Conversations on class

Ella Rhodes and Annie Brookman-Byrne talk to psychologists about its impact.

Some people view class, and class division, as something of the past – something which has little impact in a modern, apparently meritocratic, society. But might this view ignore the important experiences of many people thrust into undeniably middle class environments such as universities? Has psychology’s general ignorance of class in research missed something which many people see as key, and foundational, to their identity? Do we even know what we mean when we do speak about class?

The Psychologist’s journalist Ella Rhodes and deputy editor Dr Annie Brookman-Byrne spoke to psychologists from working class backgrounds about their diverse, sometimes unsettling, experiences of coming from backgrounds very different from many at universities and other institutions. They covered their definitions of being working class, the research in the area, and what institutions might do to make working class people feel they belong in what can be a truly alien environment.

More than socioeconomic status
There is a staggering lack of attention to class in psychology research, according to Dr Bridgette Rickett, Head of Psychology at Leeds Beckett University, who researches class through a critical lens. While class is sometimes inferred through socioeconomic status (SES) or parental attendance at university, Rickett is more interested in a holistic definition of class. Social class, Rickett tells us, is not a discrete or simple variable: ‘We should collect a number of measures if we’re seriously interested in class. SES is not a bad one – we cannot remove a sense of poverty from class – but a more complicated set of measures might help us.’

It isn’t possible to read social class from standard measures, Rickett says. ‘There’s a complicated interplay between those. For instance, class is often read by our language, speech style, lifestyle, where we live, where our family live, mode of appearance, how we dress. We’re read as working class even if our SES might not reflect that – so I think our subjective sense of class and who we belong to can sometimes be at odds with more formalised measures.’

Rickett thinks that the neglect of class in psychological research may be in part down to neoliberalism and the perpetuation of the idea that we live in a classless meritocracy. ‘It’s quite difficult to talk about class when we’re hearing this rhetoric that it doesn’t exist. There hasn’t been enough time given to measures to capture such complexity – but it doesn’t mean that class inequalities and oppression and poverty are something of the past or are no longer meaningful.’

There’s also the simple fact that it can make people feel deeply awkward. ‘Andrew Sayer, a sociologist, wrote quite a lot about emotion and class, and he said the paucity of research within psychology is because it’s a very embarrassing, unsettling topic for people, because it’s not supposed to exist, and systems are supposed to not allow for class prejudice... I think it’s led to a bit of an abdication from acknowledging that class relations and class difference exist within psychology, and I can’t really overstate how important it is that we move past this.’

In the rare instances that class has been considered, Rickett tells us, it has typically been to describe a deficit or problem in working class people. Researchers have ‘tended to look at how working class people are different in a way that’s morally poorer. How they’re not as intelligent, how they’re not as rational, how they don’t make healthy choices, why they behave so poorly, why they have less self-control – can you see the pattern?’

Shifting identities and standing out
Rickett grew up in a traditional working class community in South Yorkshire. When considering her own identity, her feelings reflect her academic thinking. ‘I think class identity is defined and redefined relationally. My identity around my class may be different in regards to who I’m with, who I’m talking to, what system I’m in, what institution I’m in – it fluctuates and is fluid.’

Dr Emma Blakey, a Developmental Psychologist at the University of Sheffield, says that juggling a working class identity with a new-found middle class identity was like being in a ‘nether zone’. Blakey comes from a former mining town in Yorkshire, and initially felt like a fish out of water at university, experiencing something akin to culture shock. ‘You feel like you don’t fully belong at university but because you have to adapt to learn, neither can you belong fully at home with your newfound knowledge and vocabulary. You go home and end up accidentally using long words. Your family lovingly tease you. They see you changing and it makes them uncomfortable too. You fear you’re becoming pretentious, they fear they are losing you.’ Thanks to a supportive family, partner, and academic colleagues, these feelings have faded with time. Blakey has become comfortable shifting identities. ‘I now sit with these two identities and I feel I have a stronger grip on who I am.’

Rickett has similarly found managing identities difficult. ‘I think I’ve struggled with a sense of belonging, identity and authenticity. Sometimes it’s left me severed from who I am as a working class woman and the middle class academic way of being has sometimes left me feeling a little bit of strain.’

Dr Will Curvis, a Clinical Psychologist, grew up in the historically working class town of Wigan. But having parents who both worked in roles that were nothing to do with psychology (dad as an electrician, mum as a dinner lady at a local primary school), and not experiencing poverty, Curvis has also struggled with juggling his identity. ‘There’s always this feeling of, am I working class, or working class enough, it’s a really tricky thing. I think when I was training it was something I thought about quite a lot but didn’t really have the language for. My cohort were wonderful but I did often feel quite different, I felt like a bit of an outsider, I felt like my background was different – particularly when talking about my relationship with education and where I went to school. I think it’s taken me a bit of time to feel more comfortable with the shift from being someone quite proudly from a working class background into doing a job that is more middle class.’

