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In Pursuit of the Underclass*

  • John Macnicol

The 1970s saw a wide ranging debate in Britain, initiated by Sir Keith Joseph, on the apparent existence of a ‘cycle of deprivation’. Most participants viewed this debate as having originated in the 1960s, but in fact versions of the general concept of an inter-generational ‘underclass’ have figured prominently in social debates during the past one hundred years. In particular, in the inter-war period there were several investigations of an hereditary ‘social problem group’, investigations which were crucial to a wider conservative social reformist strategy. These investigations produced inconclusive results, however, because ultimately the underclass is a statistical artefact, the existence of which can only be argued by the use of several serious methodological contradictions.

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