Meritocracy is a myth and social class is about more than money.
Research by the Social Mobility Commission has found that a person from working class backgrounds can expect to earn an average of £6,800 less per year than their middle/upper class peers, even if they’re doing the same job as someone from a more priveleged background.
Reasons for this were found to be related to educational background. It is also due to a lack of confidence in professionals from a working class background who tend not to go for promotions for fear of not fitting in. Things that if, like me, you come from a working class background but find yourself often in a middle class world, sound very familiar.
I have long tried to explain to middle class colleagues and friends what actually happens when you are from a working class background. As someone from less well off beginnings who had the chance to go to university I often try to explain to people the sociological idea of ‘cultural capital’.
‘Cultural capital’ – to lazily reference the easiest place rather than digging out some Bourdieu – is described as follows on Wikipedia;
The term cultural capital refers to non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Examples can include education, intellect, style of speech, dress, or physical appearance. The relative power or status associated with a particular cultural idea, style, or artifact, and of the people who choose to associate themselves with it.
So, all of the extra bits that come from being a priveleged background which help you “fit in” within more elite circles. But this type of explanation doesn’t ever really adequately illustrate the idea for me.
But last night my wife found an actual illustration – by an artist called Toby Morris – of cultural capital which describes it in the best way I have ever seen. She saw this on Bright Side and I have reproduced it below this article.
In showing the subtle, different and changing privelege that comes from being middle class contrasted with being working class, it goes some way to explaining why we are, in 2017, still seeing such a class divide and elitist society in the UK. It shows two people and how their lives take very different courses which not only change their outcomes but also how much they are able to understand the world from another point of view.
It also explains for me why so many people begin to believe in the myth of Meritocracy – something I have written about before. Meritocracy is the idea that if you put in hard work, you will reap the rewards. But actually this isn’t true. Nobody is an island and nobody is “self made”. Equally then, it is not possible to blame and punish someone for not having done “better” or achieved more. We are not off to an equal footing and we do not have equal opportunity.
For me, the below comic strip also goes a long way to explaining why people vote for the Conservative Party; being unable to look beyond their own priveleged situation these people cannot understand why others can’t just “work harder” and so achieve more. Then there is a whole raft of working class people who have fully bought in to the idea of Meritocracy on the thin hope that they might be able to improve their circumstances.
And whilst we can all do some things to make changes and improvements in our lives, it is worth remembering that there are limitations (or enhancements) based on factors beyond our control. So if you find yourself banging against a wall again and again, it might be fair to cut yourself a little slack. If you find yourself with some extra money in your pocket and the world is being kinder to you; try paying that forward – try backing measures (and politicians) which seek to redistribute wealth, opportunity and correct the imbalance.
And some Pierre Bourdieu made succinct on Social Theory Re-wired in case you were craving it;
While he didn’t consider himself a Marxist sociologist, the theories of Karl Marx heavily influenced Bourdieu’s thinking. Marx’s influence is perhaps most evident in Bourdieu’s theory of cultural capital. Like Marx, Bourdieu argued that capital formed the foundation of social life and dictated one’s position within the social order. For Bourdieu and Marx both, the more capital one has, the more powerful a position one occupies in social life. However, Bourdieu extended Marx’s idea of capital beyond the economic and into the more symbolic realm of culture.
Bourdieu’s concept of cultural capital refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social class. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others—the same taste in movies, for example, or a degree from an Ivy League School—creates a sense of collective identity and group position (“people like us”). But Bourdieu also points out that cultural capital is a major source of social inequality. Certain forms of cultural capital are valued over others, and can help or hinder one’s social mobility just as much as income or wealth.
According to Bourdieu, cultural capital comes in three forms—embodied, objectified, and institutionalized. One’s accent or dialect is an example of embodied cultural capital, while a luxury car or record collection are examples of cultural capital in its objectified state. In its institutionalized form, cultural capital refers to credentials and qualifications such as degrees or titles that symbolize cultural competence and authority.