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Middle-class reflections

Martin Weegmann on ‘hidden injuries’ and advantages of class.

26 May 2022

This March I organised a conference on social class and psychotherapy, with the subtitle: 'everywhere, nowhere'. Prompted by curiosity, and concern, about what we fail to register, even when it's all around us, I guess that social class in our field resembles a negative hallucination – not seeing what is there! For many psychotherapists (still) the social stops in quiet obedience at the consulting room door, and for many analysts, social class lays, silently, under the couch, for years. 

Is psychology any better? I think not, for our history too is full of instances that assume a 'contextless mind' and an 'isolated individual'. There are many examples of class bias as well – e.g. preferences for 'articulate' middle-class patients compared to their working-class counterparts, therapeutic tendencies which reinforce middles-class values of 'expressive independence', and research traditions which, for reasons of sampling, serve to reinforce middle-class norms (Manstead, 2018). There is worse, others arguing that psychology has contributed in various ways to the surveillance, regulation and pathologisation of the working-class 'Other' (Rickett, 2020).  Social class and inequality are not the same thing, but overlap, and whereas class confers multiple advantages and disadvantages and affects wealth, inequality can be a threat to health.     

Half the conference consisted of reports of lived experience, illustrating the ways in which class weaves an influence over our growing years, colours our values and determines opportunities or their absence. Economic experiences are important and under-emphasised and for many, class carries considerable 'hidden injuries' (Sennet & Cobb, 1993; hidden from whom, I wonder?). In her exploration, Joanna Ryan (2017) argues, 'Class can evoke extremely charged and difficult emotions. It is a determining factor in the life possibilities of many people, a source of huge inequalities or privileged that go back to our earliest experiences'.  

Lived experience and biography are rich sources for reflection and research, important alongside other approaches. Here's mine, as the only speaker at that conference from a middle-class background.

The three P's

My parents – and they were older parents – grew up in a world quite different to the world in which I was raised, and were nostalgically attached to theirs. It was a time when people – social superiors and inferiors – knew their place, looked to one faith (Christian; and for them, one denomination, the C. of E., although were more 'church-going' than consciously religious) and envisaged futures based on a profession and marriage. In short, they admired the Establishment and despised its critics, truly hating the 1960s for the permissiveness it unleashed. The era when, as they put it, 'everything went wrong'. 

A status-conscious time, my upbringing was dominated by the middle-class aspirations that many held close. When we are young, we inhabit the world of our parents, their habitus, which is simply 'in the air'. These are some of the values that we, as a family, prized, the '3 P's:

Property. We moved to Harrogate when I was three, as a 'good place to raise a family', into a house my architect father designed. I learned of a brick-and-mortar hierarchy – from terraces (looked down upon, as in phrases like 'grubby terraces'), semis (one step up, with the disadvantage of a shared neighbour) and, the ultimate prize, the detached house. Council estates were the most abject of places and my parents also admired stately homes, well above us, which we'd often visit. Sociologists talk of symbolic capital and homes certainly 'said' who you were.

Privacy. Gardens were another outward sign of who you were and had to be well-maintained. Untidiness and untendered lawns were anathema. Privacy mattered and the omnipresent privet hedge (trimmed to perfection) reduced the prospect of being overlooked by neighbours.     

Properness. A wealth of meaning attaches to the word 'proper', in how groups and cultures create distinctions (see Lynsey Hanley's account of respectability, describing her experience of class mobility). My folks had a lexicon of class-based words to describe its reverse, of which 'common' was used most to characterise the reverse of distinguished and well-spoken. Identifying with Queen's or Received English (greatly reinforced by the BBC) they disapproved of an increase in working-class voices on TV, from the world of sport or from politicians such as Harold Wilson. One of his cabinet, Barbara Castle, attracted even more ire, as a lone, assertive female, with amazing debating skills. My folk scoffed and labelled her strident, as if she were in the wrong place entirely. Years later, it was they who placed their hopes on another female, who in her way challenged the old-boy's networks – Margaret Thatcher. They 'felt' working class voices, and regional accents, viscerally, as an abrasive presence violating the peace of their living room. I was considered for elocution lessons in Primary School, as my mum worried that I was 'slovenly and sloppy' in how I spoke. There too, we played an awful game, 'the bugs', and the losers – the last one to be touched – were invariably the poorest kids in class. It was the violent side of social class hierarchies.      

