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Class and communication

DanielMiller1 June 2013

Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

Photo by cityofstrangers (Creative Commons)

I don’t really want to study social class, every researcher on English society seems obsessed with it, as are the general public. Consider the recent reaction to the BBC Great British Class Survey or books such as Watching the English. But after just two months fieldwork in The Groves I am immersed in a whole slew of such differentiations. How far do the people of High Grove look down on those of Low Grove? Is everyone now using the term ‘social housing’ as a proxy for not just lower class but all sorts of problematic behaviour they associate with that class? Can I ignore stories of parent’s weeping when their child fails to get into their chosen school? I would like to have focused on something more original, but the integrity of ethnography starts with ignoring what you would like your study to be about, and going with your evidence.

When I do research on class I find I fluctuate in my perspective. Sometimes I see through welfare glasses where class looks like differential life chances, and the sensibility of fairness. I remain incensed by the degree that it is still the mere luck of being born to lower income families and lower educational expectations that largely determines life’s opportunities and the likelihood of suffering and deprivation. This remains true of the UK where inequalities still mainly stem from chance not ability. But I also see class with other glasses that pick up all sorts of nuances and playfulness of style as social differences which make up a fascinating tapestry of distinctions in clothing music and style, without necessarily meaning a whole lot in terms of objective life chances.

I may have inherited this duality from the French anthropologist/sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Much of his research concerned poverty and the relationship between education and subsequent social mobility. Others, such as his book Distinction are associated with issues of taste. The recent BBC Great British Class Survey is a pop version of the work of Mike Savage which is in turn a pop (or updated) version of Bourdieu. But Bourdieu was less divided since with the legacy of Marxist writing he still saw taste and life chances as two sides of the same coin, which guaranteed the status of class as an object of study.

How will class relate to the study of digital communications? Differential digital literacy may still reflect class as welfare. Other differences are more complex. Some quite hip young people are into Instagram used for all sorts of ‘edgy’ photo effects. But others with a serious interest in photography see this as an inauthentic cheat that devalues photography as art. Maybe this is typical of the democratization of skill? There are early indications. There seems to be a stronger digital presence generally including higher usage of Instagram in High Grove. Does this run parallel with evidence its high street has the delicatessens and art galleries, while Low Grove has few such class markers?

I am suspicious of correlations as evidence of cause. My work with the hospice suggests that it was often high status families who were most reserved and cut off from social communications and ended up suffering social isolation as a result. So higher status may not translate as advantage. Class is cross-cut by gender and age, and Facebook seems to be migrating from younger to older. Also social differentiation fragments into many different competitions. As Bourdieu once put it there is a struggle for hierarchy between the different hierarchies. So things will be complex, but that is the nature of ethnography, and if don’t manage to tease out these tangled threads, who will. Fortunately we have another two years to try and make sense of such things.

Why start with death?

DanielMiller8 October 2012

Holding the hand of an elderly person

Photo: Rosie O'Beirne (Creative Commons)

Even I would have to admit it wasn’t the obvious way to go. The last three weeks have been amazing with the whole group coming together, but I have been on this project since May and during the intervening period I went ahead with my own fieldwork. Eventually all eight of us will start on our respective ethnographies with hopefully strong common threads. But we have agreed that there will also be some degree of autonomy in which we each have some themes of our own, something probably essential in a discipline such as anthropology.

So in May I decided that my own theme would be to start my study in collaboration with a hospice. This was possibly a very stupid move since our project is centred upon the consequences of social networking sites, and the one group who are least likely to be using this sites are the elderly who, in turn, make up the majority of those who are terminally ill. So why work with a hospice? I guess there were three reasons. The first was that for such a large grant from the public purse I felt that ethics is not just written consent forms, ethics is also whether your research directly benefits the welfare of populations who, in some sense, are paying for it. As it happens, the hospice director was interested in the likely long-term impact of new media and had asked if I could work with them. The health service has been incredibly conservative on this front, the NHS is still mostly based on fax and letters, so this seemed potentially a useful contribution.

The second was that I felt a project this big should address the big picture of anthropology, and not just our parochial ethnographies, and that, for theoretical reasons, I wanted to rethink what we understand by life as enhanced by technology and that this might be understood better in relation to the imminence of death. The third reason was that most researchers studying things like social network sites will simply focus on those alone, while for anthropology everything is context. Getting a real sense of the wider world of communications and social relations from non-users would ensure that we kept that broad context in view when it came to working on social networking sites specifically.

It’s too early to know if any of these were right, but one thing I can say, is that you would not expect that a project based largely with terminal cancer patients would be anything other than downbeat. But I have found that these patients are genuinely happy to find someone who wants to talk about something other than illness and is asking for their advice and life stories and that actually the fieldwork so far has been really uplifting and often surprisingly enjoyable.