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Class and Crime


The longstanding controversy over the importance of social class in the production of criminal conduct is often an argument over the meaning of class and the measurement of crime. Criminal conduct is far from a unitary phenomenon. In general, for a crime to be committed, there must be some intentional conduct that is prohibited by a criminal law. Occasionally, the law may require specific conduct such as filing a tax return. Under these circumstances, a lawmaking body can create a link between class and crime simply by making rules designed to control the conduct of the rich or the poor. If the legislature creates a law making it a crime to be found in public without money or a permanent address, they will have created a link between poverty and crime. If they make it a crime to engage in "insider trading" on the stock market, they will have created a crime that is almost certain to involve those with access to management decisions that might change stock prices. This kind of law would create a link between wealth and crime.

Definition of crime

Although official definitions of crime are legislative, in practice crime is defined by administrative policies and enforcement practices. While most crime is some form of theft or assault and most of it results in physical harm or property loss for individuals, there are crimes where no loss of property is involved and no injury is inflicted on others. Enforcement policies and practices will determine who is arrested for such crimes. The areas in which these offenses are perpetrated, as well as the prior income and employment status of prison and jail inmates suggest that drug laws and laws against gambling and prostitution have generally worked against the poor more than they have against the rich.

Those who study crime and delinquency also define crime. The definition of crime was greatly expanded when criminologists began asking people to report their own illegal or improper behavior. In some of the early self-report studies, conduct that is only illegal when minors do it was defined as criminal (Nye and Short). In some self-report studies conduct was defined as delinquent even when it was so common than almost everyone could be classified as delinquent. At the other extreme, criminologists have classified some conduct as criminal that does not violate existing law. These writers believe that all forms of economic exploitation, racial discrimination, or creation of unsafe or unhealthy work environments are harmful and should be made criminal. Because they define such conduct as criminal, they argue that crime is evenly distributed across class levels or that it is linked to upper class status (Pepinsky and Jesilow).

Measuring crime

Some measures of crime are based on police, court, correctional, or official survey reports. These efforts produce information on victims and offenders. Reports of offenses known to the police and victimization survey results provide victim-based information. However, such victim information is sometimes used to infer offender characteristics. On occasion, victim-based measures are simply treated as if the offender-victim distinction is unimportant. That is, the focus on victims in such studies is never mentioned. Occasionally, offender information, such as that provided by the Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) program or by police reports of arrests, is used to modify victim information. A few studies have used arrest data in combination with offenses known to the police to create race-specific offense rates (Sampson; Ousey). More often, offender information is used to look at offender characteristics or the relationship between victims and offenders (Chilton and Jarvis). It is sometimes used to compute rates for studies that examine the relationship of offense rates to other economic and social characteristics of urban areas.

A different set of crime measures are created when interviews or questionnaires are used to ask people about crimes they have committed. Those asked about their criminal conduct can be juveniles or adults, male or female. They may live in the same community or be part of a national sample. The measures of crime used in such studies vary widely. Respondents may be asked to select, from a list, offenses they have committed at some point in their lives or at some time during the last year. They may or may not be asked about the frequency with which they have engaged in such conduct. The acts presented range from very minor offenses, or offenses that are only illegal for children, to very serious offenses. Measures of crime are sometimes created by counting the number of different types of crime reported and sometimes by using the frequency of crimes reported or by counting specific offenses such as assault or burglary.

Definition of class

In addition to issues of the definition and measurement of crime, disagreements about the meaning and measurement of social class make it difficult to conclude whether or not class is linked to crime. Looking at social class categories as essentially a matter of differences in wealth and income, we can say in a general way that those who own a great deal of property and have high incomes are rich or upper class; those who own little or nothing and have low incomes are poor or lower class. Beyond this general notion the issue is quickly complicated. No commonly accepted set of classes exists. And a wide variety of gradational scales designed to measure social class have been developed. Self-report studies generally use reports of parent's occupation to create social class scores. At least one self-report study of adults asked for work information and used it to assign each respondent to a specific social class depending on his or her business ownership and employee or employer status (Dunaway et al.).

