Coming Home to Love and Class

by Paul Johnson and Steph Lawler
University of Durham

Sociological Research Online, Volume 10, Issue 3,

Received: 11 Jan 2005     Accepted: 19 Jul 2005    Published: 30 Sep 2005


This article explores how romantic love, desire, and social class are mutually influencing factors in the formation and enactment of heterosexual intimate relationships. Using qualitative interview data from a study of heterosexuality and love we analyse some of the ways in which social class structures love relationships and, furthermore, how such relationships are a site in which class is 'done' . In particular, we explore a central paradox of the heterosexual love relationship: while heterosexuality relies upon the difference it creates in terms of sex and gender one other form of difference - class difference - is understood to be an obstacle to, if not antithetical to, a 'successful' relationship. Indeed, as we will show, this form of difference, for some people at least, is one that must be guarded and defended against.

Keywords: Class, Distinction, Gender, Intimacy, Heterosexuality, Love, Sexuality

Introduction: Home is where the heart is

What exist in the world are relations - not interactions between agents or intersubjective ties between individuals, but objective relations which exist 'independently of individual consciousness and will', as Marx said (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 97).
If sex is the way out of the family, falling in love is the route back, the one-way ticket that is always a return (Phillips, 1996: 39).
1.1 In contemporary Britain structural relations of inequality, particularly those of class, often become hidden by forms of social, ideological and political rhetoric. Yet, even though social class has significantly declined from both political debate and sociological analysis we cannot fail to notice, as Pierre Bourdieu neatly puts it, that 'difference is everywhere' (Bourdieu 1998: 12). The question which we address in this article is whether the forms of commonality and difference that structure heterosexual love relationships can meaningfully be analysed in terms of social class. Looking at current sociological work on love and intimacy we find an overwhelming consensus that they can not: most commentaries negate class by failing to engage with it, rebuke it as an outdated and unnecessarily 'industrial' concept, or describe it as a 'zombie category' (Beck, 2000) which is empty of conceptual use in social analysis (Giddens, 1992).

1.2 Many sociological accounts, however, rely on conceptions of class which concentrate solely on employment categories so that, when related to 'personal' issues such as love, class is ruled out of an analysis of matters deemed more 'cultural' than economic (Coole, 1996; Sayer,2002). However, a growing body of (largely feminist) work on class alerts us to the ways in which we are constituted as classed subjects long before we enter the workplace[2]. Indeed, one important aspect of this work has been to 'bring class home' and to show that, as Hey argues, the home is: 'a paradoxical site of personal labour and love, permeated by the wider structuring forces of the economic and symbolic power relations that impress the intimate to the shape of dominant social hierarchies' (Hey, 2003: 322).

1.3 The idea of 'home' is important because it is in contrast to the valorization of the public sphere which still pervades most thinking about social class. This is not to suggest that class relations have somehow newly become domesticated since, after all, Marx and Engels' assertion that the domestic sphere was fashioned as a relation of capitalism inspired a whole generation of sociologists to relate the social to the intimate (Fromm, 1995; Marcuse, 1955, Reich, 1961). Nor is it to ignore the ways that class has been recognized as generating subjectivities (Finch, 1993; Roberts, 1999; Stallybrass and White, 1986).

1.4 However, we need to note that, in what Hey calls 'new times' discourse (Hey, 2003: 320), embedded in the Third Way, neo-liberal emphasis on self-invention and individualism, social differentiations and inequalities become reduced to the purely 'personal'. 'New times' discourse, argues Hey, 'massively [amplifies] how class has always worked its way through, on and behind us' (Hey, 2003: 320) so that in contemporary society class has 'gravitated to the self'; in other words, the social-structural dimensions of class inequality are now understood as being embedded only in the subjectivities of social actors. Explanations for inequality come to inhere within the subjectivities of persons who are then marked as 'wrong' or 'right', 'deficient' or 'acceptable'. One recursive effect of this is that the language of psychology has come to replace a grammar of exploitation (Walkerdine, 2003)[3].

1.5 This change, we argue, makes it doubly important to analyse class in terms of the personal and the domestic ('home'): first because class has always been forged in the private sphere, as well as the public; and secondly because we need to investigate the ways in which class continues to matter despite a rhetoric which would place inequality 'within' the person. Indeed, we argue, contra theorists such as Giddens (1992), Beck (2000), and Bauman (1990), that class remains a structuring force in terms of how people experience and enact their 'personal' relationships. Furthermore, such relationships do not simply take place 'within' class but that they, to some extent, rely upon the differences which social class makes available.

1.6 An example of this can be seen in the popular discourses about 'compatibility' which pervade representations of romantic love. Whilst heterosexual romantic love is founded on ideas about difference - in the sense that it is based on a relationship between two distinctly different beings who are normatively biologically and culturally inscribed as man and woman - love is also founded on ideas about self-other commonality. Embedded in the ideal of intimacy is the image of two different beings finding common compatibility in a loving bond - one example is of 'soul mates' - and a whole psychology-inspired industry is dedicated to facilitating the transformation from 'difference' into 'compatibility'. Indeed, whilst the whole genre of Men are from Mars type of literature (Gray, 2002) is founded on the idea that men and women are distinctly different beings, successful relationships are often described as best accomplished by two people whose dispositions 'fit together', so that, as one respondent in our study put it, you find a person to 'go home' to.

