Interest in social inequality is at the heart of the sociological enterprise and was central to the work of the founding theorists of the nineteenth century, whose analyses of the nature of inequality in industrialised society established the theoretical framework and research agenda for future generations of sociologists. In general, there was agreement between the founding theorists that industrial society marked a qualitative break with the past (Francis, 1987) and that new forms of inequality had emerged. It was around this time that the concept of 'social class' started to be used as a description of the patterned nature of inequality in society. Before the late eighteenth century, differences between groups of people were conceived more in terms of a finely-graded hierarchy of 'ranks' or 'orders' of people (Nisbet, 1966:174, 176) and the word 'class' simply meant 'group'; we still use it in this way when we speak of a 'class'of children in school.
The perception that industrialisation had brought into being new forms of inequality inspired the work of the early sociologists and Marx and Weber, in particular, devoted a great deal of thought to this area. Although their influence on sociology can still be felt today, changes in the nature of society in the twentieth century (and in the discipline of sociology itself) culminated, towards the end of the century, in a decline of interest in social class and, among some writers, in a rejection of its importance, both as a significant dimension of inequality and as a source of social identity in contemporary society. It is only in the last few years that interest in social class has re-emerged and, as it has done so, there has been a movement away from the ideas of the founding theorists about the nature of social class processes and of class-based identities. This chapter traces these recent developments, situating them within the historical evolution of class theory. Accordingly, the chapter begins with a necessarily brief account of the work of Marx and Weber, moves on to look at the arguments about the 'death'of social class, and finishes with a discussion of recent theoretical work in the area.
For Marx, the most important feature of industrialisation was that it was capitalist industrialisation, creating a system in which ownership and control of the means of production was in private hands (those of the bourgeoisie) and economic activity geared towards private profit-making, within the