Understanding Social Inequality

Paul Henry (University of Sydney, Sydney, Australia)

Qualitative Market Research

ISSN: 1352-2752

Article publication date: 13 June 2008




Henry, P. (2008), "Understanding Social Inequality", Qualitative Market Research, Vol. 11 No. 3, pp. 361-363. https://doi.org/10.1108/13522750810879066



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Social class has long been employed as a segmentation variable by marketers. For example, economic (dis)advantage can be found to be one of the central classifiers underpinning major proprietary geo/psychographic systems (e.g. VALS, MOSAIC, and PRIZM). The trouble is that while economic inequality is obvious in all advanced capitalist societies, the implications past ability to pay for goods and services remains a debated topic amongst marketers. The simplistic idea is that marketers target only those who are able to pay for their products. However, the work of Holt (1998), Allen (2002) and Henry (2005) demonstrates that social class has profound influence on individuals' views of self, tastes, preferences, and product decisions – independent of ability pay. Martineau (1958, p. 122) first introduced the usefulness of class into marketing, by dispelling the assumption that:

[…] a rich man is simply a poor man with more money and that given the same income, the poor man would behave exactly like the rich man […] (it meant that) […] the lower status person is profoundly different in his mode of thinking and his ways of handling the world from the middle class individual.

Despite all the evidence available, a core reason as to why class remains a murky topic for marketers lies in lack of understanding as to just what social class is? What are the systematic mechanisms driving class and how do you allocate individuals into class categories. Indeed, how many class groupings exist in a given society? Butler and Watt's, Understanding Social Inequality is the most up‐to‐date discussion of these questions. The book starts by updating the state of inequality and draws on evidence from a range of western nations to argue that class‐based inequality is a global phenomenon. Next, it quickly moves into the “what is class” question – alternative divisions imply differing class meanings:

  • “you are what job you do” takes a marketplace perspective;

  • “you are what you buy” takes a lifestyle perspective; and

  • “you are where you live” takes a social network perspective.

Butler and Watt point out that understandings of social class have been mired by “post‐modern” appeals, globalisation and worker affluence. Post‐modernity challenges all social structures such as social class, since this line argues for the breakdown of formal aesthetic and taste boundaries. Globalisation challenges class in that it is said to encourage social and educational mobility. Worker affluence attacks the idea of class in that it implies removal of economic barriers to purchase products. The authors show how each of these attacks on class are based on spurious arguments.

The heart of social class lies in market (job) situation. These are not just objective categories, but derive systematic effects from unequal income, job status perceptions, and varying levels of autonomy and authority. Each of these systematic effects act to (dis)empower the individual. The authors do, however, acknowledge that the nature of work has changed dramatically over the last forty years. For example, the old blue/white collar demarcation is less relevant with decline of old manufacturing industries and growth of the service and information economies throughout the western world. This does not mean the death of the working class. On the contrary, there has been large growth in an intermediate, low‐paid class where the work is routine and highly controlled (e.g. call centre operators, retail employees on checkouts and shelf packing, domestic worker, and fast‐food servers). Another change is the inflation of job credentials, where higher and higher academic qualifications are required for entry. One of the consequences of these changes is that the old conscious class affiliations that influenced political action are virtually dead. It is no longer a source of social identity per say.

Yet, occupational class remains a benchmark of self‐worth. Occupational stereotypes convey impressions about competence and capability. Everyone knows what the good (and bad) jobs are. Given the strong popular perception that social mobility is possible and that capable people can rise up the occupational ladder through their own efforts, this presents a problem for the majority of people who remain locked in at a stable occupational level. It sets up a sense of inferiority and self‐limitations. If class does, indeed, shape stable patterns of self concept, then one marketing application should lie in development of self‐congruent advertising portrayal when targeting specific class groups.

The authors also argue that class and sense of place should be revisited. Processes of deindustrialisation and redevelopment have transformed great tracks of many city areas. Some old‐working class areas have undergone gentrification while others have declined into ghetto forms. In other cases, whole areas have been flattened and redeveloped into apartment blocks or housing estates. These different types of space are still class‐linked, yet Butler and Watt argue that sense of place has come to inform people's identity to a greater degree than class awareness. On this point, I find the assertion that cities are no longer constructed around class to be overstated. Certainly, city transformations have left many city areas with a mix of classes as the change takes its course. Yet, we can all readily describe the good and bad areas in our home towns.

Other areas of class confusion that the authors explore are the increased female participation in the workforce and changing immigration trends. The original idea of occupation‐based social class is that was determined by male breadwinner position. So, given the prevalence (often by necessity) of dual income households in modern society, whose occupation will determine the household's class position? On the immigration issue, how do you classify two Vietnamese cleaners now working in Australia, yet knowing that one was a senior government official and the other was a farmer in their previous life? Butler and Watt introduce the reader to the work of Bourdieu (1984) who refined the idea of multidimensional social space that is made up of many class types. For Bourdieu, social class is just one (albeit important) type of class. The likes of gender, ethnicity, and life‐stage represent other class types. It is the combination of class types that form distinctive world‐views and life conditions. The idea of multidimensional classification is not new for marketers. However, is interesting in helping to resurface the continuing relevance of social class as a contributor to many useful segmentation exercises. Too often, the role of social class is discarded because it is confounded amongst a range of other types of class variables. For those interested in social organisation and segmentation, this book is well worth a read, if only to “expunge the ghost of classes past” and illuminate the distinctive aspirations and world‐views that social class mechanisms continue to reproduce in new and different ways.

About the author

Paul Henry is an Associate Professor of Marketing, in the Faculty of Economics & Business at The University of Sydney. His academic interests focus on consumer culture, communities, and social class. He has published in journals such as Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Sociology, Consumption, Markets and Culture, European Journal of Marketing, Psychology & Marketing, Academy of Marketing Science Review, as well as Qualitative Market Research. He also has an extensive professional background in advertising planning and marketing management. Paul Henry can be contacted at: P.henry@econ.usyd.edu.au


Allen, D. (2002), “Towards a theory of consumer choice as sociohistorically shaped practical experience: the fits‐like‐a‐glove (FLAG) framework”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 28, pp. 51532.

Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Routledge, New York, NY.

Henry, P. (2005), “Social class, market situation, and consumers' metaphors of (dis)empowerment”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 31, pp. 76677.

Holt, D. (1998), “Does cultural capital structure American consumption?”, Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 25, pp. 125.

Martineau, P. (1958), “Social classes and spending behaviour”, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 23, pp. 12141.

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