What is social class? Sociologists and others have offered many different definitions of ‘class’ over the years. Karl Marx defined class in terms of ownership of the means of production and predicted that capitalist society would evolve towards only two classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat.
Max Weber defined class in terms of ‘life chances’, that is the probability of achieving a certain level of material wellbeing. This definition is linked to current research on social mobility.
Pierre Bourdieu and those following his work (including Mike Savage) include cultural tastes and consumption patterns (i.e. cultural capital) in their understandings of class.
Which of these conceptions of class is most suited to 21st-century societies?
‘Class has formed one of the core concepts of sociological analysis since sociology took shape as a discipline. Yet despite, or perhaps even because of, this, it is a concept often struggled over by sociologists themselves’ (Platt, 2010: 38). Depending on the context, social class can be interpreted differently, but its definition is widely used to describe structures of inequality in modern societies and results ensuing from one’s economic position within that structure (Crompton, 2008). The way in which the economic position is determined depends on the sociologist, but is usually centred on one of the two general theories of stratification – those of nineteenth-century sociologists Marx and Weber.
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Karl Marx pioneered Marxian Class theory - an analysis of the class structure in modern societies - in the forty years following the wave of European revolutions in 1848. This theory went on to become the paradigm of the Capitalist system for many years. Heavily influenced by Hegelian ideals, Marx attributed the root of human struggle to stem from the capitalist stratification of society, which he encompasses within the idea of ‘historical materialism’: ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ (1848).
Marx’s analysis interpreted class to be solely determined by the relations concerning labour and ownership of property, disregarding status. Marx refers to the capitalists (or bourgeoisie) who own the capital and purchase labour, in turn accumulating more capital, whilst the proletariat must sell their labour and ‘live only so long as they find work’ (1848). Marx remarked the growing divide between the two social classes, ‘Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other’, and from this he predicted that with the increase in class consciousness among the proletariat, class conflict would rise and a revolution would commence.
His ideology was that this upheaval was necessary to abolish capitalism and overturn the class system in favour of a communist government: ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’ (1848). At the core of the Marxist class analysis is an adherence to a form of radical egalitarianism that can be demonstrated through three theses: The Radical Egalitarianism thesis: a radically egalitarian distribution of the material conditions of life would benefit society.
The historical possibility thesis: a highly productive economy permits the organisation of society in such a way that there is a sustainable radically egalitarian distribution of the material conditions of life. The anti-capitalism thesis: Capitalism prevents a radically egalitarian distribution of the material conditions of life (Olin Wright, 2005).
With regard to the 21st Century context, there are some fundamental flaws with the Marxist theory. In the major capitalist countries, Marx’s predictions have not yet been realised: neither has there been a proletarian revolution nor has society been polarized, ‘Capitalism has shown an unexpected vitality’ (Lefebvre, 1968). The complexity of the current social structure makes it difficult to relate it to the ‘Bourgeois-Proletariat’ divide.
Class lines have broken down and in most Western Nations and increasingly in developing nations, there is an extensive middle class, directly opposing the Marxian prognosis. ‘The failure to theorise divisions grounded in gender and ethnicity, the inability to explain the growth of the middle class within capitalism, and the unwillingness to consider actual forms of class consciousness as opposed to idealised ones’ – all fundamentally undermine Marxist approaches to social stratification (Saunders, 1990: 19).
Analogously to Marx, Max Weber treated social class as ‘a phenomenon closely linked to the distribution of, and struggles for, power’ (Littlejohn, 1972). However, he critiqued Marx’s theory of ‘historical materialism’, countering that stratification is subject to status, in addition to socioeconomic inequalities. Unlike the Marxian theory, Weber does not assume historical change can be explained in terms of the evolution of the relationship between classes. Nor is there any suggestion that classes are in a ‘zero-sum conﬂict in which the beneﬁts to one come at the expense of the other’ (Olin Wright, 2005).
Weber does not presume that class will be the major source of conﬂict within capitalist society or that classes will necessarily serve as a source of collective action. Instead, Weber used the idea of class to link individuals’ market power to the inequality in the distribution of life chances. He also emphasised the importance of cultural factors in the determination of class, such as religion as a motivating factor in the development of capitalism.
Weber (1978: 302) writes that ‘a class situation is one in which there is a shared typical probability of procuring goods, gaining a position in life, and ﬁnding inner satisfaction.’ Weber (1978) suggests that four major social classes can be identiﬁed under capitalism, between which social mobility is infrequent and difﬁcult but ‘within which individual and inter-generational mobility is easy and typical’ (Giddens and Held, 1982: 69).
These classes can be identified as the ‘dominant entrepreneurial and propertied groups’; the petty bourgeoisie; workers with formal credentials (the middle class) and those who lack them and whose only asset is their labour power (the working class) (Olin Wright, 2005).
This theory is fundamentally more pertinent today than that of Marx as it ‘allows us to analyse power and domination on the basis of gender and ethnicity’ as ‘people in the same economic situation may nevertheless share very different status positions.’ (Saunders 1990: 21). Nevertheless, it is argued that both authors place ‘too much emphasis on the significance of economically determined classes at the expense of other, competing sources of social identity’, and that nineteenth-century sociology cannot accurately grasp the complexities of twenty-first-century society. (Crompton, 2008: 47)
Following the ideas of Marx and Weber, twentieth-century sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that all aspects of social life must be examined in terms of the power relations they embody. Bourdieu’s definition of class comprised of three axioms, the first of which was his idea of ‘cultural capital’ - the ability of privileged groups to define their culture as superior to that of lower classes (Robbins, 2005).
