Social class

Social class (or simply "class"), as in a class society, is a set of concepts in the social sciences and political theory centered on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle, and lower classes.

Class is an essential object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and social historians. However, there is not a consensus on the best definition of the term "class," and the term has different contextual meanings. In common parlance, the term "social class" is usually synonymous with "socio-economic class," defined as "people having the same social, economic, or educational status," e.g., "the working class"; "an emerging professional class." However, academics distinguish social class and socioeconomic status, with the former referring to one’s relatively stable sociocultural background and the latter referring to one’s current social and economic situation and, consequently, being more changeable over time.

The precise measurements of what determines social class in society has varied over time. According to philosopher Karl Marx, "class" is determined entirely by one's relationship to the means of production, the classes in modern capitalist society being the "proletarians": those who work but do not own the means of production, the "bourgeoisie": those who invest and live off of the surplus generated by the former, and the aristocracy that has land as a means of production.

The term "class" is etymologically derived from the Latin classis, which was used by census takers to categorize citizens by wealth, in order to determine military service obligations.

In the late 18th century, the term "class" began to replace classifications such as estates, rank, and orders as the primary means of organizing society into hierarchical divisions. This corresponded to a general decrease in significance ascribed to hereditary characteristics, and increase in the significance of wealth and income as indicators of position in the social hierarchy.


    Burmese nobles and servants

    Historically social class and behavior was sometimes laid down in law. For example, permitted mode of dress in some times and places was strictly regulated, with sumptuous dressing only for the high ranks of society and aristocracy; sumptuary laws stipulated the dress and jewelry appropriate for a person's social rank and station.

    Theoretical models

    Definitions of social classes reflect a number of sociological perspectives, informed by anthropology, economics, psychology, and sociology. The major perspectives historically have been Marxism and Structural functionalism. The common stratum model of class divides society into a simple hierarchy of working class, middle class and upper class. Within academia, two broad schools of definitions emerge: those aligned with 20th-century sociological stratum models of class society, and those aligned with the 19th-century historical materialist economic models of the Marxists and anarchists.

    Another distinction can be drawn between analytical concepts of social class, such as the Marxist and Weberian traditions, and the more empirical traditions such as socio-economic status approach, which notes the correlation of income, education and wealth with social outcomes without necessarily implying a particular theory of social structure.


    "[Classes are] large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organization of labor, and, consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it."

    Vladimir Lenin, A Great Beginning - June, 1919

    For Marx, class is a combination of objective and subjective factors. Objectively, a class shares a common relationship to the means of production. Subjectively, the members will necessarily have some perception ("class consciousness") of their similarity and common interest. Class consciousness is not simply an awareness of one's own class interest but is also a set of shared views regarding how society should be organized legally, culturally, socially and politically. These class relations are reproduced through time.

    In Marxist theory, the class structure of the capitalist mode of production is characterized by the conflict between two main classes: the bourgeoisie, the capitalists who own the means of production, and the much larger proletariat (or 'working class') who must sell their own labour power (See also: wage labour). This is the fundamental economic structure of work and property, a state of inequality that is normalized and reproduced through cultural ideology.

    Marxists explain the history of "civilized" societies in terms of a war of classes between those who control production and those who produce the goods or services in society. In the Marxist view of capitalism, this is a conflict between capitalists (bourgeoisie) and wage-workers (the proletariat). For Marxists, class antagonism is rooted in the situation that control over social production necessarily entails control over the class which produces goods—in capitalism this is the exploitation of workers by the bourgeoisie.

    Furthermore, "in countries where modern civilisation has become fully developed, a new class of petty bourgeois has been formed". "An industrial army of workmen, under the command of a capitalist, requires, like a real army, officers (managers) and sergeants (foremen, over-lookers) who, while the work is being done, command in the name of the capitalist".

    Marx himself argued that it was the goal of the proletariat itself to displace the capitalist system with socialism, changing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a future communist society in which: "..the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." (Communist Manifesto) This would mark the beginning of a classless society in which human needs rather than profit would be motive for production. In a society with democratic control and production for use, there would be no class, no state and no need for money.


    Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, that saw political power as an interplay between "class", "status" and "group power". Weber believed that class position was determined by a person's skills and education, rather than by their relationship to the means of production. Both Marx and Weber agreed that social stratification was undesirable. However, where Marx believed that stratification would only disappear along with capitalism and private property, Weber believed that the solution lay in providing "equal opportunity" within a competitive, capitalist system.

