The Greasy Poll

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

 Many careers (with actual politicians a particularly extreme example) involve a good deal of political gamesmanship; sometimes characterised as a combination of “sucking up” and “slapping down”. But how willing and able are you to do this? A recent study suggests that the answer depends (amongst other things of course) on your social class. Of course, measuring class is never straightforward (particularly in Britain), but one of the simplest and most widely-used measures is a single question:

Does at least one of your parents have a University degree? If you answered “yes” then – for the purposes of this exercise, at least – you count as middle class.

If you answered “no”, then you count as working class (unless, of course, you have no need for University because you plan to live off inherited wealth; in which case, it’s probably fair to say that you are upper class).

In this study, participants were told about a fictional company, Swathmore International, where “what’s most likely to help people move up in the ranks is pragmatic political skill”. They were then asked “Keeping in mind the things that you need to do to get to the top, at which level do you want to be on this organization? (1 = assistant consultant [lowest position], 2 = associate consultant, 3 = consultant, 4 = senior consultant, 5 = managing consultant, 6 = principal consultant [highest position]).” Working class participants were significant less likely to aspire to the highest positions. A follow-up questionnaire revealed that this wasn’t because they felt that they lacked competence, but that playing politics simply wasn’t them. This is bad news for social mobility, which would seem to require working class people engaging in some behaviours that, on the whole, they find pretty distasteful (but that are second nature to the “sharp-elbowed middle class”).

A fully referenced version of this article is available at Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at

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