Studies of geographic distribution are more likely to infer the social class of an area based on measures that reflect the income and assets of those living in the area. Measures often used are the median income of the residents of each area, the proportion of home ownership, the median value of homes, median rent, the proportion of the population in poverty, median education, and the prevalence of dilapidated housing. Variations on these indications of area wealth and deprivation are sometimes used. Results vary according to the measures used and their construction and, more often, according to the size of the areas usedcensus tracts, cities, Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSA), or states. An additional complication in discussions of the social class of geographic areas arises because it is possible to see people as rich or poor in either an absolute or relative sense. This has produced studies of inequality and crime in addition to, and sometimes instead of, poverty and crime. In such an approach the emphasis is on the gap between those with high incomes and those with low incomes.

Early work

For the first half of the twentieth century, the question of the link between class and crime was examined in three basic ways. First, investigators looked at the impact of economic conditions on crime rates, asking if crime increases with an economic downturn. A basic assumption in this approach was that poor economic conditions are harder on the poor than the middle class and that this produces increased crime. A second approach examined the social class of prisoners or others formally identified as offenders to ask about the social class backgrounds of people convicted of crime. Generally, convicts were and are poor. In a third approach, crime rates for specific geographic areas were compared with a set of social and economic characteristics of the areas. These studies asked if areas with indications of high poverty rates and low social class were also areas with high crime rates. In general the answers to this question were yes. All three of these approaches probably influenced the development of theories either attempting to explain the reasons for the class-crime relationship or assuming such a relationship (Merton; Cohen; Cloward and Ohlin).

Some of the earliest empirical efforts to study class and crime used measures of the general economic conditions of regions of a country in combination with official crime rates for the regions to ask if poor economic conditions were associated with high crime rates (Bonger). Although those carrying out these studies often found that poor regions had high crime rates, they also found poor regions in which the crime rates were low. This led Bonger to conclude that the gap in income and wealth between the rich and poor might be more important than the overall poverty or affluence of an area.

When similar studies were done for areas within cities in the early decades of the twentieth century, most suggested a clear link between crime or delinquency rates and the social and economic characteristics of urban areas. By the 1940s there was general agreement that both property crimes and crimes of violence were higher in areas with low average incomes, high transiency, low educational achievement, and high unemployment (Shaw and McKay).

In addition, examinations of the characteristics of prisoners during the first half of the twentieth century indicated that a disproportionate percentage were poor, uneducated, and unemployed before incarceration (Glueck and Glueck). In general, most of these early examinations suggested there was a class-crime link. Moreover, since the relationship could be interpreted as showing that poverty and unemployment produced much ordinary crime, the findings at the early studies were consistent with conclusions reached by a number of philosophers and social thinkers.

Shifts in focus

In the 1940s and 1950s there was a shift in focus in criminology. The first aspect of the shift came when Edwin Sutherland introduced the notion of "white collar crime" to call attention to offenses committed by high status people in conjunction with their occupations. As he saw it, this occurred in two ways. Some high status individuals, acting alone, engaged in large-scale theft by embezzlement or fraud. In addition, groups of high status individuals, acting in concert, engaged in what he called "corporate crime." This frequently involved corporate efforts to reduce competition through some form of price-fixing. It sometimes involved the intentional manufacture and sale of toxic or dangerous products. Thus, "white collar crime" shifted the focus from the poor to the wealthy and is sometimes used to argue against the notion that poverty increases most forms of crime.

A second shift in focus came at about the same time when some criminologists fixed their attention on young people and on middle-class delinquency. Two research procedures were important in this shift. One was the development of self-reported crime studies (Nye and Short). The other was the use of techniques that required researchers to spend time with and observe the actions of middle-class young people. Both of these developments led investigators to conclude that there was a great deal of unreported criminal and delinquent conduct committed by middle-class children. Interest in the observation of middle-class children waned but interest in confessional studies was strong in the 1960s and 1970s and remained strong through the end of the century.

Almost all of the self-report studies used samples of young people in school who were assured of anonymity. Some national samples of minors were selected along with a few studies of adults. In some studies, the children were interviewed more than once and some were followed into adulthood. Most of these studies found weak or nonexistent links between social class and juvenile delinquency or crime. However, some studies using national samples to measure the frequency of self-reported delinquency found that lower-class youth reported nearly four times as many offenses as middle-class youth and one and one-half times as many as working-class youth (Elliott and Ageton).

In trying to reconcile the conflicting results of a number of individual-level confessional studies with those comparing area characteristics with area crime rates, some questioned the accuracy, representativeness, and scope of the surveys. Others played down or ignored the problems presented by the survey approach and concluded that the impact of social class on crime was a myth (Tittle, Villemez, and Smith).

