Classless and Free? Special Issue Editors on Media and Class

What is it that makes us wince and avoid talking about class? The editors of an upcoming special issue of Nordicom Review put their minds together to discuss the concept of class in Sweden.

Class in/and the Media is a new special issue of Nordicom Review that is soon to be published. Johannes Bjerling, editor of Nordicom Review, sits down with the editors of the issue, Peter Jakobsson, Johan Lindell, and Fredrik Stiernstedt, to discuss the concept of class.

Class – a contested category

Johannes Bjerling: A line in a famous song says “you think you’re so clever and classless and free”. My first question is: “In what song does the line occur?”

Peter Jakobsson: It’s Lennon and “Working Class Hero” – but I won’t sing, especially not since you’re recording!

Johannes Bjerling: The concept of class is – as you write in the introductory article of the upcoming special issue – a contested concept. Is there, would you say, something that makes us wince and avoid talking about class – do we all want to conceive of ourselves as “classless and free”? 

Peter Jakobsson: Well, I think there are differences related to time. Before this talk, I opened Google Ngram and checked how often the concept of “social class” occurs during different periods of time. Not so surprisingly, maybe, I found that the concept occurred most frequently during the late 1960s. From the late 1970s, the use of it decreases, whereby there’s an all-time low at the turn of the millennium. However, since 2008 it has once again become increasingly common. What’s rather interesting to note is that class was used most often during the 1960s and 1970s – the period during which class inequalities in Sweden were the least pronounced. Somewhat paradoxically, the concept is used less frequently when class inequalities – from the 1980s onwards – increase.           

Johannes Bjerling: During the 1990s, a political discourse celebrating the self-fulfilling individual became popular. Could that be what explains the drop?  

Johan Lindell: To some extent, yes. Opinion-leading parts of sociology in the 1990s played into an ongoing discursive shift from collective, class-based identities to individual identities. In reflexive, post-industrial modernity, we are individuals free to choose identities, belongings, lifestyles, and social trajectories as we please. Or so the story goes. This implies that many people – when asked in surveys – consider themselves “middle class” – even in periods when class inequalities are increasing. It is thus very important to carefully reflect on what we mean when we talk about social class. Is class an identity and belonging, or is it a position in the social hierarchy? Another explanation as to why class lost popularity is that in the minds of most people, the term “working-class” connotates factory work and modernity rather than, say, gig-work in the new economy.  

Johannes Bjerling: What you have in mind is that there are differences in what we put into the concept of class? On the one hand, there is an understanding that’s closely connected to the possession of actual resources; on the other hand, there is an understanding that is broader and related to the question of identity – a less clear-cut analytical category, so to speak…

Johan Lindell: Yeah. The latter notion deals with consciousness about class-belonging, in an era when class-identities are waning. So-called class voting decreases – for instance, around half of the members of the Trade Union Confederation vote for the Sweden Democrats.

Johannes Bjerling: A problem, for the left, is that an industry worker in Kiruna has little in common with a nursery worker in Hägersten – is that how I should understand it?

Fredrik Stiernstedt: Yes, but to some degree, I think, this is how it has always been; the working class, in a broad sense, has always been heterogenous, and that’s why class consciousness – feelings of class belongings – has to be evoked. The mobilisation of this broad group of people with, to some extent, divergent interests, needs a larger narrative. It’s only in this way that this group can become a political subject.

Peter Jakobsson: Looking back at what I previously said, one of my points was that class was high on the agenda – from the late 1960s throughout the 1970s – when inequalities related to class were less pronounced than today. With accelerating inequalities, class is, to some extent, wiped away from public debate. Hence, we do not automatically talk about class when our interests are threatened.

Class society 2.0?

Fredrik Stiernstedt: I think it’s also important to keep in mind that Sweden, during the “record years” of the 1960s, had had social democratic governments for thirty years. In this sense, identifying oneself as working class meant identification with a “winning” movement. In contrast, the working class is, from the 90s and onwards, a class that loses. This, I think, is also an aspect to keep in mind when discussing why class consciousness – feelings of class belongings – today are harder to evoke than before.

Johannes Bjerling: Have references to class become more problematic from a political perspective? Do politicians today avoid the concept of class in order to not repel middle-class voters?

Fredrik StiernstedtWell, that may be one way of putting it, but I think it’s more accurate to say that politicians talk about class with a different vocabulary than before. Today, it is the interests of other classes that are given priority. Employment tax deductions and deductions for domestic services are attempts to form alliances between the middle-strata and social elites. In contrast to this, the idea of a “welfare society” was for a long time the basis for the alliance between the middle- and the working class – against the interests of the elites.

