The question of whether ‘class’ is still a relevant concept in the understanding of social divisions in contemporary Britain has two components to be analysed, firstly is class still and do social divisions exist in Britain? The results of this research indicate yes to both questions, that although class and the nature of its existence have changed since Marx, Weber and Durkheim’s eras, it is very difficult to get past the important and definite existence of class and social divisions within Britain today. Neo-Marxists, neo-Weberians as well as functionalists and other theorists analysing it from a post-modern, post industrialisation perspective support this opinion.
Class itself is a concept that has been traditionally hard to define and continues to be so. As Bradley states in Fractured Identities (1996, p. 45), ‘class is everywhere and nowhere’. Social class refers to the hierarchical distinctions between individuals or groups in societies or cultures. It has a shifting identity with few definite physical signs or markers to monitor. Part of the difficulty to define it categorically is that it involves many terms and viewpoints: class awareness; class consciousness; class imagery; class interest; class position; contradictory class location; false consciousness; middle class; petite bourgeoisie; proletariat; status; stratification; underclass; working class, the list is extensive. As Bilton et al (1987, p. 36) states:
‘Structures where economic relationships are primarily called class societies, and in these cases we refer to the different unequal groups as classes. There is considerable despite over the precise definition of this term, but we shall use class to refer to a group sharing a similar position in a structure of objective material inequalities, produced by a particular system of economic relations characteristic of a particular mode of production.’
(Bilton T, et al 1987, p. 36; Bradley 1996, pp. 45-6).
Analysing class has historically formed a set of debates, emanating from the initial positions taken by theorists such as Marx and Weber, this debate has continued with neo-Marxists and neo-Weberians. In Class and Stratification. An Introduction to Current Debates, Rosemary Crompton (1998) suggests there is now a movement that involves a split between those who study class structure and mobility using statistical research and those who focus on class formation and consciousness by using historical or ethnographical approaches. This conflict has resulted in a stalemate of sorts where some sociologists have lost interest in the importance of social class. While anthropologists, historians and sociologists identify class as a social structure emerging from pre-history, the idea of social class entered the English dictionary approximately in the 1770s. It is valuable for this reason that any changes that may have been made since its induction should be evaluated. (Bradley 1996, pp. 45-6; Taylor, 1999, pp. 97-8).
Marx saw class categories as relating to the ownership of property, and production relationship. He founded a revolutionary concept in social order – communism, in a communist state there would be no stratification. The two groups were the bourgeoisie – who owned the means of production, and the proletariat – the workers. He believed this relationship was based upon exploitation and conflict. Marx predicted a revolution in which the proletariat would defeat the bourgeoisie and share ownership of the factories equally between themselves. Although this did not occur in Britain, it did in Russia, in 1917. The proletariat revolted and all means of production fell into public ownership, forming a socialist state. This was close to Marx’s ideological dream of communism. However, ownership – despite being equal still existed and there was divisions still existed, some people had better, more highly respected, jobs than others. There was still inequality and competition. (Albrow, 1999, pp 155-9; Bilton T, et al 1987, pp 27-8).
Weber was influenced by Marx’s work but disagreed with his theory, he thought it was too deterministic. Being a structuralist, he believed people were shaped by the society in which they lived and capable of social action. He also disagreed with Marx’s theory on stratification. Marx based his view of class structure on ownership of the means of production whilst Weber believed it was dependant on “life chances”. Life chances depended on wealth and skills; the upper class had the most advantageous life chances, and the poor (e.g. the unemployed, elderly and homeless), the least; economic situation, market situation, status and political party could determine class. Whist Marx split society into two distinct classes; Weber saw that social structure was more complex. The four main strata he identified were the upper class, the middle class, the working class and the poor/underclass. However, within these groups, were other, more subtle divisions, which depended on a number of variables including differences in income, opportunities for upwards mobility, security of employment, language, life-style and social estimation of others. However, Weber perceived class as somewhat different, he believed that class consciousness was essentially conditional –that consciousness could occur depending upon circumstances. He acknowledged, as Marx believed, that classes and social groups were likely to experience conflict in attempts to gain status honour or class movement. (Taylor, 1999, pp. 99).
