‘A Sociology Of Class Without Feeling’ Reimagining The Politics Of Class In Sociology

Illustration: ‘Dinner’ by Anthony Muisyo (2021)

Kirsteen Paton

Lately it seems like the sociology of class isn’t keeping apace with, or productively contributing to, important political events. From the turmoil of Brexit, Grenfell and Windrush scandal, to the 2019 General Election result and the defeat of the Corbyn project to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, the COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests against the new Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSP) Bill, class analysis and intervention has been lacking. Not absent, but certainly limited.

This is particularly remarkable given that through these events a new ideological construction of working class has emerged, narrowly defined around victimhood. Notions of the ‘left behind’ white working class have been used in political, media and social science analysis to understand the motivation of Leave voters in the EU Referendum and the Conservative win in the 2019 General Election. In June last year, Guardian journalist Helen Pidd visited the former ‘red wall’ Labour town Leigh in the Wigan constituency which had voted Conservative for the first time in 100 years. In this prole pilgrimage, Pidd interviewed an artisanal pizza parlour owner as a former lifelong Labour voter who switched his allegiance to the Conservatives. The Chancellor’s summer statement had just been announced and the business owner claimed the hospitality package offered by the government vindicated him for voting Tory. The article’s headline, ‘Imagine the state we’d be in if Corbyn had been in charge’ was a quote from his interview.

There was a critical response to the article on social media from the left, weighing in on the flaws in Pidd’s definition of class, choosing a business owner who self identifies as being working class but owns the means to production, whose brother was a property developer and whose livelihood is based upon exploitation for profit. In all, that such a participant was not representative of the contemporary English working class. Pidd defended her definition of class: You can be working class and run a restaurant – or indeed be a property developer. This claims that the class you are born into and/or choose to identify with defines your class position rather than your material reality and the class interests that you choose to serve. It was another example of privileging of the identity politics of class over issues of economic inequality. This, along with the privileging of paid labour over social reproduction, produces a narrow framing of class which has proliferated in media and political discourses.

The sociology of class has, in part, enabled this. For decades following deindustrialisation, the ideological constructions of the working class which saturated political and media narratives and representations were of an unproductive subject, presented as without value. From the chav, the scrounger, the skiver, the benefit cheat, this imagery reached new heights during the government’s austerity programme and the explosion of the poverty porn genre which supported it. There was much searing and incisive sociological interventions from scholars of class which challenged such constructions and exposed the ideological agenda. Scholarship in this area was incredibly powerful in both uncovering the political aims and falsehoods that three generations of benefit claimant families being commonplace.

The emergence of this construction of working-class victimhood was not however a recognition of the immeasurable suffering that has been wrought by a decade of austerity including 130,000 preventable deaths or the class violence of the Grenfell Tower fire – for which today there is still no justice. Rather, it was much more narrowly conceived in ethno-spatial terms referencing mainly, but not exclusively, working class in the North of England. There has been far less class scholarship critically challenging this ideological construction of class. Rather it has been the work of scholars exploring histories and politics around race and racism who have debunked this dangerous and reductive notion of class (Shilliam, Bhambra, Emejulu, Mondon and Winter, Virdee and McGeever). Meanwhile during the COVID-19 pandemic’s intensification of housing dispossession and inequality which deeply impacts social reproduction and exploits domestic labour (set to worsen with the imminent cataclysmic eviction crisis), it is feminist scholars making the sharpest interventions (see Jaffe).  If class scholars are to intervene, we need to rethink our approaches to studying class.

How has this happened and what can be done? Reimagining the politics of class

One class sociologist whose works does offer a more expansive understanding of class and capitalism is Imogen Tyler. She notes that the contemporary decomposition of the working class is not only empirical, in relation to changing form of neoliberal capitalism and exploitation, but that this erosion has also occurred as both ‘an interpretative sociological lens, and as a political identity category deployed by people in everyday struggles against exploitation’. This has led to a deficit on two fronts: a sociology of class and politics of class.

The dominance of Bourdieu’s theoretical and conceptual legacy has led to some blockages in class studies. Initially the Bourdieusian turn helped save class analysis from the theories of individualisation. This ‘new social class paradigm’ which took culture seriously, viewed class formation through a complex mesh of different material, social, cultural and symbolic resources. This created dynamic and important offshoots of Bourdieusian research in gender, education and race. However, over time sociological study of class has become dominated by this framework at the expense of research on the politics of class, class solidarity and class formation and struggles.

