Social class

From Academic Kids

Social class refers to the ranking of people into a hierarchy within a culture. The idea of social class entered the English lexicon about the 1770's, with no specific originator. Many sociologists and historians see that "higher" classes control subordinate classes. At times, social class can be related to elitism, and those in the higher class are usually known as the "social elite". This ranking may be legal, as in former Indian castes, or abstract.

Various schools of sociology differ in postulating which social traits are significant enough to define a class. The relative importance and definition of membership in a particular class differs greatly over time and between societies, particularly in societies that have a legal differentiation of groups of people by birth or occupation. In the well-known example of socioeconomic class, many scholars view societies as stratifying into a hierarchical system based on economic status, wealth, or income.


Signifiers of class

Various schools of sociology differ in postulating which social traits are significant enough to define a class. The following traits are sometimes used:

Class models

Two Classes Using wealth as a dimension, many have used a bi-partite model to view societies, from ancient history to the present day:

  • an Upper class of the immensely wealthy and/or powerful
  • a Lower class of the poor and/or weak

Social class formed a very important component of Karl Marx's relations of production. He suggested that the primary social division was between a "ruling class" and a labouring class. Under slavery, this division corresponds to that between the slave-owners and the slaves, while under feudalism, it corresponds to that between lords and serfs. Under capitalism, Marx argued, the capitalists (the bourgeoisie) exploit the working class (the proletariat, or in other words the wage-earners). See labor theory of value.

Note that the Marxist definition of class polarisation is based in the first instance on how money is earned, not how much money is earned. The bourgeois are those who own capital assets or means of production (i.e. business owners), and hire people to work for them. Proletarians are those who do not own means of production and earn their living by working for the bourgeois and receiving wages. However, the amount of money earned becomes important in defining class boundaries, since beyond a certain amount, the capital owned removes the necessity to work for an employer. Persons from intermediate classes such as the middle class own substantial assets and earn higher incomes, possibily making their employment a matter of choice.

When sociologists speak of "class" they usually mean economically based classes in modern or near pre-modern society. Modern usage of the word "class" outside of Marxism generally considers only the relative wealth of individuals or social groups, and not the ownership of the means of production.

Three Classes With the social changes of the 20th century, a gradually developing urban middle class appeared in most Western countries, producing three strata:

  • an Upper class of the immensely wealthy and/or powerful
  • a Middle class of managers and highly paid professionals
  • a Lower class of people paid average or low wages or receiving "welfare". This includes the homeless.

Some view this as an oligarchy, i.e., a ruling class with the assistance of a middling class dominating the working class. Other theories are less critical of the upper classes, seeing them as protectors or innovators (not mere leeches).

Four Classes After the Industrial Revolution a great deal of snobbery arose in Europe and its former colonies as to whether one's occupation got one dirty or not. Jobs became know as white collar if they were clean and safe, or blue collar if they posed a physical threat and got one dirty. Some people maintain this distinction, separating the middle class of workers into white or blue collar.

  • Upper class- live off investments and do not work
  • Upper middle class- work in clean, safe environments and have a degree of economic freedom
  • Lower middle class- work in dirty, dangerous environments and have a degree of economic freedom
  • Lower class- are entirely dependent on pleasing employers and landlords in order to survive

Five Classes

  • Overclass- actively rules the society and makes decisions affecting large groups of people
  • Upper class- Controls some employees and/or renters, but is not a maker of laws or national policies
  • Middle class- Is economically independent, but does not control others
  • Lower class- Is dependent on others, but maintains freedom of movement between rentals and jobs
  • Underclass- Does not have freedom of movement: prisoners, slaves in some societies...

Six Classes

  • Ruling class
  • Leisure class
  • Upper middle class which works to maintain a luxurious lifestyle
  • Lower middle class which works to support a comfortable lifestyle
  • Lower class which works to support subsistence
  • Underclass which is barred from work, so is not allowed to advance its status (prisoners, youth, elderly, women in many cultures...)

Seven Classes

  • Overclass- rulers
  • Upper class- live off investments
  • Upper middle class- live luxuriously from wages
  • Middle class- live comfortably from wages
  • Lower middle class- live precariously from wages, but still own their own home
  • Lower class- renters and squatters
  • Underclass- prisoners, slaves, homeless...

