RE-FOCUSING ON CLASSICAL TOPICS
I have chosen one example to illustrate this heading: the interrelated topics of women’s social mobility and the proper way to construct class systems in modern Britain. Other examples, could, no doubt, be chosen, but the sociology of class, stratification and social mobility is a particularly central one in the UK. The feminist sociologists (women and men) in Britain, particularly inspired by Joan Acker’s (1973) critique of American research on social stratification, developed arguments against the traditional ways in which the topic had been researched (see Chapter 4) and theorised. They then moved on, in the past 20 years, to develop new coding frames, and new ways to discuss stratification (Delamont, 1989c; Brown, 1986).
After Acker’s landmark paper, three issues, related but not necessarily all researched at once, were made problematic by feminists. First, was it sensible to treat the household as the unit of analysis, with its class location treated as that of the male head? Second, were the very categories of occupation, which were used to group occupations together into classes, inherently sexist? Third, what empirical and theoretical insights would result if women were treated as having their own occupationally based
class identity and therefore their own social mobility? These feminist interests were an addition to a series of debates about social class itself, and the role of class analysis in sociology (Savage, 2000) which have raged in the UK between 1970 and the present. This volume is not the place to open up the wider questions, discussed elsewhere in the series (Holmwood, forthcoming). Nor would it be appropriate to rehearse the full debates about the three questions here. The furore around the first question, and the opening up of new vistas following the second and third are briefly summarised here, and also briefly discussed in Chapter 7 from a different angle.
The debates surrounding whether the household should be the unit of class analysis came to prominence in British sociology after the publication of the results of the Oxford, Nuffield, mobility study in 1980. The project had gathered data in 1972 from an all-male sample in England and Wales, but by the time it was published (Goldthorpe, 1980; Halsey et al., 1980) that sampling strategy was under attack from commentators, male and female, feminists and non-feminists. An all-male sampling strategy that had been taken for granted in 1972 seemed worthy of comment, and even old-fashioned in 1980. During the 1980s a debate took place between Goldthorpe, who aggressively defended the traditional position, and a loose coalition of sociologists who wanted to explore alternatives. (Britten and Heath, 1983; Goldthorpe, 1983, 1984; Heath and Britten, 1983; Stanworth, 1983). Goldthorpe was confident that the male was head of the household, and that his occupation determined its class location, even if women worked for longer and took their careers more seriously than their mothers had done. He was uninterested in any differences between, for example, a household where the man was a doctor and the woman a secretary compared to a household where both adults were doctors, or one where the man was a routine clerical worker and the woman a doctor. Commentators who wanted to argue that these three might differ in sociologically interesting ways were, he argued, simply mistaken.
In the aftermath of that controversy Crompton and Mann (1986) edited a collection of thoughtful and judicious pieces which explored neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian aspects of gender and stratification. The importance of the debates to the discipline as a whole was apparent from the space allocated to it in Morgan and Stanley (1993) in which Helen Roberts (1993) rehearsed ‘The women and class debate’.
The second question was, in many ways, more important, but received less attention. As Coxon and Jones (1978, 1979a, 1979b) and Coxon et al. (1986) had shown from a substantial empirical research project, there were deep-seated problems buried in the classification systems of occupations used to allocate places in the class
hierarchy. One of these problems is that the occupational titles used to elicit prestige ratings are themselves suffused with gender stereotypes: a ‘nurse’ is taken to be a woman, an ‘engineer’ or ‘miner’, a man. The resulting list of occupations is itself sexist, and reproduces a range of sexual inequalities and stratifications. So gas fitter is a skilled manual trade (Class 3 M) while hairdresser is Class 4, reproducing the sexual inequalities of pay between men and women prevalent in twentieth-century Britain. If women were to have their own social class, based on their own occupation, rather than that of their father and then their husband, it was unclear whether their occupational ranks, and therefore class positions, were usefully captured by the classification schemes used by government or sociologists for men (Roberts, 1986; Thomas, 1986).
Finally, there was a new body of research that tried to study the social mobility of women, either using existing data sets, because there were no lavishly funded surveys of large samples as there had been on men, or collecting new data. Heath (1981) pioneered the former approach, Marshall et al. (1988) the second for England. Work on Scotland, and in both parts of Ireland, was conducted with a view of gender very different from Goldthorpe’s. The collection edited by Payne and Abbott (1990) represents the achievements of that work, following Abbott and Sapsford (1987). To any open-minded sociologist, the results of studying women’s mobility patterns are interesting, not only for what they show about the life chances of women and how these are affected by education, marriage and motherhood, but also for what they reveal about the whole occupational system of the nation.
Feminist sociology has certainly changed the parameters of the debates about class, stratification and social mobility. The achievement can be gauged by comparing, among the introductory texts for undergraduates, Worsley’s (1970) treatment of stratification and social class with that of Worsley (1977) and then with Savage (2000). In the more advanced literature, aimed at professional sociologists, the feminist achievement can be seen in Appendix G of Marshall et al. (1997) on ‘The class and gender debate’. Here they devote six pages to a thorough discussion of the debates. In their main text they treat gender seriously, and they cite the feminist arguments. It is, of course, ironic that feminist sociology changed the shape of the sociological literature on class just as there was a switch in emphasis in the discipline from work to play, from occupation to consumption, from modernity to postmodernity. That, however, is a debate for another book.
THE CREATION OF NEW INTELLECTUAL SPACES
Sexualities are the final example of a research area initially opened up by feminist sociologists as an appropriate sphere for sociological enquiry. The paper by Jackson and Scott (1997) for example, would have been inconceivable in 1957 or 1967, but it contained over 20 citations to sociological research and theorising done after 1980. The HIV/AIDS panic produced another impetus propelling sexuality into the sociological mainstream, of course, but the importance of feminist sociologists in (re)claiming the topic from psychology, psychoanalysis and anthropology is incontrovertible.