'…and then there's Harrogate'

Gender intersects with class and my (older) sister identified with Princess Anne and wrote stories about palaces; she identified in her girlish way just as our parents identified in their adult way, with all matters Royal. The body and physical comportment are aspects of identification and judging from family photos, I glimpse that princess in my sister. She was trained in an art – to be demur, not loud. 

The wider family values were c (and 'C') onservative throughout and the idea of a 'property-owning democracy' (Antony Eden's trumpeted the term) music to their ears. The Scouts and Guides were central to leisure time, with their pledges to 'God and the Queen'– my mother was active in Guiding for 30 years. They lived a secular version of the protestant work ethic, with a premium on application, saving and betterment. They disapproved of the pub, as it was associated with (working-class) wasteful, unproductive leisure- we never went near them. My mother cried when we (each) failed the 11 Plus exam. I cried more for her tears than understanding why. The 'Secondary Modern' we attended must have felt truly second best to her – ironically, the same school, nowadays, is greatly sought.     

My mother had a fond phrase when describing where she lived. 'Well, there's Yorkshire, and then there's Harrogate'. Meant to amuse, in seven words and a well-placed comma, it encapsulates an entire social attitude. She still lives there and has held a consistent Harrogate narrative throughout her life. By contrast, as the one who 'got away', I changed the narrative, becoming the revolutionary student at radical Sussex University. For a while, when others asked where I was from, a 'Yorkshire', but no 'Harrogate', ushered from my mouth. 

Dis-identification is an interesting process. How come I changed my narrative identity, and so much, whereas my sister and brother did not, or rather fashioned their identities around modified versions of our family values? Such values are crucial anchors to some, whilst others move a long way from such moorings. Narrative continuity, or discontinuity? Well, that's a whole other story…. 

The nervous class

Middle-class life conferred many advantages. Having my own room, in a large house, with a garden, in quiet cul-de-sac, are some of the physical ones. Whilst not highly wealthy (a relative term anyway) we were always comfortable, and, revolution or no revolution, my parents topped up my grant, as needed, at Uni. 

Education and middle-class speech confer other advantages. Knowing 'the way' in the world, speaking its dominant language, are a symbolic passport that makes social passage easier, from applying to University to negotiating the job market, to social and academic confidence, essay writing, and many other things.   

Status anxiety, like the grass, requires maintenance, and was a less comfortable aspect to our class, comparisons always being over the shoulder (or behind the hedge). Maybe that's why Sartre described the middle-class as the nervous class. My parent feared any deviation, with its political (e.g. communists) and sexual (they saw homosexual people as perverted individuals) versions, particularly marked. 'Twisted' was a word they applied to both.  

I close with three anecdotes. First, during the pandemic, when work was switched to Zoom, a colleagued advised their patient to use a spare room, if possible, the assumption being that people have spare rooms! Secondly, as a supervisor, I heard of two working-class patients, their lives scared by poverty and multiple disadvantages and noticed how readily they were labelled as 'grievance-full', rather than, say, as voicing legitimate protest about life-injuries. Finally, a colleague described their experience of conducting identity work with a young man, which was done in a sensitive and valued manner. My colleague was not sure, however, if the man could 'hold onto' such ideas, and that anxiety might pull him back. I asked about the young man's circumstances to learn that he had little income, growing debt, and strong feelings of obligation to assist his parents, which certainly put the identity work into a more meaningful, and actual, context.

Understanding social location

I have found this form of personal research helpful, and cathartic, and one thing I'd like to see in psychology trainings is not only greater social-class awareness, but encouragement to look at our biographies as a unique and critical resource – to better understand one's social location in all its dimensions (class, gender, race, inequality, and many others). 

Martin Weegmann is a Clinical Psychologist, Psychotherapist and Writer, who works in the NHS in London. [email protected] 

Key sources

Hanley, L. (2016). Respectable: The Experience of Class. London, Allen Lane.

Manstead, A. (2018). The psychology of social class: how socioeconomic status impacts thoughts, feelings, and behaviour. British Journal of Social Psychology, 57(2), p. 267-291.

Rickett, B. (2020). Psychology and social class: The working class as 'Other'. In K. Day, B. Rickett & M. Woolhouse (Editors), Social Class: Critical Social Psychological Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan.

Ryan, J. (2017). Class and Psychoanalysis: Landscapes of Inequality. Abington, Routledge.

Sennet, R. & J. Cobb, (1993). The Hidden Injuries of Class. New York, Norton.