1.7 But if being 'at home' with another person, both symbolically and materially, demands finding the right person then, consequently, this also means rejecting the wrong person. How do we decide who is 'right' and who is 'wrong', who we could and who we could not love? Despite the common belief that compatibility is achieved at a 'deep' level, through getting to know (and getting on with) a 'soul mate', decisions about acceptable/unacceptable love partners are often made, as we discuss below, on the basis of a limited repertoire of 'surface' signifiers, such as clothing, hairstyle, ways of eating and drinking, and ways of taking up physical space. Yet the most salient aspect of such signifiers is that they are understood as indicators of 'inner' personhood so that supposed 'deep' subjectivities and psychologies are read off from the body. For Bourdieu, this is a fundamental aspect of the social process in which the (classed) markers of the body are assumed to express the 'real' person:

Bodily hexis, which includes both the strictly physical shape of the body ('physique') and the way it is 'carried', deportment, bearing, is assumed to express the 'deep being', the true 'nature' of the 'person', in accordance with the postulate of the correspondence between the 'physical' and the 'moral' which gives rise to the practical or rationalized knowledge whereby 'psychological' and 'moral' properties are associated with bodily or physiognomic indices (Bourdieu, 2001: 64).

1.8 Unlike biological sex, classed differences in bodily hexis are not regarded as forms of difference that can be made compatible: on the contrary, these differences are often viewed as the basis to maintain separation. It is through this process of differentiation, we argue, that class is continually being 'done by' and 'done to' social actors as they practise their love relationships.

The Study

2.1 This article draws upon data that were produced as part of a larger study conducted between 1999 and 2002 by Paul Johnson. The research was concerned to explore the formation and enactment of heterosexual identities and practices in relation to romantic love. The findings of the research, along with a discussion of the methodology and research questions, are reported more substantially elsewhere (see: Johnson 2005; also, Johnson 2004). The study employed qualitative interviewing with a sample of 24 individuals who live in the North East of England. The sample was selected to represent a wide age range (participants were between 16 and 80 years of age) and was equally differentiated in terms of gender. All of the participants identified as heterosexual.

2.2 The sample was generated through advertisements in local newspapers. A total of 60 individuals responded to these adverts and the final sample was selected using a filtering questionnaire. Any identification with social class was made by the individual themselves during the qualitative interviews. The resultant composition of the sample was: six people identified as working class, twelve as middle class, and six made no identification. Although class processes in social life are less about formal identifications and more reliant on the deployment of mundane distinctions (Bourdieu, 1986a) the data in this article shows that classed identifications remain important in how such distinctions are structured, used and felt across social space[4]. In the next section we outline how social class - the processes and principles of social classification - is continually made and remade through the routine and continuous work of distinction.

Class and Distinction

3.1 As we argued above it is clear that most sociological accounts have not embraced social class as an explanatory framework for elucidating how we conceptualize, form and enact our love relationships (for a notable exception, seeIllouz, 1997). Yet, as Lynne Jamieson notes, it is generally recognized that personal relationships 'are not typically shaped in whatever way gives pleasure without the taint of practical, economic and other material circumstances' (1999: 482). 'Taint' is a good word here because it is generally assumed that economic and material 'circumstances' matter in love only insofar as they dictate material relations (e.g. how much money is available to the household). Yet in terms of how individuals 'feel' about one another class is often regarded as meaningless:
It is very difficult to work in a rich empirical way with class categories. You can only develop them on an objective income basis, or on structures of work and employment. You cannot relate them to how people live and think, eat, how they dress, love, organize their lives and so on. If you are interested in what is going on in people's minds, and the kinds of life they are leading, you have to get away from the old categories (Beck, 2000: 43).

3.2 Beck asserts that one cannot relate class to the meaningful activity of individuals because the 'objective' categories of work, income and employment do not relate to the way they 'eat', 'dress', 'think' or 'love'. Yet such an understanding of social class is premised on a methodology which conflates the notion that there exists in the social world economic classes (defined in relation to the capitalist mode of production) and a type of economic consciousness which pervades (or does not) the action of individuals within such 'real' classes. What this affects is a further belief that, because such consciousness cannot be seen in a 'rich empirical way', class does not influence the ways in which people live and, for our purposes, love. These aspects of individual life, it is argued, are not part of the 'old categories' but are organized according to some other relations which are definitely not class based but are perhaps best expressed as subjective 'preference' or 'taste'.

3.3 Yet it is precisely these aspects of social life which the whole corpus of Bourdieu's work has addressed as the bedrock of class relations. Indeed one of the strengths of Bourdieu's analysis is his absolute rejection of the type of reductionism found in Beck's work. He writes: 'Social classes do not exist [...]. What exists is a social space, a space of differences, in which classes exist in some sense in a state of virtuality, not as something given but as something to be done' (1998: 12. original emphasis). Bourdieu's construction of social space as a 'market' of symbolic goods which are attached to, and deployed from, specific subject positions conjoins the situated practice of social actors to the objective relations in which they are situated without reducing class relations to class in itself relations.

