Karl Marx developed the idea of Marxism between 1818 and 1883. He believed that the basis of class was driven by the mode of production and that class division in society was based on economic power, With the workers, the proletariat, being ruled and exploited by the ruling class, the bourgeoisie.
Marx described the Proletariat as being the subordinate class who sold their labour power to the ruling class, the Bourgeoisie. The proletariat made their living by working for profit making companies where they had no power over business decisions. On this basis Marx said society was in continual conflict, with an unequal relationship between the rich and poor where the poor were exploited. Marx said that the relentless pursuit of profit was at the heart of the conflict that he called Capitalism. The surplus wealth made as a result of profit, staying with the Bourgeoisie. The workers were exploited to increase profit with longer working hours and harder working conditions in order to produce as much profit as possible for the wealthy. The workers did not benefit from this profit. Marx believed the working classes suffered from false class-consciousness. They were brainwashed and did not realise that they were being exploited and being fooled by the media and education into believing capitalism was fair. However, Marx believed that society would eventually become polarised leading to two extremes with rich and poor leading very different lifestyles, having very different life chances and opportunities to education and health, so that eventually the workers would revolt and start a revolution.
A criticism of the Marx theory of social class is that his view was too deterministic. He limits his theory to the idea of economic power and the relationship between the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie. However there are many other conflicts in society such as religion, nationality and gender. These conflicts cannot be explained in terms of economic power. Marx made predictions that have not come true such as a life of poverty for the working classes. This has proved false. Living standards for the working class have improved with the introduction of the welfare state and the compulsory education system. These benefits have given the working class better life chances, with the opportunity to gain a profession and become socially mobile, thus the Middle class has grown. Marx also predicted that communism would eventually replace Capitalism. This has not happened and in Eastern Europe communism has been rejected. We could also argue that rather than the working class being brainwashed into a false class-consciousness, they could actually be sensibly reconciled to capitalism, where they can earn a decent day's wage for an honest day's work without the responsibility of making important decisions whilst still able to maintain a good standard of living for their family. Also, voting rights and trade unions have given the working classes more power and influence than that predicted by Marx.
Marx also predicted that their would be a revolution, however the working classes were more interested in improving their own pay and working conditions than overthrowing the Bourgeoisie. It could be that we accept this stratification because we see the benefit of where that economy supports our lifestyle no matter what our class.
Another theory of social class is the functionalist described by Emile Durkheim 1858-1917 this theory is based on a value consensus with shared values and norms creating harmony, integration and equilibrium. Functionalist do not recognise the Marxist view of a society in conflict. Durkheim thought that social stratification is positive and beneficial to social order, comparing society to the human body with each class like an organ of the body, having an important role essential for overall well being. He saw the basis of class as a meritocracy where society is based on a reward system. We receive merits for achievements based on our incomes and status, educational ability and occupation with society existing of high and low achievers
Davis and Moore 1945 support the Functionalist approach theory stating that social stratification exists in all humans societies, such as the family and religion and so therefore it must be functional and beneficial. Davis and Moore believe that social stratification is a 'devise by which the most important roles are filled by the most qualified person'. They defined functionalist importance according to the uniqueness of the position and the ability of others to perform the task. Therefore doctors are judged to be more important than nurses as doctors would be able to take on the role of a nurse but nurses would not be able to do the job of a doctor. Davis and Moore also believed that by awarding unequal rewards people will continue to work hard to keep these rewards and not loose a particular lifestyle and all the trappings that come with it such as home, car and holidays.
Tumin was a critic of this analysis. He said that certain functions in any society are more important than others. How do we know which functions are more important and who makes that decision? He also argued that people could be attracted to jobs for reasons other than high financial reward and status, such as job satisfaction and a sense of duty and service.
Another criticism of the functionalist theory could be that nurses do a very important job and are not rewarded accordingly and that we have people in positions of power, earning high salaries, that do not deserve such status and salary. Entrance in to high status and salary professions such as law and medicine are often limited to those with access to the best education, often private, and the most expensive Universities therefore keeping all the power and wealth within a certain class, those who already have wealth and power.
The majority of positions in our Government; the people in power are held by people that attended the top private schools in the country. With the present economic climate there is real resentment for the unequal distribution of pay and wealth and anger grows at "fat cat" levels of pay and the huge bonuses paid out to company directors and those that work in the finance sector.
The functionalist approach ignores the dysfunction of stratification, in that poverty is a major problem for many people with a negative impact on life chances such as health education, mortality and family life. This poverty traps them in a certain lifestyle with limited opportunity to improve life chances.
Max Weber 1864-1920 proposed a different theory on social class called Weberianism he introduced the idea of social class being linked to marketability. Weber agreed with Marx that social inequality resulted from a struggle for scarce resources in society (Moore et al 2006). He agreed that this struggle was mainly concerned with economic recources, however he introduces a third dimension such as status and political power. We can identify with this idea by looking at powerful trade union leaders such as Arthur Scargill who would see themselves as staunchly working class, whilst holding a position of great power and influence. Weber believes that society can be competitive with individuals able to fight for economic gain status and political power (Moore et al 2006).
Weber divided society into seven different classes of hierarchy with an upper class at the top and an underclass at the bottom but does not distinguish clearly between the classes. Weber believes it is hard to define as people may be untruthful about their wealth and that we have varying degrees of power of control at different times. The identity tags of a certain class are more available to all, such as new cars and holidays. The working classes may obtain these experiences and material possessions on credit however that would not be clear to someone looking on from the outside, making it harder to be placed in a particular class group. Weber also recognised the importance of social networking as a means of gaining a particular lifestyle. Groups such as the Masons offer this as people from different professions as diverse as doctors and plumbers get together to support each other with a system of "favours", supporting the saying "it's not what you know it's who you know".
Max Weber predicted that society would be become more fragmented with the many different layers of class. This contradicts Marx who believed that society would become polarised with just two extremes of rich and poor.
The main criticism of the Weber theory is that he underestimates the importance of class divisions in society. Weber also ignores the link between status class and political power, which is evident when looking at the social class of those who hold positions of power in our country today. All are mainly middle or upper class from a privileged background of wealth and private education.
A more recent argument has been put forward by Paluski and Waters (1996) who believe that class is dead. This view is called Postmodernism and they believe that profound social changes such as globalisation means that class divisions are now actually status divisions. This is a very different way of defining society. It is believed that society is now too fluid and diverse to be able to define our identity and behaviour by a class system. We must understand the role of consumerism and the world media in shaping our identity. Postmodernists believe that we can buy the image that we wish to portray and this then becomes our identity. Polemus (1997) believes that we now live in a pick and mix society where there is a mix of so many identities that it becomes impossible to pigeon hole people into a particular class.