Measuring social class

After the forthcoming EU referendum, the Government will focus much more on its life chances strategy. Study after study shows that social class is an extremely important predictor of life chances. This was recently highlighted by an IFS study which found that graduates from a higher social class earned more than graduates from a lower social class, even if they had studied the same course at the same institution. This is relevant to our work on human rights and discrimination; from this study, those from lower social classes seem to be experiencing discrimination in the labour market.

There is broad consensus that social class is very important, but there is considerable debate surrounding how to measure it. This blog reviews the different measures which are used, and the advantages and disadvantages associated with them. 

Occupational measures of social class

Two of the most common measures of social class use occupation as the main proxy and derive from the national readership survey (NRS) and the Office of National Statistics (ONS) census data.

The NRS was developed to profile the readers of British newspapers in the 1960s. It surveys a representative sample of around 20,000 adults (aged 15+) in the UK every year. However, the NRS has far surpassed its original purpose. It is now used throughout the polling industry, in the social policy and research world, and by the media. 

The NRS defines social grade through the occupation of the chief income earner (CIE). Usually the interviewer will ask the interviewee a number of questions to ascertain the type of organisation they work for; the job that they actually do; their job title, rank, and grade; and whether they are self-employed. The interviewee will determine the number of people working at the place of employment and whether the CIE is responsible for management. 

Using these questions, the interviewer will ascribe the subject to one of six social classes. These are depicted in the table below.



Source:  NRS    

Source: NRS


These social grades are then frequently amalgamated into two groupings; ABC1 and C2DE. Here, researchers frequently interpret ABC1 to represent the middle class and C2DE to represent the working class. 

The ONS use census data to create their classification of social class. The census asks UK residents every ten years a number of questions about their type of employment and income. Since 2001, the ONS has interpreted these responses using the National statistics socio-economic classification (NS-SEC). The NS-SEC categories census respondents into one of seven categories. These are shown below.

Source:  ONS

Source: ONS

Proponents of the occupation model of social class point to its power as a discriminator. For example, the NRS finds that individuals in the highest two social grades are almost 10 times more likely to read a quality newspaper than those in the lowest social grades. In comparison, individuals in the lowest social grade are around three times more likely to read a popular newspaper than those in the highest social grade. Similarly, the NS-SEC finds that individuals in the highest social classes are much more likely to have access to the internet than those in the lowest social classes. 

Occupational measures of social class have however attracted considerable criticism. Critics, building on the work of French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, argue that class is comprised of three components; economic capital, social capital and cultural capital. Economic capital refers to an individual's income and occupation, social capital refers to the number and status of people an individual knows, and cultural capital denotes the extent and nature of the cultural interests of an individual.

Critics argue that occupational measures of social class ignore social and cultural capital, and focus purely on economic capital. The example given is that of a privately educated, Oxbridge graduate working in the service industry shortly after graduating. An occupational measure of class would likely consider this individual to be working class, but this would ignore the social and cultural capital that individual possesses.  

New measures of social class

In response to these criticisms, sociologists developed the Great British Class Survey (GBCS). THE GBCS is based on a survey of 160,000 UK residents and is expected be conducted every five years.. The GBCS was published in 2013 and was sponsored by the BBC. It measures cultural capital, social capital and economic capital in the following ways:

  • In order to measure cultural capital the researchers asked questions about leisure activities and interests; taste in music; how media was consumed; and food preferences
  • Social capital was determined using Nan Lin’s position generator. Individuals were asked how many people they knew in different occupations.   
  • Economic capital was measured by determining an individual’s income, savings and assets.

Using these measures, the GBCS found that there were seven types of social class in the UK. These are depicted in the following table.



Source:  GBCS

Source: GBCS

Proponents of the GBCS survey argue that it gives a much more complete depiction of social class because it measures all three components of class. However, it has not been without its critics. The GBCS collected data through a self-completion questionnaire administered over the internet. Critics argue that this means that the data used if of low quality. There was also a significant self-selection bias. That is, individuals in the highest social classes were much more likely to respond to the survey than those in lower social classes. However, it must be noted that most of the criticisms of the GBCS surround its methodology rather than the way in which it defines class. 

There are some differences between the profile of the UK population observed by occupational measures of class and the profile observed by the GBCS. The NRS finds that 56% of the British public are middle class (ABC1) while 44% are working class (C2DE). Similarly, the NS-SEC finds 58% of census respondents are in the four highest social classes, compared to 42% who are in the lowest four classes. In contrast, the GBCS seems to find a higher working class portion (traditional working class, emergent service sector and precariat) (48%) and a smaller middle-class and elite (elite, established middle class, technical middle class and new affluent workers)  (52%). 


Occupational measures of social class are commonly used. However, social class is not just an occupational phenomenon. Social class relates to how we present ourselves, how we talk and even what leisure activities we enjoy. The BBCs GBCS is therefore an important development in the measurement of social class. It is not without criticism, but it does provide a more holistic approach to social class. 

James Dobson is a researcher at Bright Blue