The use of class over the years: a graph

Whilst pondering the phrase I love to hate, social mobility (see here for the explanation, featuring benches and broken paving stones), I wondered how its usage how fared over the years in books. Courtesy of Google’s rather nifty book search tool, I’ve produced this graph of how frequently the phrase and several others have been used in the very large number of books in English that have been scanned by Google:

Book search graph

(Click on graph for larger version)

From after the First World War until around 1970 the use of upper class, middle class and working class in books mirrored each other closely, albeit with the slightly contrary pattern of both taking off in economic bad times (1930s) and then again in economic good times (post-war boom).

Yet whilst relative interest in middle and upper classes then tailed off, working class continued to be mentioned in a higher and higher proportion of books until a later peak. The phrase I was originally interested – social mobility – peaked around the same time as middle class and has declined away since.

The graph is a good example of how the digitisation of data opens up possibilities of analysis that were all but impossible before – in this case providing a useful series of hard data to accompanying any social histories of the last century and more (note too that sharp relative increase in interest in the working classes at the start of the twentieth century).

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5 Comments

  • This sort of raw data might provide an interesting starting point for a PhD thesis, but I’m not sure it tells us very much of itself. One would need to know quite a lot about the books that had been scanned – for example, the balance between fiction and non-fiction; whether that changed over the period under consideration (which I imagine it did); the proportion that comprised ‘new’ categories like sociology in the 70s and 80s; changes in the output of academic publishing over that period (again, I’d guess it pretty well precisely mirrors the middle/working class peaks). If, as I suspect, the data is massively skewed by academic publishing it tells us a lot about the pre-occupations of university and polytechnic lecturers at that time (which fits with my experience), but probably less about society as a whole. But a very interesting bit of research Mark.

  • Matthew Huntbach 18th Apr '11 - 12:02pm

    The use of the phrase “working class” peaked at the time when the movement of society towards more equality in wealth and mobility peaked. Since the Thatcher and Reagan governments, wealth and social inequality has grown in the UK and USA. So the decline in talking about social class has come at the time when class divisions have become more rigid. Isn’t there something rather frightening about that?

    When I was growing up, I genuinely felt social class divisions were breaking down. I remember poking fun at people from other countries, the USA in particular, who seemed to suppose the UK was a horribly class divided society, that these were rigid labels imposed on people with fixed formal rules foe what class you were in and little movement between them. Growing up in a working class family, I keenly felt the social divisions, and the bitterness at the discrimination I often faced because of that remains with me, yet I did not feel the class barriers were insurmountable, myself and my brother and sisters all climbed over them and now all work in thoroughly middle-class occupations.

    I would still say the barriers are not insurmountable, but they seem to have grown much higher since those days when I naively supposed they were shrinking. To make it worse, the language used to talk about it is now used less and so is seen as old-fashioned, indicative of being some sort of Marxist dinosaur. It was always the thing I most disliked about Liberals that they tended to take the position that since they wished social class did not exist they would not talk about it and hope by doing so it would just go away. Well, we don’t take the same attitude on racial equality, do we?

  • @matthew huntbatch
    Speaking as a as a working class Marxist dinosaur, I’d say you were spot on mate

  • “It was always the thing I most disliked about Liberals that they tended to take the position that since they wished social class did not exist they would not talk about it and hope by doing so it would just go away”,
    Matthew is right that this is a feature of Liberals, but I wouldn’t be quite as censorious as him, although I find it irritating when people say that anyone who works is ‘working class’, which is a typically ‘woolly liberal’ formulation. But I suspect that many Liberals in the seventies and eighties were uncomfortable talking about class because of the way in which the issue had been defined and appropriated by the academics of the time who were predominantly marxist. Liberal fuzziness about class was always going to look feeble when compared to marxist certainties, but in many respects that fuzziness is more realistic than the dogma because it encompasses the complexity of class in this country. Sure, there is still a firmly entrenched class structure in many respects, from the people in the country house whose first question to my daughter when she stayed with her (then) boyfriend’s parents was “What school did you go to?”, to the lumpen proletariat (are we allowed to use that marxist term these days?) on the sink estates where successive generations have never worked, but there is a sizeable proportion of the population (whether it is growing or not I do not know) for whom class now has little or no salience as a concept.
    Finally, just a word of thanks to Matthew: while I was thinking about what you had written in the light of my own experience I suddenly realised that my father was an immigrant. It’s odd that it should have taken sixty odd years to come to that realisation, but such are the complexities of class and ethnicity. Without either of us being consciously aware of it I would guess that the effects of the prejudice he encountered on coming to this country in 1929 have probably informed my own attitudes and politics.

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