What to read… to learn about social class

We asked Psychology of Social Class – UK Policy Implications (POSCUPI) members for their top books that psychologists should read to learn more about social class.

26 May 2022

How Not to Be a Boy (Canongate Books, 2017) by Robert Webb 

This book speaks volumes about the intersection of class and gender, and in particular brings into sharp focus the psychological impact of classism, and how working-class people can be made to feel as outsiders in middle/upper class spaces. Webb’s account is funny, moving and deeply insightful. Difficult to put down!

Dr Maxine Woolhouse


The Spirit Level: why equal societies almost always do better (Allen Lane, 2009)  by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett

The Inner Level: how more equal societies reduce stress, restore sanity and improve everyone’s well-being
(Allen Lane, 2018) by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett

Written by leading epidemiologists, these two books present the irrefutable case for why social inequalities, played out through class hierarchies, negatively impact on the health, psychological well-being and life chances of those from lower/working class communities. Such inequalities impact at an individual level, affecting how we think, feel and behave. Moreover, such inequalities appear to be toxic for everyone, as individuals in the higher social classes are also caught in unhelpful and toxic ways of behaving and self-evaluation which has adverse effects.
A brilliant set of books and an absolute must read!

Professor Paula Reavey


Down and Out in Paris and London
(1933) by George Orwell

A brilliant insight into how living in poverty affects people. Orwell’s crisp writing documents the immense psychological toll that living in poverty entails, with its never-ending battle to make ends meet and its struggle for mere existence. A moving and visceral description of the sheer relentlessness of poverty.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
(Verso Books, 2011) by Owen Jones

A polemic account of how working-class communities became stigmatised in contemporary society because of the choices of politicians. Angry, insightful, and brilliant.

Miseducation: Inequality, education and the working classes (Policy Press, 2017) by Diane Reay

Few know more than Reay about inequality in education. This book documents class-based inequality from all angles, using a mix of personal insight and robust academic investigation. Numerous quotations from Reay’s interviewees made this a compelling and often heart-wrenching read.

Swing Time (Penguin Books, 2016) by Zadie Smith

This absorbing read might not seem like an obvious choice, but it contains some emotional descriptions of how ethnicity and class can intersect to, over generations, colour people’s relationship with the education system.

Dr Matthew Easterbrook


Union Street (Virago Press, 1982) by Pat Barker

I read this as a late teenager from a northern town, with a new baby and it bonded me to other working class women from the past in such an unforgettable way. Powerful, hilariously indecent, and bitterly gripping stories of seven working-class women living in the North East, on Union Street in the 1970s as they strive to survive a precarious world engulfed in poverty.  

Posh Boys: How English Public Schools Ruin Britain (Simon and Schuster, 2018) by Robert Verkaik

I couldn’t put this down. This book slowly and systematically dismantles public school values while telling the story of the production of masculinity and classed based privilege. I was left with little doubt that understanding power in Britain today requires an understanding of the centrality of elite education. 

Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers (Unbound, 2019) edited by Kit de Waal

Just tucking into this anthology. This is a breath of fresh air, ‘in celebration, not apology’, it’s a collection of unpublished working class writers’ essays and stories. It is packed with stories by consistently talented authors that immediately jar against commonly shared and lazy tropes about working class folk. Instead we hear splendidly complex, often very funny and vivid portrayals which have a potent and proud sense of place in working class lives in Britain. 

Dr Bridgette Rickett


Poverty Safari, by Darren McGarvey (Picador)

A brutally honest account of the lingering wounds from growing up in a deprived and disempowered neighbourhood in Glasgow, combined with a searing analyses of class dynamics in the UK and superficial efforts at community outreach. Poetic, unforgiving, authentic, and enough to upset assumptions on all sides.

See also https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-34/summer-edition/stranger

The Class Ceiling, by Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman (Bristol University Press).

Clear and compelling write-up of a large mixed-method study of barriers to the advancement of working class professionals in elite fields, with a focus on accounting, architecture, acting, and television. Lots of psychological insight into the kinds of environments and social processes that make it difficult for working class people not only to ‘get in’, but also to ‘get on’ in elite professions.

Dr Jennifer Sheehy-Skeffington