Cultural elite does not exist, academics claim

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The Independent Online

The "cultural elite" brought up on opera and the higher arts, which supposedly turns up its nose at anything as vulgar as a pop song or mainstream television, does not exist, according to research published by Oxford University academics.

Researchers have used data from the UK and six other countries to test a theory that people born to posh families absorb only "high culture" while "popular" or "mass" culture is strictly for those from ordinary to humble beginnings.

They found that in truth Billy Elliott the fictional working-class boy from a northern mining village with a passion for ballet is not the social freak he might seem to be. Equally, someone with an impressive ancestry and blue blood coursing through his veins is not necessarily any more cultured than the rest of us.

"We find little evidence for the existence of a cultural elite who would consume 'high' culture while shunning more 'popular' cultural forms," the two Oxford academics said, when their results were published yesterday. "There are certain individuals who fit this description, but they are too few in number to figure in any survey-based analysis."

Tak Wing Chan, from Oxford's sociology department, and John Goldthorpe, of Nuffield College, Oxford, have spent years trying to analyse whether "social status" still exists in Britain, and how it operates.

For this exercise, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, they divided people into four groups univores, who only like popular culture; omnivores, who like everything from opera to soap opera; paucivores, who absorb very little culture; and inactives, who absorb practically none.

People's education, income and social class were all taken into account but this study, unlike others of its kind, clearly differentiated between "class" and "status". An out-of-work aristocrat has class, without status, while there are bright, ambitious people from poor backgrounds who have "status" but not "class".

In previous studies they have concluded that status is now determined more by the work someone does than by their birth or their wealth. Office workers consider that they have a higher status than manual workers; among office workers, professionals think themselves a cut above works managers, and so on.

The newspaper a person chooses, and the forms of entertainment that person enjoys are all tied up with ideas about social status. That does not mean that professionals in elite jobs restrict themselves to "elite" arts, but it does mean that the opera houses and specialist art galleries are likely to be filled with people who have "status".

Class, as opposed to status, does not seem to have much effect on cultural tastes. "A substantial minority of members of the most advantaged social groups are univores or inactives," the researchers found.

Doctor Chan said: "Our work shows it's education and social status, not social class that predict cultural consumption in the UK, and broadly comparable results were obtained from other countries in our project too."

Data from the UK, Chile, France, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands and the US was analysed by 13 researchers during the study.

Which are you?


If you will go to the cinema, but not the theatre, you are a consumer of popular culture only. Two thirds of the population are in this category.


Will try anything on offer. Most have jobs that give them confidence, but could be from any social background.


People who consume a 'limited' range of cultural activities. Enjoy some form of music, film or television but not art galleries.


These people access nothing at all people who would never go into an art gallery or stop to examine a sculpture.