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Colin Barker

Sociology versus Reality

(February 1970)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.42, February/March 1970, pp.37-38.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Affluent Worker: Industrial Attitudes and Behaviour
John H. Goldthorpe, David Lockwood, Frank Bechofer, Jennifer Platt
Cambridge, 40s

The Affluent Worker: Political Attitudes and Behaviour
John H. Goldthorpe et al.
Cambridge, 30s

These two volumes offer an extensive and minutely detailed account of a study carried out in three Luton firms (Vauxhall, Laporte Chemicals, Skefco Ball-bearings) in the period before the 1964 Election. The overall aim of the study was to test the then current ‘theory’ that significant sections of the British working class, as a consequence of a relatively high standard of living, had adopted ‘middle-class’ aspirations, ideas and patterns of life. At the time of the 1959 Election, this ‘theory’ was given a certain prominence as an ‘explanation’ of Labour’s defeat.

At one level, that of simple refutation of the Crosland-Zweig-Abrams thesis of ‘bourgeoisification’, the study is a success. Confining themselves deliberately to younger married workers with above average weekly incomes (for manual workers) – a group, especially in Luton, very likely to show ‘bourgeois’ patterns of life and thought if any group does – the authors demonstrate that the great majority still vote Labour, belong to unions, want more wages, and see the social world as fundamentally articulated in class terms (‘them’ and ‘us’).

At the same time, they suggest, the ‘new’ working class does manifest certain changes in its style of life by contrast with the ‘traditional’ working class (miners, dockers, etc.). Work involvement is very low. The sole point of ‘attachment’ of the worker to his employer is the cash nexus. The worker expects no intrinsic satisfactions from his work, either as pleasure in his job or as social rewards. There is no ‘traditional’ working-class sense of community. These are the ‘privatised’ workers, for whom workmates are never friends outside work. ‘Life’ is for them something lived entirely outside work, work a means simply to win wages for a life outside. Their attitude to work is ‘instrumental’ rather than ‘expressive’ – in no sense does work appear to the Luton workers as an expression of themselves.

This ‘instrumentalism’ is carried over into their trade unionism and politics. They rarely attend their union branches, rarely vote in branch elections (except where they’re held on the shop floor) but do involve themselves in immediate shop-floor unionism (shop steward elections, etc) insofar as these are seen as relevant to their instrumental interests. Their interest in the ‘wider ideas and objectives of the Labour Movement’ is minimal. Their support for the Labour Party (69 per cent in one volume, 79 per cent in the other ...) is similarly ‘instrumental’ – that is, these workers expect more material advantage from a Labour than a Tory Government – rather than ‘solidaristic’ (whatever precisely that means).

Apart from certain semi-technical objections to the authors’ interpretation of their own results (of five groups of workers studied, only the semi-skilled Vauxhall assembly workers really conform to their type of the ‘instrumental worker’), two objections must be raised.

First, the dichotomy they propose between a ‘traditional’ and a ‘new’ working class is highly dubious. To suppose there is no ‘instrumentalism’ (assessment of unionism and Labour Party in terms of their advantages for workers) in the attitudes of, say, miners and dockers to their trade unions and political parties, either in the past or today, is somewhat surprising. The authors seem to have confused a communalism characteristic, possibly, of ‘traditional’ working-class leisure culture with a solidarity born out of work experiences. If the former has tended to decline, the evidence (strike statistics, etc) does not suggest a decline of the latter. What is true is that the forms of expression of working-class solidarity and the issues on which it’s expressed have tended to change (more unofficial strikes, more strikes on issues of work-place control, by comparison with pre-war Britain).

Second, given that Goldthorpe et al. wanted to carry out a ‘full investigation of the industrial lives of the workers we studied’, their research methods (interview schedules only) seem very inadequate. There is no account of actual interaction at work, of the patterns of action and relationships that foster and maintain class awareness. Thus the sources and developments of worker-management are never really revealed. The ambiguities and instability in workers’ attitudes to management do not emerge. What we are given is an account of a fundamentally stable situation. Given that the major plant studied was a car factory, this is especially surprising, given the well-known pattern of instability in the motor trade. The workers (and the employers, who hardly appear in the book) exist in isolation from capitalist society. Thus the 1966 strikes, despite their protestations to the contrary, came as a surprise to the research team.

All in all, these two volumes (two more are promised) are not half as interesting as they might have been. Despite the wealth of material, those looking for a serious contribution from professional sociology to an understanding of the contemporary British working class must keep looking.

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