Class. It’s the British national obsession, but it’s also notoriously difficult to pin down. Where exactly do we place ourselves and others within a social system, and on what basis? And what how do we then describe these categories so that they can be understood by others? Traditional Marxist definitions based on relationship to the means of production are too simplistic to account for non-economic elements of class, but recent attempts to present an alternative to the traditional tri-partite (upper, middle, and working) class hierarchy have met with a mixed response. We recognise that class is not just social and cultural as well as economic, but we might not always define ourselves in the terms that others dictate.

This is an important issue in my work on late-Georgian England, another period in which class was fluid and flexible. The industrial revolution, global trade, and the spread of democratic ideas all challenged the established order based on ownership of land. New job opportunities opened up, new ways of working were established, fortunes could (for better or worse) be rapidly altered. The growing wealth of entrepreneurs and professionals created an increasingly assertive middle strata of society, while poorer artisans and labourers also began to call for greater political representation. In my thesis, I am looking at issues of power and identity, focusing on a broad group which encompasses the very poor, who were reliant on parish relief, through manual workers, right up to those who owned their own small workshop or retail business. According to Gareth Stedman Jones’ Languages of Class, ‘the dividing line between classes was not that between employer and employed, but that between the represented and the unrepresented,’ so this group was united by their disenfranchisement as well as by economic insecurity. I have tended, for ease, to refer to this group as ‘plebeian’. This was the term employed by EP Thompson in his work on class consciousness in the period, and one that is used by a number of excellent historians with whose work my own research engages. It is therefore a useful term for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean I should use it. As Thompson himself recognised, language is important, and words carry the weight of their historical usage. It is a problem we see, for example, in the debate about the naming of Washington’s football team, and I would tend to argue that words considered offensive by the group they refer to should not be used.

Of course, when we’re studying history, we can’t always ask our subjects what they think about our categories. For this reason, some historians prefer to only use the terms which people at the time used about themselves. I do tend to think we’re justified in using modern categories of analysis if they help us to understand the past – as historians we’re always coming to a subject with the benefit of hindsight, and thus will always, no matter what words we use, have a different perspective to the people of the time. But I still feel uncomfortable using words about these subjects which they themselves might have found offensive. Which brings me to Brodie Waddell’s recent article on the word ‘plebeian.’ Brodie argues that the negative associations of the word make it an inappropriate term for historians to use. We can see from the ‘plebgate’ scandal that it can still be a powerful insult. Unlike Brodie, I have found odd examples of people using the word ‘plebeian’ in self-description – for example in the title of Robert Walker’s 1802 Plebeian Politics, or in the pseudonym of a correspondent to The Examiner in 1818. In both of these cases, however, the word was used satirically, in the same way that Thomas Spence named his journal ‘Pig’s Meat’ in reference to Burke’s comments on the ‘swinish multitude.’ I wouldn’t dream of calling my thesis ‘Power and Identity in the Homes of the English Swinish Multitude.’ So perhaps I need to rethink my use of ‘plebeian’ too. ‘Plebeian’ might be a convenient shorthand, but is that enough reason to use it? And what are the alternatives?

These were questions I raised on Twitter in response to Brodie’s article, and I extend the call for suggestions and discussion here, as I continue to seek a terminology that fits with what I am trying to do in my research. I’m not a fan of the terms ‘common’ or ‘ordinary people’, because many of those who I study were quite extraordinary, and deserve recognition as such. ‘Non-elites’ is a bit vague – do we mean everyone except the aristocracy? Where do we draw the line? I have used the term ‘industrious classes’, which was used by political radicals to define themselves against the idle aristocracy, but as Katrina Navickas pointed out in our Twitter discussion, this was a term used in the administration of the poor law and remains loaded with value judgements. ‘Working classes’, deemed anachronistic by some historians, is perhaps a better bet, but again raises questions about what we do and don’t define as work. Would it include the small-scale tradespeople I include in my ‘plebeian’ group, who perhaps had some little property but were still economically precarious? Jen Morgan explained that she uses the term to mean those who had to work to live (whether or not they were able to obtain such work), including those whose domestic work enabled others to go out to work. Conceived in these terms, the term is a good fit. Subaltern is another useful term, again not used by our subjects themselves, but expressing power relations built on cultural as well as economic factors.

There is, however, no perfect term for group, because the nature of power is such that our terms do tend to be dictated by the powerful. Furthermore, solely class-based categorisations necessarily mask diversity in a whole range of other areas –such as gender, or ethnicity – and power inequalities are present in these distinctions too. This is why it is important to think about our terminologies and to make sure we can define what we mean by them. And so, in my historical analysis of class and the life-cycle, gender and occupational identities within it, it’s perhaps time I ditched ‘plebeian’ for one of its imperfect alternatives, or at least found a better means of justifying its continued use. Please do comment with suggestions or debate – How do you understand socio-economic identities, past or present, and which words are most appropriate for understanding social distinctions in the past?

The issues discussed in this blog have also been raised by Mark Hailwood in a blog post at The Many-Headed monster, and by Brodie and Mark in an article reviewing a conference on ‘plebeian’ culture held at Warwick University in 2009.