Theories of Class in Society Essay
Table of Contents. 1.1 Introduction. 1.2 Karl Marx Theory of Class. 1.3 Max Weber theory of Class. 1.4 Conclusion. 1.5 Bibliography. 1.1 Introduction. According to Krishan Kumar (1978) „the founding fathers of sociology all lived, wrote and theorised under the overwhelming impression that a terrible beauty was born, that of the industrial society. Among the „founding fathers‟ of sociology were Max Weber and Karl Marx. The discipline of sociology came into being in the 19th century as an attempt to interpret and understand this modern age. An important issue in sociology is the study of social inequalities. In virtually all societies and cultures different groups of people have different levels of income, wealth, access to power etc. (Giddens, 1993). When analysing this phenomenon, sociologists use the term social stratification. Giddens defines social stratification as “the existence of structural inequalities between groups in society, in terms of their access to material or symbolic rewards.” 2 This definition has two main implications. First, social stratification is not just about differences, but about inequalities in rank (Kelsall, 1974). Each group can be seen as forming a certain layer in society, comparable to different strata. Secondly, the inequalities are “structural”, in that, they form what is basically a built in feature of the social system” (Kelsall, 1974). Stratification can be measured through objective and subjective factors, where objective factors can be “recognised by the actors themselves” (Breen, 1995:13). Sociological studies have revealed different categories of social stratification. Among them are Caste, Slavery, Estate, and Class. Analysis of modern societies is usually based on the class approach. The notion of class is a frequently used principle in attempting to explain social phenomena. When talking about class sociologists mean a group of people who share a common economic background, resulting in a similar lifestyle. Almost all class systems have some distinctive features, which set them apart from societies with other types of stratification. First of all, classes are based on economic factors, implying, that one‟s position in society is not an ascribed but an achieved one. This also means, that the barriers between different strata are more fluid. Thus social mobility is possible in an intergenerational as well as an intragenerational aspect. Several attempts have been made to explain why class systems exist and how they operate. The explanations of Karl Marx and 3 Max Weber, although fundamentally different, have probably been the most influential ones. In this essay I will, therefore, outline these two theories. First I will present them individually. 1.2 Karl Marx’s Theory of Class. Karl Marx was born in 1818 in Germany. From the late 1840s until his death in 1893. He published most of his major works, including the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. In his writings Marx mainly deals with economic and political issues. Yet, since he links those to social institutions, his work has been highly influential in sociology. Marx‟s theory of class stratification emerged out of his study of social change. He reasoned that all social change is the result of tensions between groups in society. He identified two fundamentally different groups: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie, also called the capitalists, consists of those people who own the means of production, the owners of capital. The proletariat, or in more modern terms the working class have no ownership to the factors of production except for the individual‟s own labour. This, their only asset, they have to sell to the capitalists to earn a subsistence level of living. According to Marx the relationship between producers and capitalists is an exploitative one. By working the workers (producers) create value. Marx believed that this value exceeded 4 the amount capitalists had to pay for the producer‟s work. Since the capitalists own the output of the production process, they are able to expropriate the excess value, so they then can reinvest it, controlling and exploiting workers even more. Marx claims that between the two classes there „can never be a free and equal contract, because the individual worker must have work at any price, simply in order to survive‟. Thus the capitalists have economic power, controlling and exploiting the worker, and this gives them political power as well‟ (Bilton, 1987: 45). This political power results in the capitalists domination of workers. They try to preserve this status quo through an ideology, which legitimises inequalities in ownership and income. According to Marx‟s ideology in the capitalist society the working class will inevitably unite to overthrow its oppressors the capitalist class. In the process, a new economic system will emerge that of socialism and eventually communism. Both systems involve no private ownership of the means of production, thus abolishing class inequalities. Until society reaches this state it will inevitably be dominated by the tensions between the two classes. However, Marx notes the existence of traditional classes and the divisions within classes. He claims that the characteristics of a particular society can be derived from the relationship between the means of production and the mode of production that the different groups possesses. The mode of production is the sole factor in determining a society‟s structure and the position of the people within this structure. 5 The concern here is why some categories of people enjoy a higher level of wealth or income than others. In a capitalist society, the social relations of production evolve around „the buying and selling of the labour force‟. He focused on the hidden mechanisms through which wealth is transferred away from those who produce it. Material inequality occurs because society is organised along the social relations of production, which are also the social relations of power. Marx accounts for the wide inequality, which exists between these two classes. 