3.4 Importantly, Bourdieu's analysis of class is one that uses a relational, not a substantive, theory of human action and feeling. Using the conceptual apparatus of 'habitus', 'field' and 'capital', Bourdieu provides an analytic framework in which to comprehend both individual action and social effect. For Bourdieu, social actors' practice results from the relationship between habitus and the deployment of various capitals within sets of social conditions (fields). Habitus has been described as a 'second sense', 'practical sense' or 'feel for the game' (Johnson, 1993) that equips social actors with a practical 'know-how'. It is 'embodied history, internalized as a second nature and so forgotten as history' (Bourdieu, 1990: 54): in other words, it involves a set of durable and transposable dispositions of which one is not necessarily - or indeed usually - conscious. Habitus represents Bourdieu's attempt to theorize the ways in which the social distinctions are incorporated into subjective dispositions. Habitus therefore expresses social difference because it is itself differentiated along axes of class, gender, race and so on. For our purposes, this is important, since we want to argue that although the 'choice' of a love partner is made on the basis of apparently subjective dispositions - desires, preferences and tastes which are felt as individual and unique - these dispositions are socially ordered. In other words, our sense of being 'comfortable' and 'at home with' certain people is socially organized and produced. As a result, we will feel comfortable with people with whom we share (what we have termed) 'habitus compatibility' because situated in a similar social space with another individual we can experience a common 'feel for the game'[5].

3.5 Above all, for Bourdieu, this commonality of habitus is achieved through the possession and deployment of various forms of capital. Bourdieu identifies three key types of capital - economic, cultural, and social[6] - each of which can only be 'traded with' or capitalized upon when it is able to be converted into the fourth type of capital - symbolic capital - that is, when it is legitimated and thus socially recognized as a valuable resource (Bourdieu 1986; Skeggs, 1997; Swartz, 1997). So, for example, working-class people might possess high levels of cultural capital which can be locally traded (i.e. has a value in terms of an immediate social location) but which lacks any broader legitimacy[7]. This is why different forms of cultural and social capital cannot be relativised: only some forms are legitimated and hence only some forms have value.

3.6 We are most concerned here with cultural capital since, as we will show, it was cultural dimensions that were used by participants in the research as significant 'markers' of difference when they talk about love and intimate relations. Even when economic indicators were used, they were deployed to align money with 'taste' so that wealth marked particular dispositions, knowledges, and the ability to know, want and value the 'right' things[8]. We found that research participants deployed cultural capital as markers of distinction across a range of axes: around employment status; around education (organized as educational attainment, schooling background, 'intelligence'); around morality (organized according to a system of values and beliefs); and around the body (organized according to dispositions such as speech/accent, clothing and bodily adornment, the consumption of food and drink).

3.7 Across all these axes, participants emphasized the importance of having a partner who knew, valued and wanted the 'right' things and with whom they would therefore feel 'comfortable'. We suggest that this is not simply an expression of subjective preference - although that is of course how it is felt - but involves the use of a social schema for evaluating and assessing individuals in order to discern the 'right' sort of person who is in possession of the 'right' sort of capital. As Bourdieu argues, our position in social space is not only central to the formation of our own 'sympathies and antipathies, affections and aversions, tastes and distastes' but also guides us to 'an environment in which one feels "at home" and in which one can achieve that fulfilment of one's desire to be which one identifies with happiness' (Bourdieu, 2000: 150).

3.8 It follows from this that our conceptions of who is 'right' for us are influenced (though, as we will show, not determined) by our position, or 'post', within social space (which is not co-terminous with physical space or geographical location). Armed with our own specific 'tastes' and dispositions, themselves the product of our own social position, we seek a 'compatible' partner with which to fulfil our idea of happiness. As a result, Bourdieu argues that,

people located at the top of the space have little chance of marrying people located at the bottom, first because they have little chance of physically meeting them [and] secondly because, if they do, accidentally meet them on some occasion, they will not get on together, will not understand each other, will not appeal to one another (Bourdieu, 1998: 10).

3.9 What Bourdieu is describing are forms of compatibility and non-compatibility which the phrase 'having things in common' encompasses but does not explain. Bourdieu's work is aimed at explicating the social processes through which 'having things in common' is produced so that we can account for how 'common habitus' are organized according to the distribution of capitals across social space. In what follows we take this up to explore how 'habitus compatibility' is central to heterosexual intimate relationships. We explore how classed identities are themselves deployed and reproduced through conceptions of heterosexual partnerships, how 'types' of people are imagined as suitable intimate or sexual partners, how relationships work on the basis of compatibility between these types of people, and how the wrong types of people are represented.

3.10 First, though, it is important to make a note about how the people in this research talked about class. In all of the discussions which follow class is invoked with little of the embarrassment and evasion recently noted by Savage et al (2001). No doubt this is partly a methodological issue since Savage et al asked their respondents to place themselves within a class system whereas the participants in our study are referring to classed persons[9]. For this reason, we take issue with Sayer's (2002) argument that embarrassment around class occurs because social actors are aware that class is an unjust system which produces distorted moral evaluations. As we will show, people may be very ready to 'read' class in terms of a set of personal properties which are more or less naturalized (and indeed the very term 'classy' conveys this attribution of class to the person). Further, their ability to do so invokes precisely the kinds of moral evaluation that Sayer is concerned with. That is, people are morally and ethically judged in terms of signifiers that are classed. This, we suggest, is because class is increasingly conceptualized in terms where the 'personal characteristics' of knowledge and taste are deemed to be expressions of moral worth (Skeggs, 2004) rather than as a system of inequality.

