(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.

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