Community Media Discussion- The Partition of Working-Class Experience in Our Media

In next week’s community media discussion, we will be looking at how social class, and particularly the experience of working-class people, is marginalised in our mainstream and industrial/corporate media, and the role that community media can play as a counter-balance to the stereotypes that are assumed to shape people from non-professionalised and economically privileged backgrounds. We’ll discuss how access to platforms of production and distribution, in the form of community radio stations or community newspapers, are often the only way for working-class people to engage in community sense-making for themselves, independently of the cultural expectations of professional managers and administrators who fail to recognise the dynamic identities, forms of expression and motivations of people from working-class communities.

Join us to discuss how community communications and community sensemaking can change society for the better by opening up our media to greater diversity, inclusivity, participation and civic engagement.

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Benjamin Disraeli used the term “two nations” to describe the divide between the rich and poor in Victorian England. Disraeli feared that Britain would be separated into two distinct spheres of experience, or two nations, one of the rich and one of the poor. This long-standing division had been exacerbated as a result of increased industrialisation and the dramatic increase in inequality that Victorian social and economic changes brought about. Disraeli believed that there was no intercourse and no sympathy between these two separate, non-intersecting worlds of rich and poor. He used the phrase “two nations” to describe the problematic social inequalities facing early Victorian Britain.

Disraeli thought it was possible to make an alliance between ‘masters’ and ‘workmen’, and denounced the two-nation divide in his Young England speeches. One-nation conservatism was his solution to this division, namely a system of measures that were designed to improve the lives of the people by providing some forms of social support, and protecting the working classes by giving working people a level of recognition that their plight was not necessarily of their making. The phrase “one-nation Tory” originated with Disraeli, who served as the chief Conservative spokesman and became Prime Minister in February 1868.

According to Disraeli’s model of two-nations, the “partition of the working class” is a reference to the way the working class was itself divided into two separate groups. Disraeli believed that the working class was not a homogeneous group, but rather was divided into two distinct classes: the “aristocracy of labour” and the “lumpenproletariat”. The former were skilled workers who were able to earn a decent wage and enjoy a certain level of social mobility, while the latter were unskilled workers who were trapped and impoverished, and have little hope of improving their situation.

Disraeli argued that the ‘aristocracy of labour’ had a duty to help the lumpenproletariat, and that the two groups should work together to improve the conditions of the working class as a whole. Disraeli believed that this alliance between the two groups was necessary to prevent the working class from being divided and conquered by the ruling class. Disraeli’s vision of a united working class was a key part of his one-nation conservatism, which aimed to create a society in which all classes worked together for the common good.

The history of class division in the United Kingdom has been well studied, and has formed the basis of significant changes of social and economic policy, both on the left and the right of politics. Who is acting in the best interests of the working classes has been, and continues to be the subject of much debate and discussion. The division is along the lines, to put it crudely, between free-market provision and individualism, as espoused by the modern Tory Party, and the social-democratic and collective provision espoused by the modern Labour Party. Political science is a well-trodden path, from Marx to Hayek, often expressed in ideological terms, with each served by its own mythological framing.

Class, however, has become less present in the studies of British media as other concerns of social identity and ‘diversity’ have entered into the political dynamic. As Kenan Malik asserts

“The moral force of the demand for diversity comes from the fact that many groups – racial minorities, women, gay people and others – have historically faced discrimination and been excluded from positions of power and privilege. The drive for greater diversity is seen as a push for greater equality and an attempt to dismantle barriers of exclusion.”

We are in danger, Malik argues, of airbrushing class divisions out of the picture of UK life, with a focus on meritocracy that obscures the reality of structural inequality between those people with significant financial assets, and those of us who need to work for a living to just about get through each week and each month. The evidence, according to Malik, is that in 2022 alone, “the income for the poorest fifth of the population fell by 3.8% while that of the richest fifth rose by 1.6%.

The partition of the working class, however, is not just an economic problem, but is also a cultural challenge to the expression of identity and a way of life for many people who do not have access to the cultural capital that sustains the professional and the asset-rich classes. The experience of the working class is impoverished both because there is a denial of financial benefit from working, and because the popular platforms for expression and culture are similarly inaccessible to many from a working-class background.