Class and Compatibility: Can love conquer all?

4.1 If ideas about compatibility with a partner are guided by one's tastes and dispositions, which are themselves produced and structured within a broader economy of social life, then finding the 'right' person depends on identifying a partner with the correct dispositions. The following interview extracts, taken from discussions with two people about how 'background' is important in intimate relationships, show the ways in which cultural capitals are employed to make crucial distinctions about potentially compatible partners.
PJ: Do you think it's important to have similar backgrounds [in a relationship]?
William [age 36]: I think it makes things smoother and it also makes the relationship more comfortable sometimes, because it is sometimes hard to aspire to a different class level. Going in, from my experience, going in and knowing the right knives and forks, having dinner and having the first experience of having wine with a meal, they were all first experiences from places and friends of people I'd gone to. But I learned that, I learned about the finer food and wines and things. And yes I do, I think it helps to make the relationship more comfortable if it's on the same level, sort of class system. [...] I don't know, I like to think I'm fairly broad minded. You can be a bit resentful of different class differences [...]. But I think if you really love someone it can be, you can overcome those barriers. Whether they resurface as you develop into that more calmer phase of things, as the things that irritate you start to re-surface again, that remains to be seen. It's hard to say, it depends on the strength of your feelings. [...] It might be a situation with money, or social commitments where you're expected to go to certain dinners. I mean, my sort of family could never see a time when they were expected to wear a black dinner jacket and tie [...] But on the other point of view I think that some of my friends, that perhaps I've known at college or I've met through working, would find it hard to pile around a big family table eating fish fingers, chips and beans.

PJ: Do you think class plays a significant part in having a relationship?
Ruth [age 52]: I don't think so, I don't think so at this level. I think if you start getting into the upper classes I think it does, it certainly matters in the upper classes. Having said that I'm quite snobby.
PJ: In what way?
Ruth: I don't know, I wouldn't go out with - I know this sounds awful, I can't believe it - I couldn't go out with anybody that just had a manual labouring sort of job. And that is being snobby, that's awful.
PJ: Why couldn't you?
Ruth: I just couldn't, I wouldn't have anything in common with him. And yet, you know, these sorts of guys work for me and I think the world of them, they're lovely lads, but I couldn't have a relationship with them. [...] I need stimulation I think and I do tend to be a little bit, what's the word, I don't really look down on them I tend to, I think I maybe do have a bit of an attitude with people like that. You know if I go out at nights, say I'm down at [the pub] and I'm having a drink, and somebody comes up to me and says 'Ah, ya al'rite pet, ya wan a drink?' I'll just go 'ugh'. [...] I have a girlfriend who [...] went off with a plumber. And he's a lovely guy but you know she says, 'we've got nothing in common at all', and she says, 'even when we go out to restaurants I'll have to keep saying, telling him, he's always picking up the wrong knife and forks'. And she says 'But I love him to bits', and that's fine, that's great, but I'm a snob like that, it's bad.
PJ: So you couldn't love him to bits?
Ruth: [shakes head] It would be horrendous.

4.2 In both of these extracts we see the ways in which cultural capitals are central to conceptions about the suitability of partners. Both William and Ruth talk in various ways about how failures to possess the rights forms of cultural capitals would significantly trouble a relationship. Whilst William and Ruth speak from different (self-defined) classed and gendered positions they use almost identical capitals, inhabiting the same 'symbolic market', to make a number of distinctions. For instance, for William, who identifies as working class, the thought of being in particular middle class social situations makes him feel anxious; for Ruth it is the idea of having a relationship with a working class man which would embarrass her. Yet both deploy 'food' and 'eating' as central to their explanations of how such comfort and anxiety is experienced and expressed. As we see in both quotations there is a constant elision between ideas of 'comfort' and a standard repertoire of representations of correct and appropriate tastes and dispositions.

4.3 An important aspect of this is, as we argued above, that capitals are not generally recognised as something that one simply has but something that expresses what one is. For instance, whilst both William and Ruth focus on aspects of food and drink, these are viewed as expressions of the 'type' of person who deploys them. For William, 'learning' about wine and how to use knives and forks correctly is essentially about learning to be a particular type of person who is analogous to certain social spaces. Yet learning such competencies is not sufficient grounds for William to dismiss his anxieties about formal 'dinner' situations. Such situations, he says, are outside his 'background' (both his historical and current location in social space) and something which he and his family have not been exposed to. For Ruth, who identifies as middle-class, it is precisely this form of 'dinner table' competency which is central. She identifies this lack of cultural capital in another as a potential source of embarrassment (and horror). For what if the man could not ask for the right wine? How would she then be positioned?

