Class Research Paper

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Much has been written on class in the years since Seymour Martin Lipset wrote his entry in the first edition of this encyclopedia, published in 1968. Lipset viewed the literature on class in terms of “social stratification,” which he believed was divided into two approaches, the functionalist and the “social change” perspectives. Nevertheless, the bulk of his piece was centered not on contemporary studies, but on Karl Marx (1818–1883), Max Weber (1864–1920), and Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who, Lipset argued, continued to animate the central debates of his time. The classics are no less important today, but this essay will aim to balance them with the now canonical debates of the mid-twentieth century and the vast and multifaceted literature that has amassed since then.

Marx, Weber, and Durkheim

Any discussion of class must begin with Karl Marx. As Lipset once noted, while David Ricardo (1772–1823), Adam Smith (1723–1790), and others may have written about class before Marx, it was Marx who set the terms of debate for later sociological thinkers (Lipset 1968). For Marx, classes do not exist in societies where production for the group results in an equitable distribution of resources and requires that each member or unit contribute to the collective requirements of life. Classes emerge only when one subset of a community seizes private control of the means of production (e.g., land, factories) and coercively extracts surplus labor from another subset of the community, that is, labor that neither the first group needs nor the second group must give in order to survive.

Marx viewed the extraction of surplus labor as a fundamentally exploitative act, since the real exchange value of any given commodity is only ever equal to the labor time socially necessary to make it. This is called the labor theory of value. Any effort to squeeze out surplus value requires that human beings be forced to work for free beyond the labor time socially necessary both to maintain their labor power (e.g., through food and raiment) and to produce its equivalent in commodities. Thus, one’s class is determined by one’s relationship to the means of production: those who own the means of production and therefore forcibly extract surplus value comprise one class, while those who do not own the means of production and are therefore coerced to generate surplus value form another class. Like master and bondsman under slavery and lord and serf under feudalism, capitalism is predicated on two classes: the factory owners or bourgeoisie and the factory workers or proletariat. All of these, however, only form “objective” classes, meaning that they are classes determined merely by their proprietary relationship to the means of production. The subjective form of class, by contrast, is a class that is conscious of itself as a collectivity of similarly positioned individuals and is therefore capable of class action. The distinction between objective and subjective forms of class is infamously that of the class-in-itself (an sich) and the class-for-itself (für sich).

According to some interpretations of Marx’s work, particularly those of the Communist Manifesto (1848), the transition from a merely existing working class to a conscious and therefore revolutionary working class is inevitable, as is the classless communist society that workers will eventually found. Because of its revolutionary and progressive potential in every epoch of production, class is said to be the very motor of history (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998; Marx [1852] 1996; Marx [1867] 1906). Hence, the oft-quoted claim, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels [1848] 1998, p. 34).

Max Weber did not doubt the existence of exploitative class relations in modern society. Rather, he questioned Marx’s definition of class, its centrality in modern life compared to other forms of domination, and the apparent inevitability of class action in Marx’s work. In Weber’s foundational piece on this subject, “Class, Status, Party” (1922), class is conceived of not as a group but as a sea of unconnected individuals who share the same “life chances,” of which ownership of the means of production is just one example. Life chances comprise the bargaining power that one brings to the market for the purpose of maximizing income and includes professional authority, skills, and education. Just because one shares a similar set of life chances with others, however, does not mean that one will join with similarly positioned individuals in class action. Shared life chances are a necessary condition of class action, but they are by no means a guarantee, for there are other forms of domination apart from the economic that have the capacity to contravene class action. Societies that are organized according to “status” are less susceptible to class action, because they are stratified according to noneconomic concerns such as family, ethnic, or religious heritage. Partisan allegiances may also be an impediment to class solidarity (Weber 1946).

Émile Durkheim’s foremost contribution to class analysis was to conceive of it in terms of occupational specialization in a modern and largely peaceful division of labor. Durkheim sought to explain the transition from the “mechanical solidarity” of primitive societies, whose coherence was based on the resemblance of actors and the dominance of a collective consciousness, to the “organic solidarity” characteristic of modern societies, whose coherence was based on the complementarity of highly specialized individuals. Organic solidarity breaks down only when individuals are coerced into tasks that they do not want to perform. Thus, the central challenge of modern societies is to match individuals with tasks that suit their natural talents. This is why organic solidarity may be achieved by contracts or exchange, which bind individuals through a system of rights and duties, and in turn give rise to rules that guarantee regular cooperation between the divided functions (Durkheim [1893] 1960).


