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Definition: social class from The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology

A social category in a stratified society which is usually defined by its members having roughly equivalent SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS. There is some debate as to the generality of this criterion of socioeconomic status. Some authorities stress that less obvious factors such as lifestyle, prestige, attitudes, identifications, etc. are better descriptive measures, and many use the notion of LIFE CHANCE(S) as the primary defining feature. Others, notably those with a Marxist orientation, stress that the means of production in a society dictate social class sufficiently strongly to outweigh other factors. Usage, thus, follows theory.


Summary Article: Class, Social from International Encyclopedia of Political Science

The concept of class is one of the most important and most controversial in social sciences. It is important because classes have been traditionally considered a key to the study of social inequalities and social and political behavior. It is highly controversial because different definitions and contrasting perspectives on the role and impact of class have been proposed. In everyday language, class refers to social groupings based on similar occupational conditions that have the same access to economic, social, and political resources. It is also assumed that experiencing analogous social inequalities favors the formation of a specific cultural identity and influences social and political behavior. However, in scientific language, classes are to be considered a “modern” phenomenon. This means that whereas social inequalities have always been present in human history, the specific inequalities based on class require two conditions: the equality of citizens before the law and the development of a market economy. These conditions occur after the end of the 18th century with the advent of modern society, shaped by democratic revolution and growth of the market economy and industrialization.

Therefore, classes can be defined as social groupings that are based on similar occupational conditions in societies where a market economy prevails and the formal equality of citizens before the law is recognized. People belonging to the same class de facto experience an unequal access to economic, social, and political resources depending on the jobs they occupy, despite the formal equality of rights. However, they can change their class through social mobility. This possibility clearly distinguishes classes from other social groupings, such as religious castes or medieval estates, for two main reasons. First, in the case of castes or estates, inequalities are established by traditional laws. Second, the class position of people cannot be changed, because social mobility is not allowed (as for castes) or is subject to special conditions defined by law (as in the case of medieval estates). In modern societies, mobility is a normal condition, although classes presuppose a certain degree of enclosure.

While this definition of class is widely accepted in the literature, sharp differences have emerged along two dimensions. First, opinions diverge on the economic base to be used to analyze the class structure. Second, strong disagreement persists on the cultural, social, and political consequences of classes. On the one hand, this is related to the specific mechanisms that trigger the transformation of classes from mere aggregates of people into social groups: collective actors that recognize common values and interests and organize themselves to pursue common goals. On the other hand, scholars differ in the evaluation of the impact, over time, of classes on social behavior (lifestyle, consumption) and political behavior (participation, voting).

In the next section, the main approaches to the origins and consequences of social classes are discussed. First, the perspectives of classical authors such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and émile Durkheim are contrasted. The influence of these authors on the ensuing research is extensive. Contempo rary studies are still affected by their different views. After discussing the most important proposals for reframing class structure in the light of economic and political changes, attention is devoted to debate over the past decade on the decline of social classes: To what extent do social classes re main im portant as an in strument for un derstanding contemporary societies?

Contrasting Views in the Classics

Among the classicists, Marx is the author who gave greatest emphasis to social classes. The struggle between classes plays a fundamental role in the historical development of human societies. Classes are social groupings that share a specific position in the control of the means of production. Each historical type of society is characterized by a dominant mode of production and specific classes. The capitalist mode of production is based on the private property of the means of production and on the role of the market in regulating productive activities and the distribution of incomes. Capitalist societies were therefore increasingly shaped by the capitalist mode of production with its two main classes: (1) the owners of the means of production (capitalist bourgeoisie) and (2) the workers, who are employed by the former and receive a wage. According to Marx, there was an objective conflict of interest between these two classes, because the industrial bourgeoisie could maintain, and strengthen, its position of economic, social, and political privilege as far as it was able to exploit the workers and extract from their activities a surplus value as determinant of profit. Over time, however, the growing crises of the capitalist economy would worsen the conditions of the working class and would encourage its social and political organization, which, in turn, led to a revolutionary change in the mode of production and the advent of a socialist society.

Marx was aware that the class structure of capitalist societies was more complex. At the same time, he recognized that the making of the working class as a historical actor did not depend on economic factors alone. He frequently discussed the sociocultural and political factors that could affect the formation of class consciousness (as he puts it, the passage from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”). However, over time the extension of the capitalist mode of production would lead to the increasing polarization of bourgeoisie and workers and to an overwhelming trend toward conflict. The history of the past 2 centuries has shown the importance of classes and class struggle, but it has also demonstrated that Marx overestimated the role of class conflict and overlooked the autonomous role of social and political processes and institutions.