Understanding the dynamics of class within community media, such as community radio and community newspapers in the UK, is crucial for a variety of reasons. Community media, by its nature, is closely tied to the local contexts and experiences of individuals and groups within a community. These contexts and experiences are significantly shaped by class, among other social factors, and consequently, a profound understanding of class dynamics is essential for studying community media effectively.

There are a number of UK researchers and institutions focusing on community media studies, including the London School of Economics, Coventry University, Canterbury Christ Church University, Newcastle University, University of Bedfordshire, University of Sunderland, and Napier University, among others. These researchers are exploring various aspects of community media, such as its potential to provide or improve local news coverage, increase participation in community radio, and address issues of media diversity.

Class dynamics play an important role in these areas of research. For example, the representation and portrayal of different social classes in community media can influence public perceptions and discourse around class issues. Similarly, the ability of different social classes to participate in and influence community media can impact the diversity and inclusivity of community media content.

However, there is no strong thread running through these studies that take working-class cultural experience as a defined social phenomenon, which asks how these experiences are systematically facilitated and presented, or not, in community media in the UK.

Professor June Deery, for instance, has explored the depiction of social class in contemporary media, highlighting the need for more studies in this area. Her work underscores the complex ways in which media representations of class can shape and reflect societal attitudes towards class, though these studies are largely focussed on mainstream and industrialised forms of media production and distribution, and don’t examine how class might be considered in the study of community media.

The dynamics of class within community media are not just about representation and participation; they are also tied to wider structures and narratives that shape professional networks and cultural capital. One defining difference that indicates how class is articulated, is the access that people have, and the familiarity that they feel a sense of belonging to a professional network. These networks often define people’s status as an individual with a high degree of education and social capital, and not having access to these networks indicates that people are more dependent on their immediate social concerns, rather than having an extended world-view through which they can traverse.

Professional networks are maintained through various strategies, including networking events, mentorship programs, and digital platforms. These strategies often depend on and reinforce certain forms of cultural capital, such as educational qualifications, professional experiences, and social connections. The accumulation and deployment of this cultural capital can significantly influence the dynamics of professional networks, including those within community media.

Professional networks often maintain their integrity through shared narratives or mythologies, which can embody the values, virtues, or achievements of the group. In the context of community media, these could include narratives around community service, localism, or journalistic integrity. These narratives can serve to foster a collective identity, motivate members, and maintain the current conditions within the network. However, they can also perpetuate stereotypes and power imbalances, particularly along class lines.

Therefore, examining class dynamics in community media requires a multi-faceted approach, one that considers not only representation and participation but also the wider structures and narratives that shape community media practices. By doing so, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of community media and its role in society, and potentially inform efforts to enhance the diversity, inclusivity, and impact of community media in the UK.

In this more nuanced view of class, it’s important to consider how community sensemaking is achieved. Often, class positions are driven and sustained by a set of archetypal and mythological associations that are shared within a professional network, which manifest as shared narratives or stories that embody the values, virtues, or achievements of the group. These narratives serve to establish a collective identity, inspire members, and provide a sense of continuity and purpose. For example, in the technology sector, there are prevalent narratives around innovation, disruption, and entrepreneurial spirit, often represented through stories of successful figures such as Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

Such narratives can foster a sense of belonging, motivate individuals to strive for success, and also serve to maintain the existing state of affairs by defining what is valued within the network. Often, these narratives may tie into broader cultural or national identities. For instance, the narrative of the self-made entrepreneur is deeply rooted in the economic liberal ideal of individualism and the “American Dream”. Similarly, in Japan, the narrative of dedication, hard work, and loyalty can be tied to cultural concepts such as “ganbaru” (to persevere) and lifetime employment within a single company.

It’s important to note that these mythologies can both empower and constrain. They can set expectations and norms that may not be inclusive or attainable for all members of the professional network. Furthermore, they can perpetuate stereotypes and power imbalances. For example, the mythology of the tech entrepreneur often centres on young, white, male figures, which as a projection of successful forms of identity can marginalise and overlook the contributions of women, people of colour, and older individuals in the sector.