We repeatedly heard in our conversations that psychologists from working class backgrounds didn’t realise they were working class until being thrust into the middle and upper class environment of university. ‘The funny thing is’, Blakey says, ‘I didn’t know I was working class until I started university and then my working classness stood out’. Blakey adds that interactions with other students at university led to feelings of alienation in small but significant ways – through the way other students talked, the food they ate, and vastly different experiences of life and travel.

Forensic Psychologist in training Edite Sustere feels that her working class identity became increasingly apparent as she progressed through her education. Sustere is originally from Latvia and moved to England at the age of 13, living in lower-income areas. She noticed how little she had compared to others. ‘I tried everything I could to hide that I was working class.I spent every little penny I had earned from my part-time job by trying to look more wealthy than I was. At the time, working class meant not having enough and not being good enough. However, I view it very, very differently now. I am very proud of being working class.’

Sustere feels she largely fits in with fellow forensic psychologists thanks to the exhausting task of camouflaging, but also says she can occasionally stick out like a sore thumb. ‘Sometimes it’s too exhausting. I sound quite common, I swear like a trooper, I have a very “say it how it is” attitude, and it generally takes me a lot of time and effort to articulate myself as I live in a constant fear of not sounding smart enough, or using the “proper” words.’

Rickett feels her class is reiterated to her all the time. Being head of a psychology department while also being working class is rare, making her notably different. ‘I have experienced class division and classism, and it’s not really gone away just because I’ve advanced in my career. We continue to be made to feel different because universities are still very middle class – academic working class people are still in very small numbers compared to the students. They’re just not getting through the system.’

Supporting and relating
What about the positives of being a psychologist from a working class background? Acknowledging Rickett’s point that being too celebratory could gloss over the inequalities some people face, we did hear about some of the positive impacts of being working class.

Blakey’s background has encouraged her to unpick the impact of social inequality on cognitive development. ‘I often think I should have been a sociologist as they have a brilliant grasp on the societal structures and broader cultural factors that may lead to differences and I’m getting more interested in the interplay between psychological factors and the wider context in which they unravel.’ Along with PhD student Ella James-Brabham, Blakey’s research has found that differences in socioeconomic status do not seem to associate with maths learning activities parents do at home. ‘This fits with my experience growing up – although we didn’t have much money and my parents were not university educated, they engaged us in learning all of the time in an informal way.’

Blakey also looks out for any students who are struggling during their first year at university because of their circumstances. ‘I’ve been there myself. If students are late or having a hard time, I try to understand their personal circumstances – are they late because they are running to a seminar from their part-time job?

I have had the lovely job of running open days for the department too and have strived to make it a welcoming place for families as I’m aware for some, it may be their first time in a university.’

Dr Laura Kilby, an Associate Professor at Sheffield Hallam University who was born in North London and grew up in North Yorkshire, is also from a working class background and says there are likely some advantages. ‘My suspicion is that you would find amongst people from working class backgrounds that they’re likely to be more resourceful, they’re likely to have a better grasp of how the world works because they’ve probably had to engage a little bit more in things like part-time jobs, or more practical ways of living than their counterparts who are perhaps coming from more privileged backgrounds. And some of those skills and qualities are really, really valuable in university.’

For Sustere, the positives are in being able to relate to clients. ‘The majority of the patients I work with also come from disadvantaged backgrounds, which allows me to connect and empathise with others who may have experienced similar difficulties. I feel like there are a lot of similarities I share with the people I support. This has allowed me to understand the person within their context.’

Belonging and representation
The position and title of academics may inadvertently mask working class backgrounds – Kilby says that the many working class students at Sheffield Hallam University may not realise she shares their background. The psychologists we spoke to felt that greater visibility of working class academics would be useful, and Blakey tells us how she enacts this in her teaching. ‘I get to teach first year students and always briefly mention my experience and that I’m available if anyone is struggling with finding their way and wants to chat. I hope it makes any students feeling any culture shock less alone.’ Blakey adds that working class students could be supported by providing access to personal tutors from a similar background, ‘so they can really empathise and understand what it is like especially during that critical first year’.

