The first part of this book will have made it obvious that within French society there were major differences between individuals in terms of their incomes, life-styles and standards of living. The purpose of the next four chapters will be to identify the major social groups which together constituted the social system, to discuss the inner characteristics of each group, and to examine the relationships between social groups.
It is clearly impossible to write a history of any society based upon unique individuals. It is necessary instead to talk about the general characteristics of the groups which individuals form and to examine the relationships between these groups. The crucial question, then, is which groups should be given priority? To which groups were individuals conscious of belonging? Clearly the family has some claims. It is the basic unit of socialization. It attracts considerable emotional loyalty. Again, however, practical considerations argue against using it as our basic building block. Certainly, for the examination of extra-local economic, social and political problems, wider social groups have to be considered. Our aim must be to avoid arbitrariness, and the imposition of an artificial schema upon a historical society and to identify groups which had a real existence which was recognized by contemporaries. These mustbe identifiable, not only in terms ofshared characteristics such as levels of income or life-style, but also of a collective awareness of common interests. The social and cultural institutions of nineteenth-century France can only be understood through the ideas and values current at the time.
To a substantial extent social stratification is based upon the distribution of economic resources. This largely determines life-styles, and is a key determinant of the balance of power. But the possession of material resources alone does not determine status within society. Social groups should also be seen as cultural groupings - culture being understood in the anthropological sense as a 'manner of living'. Due to this, economic and social status need not necessarily correspond. Effective membership of a social group depends upon acceptance of its particular norms of behaviour and this upon social conformity in, for example, the manner in which income is spent, in terms of occupation, home, area of residence, education, manners, and attitudes. Individuals who share these characteristics are able to accept each other as equals even if they diverge in other matters, such as politics. The existence of such norms has the additional effect of setting up barriers between social groups. In the final analysis social groups must also be defined and their behaviour explained in terms of their relationships with other groups.