Les Back reflects that the dominance of Bourdieu’s theoretical legacy ‘led to a sociology of class without feeling’. This observation is echoed by Tim Strangleman, who fears that Bourdieusian approaches to class produces accounts which are strangely ahistorical and ‘which can allow for a certain weightlessness to figure in narratives’. Others point out the muted economic aspects in relational and taxonomic approaches which extract the question of class from that of power. Formations emerging from key moments of political crisis, such as austerity, Brexit and COVID-19 requires an articulation of class and capitalism which is fully intersectional. However social science research on class is limited by ‘methodological whiteness’ and lack of recognition of the role of social reproduction. As Hall’s classic refrain asserts “class relations function as race relations” so that “race is the modality in which class is lived” and as Federici contends any understanding of capitalism and class must begin with recognition of reproductive labour. Understanding these intersections are vital for forming coalitions today to fight the emerging dispossession, oppression and exploitation (see Virdee).

The methodological whiteness and focus on paid labour and occupation is inbuilt into many measurements and theories of class and maintains the framing of class in a way that pre-empts the formation of a coalitional politics or a politics of solidarity required to challenge exploitation. How might we then reimagine the politics of class in sociology?  

Reimagining the sociology of class

The answer is not more complex schemas and measurements. Arguably such a turn has contributed to where we are today. Thinking around the crisis of empirical sociology cast a long shadow in the sociology of class, influencing the taxonomic turn with the Great British Class Survey. However, another consequence of the empirical crisis debate has been the development of creative reimagining around live and lively sociological approach to explore ways of doing real-time sociology through utilising the senses, new technologies and social media in order to appraise and analyse events as they occur. This type of sociological approach to class may offer more purchase as it has the agility needed to capture the conjectural moment.

The everyday lens has salient methodological purchase for class analysis with its immersive, ordinary quality which forces us think more imaginatively about ways of seeing, and everyday resources -whether protest movements, political corruption or Twitter spats over the class position of an artisanal pizza restaurant owner. Looking at the everyday helps us be attentive to emergent class formations and struggles which are being mediated anew by (re)structuring processes. This does not represent a retreat into presentism rather it is about seeing the everyday as emergent and historically salient. Taking then a different starting point for the sociology of class – not as measurement or theory-based approach, rather as an empirical or sociologically-led endeavour where the everyday is a vital analytical site and site of critique and intervention.

Why does it matter?

Advancing a sociology of class which is informed by a politics of class is necessary to build politics of solidarity and hope. This involves exploring how class is reproduced in the everyday in terms of new injuries and new rewards. I have always been taken with this phrase. It problematizes class as only being viewed as a relation of exploitation rather than of solidarity. Working-class everyday life is not simply and entirely grind and suffering, that’s not all that exists, to claim so discounts life, humanity, agency and vitality as Studs Terkel’s Working accounts, the violence of work is real but also is liveable meaning. For Back this is precisely the value of looking at class through the lens of everyday life:

 ‘we often look past or don’t listen to moments of the repair and hope in which a liveable life is made possible[….]attention to everyday life matters because it offers the possibility to admit such ordinary virtues to serious attention..

Resources of hope are sorely missing from the sociology of class and these are crucial to building solidarity. It is in the everyday spaces of the street that we currently see the most expansive politics emerging:‘more multiple, more promiscuous something beyond the usual deference and good manner of British political life’, from the BLM protests to the protests against the new PCSC Bill. But not only in street politics, during this period, membership of mutual aid societies and unions of both workers and tenants have seen significant growth (London Renters Union alone estimated 1000 new members in the first weeks of the COVID-19 crisis while the National Education Union (NEU) gained 50,000 new members during the first five months). Union actions and campaigning have seen big wins from Uber drivers, to the NEU’s successful fight against unsafe working conditions, to student rent strikes and tenants blocking evictions. As state authoritarianism and crises grow, so too does resistance which requires strong coalitional politics.

As sociologists of class we need to intervene in these issues. That begins with politicising class, moving beyond seeing class as an individual identity and in symbolic terms to instead view it as a collective struggle. This also involves researching and teaching class and capitalism in more expansive ways, inclusive of race and the home and as inseparable from racial capitalism and social reproduction. Recognising the politics of class as being at the heart of a sociology of class, is a sociology of class with feeling and this is essential if we are to imagine what else is possible and achieve it.  

Kirsteen Paton, University of Liverpool.

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