Working Class and Middle Class Images of Society

Russell Haggar

Site Owner


Working Class and Middle Class Images of Society in the Luton Study…and After

In his study Sources of Variation in Working Class Images of Society [1966], David Lockwood aimed to distinguish between working class and middle class images of society. Within the working class he distinguished between the class images of proletarian traditionalists, deferential traditionalists and new affluent privatised workers each of which differed from each other and from middle class images of society. In the Goldthorpe, Lockwood Bechhofer and Platt study the focus of attention would be on the class images of new affluent privatised workers.  [Notice, however, that in the future other analysts would argue that these theoretical depictions of class imagery were factually inaccurate.]

According to David Lockwood   proletarian traditionalists typically lived in close knit working class communities and worked in industries such as mining, iron and steel manufacture, shipbuilding and fishing. The men bonded strongly with their work mates with whom they socialised regularly in pubs and working men’s clubs and saw themselves as part of a distinctive working class which existed in opposition to owners, controllers, managers, and administrators who exercised considerable power and authority over the workers and whose economic interests in high profitability conflicted with the workers’ interests in higher wages. Thus, the workers saw society in terms of a dichotomous conflict model in which “US” [the working class] were inevitably involved in conflicts of interests with “THEM” [the owners, controllers, managers and administrators of the firms for which they worked.

Lockwood also argued that these workers fatalistically believed that individual social mobility was neither possible nor desirable and that they were therefore uninterested in future planning for individual career progress for themselves and unlikely to prioritise the importance of educational success as facilitating upward social mobility for their children. Instead, they believed that their living standards could best be advanced collectively via support for trade unions and the Labour Party which were seen as most likely to defend workers’ interests.  Thus, these workers social and political attitudes could be summarised in terms of the concept of solidaristic collectivism.

Deferential Traditionalists according to David Lockwood were to be found mainly in agricultural areas and small towns, working in small scale industries with relatively close paternalistic relationships with their employers, having limited opportunities for the development of working class consciousness, and perceiving the inequalities of the social order as essentially just and meritocratic.  Deferential traditionalists did not aspire upward social mobility because they believed that they lacked the talents necessary for higher level employment and they were content that the government of the day was dominated by upper middle class men who had mainly been educated at private schools and Oxbridge universities. In their study Angels in Marble, Mackenzie and Silver identified these deferential attitudes as a major reason for working class conservatism although another grouping of secular working class Conservatives was also noted; these voters were mainly young, male, relatively well-paid, voiced limited support for the Trade Union movement, the Welfare State and nationalisation and essentially supported the principles of private enterprise. They were more pragmatic in their voting behaviour than the deferentials and more likely than the deferentials to switch their support away from the Tories.  In the Affluent Worker studies Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt concentrate their attention on proletarian traditionalism

Lockwood argued that many middle class people saw society in terms of a hierarchy of several social strata with varying levels of income, wealth, and social status. The existence of this form of social stratification was both inevitable [because largely based on natural differences in talents and abilities] and desirable because it promoted economic efficiency and rising living standards for all [much as was suggested in functionalist theories of social stratification. Hence there were no logical reasons for the conflicts between social strata which were emphasised in the proletarian traditionalist view of society.

Upward social mobility between these strata is seen as desirable, possible and dependent upon long-term planning and individual effort to secure educational and career advancement and middle class parents were assumed to prioritise their children’ education much more than was the case among working class parents. [ Such views were given considerable sociological support in the theories of H. Hyman, B. Sugarman and J.W.B. Douglas although these theories would themselves soon be called into question within Sociology.]  Be that as it may, in theory at least while proletarian traditionists were present- time oriented and fatalistic, this was certainly not the case among the middle classes.

Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt summarised their findings on the class imagery of the affluent workers in the Luton Study as follows.

  • 4% of the sample espoused an approximate power model.
  • 8% adopted an apparent prestige model
  • 56% adopted an approximate money model
  • 26% adopted images not approximating any of the above models
  • 8% had no communicable image of society

Thus Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt state that the class imagery of affluent workers was diverse but “the central tendency was to see class as primarily a matter of money or to be more precise differences in income, wealth and material living standards of individual groups.” The affluent workers tended to see society as composed of a large class to which they belonged, and which contained both manual and non-manual workers. In some cases, this large class was situated between a small, privileged elite and a small relatively disadvantaged class made up of “deprived, underserving and disadvantaged persons”[as in section one of the diagram below] although in other cases this lower class was also incorporated into the larger class[as in section two of the diagram below]. Also, in some cases the elite was seen as a divided class [as in section three of the diagram below] . These possibilities are shown in the following diagram which is adapted from the original Luton study.




The following points should be noted in relation to these models of class structure.

  1. Affluent manual workers placed themselves placed themselves in the same social class as routine clerical workers and as non-manual professional workers many of whom will have earned higher incomes, better living conditions, working conditions and future employment prospects than did affluent manual workers. It is reasonable to conclude that affluent workers in this sample did not have an objectively accurate view of the UK class structure.
  2. There sometimes recognised that there were status differences between themselves and non-manual workers but saw such differences as relatively insignificant since they believed that their incomes, wealth and living standards were similar to those of non-manual workers whose emphasis on status and prestige amounted to no more than “snobbishness” and “putting on airs and graces”.
  3. The affluent manual workers saw social classes as inevitable and possibly beneficial. They did not wish to challenge the capitalist class structure but to improve their living standards within the capitalist system.
  4. They were optimistic that they would be able to improve their living standards because of the continuing growth of the economy as a whole rather than through individual upward social mobility.
  5. They were still supporters of trade unions and the Labour Party which they saw as most likely to improve workers’ living standards although they could imagine voting Conservative in the future if the Conservatives seemed more likely than Labour to improve workers’ living standards.

In summary Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt argue that in their adherence to a money model of class structure the new affluent workers differed significantly from the proletarianism traditionalists who adhered to a dichotomous power model of society and from the middle classes who adopted a hierarchical prestige model of society

Further developments and criticisms

There were, however, several problems with this overall approach to social imagery.

  1. It was argued that in some cases workers in occupations who might have been expected to exhibit a proletarian traditionalist image of society did not in fact do. For example Hill [1976] found in a study of London dockworkers found that their values were in fact similar to those of the affluent workers in the Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt study which meant that Goldthorpe, Lockwood , Bechhofer and Platt had overstated the difference between the traditional and the new working class and /or that dockers’ lives may have changed significantly since the early 1960s. Hill concludes that both of these possibilities were to some extent true and that in general the divisions between the old and the new working class had been exaggerated.
  2. It was argued that the attitudes and values which Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt identified with the rising working class affluence of the 1960s had existed among the skilled sections of the working class in the late 19th and early 20th centuries
  3. In her 1992 study of Luton workers Fiona Devine also found that many of them adhered to a money model of society but that their attitudes differed significantly from those found in the original Luton study.
  4. The findings of the original Luton study were called into question in a recent study by Professor Mike Savage. This article raises complex theoretical arguments but one key point which he makes is than when the original field notes of the Goldthorpe, Lockwood, Bechhofer and Platt study are reanalysed, many of the respondents referred in detail to the power and privileges of the elite class which corresponded in some ways to the dichotomous power model allegedly adhered to by proletarian traditionalists.
  5. In the findings of a recent British Social Attitudes Survey conducted by the National Centre for Social research respondents recognised a range of different images of the UK class structure although these findings do not differentiate in detail between differences in working class and middle class images of the UK class Structure. Click here and scroll down to page 10 for further details.