The new class divide

How educational hierarchy determines our politics

Education has replaced wealth as the key determinant of class in European societies, and with it comes a new hierarchy. As a consequence, the lesser educated feel disenfranchised and less valued. This real change in our socioecology has led to education correlating with populism, nationalism and anti-immigration, as well as reinforcing withdrawal of the white working class with educational achievement. But if we understand the nuances, we can offer real solutions, writes Antony Manstead.


Politics and social class affect each other. It is no surprise that analysis of political attitudes over time shows that class can be very important. The classic left–right political dimension is associated with income, such that those with lower incomes are more in favor of redistribution and government intervention than are those with higher incomes.

However, since the 1990s a new political dimension has taken center stage, and this is associated with education rather than income: Lower educated people tend to support nationalist and anti-immigration parties, whereas higher educated people tend to support parties that emphasize ethnic tolerance and protection of the environment. With arecent parliamentary report in the UK highlighting the educational underachievement of the ‘white working class’, combined with much theorizing about the rise of populism and nationalism, we need a nuanced analysis of class and education more than ever.

Class is a construct with many different dimensions; by looking at just one, we are missing out on the real shifts occurring in our society.

Why are these two political dimensions related to different aspects of social class? As yet there is no definitive answer to this question, but we argue that changes in the socio-ecological context must have occurred in order for education to have taken on this role. Socio-ecology studies relationships between people and their environment, often the interdependence of people, collectives and institutions. Class is a construct with many different dimensions; by looking at just one, we are missing out on the real shifts occurring in our society.

The effects of education and income on social attitudes depend heavily on societal context. Both higher income and greater education usually result in higher social status: more educated people and richer people tend to place themselves higher on the social ladder. But in countries with highly educated populations, education determines social status independently of wealth - highly educated people consider themselves higher up the social ladder despite low incomes and less educated people feel stronger feelings of exclusion from society and less trust in their society’s institutions.

The US (the location for a lot of the psychological research on social class) has a relatively large proportion of highly educated people, but income and other factors tend to dominate social hierarchy, making education less important. In contrast, in European societies with a larger proportion of highly educated people, there is a stronger association between education and satisfaction with society, compared to societies with a lower proportion of higher educated people. In turn, satisfaction with society is strongly related to positive attitudes toward minorities and immigrants, and is negatively related to radical-right voting.

It seems that where education has become a dominant institution, lower educated people are more likely to be dissatisfied and to react with political extremism.

This gives extra weight to the recent parliamentary report and to earlier studies which showed that students from working class or poor backgrounds in the UK feel that they are not valued in education; that their background is incompatible with educational success and progressing to higher education; and perform poorly because of fears of confirming negative stereotypes about their group’s academic performance. These factors are negatively associated with motivation, achievement, and wellbeing, and help to explain class-based educational inequalities.

We argue that these feelings and perceptions result from the comparisons that are made within particular social ecologies. Consider the following: Lower class students are grossly underrepresented in high status educational institutions. For example, despite more than 50% of the British population identifying as working class, only 10% of Oxford or Cambridge graduates identify as working class, and only 6% of medical doctors say they are from working-class backgrounds. Hence, there are few examples of lower-class students who have reaped benefits from education.

This lack of role models fuels perceptions that educational success is not something worth pursuing and may encourage withdrawal from education. It is therefore unsurprising that economically disadvantaged English school pupils perform worse than their peers throughout education. We argue that the absence of working-class role models, the underrepresentation of group members in high status domains, and the group’s historical underperformance feed into the meaning of that group’s social identity within that domain, igniting a sense of threat and misfit among lower-class students.  It also often leads to members of other groups becoming biased toward them in ways that make it difficult for them to counter these negative expectations.

Educational status determines one’s role in - and satisfaction with - society itself.

So, is there anything to be done?

Increasing the visibility of role models within the local context — particularly those with whom underperforming group members can identify — has been shown to lead to positive outcomes for Latino students studying STEM subjects in the US. We argue that similar processes are likely to operate for social class groups in the UK. Direct evidence for the role of socio-ecological factors comes from research on interventions that have been found to reduce educational inequalities.

There is compelling evidence that self-affirmation interventions — brief writing exercises encouraging participants to reflect on their important life values — improve the academic performance of negatively stereotyped students within education. For example, in US schools, self-affirmation has been shown to reduce the ethnic achievement gap, arguably because it reduces the negative effects of stereotype threat.

However, the effectiveness of self-affirmation varies depending on the local context. Self-affirmation is more beneficial for ethnic minority students who are in a smaller minority and have lower historical performance. Of course, the meaning of social identities and the threat of being stereotyped varies according to the socio-ecological context. Extending this to social class variation in England — where inequalities between ethnic groups are small relative to those between social classes — research has found that although self-affirmation does not improve the performance of ethnic minority students, it does enhance the performance of school pupils eligible for free school meals (a proxy for economic disadvantage).

A socioecological approach to social class reveals that its effects vary depending on the elements in question - whether income, education or something else - and also on the surrounding context. Education has become a key predictor of life chances, it is highly valued in societies and differences in education are fueling contemporary political rifts, from prejudice, trust in politics and radical-right voting to popular support for Trump and Brexit. Educational status determines one’s role in - and satisfaction with - society itself.



This research originally appeared as The socioecology of social class by Antony Sr Manstead, Matthew J Easterbrook, Toon Kuppens in Current Opinion Psychology, 2020 Apr;32:95-99

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