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The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain Hardcover – February 15, 1999

ISBN-13: 978-0231096669 ISBN-10: 0231096666 Edition: 0th

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Product Details

  • Series: Leonard Hastings Schoff Lectures
  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press (February 15, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0231096666
  • ISBN-13: 978-0231096669
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.2 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,673,178 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

"Class," the greengrocer's daughter Margaret Thatcher once remarked, "is a Communist concept. It groups people as bundles, and sets them against one another." The notion of social and economic classes has certainly been a durable one, and it has proven useful to not only Communist theoreticians but also historians and social scientists of all stripes. Nowhere does the idea of class seem quite so powerful as in Britain, writes London University historian David Cannadine in this engrossing study: Although his fellow historians there have largely abandoned class analysis in their work, social distinctions and divisions persist and remain powerful. That historians (notably among them the Marxist scholars E. P. Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm) and politicians now prefer to disregard those distinctions, Cannadine believes, is the result of "the shift from the traditional preoccupation with people as collective producers to the alternative notion of people as individual consumers"--the triumph, in other words, of market capitalism. Yet, Cannadine continues, it is through the lens of class that Britons "understand and describe their social worlds," and not through other idealized models. Cannadine examines the work of scholars and political thinkers who have attempted to alter that view, among them Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin, whose "main concern was to change the way the British looked and felt and thought about their society and themselves." However well intentioned, such efforts are doomed to failure, Cannadine argues, and although Tories and Labourites promise a classless society to come, the British view will likely remain class-bound. --Gregory McNamee

From Publishers Weekly

Class has been a touchstone for historians of all ideological stripes over the last century, but no consensus has emerged. "The rise of the middle class," for instance, has been located in every century of British history from the 14th to the 19th. Clearly, something is amiss. Here Cannadine pragmatically reframes the question, looking at the perception, rather than the reality, of class over the last 300 years of British history and attending to the ways that political commitments have shaped writers' and politicians' conceptions and rhetoric on the issue. What he finds is startling: consistently, throughout the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, three models of class have prevailed in British thought?and within the work of individual thinkers. The first divides Britain into the rich and the poor (a model generally used to foment, or warn of, class war); the second divides society into three parts, the working, middle and upper classes (used to praise the virtue of the middle class); the third presents British society as thoroughly hierarchical, with every individual having a proper place, which is marked off from those above and below by minuscule increments (used to praise and reinforce the "traditional" nature of British society). Ultimately, Cannadine shows that all three models are valid to some degree but that none can claim to represent the rock-bottom truth. The same applies to other modern nations. In the U.S., for instance, the first two models are just as constantly and contradictorily invoked. However, the third is unique to Britain. Therefore, Cannadine finds, it is the third model, that of a steeply graded hierarchy, that is most illustrative of British society and the self-perception of its members. Cannadine succeeds at striking a balance between offering detailed evidence and making a comprehensive argument about a vast, contentious topic; his book is a joy to read.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By R. Albin TOP 500 REVIEWER on November 11, 2008
Format: Paperback
This well written and thoughtful book is a analysis of the concept of class in recent British history. Cannandine is not pursuing detailed historical sociology but is rather primarily interested in how class was/is conceptualized. Cannandine traces the history of different conceptions of class. This is more important than it sounds because Cannandine shows that different conceptions of class often had significant political and social consequences. Cannandine deals also with some historigraphic issues. Indeed, the title of this book refers less to historical realities than it does to the way historians have conceptualized class in analyzing recent British history. The 'Rise' of Cannandine's title refers mainly to an essentially Marxist conception of British history since the 18th century put forward by historians like EP Thompson. The 'Fall' of the title refers to the failure of the simple Marzist model to actually describe historic reality.

For Cannandine, class is the conceptualization of social stratfication and inequality. This is clearly related to economic realities but generally much more complex. The Marxist (though as Cannandine points out, Marx took his concept from classical British economists like Smith) concept of class as determined by individual relationship to the means of production is one concept. Cannandine describes 3 basic concepts of class in recent British history. The first and arguably most important is the concept of class as hierarchy; a finely differentiated and graded ladder of social status. A second is a tripartite division of society - upper, middle, and lower. The last is a dichotomous us versus them concept.
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