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Social Class, Culture and Subjectivity Research Cluster

Leader: Professor Valerie Walkerdine

This cluster is part of the Subjectivity and Psychosocial Research Group.

Social Class was once a mainstay of social  scientific work but fell out of favour in the 1980s and 90s, only to hit the headlines again in the new century as inequality and lack of upward  mobility became glaringly apparent, not solved or made redundant by neoliberal agendas.

The work of this group builds upon feminist research on class which began in the 1980s, with volumes such as Valerie Walkerdine and Helen Lucey’s ‘Democracy in the kitchen: regulating mothers and socialising daughters’ (Virago) and Carolyn Steedman’s ‘Landscape for a good woman’ (Virago) and grew during the 1990s to include a whole panoply of work in the social sciences and  cultural studies, most notably work by Beverly Skeggs, Lisa Blackman, Valerie Hey, Diane Reay,  Annette Kuhn, Jessica Ringrose and many others in the UK. The work of the Birmingham  Centre  for Contemporary Cultural Studies in the 1970s also made important inroads into the study of class with classics such as Resistance through Rituals and  Dick Hebdige’s classic Subculture: the meaning of style. Angela McRobbie’s work on girls’ popular culture was the first work of that tradition to move from the concentration on masculinity. The tradition of work also owed a great deal to insights gained from Walkerdine’s participation in editing the  journal ‘Ideology and Consciousness’ with its emphasis on European social theory,  psychoanalysis and poststructuralism and her involvement  in the book ‘Changing  the subject: psychology,  social regulation and subjectivity’ (Methuen, 1984/Routledge 1998)   In the USA,  traditions of work drawing on  the book ‘Hidden Injuries of class’ by Sennett and Cobb and Worlds of Pain by Lilian Rubin, also started a trend  and there is a field described as new working class studies associated with research on deindustrialisation coming out of Youngstown State University(

The work of this cluster engages with the ways that class is lived in the present, its historical production and the implications of that for research methods and theory,  engaging with debates about subjectivity, discourse, affect, embodiment and experience, the psychosocial, historical, affective and (popular) cultural production of classed experience.


Valerie Walkerdine’s research has covered a number of aspects of classed experience: children’s development, gendered socialisation and  the regulation of classed parenting; gendered and classed experiences of education including her own; popular culture in the production of working class gendered subjectivity: eg Some day my prince will come; Video replay: families, films and fantasy; Schoolgirl Fictions, Daddy’s girl: young  girls and popular culture; Behind the painted smile. She has also used visual cultural production to explore upward mobility and identity: (Didn’t She do well (Working Pictures, 56 min documentary); young women’s classed experiences: video diaries (Girls, girls, girls, Channel 4 Television series); and time-based mixed media installations (Behind  the painted smile; If my mother had wings, she would fly away, New Contemporaries Touring Exhibition, 1991). She is currently working on  working class postmemory using family photographs, which allude to but do not state a family history which remained hidden (academic texts and monoprints).

Research on class funded by the ESRC includes longitudinal studies of British girls, using a sample  stratified by social class. This was written  up as ‘Democracy in the kitchen’, Counting girls  out and Growing up girl: psychosocial explorations of gender and class. This work was undertaken with Helen Lucey, June Melody. Noski Deville, and Tony Downmunt were responsible for the organisation of video diaries.

She undertook (with Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel) a study of experiences of workers in Australia under neoliberalism (funded by the Australian Research Council). This research focussed on the shifts in discursive regimes through which workers understood their experiences and  work identities.