Nine Classes Historian Paul Fussell has developed a nine-tier structure to describe the American class system:

  • Top out-of-sight: the super-rich, heirs to huge fortunes
  • Upper Class: rich celebrities and people who can afford full-time domestic staff
  • Upper-Middle Class: self-made well-educated professionals
  • Middle Class: office workers
  • High Prole: skilled blue-collar workers
  • Mid Prole: workers in factories and the service industry
  • Low Prole: manual laborers
  • Destitute: the homeless
  • Bottom out-of-sight: those incarcerated in prisons and institutions

Ten Classes

  • Invisible overclass- those who can affect sweeping change without ever exposing themselves to public criticism
  • Visible overclass- government leaders
  • Old money upper class
  • New money upper class
  • White collar homeowners
  • Blue collar homeowners
  • White collar renters
  • Blue collar renters
  • Free lower class- homeless
  • Imprisoned lower class

Multiple variations The sociologist Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, with social, status and party classes (or politics) as conceptually distinct elements. All three dimensions have consequences for what Weber called "life chances".

The Lower Class

Most of the historical interest in the idea of class has revolved around middle class people who wanted to learn ways to become upper class. It was Karl Marx who most importantly first focused on the lower class as the primary agent of change in the World. Marx termed the lower class as a "proletariat", thus removing the stigma of the word "lower". "Proletariat" has now come into general usage, although its use is considered suspect by many capitalists.

The most important transformation of society for Marxists has been the massive and rapid growth of the proletariat in the world population during the last two hundred and fifty years. Starting with agricultural and domestic textile labourers in England and Flanders, more and more occupations only provide a living through wages or salaries. Private enterprise or self-employment in a variety of occupations is no longer as viable as it once was, and so many people who once controlled their own labour-time are converted into proletarians. Today groups which in the past subsisted on stipends or private wealth -- like doctors, academics or lawyers -- are now increasingly working as wage labourers. Marxists call this process "proletarianisation," and point to it as the major factor in the proletariat being the largest class in current societies in the rich countries of the "first world."

It should be kept in mind that poor rural labourers are a still a huge part of the human population, and quite possibly still the statistical majority. Their relationship with production is predominantly as landless wage labourers or rural proletarians. The destruction of a self-sufficient peasantry, and its conversion into a rural proletariat, is largely a result of the general proletarianisation of all work. This process is today largely complete, although it was arguably incomplete in the 1960s and 1970s.

Objective and subjective factors in class in Marxism

Marxism has a rather heavily defined dialectic between objective factors (i.e., material conditions, the social structure) and subjective factors (i.e. the conscious organization of class members). While most Marxism analyses people's class status based on objective factors (class structure), major Marxist trends have made excellent use of subjective factors in understanding the history of the working class. E.P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class is a definitive example of this "subjective" Marxist trend. Thompson analyses the English working class as a group of people with shared material conditions coming to a positive self-consciousness of their social position. This feature of social class is commonly termed class consciousness in Marxism. It is seen as the process of a "class in itself" moving in the direction of a "class for itself," a collective agent that changes history rather than simply being a victim of the historical process.

See also

External link

Further reading

  • The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, 1848. (The key statement of class conflict as the driver of historical change.)
  • "Class, Status and Party", Max Weber, in e.g. Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1958. (Weber's key statement of the multiple nature of stratification.)
  • Classes (London: Verso, 1985), The Debate on Classes (London: Verso, 1990), Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis (Cambridge University Press, 1997), all by Erik Olin Wright. (A US sociologist who attempts to reformulate Marx's theory of class to fit modern society.)
  • The Constant Flux: a study of class mobility in industrial societies, Robert Erikson and John Goldthorpe, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1992. (An important analysis of social mobility in a neo-Weberian perspective.)
  • The Hidden Injuries of Class, Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, New York, Vintage, 1972 (classic study of the subjective experience of class)
  • The Death of Class, Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters, London, Sage. 1996. (A somewhat postmodern rejection of the relevance of class for modern societies.)
  • Consumer's Republic, Lizabeth Cohen, Knopf, 2003, hardcover, 576 pages, ISBN 0375407502. (An analysis of the working out of class in the United States.)
  • Rethinking Cultural and Economic Capital ( - Jan Ruppde:Sozialstruktur

fr:Classe sociale it:Classe sociale lt:Klasė (sociologija) zh:社会等级


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