Goldthorpe, Halsey and Social Class

Edmund Leach on the survival of privilege

  • Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain by John Goldthorpe
    Oxford, 310 pp, £12.00, January 1980, ISBN 0 19 827239 1
  • Origins and Destinations: Family, Class and Education in Modern Britain by A.H. Halsey
    Oxford, 240 pp, £14.00, January 1980, ISBN 0 19 827224 3

I refer to the first of these items as ‘Goldthorpe’ and to the second as ‘Halsey’. Both are productions of the Oxford (Social) Mobility Project, a large collaborative exercise which has operated from a base in Nuffield College since 1969. For a long while, politicians and other interested parties are likely to cite them as authoritative sources, but in order to evaluate what is being said, the reader must penetrate a thick layer of mind-boggling numerical tabulations and pseudo-vector diagrams to the egalitarian value schema which lies beneath.

Most of the data derive from a nationwide questionnaire survey of 10,309 individuals representing a sample of all adult males on the Electoral Register in 1972 aged between 20 and 64. Goldthorpe also takes account of data from a much smaller follow-up survey conducted in 1974. The sample and questionnaires were designed by the research team but, in the 1972 case, the fieldwork was contracted out to a commercial agency (Mary Agar Field Services Ltd). Goldthorpe’s Appendix tells us a good deal about the sampling procedure. The general nature of the questions which produced the Goldthorpe data is evident from the text. Part of the set of questions which related to educational issues is given in Halsey, Appendix I.

Both books made extensive use of the H-G Scale,[1] though they do not use it in quite the same way. This scale graded the thousands of occupations recorded by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys by first picking out 860 ‘representative’ occupations and then collapsing these into 36 categories. In both Goldthorpe and Halsey a set of loosely ranked ‘social classes’ is created out of a series of congeries of these latter occupational categories. Goldthorpe has seven such classes, Halsey eight. Halsey’s eight classes are then further aggregated into three major social classes with a managerial/administrative ‘Service Class’ at the top (Classes I and II), an ‘Intermediate Class’ (Classes III, IV and V), which is not at all like the ‘middle class’ of colloquial usage, and a ‘Working Class’ (Classes VI, VII and VIII). Goldthorpe has no Class VIII, but otherwise uses the same terminology. The reader needs to keep his wits about him. ‘Working class’ is a very loaded term, with strong Marxist connotations. The Goldthorpe/Halsey ‘working class’ and the Marxist ‘working class’ are far from identical, but it is not easy for the reader to keep the significant distinctions fully in mind.

Both books emphasise that the sorting of occupations into classes at two levels is not intended to imply that either the classes or the occupations can be ranked in a one-dimensional hierarchical continuum of prestige and influence from top to bottom. Social mobility need not be either ‘upwards’ or ‘downwards’: it could be sideways. Nevertheless, in practice, the authors concentrate most of their attention on constraints inhibiting upward movement out of the ‘Working Class’ into the ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Service Class’. Moreover, some features of the research design were influenced by a desire to replicate ‘Blau and Duncan’,[2] in which a one-dimensional continuum of prestige attaching to different occupations was assumed.

Goldthorpe/Halsey assume that social-class identity – ‘class-consciousness’ in the Marxist sense – is predetermined by occupation. The research into social-class mobility was thus concentrated on changes of occupation of the respondent informant during his own lifetime and a comparison between the respondent’s present occupation and that of his father at the time when the respondent was 14. These latter questions actually referred to the occupational status of the ‘head of the respondent’s family’ and no less than 8 per cent of the sample took this to refer to the respondent’s mother. Even so, says Halsey, ‘the data have been organised so that ... these variables are all labelled as characteristics of their non-existent father’!

If subjective phenomena such as social-class identity are to be made objective by conversion into numerical statistics, condensations of this general sort are unavoidable, but at the end of the day sceptics are bound to wonder what exactly it is that all this formidable apparatus has been set up to measure.

The male bias of the 1972 sample is discussed in the Appendix to Goldthorpe and in the text of Halsey. It is justified on several grounds: 1. the sample was concerned with individuals born between 1913 and 1952, and at those dates male occupations were, in fact, of much greater significance for the class status of households than female occupations; 2. ‘Blau and Duncan’ was an all-male study, so comparability required that the 1972 survey should also be all-male; 3. the team reckoned that in order to make it representative of the nation as a whole, they needed a sample of at least 10,000 units, but they had not the resources to go beyond this. Women could only have been brought into consideration at the cost of jeopardising the statistical virtues of the sample!

The authors’ eagerness to produce statements which are true for the nation as a whole may be attractive to politicians but could result in sociological nonsense. Statistics applied to large samples of very large populations effectively eliminate from consideration all exceptional cases. But if generalisations approximating to laws of nature are to be built up from empirical observations, the variations implicit in ‘exceptional cases’ may be of the utmost significance. After all, why should the changing class structure of Middlesbrough resemble in any way the changing class structure of Bristol or rural Dorset?

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[1] The Social Grading of Occupations by John Goldthorpe and Keith Hope. Clarendon, 1974.

[2] The American Occupational Structure by P. Blau and O.D. Duncan. Wiley, 1969.

[3] The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure by David Lockwood, Frank Bechhofer and Jennifer Platt. Cambridge, 1969.

[4] Keywords by Raymond Williams. Fontana/Croom Helm, 1976.