What is Social Class?
In sociology, the term ‘social class’ is most often used to refer to the primary system of social stratification found in modern capitalist societies. Social stratification refers to ‘the presence [in society] of distinct social groups which are ranked one above the other in terms of factors such as prestige and wealth’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p.1). The defining feature of a stratified society, then, is that of inequality in terms of the ‘arrangement of individuals…in a hierarchy of advantaged and disadvantaged life chances’ (Fulcher and Scott 1999, p. 601).
It has been suggested that social inequality is a feature of all human societies (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p.1; Bilton et al 1994, p.34). Sociologists have identified a number of different forms of stratification systems existing in other societies or historic periods, for example, the caste system in traditional India, slavery and feudalism (Bilton et al 1994, pp. 36-41). From a study of other systems it is clear that not all systems of stratification are organised in terms of social class; the caste system for example was stratified in terms of status. In societies where ‘economic relationships are primary’, however, the division of members into groups in terms of similarities in attitudes, lifestyles and occupations is generally termed divisions of class. (Bilton et al 1994, p.36)
For classic sociologist Karl Marx, an examination of the workings of social strata was essential to an understanding of social inequality. Stratification by class was particularly important to him and he in fact argued that ‘all societies, except for the most primitive and tribal ones, were…class societies’ (Fulcher and Scott 1999, p. 605). Marx further argued that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ (Marx and Engels 1848 in Fulcher and Scott 1999, p. 605).
For Marx there were two distinct classes in society; the capitalist class, who own the means of production, and the working class, who own only their labour power which they sell to the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie, in return for wages. Marx believed that the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the working class was one of exploitation; the bourgeoisie exploit the working class as the wages workers receive for their labour is a fraction of the market value of the products they produce. As owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie sell the fruit of the working class’s labour for a profit, thus accumulating more money, or capital, at the expense of the labouring class. Marx felt that the conflicts of interest inherent in capitalist societies would eventually lead to its downfall and to the emergence of a communist society. He believed that once the working class realised the true nature of their exploitation they would rise up and overthrow capitalism.
For Marx, then, the formation of social classes in society results from a given society’s economic structure or base. He argued that ‘classes formed the only significant groups in society’ and inequality was the result of a group’s relationship to the means of production (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p. 14). Another classic sociologist, Max Weber, agreed with Marx that social classes develop when individuals compete in a market economy for economic resources; however he saw other factors as equally important in understanding class composition and divisions in society.
Weber identified four separate classes in capitalist society; the propertied upper class, the propertyless white-collar workers, the petty bourgeoisie and the manual working class (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p. 12). He agreed with Marx that the major class division was between the capitalists and the working class, but argued that divisions could be identified within ‘both the propertied and propertyless classes’ (Bocock and Thompson 1995, p. 13). For Weber, as Haralambos and Holborn (2004, p. 12) state, ‘factors other than the ownership or non-ownership of property are significant in the formation of classes’. Weber argued that an individual’s ‘market situation’ was one such important factor. An individual’s market situation is determined by the skills s/he can offer in the market place. Different occupations offer different skills, and skills that are highly valued or in demand will lead to greater rewards. In this way, social class may be determined by occupation and skills, as opposed to the relationship of individuals and groups to the means of production, because economic rewards affect lifestyle and life chances.
Weber also saw as important in the formation of social groups the concepts of status and parties. Status groups are groups with similar amounts of social prestige or ‘honour’ and parties are groups with common political interests. Status and party groups may or may not belong to, or serve the interests of, the same social class. In this way, status and party groups may cut across class boundaries and thus have the possibility of ‘creating divisions within classes’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p. 13). This idea is obviously in contrast to the ideas of Marx, who argued that the working class would one day recognise their shared situation of inequality and oppression and come together as a homogeneous group to overthrow the forces of capitalism. Criticisms of Marx and Marxist theories include questions as to why the working class has never become a ‘class for itself’, and, linked to this, why the middle class or classes continued to grow rather than ‘sink’ into the working class as Marx predicted would happen as ‘machinery obliterate[ed]…differences in labour’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p. 12).
Weber’s theories have also been criticised. Marxists argue that Weber placed too much emphasis on market position, neglecting the most important class division between the capitalists and the working class. Marxists have also argued that status divisions are closely linked to class divisions, that is, the class in possession of the greatest proportion of property and wealth will necessarily also possess greater status and power.
Despite these criticisms, the theories of Marx and Weber have proved an influential basis for most modern sociological theories of class. Modern sociology is concerned with investigating a variety of questions about class in contemporary society, for example, questions relating to the number of classes that may be identified and the means to differentiate between groups, and also whether it can be argued that there remains an elite ‘ruling’ or capitalist class, and whether the concept of class is still a useful one.
