Class psychology

The psychology underlying the British class system is what makes it unique, explains Sandra Jovchelo

I have been living in Britain for 16 years and during this period have acquired that kind of outsider/insider perspective that anthropologists describe as a mix of estrangement and familiarity. You become part of the place and yet not quite. I have learnt how to enjoy gardening and the best winter puddings in the world, but if there is something I still find intriguing and peculiar about Britain is the class issue.

The force of class here is very striking. Certainly stronger than in any other comparable industrialised Western society. Social and cultural psychologists around Europe refer to it jokingly as the “British hang-up”.

Indeed what makes class in Britain so unique is not so much the reality of the class system, but the psychology that lies beneath it. Class is central to the collective psyche of this country. Here there is awareness of class, talk about class, jokes about class, and embarrassed glances about class.

Accents, manners, intonation, food, impression and expression management are all subtle and pervasive markers that establish from the very beginning who you are and where you belong. Class here is an attitude, something you believe in or you do not, something you argue passionately about, something you feel in your gut and you understand as well as the language you speak.

Quite apart from different positions people occupy in the class system and the different experiences they have in relation to it there is widespread and immediately recognisable shared knowledge about class. Opinions may vary but everyone knows the terms of the debate and what class is about: it has a place at the very core of the collective consciousness of this country.

Such an ingrained way of thinking and behaving around a notion is part of what social psychologists and historians call mentalities. Mentalities are powerful and sticky ideas that run in history, get handed down through generations, are cemented in all kinds of social institutions and ultimately in the behaviour and psychological make up of individuals. Mentalities are made of beliefs and deep-rooted in behaviour; they are difficult to change and tend to survive long after social structures are gone.

As part of the British mentality, class is resistant to change and difficult to transform because it is deeply entrenched in the way Brits speak – and language is the single most important symbolic system shaping any human community - and in the disciplining of bodies, one of the most powerful psychological mechanisms for socialising the young and reproducing social orders. Every time someone speaks and moves it starts all over again.

Ironically whereas the mentality about class in Britain is unique, its reality is not. The UK situation is not altogether dissimilar from other comparable European countries.

Across the board class still matters, as the strong correlation between educational achievement and family background demonstrates. But there has been tremendous social mobility in the post-war years, which might be slowing down considerably, but not completely.

It would be plainly wrong, and indeed politically undesirable, to state that material distinctions are gone, but the old differences between the upper, middle and working classes have been displaced by more complex scenarios, where diversity of lifestyles and use of income, multiculturalism and new global cultural references complicate distinctions and unsettle the ways in which identities are defined and group affiliations take shape.

The hard consequences of class are real enough for the many people who are at the sharp end of the class system. But these should not overshadow the reality and potential of the many new routes for socialisation and identity that are opening and challenging the social frameworks of class in contemporary Britain.

Today people cross borders and seek identity in ways that were unimagined and indeed almost impossible just a few decades ago. There are new sociabilities in the scene, new ways of organising communities and of establishing social solidarities. This should wake us up to what is new ahead. Britain’s old psychology of class needs to catch up.

Sandra Jovchelovitch is Head of the Institute of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, where she also directs the Masters Programme in Social and Cultural Psychology. Her research interests are in the social psychology of community and public spheres, the making of belief systems, and inter-cultural dialogue. Her new book “Knowledge in Context: Representations, community and culture”, about the impact of socio-cultural contexts on the development of knowledge, is out now with Routledge.
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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State