK conducted by the BBC, people in Great Britain fit into the new social structure model of seven classes ranging from the ‘precariat’ or the poor at the bottom and the elite at the top. The first class in Britain is elite. It is also the most privileged and distinct from the rest of six groups through its highest standards of social, cultural, and economic capital. The second group is established middle class which is the major contingent. It is also one of the highest for the cultural riches. Technical middle class, defined by the cultural passivism and social seclusion, is the third social group in the UK. It is rather minor but a distinctive new category. This category is wealthy but has low scores of cultural and social riches. The fourth is new affluent workers. It is a contingent that is culturally and socially progressive but has an average economic capital levels. The fifth category is the traditional working class. It scores rather low on all three capital dimensions. However, it is not utterly deprived. The members of this class possess reasonably high house values. The sixth group is emergent service workers. Its contingent is a new urban, young class which is poor but has high levels of cultural and social capital. Finally, the seventh category is precarious proletariat which is the most deprived class, scoring the lowest for all three dimensions (BBC News UK 2013).
The researchers claimed that while the elite category has always been the identifiable social group, it was the first time when it has been included in the wider class structure analysis. The fact mentioned by the researchers about precariat, the neediest category, was that it made up 15% of the whole British population. Fiona Devine, a sociology professor at Manchester University, argued that this research really presented a sense of a class in the 21st century Britain. It has showed that there is still a social top and bottom. Elite, the wealthiest group of people, is still at the top of the hierarchy, while the bottom has the poorest individuals who possess the least social and cultural engagement. Moreover, according to the research, the middle class made up 25% of the UK population, while the traditional working class, which in the past was the largest of all social classification groups, today makes up only 14% of the whole British population. Researcher also claimed that decentralization, immigration, reorganization of the urban territory, and unemployment separated the historic traditional working class into the new affluent workers and emergent service workers groups (BBC News UK 2013).
Social classification in UK emerged more than 100 years ago. Much has changed in terms of this phenomenon, but the very idea of it remains within the British society. Hence, class is still a relevant factor in the 21st century Britain.