Within sociology the term social class defines a system of stratification found in modern industrial societies consisting of 3 broad groups: upper class, middle class and working class. The upper class includes the aristocracy and the very wealthy, they make up less than 1% of the population. The middle class is traditionally made up of professionals and non-manual workers. The working class is traditionally made up of manual and unskilled workers. Our social identity is our understanding of ourselves and who we are in relation to other individuals or groups.
Goldthorpe and Lockwood (1968) developed the concept embourgeoisement which means that the wealthier end of the working class is becoming middle class. This means that the economic basis for class identity and solidarity has weakened. This supports the postmodernist views of society when they state that people are able to create their own identity. This shows that social class is no longer a significant factor in shaping social identity because the working class are now able to become middle class through deferred gratification. For example a person who is considered as working class decides to stop indulging in immediate gratification and work harder in their jobs, they will end up becoming middle class. However, Fiona Devine (1992) repeated the same study but in a different area and she found less evidence of embourgeoisement than Goldthorpe. The manual workers in her study were not leading privatised lives but were becoming more consumer conscious. They still displayed collectivist values and believed that society should be run along more equal lines. Her study means that the working class are still the working class because they still have their working class culture e.g. extensive kin networks. This shows that class divisions are becoming more significant and not less (Westergaard, 1997) because they just become more materialistic but their values are still of a working class culture.
Pakulski and Waters (1996) state that consumption is dictated by lifestyle rather than class. Therefore, how people dress, the clothes they wear, the music they listen to and the decorations that they have in their homes are influenced by which lifestyle they aspire to have rather than their social class. This means that society is now organised around consumption rather than production. People now identify themselves in terms of what they consume rather than in terms of social class position. This shows that class may have been significant in the past but it has ceased to have much relevance to culture and identity, so class has ceased to be a prime determinant of identity. However, Marshall’s (1988) research showed that respondents still showed awareness of their class position, although there was no simple relationship between class and political views or anything which could be called “working class consciousness”. For example, someone who has a working class identity won’t join a country club which is known for having wealthy members only. This shows that self identification still exists because a large number of people still identify themselves with a particular class grouping.
Emmison and Western (1990) found that class ranked 8th out of 15 possible sources of identity. For respondents, occupation, family role, citizenship, gender, ethnicity, age, region of residence and even being a supporter of a particular football team all beat class as important sources of identity. This means that social class isn’t important in defining identities anymore, instead ethnicity, religion and age etc. pose as more important now. This shows that class is no longer relevant in the making of identity. For example, ethnicity is important because people segregate themselves depending on their ethnicity and that leads to their identities being created on their ethnicity. However, Larry and Urry have argued that class remains a crucial aspect of the social structure, but it can no longer be automatically assumed to be the key influence on an individual’s identity. This shows that they believe that class is still very relevant in the creation of someone’s identity, but there are other aspects that are relevant as well.
The evidence suggests that although class is not as relevant now as it was in the past, it is still relevant in society.