It paved the way for research in the  south Wales valleys, which worked with a community which had lost its central employer, a steelworks, in 2002. This research, funded by the ESRC Identities and Social Action Programme, conducted by Walkerdine and Luis Jimenez, focussed on subjectivity in transition to a new labour market. It was a psychosocial interview based study of ex-steelworkers and others in the community. The research demonstrated the profoundly traumatic nature of the closure in relation  to the affective organisation of the community (attach Body and Society paper) as well as strongly gendered effects in relation to transition and transformation (attach ESRC final report). In addition the research revealed that a group of young unemployed men would not take available work and were profoundly distressed by a situation in which all that was available was service work they considered ‘feminine’ and ‘embarrassing’. This led to a second ESRC funded study working with a group of young unemployed men and their families to explore this further. The study uncovered the profound inter-generational traumatic response within the community- pain at the loss of heavy industrial masculinity was circulating within the community between generations, making it almost impossible for the young men to resolve conflicts between working and pleasing others, who felt the terrible losses associated with a way of life related to industrial masculinity. We are currently writing this research up as a book Gender, work and community in post industrial societies: psychosocial Perspectives (Palgrave, 2010) and developing action research designed to work with unemployed fathers and  sons on the loss of the historical and  social link, to find a way forward which brings back a sense of continuity and possibility.

The history of the community demonstrates the ways in which for the 200 years that the steelworks was open, the people had to cope with constant uncertainty produced by the fluctuation in  the price of iron and steel, their designation as abstract ‘labour’, as well as the effectivities of political economy, which made them responsible for avoiding pauperism, understood as a psychological category. This history produced a way of attempting to keep the community safe in a sea of lack of safety, but the effects of 200 years of suffering passed down generations, has not been researched. Walkerdine is interested  in developing work on working class history using research and clinical work on intergenerational trauma. Her work on postmemory should also be understood in this light. 


Bella Dicks  I have been interested in understanding the processes and social relations through which deindustrialisation impacts upon working-class localities. I began work on this  with colleagues at Sheffield in the context of South Yorkshire coalfield (see Waddngton Out of the Ashes; Routledge) by examining how ex-miners coped with life after , or under the threat of, closure. In south Wales, I have explored the ways in which ex-mining areas have been subjected to regeneration policies that attempt to shift the local economy from reliance on an industrial working-class labour force to an embrace of service, leisure and consumption opportunities - particularly through programmes of cultural regeneration and tourism. My book documented the conflicts and tensions among local actors involved in a particular example of this process, namely the reopening of a coalmine as a museum (2000; Heritage Place and Community, UWales P). I explored these processes further in a book critically examining current usages of culture in regeneration focused on 'visitability' (Culture on Display, 2003, Sage). I have become increasingly conscious of the psychological and affective dimensions of processes of regeneration that require 'adjustment' on the part of local people to deteriorating labour market realities (see Sociology paper). This work suggests the need to interrogate claims made by regeneration professionals to be 'partners' of the community in these programmes of 'renewal'. I now want to focus on how people living in ex-industrial areas respond to neo-liberal demands to regenerate themselves (often, contradictorily, in the context of heritage and tourism rebranding exercises). This is work that requires bringing together a sociological and psychological approach in order to understand class as a subjective-objective relation.


Ian Jones


Martin O’Neill has been conducting research in the field of post industrial communities for a number of years and particularly has experience of researching the economic and social impact of industrial closure on former coal mining and steel making communities.  From his experiences of working in these communities he has become increasingly interested in developing and utilizing participatory action research based approaches for developing interventions aimed at tackling inequalities. During recent years he has become interested in innovative visual methodologies aimed at making the research process more inclusive and has recently led a European Social Funded project aimed at

addressing media literacy and digital inclusion in an Objective 1 area which particularly worked with young unemployed men.


Francesca Ahurst’s research uses genealogy of the exclusion of children in schools, to demonstrate the continuities and shifts in the practice of exclusion going back to the early part of the 19th century. It highlights the neglect of class and poverty as a factor in determining the incidence of exclusion, and the effects of long-standing attitudes towards those labelled as the 'feckless poor'. School exclusion is a politically sensitive and complex issue. Over the years, social policy has constituted the population of children subject to exclusion in terms of categories like the delinquent child, the feeble-minded, the disruptive child, or, currently, ‘feral’ children. These categories have the effect of attributing the behaviour of these children to psychological factors or to dysfunctional’ family conditions, thus individualising or medicalising the problem. But a genealogical approach reveals that beneath such categorisations lurk other subjects: the poor or the pauperised as a class, and neglected and traumatised children, which liberal governance excludes or punishes because it cannot deal with the underlying causes.