4.4 The participants in the study were often equivocal about whether love could operate as a transcendent force which would make these types of social differences irrelevant (what we might characterize as the 'love conquers all' discourse). William, above, hedges his bets with the comment, 'I think if you really love someone ... you can overcome those barriers'; and Ruth acknowledges that it is possible to 'love someone to bits' despite class differences. Others, in fact, were more explicit:

Ellen [age 56]: I think today, the kind of education that we have makes it possible to operate between different worlds. The fact that [my partner] and I could have such a strong relationship - he was brought up as a Bedouin in the desert.
PJ: So love can overcome some differences?
Ellen: I'm not sure it's love so much as the kind of education that we've had now. I think it gives us a literacy across many backgrounds.

Douglas [age 22]: When it comes to love, love can transcend a lot of things like that, I really believe it can. It's the morality of the people that matters.
PJ: So love can overcome...
Douglas: Yeah it can, it certainly can, I think.

4.5 Whilst these extracts seem to suggest that relationships are easily possible between people of different classed positions they do not move us far since the signifiers used here to indicate what is important (education, literacy, morality) are themselves already classed. 'Working-classness', as we explore below, is frequently configured in terms of ignorance and immorality, so the terms used to confer worth on an existing or prospective heterosexual partner are likely to fail when it comes to working-class people since they are so often deemed devoid of that worth (Skeggs, 2004). As we show in the next section the signifiers which Ellen and Douglas use - education and morality - are themselves signifiers of classed distinction which are at work in the formation and enactment of intimate relationships.

Opposites Attract: managing distinction

5.1 The examples above are the simplest and clearest expressions of how class differences can be invoked in the intimate sphere. Yet it would be misleading and na´ve to think that intimate relations depart from, and proceed to produce, a well ordered set of relations with uniform results. Indeed, in the above account from Ruth we see a description of a relationship in which difference between partners, regarded by her as undesirable, is acknowledged as a foundation for love. In fact, the majority of the interview data shows examples of how such difference often arises in relationships. But the point is that such difference is never regarded as meaningless but, on the contrary, an important aspect of a relationship which must be carefully managed.

5.2 For example, the following extract from an interview with Susan describes the way in which class distinctions emerged during her marriage:

Susan [age 31]: I come from a working class background, so did John, but when I went to university I was changing. I was getting more knowledge, obviously, and, like, my speech, and you know how I relate to people, I was growing, you know what I mean, and he was still working class. And I was working class, but he felt as if I was changing into middle-class, getting middle-class values and, even my ambitions. He said: 'You're changing. I don't fit into this middle-class life style you have'. And he said, 'You're leaving me behind'. He felt as if I was moving on and leaving him behind. But I always kept my working class values, even though I was at Uni and stuff like that, it didn't change me, but he thought it did. Just my...obviously you can't talk to people, if you're in a professional role, you cannot be going 'round talking Geordie and stuff like that, I mean, on the telephone to doctors and stuff like that, so I did change, I had to, but he didn't like that change. And I was mixing with a different social class, you know, and we got invited to a party and they were really high managers and stuff, I was talking about...because I see everyone as equal, that's the way I look at it, they're no different to me just because they're in that job or whatever, but John felt intimidated, and I didn't pick up on it at the party, he felt really intimidated by the people who were there and he came over and said, 'I'm going, I don't fit in here', you know, and he went.

5.3 While William (quoted earlier) highlighted a persistence of class of origin, despite an ability to deploy relatively-newly acquired forms of cultural capital, Susan's account, here, speaks to a sense of displacement and of what she has lost. For both William and Susan, their class histories (their backgrounds) persist, but they have different experiences of how they persist. The pain of Susan's experience is palpable as she explains how her development of middle class competencies (in speech, knowledge, values) introduced a particular set of problems into her relationship. For her partner, John, this change created a sense of anxiety, a type of discomfort centred around not fitting in with Susan's new 'lifestyle'. But more than that, he felt that they themselves no longer fitted together, that she was 'leaving him behind'. For Susan there is a sense of being positioned between what she was (and still is - she makes reference to always keeping her working class values) and what she has become. This is the pain of class movement, produced because of the need to move across social space and, as a result, the impact upon those relationships with people that one, literally, leaves behind.

5.4 This dynamic movement through time and space is precisely what gets lost when class is theorized in terms of a set of static signifiers (job, housing, etc) waiting to be filled by interchangeable social actors. People do not live in an eternal present and Susan's history, like that of so many 'upwardly mobile' women, betrays the cost and the pain attached to such mobility. Yet what Susan is expressing is not the shame expressed by the women in Lawler's (1999) or Walkerdine's (2003) studies[10] - the shame of not having always held the markers of distinction; the fear of 'getting it wrong' and so risking exposure and ridicule. Susan is expressing a different kind of pain, attached to the disjuncture between her partner's assessment of her ('You're changing') and her own sense of herself (I'm not middle-class'). Her defensiveness ('I always kept my working-class values'; 'I see everyone as the same') suggests she is less sure about this than she appears[11], and echoes Walkerdine's (2003: 243) comment that 'upward mobility [has] a deeply defensive aspect'. And no wonder, because there are clear losses for Susan - the loss of her partner, and the loss of a place to which, as her partner reminds her, she cannot easily return. With the appropriation of her changed accent and increased (or changed) knowledge comes a loss of intimacy. Susan exposes some of the contradictions of upward mobility as a state to which everyone should be able to aspire and which only those with a 'faulty' psychology would fail to desire. She shows that through the repositioning of herself in social space she becomes, for her partner, someone else.