Kilby thinks that psychologists have barely registered the impact of someone’s background on their experience of university. ‘I don’t think we’ve been very attuned to recognising that somebody’s background has a bearing on how they can experience university, how they can experience their studies, where things are challenging and how they experience those challenges. Do they see them as a result of feeling like they shouldn’t be here or do they experience those challenges as “this is really hard but that’s not as a result of my inability to be able to do it” because they come with confidence and a feeling of entitlement. I think as a first generation student at university you don’t have the same sense of entitlement or a feeling of a right to be there.’

Rickett similarly says that there should be a focus on making working class people welcome, and a move away from the sense that they don’t feel they belong because there’s something wrong with them… ‘I think traditionally within psychology we’ve often thought of belonging as residing inside ourselves… But when we’re just construing belonging as our own private emotion – separate from the context that we’re actually living in – it means that we don’t think about how these things can be very organisationally situated and, actually, it’s the organisation that needs to be more welcoming.’ We talk about impostor syndrome as a personal attribute, but ultimately the unfamiliar environment causes that feeling.

Representation of working class backgrounds in academia has benefits beyond welcoming new working class students, Blakey says. ‘In research – especially because as psychologists we aim to understand human thought and behaviour – we need researchers from diverse social backgrounds to ask the right questions and come at it from multiple perspectives.’ Those from a working class background may bring new angles and questions to psychology research.

Having the conversation
One way to improve things for working class people is simply to talk about class, Kilby suggests. ‘I think we’ve got to be willing to have the conversation. We’ve made class invisible because what we’ve said is, no matter what your background you’re welcome. On an explicit level we’ve said well these are the entry requirements and you’re welcome to come, but actually what does welcome feel like? Welcome is a discourse, welcome is an environment, welcome is our practices at university, and I don’t think we’ve really looked at those as closely as we need to, to find out what it would mean to feel welcome if your background was one where this environment is completely foreign. How would we know what welcome feels like if we’re not talking to people about that?’

Clinical psychologist Dr Ben Campbell, who grew up in Belfast, works at Antrim Hospital A&E and has been running webinars with Curvis to talk about class in clinical psychology and related issues including disability and race. Campbell says it can be tricky to have conversations about class in a professional context, but that it’s especially important at the pre-qualification stage. ‘I think naming it as a thing is really important, a lot of this goes unspoken... I think there’s value in bringing it to people’s attention first – until you do that you can’t do anything to change it.’

Sustere used to hide her working class background, but now realises ‘there is nothing to embarrassed or ashamed about’. She also thinks that students should have these conversations – ‘I’d encourage them to speak about their backgrounds proudly and ask for help where needed’.

Talking about class can be difficult, and not just for those from a working class background. Curvis says that in the webinars he’s been running with Campbell, they ‘didn’t want it to be an unpleasant place for somebody who was quite posh’. They wanted everyone to be able to hear the conversations. ‘We didn’t want it to be a them vs. us conversation because no-one chooses where they’re born, no-one chooses the family they grew up with… It’s not helpful to have it as a narrative where it’s “they had all the privilege and we’ve had none” – that doesn’t help anyone, it’s not true and it’s not meaningful. We all need to take a bit of responsibility for reflecting on our own privilege and the barriers that we face. I think we need to do that in a joined-up way so that people can learn from each other.’

Institutional change
University staff often assume that students arrive with writing and research skills, and that they know how to cite evidence, what journals are, how scientific knowledge is built, and what opaque terms like ‘office hours’ mean. These are ‘the rules of the game’, Blakey tells us, and they need to be made explicit. ‘I think students struggle with what we call the hidden curriculum,’ Rickett says, ‘the idea that in universities often it’s assumed that students know what we’re talking about when we use language around universities when they might not have anybody in the family who went to university or do not know anybody who went to university – I certainly didn’t’.

Universities increasingly organise widening participation activities, which Blakey thinks are often well meaning but can be tokenistic. ‘I’ve seen events where teenagers are invited to a talk and buffet lunch with academics at university and are surprised when many inevitably don’t show. Of course they won’t – I wouldn’t have! It’s too daunting and out of touch with their experience. Universities need to support academics in going into schools early on to give engaging talks and become familiar faces in our local schools. We need to become more part of the community.’

Psychology courses and posts may not be accessible or supportive enough for working class students. ‘Some doctoral courses might want to look at their selection and think about how accessible they are,’ Curvis said. ‘I struggle a bit with some of the rules that some courses have in place, and the mechanisms that they use to select trainees off the basis of a form.’ Campbell adds that universities should change how posts are advertised and put support structures in place. ‘Working class people don’t have the same protection or containment in the way that someone from a more privileged background might have. I think if there was recognition of that first of all and maybe something in place just to hold people, and guidance along the way, I think that would be really, really helpful.’ Sustere thinks universities should ‘create a space for students to practise vulnerability’, through mentoring programmes or peer support – and advertise those processes so that they are well known.

