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Social Class and Social Stratification

Class Structure and Class Consciousness

Macroeconomic Impacts on Class Structure

Structural mobility changes in response to such macro influences as industrialization and globalization.

The class structure of a society is influenced by macroeconomic trends and can help push social groups up and down the class ladder. Macroeconomic trends are economic patterns that impact a society as a whole. For example, industrialization—the transformation of a society to an economy and a workforce based on mechanization and manufacturing—had a massive impact on Western economies and societies in the 19th and 20th centuries. As new technology spurred the development of factories and mass production, people had new opportunities for income and wealth. At the same time, increased migration to cities created new urban class structures and sharpened the urban-rural divide in these societies. Industrialization later spread—and continues to spread—to other parts of the world with similar effects.

Another example of how macroeconomic trends impact social mobility is the post–World War II era in the United States. This period saw the largest surge in upward social mobility in American history, in which real wages doubled from 1945 to 1960. This extraordinary growth was fueled by increased consumerism and government programs that created new opportunities, such as the G.I. Bill, which provides funds for veterans to attend college. Greater access to higher education increased social mobility for many people.

Globalization—the expansion of international trade, international investment, and multinational corporations—is another macroeconomic trend that shapes class structure and social mobility. Globalization can increase upward mobility in societies. When foreign companies set up operations in countries with lower costs, new job and income opportunities are created for some workers. However, sociologists point to current trends in globalization that show massive profits for multinational corporations, with relatively little benefit for the low-income countries. In the United States, globalization is fueling greater inequality. Some workers benefit enormously, working in professions that provide very high incomes and great economic security. This leads to upward mobility for some, as very high salaries, generous 401K programs, and stock option plans boost one class of workers to new levels of wealth. On the other hand, globalization results in downward mobility for many other Americans, as job opportunities for other workers are moved overseas, where workers in lower-income countries will work for much lower wages. As a dominant macroeconomic force, globalization creates greater social and economic inequalities, impacting the class structure of individual societies as well as the structure of global stratification, or inequalities between nations.

Class Consciousness

Class consciousness, an awareness of one's own social status and others' social status, can impact how much power a social class holds within society.

Class consciousness, a key principle of Marxist thought, refers to having an awareness of shared economic, social, and political circumstances and an understanding that working together with others in the same class is necessary in order to solve problems faced by all members of the class. German theorist Karl Marx (1818–83) first developed this concept. Class consciousness can play a role in people's sense of identity and can impact social behavior. People consciously and unconsciously recognize markers of class, including speech patterns, clothing styles, tastes, preferences, and assumptions. An awareness of class can lead individuals to form relationships, expanding their social networks, or to avoid forming relationships. In the United States, cultural patterns and traditions tend to encourage people to avoid overtly referring to class or thinking in terms of class. This is linked to a cultural narrative that identifies the United States as a classless society. Sociologists tend to reject this narrative, pointing out that class has significant impacts on individuals' lived experiences and on American society as a whole.

Marx theorized that as workers become aware of their common grievances against the powerful classes—the bourgeoisie—they develop an awareness of themselves as a social class. Thus for Marx, class consciousness is born out of an economic struggle. Some sociologists continue to investigate how class conflict leads to and shapes class consciousness and the impacts of the presence or absence of class consciousness in a society.

Class is tied to economic, social, and cultural power. Trends and traditions in a given society shape how much people are aware of or interested in these ties. Sociologists who study class consciousness investigate how class consciousness impacts the amount and kinds of power different social classes have in a society. They look at what issues serve to increase or decrease class consciousness. For example, some researchers point to lack of class consciousness among white Americans of lower socioeconomic status. Some voters in this group will vote against their own economic interests, supporting candidates whose platforms mostly favor the wealthy, support certain religious views, or serve to maintain patterns of racial stratification. One explanation for this social behavior is the absence class consciousness—these voters do not identify with a socioeconomic class. Their identities may be rooted in other concepts, such as the narrative of the American dream or the long history of anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in the United States. Sociologists analyze both the causes and effects of increased or decreased class consciousness and investigate how this impacts different social groups and society as a whole.