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What is class?

Class is complex, culturally dependent and subject to social, economic and political forces as well as population dynamics. From a purely sociological perspective, it is the classification of society and its people into groups that are hierarchically related. Conceptually, it is most commonly defined by socio-economic status/level of income, educational attainment, and social networks. Due to this, class frequently overlaps with geographic areas and occupations. In some societies, class determines social status and class mobility is impeded by vast inequality. For many, it is a difficult and emotionally charged topic to contemplate and discuss openly. 

Class is not one of the named protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010. This does not mean, however, that class discrimination does not happen. 

The cultural context and descriptive language for class shouldn't be underestimated. In Britain, society has historically been dominated by class structure and remnants of this remain today. For example, in the UK there is a distinction between upper, middle, working and lower class. However, these labels may mean something entirely different in other countries, or entirely different labels may be used. The British "upper class" distinction has historically only included the aristocracy ie. peerage, gentry, hereditary landowners. In contrast, the US would use class primarily defined by personal wealth and "upper class" would include anyone with a sufficiently high level of income to support an "upper class" lifestyle and education. "Public school" in the Britain is an exclusive educational tier that is associated with the upper and "middle" class. However, the American equivalent of a "public school" would be a private school and "public school" in the US would be a "state school". These examples illustrate the cultural dependence of our conceptual understanding of class and the language we use to describe it. 


Some examples of discrimination against class can include and not limited to are: 

  • Pejorative remarks on:
    • The way someone speaks eg. accent, pronunciation, vocabulary, sentence structure
    • Where someone comes from (place of birth, developmental history) or lives (current address)
    • Level of income or implied judgment of lifestyle based on socio-economic factors
  • Treating others deemed to occupy ‘low-status’ positions with less respect or care than those who are deemed to occupy ‘high-status’ positions
  • Implying certain patient groups have brought diseases onto themselves, eg. gall stones in patients of lower socioeconomic classes (implying an association with poor diets)
  • Medical professionals dismissing the experiences of patients with less educational attainment eg. by being patronising and exerting a paternalistic outlook on a patient's lived experience