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Misrepresenting class-based privilege in the UK

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Unpacking tensions related to social class and the myth of meritocracy.

Peer-reviewed research: Dr Sam Friedman, Dr Dave O’Brien, and Dr Ian McDonald.

What is the difference between working class and middle class in the United Kingdom? And why is it that in the 1 in 4 people from middle-class backgrounds, with middle-class jobs, understand themselves as working class? In this article, the authors consider how and why some people downplay their upward social mobility and career success within society by misrepresenting their class privilege, and explore tensions between class identity, class origin, and class destination. Here’s the abstract:

Why do people from privileged class backgrounds often misidentify their origins as working class? We address this question by drawing on 175 interviews with those working in professional and managerial occupations, 36 of whom are from middle-class backgrounds but identify as working class or long-range upwardly mobile. Our findings indicate that this misidentification is rooted in a self-understanding built on particular ‘origin stories’ which act to downplay interviewees’ own, fairly privileged, upbringings and instead forge affinities to working-class extended family histories. Yet while this ‘intergenerational self’ partially reflects the lived experience of multigenerational upward mobility, it also acts – we argue – as a means of deflecting and obscuring class privilege. By positioning themselves as ascending from humble origins, we show how these interviewees are able to tell an upward story of career success ‘against the odds’ that simultaneously casts their progression as unusually meritocratically legitimate while erasing the structural privileges that have shaped key moments in their trajectory.

Click here to read the full open-access article, published in 2021 in the journal Sociology.

Friedman, S., O’Brien, D., & McDonald, I. (2021). Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self. Sociology, 55(4), 716–733.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

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