Clearly, all identity narratives are dynamic and will evolve, influenced by factors such as social change, technological advancements, and shifts in the economy or political climate. However, class is a process of separation and division that underpins these social experiences, because they are about access to the resources that are needed to perpetuate one identity groups dominance over another. This is both symbolic, economic and archetypal in nature, from which our politics originate. Understanding these narratives and their implications can provide valuable insight into the culture and dynamics of a working-class life experience.

Cultural Capital
Cultural capital is a term coined by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, which refers to the collection of symbolic elements such as skills, tastes, posture, clothing, mannerisms, material belongings, credentials, etc. that one acquires through being part of a particular social class. Sharing similar forms of cultural capital with others—like the same level of education, speaking in the same dialect, or sharing similar taste in music or art—creates a sense of collective identity and group position. For example, The Levelling-Up legislation introduced by Boris Johnson includes reference to social, economic and cultural capital as a process of changing economic inequality, though it is unclear how this would be applied in practical policy terms.

To better understand what being working class entails, it is perhaps useful to outline what being ‘middle-class’ entails. Working-class experience might usefully, though not determinable, be defined as an absence of the social and cultural capital that those who operate in professional occupations take for granted. In a professional network, cultural capital can be accumulated and deployed in several ways:

  • Education and Credentials: Having a degree or certification from a prestigious institution can act as cultural capital. It signals to others in the network that you have attained a certain level of knowledge or expertise. In many professional fields, these educational credentials are important for maintaining the integrity of the network.
  • Professional Development: Participating in continuing education, attending conferences, or acquiring additional certifications can help professionals accumulate cultural capital. This shows a commitment to staying current in the field and can enhance a person’s reputation within the network.
  • Shared Language and Practices: Every profession has its jargon, best practices, and norms. Mastery of these elements demonstrates that one is a competent and committed member of the profession, thereby strengthening their position within the network.
  • Networking and Mentoring: Forming relationships with influential people in the field can be a form of cultural capital. These relationships can lead to opportunities and increase one’s visibility within the network.
  • Contributions to the Field: Publishing research, presenting at conferences, or serving in leadership roles within professional organisations can help a professional accumulate cultural capital. These activities demonstrate expertise and commitment to the field.

The deployment of cultural capital in a professional network, then, often involves signalling one’s membership and commitment to the group. For instance, using the appropriate professional jargon, adhering to the group’s norms and practices, and showcasing one’s educational credentials or contributions to the field. This can reinforce the group’s shared identity and values, thereby helping to maintain the integrity of the network.

At the same time, it’s important to note that access to forms of cultural capital often reflects broader social inequities, as some individuals may have more opportunities to accumulate these resources due to their social class, race, or gender. This can lead to inequalities within professional networks and the fields they represent.

Professional Networks
A professionalised occupation, then, differs from a vocational one in several ways. Professionalisation usually entails formalised education or training, a distinct body of specialised knowledge, adherence to ethical standards or codes of conduct, and often some form of certification or licensure. Some main characteristics of a professionalised occupation:

  • Formal Education: Professional occupations typically require a higher level of education, often at the university level. This education is usually specialized to the field of work and may result in a degree or certificate. Examples include doctors, lawyers, and engineers.
  • Certification or Licensure: Many professional occupations have a certifying body that oversees the issuance of licences or certificates. This serves to maintain a minimum standard of competence and knowledge in the profession. Examples include the medical board for doctors or the bar association for lawyers.
  • Code of Ethics: Professionals often adhere to a specific code of ethics or standards of practice. These guidelines help ensure that professionals act responsibly and ethically in their line of work.
  • Autonomy: Professionals usually have a high degree of autonomy in their work. They are trusted to make critical decisions based on their expert knowledge and judgement.
  • Continued Professional Development: Professionals are often expected to continue their education throughout their careers. This can include attending conferences, taking additional courses, or staying up to date with research in their field.
  • Professional Associations: Professionals often belong to associations or organizations related to their field. These organizations can provide resources, networking opportunities, and further legitimisation of the profession.

Vocational Working
Vocational occupations, on the other hand, are more focused on practical skills and training, often learned on the job or through vocational schools or apprenticeships. These jobs might not require a university degree, but still require a high level of skill and expertise. Examples include electricians, plumbers, and welders.