    Weber derived many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. He noted that contrary to Marx's theories, stratification was based on more than simply ownership of capital. Weber examined how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth yet had strong political power. Many wealthy families lacked prestige and power, for example, because they were Jewish. Weber introduced three independent factors that form his theory of stratification hierarchy; class, status, and power:

    • Class: A person's economic position in a society. Weber differs from Marx in that he does not see this as the supreme factor in stratification. Weber noted how managers of corporations or industries control firms they do not own.
    • Status: A person's prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society. Weber noted that political power was not rooted in capital value solely, but also in one's individual status. Poets or saints, for example, can possess immense influence on society with often little economic worth.
    • Power: A person's ability to get their way despite the resistance of others. For example, individuals in state jobs, such as an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or a member of the United States Congress, may hold little property or status but they still hold immense power.

    Great British Class Survey

    On April 2, 2013 the results of a survey conducted by BBC Lab UK developed in collaboration with academic experts and slated to be published in the journal Sociology were published online. The results released were based on a survey of 160,000 residents of the United Kingdom most of whom lived in England and described themselves as "white." Class was defined and measured according to the amount and kind of economic, cultural, and social resources reported. Economic capital was defined as income and assets; cultural capital as amount and type of cultural interests and activities, and social capital as the quantity and social status of their friends, family and personal and business contacts. This theoretical framework was developed by Pierre Bourdieu who first published his theory of social distinction in 1979.

    The common three-stratum model

    Today, concepts of social class often assume three general categories: a very wealthy and powerful upper class that owns and controls the means of production; a middle class of professional workers, small business owners, and low-level managers; and a lower class, who rely on low-paying wage jobs for their livelihood and often experience poverty.

    Upper class

    A symbolic image of three orders of feudal society in Europe prior to the French Revolution: The rural third estate carrying the clergy and the nobility.

    The upper class is the social class composed of those who are rich, well-born, powerful, or a combination of those. They usually wield the greatest political power. In some countries, wealth alone is sufficient to allow entry into the upper class. In others, only people who are born or marry into certain aristocratic bloodlines are considered members of the upper class, and those who gain great wealth through commercial activity are looked down upon by the "old rich" as nouveau riche. In the United Kingdom, for example, the upper classes are the aristocracy and royalty, with wealth playing a less important role in class status. Many aristocratic peerages or titles have 'seats' attached to them, with the holder of the title (e.g. Earl of Bristol) and his family being the custodians of the house, but not the owners. Many of these require high expenditures, so wealth is typically needed. Many aristocratic peerages and their homes are parts of estates, owned and run by the title holder with moneys generated by the land, rents, or other sources of wealth. In America, however, where there is no aristocracy or royalty, the upper class status belongs to the extremely wealthy, the so-called 'super-rich', though there is some tendency even in America for those with old family wealth to look down on those who have earned their money in business, the struggle between New Money and Old Money.

    The upper class is generally contained within the richest one or two percent of the population. Members of the upper class are often born into it, and are distinguished by immense wealth which is passed from generation to generation in the form of estates. Sometimes members of the upper class are called "the one percent".

    Middle class

    The middle class is the most contested of the three categories, the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the lower and upper classes. One example of the contest of this term is that in the United States "middle class" is applied very broadly and includes people who would elsewhere be considered working class. Middle class workers are sometimes called "white-collar workers".

    Theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf have noted the tendency toward an enlarged middle class in modern Western societies, particularly in relation to the necessity of an educated work force in technological economies. Perspectives concerning globalization and neocolonialism, such as dependency theory, suggest this is due to the shift of low-level labour to developing nations and the Third World.

    Lower class

    In the United States the lowest stratum of the working class, the underclass, often lives in urban areas with low-quality civil services.

    Lower class (occasionally described as working class) are those employed in low-paying wage jobs with very little economic security. The term "lower class" also refers to persons with low income.

    The working class is sometimes separated into those who are employed but lacking financial security, and an underclass—those who are long-term unemployed and/or homeless, especially those receiving welfare from the state. The latter is analogous to the Marxist term "lumpenproletariat". Members of the working class are sometimes called blue-collar workers.

    In the United States, the terms working class and blue-collar may refer to employed and hard-working members of the middle-middle and lower-middle class, while the upper-middle class in the United States often refers to employment positions that require a college or graduate degree.

