German sociologist Max Weber first conceptualized the term life chances in his work on social stratification. Contrary to Karl Marx’s theory of capitalist exploitation, in which social inequality was based on access to the means of production, Weber’s theory of stratification involved three interrelated components: social class, status group, and political affiliation. In sharp distinction to Marx’s notion of working-class struggle as a process of universal emancipation, Weber argued that membership in a social class did not necessarily constitute membership in a community with common interests and experiences. Status groups, in his estimation, operated more like communities of people who shared a similar level of prestige, patterns of consumption, and lifestyle.
Weber’s concept of lifestyle involved two major components: (1) life choices, or self-determined behavior, and (2) life chances, which involved structural probabilities, opportunities, and likelihoods. For Weber, these factors operated dialectically in the development of one’s life course, involving degrees of freedom and self-direction as well as structural constraints. The term life chances refers to the probability of establishing a certain life course, given an individual’s position in the social hierarchy. In this respect, the concept points to the relationship between status and class situation and their impact on one’s vitality. It also refers to how people in similar class and status situations experience common advantages and disadvantages in the pursuit of a favorable quality of life and satisfaction of their needs.
Social class and status position strongly affect one’s ability to access vital social resources, such as health care, food, clothing, housing, and so on, and life chances are often measured in these terms. Studies on health, mortality, crime, and lifestyle, for example, have established direct links between social class and life chances. In times of crisis, affluent and powerful members of society have a better chance of surviving than do members of the lower classes. In addition, researchers have found lifestyle and disease to be strongly correlated. Mortality rates, especially for infants, are often used as a measure of a country’s wealth. Illnesses such as lung disease, diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease disproportionately affect low-income populations, in part because of limited access to health care but also because of poor diet, inadequate medical care, lack of health education, and increased exposure to violent crime. In this respect, life chances refer to a group’s likelihood of survival.
- Bendix, Reinhard. 1978. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Cockerham, William C. 1997. “The Social Determinants of the Decline of Life Expectancy in Russia and Eastern Europe: A Lifestyle Explanation.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 38:117-30.
- Weber, Max. 2007. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Routledge.
- Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society. 2 vols. Edited by G. Roth and C. Wittrich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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