Elites highlight ordinary pursuits in public profiles

Performing ordinariness may provide a very effective means of shoring up authenticity in an era of rising inequality.
- Dr Sam Friedman, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology
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Elites have begun publicly embracing everyday leisure activities like football and spending time with their families to indicate their ‘ordinariness’ as they become increasingly sensitive to public opinion in an era of rising inequality, suggests new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and the University of Oxford.

Sam Friedman, Associate Professor in LSE’s Department of Sociology, and Aaron Reeves, Associate Professor in Oxford’s Department of Social Policy and Intervention, analysed the ‘recreations’ of more than 70,000 entrants in Who’s Who since 1897, as well as the musical tastes of more than 1,000 guests on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. They found that, over the past 120 years, and particularly in the last 30, there has been a significant shift from traditional aristocratic or highbrow pursuits, such as hunting and opera, to ordinary interests such as family, pets and pop music. In Who’s Who, there is also a trend towards humour in listing recreations, for example “loud music, strong cider” (Jonathan Ashley-Smith, senior civil servant) and “the usual” (Admiral Sir Edward Ashmore, Chief of Naval Staff).

The elites are, however, tending to show an interest in popular culture that is more critically acclaimed and retain some preferences for traditionally highbrow culture, the researchers found. For over a century, Who’s Who has functioned as the bible of the British establishment, the most authoritative and trusted catalogue of the country’s upper echelons, representing just 0.05 per cent of the population. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill even personally intervened to ensure its publication was not affected by the paper shortage, arguing its full circulation was of “national importance.” Part of its appeal has always been the breadth of its coverage, and its understanding of eliteness as not necessarily confined to the landed or wealthy. Fifty per cent of entrants are included automatically upon reaching a prominent occupational position, such as MPs, peers, judges, ambassadors, FTSE 100 CEOs, Poet Laureates and Fellows of the British Academy. The other 50 per cent are selected by a board of long-standing advisers, based on achieving other noteworthy professional appointments or on an assessment that they enjoy sustained prestige, influence or fame.

Sam Friedman, joint author of the paper, From Aristocratic to Ordinary: Shifting Modes of Elite Distinction is published in American Sociological Review, commented: “Research suggests that many people distinguish strongly between elites they see as decent and open, and those they see as snobbish and condescending. In this way, it is possible to read a very public expression of ordinary cultural preferences in Who’s Who as an attempt to forge cultural connection and claim authenticity with the public, while at the same time retaining many of the highbrow tastes that continue to function as a form of cultural capital.”

One of the most popular recreations in Who’s Who is ‘music’, so researchers analysed more than 1000 people in Who’s Who who have also been guests on Desert Island Discs.

Aaron Reeves, joint author of the paper, added: “Like Who’s Who, what you play on Desert Island Discs matters. It constitutes an even more public performance of one’s cultural identity. Tony Blair famously convened a focus group – as he did for many things – to help him calculate what to play.”

Researchers used the music website Metacritic to analyse the average album score of the artists selected, discovering that they were consistently more critically acclaimed than average They also found three distinct historical phases of elite cultural distinction in Who’s Who. First, aristocratic/landed gentry pursuits like hunting, shooting, horse riding, polo and sailing, traditionally afforded by landed estates in the 19th century. These activities were institutionalised via the ‘Season’, a set of annual events, such as Ascot and the Henley Regatta, in the elite social calendar. At the turn of the 20th century this was threatened by “nouveau riche” industrialists who began to buy their way into high society through the purchase of country estates, libraries and art collections from aristocrats bankrupted by the rising cost of labour and falling agricultural prices. The elite responded to this threat with a second, more highbrow, phase centred in London with the pursuit of theatre, ballet, classical music, literature, opera and abstract art, influenced in particular by the Bloomsbury Group, an intellectual collective of prominent figures, such as Virginia Woolf and DH Lawrence, that came to define elite culture. Outdoor activities such as hiking were also popular during this period which defined elite culture from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. The third phase began in the 1950s when shifts in the art world legitimised popular cultural forms alongside a generational decline in snobbery and deference. The proportion of entrants who expressed only highbrow recreations began to fall, with a rise in entries mentioning football and cinema, and mundane practices like spending time with family, friends and pets.

Dr Reeves explained: “The move towards mundane and everyday leisure pursuits doesn’t necessarily mean elites are actually becoming ordinary, of course. The data in Who’s Who is intriguing not because it documents what elites do, culturally, but more because it reveals how they wish to present and perform their cultural selves publicly.”

In fact, the researchers found that traditional aristocratic recreations, such as horse-riding and polo, continue to be practiced by nearly 40 per cent of current Who’s Who entrants.

Dr Friedman added: “Our analysis indicates that the rise of ordinary elite distinction is most clear cut from the 1990s onward, coinciding neatly with the continuing rise of the top one per cent. Of course, this is only an association. Yet we would speculate that these patterns may be connected. Put simply, as elites have pulled away economically, there is mounting evidence that they are increasingly insecure about their moral legitimacy, and increasingly sensitive to public concern they are snobbish, self-interested and out-of-touch. How elites present their cultural lives in public has therefore become a key PR battle ground. Performing ordinariness may provide a very effective means of shoring up authenticity in an era of rising inequality.”