5.5 This problem of becoming someone else is itself fostered and created in relations of gender where movement in social space impacts on relationships differently for men and women. For instance, the men in the study gave no evidence that there were, or would be, issues such as those described by Susan if they occupied 'higher' positions in social space than those of their female partners[12]. Yet important distinctions about such differentiated class positions were expressed by the men in a number of other ways. For instance, middle-class men often made distinctions in relation to working-class women, describing them as people that they 'wouldn't be seen dead with'. Interestingly, working-class women were especially described in terms of repellence which, always 'read off' from the body, was also the basis for forms of desire and sexual attraction:

Barry [age 56]: There's women I wouldn't have dreamed of going out with, except if the sex thing was there. Just because I wouldn't be seen dead... That sounds really snobby but that's the way, that's the way. I would have thought, oh god, no. It does affect you, you look to, I suppose you look to your type [...] I go to [the pub] and the place is full of lumpy Geordie women I would just not be seen dead with. They may be perfectly all right, and of course I see them at their best, which is actually when they are at their worst, you know, and they're all pissed. And [my wife] would never dream - I mean she gets drunk, but she wouldn't actually behave like that.

5.6 Whilst these women may be suitable sexual partners they are most certainly not the right types of people with whom love relations could be formed. This is further - and more starkly - expressed by Douglas, a young middle-class man, when he accounts for why he couldn't have a relationship with a working-class woman:

Douglas [age 22]: I mean you can spot them a mile off, they've all got Kappa tracksuits on and, you know, eating pasties and putting people's windows out, I mean it's stereotypical but it's bloody true. They really don't seem to know how to behave. I mean I couldn't go out with someone, even if they had the genetic predisposition to intelligence, I couldn't go out with someone with like a fringe going out like this, you know in a Kappa tracksuit because we wouldn't get on. What the hell would we have in common, you know? The morality and the background is so different. If I start talking about anything to do with what people talk about, cultured things, she wouldn't have a clue what I was talking about.

5.7 Douglas acknowledges that he is working with 'stereotypes' but this extract indicates precisely the ways in which these fictions may well function as truths (Walkerdine and Lucey, 1989). That is, working-class women become constituted, across a range of sites, as physically repulsive and therefore lacking any moral worth or intellectual ability. What is read off from these women's bodies is a lack of morality, an ignorance of culture, and, more broadly, the right ways of being and doing (Bourdieu, 1986a). Working-class women may, of course, have their own contemptuous ways of talking about these middle-class men, but the point is that their respective discourses are not of equal value. The working-class women who are the targets of Douglas's contempt lack legitimated cultural capital (symbolic capital). In the face of a middle-class norm, their difference can only mean inequality (Walkerdine and Lucey, 1989).

5.8 This is particularly apparent in the following extract from a discussion with Victoria, a young working-class woman who is in love with a middle class man:

Victoria [age 18]: I'm common as muck but John's like ever so properly spoken and what-not. And he's brought up very well [...] If it's just me and him together we're both common as muck together, we're both just raw. But in front of his Mam and Dad he sits like this [up straight] and drinks his cup of tea with his little finger up and I've got to do the same and I'm like, nah. So I don't know, it's sort of like a clash of worlds with John. But that's interesting.
PJ: And what's that like when you are doing that, what does it feel like?
Victoria: [I think], is this the kind of relationship I should be in where I have got to put an act on, like I said before? [...]
PJ: And do you feel like you are putting an act on?
Victoria: I'm getting used to it now, I think it's just growing on me. In actual fact it does me good, because you see me sitting here and I'm all slumped and what-not, and I should be sitting up all nice and polite [...] In a way it's a learning experience [...] I suppose really I think, well he's worth it, he's worth making the effort for.
PJ: But you say it's like a clash of two worlds?
Victoria: Mm.
PJ: Do you feel as though you fit into that or...
Victoria: I could, I could fit in.
PJ: Do you feel as though you do?
Victoria: No. I suppose what I'm trying to do is instead of me trying to adapt to them, I'm trying to get them to adapt to me, to get them to get used to the fact that I sit slouched and don't sit upright all the time. Trying to get them used to the fact that I eat with just my fork at my Sunday dinner, and don't use my knife as well. So that's just a mission of mine, to bring them down to my standards! [laughs].

5.9 Far from transcending social class the love relationship, in this configuration, actually reproduces class distinctions. In the mundane detail of everyday life (knives, forks, posture, polite gestures) the symbolic economy that structures social space is brought to life in the form of 'two worlds' that are felt to 'clash'. These are not two equal worlds but one which is 'posh' and one which is 'common as muck'. As a result, Victoria is ultimately unable to sustain the argument that she is aiming to bring her partner's parents 'down to [her] standard' (which would suggest 'common-ness' as a socially desirable characteristic) and acknowledges that she is 'making an effort' for her partner. As we can see, class distinctions do not prohibit relationships and it would be misleading to suggest that they did. And indeed, as Victoria suggests, distinctions can be managed and negotiated when the couple are on their own. However intimate relationships are not solely conducted in the privacy of the couple but involve extended family, friends, and colleagues. It is through these social relationships - the wider context of social life itself - that individuals come to reflect upon and to adapt to the distinctions that structure, not just their intimate relationships, but the whole set of social activities in which they are engaged. For this reason, whilst such distinctions do not prohibit love relationships they are perpetually present within them.