1.3 Max Weber Theory of Class. Max Weber was born in 1864. Weber deemed Marx‟s work as being too narrow, the idea of economic classes alone to be insufficient to explain social inequalities. He accepted the Marx's statement, that economic factors have a major impact on society, but to fully account for social inequalities, Weber identified three main criteria: class, status, and party. By class Weber meant the ranking of the individuals by what he termed their market capacity. This is a measure of how well the individual can sell their assets in the market, irrespective of whether those assets are labour or capital. Market capacity is „based on skill and education, with income and wealth reflecting the market demand for different groups‟ (Harvey, 1993: 13). The second factor in Weber's theory of social stratification is status. Status refers to „the differences between social groups in 6 the social honour or prestige that they are accorded by others‟ (Giddens, 1993: 219). In contrast to class, which can be measured objectively, status is based on „subjective evaluations‟ usually linked to lifestyle and a common feeling of belonging to a status group‟ (Harvey, 1993: 13). The final element determining social position according to Weber is party. The concept of party is closely linked to the principle of power. Weber identifies parties as groups that are specifically concerned with influencing policies or gaining political power‟ (Harvey, 1993: 13). Thus a party can be seen as a group of people sharing common aims and interests. For Weber, a class is rooted in economic inequality. It is defined as a category of people enjoying similar economic life chances. (Giddens 1993) adopted this approach that material inequality provides the starting point in class formation, although other factors are involved. Class structure develops from material inequality. Weber used the concept of social class to indicate the cluster of class positions within which social mobility occurs (for example working class, middle class, and intelligentsia). He went on to distinguish two forms of collective action: - societal action corresponds to collective action based on an adjustment of interests and communal action occurs when the group acts as a unit, out of group solidarity and shared consciousness. Social classes simply signify what Max Weber called ‘status groups’. He found that prestige is central to the formation of classes. It not only rests on how much money one possesses, but on the use one 7 makes of this money. It nourishes subtle distinctions, through which a social distance is created between different categories of people and superiority asserted. A class does not exist on its own, but always as an element within a structure. It refers to a group of people who share some crucial; feature and for this reason differ from others. In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber drew attention to the emergence in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation in Europe such as Calvinism and lived everyday lives characterised by hard work, frugal lifestyle and reinvestment of profits in the expansion of business activity. The emergence of a distinctively Protestant ethic had thus facilitated the rise of the modern capitalist business enterprise. He identified four major classes in society: - The working class - The petty Bourgeoisie - The property less intelligentsia and specialists - The class privileged through property and education. The essential characteristic of Weber's approach is, that the categories of class, status and party are independent of each other and overlap. They are cross-cutting categories, that is, some groups might be ranked high in one aspect and low in another. As a result of this Weber considered it unlikely that individuals ranked the same in one category actually might form a group in real life. As a consequence he introduced the concept of social classes, 8 clusters of groups of people, which share some common traits. This is a somewhat broader definition than Marx offered, as it involves factors other than that of economic. Yet, Weber acknowledged, that in western capitalist societies class is, in fact, the most important factor determining one‟s position in society. Thus it is valid to say that Weber's approach also manifests a theory of class stratification, although profoundly different from the one suggested by Marx. 1.4 Conclusion. Weber's analysis of social stratification offers some interesting insights for analysing social inequalities. Since it takes into account factors other than economic, it enables us to resolve certain phenomena in society, which cannot be explained using Marx's approach. For instance, Weber's theory helps us to understand, why the bourgeoisie occupy a distinctive position in society thus non-economic, subjective factors which Marx did not take into account can result in social inequalities. Situated below the working class is the group of the poor. They can however, not be seen as a distinct group, since their „grossly disadvantageous life-chances are due to a weak or marginal position in the labour market‟ (Bilton, 1987: 55) their position in, or rather outside, society, is crucially influenced by other factors, than included in the class model. This group of people is said to be located outside the occupational structure. It includes all those who have been marginalised and 9 depend on the welfare services for their survival and have few opportunities of escaping their condition. They correspond to what Marx called the ‘lumpenproletarist’, which he tended to associate with the criminal class. Generally, this model offers a fairly comprehensive, complete and coherent explanation of social inequalities in modern western societies. It is very well suited to determine reasons for and causes of social phenomena. It also illustrates the significance of Marx‟s and Weber‟s works, as they form the foundation for one of the major branches of modern sociology. Marx‟s analysis of social change is a materialist one, what brings about social change. Weber argued that ideas and values have an important influence on society and social change as economic conditions do. He saw modern capitalist society as a society characterised by inequality. 1.5 Bibliography. Bilton, T., Bonnet, LK., et al, 1987, Introductory Sociology, London: Macmillan Press (2nd Edition). Breen, R. and Rothman, D. 1995. Social Stratification. A Comparative Perspective, London: Harvester Wheatsheat. 10 Giddens, A. 1993, Sociology. Cambridge: Polity Press (2nd Edition). Grusky, D. 1994, Social Stratification, Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective. Boulder: Westview Press. Harvey, L. and MacDonald, M. 1993 doing Sociology: A Practical Introduction. London: Macmillan. Kelsall, R. 1974 Stratification. An Essay on Class and Inequality. London: Longman. Kumar, K. 1978, Prophecy and Progress Harmondsworth: Pengiun. Scase, R. 1992 Class Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Marx, K. 1970, Capital Vol. 1. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1st Published 1864. Weber, M. 1976, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Allen and Unwin. 1St Published 1904-05.