Gentry Distinction: How to be ‘Not-Quite Upper' but ‘More Than Middle' Class in Neo-Liberal Britain

Monday, 11 July 2016: 10:45
Location: Hörsaal 30 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Daniel SMITH, Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom
In contemporary Britain, class is as much alive today as it ever was. However it is complicated by a deepening of inequalities and widening gap between the top 10 and 1%. As such claiming status distinction has become subject to new struggles and challenges. A group whose status distinction has suffered from this exaggeration of wealth and widening inequality is the British upper-middle classes. What this paper outlines is how Britain’s upper-middle class are employing new strategies to demonstrate traditional status distinction. It will provide a comparative reading of three examples of what I am calling ‘gentry distinction’ through an ethnographically informed discussion of the British clothing brand Jack Wills and an interpretative analysis of BBC Three reality-TV show Life is Toff, about the landed family at Great Fulford, Devon. By comparing two different cultural sites of ‘gentry distinction’ what is demonstrated is how new, consumerised and popular genres are drawn upon and refigured to classic gentry scripts and identity claims. The ethnographic analysis of the Jack Wills brand demonstrates how the corporate strategies mimic gentry lifestyle in not merely appearance but substantively by employing economic regimes of restricted gift-giving and patronage to foster social exclusivity. What is evidenced is that an upper-middle class background and heritage become crucial to the successful performance of not merely the brand’s narrative but also to upper-middle class social distinction. Comparatively Life is Toff employs the generic conventions of a foul-mouthed dysfunctional family to give space to gentry distinction. They display disregard for the conventions of middle-class manners and politeness, and moreover, disregard for the judgement of others. The Fulfords of Life is Toff utilise the scripts of the audacious reality TV star to perform gentry distinction beyond the measure of others.