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How young people understand social class

Published in BERA 2013, Self and Identity by Maria Papapolydorou on June 18, 2013

(c) Richard Northover

This is another post linked to the event: BERA 2013 Conference: Social Theory and Education SIG papers – the paper is entitled:

‘Direct, Indirect and Relational: Social class Manifestations in Teenage Students’ Accounts’

Social class identity is an issue widely discussed by British sociologists (see Giddens, 1990, Devine, 1992, Savage et al., 2001, Savage, 2007). Nevertheless, as this research typically focuses predominantly on adults, we know considerably less about the way younger people, such as teenagers, understand social class and talk about it. Some relevant questions are therefore likely to arise: Are class boundaries readily visible by teenagers or are they indiscernible? How do teenagers understand the concept of social class and what kind of vocabulary do they use, if at all, to talk about and/or allude to social class issues?

Such questions are particularly relevant in the current era of austerity when young people are faced with the increasing effects of economic uncertainty, in relation to both their education and their employment prospects (Allen and Ainley, 2010). Therefore, focusing on the way teenagers make sense of and talk about social class issues is important as a) it will shed light on the extent to which teenagers’ perspectives echo or deviate from the adult ones and b) it might reflect the way the next generation conceptualises their place and role within a classed society as well as their potential mobilisation with reference to political organisation and action (Goldthorpe, 1996).

In my BERA presentation (Main Conference Parallel Session 4; Wednesday 4th September) I will discuss the way teenage students make sense of social class, with particular reference to themselves and their friends. I will draw on data from individual interviews and focus groups carried out with 16-17 year old students in four London secondary schools.

In my paper I suggest that social class comprises an important way in which students understand themselves and their friends. Indeed, as argued elsewhere (Papapolydorou, 2013) teenage students appear to be forming close friendship networks on the basis of their social-class background. Yet, different students employ different conceptualisations of class. These can be broken down in two broad categories: a) the ‘direct elaborations of social class’ and b) the ‘indirect elaborations of social class’. The first category consists of the students who make direct references to class by explicitly naming it in their accounts, whereas the second category consists of students who do not name class but make reference to class signifiers, such as income, occupation etc. implying thus some level of class awareness. Further, I will argue that students often elaborate social class in relational terms, as their perceptions of social class are not seen as fixed and static but as relative to others’ characteristics.

Overall, social class appears to be a recognisable concept by young people, who despite some variations in their accounts define themselves and others in class terms, demonstrating, thus, the salience of social class in their lives.

* This paper has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Youth and Policy and is forthcoming (2013).


Ainley, P., 1993. Class and Skill: Changing Divisions of Knowledge and Labour London: Cassell.

Devine, F., 1992. Social Identities, Class Identity and Political Perspectives. The Sociological Review, 40, 229-252.

Giddens, A., 1990. The Consequences of Modernity Oxford: Polity.

Goldthorpe, J.H., 1996. Class Analysis and the Reorientation of Class Theory: The Case of Persisting Differentials in Educational Attainment. The British Journal of Sociology, 47, 481-505.

Papapolydorou, M., (2013) ‘When you see a normal person…’: Social Class and Friendship Networks Among Teenage Students. British Journal of Sociology of Education

Savage, M., 2007. Changing Social Class Identities in Post-War Britain: Perspectives from Mass-Observation. Sociological Research Online, 12, 6.

Savage, M., Bagnall, G. & Longhurst, B., 2001. Ordinary, Ambivalent and Defensive: Class Identities in the Northwest of England. Sociology, 35, 875-892.


Maria PapapolydorouMaria Papapolydorou is a Senior Lecturer in Education and Childhood Studies at the University of Greenwich. She teaches on the BA Education Studies, BA Childhood Studies and EdD programme. Her research interests include the relationship between social capital and educational inequalities, and the way social identities, with reference to class and ethnicity, inform the development of social networks. Maria has an MA in Comparative Education and a PhD in Sociology of Education from the Institute of Education, University of London. Her PhD thesis explored the way social capital informs the educational achievement and experiences of teenage students. Her more recent research focuses on Higher Education students’ engagement in sociological discussions of social class and the extent to which they draw on relevant theoretical frameworks to reflect on their personal educational journeys.


  1. Heather Mendick

    Thanks, Maria. In research that I’ve done with Kim Allen we found that young people asked about their social class tend to define themselves as being ‘in the middle’ or ‘normal’ – we mention this in a paper that’s just come out in Sociology.
    I’ll be at BERA so hope to see you there.

    • Maria Papapolydorou

      Many thanks for this Heather. I will read your Sociology article with interest.
      In a paper published in the British Sociology of Education I discuss the way teenage students spoke about their relationships with other young people, with particular reference to social class. I, too, found that teenagers tended to define themselves as ‘normal’, even though not necessarily as being in the middle. In fact, many of my participants were aware of their middle class or working class background and of their position in the social class ‘hierarchy’ in relation to others. Yet, they all seemed to assume normality for themselves and the ‘likes’.
      I look forward to meeting you at the BERA conference in September.

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