Johannes BjerlingWe have arrived at Class Society 2.0?

Peter Jakobsson: Yes. Fredrik and I have both been part of a large interdisciplinary project called “Class in Sweden”, and an overall conclusion is that Swedish class differences have increased more or less constantly since the mid-1980s.

Fredrik Stiernstedt: As previously touched upon, the issue of class lost ground during the 1990s, and today we see its return. And the relation between the surrounding society and the research that’s being conducted at various departments for the social sciences is something that’s quite interesting to consider: What is it that makes research during the 80s and 90s shy away from classical sociological thinking? Why are, for example, theses about “reflexive modernity” gaining ground at the same time as there are large-scale changes in the economy and ideology of surrounding society?

Johannes Bjerling: So with “class” now gaining ground within the social sciences, we can expect its return in public and political discourse as well?

Fredrik Stiernstedt: There already is, I think, a different rhetoric than some decades ago. For instance, the speech by Karl-Petter Thorvaldsson on 1 May last year; that kind of speech – with a rather aggressive kind of class rhetoric – wasn’t heard during the 90s. But, for sure, notions about “the third way of politics” as the way forward are still prevalent within the Social Democratic Party.

Peter Jakobsson: It should also be noted that today there are other political actors that make use of a class rhetoric. What I have in mind is how populist movements, in the US as well as Europe and elsewhere, use notions of the working class to contrast themselves from a so-called elite.

Johan Lindell: Right, and these movements sometimes accuse the political left of not paying enough attention to the issue of class; instead of class, they claim, the political left is too concerned with various forms of identity politics. In this way, there is a critique of the left from within these movements…

Peter Jakobsson: Yes, claims that the traditional working-class parties have let the working class down are at the core of much of their rhetoric; today, they claim, other political forces must defend the interest of the working class.

Johan Lindell: It’s the interests of ordinary people that, they argue, need to be defended…

Peter Jakobsson: Right.

Johannes BjerlingWe have talked about how the concept of class has developed historically, its place within political rhetoric, and its return to the social sciences more generally. One thing that we have not yet discussed is how the question of class has been approached within our own field: the field of media and communication studies. To do this, I would like you to consider three potential approaches: ownership, control over the means of communication, that is; usage, how class is a factor to consider in relation to how different media are actually used; and representation, how different classes are portrayed in the media – “class in the media”, as you call it in the special issue. Having these three approaches in mind, which, would you say, has been most common in media and communication studies of class?

Peter Jakobsson: I’d say that there have been too few studies in general, so, in that sense, it would be wrong to suggest that a particular approach has been dominant!

Johan Lindell: I guess trends come and go in research as elsewhere, but political economy was – if I’m not wrong – big during the 1980s. And in the 1990s, with globalisation speeding up, you got these studies on global media corporation – McChesney wrote a few books on that… Studies on how class is depicted and represented in the media, on the other hand, have always been close at hand for media and communication scholars. This is reflected in our issue, by the way, where a majority of the papers deal with representations of class. Finally, with regard to audience studies of different kinds, those largely trace back to British cultural studies, I think… But one specific approach that has become increasingly common in studies on class is that which relies on Pierre Bourdieu – an obvious reason for this being that many of his studies have now been translated into English…

Peter Jakobsson: In recent years, I think representations of class have gained much attention, having not least studies on “reality TV” in mind.

Fredrik StiernstedtOne thing that has become increasingly common in research on class more generally – and I assume this holds true within our field as well – is that more attention is given to those “on the top”. While focus has previously been on the working class – their habits, lifestyles, etcetera – focus within other disciplines – sociology, not least – is now increasingly often on the upper classes.

Coming soon: class and media

Johannes BjerlingThe special issue that is soon being published; what is it about, who should read it, and why?

Fredrik Stiernstedt: Everybody should read it, that’s what I think!

Johan Lindell: I think the point of departure must be that a new kind of class society has emerged, and in order to understand this society – and the role played by the media in it – we need to ask how class is portrayed in journalism and other kinds of media. This perspective is one part of the issue: class in different media. But it’s equally important to ask how social class shapes how people navigate the contemporary media landscape: how people with different backgrounds and with different resources at their disposal think, choose, and act in relation to what’s being offered…

Johannes Bjerling: The issue is soon published – open access, as always when publishing with Nordicom – and I hope it will find its way to many readers. Calls to “bring institutions back in” are now followed up by calls to “bring class back in” – thanks for a great special issue and for talking with me!

Photo: Hege/Flickr