Weber was convinced of the important role played by class and class conflict. However, he saw class structure in a more flexible way, which allowed him to account for the increasing differentiation introduced by the development of a modern capitalist economy. This was done by defining classes as social groupings based on a common position in the market rather than on the control of means of production, as Marx asserted. Therefore, a class is composed of people who have similar life chances, affected by the income they can obtain in the market. This common power in the market (“class situation”) is determined not only by the ownership of the means of production but also by wealth, education, and professional skills.

Another difference concerns the passage from a common class situation to the formation of self-aware social groups that organize themselves to pursue common interests. While Marx was convinced that the economic dynamic of capitalism would lead, in the end, to class consciousness and collective action, Weber was much more skeptical about this possibility. He thought that people within the same class situation would share life chances, social inequalities, styles of consumption, social and even political behavior, but they would usually remain aggregates of individuals rather than becoming self-aware social groups based on social interaction. In this respect, the German sociologist distinguished between mass action and community action. A common class situation usually brings about mass action. But the passage to community action requires certain noneconomic conditions: Status groups (religious, ethnic groups) must be absent or marginal; a large number of people must be in the same class situation; because they are concentrated in large firms and urban neighborhoods, it is relatively easy to organize them; and intellectuals will play an important role in the diffusion of a class ideology and in the organization of the people involved. Despite these clear-cut differences in their view of classes and class conflict, both Marx and Weber recognized the importance of social inequalities as a determinant of social behavior and source of conflict in modern societies.

A different perspective was adopted by another founding father of sociology, Durkheim. Writing at the end of the 19th century, he emphasized the increasing division of labor as the main feature of modern society. A fundamental requisite of this society, based on the high differentiation and integration of specialized roles, concerns the recruitment and reward of individuals. It is necessary that each individual be called to fulfill the function he or she will perform best and receive an adequate reward for his or her efforts. In other words, people must be motivated to perform different roles thanks to structured social inequalities. This is the main function of stratification in the social system according to Talcott Parsons, the most influential figure in the sociology of the 1950s, who developed the functionalist premises of Durkheim's work. Parsons and other scholars of the functionalist approach, such as Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945), gave a more optimistic account of the role of social stratification in the stability of society. This trend—which was also influenced by the economic and social climate of the postwar period—fostered the growth of descriptive research on social stratification, especially in the United States. Social strata were constructed by reputational analysis (asking people to rank others) or by a mix of reputational evaluations and objective indicators, such as wealth, income, and education. Usually, as in the well-known work by Lloyd Warner (1963), these studies presented a classification based on various status groups (upper classes, middle classes, and lower classes).

Reframing Class Analysis

In the 1950s and 1960s, the stratification approach largely prevailed in the study of social classes. This situation changed in the 1970s with the development of new empirical research based on occupational classes. In this strand of literature, there is a shared critique of the descriptive features of stratification studies and an emphasis on the “relational” attributes of classes. This means classes are to be defined on the basis of their position in the market and in the productive process, as in Weber and Marx, and therefore in relation to the other classes with which they compete for greater resources. However, the origins and aims of the new studies are clearly different. The component most influenced by Marx and the Marxist tradition is more interested in the analysis of the middle classes and in its consequences for the proletarianization of work, originally foreseen by Marx. The other component is closer to the Weberian perspective and looks at the empirical study of classes as the necessary basis for a more adequate analysis of social mobility.

The followers of the Marxist perspective tried to account for both the persistence of the petty bourgeoisie and the unexpected (in Marxist terms) growth of the new, dependent, middle classes (managers, supervisors, technicians). In designing an empirical map of social classes, Erik Wright tried to solve this problem through the concept of “contradictory class locations.” In his studies, he distinguished between the ownership and control of the means of production. This allows him to explain the new middle-class positions as based on various degrees of control over the concrete use of the productive means without formal ownership. As a consequence, top and middle-level managers, technicians, and supervisors may also experience variable degrees of autonomy in performing their role.