‘Rather than treat the worlds of art, music, or literature as “outside” history, Bourdieu regarded them as social agents’ (Bennett et al. 2009: 10). Bourdieu’s claim that culture is not an ‘innocent’ or private leisure activity, but rather a distinguishing factor for social relationships, has been of great importance in emphasising the political dimensions of culture. He argued that cultural capital comprised a distinct ‘aesthetic disposition’ (Bourdieu, 1984: 55), that those schooled in ‘legitimate’ culture enjoyed advantages over the working and popular classes who stand outside of it.
The educated middle class are physically, as well as intellectually, socialised into appreciating this ‘highbrow’ culture through being ‘venerated in the educational system and the cultural apparatuses associated with museums and art galleries’ (Bennett et al. 2009: 11).
The second aspect to Bourdieu’s theory was that of homology across fields - each cultural field has its own autonomy and can only be understood in terms of the relationships that are internal to it (Bennett et al. 2009).
His third claim highlighted the importance of reproduction and inheritance in reference to social class. He defined habitus as the ‘dispositions that are both shaped by past events and structures, and that shape current practices and structures and also, importantly, that condition our very perceptions of these’ (Bourdieu 1984: 170). He theorised that this social reproduction was primarily established in the family and further consolidated through institutions of education and employment.
Digitisation and the rise of technology have compromised Bourdieu’s conception of the ﬁeld that assumes that cultural practices can be clearly distinguished by being allocated to distinct locations in a geometric space, as communication has seen drastic improvements globally (Bennett et al, 2005). It is clear that some aspects of Bourdieu’s theory are outdated as ‘the kinds of highbrow activities discussed [by Bourdieu] are now predominantly associated with older Britons, those who are middle-aged and above’.
This change can be accounted for by two different explanations. Some sociologists believe we are entering an era characterized by increasing cultural tolerance where the new currency of ‘cool’ is an explicit rejection of snobbery and a celebration of diversity. This is demonstrated by the rise of the ‘cultural omnivore’ who will engage openly with popular culture, as well as traditionally prestigious culture (Hanquinet, 2015). However, others (Savage et al, 2015) argue that although the cultural omnivore often ‘appears critical of the snobbery which might be seen as latent in the highbrow culture, it also embeds in its own subtle forms of hierarchy’.
This emerging cultural capital is less about liking popular culture, but rather demonstrating one’s ability to select the ‘very best’ of popular culture. There is also a strong significance tied to the motivation for participating in popular culture – it is perceived as more respectable to listen to pop music with a sense of irony than out of genuine taste. ‘Following Bourdieu’s steering, we insist on a multidimensional approach to class which is better able to grasp the complexities of class dynamics today.’ Savage has developed Bourdieu’s original model, in which he identifies seven distinct classes, by treating ‘cultural and social processes- not just economic ones- as fundamental to the way class operates in the present.’ (Savage et al, 2015).
This measurement of cultural capital is divided into two, highbrow and emerging, which allows to model to more accurately determine class regardless of age. In addition to the traditional ‘elite, working class and ‘precariat’ classes, there is a distinction made within the middle class: the ‘established middle class’ represents the largest and second wealthiest class, followed by the ‘technical middle class’ who are less social, and favour emerging culture to the traditional highbrow customs. Two new classes have also been added to decipher the groups of the younger workers, who are not expected to have huge incomes in order to not be considered working class or precariat.
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Despite originating from the nineteenth-century, many of the aspects brought forth by both Marx and Weber are still central to the definitions of social class given by modern sociologists. The rigidity of the two-class structure of the Marxian class theory limits its use in many respects, restricting its ability to represent the societies of the 21st century. Yet, as Bourdieu (1991: 251) said, it remains ‘the most powerful obstacle to the progress of the adequate theory of the social world’ with the idea of opportunity hoarding and class closure still featuring in many modern class analyses.
Regarding Weber’s idea of social mobility, Breen and Goldthorpe (2001) show that in Britain, during the last quarter of the twentieth century, ‘there has been no change in the extent to which class origins help shape class destinations, proving the enduring utility of his contributions.’ Bourdieu’s explanation of cultural capital ‘provides the means for a non-economic form of domination and hierarchy, as classes distinguish themselves through taste’ (Gaventa 2003: 6), which remains relevant in the twenty-first century. Living standards have improved drastically over the last century, and as a result people have more free time rendering market positions less important and giving rise to the importance of cultural capital.
Hence, despite being largely influential, the class theories of Marx and Weber lack a sufficient recognition of the weight held by social identity, culture and race and are therefore not as suited to a 21st Century framework as the ideas of more modern sociologists, notably Pierre Bourdieu and those following his work.
Given the intricacy of the social structure in modern western societies, the seven-class model developed by Savage is the best equipped to describe social class in the 21st Century: class can be determined through a combination of one’s social, cultural and economic capital.
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