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Social Classes


Status hierarchy in which individuals and groups are classified on the basis of esteem and prestige acquired mainly through economic success and accumulation of wealth. Four common social classes are: (1) Upper class, (2) Middle class, (3) Working class, and the (4) Lower class.

Karl Marx and Max Weber are without question the two most influential sociologists to have emerged in the 19th century. Marx's theories are seen as the foundation of modern communism, and he himself is seen as a revolutionist. Weber is seen as the ‘father of sociology' ( Their theories on social class are

Society is seen as divided into four groups, the upper class, middle class, working class and lower class. This is known as the class system. The upper class tend to consist of people with inherited wealth and includes some of the oldest families, with many of them being titled aristocrats. The upper classes are defined by their title, but also by their education and by their pastimes. The middle class are the majority of society today. They include industrialists, professionals, business people and shop owners. The working class people are mostly agricultural, mine and factory workers. The lower class consists of people with a low income, low level of education and high unemployment rates. There are two sociologists important in the discussion about class- Karl Marx and Max Weber.

Karl Marx was one of the first writers to analyse class differences. His understanding of class was someone's relationship to the means of production. He saw class as being a phenomenon of any society, where ownership of wealth and the means of production (M.O.P) in the capitalist system, dominated the wage earners or proletariat. Marx considered that there were two great classes- the owners of the means of production (capitalist) and the workers. Although Marx talked mainly about the two great classes- owners and workers, he was aware of a third category, which he called petit bourgeoisie. This was the middle class which were owners of small businesses. Marx argued that the only thing that the workers owned was their ability to work, what he called ‘labour power'. The owners had power over workers as they paid the worker's wages and could determine what wage they received.

The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion to the devaluation of the world of men. Labour produces not only commodities; it produces itself and the and the worker as a commodity- and does so in the proportion in which it produces commodities generally.

(Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts (1844) cited in

Marx believed all societies are class societies with people set against each other by their differing relationship to the means of production. He felt that the lack of powers of workers was the source of exploitation and the basis of class conflict. Marx argued that the basic contradictions contained in a capitalist economic system would lead to its eventual destruction. The proletariat would overthrow the bourgeoisie and seize the means of production, the source of power. Property would be communally owned and, since all members of society would now share the same relationship to the means of production, a classless society would result.

Thus to Marx, it was impossible, and even if possible, undesirable, to be dispassionate in his analysis of the two major classes within capitalist society- the bourgeoisie (also called “capitalists”) and the proletariat (the workers). The bourgeoisie is defined by the fact that it owns the “means of production” (factories, tools, and so on) and the proletariat by the fact that it must sell its labour time to the bourgeoisie in order to earn a wage that allows it to survive. In Capital (1867/1967), for example, Marx talked about the capitalists as werewolves and vampires who suck the blood out of the workers, and he was very sympathetic to the plight of the prolectariat.

(Ritzer, Sociological Theory, 4th edition, Singapore, 1996, p 29).

Marx talked about class consciousness. He argued that owner's and workers developed ideas, understandings about their positions which he called class consciousness. When owners convinced workers that their situations were compatable, this he called false consciousness. Marx made the essential point that class primarily based upon economic circumstances.

Max Weber didn't agree with Marx's view that power derived only from economic relations and the relationship to private property of the MOP. It was a quantifiable economic position- groups that share a common set of life-chances and circumstances. But Weber also talked about power, class, status and party, as he was aware of its value. The scope of Weber's analysis ranges more widely than that of Marx; the origins of capitalism, the development of capitalism, the nature of a future society, and concepts and approaches that Marx downplayed- religion, ideas, values, meaning, and social action. By including status, Weber provides us with a more comprehensive view of the details of social differences ( By class Weber is referring to ones participation in the market either by capital, skill or education. By status he argues is derived from non-market activity e.g priests, monarchy. By party Weber means a group of people who commit to some practical goal or activity.

Weber disagreed with Marx on a number of theories. Weber saw no evidence to support the idea of the polarization of classes. Although he saw some decline in the numbers of the petty bourgeoisie due to competition from large companies, he argued that they enter white-collar or skilled manual trades rather than being depressed into the ranks of unskilled manual workers (Haralambos and Holborn, 2004, p.13).

Max Weber and Karl Marx had a difference of opinion over what was the driving force behind changes in society.

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