In the 1980s and 1990s, another influential class map was provided by John Goldthorpe. He distinguished between a labor contract and a service contract. Employment regulated by a labor contract entails a short-term and specific exchange of money for work, while a service contract involves a delegation of authority, specialized knowledge, and a certain degree of autonomy on the part of employees. On this basis, a class schema for empirical analysis and comparisons was worked out. It included seven main classes: (1) service class (managers, professionals, higher-grade technicians), (2) less skilled white-collar workers, (3) petty bourgeoisie (artisans, small proprietors), (4) skilled manual workers, (5) unskilled manual workers, (6) small farmers, and (7) farm laborers. In practice, this schema is similar to the map designed by Wright. Both account for the growth of the new middle classes and an increasing differentiation among manual workers. Both of them can be used in diachronic and crosscountry comparisons. For example, over time the class structure of advanced countries shows a decline of the old middle classes (the petty bourgeoisie); an increase in professionals, technicians, and white-collar workers (the new, dependent middle classes); and a growing differentiation among manual workers. Cross-country comparisons may help analyze the differences among advanced countries, which are related not only to the productive model and organization but also to the role of the state and the extension of nonmarket forms of coordination (“varieties of capitalism”). Interesting insights may also come from comparisons between advanced and developing countries. However, the main application of the Goldthorpe schema has been in the comparative study of social mobility. In this respect, robust research findings have been produced on the strong influence of classes on social mobility. These findings do not confirm the expectations of the liberal theory that industrial societies tend to become more mobile and more open. Rather, mobility rates (in particular relative rates) show a high degree of temporal stability. The chances for the children of less privileged classes of moving to the upper positions of the class structure remain low, without revealing significant differences among countries.

In spite of their different origins and goals, both the Marxist and Weberian maps achieved similar results and shed light on the class-based social inequalities typical of advanced capitalist societies until the 1970s. However, in the following period, there was a double change. On the one hand, the crisis of the “Fordist” model of production brought about a decline of large firms and their organization of labor. New forms of productive organization developed, based on flexible specialization and networks linking firms. On the other hand, welfare systems had to be restructured to deal with increasing costs. As a consequence, important changes affected the whole class structure. New maps had to be designed. “Postindustrial” societies are characterized by the growing role of the service sector. The traditional axis of stratification based on industrialism has shrunk, both because of the new technologies that reduce the use of labor and because of increasing trends to outsource manufacturing activities to developing countries. In advanced capitalist societies, new activities have developed in business services (finance, legal and accounting services, software programming), in social services (health, education, and welfare services), and in consumer service (restaurants, laundries, services related to leisure). Therefore, as Gøsta Esping-Andersen has pointed out, a new axis of stratification has emerged. This requires that new groupings be more clearly distinguished within the middle classes and the workers. The roles of professionals and scientists, together with that of technicians and semiprofessionals (schoolteachers, social workers, technical designers), become more important in the middle classes and have to be differentiated from those of managers and supervisors. Among the workers, it is necessary to distinguish new figures such as skilled service workers (police officers, hairdressers, etc.) and unskilled service workers or service proletariat (cleaners, wait staff, shop assistants, etc.). The new groupings tend to experience specific forms of career regimes and life chances and therefore are involved in processes of class closure that differentiate them from the traditional classes based on the Fordist industrial model.

Persistence or Decline?

Two macrochanges have influenced the debate on social classes in the past decades: (1) postindustrialism and (2) globalization. According to many scholars, the crisis of Fordism, the emergence of a service-based economy in advanced capitalist countries, and the increasing delocalization of manufacturing activities toward the developing countries have brought about a decline in social classes. The basic arguments in support of this thesis refer to two main trends: On the one hand, the increasing fragmentation of class structure and the growing individualization of life chances, and on the other hand, the weakening of class-based attitudes and behavior. For example, according to Ulrich Beck (1992), social inequalities tend to become “classless,” whereas Anthony Giddens pointed out that—as a consequence of fragmentation and globalization—classes are no longer experienced as a significant source of collective identity.

Those who share the idea of a class decline usually refer to both dimensions: the loss of influence over social inequalities and social behavior. In contrast to this thesis, other scholars strongly criticize this view of a decline. However, they mainly focus on the relationship between classes and social inequalities. Goldthorpe provided a clear synthesis of the latter position, which makes wide reference to empirical findings. He pointed to the more detailed arguments advanced in support of the decline: insecurity and mobility. The theorists of decline assume that within the context of globalization, the threat of unemployment is not confined mainly to the members of the less advantaged classes but tends to become pervasive. As for mobility, globalization and postindustrial forms of economic organization are supposed to break up the continuity of working careers and of membership in the traditional occupational classes. The growth of flexible and nonstandard work and the emergence of new, more fragmented work trajectories reduce the significance of class as a lifetime experience. However, in contrast to these expectations, empirical findings show the persistence of class as the main determinant of inequalities. Thus, it is true that economic changes have brought about increasing job insecurity and a growth of nonstandard employment, but the chances of losing their jobs remain much higher for skilled and especially nonskilled workers than for professional, administrative, and managerial posts. In addition, empirical research demonstrates that inequalities in important spheres such as income, health, and access to education remain strongly associated with the class of people, defined according to the job they hold. As for social mobility, there is clear evidence that the overall association between class origin and destination is still characterized by high temporal stability and, therefore, despite changes in the organization of work, classes continue to provide lifetime experiences.