    Consequences of class position

    A person's socioeconomic class has wide-ranging effects. It may determine the schools they are able to attend, the jobs open to them, who they may marry, and their treatment by police and the courts.[]


    A person's social class has a significant impact on their educational opportunities. Not only are upper-class parents able to send their children to exclusive schools that are perceived to be better, but in many places state-supported schools for children of the upper class are of a much higher quality than those the state provides for children of the lower classes. This lack of good schools is one factor that perpetuates the class divide across generations.

    In 1977, British cultural theorist Paul Willis published a study titled "Learning to Labour", in which he investigated the connection between social class and education. In his study, he found that a group of working class schoolchildren had developed an antipathy towards the acquisition of knowledge as being outside their class, and therefore undesirable, perpetuating their presence in the working class.

    Health and nutrition

    Members of the working class, and particularly peasantries, starve to death at a much higher rate than petits-bourgeois professionals or capitalists.

    A person's social class has a significant impact on their physical health, their ability to receive adequate medical care and nutrition, and their life expectancy.

    Lower-class people experience a wide array of health problems as a result of their economic status. They are unable to use health care as often, and when they do it is of lower quality, even though they generally tend to experience a much higher rate of health issues. Lower-class families have higher rates of infant mortality, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and disabling physical injuries. Additionally, poor people tend to work in much more hazardous conditions, yet generally have much less (if any) health insurance provided for them, as compared to middle and upper class workers.


    The conditions at a person's job vary greatly depending on class. Those in the upper-middle class and middle class enjoy greater freedoms in their occupations. They are usually more respected, enjoy more diversity, and are able to exhibit some authority. Those in lower classes tend to feel more alienated and have lower work satisfaction overall. The physical conditions of the workplace differ greatly between classes. While middle-class workers may "suffer alienating conditions" or "lack of job satisfaction", blue-collar workers are more apt to suffer alienating, often routine, work with obvious physical health hazards, injury, and even death.

    A recent UK government study has suggested that a 'glass floor' exists in British Society which prevents those who are less able, but whom come from wealthier backgrounds, from slipping down the social ladder. This is due to the fact that those from wealthier backgrounds have more opportunities available to them. In fact, the article shows that less able, better-off kids are 35% more likely to become high earners than bright poor kids.

    Class conflict

    Class conflict, frequently referred to as "class warfare" or "class struggle," is the tension or antagonism which exists in society due to competing socioeconomic interests and desires between people of different classes.

    For Marx, the history of class society was a history of class conflict. He pointed to the successful rise of the bourgeoisie, and the necessity of revolutionary violence—a heightened form of class conflict—in securing the bourgeoisie rights that supported the capitalist economy.

    Marx believed that the exploitation and poverty inherent in capitalism were a pre-existing form of class conflict. Marx believed that wage labourers would need to revolt to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth and political power.

    Classless society

    "Classless society" refers to a society in which no one is born into a social class. Distinctions of wealth, income, education, culture, or social network might arise and would only be determined by individual experience and achievement in such a society.

    Since these distinctions are difficult to avoid, advocates of a classless society (such as anarchists and communists) propose various means to achieve and maintain it and attach varying degrees of importance to it as an end in their overall programs/philosophy.

    Relationship between ethnicity and class

    Equestrian portrait of Empress Elisabeth of Russia with a Moor.

    Race and other large-scale groupings can also influence class standing. The association of particular ethnic groups with class statuses is common in many societies. As a result of conquest or internal ethnic differentiation, a ruling class is often ethnically homogenous and particular races or ethnic groups in some societies are legally or customarily restricted to occupying particular class positions. Which ethnicities are considered as belonging to high or low classes varies from society to society. In modern societies strict legal links between ethnicity and class have been drawn, such as in apartheid, the caste system in Africa, the position of the Burakumin in Japanese society, and the Casta system in Latin America.[]

    See also

    Class by region or historical period

    • Class in Aztec society
    • Class in the contemporary United States
    • Four divisions of society
    • Inca society
    • Indian caste system
    • Korean ruling class
    • Social class in Cambodia
    • Social class in ancient Rome
    • Social structure of Britain
    • Social class in Italy
    • Social structure of China
    • Social class in New Zealand
    • Poverty in the United States
    • Social class in American history
    • Social structure of the United States