In 1979, John Braithwaite published a careful review of a large number of area and confessional studies and a balanced discussion of the advantages and limitations of each. After reviewing studies carried out through the mid-1970s, he concluded that lower-class children and adults commit the types of crime handled by the police at higher rates than middle-class children and adults. On the "myth" of the class-crime relationship, he warns us "be wary of reviews that pretend to be exhaustive but are in fact selective" (p. 63).

Braithwaite also discussed a related shift in focus that called attention to discrimination in the system of justice. In general, researchers focused on police or court bias and argued that most of the differences in economic background that appear when offenders were compared with people in the general population do not reflect a difference in criminal conduct but reflect biases in the operation of the system of justice. After a lengthy review, Braithwaite felt in 1979 that the tide of evidence was "turning against the assertion that there is an all-pervasive bias against the lower class offender in the criminal justice system" (p. 143).

These shifts in focus and the development of national crime victimization surveys in the 1970s prompted some criminologists to play down or dismiss official measures of crime as biased and misleading. While this approach made it easier to reject the class-crime link shown in most studies of official crime data, it created a need to rely more heavily on surveys, anecdotes, estimates, and ideology in discussions of the topic. In addition it led some to conclude that victimization surveys are more accurate sources of data on crime than police records. Such a focus ignores the great absence of information on suspects and offenders in the victimization data and the many other limitations of the approach. National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) results are reported only for the country as a whole. And only a small set of offenses are used. Even then, the sizes of the samples used make the responses on rape, for example, very shaky. No information is collected on homicide.

However, the NCVS does identify each victim's reported income. These data usually suggest that low-income respondents are more likely to report being victims of burglary and assault than high-income respondents. Unfortunately, the NCVS collects very little information on the offenders involved. Still, the social class of the victims and the characteristics of urban residential patterns suggest that the offenders are also people with low incomes.

Later work

Using slightly different kinds of analysis, studies of the geographic distribution of crime in the 1950s and 1960s generally reinforced the findings of Shaw and McKay that official delinquency rates for small urban areas were linked to indicators of poverty and disadvantage (Chilton). Research done in the last two decades of the century continued in both styles. A renewed interest in studies looking at the geographic distribution of crime produced additional evidence in support of a class-crime link. Patterson's 1991 review of twenty-two studies of poverty and crime published from 1976 to 1986 found that some of the studies used data for different sets of cities, for MSAs, and for areas within cites. Although most of the studies showed positive effects of poverty on crime, some did not. In his analysis of fifty-seven areas within Tampa, Florida, Patterson found that levels of absolute poverty were associated with higher rates of violent crime.

During the same period, some researchers using reports of individuals suggested that while social origin might play a minor role in explaining juvenile criminality, the effect of the subject's own social position is important for adult criminality (Thornberry and Farnworth). Others suggested that the correlations between self-reported delinquency and social class are weak and should be weak in part because of the offenses used and in part because traits associated with high and low social class scores are related to different kinds of crime. Responding to the general absence of studies on the impact of social class on adult crime, Dunaway and his colleagues used three different measures of social class to analyze the responses of an adult sample for a single city.

Dunaway and colleagues' "underclass" measure focused on unemployment, receiving public assistance or food stamps, or living in public housing. Another measure used income and education as gradational measures of class. Their third measure of social class focused on a respondent's business ownership and position as an employer or employee. As a measure of crime they used the total number of offenses reported when respondents were asked to check one or more offenses from a list of fifty that they might have committed over the preceding year. This approach gives equal weight to an admission of marijuana possession, illegal gambling, driving while drunk, income tax fraud, threatening to hit a family member, stealing, burglary, robbery, and assault with intent to kill.

Recognizing the problematic nature of this range of offenses, they created a separate violence measure that included some relatively minor offenses but also included serious assaults, rape, and robbery. Using the violence subset as a measure of crime, they reported an inverse relationship between crime and some of their social class measures. When the full set of offenses is used to measure crime, only income is inversely related to crime. While arguing that there was little impact of class on crime if categorical measures of class are used, they note that family income negatively affects crime by both men and women, that the results vary by race in that the class-crime relationship was stronger for white respondents than for black respondents, and that violence is related to social class when income is used to measure class.

In a New Zealand study, Wright and others report that their Socioeconomic Status Score (SES) had both a negative and a positive indirect affect on delinquency. Using data for 1,037 children born in 1972 and 1973 and reassessed eight times since birth, they found no association between parental SES and delinquency at age twenty-one before they looked at several mediating factors. They interpret this as the result of high self-reported delinquency scores for middle-class young people that are high for reasons different from the reasons for high self-reported delinquency scores of lower class young people. They argue that there can be causality without correlation.