The problems inherent in identifying the number of different social classes in modern society are many and varied and include broad questions of ontology, as well as detailed ones of definitions and boundaries. Occupation is the most common indicator of social class used in present times, but scales vary as to the number of classes identified and the definitions of each class in terms of occupations. Most scales, however, recognise an upper, middle and working class. Within these categories there have been a number of different classifications made, however, again there has been a general agreement that the working class is comprised of workers in manual occupations, the middle class is comprised of workers in non-manual occupations, and the upper class refers to a small group of the very wealthy who own somewhere in the region of ‘7 percent of the nation’s wealth between them’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p.29).
Some sociologists have also identified an ‘underclass’. The underclass is comprised of individuals who are unemployed, or have never worked or who have a particularly weak position in the labour market. Sociologist W.G. Runciman, who developed a seven class model of class structure, defined the underclass as comprising of individuals whose ‘roles place them more or less permanently at the economic level where benefits are paid by the state to those unable to participate in the labour market at all’ (Runciman 1990 in Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p.14). Members of this class include single parents and ethnic minorities, but Runciman argued that it was not their status that placed them in this class but their reliance on state benefits.
Runciman’s model of class structure attempted to incorporate elements of both Marxist and Weberian concepts of class. In general, however, most sociologists have tended to draw on one or other approach and these sociologists are referred to as neo-Marxists or neo-Weberians. Erik Olin Wright’s model of social class can be defined as neo-Marxist. Theories such as Wright’s are concerned with addressing questions such as those outlined earlier regarding criticisms that the working class have not formed a class ‘for itself’ and that the middle class is still very much in evidence and growing. As a neo-Marxist, Wright argues that groups defined by others as distinct social classes, like the professional-managerial class identified by Barbara and John Ehrenreich, in fact occupy ‘a number of strata…and do not have a coherent set of interests of their own’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p. 38). For Wright, the middle class are not a ‘fully developed class’ and capitalist societies ‘remain polarized… between the ruling class and the working class’ (ibid).
Other Marxists and neo-Marxists argue that non-manual routine ‘white-collar’ workers identified formerly as part of the middle class have become ‘proletarianized’, that is, due to the fact that the type of work carried out by this group, and the wages they receive, are not far removed from that of the working classes, this group has effectively merged into the working class. Neo-Weberians such as David Lockwood, however, challenge this view.
Lockwood used Weberian concepts such as market, work and status situation in his study of clerks to argue that, while wages for this group had begun to drop below that of skilled manual labourers, their market position in terms of job security, promotion prospects and benefits still gave them an advantaged position. Since it is argued from a Weberian perspective that social class may be defined in terms of market situation, because, as we have seen, an individual’s market situation affects life chances, the clerks could still be argued to be in a higher social class than the working classes.
Other criticisms of Marxist theories of proletarianization include the theory of embourgeoisement. This theory suggests that, rather than the middle classes sinking into the working class, ‘just the opposite was happening’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p.51). Due to rising living standards among the working class, it was argued, increasing numbers of this group were effectively joining the middle class.
While there are numerous debates surrounding the existence or otherwise of an underclass or a middle class, and even debates as to whether there remains an upper or ruling class in society, one thing most sociologists agree on is that social class is a system of stratification defined by the unequal distribution of social advantage. While the key debate between neo-Marxists and neo-Weberians appears to centre around questions of social class composition, the underlying issues they seek to address are those of class inequality.
Social class, then, is not simply a label applied for convenience in society to differentiate between social groups in terms of similarities and differences in occupation, lifestyle or attitudes; it is, rather, a system of inequality of opportunity. Marxists and Weberians generally agree, despite the claims of other sociologists such functionalists, new right theorists and postmodernists, that there remain substantial inequalities between different social classes. Whether there is, as neo-Weberians suggest, ‘greater plurality of class groupings’ (Bocock and Thompson 1995, p. 14) or, as neo-Marxists suggest, effectively only two significant social classes, the focus of interest for sociologists is to analyse and explain social class as a system of inequality.
- Bocock, R. and Thompson, K., (eds) 1992. Social and Cultural Forms of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press in association with the Open University.
- Bilton, T. et al., 1994. Introductory Sociology. 2nd edn. London: Macmillan.
- Fulcher, J. & Scott, J., 1999. Sociology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Haralambos, M. and Holborn, M., 2004. Sociology: Themes and Perspectives. 6th edn. London: HarperCollins.
- Ritzer, G., 1996. Sociological Theory. 4th edn. Singapore: McGraw-Hill
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