Social Class and Social Stratification

Theories of Social Class

Influence of Marx and Weber on Theories of Social Class

Theories of social class and social stratification developed by Karl Marx and Max Weber focus on class divisions, types of labor, and distribution of power in society.
Two German theorists, Karl Marx (1818–83) and Max Weber (1864–1920), influenced the field of sociology, particularly in terms of theories of social class. Both of these theorists wrote extensively on issues of social class and social inequality, or the unequal status and access to opportunities that different groups have within a society. Sociologists continue to use and respond to ideas that Marx and Weber developed.

Marxism, Conflict Theory, and Social Class

Marx defined class as a group of people who have the same relationship to the means of production—the facilities and resources for producing goods—such as tools, machines, and factories. Marx wrote extensively of the relationship between the privileged classes—the "haves," or the bourgeoisie—and the oppressed classes—the "have nots," or the proletariat. The bourgeoisie is a class that owns property, including owning and controlling the means of production. The proletariat is the working class, who own only their own labor. Members of the proletariat are forced to sell their labor because they have no control over the means of production. Marx argued that this relationship is exploitive of the working class because the surplus value derived from work is unfairly appropriated by the bourgeoisie. In Marx's view, the economic system of capitalism automatically creates social stratification, or class differences, in which members of different classes are in an adversarial relationship. Sociologists incorporate Marx's ideas in an approach known as conflict theory. Conflict theorists suggest that social inequality creates intergroup conflict—such as the rich versus the poor—and that the different interests will cause them to be at odds as they attempt to secure their interests.

Marxist theory continues to be important in sociology, but many sociologists have expanded upon Marx's ideas in order to apply them to postindustrial, postmodern societies of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. American sociologist Erik Olin Wright (b. 1947) elaborates on Marx's model of class structure. While Marx analyzed society in terms of two major classes, Wright identifies four classes in the United States: capitalist, managerial, small business, and working class. He argues that power is connected to the control of the means of production but also control over work processes and other workers. Wright's model is less polarized than Marx's but remains focused on questions of which groups dominate a society and which groups are oppressed. He looks at why some workers might behave or think more like capitalists (the bourgeoisie) and notes how people can belong to more than one class. His term contradictory class locations describes how people can occupy more than one class position, based on what type of control they exercise. For example, an executive assistant at a large corporation has a relatively high level of control compared to other administrative workers but is also under the control of a more powerful CEO. The executive assistant may identify more closely with the upper-class managers at the company, although outside of work the executive assistant has less social and economic power than managers do. Wright proposes a larger definition of the working class than Marx did, including those in occupations that involve what he terms "mental labor" but who do not receive high salaries, such as clerical workers. He analyzes modern types of work, arguing that levels of control tied to various occupations are crucial markers of class in contemporary society. For instance, master electricians and architects who work at small firms may have similar levels of income, but they hold different social positions. Their occupations grant them different levels of control. Like Marx, Wright is concerned with dismantling systems that oppress the working class. However, he argues that "taming and eroding capitalism are the only viable options." Whereas Marx envisioned the end of capitalism, Wright considers how the working class might impose reforms on oppressive state and capitalist structures.

Weber and Social Class

Weber agreed with Marx that economic markers are important, but he advanced the idea that other factors, such as education and occupational prestige, determine class hierarchies. Weber described class structure as being based on three major factors: wealth (income and assets), prestige (status position), and power (ability to achieve goals). Weber saw ownership of the means of production, including companies, as important, but he also noted that holding a high position within a company or profession is also a means to acquire social and economic power. For example, a high-level manager in a corporation does not own the business but does benefit from the profits that the business generates. Owning property grants economic power, but it also grants higher levels of prestige. Someone who owns land, for example, has social prestige. Weber pointed out that prestige can also be gained in other ways that do not involve ownership of property or the means of production. Gifted athletes or intellectuals can acquire prestige without owning the sports teams or universities that frame their work. Both wealth and prestige can give individuals greater power in society. Weber saw wealth, power, and prestige as intertwined elements of social class. Weber's multidimensional work led sociologists to use socioeconomic status to understand class.

