Social class

Table of contents

In social and political studies, a social class is defined as a homogenous group of individuals, who share a similar economic and cultural condition, and who occupy a specific position in society. This position stems from their productive activity, wealth, income, authority, prestige, and power in the hierarchy.

  • social: from Latin “socialis”, derived from XIV century noun “socius”, member.
  • class: from ancient Greek: “klêsis” noun, call.

The nomenclature of the social classes has changed many times over time but has always maintained a pyramidal structure, at the apex of which is a rich minority and a poor majority at the base.

Nowadays, social classes are canonically divided into different categories, following a ladder from top to bottom: upper class, upper-middle-class, lower-middle-class, working-class (or lower class), and poor.

The notion of “social classes” is part of the wider sociological topic of “social stratification”, which is directly related to the market economy and the liberal state.

Even if the one above is the most generally applicable definition, the concept of “social class” varies from author to author: the most famous theories of stratification include Karl Marx’s, Maximilian Weber’s, Gerhard Lenski’s, and Kingsley Davis’ and Wilbert E. Moore’s ones. (for further information, see below: Theoretical Models of Social Stratification in Classes).

History of social classes

Society’s subdivision in classes is very old and dates back at least to hunting and gathering societies: as a matter of fact, sociologist Gerhard Lenski was the first to attempt to identify the conditions that favored social inequalities (ecological-evolutionary theory), comparing different types of societies in a very long span of time that embraces the whole story of humanity, coming to the conclusion that inequality in wealth distribution was very low during the hunting and gathering period, grew during the horticultural period, reached a peak in agricultural societies and decreased in the industrial era, even if the unevennesses are still deep and present. Lenski found two major factors that favor these inequalities:

  • the size of economic surplus: the bigger the surplus, the bigger the inequalities: if it is produced way more than what is needed to sustain the community, there will be families who own more goods than others;
  • the concentration of political power: the bigger the power, the bigger the inequalities between the classes that own more power, and the ones at the bottom of the social pyramid.

More or less until the end of the Ancien Régime, society could have been divided into five major classes: rulers and aristocrats, priests and the clergy, merchants and artisans, farmers and peasants, and slaves (François Quesnay, French economist, in his Tableau économique, 1758, divided society in three orders distinguished by prestige and function in the social asset: nobility and clergy, agricultural producers, craftsmen). Being part of a class rather than another, meant enjoying rights that other classes did not have, or bear injustices that others avoided because of their hierarchical position, or because there were specific laws that protected upper classes, and doomed the lower ones to poverty and asperities. Being born from a certain family meant to carry that status for the whole life, with no possible social mobility.

With the French Revolution, and the breaking down of the Ancien Régime, a turning point was marked, and society moved towards principles of equality.

However, with the Industrial Era, and the introduction of mass production, profit ideology, the capitalist model and the modern liberal state, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the social system underwent a new change, and introduced new social issues that led to the interest of several philosophers, economists, sociologists, historians, and anthropologists, such as Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Auguste Comte, Charles Darwin, and, of course, Karl Marx and Maximilian Weber; these last two were the inventors of the modern models of social study.

Theoretical models of social stratification in classes

Karl Marx

“Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile campsinto two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisieand Proletariat

Even if it was already used in the past, the first economist to ever discuss the concept of social classes in detail was Karl Marx in his Manifesto of the Communist Party, 1848, in which he describes the role of social classes in the capitalistic structure of the state.

The theory – According to Marx, the base of the classes is in the economic sphere; in particular, in the means of production and property relationships: a small part of the population owns the property of the production assets, like land, tools, raw materials, machines, industries (the Bourgeoisie), while the vast majority is excluded, but, at the same time, works using the means (the Proletariat). In this scenario, it is inevitable that the capitalists not only own the means of production, but also exercise an immense power on the worker’s life, owning the very fruits of their labor and, therefore, the labor itself (alienation). Consequently, the conflict is between majority and minority, dominant versus subordinate.

Class consciousness – As stated by Marx, classes are groupings of people that share the same level of education, the same level of consumption, the same habits, believes, and traditions. According to previous intellectuals, like Honoré de Balzac, each layer of society can be considered as a “collective subject”, which thinks and acts in a very homogeneous manner.

On the other hand, Marx changes the perspective and marks a difference in the concept of “class”, distinguishing between:

  • class in itself: a set of individuals that are in the same position towards the property of the means of production;
  • class for itself: when these individuals become aware that they have the same interests and that they are part of the same class, they become a class for itself. Once this step is reached, a class transition may occur.

