Survey Variable: Impact of Background on Own Status

Figure 1. See also Table A1.

Having looked at people’s identification of the factors that influence status difference in society and their own statuses, it is important to also consider the nature of the impact that it has. Two people who both say that background is a very important factor in shaping status might have very different experiences in mind. One might recognise that growing up with affluent parents who had friends in high places and sent them to a well-regarded private school has had an important positive impact on their status, and this might shape their view of the role of background in society more widely. By contrast, someone whose parents struggled to make ends meet, had a network of friends in low-status occupations, and who went to their local secondary modern school, might view the role of background, both in their own life and society, less positively.

The survey asked people who indicated that background had an impact on their status whether they thought the impact was positive or negative, and the results are shown in Figure 1 (above, using weighted data). A third of people who think that background had an impact on their status (32.8%, a plurality) indicate that the impact was equally positive and negative. No more than one in seven people select any of the other points on the scale, but people are more likely to think that background had a positive than negative impact. A quarter (25.8%) indicate that their backgrounds had a middling positive impact (points 2 and 3 on the scale) and comfortably more than two fifths (45.4%) are on the positive side of the scale. By contrast, slightly more than a fifth of people (21.8%) indicate that their backgrounds had a negative impact on their status.

There are a number of things that we need to consider when interpreting these answers. First, they could indicate that the sample an over-representation of people from well-healed backgrounds in the sample. Second, people might be applying rose-tinted glasses to their views of their upbringings and overlooking negative influences. Third, relatedly, people might be aware of but hesitant to report or explicitly recognise the difficulties that they faced when growing up. Fourth, the people who emphasise hard work and ambition as explanations for their own statuses could be incentivised to downplay the positive impact that background had in helping them get to where they are (which would suggest that even fewer people than above actually had a background with a negative impact). All of these considerations suggest that we should be cautious when interpreting the results, but it is also possible that they provide a reasonably accurate picture of the generally positive or mixed impact of background in a wealthy Western society.

The results do not, of course, tell us anything about the people who said that background had no impact on their background, who were not asked the above question. This marks them as distinct from the people who said that background had a mixed impact, which recognises its positive and negative implications for status. Beyond a genuine belief that background does not matter, it is also possible that the people who said background had no impact were motivated by a desire to take credit for their status by emphasising hard work and ambition as drivers, or by a desire to avoid confronting the difficulties that they faced when growing up. The question of whether either of these factors is at play remains open, and further investigation of what drives the belief that background plays no part in own status is required.

Published by joegreenwoodhau

Joe Greenwood-Hau is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Government & Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde, where he works on the Capital, Privilege and Political Participation in Britain and Beyond project.

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