Cecilia Love's research seeks to understand how the affective dimensions of trans-racial adoptive subjectivity, where notions of race, class and gender simultaneously intersect has been inter-subjectively lived and remembered by both adult adoptee and adoptive parent. Since post-war Britain, the practice of adoption has largely involved the transfer of babies from contexts of birth family poverty to a typically middle class nuclear family context and has historically provided a solution for illegitimacy and infertility. As the social dynamics around adoption in the UK have evolved, we now witness through international adoption, the historic power dynamics embedded in historic class structures that created the context for baby adoptions in the West, being extended on to a global level. This study seeks to understand how a subjectivity that is simultaneously separated and yet connected to different class spheres may be felt, negotiated and remembered.


Kelly Buckley


Gabriella Alberti Focusing on the study of a highly sexualized and racialized work, such as cleaning and waiting, Gabriella’s research seeks to detect the emerging subjectivities and changing work identities of a particular group of hospitality workers: women with migration background employed in those among the lowest paid jobs in the London service sector. Through participatory action research in workplaces, community and trade union organizations the research explores the intersections of class, gender and race shaping these migrant women’s every day experiences at work as well as the possibilities to improve their life and working conditions through forms of political and civic engagement. Against the background of changing patterns of migration in Britain after the EU Enlargement and the increased diversity in the composition of labour in this section of the service economy, a sociological and cultural analysis of the changing forms of class identification and relationality in the workplace seeks to enlighten how broader social transformations such as transnational female migration put into crisis masculine notions of working class consciousness persisting in the institutions of the labour movement.


Dawn Mannay’s research explores the gendered and classed processes of social and cultural reproduction, relationship cultures and identity formation through a focus on mothers and daughters in working-class families resident on a peripheral housing estate. It aims to increase understanding of what it means to be both female and working class, examining how individuals endeavoured and continue to endeavour to deal with the social realities of life on the margins of contemporary Wales.


Melanie Morgan’s research seeks to understand the psychosocial mechanisms and strategies working class, mature student mothers use in order to construct, negotiate and manage identity within university, their choice of institution and  the motivation for pursuing  academic success despite the emotional and practical conflicts of doing so. The research hopes to make sense of individual experiences, dilemmas and struggles and the driving forces propelling these women forward in  often difficult and painful circumstances.  This study also aims to explore the possible specificity of academic experience through  comparison of “traditional” and “post 1992”  type academic institutions,  highlighting what types of “knowledges”, future subjectivities and trajectories are accessible to and reproduced by working class women who embark on higher education as mature students/mothers.


Jessica Paddock’s research explores the relevance of social class and social class analysis for the sustainable development agenda, particularly in the context of responses to contemporary pressures to consume differently. She seeks to understand the significance of class (both subjective and objective) when conceiving of alternative means of producing and consuming food and indeed with the rolling out of alternative food initiatives on the ground. In a sense, this study is focusing on the resistance of some to what may be seen as a symbolically and culturally distinctive food practice through the performance 'anti-pretentiousness'. This refers to a process of dis-identification with dominant legitimate practice that often ‘moralises’ working class food practices. This is a community study being undertaken in the Cardiff area through engagement with a local alternative food network.


Renee  Lertzman’s research on the myth of apathy in relation to environmental action,  is based in a working  class community in  the Great Lakes in the USA. In an area in which industry provided vital work but devastated the local ecosystem, but that industry is now gone, significant affective  conflicts are raised for the inhabitants,  which have been seriously under-researched by environmentalists.


The cluster is linked to a network of other researchers working on class in the UK and the EU:

Beverly Skeggs

Lisa Blackman

Valerie Hey

Helen  Lucey

Diane Reay

Jessica Ringrose

Janet Holland

Kajsa Ohrlander

Gunilla Dahlberg

Tuula Gordon