Story: Class

Page 7. New groupings

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Class consciousness

Despite the apparent increase in inequality in the last decades of the 20th century, there was little analysis of class in New Zealand society. There were several reasons for this:

  • The international collapse of communism weakened allegiance to Marxism.
  • The ethnic diversity of New Zealand increased as a result of a growing Māori population and major immigration flows from the Pacific and Asia. This placed a focus on ethnic divisions rather than class divisions. Much government activity was directed at improving outcomes for Māori and Pacific peoples, who were more concentrated in low-income households and less likely to own their own homes.
  • The increasing participation of women in the workforce confused the previous relationship between the male breadwinner’s occupation and family class identity.
  • The traditional New Zealand belief in the value of social equality weakened. A Massey University survey suggested that in 1992, 72% of New Zealanders thought that income differences were too large; by 2009, when another survey was conducted, the figure had dropped to 62%. Only 32% disagreed with the statement that large income differences were necessary for New Zealand’s economic prosperity, a drop from 60% in 1992. It appeared that more New Zealanders were happy to accept an unequal society.

Academic sociologists focused less on class in New Zealand society. Instead new frameworks emerged.

Socio-economic deprivation

From the 1990s the government’s desire to achieve improved outcomes for the whole population drove systematic attempts to find ways of analysing social and economic deprivation in New Zealand.

The Ministry of Education divided schools into 10 groups in an attempt to identify the extent to which their students came from low socio-economic communities. Decile 1 schools were the 10% with the highest proportion of students from poorer communities; decile 10 schools were those with the lowest. The ranking was derived using census information. Student addresses were placed in meshblocks of 50 households, which were then examined from five perspectives:

  • household income
  • occupation: the percentage of parents employed in low-skill jobs
  • household crowding: the percentage of households where people over the age of 10 did not have one bedroom each
  • education: the percentage of parents without qualifications
  • income support: the percentage of parents receiving a benefit.

The five factors were weighted by the number of students from each meshblock; and each school then received a ranking relative to other schools. Attempts were made to address differences in educational performance between schools of different deciles, by targeting special funding to schools in low decile school zones.  

In late 2016 the New Zealand Government announced that was reviewing this system of education funding and exploring how to target resources to those children who most at risk of underachievement in the New Zealand education system. It is envisaged that new funding initiatives would be implemented in 2020.

Atlas of deprivation

Concern about inequalities in health led in 1995 to the development of another index of deprivation. Meshblocks from the 1991 census were combined into small areas of at least 100 people. The exercise was repeated for later censuses and from 2000 atlases of deprivation were produced. The variables used to construct the index of deprivation for 2013 were, in decreasing importance:

  • no internet at home
  • on a means-tested benefit
  • household income below an acceptable threshold
  • unemployed
  • lack of qualifications
  • not owning own home
  • a single-parent family less living space
  • no access to a car

Such an analysis provides a useful measure of social and material deprivation, but measures geographic areas of deprivation, not individuals or families, and identifies poorer communities rather than ranking society in the way that class does.


In the absence of comprehensive class analysis, two market researchers, Jill Caldwell and Christopher Brown, produced in 2006 another grouping of New Zealand society which they labelled the ‘8 tribes’. These were less a measure of material distinctions such as income, occupation or property ownership, than they were distinctions of culture and ways of life. The ‘tribes’ were:

  • the North Shore tribe: achieving – ambitious, heavily mortgaged and suburban
  • the Grey Lynn tribe: intellectual – highly educated frequenters of inner-city cafés
  • the Balclutha tribe: staunch – down-to-earth and provincial
  • the Remuera tribe: entitled – children of privilege and breeding
  • the Ōtara tribe: community – urban, Polynesian, and focused on the family and church
  • the Raglan tribe: free-spirited – laid-back hedonists
  • the Cuba Street tribe: avant-garde – trendy and bohemian
  • the Papatoetoe tribe: unpretentious –urban working people who like a beer with their mates.

This was not a division that allowed for tight statistical analysis, but rather a set of judgements about lifestyle. However, it appealed precisely because in a diverse society the old distinctions of class no longer successfully explained the growing differences and inequalities of New Zealand society.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Class - New groupings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 November 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 May 2011