Race, gender, class? Social diversity in the 21st century

Saturday 29 September, 11:3013:00, The Old Joint Stock, Birmingham, B2 5NYUK satellites

This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Birmingham – buy tickets here.

There is a tendency today to use group identities when referring to people. But those identities are often related to gender, ethnic origin, sexuality, or religion, rather than social class. In fact, we could even argue that we’ve become disorientated about class. The 2011 Great British Class Survey, carried out via the BBC, generated a huge response, suggesting an interest in class as a social issue. But respondents were predominantly the more affluent in society, revealing little about class in Britain today. More recent surveys have suggested that an increasing number of people consider themselves working class, despite the fact that the visibility of class, class conflict, and specifically working-class institutions (such as trades unions) have undoubtedly declined.

Yet, disorientation about class has not stopped progress in other areas. There are more women and ethnic minorities in work, and they are being treated more equally than ever before. In fact, many draw a favourable contrast between working life today – which has a relative absence of unions but a strong awareness of ethnic, gender and sexual equality – with earlier periods where trades unions were strong but sexual and ethnic discrimination was much more pronounced.
However, some are worrying that today’s diversity agenda creates new ‘in’ and ‘out’ groups, entrenching the differences it seeks to eliminate. On top of this, the diversity and equality agendas arguably give employers and certain institutions a new mission and purpose, and empowers bosses to intervene in the workplace to promote diversity. At worst, some even argue that the diversity agenda enables individuals to set themselves up as unelected spokespeople on the basis of sex or race.

What has been the impact on the concept of social class and relations between the classes? Does it matter that social class doesn’t feature so much today? Is class best understood as a strand within the broader diversity agenda? Are there limits to the promotion of diversity? Or is class something completely different?