Is about power. The concept of social class has been used by historians to understand the experience, social relationships, and social conflicts of past and present. By the 1960s, historians had established the major outlines of this story. Sometime in the late 18th–early 19th cent., the way in which the British people began to think about their own society began to change. Eighteenth‐cent. society was a hierarchy of ranks and orders held together by relationships of deference and patronage. The new relationships and consciousness of class were associated with economic change, with the dominance of capitalist relationships, and, above all, with the reorganization of work through the division of labour and new machine‐based technologies. Early conflicts were associated with trade unionism and the new technologies. The 1830s and 1840s were decades of conflict associated with constitutional change. There were key periods of industrial conflict in the 1880s and the quarter‐century before 1926.
Behind this interpretation lay a series of assumptions. British writing was dominated by a three‐class model, loosely related to the three factors of production identified by Ricardo in 1817. The aristocracy were rent takers, the middle class were profit takers, and the working class wage earners. A rigid Marxist presentation assuming an increasingly divisive conflict between capital and labour was rare, but the notion of a potential conflict was central to the story. Class was related to market position and hence involved privileges of education as well as property.
This story has been questioned. Eighteenth‐cent. historians have identified a ‘middling sort’ not least in patterns of consumption. The re‐examination of the political events of the 1830s and 1840s yields little evidence of self‐aware conflict groups based upon economic relationships. The closer study of work revealed a lack of homogeneity of experience within the major social classes. Divisions within classes, of gender, party, religion, region, ethnicity, were seen as providing identities more dominant than class itself.