Kingsley Davis (1908–1997) and Wilbert Moore’s (1914–1987) now-foundational piece, “Some Principles of Stratification” (1945), marked the translation of Durkheimian sociology into contemporary debates on class. Davis and Moore took as their challenge the question of how modern societies so successfully channeled their members into an elaborate and specialized division of labor. Infusing Durkheim with Weber’s emphasis on skills as life chances on the market, they reasoned that this monumental undertaking would require nothing less than a mechanism that could motivate the most qualified people to train for, seek, and perform the duties of the most important positions. Famously they hypothesized that an unequal system of occupational rewards was necessary to track the talented to their rightful place in the division of labor. Thus, professionals earn more than manual laborers, because the former positions must have greater builtin economic incentives to motivate the most highly talented to undertake the costly educational sacrifice necessary for those jobs. Social inequality, in other words, was not the result of the exploitation of one part of society by another and therefore a thing to be abhorred, but merely the system through which society unconsciously placed its most talented members into the most functionally important roles, without which society would be imperiled.

Among the more prominent early responses to Davis and Moore was that of Melvin Tumin (1919–1994), who argued that “functional importance” is an ideological construct. Power, he insisted, is a better measure of who gets ahead, such that the result of stratification, far from tracking the most talented people to the top, actually strangles talent at the bottom, making stratification deeply dysfunctional. Later Lipset and Reinhard Bendix (1916– 1991) showed conclusively that the belief in upward mobility far exceeded the actual rate in the United States, while Peter Blau (1918–2002) and Otis Duncan (1921– 2004) introduced path analysis to demonstrate the enduring effects of parental background and schooling on occupational attainment (Tumin 1953; Lipset and Bendix 1959; Blau and Duncan 1967).

But if Davis and Moore marked the introduction of Durkheim and Weber into the functionalist approach to class, then Ralf Dahrendorf (1957), the founder of modern conflict theory, did so for Marx and Weber. Dahrendorf sought to create an alternative to Talcott Parsons’s (1902–1979) functionalist social system that could better account for internal conflict. A “Left Weberian” who saw class as fundamentally exploitative, Dahrendorf argued that Marx’s focus on property as the ultimate marker of class was limited, especially in light of the control exercised by nonowner managers. Property and the coercive extraction of surplus value were for him subordinate forms of a more general social relation, authority, which served as the basis of binary “class conflict” in a variety of social settings including, but not limited to, industrial production. Dahrendorf, however, was criticized for expanding the meaning of class so far beyond the economic realm as to make the term meaningless (see, for example, Coser 1960).

Responding to Nicos Poulantzas (1936–1979), whose Political Power and Social Classes (1973) identified a “new petty bourgeoisie,” Erik Olin Wright (1978, 1997) argued that a new class of white-collar workers had emerged as a result of elaborate organizational hierarchies and the separation of ownership from directive control of large industrial corporations (Giddens and Held 1982). Workers and owners continued to occupy diametrically opposed class positions, but white-collar workers had come to occupy “contradictory class locations” in which the latter enjoyed some degree or combination of autonomy, skill, and authority on the job. Though critics have argued that Wright smuggled Weber into his Marxist framework by expanding the basis of class location beyond exploitation and production, Wright nevertheless found a dividing line between white-collar employees who identify more with labor and those who identify more with capital, thus articulating a bourgeois-proletarian divide for a new age.

Two Challenges

In the aftermath of the Soviets’ repression of democratic movements in Hungary (1956–1957) and Czechoslovakia (1968–1969), class analysis and in particular Marxism were assailed on several fronts both for what was seen as the perversion of Marx’s humanist vision by state-sponsored socialism and for the exclusion of non-class-based identities, inequalities, and movements from public discourse. With respect to the latter, Frank Parkin (1979), another Left Weberian like Dahrendorf, criticized structural Marxism’s assumption of internally homogeneous classes, as well as its inability to account for the enforcement of social boundaries between elites and workers. As an alternative, Parkin advanced the concept of “social closure,” the process by which social collectivities, whether by class, race, gender, or a combination of these, seek either to maximize rewards by restricting access to resources and opportunities (in the case of elites) or to usurp rewards previously denied to them (in the case of nonelites).

