Monday, 28 August 2017

Knowing One's Place

Class Consciousness

The British class system--as it once was--remains an oddity.  In 1950 a South African, Dan Jacobson arrived in Britain from South Africa.  He described the "silent language" by which people measured others and by which they, in turn, were measured.  There were "tells" by which people were measured for their membership of a social class.

Jacobson called it a "kind of detective work"
 . . . that reminded him of 'an insect stroking an object ahead of it with its feelings, or of a cat sniffing a person's shoes'--and that the process reflected a society 'deeply obsessively divided by a host of invidious, criss-crossing "social indicators" that would go a long way towards determining relations between its members'.  [David Kynaston, Family Britain: 1951--1957 (New York: Walker and Co, 2009),  p. 135.]
Kynaston agrees that Britain in the 1950's was most certainly a society of class consciousness.  He adds that in a survey of 11,000 respondents to a 1950-51 questionnaire, 90 percent of people assigned themselves to a social class--and to their class separation from others.   Such a phenomenon or reality is indeed foreign to the colonies: Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

The ubiquity of class and class consciousness remains hard to credit.
 One presumes that it is substantially broken down now--though some of our readers may disagree and have experience to the contrary.

One contemporary sociologist, Margaret Stacey described how the class paradigm worked:
"The techniques of acceptance or rejection are subtle," she wrote about the frontiers between the classes in a town pervaded by class.  "You must possess appropriate characteristics: occupation, home, residence area, income (suitably spent) manners, and attitudes.  You must know or learn the language and the current private 'passwords' of the group.  You must be introduced.  If you fail in these particulars you will simply be 'not known'.  Nothing is said or done.  The barrier is one of silence."  [Ibid., p. 136.]
Ironically, Marx and his disciples expected the lower classes, the prols, to respond as the vanguard of the revolution.  It was far from the case.  More often than not the working class were proudly British and were also proud of their class.  There appeared to be a kind of snobbishness about being one of the "real" workers, and not a middle-class, pretend-contributor.

Maybe by the time of the Beatles and the rise of the Rolling Stones class consciousness was to all intents and purposes a relic.  It would be rather hard to be found celebrating or entering in to the music of the Beatles, on the one hand, and maintaining upper middle class consciousness, on the other.  Once again, some of our readers may have a different experience, and view.

To New Zealanders, it all seems a very foreign world.

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