Working class

Definition and commentary
How the term working class is defined relates to how you ‘see’ social class, to whether you see social class as where you are located in an economic and occupational hierarchy or whether you see it as a process produced and created in all social action (See also glossary entry on social class). If you adopt the first approach, the term working class would refer to people who have the least autonomy in the work place such as those employed in routine or unskilled occupations (see glossary entry on National Statistics Socio-economic Classification for more on this). The term working class is also frequently defined by a series of negatives – the things that someone working class might be thought to lack but that a middle class person would have – whether this be a particular set of values and attitudes, professional status, degree level education or material possessions. These deficit models continue the association of working class pupils and their homes with stereotypes that help to position them negatively within the education system and this is one explanation for the continued existence of the social class attainment gap (see link below). Increasingly the term working class has come to be associated with the most marginalized social groups and this has further confused and distorted the term. It is particularly important, therefore to broaden the current focus and to extend this to include positive images of working class pupils and their achievement.

Gillies (2006) draws attention to the way in which the term working class has come to be associated with deficiencies in parenting and emphasises how the term working class has, in this context, come to be defined in terms of culture and morality (see below for full reference). She emphasises that this kind of approach presents working class mothers as culpable for problems that should in reality be attributed to the effects of poverty and disadvantage. The idea that ‘working class’ signifies difference is strong, whether this is presented in terms of reduced access to ‘cultural capital’ (see separate glossary entry) or less favourably in terms of a culture that does not share mainstream values. 

Significantly, being working class is associated with more limited opportunities for educational success and with reduced life chances (see also glossary items on life chances and on social mobility).

Gillies, V. (2006) Working class mothers and school life: exploring the role of emotional capital, Gender and Education, 18, 3, pp281 – 293.

Gillies, V. (2005) Raising the ‘Meritocracy’: Parenting and the Individualization of Social Class, Sociology, 39, 5, pp.835 - 853.

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Louise Gazeley, University of Sussex

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