While vocational occupations can also have professional aspects (for example, electricians may require a licence to work), the level of formalised education, autonomy, and adherence to a professional code may not be as pronounced or as strictly enforced as in professional occupations. However, it’s important to note that both vocational and professional occupations are valuable and necessary for society to function.

Maintaining Professional Distinctions
Professional networks are maintained in a variety of ways depending on the nature of the occupation, the structure of the industry, and the culture of the organization or field. Here are some common methods:

  • Professional Associations or Organizations: Many professions have associations or organizations that professionals can join. These groups often host events, such as conferences, seminars, and networking events, that allow professionals to connect with each other, learn about the latest research and trends in their field, and share their work.
  • Continuing Education and Professional Development: Attending workshops, courses, or seminars in your field not only allows you to learn and grow in your profession, but it also provides an opportunity to meet and connect with other professionals who share similar interests.
  • Alumni Networks: Many people maintain connections with their university or college alumni network. These networks often host events and provide resources that can help professionals connect with one another.
  • Social Networking Sites: Websites like LinkedIn, ResearchGate (for researchers), or GitHub (for programmers) allow professionals to connect with each other, share their work, and engage in discussions about their field.
  • Workplace Events: Many workplaces host events, such as holiday parties, team-building activities, or happy hours, that provide opportunities for employees to connect with each other in a more casual setting.
  • Mentorship Programs: Some professions have formal or informal mentorship programs, where more experienced professionals provide guidance and support to those who are newer to the field. This can be a great way to maintain connections with both mentors and mentees.
  • Collaborative Projects: Working on projects or research with professionals from different organizations or sectors can also help maintain and build your professional network.

To maintain these networks, it’s important to engage regularly, offer help and support when you can, and be open to learning from others. Good networking is about building reciprocal relationships, where both parties can benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience. It’s also important to keep your professional profiles and contact information up to date, so others can easily reach out to you.

Class-Based Advocacy in Community Media
The question that is not being addressed in any meaningful sense, is to what extent are working-class people’s social and cultural experiences being realised in community media in the UK? For people from working-class backgrounds, getting involved with a community radio station can have several significant consequences:

  • Representation: Community radio stations often strive to represent the diverse voices within their area of broadcast. By getting involved, people from working-class backgrounds can ensure that their experiences, interests, and concerns are reflected in the content produced.
  • Skills Development: Working at a community radio station can provide valuable skills in media production, broadcasting, and journalism. These skills can be applied in various professional contexts and can lead to further career opportunities.
  • Community Engagement: Community radio stations often serve as hubs for local news, events, and discussions. By getting involved, individuals can become more connected with their community, learning about local issues, and participating in local initiatives.
  • Empowerment: Being involved in the production of media content can be empowering. It gives individuals a chance to tell their stories, express their opinions, and have their voices heard. This can be particularly significant for people from working-class backgrounds, who may feel overlooked or misrepresented in the mainstream media.
  • Advocacy: Community radio can be a platform for advocating for social issues or community causes. Individuals from working-class backgrounds can use the platform to raise awareness about the issues that matter to them and their community.
  • Cultural Preservation: Community radio stations often play a crucial role in preserving and promoting local culture and traditions. Individuals from working-class backgrounds can contribute to this preservation and celebration of their unique cultural heritage.

In short, getting involved in a community radio station can provide people from working-class backgrounds with a platform for representation, a space for skills development, and a means of engaging with and advocating for their communities.

Who is Studying Class in Community Media
Based on my research, I found discussions on the importance of class as a marker of identity that does not receive sufficient attention in the media. June Deery, a professor of communication and media at Rensselaer, edited a book titled “Media and Class: TV, Film, and Digital Culture,” published by Routledge, which explores this topic. The book comprises various essays that examine the representation and impact of class in media, across television, movies, and digital platforms. It delves into topics like the media’s failure to represent the working class, class and gender in television sitcoms, and the entertainment value of poverty and wealth. Deery argues that class is generally less noticeable than gender or race and is therefore more dependent on the judgment of the observer, leading to it being understudied in media representation.

I have previously written about the importance of social value and social gain as a testable proposition which can be used to define the experience of different groups of people in society, and therefore which can be used to relate to experiences of class. This line of inquiry is being explored by PINF in its recently established project that aims to examine the broader functioning of communities in relation to health reporting and news, rather than as a distinct and separate part of the communications system.

