Social Inequality and the Sociology of Life Style: Material and Cultural Aspects of Social Stratification. (Focus on Economic Sociology)

Article excerpt

DIETER BOGENHOLD (*)

ABSTRACT. The rising importance of dimensions such as age, gender, nationality, ethnicity, political attitudes, and multiple choices to organize the notion of "life course" has made the older class concept appear obsolete to the research sociologist. My thesis is that the current expanding discussions of life styles are not necessarily a substitute but a valuable supplement to social stratification theory. Life style research can contribute to the question of the relevance of the class concept. The result of my investigation shows that life style research, when connected to the writings of Thorstein Veblen, Georg Simmel, and Max Weber, can enrich research in the social sciences.

I

Introduction

MANY PEOPLE HAVE ARGUED that the semantics of class has lost its earlier attractiveness. The rising importance of dimensions such as age, gender, nationality, race, political attitudes, and the multitude of choices in organizing one's life course has rendered the debate about the concept of class obsolete. Some argue that the semantics of class no longer seems appropriate for analyzing and interpreting society. This perception is closely connected to the emergence of entirely new topics such as individualization and the plurality of life styles. My main thesis is that the currently expanding discussion on life style is not necessarily a substitute but an important supplement to the tradition of social stratification research. What people "are" and what people "do" can no longer be conceptualized by a simple one-to-one-fit. The concept of life style can provide a link between social rank and social practice. The logic of how people organize their leisure time and how they spend their income is not a simple mirror of income level but must be regarded as being embedded in social behavior.

II

Social Stratification

THE DEBATE ABOUT THE RELEVANCE of the concept of class is unresolved at the end of the 20th century. The past 100 years have witnessed the establishment of a capitalist society that has, on balance, revealed a strong bond between creativity and destructiveness. This bond is a source of innovation and prosperity (Bogenhold 1995). Average living standards within the population continuously improved during the 20th century. Economic growth triumphed while average weekly working hours were reduced. One question about class concerned the social distribution of economic wealth among different population segments. The visibly increasing rise in disposable time that people won during this historical process and the rise in income that allowed them to develop new patterns of personal consumption and leisure activities, patterns of behavior that had already been revealed with a strange ambivalence by Riesman and colleagues (1950) during the middle of this century, are worth noting.

From a historical perspective, we see production and consumption constantly changing (Becher 1980). This is reflected in a rapidly changing succession of topics in the history of economic and social thought (Stihler 1998). Whereas Max Weber ([1905/1906] 1993) attributed the success of the industrial revolution to the Protestant ethic, our contemporary understanding of that success is different. Economy and society are increasingly dependent on the levels of effective consumer demand. A constant rise in the production of goods must find a market outlet (Camphell 1987; Mason 1998). If ascetism served as a foundation for the development of a capitalist economic system in Max Weber's world, then the connection between production and demand, that is the cycle of production, sale, and consumption, has in our understanding become the foundation for the modern economic society: no production without demand and vice versa. (1)

The enormous rise in productivity in European countries since the middle of the 19th century has led to changes in social and occupational structures as well. …

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