Neo-Marxists come in many varying forms, but they share a common acknowledgement of the importance of gender/sex divisions. Nevertheless, it was still placed less important than class divisions under a capitalist society. Consequently, they thought the primary basis of exploitation in society was class, not gender. This implies that capitalists have more power over workers than men have over women, not an uncontroversial view. Issues of race and ethnicity were also viewed as less important than class. Functionalists take the view that social stratification is both essential to the running of society and inevitable. They believe that all social phenomena exist because they have a positive function to fulfil. Durkheim, a functionalist, described society as a living organism in which different organs with specific functions such as education, work, and government are inter-related. According to Bilton et al (1987), ‘the education system is a vehicle for developing the human resources of an industrial nation.’ (Bilton T, et al 1987, p. 308; Swingewood 2000, pp 137-140).
In Class and Stratification, Crompton challenges the claim that ‘class is dead’ and is in fact very much alive. In the vein of this belief, Goldthorpe and Wright critically examine ‘post-modern’ theories of ‘post-class’ societies, as well as the most recent contributions of quantitative sociological approaches. It is argued that despite their theoretical differences, the work of these two authors has been undergoing a process of convergence in recent years. Crompton analyses how the ‘death’ of class is the contemporary increase in the event of social and material inequality. Definitional difficulties of class are only one aspect of the decision by many sociologists to question its relevance. Cromption explores social inequalities including gender and the feminisation of the middle classes, the significance of recent changes in work and employment, consumption and citizenship. (Bradley 1996, pp. 59-62; Crompton 1998, pp. 113-5)
In most modern industrial societies, including Britain, the system of social stratification is fluid – through generations or perhaps in their own lifetime, people can move up or down the social scale. A number of modern thinkers have tried to define what makes a particular ‘social class’. Is it accent, surroundings, occupation, income, wealth? If we simply spoke only about class as it was first defined and existed since Marx/Weber times we would not taking into account societal changes such as the increase in unemployment, health care crises, resulting in a concept of society that has always existed yet, become more prevent and occupied: the underclass. It seems that any social divisions that may exist stem from the pretext of social class and its restraints and the difficulty to move from one class to another is problematic. (Bilton T, et al 1987, 308).
Thatcher’s Conservative Party did not believe in the concept of society, rather than society had no existence outside of individuals. Her party’s main aim was to reduce the role of the state in the economy, through various means such as the privatisation of British Rail, council houses and the introduction of poll tax in 1989. She advocated strong welfare reforms and created an adult Employment Training system that included full-time work done for the dole plus small top-up, based upon the a US workfare model, called the ‘Social Fund’ system. It placed one-off welfare payments for emergency needs under a local budgetary limit, and where possible changed them into loans, and rules for assessing jobseeking effort by the week, were breaches of social consensus unprecedented since the 1920s. All very strong and harsh steps only seeming to increase the already obvious class inequalities and difficulties in British society. By 1990, opposition to Thatcher’s policies on local government taxation, her Government’s perceived mishandling of the economy -especially the high interest rates which were undermining her core voting base within the home-owning, entrepreneurial and business sectors, as well as other factors finally made her and her party seem increasingly politically vulnerable. Her rein was over, yet her affect on British society remains strong and well-felt by general society. So it seems given all the variants and backgrounds that we have discussed that class divisions still exist and thus are still very relevant. The old saying the rich gets richer and the poor get poorer certainly was true of Thatcher’s era (Taylor, 1999, pp. 111-3; Albrow, 1999, pp 56-7; Margaret Thatcher: 2006).
The Rowntree Report in 1995 exposed that unemployment rates in Britain were rising high and more rapidly than in any other industrial country – a very worrying finding, that unemployment, insecurity and deprivation were still very much prevalent in the working classes. Examining the existence of the underclass leads us to the question of whether it is a convenient label, and a powerful rhetorical label, as Marxists argue, or is it a post-industrial phenomenon? Considering that we are analysing British society post-industrialisation, this is an interesting question to ponder. Some theorists believe that it is a term that victimises and blames people and keeps them in their socio-economic spot without the opportunity or resources to move. (Fincher, R & Saunders, P, 2001, p. 21; Bradley 1996, p 46; Taylor, 1999, pp. 113-5).
To answer our original question of whether class can still be used as applicable concept in the understanding of social divisions in contemporary Britain, the answer is most definitely yes, but it has changed from the days of Marx and Weber and initial sociological conceptualisation. It seems that to analyse this process highlights the parts of society that may be disadvantaged through their social class or class immobility. Awareness is an important part of the process of changing and at the very least, compassion and societal responsibility.
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