Defining… Class

I don’t like talking about class. Or writing about it for that matter. But in the past year and a half I’ve realised it’s a topic I can’t evade.

The first hints that class was going to be an important issue came soon after I decided to use Mumsnet as a research site. Anyone who knew anything about Mumsnet was quick to warn me that it would give me a very narrow view of mothers because this was a site for ‘middle-class mums’. I got a similar impression from media coverage relating to the site. The Daily Mail, a newspaper that has been persistently negative about Mumsnet and its users, has often suggested that Mumsnet users are universally wealthy and privileged, writing in 2009 that Mumsnet was a ‘cliquey, elitist website’, and in 2013 that it was full of ‘North London yummy mummies, militantly banging on about state education while buying themselves the best of everything that money can buy’. At the end of my first year I talked about my research formally for the first time at a couple of low-key events. I was inundated with questions about class. ‘Why are you looking at gender but not class?’; ‘Mumsnet is a classed site’; ‘Class is such a key issue in this thread – why haven’t you mentioned it?’ Like it or not, class was clearly an issue I was going to have to talk about.

But can I define class? This is really where the problem lies for me, and the main reason I have tried to skirt around the issue for so long. For a start, I don’t like the word itself. I think that talking about ‘classes’ of people implies they can be categorised into fixed, immovable ‘types’. The definitions of class offered by the free dictionary online confirm this impression. Its first set of definitions, referring largely to ‘class’ as a descriptor of inanimate, or at least non-human, objects, describes class as a ‘set’, ‘kind’, ‘category’ or ‘division’, based on ‘quality’, ‘rank’ or ‘grade’. With reference to people, the same dictionary defines class as a ‘social rank or caste’. Both, for me, imply segregation, essentialism and elitism. The caste system has been widely criticised for these very reasons, but if we systematically label people according to ‘class’, is what we are doing really so different?

There is another reason that I have been reluctant to talk, or at least to talk too soon, about ‘class’ in relation to my research. Mumsnet users are anonymous; I, and others, can only glean information about them by what they post. So when I analyse Mumsnet users’ posts, I don’t come to it with information about their economic, educational or cultural background. But as a linguist, I like to think that the language a person uses can reveal an awful lot about them; in my analysis so far there’s certainly been no shortage of clues as to my participants’ backgrounds. But can I use these ‘clues’ to make statements about participants’ ‘class’? In society at large there are divisions between people who, as the free dictionary put it, ‘share certain economic, social, or cultural characteristics’. So why am I so reluctant to make statements about participants’ class if I find indicators of such shared characteristics?

Well, for a start, I have to decide which characteristics are relevant to class. ‘Economic’, ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ characteristics can potentially cover a lot of ground. In my first year presentation, I looked at a thread in which Mumsnet users discussed complaints around school. Some were parents’ complaints, such as there being too much homework, and others were teachers’ complaints, such as parents not bringing their children to school on time or not taking enough interest in their child’s education. If I say that class is a key issue here, am I saying that how much you value your child’s education directly correlates with your ‘class’? In another thread, the original poster invited others to share their embarrassing ‘middle class’ moments. Hers involved telling her son, very loudly and publicly, to stop ‘harassing that peacock!’ But the premise of the thread was almost immediately questioned by others who took issue with the assumption that this was a ‘middle class’ statement – was it because she had used a sophisticated word? Or because she had taken her son for a nice day out, where they saw some relatively rare animals? These are murky waters, and I tread through them with great care.

But I can’t deny that, in the threads I’ve analysed, there are recurrent indicators that many participants share certain economic, social and cultural characteristics. There are often references to shared cultural knowledge, like well-known literature (Terry Pratchett’s Discworld comes to mind), the media (the bias of particular newspapers, for example) and politics. Some participants mention their university education or professional career. Participants’ wealth is often made apparent through their references to expensive hobbies or belongings. The most striking shared characteristic of the posts I’ve analysed is that they are so skilfully crafted, often with humorous, persuasive or dramatic effects.

I’m not sure that I can talk about shared characteristics like university education, wealth and professional employment in a way that resonates with other academics without using the words ‘middle class’. But, despite what many would say are such clear indicators of ‘class’ on Mumsnet, my discomfort with the whole concept of class continues.

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2 Responses to Defining… Class

  1. Barbara says:

    I find your comments about class very interesting. My experience is that people do not want to talk about class because it makes them feel uncomfortable. I am a practice educator for social work students and, as part of their work, they need to look at their practice in relation to race, gender and class. The reality is that there is no easy definition of class but there is an implication in that it implies inequality, hence people getting ‘twitchy’.
    Class is a social construct – its definition has changed over time. In order to understand where we are now, you have to put class in an historical context. It is a great failing of the National Curriculum that took history from being a core subject and made it optional.
    If you look at the writings of Karl Marx, you can see that class was inextricably linked with money and wages, and power. Life today is much more complicated. Many ‘unskilled’ workers are able to earn higher wages than those of ‘skilled’ workers. In fact when I was in China in the 1980s, it was a society that was proud of the fact that its doctors earned a lot less than its garbage collectors because doctors had had the privilege of higher education.
    I think you have to look at mumsnet in this context. For many centuries people have come together with a shared interest for support, information and guidance. In the 15th Century it was the Guild of Craftsmen; in the 19th Century the Trade Unions; 20th Century Mother’s Union. Such groupings will always exclude. I think you have to look at why people find mumsnet important but you also have to accept that if you need to use a food bank for your daily provisions, this is not an easy task of turning upland saying, “I want some food”; it requires time, patience, jumping through hoops and, often, being made to feel humiliated but it is a matter of life and death. Offer a woman the choice between sitting on the computer using mumsnet and going to the food bank, it is a ‘no brainer’. You have to ask yourself, if you are dependent on benefits and the food bank, can you actually afford a computer, broadband, etc? This is not to say that women today don’t want the support of other women but maybe they’re using organisations like Sure Start where face to face support is offered. On the other hand, you could argue that mumsnet provides an invisibility for those women who can’t leave their homes for reasons of impairment or mental ill health. Mumsnet can be a safety net for people where they don’t have to ‘declare themselves’.
    At the end of the day, I believe that mumsnet is inextricably linked with class but, actually, how it is linked depends on your definition and, for that, you have to explore history.

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