Goldthorpe class scheme

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Goldthorpe class scheme A categorization which allocates individuals and families into social classes, devised mainly by the English sociologist John Goldthorpe. The scheme is used increasingly widely throughout Europe, Australasia, and North America, notably in the study of social mobility and in the analysis of class more generally. Because of its complex genealogy it is variously referred to in the literature as the Goldthorpe, Erikson–Goldthorpe, EGP (Erikson–Goldthorpe–Portocarero), and CASMIN (Comparative Study of Social Mobility in Industrial Nations) typology.

For the Oxford Social Mobility Study of England and Wales in the early 1970s, Goldthorpe developed a sevenfold scheme, the categories of which were said ‘to combine occupational categories whose members would appear, in the light of the available evidence, to be typically comparable, on the one hand, in terms of their sources and levels of income, their degree of economic security and chances of economic advancement [market situation]; and, on the other hand in their location within the systems of authority and control governing the processes of production in which they are engaged, and hence in their degree of autonomy in performing their work-tasks and roles [work situation]’ (see Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, 1980
). The subsequent requirements of conducting comparative research involving nations having occupational structures quite different from that found in Britain led Goldthorpe and his colleagues in the later CASMIN Project to subdivide some of the original class categories. In a series of revisions to the initial framework, routine non-manual employees were subdivided into clerical (higher) and personal service (lower) categories; the petite bourgeoisie of own-account workers was separated into its constituent elements of small proprietors with employees, small proprietors without employees, and farmers and smallholders; and agricultural workers were distinguished from other rank-and-file semi-skilled and unskilled manual labourers. These amendments yielded the now standard elevenfold Goldthorpe class scheme shown in Table 1.

TABLE 1. The Goldthorpe Class Categories


Higher-grade professionals, administrators, and officials; managers in large industrial establishments; large proprietors


Lower-grade professionals, administrators, and officials, higher-grade technicians; managers in small industrial establishments; supervisors of non-manual employees


Routine non-manual employees, higher grade (administration and commerce)


Routine non-manual employees, lower grade (sales and services)


Small proprietors, artisans, etc., with employees


Small proprietors, artisans, etc., without employees


Farmers and smallholders; other self-employed workers in primary production


Lower-grade technicians; supervisors of manual workers


Skilled manual workers


Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers (not in agriculture, etc.)


Agricultural and other workers in primary production

As the categories of the schema have been refined over the years, so too have its conceptual and theoretical foundations. For example, in their report of the findings from the CASMIN Project, Erikson and Goldthorpe (The Constant Flux, 1992) state that the rationale of the schema is ‘to differentiate positions within labour markets and production units or, more specifically … to differentiate such positions in terms of the employment relations they entail’. For this reason it is important to distinguish between the self-employed and employees. However, within the fairly heterogeneous category of employee, it is also possible to make ‘meaningful distinctions’ according to differences in (what has now become) ‘the labour contract and the conditions of employment’. In their words, ‘employment relationships regulated by a labour contract entail a relatively short-term and specific exchange of money for effort. Employees supply more or less discrete amounts of labour, under the supervision of the employer or of the employer's agents, in return for wages which are calculated on a “piece” or time basis. In contrast, employment relationships within a bureaucratic context involve a longer-term and generally more diffuse exchange. Employees render service to their employing organisation in return for “compensation” which takes the form not only of reward for work done, through a salary and various perquisites, but also comprises important prospective elements—for example, salary increments on an established scale, assurances of security both in employment and, through pension rights, after retirement, and, above all, well-defined career opportunities.’

It is clear that, despite these changes in terminology, the nature of the employment relationship has always been central to the scheme. As Erikson and Goldthorpe insist, it is ‘the distinction between employees involved in a service relationship with their employer and those whose employment relationships are essentially regulated by a labour contract that underlies the way in which, within our class schema, different classes have been delineated’. So-called service-class (or salariat) occupations offer incremental advancement, employment security, and the possibility of exchanging commitment to the job against a high level of trust on the part of employers. Working-class occupations, on the other hand, tend to have closely regulated payment arrangements and to be subject to routine and greater supervision. If the circumstances of those who buy labour, and of those who neither buy the labour of others nor sell their own (that is, employers and the self-employed respectively), are also taken into account, then the origins and basic structure of the classification can readily be grasped.

Despite its increasing popularity and use, the scheme has been the subject of intensive criticism and much controversy, although a good deal of this has been misconceived. It is often suggested that the service-class category is of limited value in empirical analyses because it is too broad, failing to distinguish between the employment situations of the capitalist élite on the one hand, and the mass of professional and managerial employees on the other. Critics have also argued that the scheme lacks validity: because (in research practice) people are allocated to social classes on the basis of their employment status and the title of their occupation, the classification may not in fact measure those characteristics (relations or conditions of employment) that are central to Goldthorpe's concept of class. Feminist critics have claimed that, because the original categories were designed for an investigation into social mobility among men, it is male conditions of employment that inform the algorithm which is used to construct the classes. This is said to make the categories (and any analysis on which they are based) sex-specific.

These and other criticisms have prompted a huge secondary literature, involving extensive validation studies of the scheme, a debate about the relationship between class inequality and gender segregation, investigations of the cross-national and temporal reliability of the categories, and of the strengths and weaknesses of alternative operationalizations of Goldthorpe's concept of class. All of these issues and most of the related literature are discussed at length in Gordon Marshall et al. , Against the Odds? Social Class and Social Justice in Industrial Societies (1997)