A question of class: how do social inequality metrics work in cultural organisations?

In this blog post, Dr Susan Oman discusses initial findings from her AHRC fellowship with Arts Council England (ACE) on measuring class and social mobility in cultural organisations. She argues that context is key to understanding how new measures will work in practice – and the issues they raise for people and the sector.

At the London Film Festival last week, the British Film Institute (BFI) announced it was going to start measuring ‘class and socio-economic background in their funding and staffing’. This move reflects the growing attention given to inequalities in the arts: academic evidence increasingly shows that cultural professions are unequal across ethnicity, gender, age, disability and class.

How we measure class and social mobility to reveal inequality is a thorny issue, however. Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s recent appeal for the BBC to publish information on the social origins of its workforce received some backlash. One columnist objected to the proposal, suggesting that people’s ‘backgrounds would be audited’ and that they would feel ‘judged’.

My AHRC Fellowship was designed to respond to these issues. I sought to understand how people working in cultural organisations feel answering – and asking – questions that are used to measure class and reveal structural inequality.

Measuring social mobility and understanding class inequality

Measuring social mobility is based on understanding the difference between what sociologists call ‘social origins’ and ‘destinations’. There are various ways to do this, but the preferred method involves asking people about their parents’ or guardians’ occupations. This question attempts to reveal an aspect someone’s social origins, without attempting to understand their life in detail. The rationale in this context is to establish whether it is more difficult for people of particular backgrounds to get into certain jobs (as an example of their destination).

The question may not interrogate a person’s life history in detail, but asking people about their parents, carers, or any other aspect of their circumstances growing up feels very personal. For this reason, when organisations want to measure people’s socio-economic status or origins to monitor equal opportunity, they often ask them to identify their own class. This question is also problematic for measurement, as the answers are subjective and not everyone is comfortable discussing or identifying class.

Research design: understanding context and complexity behind inequality data

In order to explore experiences of asking and answering these questions in context, it was important to understand existing data and diversity practices and policies of ACE and its funded organisations.

Through qualitative research, I hoped to provoke conversation around these questions at various levels: ACE, its funded organisations, their staff and the wider sector. Collecting inequality data that work across contexts and on a national scale involves an intricate series of processes. How they work together forms vital context to understanding how people feel, and how the measures might actually work in practice.

Asking questions

I spoke to over 200 people, discussing over 40 possible questions. Two questions were key discussion points for staff. Around 60% of groups disliked self-identifying their class. I have written about this in further detail here.

Every group I spoke with, however, took issue with the question about their parents’ professions at the age of fourteen. In the context of their current workplace, it felt strange, irrelevant and intrusive to be asked a question about what someone else did for a job. Many felt that the work their parents or carers had done hadn’t influenced where they were now, and, as the columnist suspected, they did not want to be ‘judged’ in this way.

Some felt awkward at the implication that their parents were being judged. While, at the same time, most agreed that those from less affluent social origins found it harder to get particular jobs. This suggests a disconnect between how people relate to the importance of the ‘inequality challenge’ in the cultural sector – wanting this to be addressed, and understanding the rationale behind the questions that enable measurement.

For some, these questions were far more personal than others. Four people I spoke with had in fact lost a parent at around fourteen. Another explained she had been a carer for her terminally ill parents at this time. In this vein, many of the groups raised hypothetical concerns that those who were most vulnerable to inequality were arguably the most at risk of finding these questions traumatic.

Alongside emotive and ethical issues, are more practical problems. For example, in conversation, people confessed they didn’t really understand what their parents did. Yet, most people completed the form they were given; having a go, even when they weren’t confident in the detail.

It’s possible they provided an answer that was practically close enough to reality. However, people also acknowledged that they would have responded to the question differently if the context had not been explained to them – and outside what participants identified as the safe environment of research.

So how do we measure class and inequality in cultural organisations?

This research project found numerous ways that context can affect how people respond to questions – in practical and emotional terms. Explaining the ‘why’ behind particular questions – and the motives behind data collection exercises – is key to sympathetic and enthusiastic engagement. As is recognising that these questions are uncomfortable for important reasons; also, possibly, in part, because they are new to most. I have since discovered that some people who did not know what their parents did, for example, asked them later for more detail. This suggests they will be better-equipped if they are asked the question again. We must remember that perhaps this only serves to reinforce the divide for those who do not have someone to go and ask this of, however.

Subsequent to this first stage of the research, I have also discovered discussions on class inequality and social mobility have continued long after I had left the building. This is a small, but hopeful sign that sometimes, through asking uncomfortable questions of ourselves and each other, we can see small changes in the context in which we live and work.

Most of the people I spoke to in cultural organisations saw the rationale behind Arts Council England, the BFI and the rest of the sector wanting to measure class inequality. But as the sector begins to adopt new measures, it must be a ‘good judge’ of how questions work – and the numerous issues they raise. 

A thank you 

I would like to point out the generosity of all the anonymous participants I spoke to, giving their time to participate. There were countless other people behind the scenes across the organisations that also helped make this project happen. It is important to recognise this time and labour, especially as we have learnt that diversity work too often falls to the already marginalised and is undervalued.

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