The challenge of reading about the working class

As part of my sabbatical, I’m doing some reading and writing around the subject of urban mission.  This includes spending a little bit of time thinking about class issues. There’s one problem with this. Who does research about working class people, who write studies, articles and books about them?  The answer is middle class people.

This is Owen Jones, author of “Chavs: The demonization of the working classes” writing  about himself.

“I was the only boy in the class to go to a six form college, let alone a University. Why? Because I was born into a middle class family -my mother was a lecturer at Salford University, my father an economic officer for Sheffield City Council.”[1]

Jones recognises the educational and career advantage he got from being middle class. I wonder if he recognises that this will also shape how he views the working class, their values, priorities and challenges? Indeed whilst his book may be underpinned by socialist thinking and is “about” the working class, it is essentially a book by a middle class person for middle class people.

In fact, any attempt to study people brings its challenges. We view them, their thoughts, words and feelings through our own hermeneutic and our very engagement in studying them affects and changes things.

Mike Savage was part of the Great British Class Study. He reports on the researchers’ approach:

“Scientific experiments are normally expected to stand back from the research they are conducting in order to provide distanced and ‘objective’ results, for instance using randomized control tests when comparing which medical interventions are effective. However, in the case of the GBCS, we could not do this. Interests in class are themselves so highly loaded that if we try to stand back, then we miss the energies, intensities, but also the hostility and insecurity that are bound up with class. Indeed, this is a fundamental argument of our book.” [2]

Both Savage and Jones write with their own agendas too. For Jones that might be more obvious as he is unashamedly engaged in left wing politics but Savage also tells us that:

“The topic of class is far from being a dispassionate one. There are bitterly contested views about what classes are, how to measure and analyse them, and their overall significance for society. And we are far from being neutral in these debates. We have been at the forefront of a group of British sociologists who have insisted over recent years that class remains fundamental to sociological analysis. We have also championed the thinking of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as offering the most perceptive approach to unravelling the complexities of class today.” [3]

There’s also the risk that people can assume that their own background, growing up on an estate means that they are qualified to speak for the working class when in fact they have made decisions and had opportunities in life which mean they are far more remote from their origins than they think.  David Davis, Conservative MP and cabinet minister offers a corrective about this when he responds to Owen Jones question about whether senior MPS are out of touch with the working classes.

“Truthfully, it’s party true of me too! You know, it’s a long time since I lived on a council estate, and the only thing you have that pulls you back to earth, really, is the constituency surgery, where you’re dealing with people on a Friday night and Saturday morning with their problems.”[4]

But that’s not the only problem. There’s also the danger that we attempt to witness in response to the picture provided in books. We may end up preaching to a stereotyped working class person and miss the real person. JH Bavinck reminds us that we cannot settle for knowing and witnessing to the religious system:

“In the first place we must try to see the person with whom we are dealing. This means that we must seek to see through a person’s name, position, reasons and arguments, and try to reach his real life problems.”[5]

Each person is an individual with their own views which may be different and even inconsistent with the overarching religious system. If it’s true for religious conversations then it is also true about politics and cultural contexts. Reading theory is no replacement for getting to know and listening to real people.

Despite its drawbacks, this type of wider reading is still worthwhile.  I want to suggest that there are three reasons for this.

  1. Unlike when Bavinck was helping people plan to go to far flung, remote places, our society is still much more interconnected. This means that we cannot think about how we reach one group or class within British society in isolation unless language culture and religion has led to total isolation (which I think is likely to be extremely rare). We are connected and so it is not so simple as to say “I want to reach the working classes.” Furthermore, to some extent, we are affected by how others portray, perceive and talk about us. We are labelled.
  2. The different ways that the working class are viewed and portrayed tells us something about middle class culture and even our own idolatry too.
  3. Writers who have an agenda are in effect bringing their own “gospel” offering what they believe to be a message of hope. In so far as they are offering solutions as alternative good news to Jesus Christ, they are worshipping their own idols and presenting these idols to us for worship too. This includes Jones’ socialism but also Douglas Carswell’s libertarian/anti-EU alternative too.

So whilst reading about class has its drawbacks it also has its uses too.

[1] Owen Jones, Chavs, 174.

[2] Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century, 6.

[3] Savage, Social Class in the 21st Century, 19.

[4]  Owen Jones, Chav, 82.

[5] Bavinck, The Science of Missions, 125.