The Appeal of the Middle Class

6.1 The main point we are making in this article is that the distribution of various forms of capital across social space, and the use of these capitals to make distinctions about the types of people who possess and deploy them, are organized according to a system of stratification (which is itself differentiated according to gender, sexuality, ethnicity and so on). In short, those with the ability to demonstrate masterful possession of symbolic capitals are positioned as 'higher' than those without them. Sometimes, those 'lifestyles' described by the people interviewed as 'on a higher level' were deemed extremely desirable and something to which they aspired. Yet what is striking about such aspirations is how they are fundamentally contradicted by normative ideas about love and intimacy. Consider the following extract from an interview with Barbara:
PJ: Do you think it's important to have similar backgrounds?
Barbara [age 51]: Well unless you want to play a role, you know. I think my, I think you need to be comfortable and I can only speak for me, I would...I went out for a while with somebody who was very wealthy who, you know everybody thought I was mad not to want to be involved with him because he had lots of money, part of the county-set, you know, beautiful home a bit like a small stately home type of thing. And I think I...well I wouldn't go to the hunt for one, there are limits to what I will compromise, I wouldn't go to things like the hunt. And he always used to say, now you won't say anything if any of my friends bring up hunting, and I said well if your friends hunt then you'd better not have me...because I really couldn't keep quiet about it, if they said anything about it, because I just really, I can't understand people doing it.

6.2 Barbara here describes a relationship in which she felt she had to 'play a role', experienced a distinct lack of 'comfort', and was forced to compromise her values. We saw above how Victoria also described aspects of her relationship with John which required her to 'put on an act'. In Barbara's account the issue of hunting serves as a point at which she makes a distinction between sets of 'beliefs' to express her feelings of comfort and discomfort about social space. This is the social space of the 'country-set' who live in 'small stately homes' and who have lots of money. To 'fit in' with these people Barbara felt she couldn't be herself and, even though she clearly would enjoy the material attributes of the 'country set', she is not prepared to play a role other than that which she regards as her authentic self.

6.3 Similarly, during discussions with Mark, who had earlier in the interview said that he would like a 'middle class lifestyle', the same issues raised by Barbara become visible:

PJ: Do you think you could have a relationship with someone who was middle class?
Mark [age 35]: Initial gut instinct is: I would like to think so.
PJ: And could you describe what that would be like, what she would be like?
Mark: [pause] I've just changed my mind because no I couldn't. I'm just about to say yes and sort of characterize what she would be like and then I think of what she would be like and I'm thinking 'nah, it doesn't appeal to me'. Because I was thinking civilised dinner parties and genteel and let's have tea on a Saturday afternoon and I'm thinking, oh Christ, it sounds boring. So no. Initial yes, but thinking about it, no.
PJ: So why is that, what's the initial yes and then the no?
Mark: The initial yes is like the life style appealing to me, sort of thinking oh that's nice, they've got a nice car and a nice house and a golden Labrador dog and 2.2 children and they're not worrying about the bills. That side of it appeals to me. And then I think about the fun aspect and I think, nah, it would be boring.
PJ: What would be boring about it?
Mark: You'd always be on edge, for fear of showing yourself up, for fear of slipping out of that class. So that leads me to believe that deep down I am working class.

6.4 Mark desires certain attributes of the middle class (the nice house, the nice car, the financial security) but, for him, that lifestyle is located in a different social space and, importantly, embodied in a different type of person. Such social spaces, and people, induce in him 'fear' and make him feel 'on edge'. The reason for this anxiety is clearly because Mark is worried about 'slipping' and revealing what he regards as a 'deep down' working class identity. But his reflections on that anxiety reveal something else - a lack of a felt affinity with middle class life: it would be 'boring'. Like the women in Skeggs' (1997) ethnography, he does not want to take on 'the whole package of dispositions' associated with being middle-class.

6.5 In a similar way to Barbara, Mark points out the requirement to play a role in such situations but also allows us to see the difficulties in attempting this form of self-felt masquerade. And this further shows the entrenched interrelationship between subjectivity and social space which is embedded in, and expressed by, the habitus. In terms of Bourdieu's analysis both Barbara and Mark are expressing the dis-ease - the lack of feeling 'at home' that comes with operating in a field with which their habitus is not compatible. Far from having the 'second sense' that would make their actions in that context feel 'natural', their (real or imagined) existence in a different field would involve a conscious acting-out of the 'right ways of being and doing' (Bourdieu, 1986a). And this is because the habitus is not a social garment to be put on at will, or a role voluntarily performed or played, but a sedimented and enduring sense of self which provides a generative mechanism for one's own sociality.


