Local family historians in the north of England are not only intent on "finding" their ancestors but in adding "flesh" to the bones of genealogy. Many are as interested in the social life of their ancestors as they are in their family tree or pedigree and, through their research, they excavate particular social and classed histories which combine discourses of land, labor, love, and loss. As well as deepening a sense of the workings of class in England, their research renders class identity more contingent than other contemporary public and media-driven versions. This article argues that family history and genealogical research destabilizes readings of English class identities as fixed, bounded and inescapable by revealing the vagaries of fate and chance and by making explicit other relevant and overlapping social distinctions in the provenance of one's ancestors.
The middle class-ification of Britain
Jeanette Edwards, Gillian Evans and Katherine Smith
The articles collected in this special section of Focaal capture, ethnographically, a particular moment at the end of the New Labour project when the political consequences of a failure to address the growing sense of crisis among working-class people in post-industrial Britain are being felt. These new ethnographies of social class in Britain reveal not only disenchantment and disenfranchisement, but also incisive and critical commentary on the shifting and often surprising forms and experiences of contemporary class relations. Here we trace the emergence of controversies surrounding the category “white working class“ and what it has come to stand for, which includes the vilification of people whose political, economic and social standing has been systematically eroded by the economic policies and political strategies of both Conservative and New Labour governments. The specificities of class discourse in Britain are also located relative to broader changes that have occurred across Europe with the rise of “cultural fundamentalisms“ and a populist politics espousing neo-nationalist rhetorics of ethnic solidarity. This selection of recent ethnographies holds up a mirror to a rapidly changing political landscape in Britain. It reveals how post-Thatcherite discourses of “the individual“, “the market“, “social mobility“ and “choice“ have failed a significant proportion of the working-class population. Moreover, it shows how well anthropology can capture the subtle and complex forms of collectivity through which people find meaning in times of change.