My concern is about the degree to which global issues are given prominence in research studies in UK higher education departments, at the expense of the lived experience of many people in the UK. Research priorities, I’ve suggested elsewhere, should focus more on the struggles faced by people in the UK, particularly in areas of ‘super-diversity’, and according to the class divisions that are being exacerbated by economic inequality, political populism and the cultural partitioning of social institutions like the BBC.

Understanding the nuances of contemporary working-class life and culture in the UK, then, requires an interdisciplinary approach. The working class in the UK has undergone significant changes due to various economic, political, and social forces. The dynamics of their lives are complex, with community media playing a vital role in representing, reflecting, and influencing these communities. Any study of working-class experience, that relates to the role of community media, therefore has to:

Identify Key Researchers: The field of contemporary working-class studies and the impact of community media is vast and interdisciplinary, incorporating researchers from sociology, media studies, anthropology, cultural studies, and political science. Key UK-based researchers and their contributions include:

  • Professor Beverley Skeggs (London School of Economics): A highly respected sociologist, Skeggs’s work extensively explores class, gender, and identity in the UK. Her pioneering work in the formation of class identities provides key insights for understanding contemporary working-class culture.
  • Professor Imogen Tyler (Lancaster University): Tyler is an influential researcher in the field of class studies, focusing on social inequality, class, and stigma. Her work helps contextualise the experiences of the working class within larger socio-economic systems.
  • Professor Tim Strangleman (University of Kent): Known for his work in sociology and the cultural significance of work, Strangleman’s research helps frame an understanding of the working class’s evolving role in the UK’s economy.
  • Andy Medhurst (University of Sussex): Medhurst’s research in media and cultural studies provides insight into how media representations impact class perceptions, including the portrayal of the working class in popular media.

Role of Community Media in Contemporary Working-Class Studies
In summary, we need to establish a research culture in the UK that sees community media as an essential tool for the understanding of working-class culture and forms of community sense-making. Community media can serve both as a resource for research and as a means for working-class communities to voice their experiences, opinions, and concerns by providing access to the means of representation and identity-building. Some potential areas of concern, among others, include:

  • Local representation: Community media represents local voices that are often sidelined in mainstream media. This includes working-class narratives, their struggles, and achievements, providing a window into their lived experiences.
  • Cultural preservation and dissemination: Community media helps in documenting and preserving the diverse cultures within the working class. It also provides a platform to disseminate these cultures both within and outside their communities.
  • Political activism: Community media is often a tool for political activism. Working-class communities utilise it to advocate for their rights, raise awareness about socio-economic issues, and foster community organisation and solidarity.

Understanding how leading researchers utilise and engage with community media in their studies involves:

  • Content analysis: Researchers often analyse the content produced by community media as a part of their ethnographic or sociological studies, helping in understanding the narratives, themes, and issues of importance to working-class communities.
  • Community development: Researchers need to understand working-class communities from within, as a form of lived experience that is characterised within a dynamic social field of sensemaking, social and cultural capital. Understanding what drives a sense of belonging is key to understanding the dynamics that are at play between different classes within the social field.
  • Audience studies: Researchers may conduct surveys or interviews with audiences of community media to gain insights into their perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes towards various social issues, including class identities and community concerns.
  • Production studies: Some researchers focus on the production side of community media, exploring how working-class individuals and communities participate in content production, the challenges they face, and the strategies they use to have their voices heard.

The study of contemporary working-class life and culture in the UK is a dynamic field, shaped by the evolving socio-economic landscape. It demands a multifaceted approach, where community media plays a key role in understanding and exploring these changes. If there are researchers and academics active in this field, they have a significant responsibility to find ways to articulate and improve how they share and communicate this work. The key to effective study in this area involves a thorough understanding of the key researchers in the field, their work, and how they utilise community media as part of their research methodologies.

This has to be done, however, as an integrated process, and not one that is professionally separate from the lives of the working-class people who must be supported to articulate their own social experiences, in their voices, and not through the professionalised filters of academics who are more concerned with their status in their networks than they are for the life-experiences of people who are outside those networks.  

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