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These are exciting times for the concept of class. For most of the 20th Century research taking it as the point of departure was dominated by various versions of Marxism or Weberianism. Whether it was social mobility, educational inequality, health inequalities or identities and political attitudes in the frame, advocates of the two intellectual traditions battled it out to lay claim to the proper explanation of how and why things are as they are. It could be structural Marxism or Birmingham-style Marxism, the diluted form of Weberianism that pervaded the US or the more full-blooded variety championed by John Scott in the UK, but in later years the standoff came to be characterised most sharply by the opposition between the programmes of two men in particular: Erik Olin Wright and John Goldthorpe.
Over the last twenty or so years, however, things have changed dramatically, and it is this revolution in class analysis that Class tries to capture and champion. Dissatisfaction with the prevailing options, partly fed by the ‘cultural turn’ in sociology and spurred by feminist research into the everyday experience of class, led scholars to look elsewhere for conceptual foundations and, in that search, one alternative proved particularly attractive: the class theory of Pierre Bourdieu.
Defining class not in terms of exploitation or life chances but in terms of the multiple properties, or capitals, which enable some people to be ‘misrecognised’ as somehow superior to others, and including education and culture alongside money and social connections as one form of such capital, he offered a novel way of thinking about class struggles that neatly avoided the mounting limitations and oversights of traditional research.
The turn to Bourdieu has also helped make something else abundantly clear: class is in no way dead or declining in significance. For a long time, through the 1980s and 1990s but right into the new millennium too, many people turned away from the concept, seeing it (or more accurately, its Marxist and Weberian incarnations) as too narrow, too limiting or too ‘soft’ to capture the way the world worked today – the expansion of higher education, the rise of identity politics, feminisation of the workforce, media and migratory flows and so on.
Yet, as I try to demonstrate in relation to a range of topics in the book, Bourdieu has provided a means of spotlighting persistence through change, or of social reproduction through social mutation. In the process he has revivified class analysis, given its practitioners a new confidence and stimulated a boom in research on class among established scholars and newer generations alike.
There are still some conceptual puzzles to solve, for sure, but this new strain of research promises to yield powerful insights into the workings of contemporary capitalist societies for some time to come.
Will Atkinson is Lecturer in Social Research at the University of Bristol. His new book Class will be published by Polity Press in September 2015.