In the debate on class decline, particular attention has been devoted to the influence of class on voting and political participation. According to the theories that point to the weakening of class experience, class politics gives way to new forms of political behavior influenced more by cultural factors, lifestyles, and elective choices. One of the most powerful factors that feed this trend is the dramatic reduction in size of the traditional working class and the growth of service workers and the new middle classes. As a consequence, class cleavages become a less important basis for social identity. Their place is increasingly taken by other divisions, such as race and ethnicity, gender and sexuality. Many scholars also share Ronald Inglehart's (1990) thesis of the new “postmaterialism” in the politics of the advanced societies. This view sees politics no longer as influenced by the search for economic well-being and the defense of material interests but as increasingly affected by a personal search for autonomy and self-fulfillment and by a greater cultural interest in the quality of life.

As in the case of social inequality, scholars mainly involved in empirical research have rejected the thesis of a declining class influence on politics. They have pointed to findings that clearly question the hypothesis of a class dealignment—a reduction in the level of class voting—controlling for changes in the relative size of classes and the overall popularity of parties: Old relations between classes and parties—such as those of workers and left-wing parties—still hold. It has also been noted that a possible realignment will usually reveal new links between class and voting patterns rather than their disappearance. Thus, in concluding his accurate comparative study, Geoffrey Evans pointed out that the theory of a generalized decline in the class basis of voting is wrong.

However, in assessing the influence of class, a more clear-cut distinction has to be made between the impact on voting patterns and party affiliation and the strength of social classes as political actors, that is, as self-aware collective subjects, capable of pursuing their own interests in the economic field as well as in the political arena. Empirical findings show the persistence of this impact on voting and party affiliations, but the trend does not contradict the weakening of class on another dimension: the formation of self-aware social groups. There are clear signs of a decline in this respect, especially with reference to the role of the working class in advanced countries. Its decline in size, the fragmentation of working conditions, and the growth of the service economy have substantially weakened the working class as a social and political actor. This trend is confirmed—with variations from one country to the next—by a decline in trade union membership and union strength and by the changes that have affected left-wing political parties in their attempt to adjust to the transformations in class structure. The opening up of income differentials, at the expense of the less privileged classes, the restructuring of welfare systems, and the overall weakening of social protection are clear indicators of this decline.

Therefore, it may be said that class still clearly influences social inequalities and life chances (income, health, education, social mobility), but when it comes to action its impact is weaker. To return to Weber's distinction between mass action and community action, one can maintain that the influence of class on social and political behavior (i.e., on some aspects of consumption and on voting) usually takes the form of mass action involving aggregates of individuals. Over time, however, the impact of class on the formation of self-aware social and political groups through community action has declined.

See also:

Cleavages, Social and Political, Conflicts, Electoral Behavior

Further Readings
  • Beck, U.1992 Risk society: Towards a new modernity. London: Sage.
  • Dahrendorf, R.1959 Class and class conflict in industrial society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Davis, K.; Moore, W. E. Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review, 10, : , 1945.
  • Esping-Andersen, G. (ed.). 1993 Changing classes: Stratification and mobility in post-industrial societies. London: Sage.
  • Evans, G. (ed.). 1999 The end of class politics? Class voting in comparative context. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Giddens, A.1973 The class structure of the advanced societies. London: Hutchinson.
  • Giddens, A.1994 Beyond left and right: The future of radical politics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Goldthorpe, J. H. Globalisation and social class. West European Politics, 25, : , 2002.
  • Hall, P., & Soskice, D. (eds.). 2001 Varieties of capitalism: The institutional foundations of comparative advantage. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Inglehart, R.1990 Culture shift in advanced industrial society. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Warner, L. W.1963 Yankee city. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Wright, E. O.1985 Classes. London: Verso.
  • Trigilia, Carlo
    University of Florence Florence, Italy University of Florence Florence, Italy
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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