What is social class?


Any observer of American society would quickly note that there are large variations in wealth, material possessions, power and authority, and prestige in our society.  They would also note differences in access to education, healthcare and leisure. One child in ten lives in poverty in major industrial countries, one in five in the United States. Taken together these differences in resources and outcomes are thought of as the basis of inequality.  What is the source of this inequality? Some say it is the result of an unequal distribution of resources, power and authority.


What are resources: money, land, assets – distinction made between wealth – monetary value of all own and income – amount of money brought in through wages, investment, etc.

What is power: ability to be in charge, to rule

What is authority: control, particularly in the face of resistance


Are material interests (money, land, assets, etc.) the only basis of inequality? Status represents another form of inequality – standing, esteem, respect, prestige, may involve physical ability, intelligence, beauty, occupations  that are ranked in order of prestige – doctors, corporate lawyers, financial experts …  to garbage collectors and janitors.


When sociologists talk of social class, they refer to a group of individuals who occupy a similar position in the economic system of production.  Within that system occupation is very important because it provides financial rewards, stability and benefits like healthcare. Are people in similar positions, aware of each other? In broad terms, yes.  Get information (cues) by type of job, neighborhood, clothing, cars, etc. Also get information by conversation – topics, style, grammar etc.  Can people mislead or be misled?  Of course. Is there a point of view specific to social class?  Middle class values?  Working class values?


How many social classes are there in the United States?  Disagreement within the field on both the number and the composition of these classes. Many sociologists suggest five:

Upper Class – Elite

Represent institutional leadership, heads of multinational corporations, foundations, universities

Capitalist elite – owners of lands, stocks and bonds and other assets – wealth derived from what they own

Forbes magazine publishes a list of the 400 wealthiest families in America. In 1997, net worth had to be at least $475 million.Bill Gates, in that year, had net worth pf 39.8 billion. Of all the wealth represented on the Forbes list, more than half is inherited. Newly acquired wealth, nouveau riche, have vast amounts of money but not often accepted into “old money” circles.


Upper Middle Class

Represent scientific and technical knowledge – engineers, accountants, lawyers, architects, university faculty, managers and directors of public and private organizations. Have both high incomes and high social prestige. Well-educated. Difficult to define a “middle class” (i.e. upper middle, middle middle and lower middle) probably the largest class group in the United States – because being middle class is more that just income, about lifestyles and resources, etc.


Lower Middle Class


Provide support for professionals

Engage in data collection., record-keeping

Paralegals.\, bank tellers, sales

Blue-collar workers in skilled trades


Working Class

Craft workers

Laborers in factories

Restaurant workers

Nursing home staff

Repair shops, garages

Delivery services




Working poor – work full-time at wages below poverty line

Social services



Social class is one of the most important concepts that sociologists discuss and yet its definition is often illusive.  There are two classical sociologists who are most important in the discussions about class – Karl Marx and Max Weber


And what is frustrating about both  is that they did not produce a viable definition of the things that they wrote extensively about


Karl Marx:  1818-1883


Assertion that there were two great classes – the owners of the means of production (capitalists) and the workers – the only thing that the workers owned was their ability to work, what Marx called “labor power.” Because owners (capitalists) paid wages to workers and could for the most part determine that wage, owners had power over workers.

Marx felt that the lack of power of workers was the source of exploitation and the basis of class conflict.  Marx argued that owners and workers developed ideas, understandings about their positions and this Marx called class consciousness. When owners convinced workers that their situations were compatible – Marx called this false consciousness.


Although Marx talked mainly about the two great classes – owners and workers – he was aware as well of a third category which he called petit bourgeoisie – literally little middleclass and these were owners of own small businesses.  Finding a location for this group was difficult because they lacked the power if the owners and at the same time had control over their work and wages unlike the workers. Moreover, according to Marx, sometimes they identified with the owners and sometimes with the workers.


Max Weber:  1864 - 1920


The other sociologist was Max Weber. He argued that class referred to economic interests. It was a quantifiable economic position – groups that share a common set of life-chances and circumstances. But Weber also talked about status, prestige – important part was awareness of its value. Weber also talked about party – essentially putting the class interests into action.


Erik Wright: Sees much crossover in their positions.  In two areas finds difference, the discussion of exploitation (for Marx – labor of worker appropriated, and eventually facing off against each other - for Weber labor and class relations an exchange – voluntary, a compromise) and the view of capitalism.  Marx sees capitalism as destructive, (source of class conflict) Weber views it as natural and permanent – over time best means for a given ends – rational).


Why is it important to study class?  It is seen is one, perhaps the principal line of social cleavage within society – place where the most serious disturbances and disruptions are thought to be traceable.