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Class refers to a stratification system that divides a society into a hierarchy of social positions. It is also a particular social position within a class stratification system: lower class, working class, middle class, upper class, or other such class designation. It is a method of social ranking that involves money, power, culture, taste, identity, access, and exclusion. Conceptualizations of class belong not only to sociology, but also to the popular press, the marketplace, the political process, and to those who perceive themselves as being located within a particular class position. People who do perceive class distinctions are ”class conscious” and may feel the impact of class in powerful ways. Others barely notice it or refuse to concede its existence despite living with its effects. To some people, class connotes differing economic circumstances, lifestyles, and tastes; to others it is about social status, esteem, and respect.
New students of sociology will quickly encounter the concept of class. They will become familiar with the writings of Karl Marx and Max Weber and other prominent social theorists, who have contrasted, debated, explained, and elaborated the works of these foundational figures over the past century. They will be introduced to the research methods and applications that have alternately advanced and constrained class studies, especially in the USA. They will also find that the topic of class is both ideologically and emotionally charged, and that its usage in academic as well as interpersonal settings can be fraught with controversy and strong sentiment.
Marx made the concept of class central to his theory of social conflict. A class structure requires a power relationship: in Marxist terms, those who own productive property and those who do not, those who dominate and those who are subordinate.
He divided industrial society into owners of capital (capitalists) and workers (the proletariat). In developed capitalist economies, the capitalist class owns most of society s assets and wields most of its economic and political power although the working class constitutes the majority of the population. In between capitalists and workers is a class that consists of professionals, shopkeepers, craftsmen, and other independent proprietors. Like capitalists, they own their own means of production and hire workers to assist them. They contribute much of the labor in creating or selling their products and services, and therefore can be their own ”workers. Members of this class sometimes identify their interests with capitalists, and sometimes their interests lie with those of the working class.
Weber, like Marx, believed that economic stratification produces social classes, but he argued that other forms of social stratification occur independently of economics. Weber s was a three-dimensional model of stratification consisting of: (1) social classes that have an economic base; (2) parties which are oriented toward the acquisition of social power; and (3) status groups delineated in terms of social estimations of honor or esteem. Whereas Marx dealt mainly with the conflict of capitalists and workers, Weber added other groups with opposing interests: workers and managers, finance capitalists and borrowers, and sellers and purchasers of products and services.
In Weberian terms, classes are aggregates of individuals who share similar ”life chances” with respect to education, work, healthcare, and in their ability to build personal wealth. Dominant classes achieve a monopoly on more lucrative markets; less dominant classes get only partial market participation. Classes reflect a particular community of interests, and class members share more than economic position or situation. They share cultural tastes and outlooks — lifestyles, educational credentials, occupational positions — that can cloak the economic basis for the particular class interest underneath.
Research traditions within sociology use both objective and subjective social class measures. Objective social class is defined in terms of objective criteria such as income, occupation and education as decided upon by the investigator. Subjective social class, by contrast, is measured in terms of how people identify themselves as class members within a hierarchy of social classes defined within the research. The class structures of several American communities (and cities) were identified in classic studies from the late 1930s through the late 1960s. In 1941, W. Lloyd Warner and his associates, studying a New England community, conceptualized classes as groups of people, judged as superior or inferior in prestige and acceptability to those ”below or above them. Coleman and Neugarten, for their 1950s study of Kansas City, converted class to status groupings to test symbols of social status such as neighborhood, social clubs, educational attainment, and occupations. True to Weber s conceptions, the results showed that social status awareness was concentrated on status symbols and the relative status rank of individuals. The top and bottom status groups were seen as relatively small and defined as the ”rich and ”poor, leaving one large middle class, a perception of class that persists in the USA today.
Community research helped to soften the Marxist class model and to demonstrate that a continuum exists among classes ranked primarily by occupational prestige, lifestyle, and status attainment. Attention was shifted away from economic interests towards subjective differences among individuals. Americans are popularly thought to be unburdened by the class distinctions that exist in older societies, although recent research suggests that the USA is not a classless society. Class differences and the movement of families up, and especially down, the economic ladder present a contradictory but compelling picture of stagnating mobility and emerging elites. Despite controversy and disagreement among researchers, it appears that interest in the concept of class is on the rise.
- Coleman, R. P. and Neugarten, B. L. (1971) Social Status in the City. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
- Warner, W. L., Meeker, M. L., & Eells, K. (1949.) Social Class in America. Science Research Associates, Chicago, IL.
- Weber, M. (1982) The distribution of power: class, status, party. In: Classes, Power, and Conflict. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
- Wright, E. O. (2005) Foundations of a neo-Marxist class analysis. In: E. O. Wright (ed.), Approaches to Class Analysis. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.