Influenced by Weber's theory of class, American sociologist Dennis Gilbert (b. 1943) described six separate classes in the United States: the capitalist class, upper-middle class, middle class, working class, working poor, and underclass. The capitalist class is defined as the most elite and powerful group. As the richest one percent of the population, they own most of the wealth in a society, including the vast majority of stocks and bonds. Their large investments have an impact on the rest of society, because their investment choices can have a significant impact on the overall economy. They mostly interact with one another, remaining separated from the other classes. The upper-middle class is relatively wealthy and is characterized by high levels of formal education—a minimum of a college degree and usually a graduate degree. Members of the upper-middle class work in white-collar, fairly high-income professions. They may often purchase status symbols, including expensive homes and vehicles that serve to identify their class status. The lower-middle class is composed of people who earn enough to afford basic expenses. They generally have at least a high school education and often some education beyond high school including specialized training, some college, or a college degree. They typically work in semiskilled professions, for instance as flight attendants or security guards. The working class has relatively low levels of income and is employed in factories or in low-paid white-collar professions such as retail sales workers. Members of the working class sometimes qualify for public assistance programs, such as free or reduced lunch for children at school. The working poor are people whose incomes are minimal and often not enough to pay basic living expenses. They often work in service jobs, which include occupations such as food preparation workers, house cleaners, or lawn and garden maintenance workers. Most members of the working poor do not hold high school diplomas. They may qualify for public assistance, such as housing and food assistance programs. The underclass is a social group composed of individuals stuck in poverty because of high unemployment, low education, or other forms of marginalization such as homelessness. Multigenerational poverty, or poverty that lasts across several generations in a family, is also a characteristic of the underclass. Occupations that involve stigma can also place people in the underclass. For example, impoverished sex workers are part of the underclass, both because of poverty and because sex workers are marginalized by society. Gilbert's model of six social classes provides a framework for discussing social stratification in more precise terms, acknowledging that the lived experiences of members of these groups can be quite different, although there is some overlap between groups.

Gilbert’s Model of Social Class in the United States
Capitalist class Elite, powerful; richest one percent
Upper-middle class Relatively wealthy; highly educated, work in white-collar professions
Lower-middle class Can afford basic expenses; work in semi-skilled professions
Working class Relatively low income; sometimes qualify for assistance programs
Working poor Not always able to afford basic expenses; work in service professions
Underclass Marginalized members of society; stuck in chronic poverty

Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism

Functionalist and symbolic interactionist theories of social class focus on the social functions of class and stratification, or on class as a factor in social identity.

In addition to conflict theory, two other influential schools of thought in sociology are functionalism and symbolic interactionism. Functionalists think of society as composed of many parts that work together as a whole to maintain stability. A functionalist approach to social class might analyze the roles that class structure and social stratification play in society as a whole. From a functionalist viewpoint, stratification works to ensure productivity and efficiency, and to ensure that all types of necessary work get done. Thus a functionalist argument is that social stratification is both necessary and inevitable. Functionalists point out that some jobs require more skill or training or are more important. Few people have the ability to become highly skilled and do these important jobs. Furthermore, people have to make sacrifices, in terms of time, effort, and money, to obtain the education, training, and experience to do these jobs. The functionalist view is that society attaches significant rewards in the form of prestige and income to ensure that these important jobs are filled. Doctors, for example, fulfill an important role in society. To become a doctor, a person must invest a great deal of time, effort, and money in education and training. Society rewards this by bestowing high levels of prestige to doctors, as well as high incomes. However, class inequality is only functional as long as it is sustainable. When the working classes decide that society is not functioning well for them, they might seek social change through actions such as protests and strikes. Functionalists look at how these acts contribute to balance in a society.

Symbolic interactionism strives to understand macro-level patterns (patterns found in a whole society) by examining microinteractions (interactions between individuals). An approach using symbolic interactionism tries to make connections between micro-level interactions and how they can help explain macro-level patterns. Using this lens, social class and social inequality are seen as factors in how people understand themselves and present themselves to others. For example, sociologists using symbolic interactionism note how individual social interactions, such as those between supervisors and employees, are shaped by people's understanding of social class in their society. A symbolic interactionist approach might consider how body language, greetings, personal space, use of slang, and eye contact are connected to class. Consider the social behavior of workers in a high-end restaurant. They may use more formal patterns of speech with customers and restaurant managers than with other workers. This behavior can be understood as a reflection of how the restaurant workers understand their social position as well as an indication of class divisions of the overall society.