Class conflict – Different classes have different interests, not only in the economic sphere but also in the social, political, cultural, and religious ones. This is the reason why, as Marx says, the various classes are “natural antagonists” and give rise to a continuous conflict. History, up to the time in which the Manifesto was written, in 1848, was “history of the class struggle”, implying that conflict is the very engine of social mutation: each and every social system builds in itself the factor that will lead to the destruction of the very social system; doing so, during the course of history, the subordinate class overturned the system and became the dominant class, and so on.

Maximilian Weber

The theory – According to Weber, while defining a social class, “property or lack of property constitute the fundamental categories of all of the class situations”. However, if this quote may sound very similar to Marx’s idea, Weber does not believe that the means of production are the real class membership criteria. In reality, the property that Weber is talking about is given by, as stated before, the class situation, which is defined by the possibility and the way to procure goods, labor, or services in the market.

Hence, society is divided into possessing and acquiring classes, declined positively or negatively.

  • Possessing classes declined positively: rentiers that earn their money from the possession of lands or activities;
  • Possessing classes declined negatively: individuals without ownership over anything;
  • Acquiring classes declined positively: entrepreneurs, or higher ranking professionals, like doctors or lawyers;
  • Acquiring classes declined negatively: workers.

The conflict is given by the role that each layer of society occupies in the markets (labor markets, credit market, and goods market) and by the relationship that each class has towards the others, which in turn depends on their economic and social interests.

Social class, social status, and parties – Weber introduces a clear distinction among class intended as an economic entity “the social class,” class intended as a cultural entity “social status,” and class intended as a political entity – parties. We have already widely discussed social classes as homogeneous groups of individuals that share a similar financial and working condition; nevertheless, when the cultural factor comes in, we can start talking about social status. Individuals come together as a group and can be considered as a whole when they share the same religion and traditions, mores, and habits. In other words, when they share a common lifestyle. At last, at the moment in which some members of society share the same philosophical, political, and social view of the world, they can unite under the same power group or party.

Gerhard Lenski

Lenski’s ecological-evolutionary theory was already mentioned at the beginning of the writing, but there is another work that Lenski published in 1954, along with other American authors, that highlighted another fundamental aspect of social stratification which was introduced with the industrial era: status inconsistency.

The theory – Along the lines of Weber, Lenski identifies society as multiple vertical dimensions, or hierarchies, in which an individual occupies several positions. Furthermore, the individual has plans, expectations, and goals that can be shaped either by their aspiration or by their social background and their class of origin. Someone born in an upper-class family will have high expectations regarding the educational, working, and lifestyle dimensions.

If a person is in the same level of status in each of the positions they hold, then he will find himself in status equilibrium. If the contrary, meaning they occupy a higher position, for example, in the educational hierarchy, but a lower one in the income hierarchy, they will find themselves in status inconsistency.

This condition not only undermines the ability to stay in a class or to level up and to transition towards a higher one but also opens the door to fear of retreating towards the base of the social pyramid. This means that said person will most likely be dissatisfied and frustrated, with the possibility of social isolating or developing hatred towards the others.

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore

The functionalist theory of social stratification was already sketched by David Émile Durkheim while arguing about his division of labor and organic solidarity but was widely discussed in the mid 20th century by Davis and Moore, with their 1945 article Some principles of stratification.

The theory – The idea behind the work of the two authors is relatively simple, but clear: the stratification and subdivision in classes are essential and functional to the survival of the social system: each structure has precise needs that need to be fulfilled in order to gain maximum efficiency and productivity. Without social stratification, this could not be possible. The arguments in favor of the theory are several.

  • Not every class has the same functional importance as the others: some positions are more relevant for the system’s balance, and, therefore, need more preparation and abilities, that can be converted in concrete skills.
  • The people who show they have said abilities are the minority (“limited or scarce presence”).
  • The conversion from the ability to skill needs time and resources, along with sacrifices and renunciations.
  • In order to attract these very small percentages of people, who are considered “the best,” the system needs to offer rewards, like higher salaries, prestige, and other material and moral incentives.

Functional uniqueness and indispensability – Davis and Moore brought up two criteria to locate what positions need to be considered the “most important”, and these are functional uniqueness and indispensability.

As for the first one, it refers to a specific skill that, in a certain context, can be carried out by one single individual and no one else. In a case like this, we can say that the individual is functionally unique.

As for the second one, it refers to the influence and authority that an individual owns towards several people; these people depend on that individual and need his guidelines in order to perform their tasks. In other words, the individual is indispensable.

Following this reasoning, social stratification and class formation are not only inevitable, but it is the most rationally efficient model to exploit human abilities to the very maximum.

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