Beyond the conversation
Even those psychologists from a working class background who do thrive may not always find it easy. Blakey says that she still finds academia alien in many ways. ‘It’s competitive, frequently individualistic… I also found the whole concept of networking odd – of having these forced seemingly inauthentic interactions where you hope to gain something.’

Campbell says he felt pressure to sanitise his way of talking and behaving. ‘I think when you pick up on that it’s a wee bit exclusionary, or it reinforces that disconnected feeling of “I really should not be here”. Some of the themes from the webinars have reflected that – how people speak, how people dress, the food that they eat, whether they drive or not, where they live, all that kind of stuff is all going on underneath the surface, all the time, and that’s definitely the case for me as well.’

But these conversations alone are not enough. They need to be followed up with action, Campbell says. ‘I think there’s a lot of really fantastic people who want to get into the profession, and are highly motivated, and would bring a really interesting perspective into training and qualified life but it’s those who tend to drop off because they can’t dedicate their time for free, and they can’t network in a way that would maybe facilitate them getting on the training.’

The psychologists we spoke to expressed a sense of duty to improve the environment for working class students. ‘If we’ve got really bright students that come, despite probably a lot of adversity and lack of resources and support, and they don’t leave with brilliant outcomes’, Rickett says, ‘then I think we’ve really let these students down’.

Psychology is well placed for going beyond the conversation. As Campbell tells us, ‘psychology as a profession is maybe best suited to be the one to reflect on themselves, have a look at how they’re doing things and make some meaningful changes’. Improving the environment for working class psychologists will need top-down support and institutional change. Opening up the conversation on class is just the first step towards positive action.

Box text: Intersecting characteristics 
Just as class has largely been neglected by psychology, its intersection with other characteristics has also been somewhat hidden. ‘Class often can’t be separated from other systems of difference,’ Rickett says. ‘I don’t think psychologists have grappled with this and they tend to not really name any demographics – leaving class very hidden, they also do it with race and gender. People from Black and Asian minority groups are more likely to fall within working class communities simply because of the deeper level of division that occurs for them. You see increased disabilities within working class communities for a whole number of reasons. It’s hard to separate these things, it’s multifaceted.’

Kilby agrees. ‘When we explore the challenges and prejudices associated with class, race, gender, sexuality, age, religion, disability, or any other aspect of a person’s identity (often the protected characteristics) we tend to think about them in isolation, but often these things overlap’. Kilby notices that mature students at Sheffield Hallam are often from working class backgrounds. ‘This presents a potential for complex feelings of “otherness” and an array of challenges for these students who are operating in really unfamiliar territory, often having to get to grips with new learning technologies and surrounded by people half their age.’

‘Similarly’, Kilby says, ‘I work with working class students from minoritized racial or ethnic backgrounds. These students have to manage all of the challenges associated with the elitism of university alongside the multitude of racial microaggressions that impact daily life, as well as balancing racial and/or cultural differences that are often not well understood by their White peers and tutors. Added to which they are largely studying a curriculum and experiencing teaching styles that lack diverse cultural or racial representation, and they are largely taught by White faculty.’

Campbell sees the intersections between conversations on class, and the conversations on racism and anti-racist practice over the last couple of years. For him, the starting point is acknowledgement and recognition of the barriers. ‘I don’t think those are easy conversations to have. They require really harsh, honest truths about privilege.’

Box text: Join the conversation 
If you have been inspired by the experiences shared in this article and would like to join the discussion, Campbell and Curvis are running ongoing webinars discussing class in clinical psychology – they can be found on Twitter @classclin. A recent position statement released by Campbell, Curvis and colleagues explores some of the insights and themes gleaned through these webinars and can be downloaded via the @classclin Twitter page.

The Association of Working-Class Academics, an international organisation which runs webinars and publishes news and resources for working class academics, can also be found on Twitter @AWCAcademics or at The British Psychological Society’s Presidential Taskforce on Diversity and Inclusion has also run a number of webinars on the topic, including one on class, which you can watch here.

- Dr Bridgette Rickett, Head of Psychology at Leeds Beckett University

- Dr Will Curvis, a Clinical Psychologist

- Dr Emma Blakey, a Developmental Psychologist at the University of Sheffield

- Forensic Psychologist in training Edite Sustere

- Clinical psychologist, Dr Ben Campbell

- Dr Laura Kilby, an Associate Professor at Sheffield Hallam University

Illustration: Karla Novak

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