7.1 While the experiences and opinions presented in this article may look like the expressions of rational choice, in terms of how individuals select partners on the basis of sharing common 'lifestyles', what we hope to have shown is that such rationality is founded on deeply-felt feelings of being 'at ease' or 'at home' with another person which are themselves the products of social organization. Love relationships are highly subjective but the actions and choices on which they are based are embedded within normative relations of social class. The oscillation between absolute subjectivity and sociality is a condition of love itself - one achieves the state of intimacy only at the point that one forms a social relationship with another person. But in forming that social relationship one has first made a number of judgements about the person with whom one is to love. These are not merely cognitive and conscious judgements made by atomistic individuals choosing the desired attributes of a partner from a lifestyle checklist but are decisions which are conditioned by established and enduring symbolic systems.

7.2 Love relationships are, perhaps more than any other relationships we found or inhabit, based on a belief in authenticity. We believe that in love we are most 'at home' with ourselves and with a partner who loves us for what we are, for the 'real' version of ourselves. It is for this reason that the idea of 'compatibility' is important. But why two people are compatible is not, contrary to commonsense notions, altogether mysterious. As we have seen compatibility is conceptualized and 'made' through a process in which individuals situate themselves, and others, in relation to an economy of symbolic goods. That is not to say that people only love those who occupy the same positions in social space, nor that they could love anyone who occupies such a position. Clearly that is not true, as is indicated by some of the data presented here. However, social space impinges upon, organizes, and to some degree dictates, how and whom we love. Which is another way of saying that when we love we do so as active social agents, capable of making choices, but that such activity is, as Judith Butler nicely puts it, 'improvisation within a scene of constraint' (2004:2).


We are grateful to the three anonymous referees who took time to carefully read this article and offer helpful comments. We also wish to thank our colleagues in the Identities, Technologies & Society research group at Durham University for their support. Johnson acknowledges, again, the contribution of the people who took part in the research on which this article is based.


1 It is not that we are claiming that class is not 'done' in non-heterosexual relationships. However, we are working with data based on interviews about heterosexual relationships only. While the heterosexual encounter as a site for the production of gender has been widely discussed (for example: Butler, 1990, 1993; Jackson, 1999), this encounter has rarely been seen as producing class. No doubt this is an effect of a long tradition of considering class solely in economic terms, as we go on to discuss. There are important departures from this emphasis, as we also discuss.

2 For an excellent overview of this move within feminist theorizing, see Hey, 2003.

3 Indeed, several of the participants in this study spoke in this language (invoking 'low self-esteem', for example) when discussing why they would feel inadequate in the company of someone of a 'higher' class position.

4 Skeggs' (1997) work provides a clear example of the ways in which individuals (in this case, white working-class women) often dis-identify with the identity category 'working-class'. Duncan (2005) has recently argued that class remains important in terms of people's 'lived experience' but that the formal categories of class are being linguistically and analytically expunged from both sociological work and wider social discourse: in this context, class is not a 'zombie category' but, its reverse, a 'black hole' (Duncan, 2005: 74. See also Ribbens-McCarthy et al, 2002).

5 In other words, if habitus is a 'feel for the game', fields are the 'games' in which we either do or do not feel we can easily operate. For Bourdieu, a field is a 'network, or a configuration, of objective relations between positions' (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 2002: 97). He argues that the social world consists of numerous overlapping fields (artistic, commercial, educational etc) all of which are likely to have somewhat different 'rules'. However, middle-class people are better equipped to operate across a range of fields - or at least in the games that are seen as worth 'playing'.

6 Economic capital consists of income and other financial assets; cultural capital refers to various cultural goods and services; social capital inheres in relationships and connections (see Skeggs, 1997; Swartz, 1997). Bourdieu's defining break with Marxism lies in his demonstration that economics is not the only, nor necessarily the most meaningful, way to talk about class inequalities.

7 One example is that mentioned in Skeggs' (1997) research: the young working-class women in the research prided themselves on being good dancers, but this was not a form of competence that had wider legitimacy: hence it could not be converted into symbolic capital.

8 Cultural capital, for Bourdieu, can exist in three forms: in an embodied form (dispositions which equip social actors with the requisite codes to decipher cultural forms); in an objectified state (cultural goods) and in an institutionalized state (educational credentials) (Bourdieu, 1986b).

9 See Ball et al (2004) who, like us, found little embarrassment, defensiveness or evasion in class talk with their respondents.

10 As Valerie Walkerdine puts it (in a gloss on her own and Lawler's work) for 'upwardly mobile' women, 'the present is lived in relation to the shame of the past and the fear of exposure and ridicule' (Walkerdine, 2003: 245).

11 Especially as she characterizes her classed movement in terms of 'growth'.

12 Space does not permit a thorough exploration of this gender difference, but we will note that it is unsurprising given that marriage to a middle-class man has conventionally been seen as one of the routes to 'social mobility' for working-class women (see Lawler, 1999). Further, our culture is filled with representations of middle-class men 'bringing up' working-class women (think of My Fair Lady and Pretty Woman) while the reverse movement is rare and is primarily marked in terms of a male 'freeing' female sexuality (the classic example being Lady Chatterley's Lover).


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