Alberto Melucci (1980) likewise criticized the socialmovement literature for emphasizing the political realm of movement activity while neglecting its nonpolitical or “social” dimensions. This, he noted, made sense in the study of working-class movements, which often have an institutionalized political arm, but did not square with women’s movements, for instance, which, in addition to struggling for political rights, also seek to address social concerns of difference and recognition and do not vie for state power. More recently, Sonya Rose (1992) has argued that gender is not a secondary by-product of class relations as Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) and some Marxist feminists have suggested, but rather a central component thereof. Thus, in late nineteenth-century England, factory wages were adjusted by gender not only to the benefit of capital, but also to the benefit of men, as it reinforced a discourse of female respectability tied to the subordination of women in the household and society at large.

  1. P. Thompson’s (1924–1993) critique of structural Marxism in the Making of the English Working Class (1963) was a lightning rod for emerging controversies within Marxism itself. The main point of this critique is that workers do not constitute a class because they share a similar structural position, but because they forge themselves into a class through their own language, culture, and struggle. The working class on this account is always already a conspirator in its own creation, thereby negating the analytical necessity for the in-itself/for-itself dichotomy. This challenge to the structural Marxism of Poulantzas, Perry Anderson (1980), and Louis Althusser (1971), among others, was led initially by the British cultural studies school of Thompson, Raymond Williams (1977), and sociologist Stuart Hall (1983).

Subsequent research, not all Marxist, has celebrated the agency of class actors, as in James Scott’s account of subversive everyday behavior in Weapons of the Weak (1985); the indigenous culture of workers, such as Craig Calhoun’s “reactionary revolutionaries”; and the processual, as opposed to the positional, dimensions of class formation exemplified by Anthony Giddens’s concept of “structuration” and Pierre Bourdieu’s (1930–2002) “habitus” (Bourdieu 1977; Przeworski 1978; Sewell 1980; Calhoun 1983; Bourdieu 1984; Giddens 1984; Katznelson and Zolberg 1985; Fantasia 1988; Bourdieu 1990; Steinmetz 1992; Somers 1997).

For Bourdieu, as an example, class typically functions at the level of shared dispositions or habitus (e.g., tastes, bodily carriage, language), which, though stemming from certain shared material conditions, manifests itself more as a “feel for the game” than as a primarily economic relationship. One is, without the effort of reflection, a “virtuoso” in negotiating the social terrain of one’s class, very much as a professional soccer player, to use Bourdieu’s analogy, knows precisely when and with what force and curvature to kick the ball in a breakaway situation. These dispositions only emerge recognizably as “class” when crises drag the material and dispositional differences among groups from the field of the unspoken (referred to as doxa) to the field of public opinion. Habitus, it is important to note, is not a fixed set of dispositions, but rather given to improvisation and thus to transforming the terms of class belonging. The analytical result is that class, through habitus, is neither structure nor agency, but structuring or both simultaneously.

The Future

One possible implication of this constant reworking of class is that it is no longer a workable analytical concept. Paul Kingston’s The Classless Society (2000) is among the latest in a long line of studies that question the predictive power of class in shaping mobility, culture, voting, and consciousness, among other outcomes. On the other hand, there is a movement afoot to rebuild class analysis. David Grusky and Jesper Sørensen (1998), for example, contend that class models can be made more plausible if analysts radically disaggregate occupational categories to the unit occupational level. Moreover, the eclipse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the attendant rise of neoliberalism have put the question of class back on the table if there had ever been any doubt. Noting the deepening class polarization since the late 1970s, David Harvey (2006) has argued that neoliberalism is a failed utopian rhetoric masking a far more successful project to restore economic power to the ruling classes. Future lines of inquiry include new forms of international class formation, the evolving relationship of party to class as the institutionalized Left goes into decline, and the disappearance of wage-based employment and thus of the very basis of social citizenship and welfare.


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