Social Classes

A social class is a status group of people in society. Status differs as people do different things and pursue different careers. The social class is generally a group of individuals with identical or comparable characteristics as regards relationships of production, ownership and consumption; their legal status; acculturation including education; and family structures.

Whether the social position is set at birth or achieved during a lifetime is often differentiated, giving the individual ascribed status or achieved status. The achieved status is based on merit, skills, abilities and actions. Ascribed status is based on family structures or membership. A class position can be influenced also by race and ethnicity.

Social classes differ in lifestyle, tastes and preferences, as well as in the way they dress, in manners and even in language. A distinct difference of classes is the consumption of social goods. Those in higher classes enjoy higher income, are generally more respected and have higher objectives. Lifestyle influences also the way children are raised.

Theoretical models try to explain how classes emerged. The Marxist theory regards the class as a group of individuals that have similar economic and social relations. Karl Marx (1818-83) defines subjective and objective factors about how classes came into being. The objective factor according to the Marxist theory involves the relationship to the means of production. Some may own land, with means of production, while others own nothing but their labor. The subjective factor involves the perception of people's common interest and similarity, which Marx defines as class consciousness.

The first criterion divides people into owners and non-owners of means of production, capitalists (bourgeoisie) and proletariat. In the Marxist view on capitalism, there is a war between those who control production (bourgeoisie) and wage workers (proletariat) who produce the goods but own nothing. Marx believes that the proletariat's goal is to displace capitalism with socialism changing the social relationships and later to develop into communism. According to Marx, this would lead to a society in which human needs and not profit would be the motive for production.

Unlike Karl Marx's two-class society, Max Weber (1864-1920), a German sociologist and political economist, divides class into four categories. These are upper class that owns property, intelligentsia that has no property, bourgeoisie and workers.

Sociological schools differ in their concept of class. While Marx and Weber have analytical concepts, other sociologists have an empirical approach to social class, linking the income, wealth and education to social classes. The approach of the American anthropologist and sociologist William Lloyd Warner (1898-1970) can be viewed as empirical rather that analytical. Warner divides Americans into three classes, upper, middle and lower, further subdividing them into upper and lower segments.

People born and raised in wealth and coming from reputable families, belong to the "upper-upper class". Individuals who have made their wealth during their lifetime are classified in the category "lower upper class". Here Warner includes entrepreneurs and movie stars. People who have a college education and postgraduate degrees fall into the category "upper middle class". These are doctors, dentists, pharmacists, scientists, university professors, architects, high level civil servants, politicians, artists and musicians. Lower-paid white collar workers, but not manual workers are included in the category "lower middle class". These are owners of small businesses, nurses, teachers and low to mid-level civil servants.

The category "upper lower class" refers to the so called working class, blue collar and manual workers. The permanently unemployed and the homeless fall into the category "lower-lower class" in Warner's classification.

Presently the social class concepts define generally the categories of upper class, middle class and lower class. Members of the upper class are owners and high-standing executives. In the middle class category fall people who own land, deal in trade or are professionally employed, getting the bulk of their income through these activities. People, whose livelihood depends on wages, fall into the category lower class.

Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009), a German-British sociologist, philosopher and political scientist, wrote about a tendency toward a growing middle class in modern Western societies due to the need of highly educated personnel in view of the technological development.

In the United States, the middle class includes also people who would be defined as working class elsewhere. Most Americans identify themselves with the middle class. Generally in the rich countries, such as the U.S., people regard themselves as the middle class due to high living standards.

In Britain the concept about classes differs. Basic characteristic for the upper class in Britain is inherited wealth and land property. Members of the middle class are basically those relying on employment and the respective income.

Social Classes: Selected full-text books and articles

Class Counts By Erik Olin Wright Cambridge University Press, 2000 (Student edition)
Social Classes in Classical and Marxist Political Economy By Milios, John The American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 59, No. 2, April 2000
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
Class Analysis and Social Transformation By Mike Savage Open University Press, 2000
Class Structure and Social Transformation By Berch Berberoglu Praeger Publishers, 1994
Reworking Class By John R. Hall Cornell University Press, 1997
The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain By David Cannadine Columbia University Press, 1999
Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 By Ross McKibbin Oxford University Press, 1998
Class and Party in American Politics By Jeffrey M. Stonecash Westview Press, 2000
Reconfigurations of Class and Gender By Janeen Baxter; Mark Western Stanford University Press, 2001
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