By David Morgan
Snobbery, like gossip, is a matter of both public disapproval and private enjoyment. In a society formally committed to values of equality, few would wish willingly to claim the title of ‘snob’. Judgements of taste or aesthetics may be accompanied by a disclaimer along the lines of ‘this may sound snobbish but…’. Yet, in the company of like-minded intimates, there may be some guilty pleasure to be derived from adverse comments on Christmas lights or cheap wine. (Blue Nun used to be a favourite object of disapproval). And why does Wilde’s Lady Bracknell continue to be a popular theatrical character?
If snobbery were simply a matter of some individual character defect or eccentricity, there would seem to be little point in giving it extended space in a sociological discussion. However, its continuing importance lies in the way in which it is linked to social divisions, particularly divisions of social class. Mike Savage has a chapter on ‘Class consciousness and the new snobbery’ in his book on social class (Savage, 2015). Snobbery is a practice of social class; it is one of the ways in which class is performed.
However, snobbery has a complex and changing relationship to social class. When Thackeray wrote his Book of Snobs (1879), he was referring to class as a graded series of positions in society and a snob was one who aspired to be associated with persons of a higher status and to derive prestige from these real or imagined associations. Much later, when Virginia Woolf asked the question ‘Am I A Snob?’ (in 1936) she was expressing the same idea, a fascination with people who had a title. However, by the time Thackeray was writing and throughout the later decades, class was changing and, with it, the nature of snobbery. The snob was becoming someone more likely to look down than to look up and snobberies based around positions in society were being replaced by snobberies based upon possessions. By possessions, I mean increasingly cultural and social capital rather than simply economic capital. Indeed ,the simple display of material possessions could readily become the object of snobbery. In these matters, at least, cultural capital trumps economic capital. Further, for our present concerns, what is important is the way in which cultural capital interacts with social capital. Thus, for example, ‘taste’ in food is not simply an expression of individual cultural capital but something which is shared with family members or like-minded friends. The interaction between the two capitals can produce snobbery around ‘junk food’ and this extends to looking down upon the kinds of people who are supposed to consume such food.
There are overlaps between the snobberies of position and the snobberies of possessions. Even as late as 1959 we find lively debates around the linguistic practices of ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’ (‘napkin’ vs ‘serviette’; ‘lunch’ vs ‘dinner’ and so on) a debate which is about positions as well as possessions (Mitford, 1959). Yet, increasingly we have the complexities of a class system which can be seen as based upon different combinations of capitals and where the possibilities of snobbery seem to multiply. We can be snobbish about the use or use of misuse of language, certainly, but also about food, about films, about comedy, about furnishings and about garden gnomes. Almost, it might be claimed, we could talk about the ‘democratisation’ of snobbery when practically everyone can be snobbish about something. The contemporary ‘snobscape’ may consist of accusations and denials of snobbery as well as examples of ‘inverted snobbery’ and claims about this as well.
However, this relatively benign picture needs to be modified. The reason for this is the value placed upon education and the emphasis on education as a means of social mobility. There are two aspects of this which are relevant to the discussion of snobbery. The first deals with the consequences of whereby an individual moves away from a particular social class and encounters members of other, higher, social classes. These others may be teachers or tutors or other students. The experiences of the ‘scholarship boy’ (or girl) classically documented by Richard Hoggart (1958) and Jackson and Marsden (rev ed 1966) often involved a sense of being out of place, both removed from communities of origin but not really belonging to a new class. More recent accounts continue to record experiences of little humiliations and embarrassments (say to do with accents or speech) that are experienced by some experiencing social mobility through education.
Thus one reason why snobbery matters is through its association with social class and, especially, with social mobility through education. It matters, clearly, if you are on the receiving end of slights and snubs (even if unintended) and it matters because snobbery is one of the ways in which class divisions are experienced and reproduced. It also matters at a more general or structural level. As more young people experience university, so the division between these and those who had no experience of higher education sharpens and becomes a major division in society. Level of education was a major factor in the Brexit referendum and in the election of Donald Trump and the denigrations of those who voted for Brexit or Trump in educational terms continues to rankle. Snobbery, or perceptions of snobbery did not cause these electoral outcomes but it had an important part to play in the ways in which these recent social dramas are experienced and understood.
- Hoggart, R. (1958). The uses of literacy Harmondsworth Penguin
- Jackson, B. & Marsden, D (New Ed 1966) Education and the working class. Harmondsworth Penguin
- Mitford, N (Ed) Noblesse oblige Harmondsworth Penguin
- Savage, M. (2015). Social class in the 21st century London. Pelican
- Thackeray, W .M. (1879) The book of snobs (Various editions available)
David Morgan’s Snobbery (2019) is published by Policy Press in association with the BSA.