Social Class is an important Sociological concept, one engaged with by students and non-students of the subject alike. Throughout the world, Social Class is widely discussed. The topic itself raises a number of questions. What is Social Class? What are the characteristics which distinguish one class from another? Do social theorists agree on the classifications of each Social Class?
Historically in the United Kingdom (UK) class was examined in 3 categories. The Upper Class, the Middle class, and the Working Class. In modern class classification systems, there are often more complex categories. Due to its subjective nature, self-report of Social Class can be an issue.
What is Social Class?
To begin Social Class refers to the hierarchy which emerges in a society where certain groups and individuals are classified via status and privilege largely acquired through wealth. An individual or family can often identify their place within the hierarchy and may experience Upward Mobility, where you rise upwards through the Social Class hierarchy. Or, Downwards Mobility, where an individual’s social standing decreases on the Social Scale. Inevitably, your socioeconomic status can have lasting effects on your education, career prospects, living standards, and influence on local/national politics. In America, for example, members of the lower classes may have to forego Health insurance in order to afford other living expenses.
The Upper Class or the Bourgeoisie
Investopedia, (is obviously very interested in keeping the Upper Class on side). Define the Upper Class as is individuals who reside above the Working Class and Middle Class. Individuals in the upper class have higher levels of disposable income, greater influence in the political realm, and exert more control over the use of natural resources. While the Upper Class make up a small percentage of the overall population, it controls a disproportionately large amount of the overall wealth (Kenton, 2018). The Upper Class is made up of nobility, aristocrats, celebrities, politicians and other individuals who have acquired large amounts of wealth or status such as the Pope.
In Marxist terminology, the Upper Class are the Bourgeoisie. The owners of the means of the production. Their ideas and tastes pushed to be the superior dominant ideology throughout society. The Upper Class tends to be represented in the media as educated, culturally and economically superior. This is mainly due to how much financial influence they exert throughout society.
Sociologists don’t often theorise on the Upper Class. There is much more literature on the working class potentially due to access issues. Research that has been done has interesting. Van Zanten (2009) found that elite schools prepare students for political and economic power positions.
The Middle Class or the Petit Bourgeoisie
The Middle Class comprises of the professionals and business people. Being Middle Class means striving for the stability and respectability that older generations achieved by holding down steady jobs, owning a home, and children. Middle Class desires are marred by insecurity historically associated with the working class (Zaloom, 2018).
You could also argue that the ‘Middle Class’ is actually just the Petit Bourgeoisie Marx describes. The Petite Bourgeoisie combines both employment and ownership of the means of production. This class was slightly progressive pushing for legal reforms as a consequence of experiencing oppression themselves by the Bourgeousie (Marx, 1895).
In the media, Middle Class individuals receive better coverage than their Working Class peers. They’re portrayed as hard-working individuals from happy families. This is largely because it is Middle Class individuals making this content.
The Working Class or the Proletariat
The Working Class is made up of individuals and families who work for wages, rent a home, and historically worked in manual labour. To live, the working class rely on their wages. The term working class is often used interchangeably with the term proletariat. A Marxist term referring to the individuals who have no access to the means of production, those who do not own property or land (Engels & Marx, 1888). Most members of the working class will not enter higher education, or acquire high level, high status jobs in society.
Owen Jones (2011) wrote on the media representations of the British working class in his book Chavs: the demonization of the working class. They’re often portrayed as dumbed down and Bigoted. Sources of the UK’s problems, trouble, and dissent.
The Lower Class, the Underclass or the Lumpenproletariat
The Lower Class would acquire the lowest place in society. A google search of the term ‘lower class’ actually raises many articles pointing towards the Working Class. But it can be presumed that there is a class which is lower than the Working Class. The Underclass. The Underclass makes up the lowest segment of the Social Class hierarchy, below the Working Class, living in severe poverty.
What have been the common characteristics of the broad ‘underclass’ idea? First, this is a process of social distancing, based on class, gender, ethnicity, and age. Interspersed with prevailing norms of working-class respectability. A second important issue is whether it is an economic underclass or a behavioural one. A key defining characteristic is that the underclass is said to be intergeneration sometimes heredity, sometimes by socialisation (Macnicol, 2016). Karl Marx wrote on the lumpenproletariat. The lowest strata of society made up of ‘tramps’, criminals, and undesirables. It is from this class that the revolutionary behaviour will begin (Engels & Marx, 1888).
One conservative argument is that the underclass is a result of the welfare state. This argument fails to take into consideration that evidence of the underclass is widespread throughout the globe. Prevalent in countries where there is no welfare state.
Other forms of Social Stratification
Whilst these are the general widely known social classes you can also examine different social structures have been created to make up for what some call an outdated classification system. For instance in America, the following stratification system is popular Upper Class, New Money, Middle Class, Working Class, Working Poor, and Poverty level. On the other hand in the United Kingdom, other class classification systems have been prevalent.
Tools to measure Social Class
The Registrar General’s Social Class Scale
Devised by T H C Stevenson, this classification system mixed occupation and industrial groups. Based on the assumption that society can be graded via occupation. I Professional Occupations II Managerial and Technical Occupations III Skilled Occupations (N) Non-manual (M) Manual IV Partly Skilled Occupations V Unskilled Occupation. An issue with the scale is that is was devised in 1911, since then the industries dominant in the UK have changed, and new industries have emerged. Sadly, this scale doesn’t adequately allow for such changes to be documented.
The Goldthorpe Class scheme
The British Sociologist John Goldthorpe developed the widely used Goldthorpe Class Scheme. The scheme was created for the Oxford Social Mobility study of England & Wales in the 70s. Due to its popularity, the scale has faced much criticism.
The New British Class Survey
The New British Class Survey is an attempt to replace the Registrar Generals Social Class Scale to better fit the changing employment realm of the UK. Three aspects of Social Class were examined – economic capital, cultural capital, and social capital. This survey splits the UK into 7 classes 1 Elite 2 Established Middle Class 3 Technical Middle Class 4 New Affluent Workers 5 Emergent Service Workers 6 Traditional Working Class 7 Precariat. Whilst this new classification system adequately places new workers from a more wholesome perspective, as the classification system is still new it can be confusing for some individuals.
To conclude Social Class is a large area of Sociology, and it would always be difficult to include all perspectives, theories, and areas of debate in one article. Over time new classification schemes have been developed to try and make sense of the changing nature of work and capital in society. The four system classification of Social Class is most widely known, but that hasn’t stopped more eloquent systems being developed. And the New British Class Survey does seem truly promising.
By Shaneka Knight
Facebook: Shaneka Knight
Engels, F., Marx, K. (1888). The Communist Manifesto. Penguin: London.
Jones, O. (2011). Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. Verso: London.
Kenton, W. (2018, 15 March). Upper Class. Investopedia. Retrieved from https://www.investopedia.com/terms/u/upper-class.asp [Accessed 7th of January 2019].
Macnicol, J. (2016). What do we mean by the ‘underclass’? The London School of Economics and Political Science. Retrieved from [Accessed 7th of January 2019].
Marx, K. (1895). The Class Struggles in France 1848-1850. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/download/pdf/Class_Struggles_in_France.pdf [Accessed 7th of January 2019].
Van Zanten, A. (2009). The Sociology of Elite Education. The Routledge International Handbook of the Sociology of Education, Routledge, pp. 329-339.
Zaloom, C. (2018, 4 November). Does the U.S. still have a ‘Middle Class’? The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/11/what-does-middle-class-really-mean/574534/ [Accessed 7th of January 2019].