Journalism Without Story: Uncovering Britain’s Real Class System

Image by Peter Grundy -

It has begun.

After over a year in the making, last week we launched the Great British Class Survey for the BBC. The response has been excellent. It’s already the biggest investigation into class ever performed anywhere in the world, by a huge margin.

The survey is the first stage of Britain’s Real Class System, a nationwide BBC investigation into class in the UK. The results will be published in an interactive visualization online and in a BBC Two documentary later this year.

Why Class?

This project is a case example of the sort of non-narrative journalism that the internet makes possible. Social class is a complex system, like climate change or a country’s financial situation. The best way to understand the way a system works is to interact with it. Narrative forms like text stories or TV documentaries can explain one facet of a system’s behavior. But in order to really understand the way a system works, you need to tinker, prod, push and play with it to see how it reacts – a point I developed at some length in Stop Telling Stories.

Some Background

We decided to investigate class because it’s an important issue that doesn’t lend itself easily to a linear narrative exposition.

Class is an all-pervasive concept in Britain. It was really surprising to me, as a Canadian, when I first moved here. I soon learned that almost anything, from the type of shoes you wear to the papers you read to, of course, the way you talk, could be considered an indication of your class. I’ve had some English people tell me that when they meet someone, they almost instantly and subconsciously form a judgment on where that person fits in the system. Upper working class? Lower middle class? Where?

A lot of British people seem confused about it too. And you’d think they would know.

I often wondered why the working, middle, upper class system was so strong in the UK, until someone taught me a bit of history. Almost every other country in Europe has been invaded and occupied or undergone at least one revolution in recent centuries. England did have a civil war in the 17th century, but it was swiftly followed by the restoration of the old order. So Britain is the only country in Europe that hasn’t been successfully invaded or undergone a revolution in the last 1000 years. British society has evolved gradually, organically, since 1066. No wonder there are still vestiges of a feudal/industrial class system.

But is that really how it works?

The class system popular in Britain today evolved during the industrial revolution. Back then, the vast majority of the population worked in factories or on farms that were owned by an aristocratic ruling class but administered by a professional middle class. Workers were relatively voiceless and the aristocrats had politics and wealth all sewn up. It made sense at the time to classify society according to the way power was distributed.

But it’s clear to anyone that British society doesn’t work that way any more. Traditionally, being upper-class means you’re elite, but this requires you to come from a noble family – and that’s no guarantor of wealth or power any more. There are working-class cabinet ministers and the richest person in the country (and fifth-richest in the world) was born to a merchant family in Rajasthan, so he’s outside the class system altogether.

This is a problem. People are making judgments – and even basing policy – on a mental model of society that bears no relation to reality.

Or does it?

There’s only one way to find out.

Discovering the System

The purpose of the Great British Class Survey is to gather data that will allow us to find out how class actually works in the UK. Great British Class Survey is the first step of this interaction. We’ve partnered with Mike Savage and Fiona Devine, two of the foremost experts on class in Britain, to design a survey that will collect the right kind of information. We launched the survey on the One Show last week:

For the survey to bring in good data, we needed the reach to be as wide as possible, so we made use of every channel we had to get the message out. There was quite a bit of news coverage, including pieces in the Guardian, the Mirror, and industry press coverage. Our executive producer also spent a grueling morning on launch day doing back-to-back interviews with no fewer than 27 regional BBC radio stations, from Cornwall to Scotland.

The Experience

It takes about 20 minutes to take the survey, which asks you questions about everything from your income and job to your tastes and hobbies. At the end you get a class report that compares your wealth, social network and cultural range to the rest of the country.

You also get a personalized coat of arms based on your hobbies, which you can post to Facebook. (It’s a fun touch, but this actually got us in trouble with the Court of the Lord Lyon, who wrote a grave letter to inform us that he is the only person with the right to issue coats of arms in Scotland. The College of Arms, meanwhile, seemed unmoved by these heraldic amusements. We’ve updated the web page to discourage people from taking their coats of arms seriously. That’s mine on the right.)

I’m pleased to report that we’ve got an 89% completion rate on the survey – almost 9 out of every 10 people who start taking the test submit a completed questionnaire. Given that this takes about 20 minutes and involves a fair amount of thinking, I think this is a great result. It proves the point that people will engage with involved, thoughtful current affairs content online – you just have to present it to them in a way that’s rewarding to them. Here we tell each user a little about themselves, so there’s an incentive to finish the test.

Where Next?

This is just the first part of the Britain’s Real Class System project. We’re collecting data now, which will take some weeks, and then Professors Savage and Devine (and doubtless many grad students) will analyze it for patterns. We’re going to use this data to create a class map of Britain based on the three aspects of class that we’re measuring: what you’ve got (economic), who you know (social), and what you do (cultural). Hopefully we’ll discover some sort of groupings or patterns – groups of people with similar profiles in all three aspects of class.

When the analysis is complete, we’ll be working with the data visualization masters at Stamen in San Francisco to create an interactive visualization that people will be able to play with. It’ll be something on the scale of Gapminder or similar. The idea is to present this complex data in a way that’s easy to view and engage with. You’ll be able to look at the results in a myriad of ways, including a class map of Britain, or a display of the different classes (if, indeed, we find any) side by side – or you could just look at class in your home town, or compare, say, men vs. women, or old vs. young, or urban vs. rural class systems . . . the permutations are up to the user.

There’s still a lot of new respondents coming in every day, and we need input from as broad a group as possible. How about you? Fancy finding out how you compare to the rest of Britain in terms of power and influence? Why not give the survey a go?

3 thoughts on “Journalism Without Story: Uncovering Britain’s Real Class System

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