While this may explain the results observed in many individual-level studies, another possible explanation of the conflicting results between self-report studies and area studies is the distinctly different locations of the people and situations studied. Studies of geographic location are usually carried out for urban areas, Metropolitan Statistical Areas, urban counties, cities, or census tracts. Confessional studies have frequently been carried out in small towns and areas with very small minority populations. These studies have often been unable to tap both the high and the low ends of the social class distribution. Nowhere is this clearer than in the way the two approaches deal with race. One classic self-report study dropped all black respondents from the analysis (Hirschi). Other self-report studies attempt to hold constant the impact of race. Such procedures are rare in studies of geographic areas. The area studies include minority populations in the crime counts and in the population counts. Whether the areas are census tracts, cities, or Metropolitan Statistical Areas, the populations studied are almost always urban and multiracial.

U.S. public health statistics on homicide as a cause of death indicate that this is a leading cause of death for black males (Anderson, Kochanek, and Murphy). About 40 percent of all homicide victims are black males though black males make up about 6 or 7 percent of the U.S. population (U.S. Bureau of the Census). Although the 40 percent figure has fluctuated some since 1960, the victimization rate for black males has been remarkably consistent for forty yearsranging from 33 to 49 percent. Forty percent was also the figure provided by the Uniform Crime Reports' Supplementary Homicide reports for 1995 (Snyder and Finnegan).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation's Supplementary Homicide Reports (SHR) also suggest that black offenders are responsible for most homicides with black victims. They suggest that 48 to 50 percent of offenders in homicide cases are black males and that most homicides are intraracial (Federal Bureau of Investigation). More importantly, black males have been overrepresented in both the victimization figures and the offender figures for over thirty-five years. During the period 1960 to 1990, the average percentage of homicide victims reported as black males was about 39 percent. In addition, the SHR offender information suggests that, on average, about 44 percent of the people reported as homicide offenders were described as black males. There is little doubt that black males are, and have for some years been, greatly overrepresented as both victims of homicide and as homicide offenders.

The traditional response to any discussion of this situation is the suggestion that these high homicide-offending rates for black males are more a function of social class than biological or cultural differences. However, it is almost as traditional to suggest that we lack sufficient information on social class to claim empirical support for the social class explanation. One way to clarify this murky situation would be through the construction of race- and gender-specific homicide rates for census tracts. Peterson and Krivo analyzed homicide victimization rates for 125 U.S. cities and found that black homicides were linked to racial segregation. Parker and McCall's city-level analysis of interracial and intraracial homicide provides another indication of the probable utility of race-specific data. Using race-specific independent variables for about one hundred U.S. cities, they conclude that economic deprivation affects the intraracial homicide rates for whites and blacks.

In a study that used arrest counts to create race-specific offense rates, Ousey reported a large gap between black and white homicide rates. The black rates were five times as high as the white rates. Although he found that measures of poverty and deprivation had an impact on both black and white homicide rates, he found that the effects of these variables were stronger for whites than for blacks. He suggests that extensive and long-term disadvantage may have produced cultural and normative adaptations that have produced this gap in the rates.

Because social status is the term used in the self-report studies wherein young people are asked about their parents' occupations and their own delinquency, it may be misleading in a discussion of race, class, and crime. Even a term such as "economic conditions" is too vague to describe the ways in which vast differences in income and assets and a pervasive system of racial separatism probably contribute to high homicide rates in some areas of U.S. central cities. For an understanding of this issue, asking why the homicide rates are so high in specific areas of U.S. cities is probably more useful than asking individuals how much crime they have committed and comparing their reports with the social class implied by reports of a parent's occupation.

The patterns of homicide rates by race suggest that the rates are probably linked to exclusion and segregationeconomic, racial, and ethnicbut especially to the separation and isolation of large segments of the urban population based on income and assets. This separation is frequently based on race or ethnicity but it is increasingly linked to a combination of racial separatism and poverty. In most studies using census tracts or other relatively small areas, a concentration of the poor in areas with high homicide rates was related to low median incomes, low educational attainment, higher proportions of lowpaying occupations, unemployment, and underemployment in the areas. These indicators in turn are probably closely related to housing conditions, living arrangements, and family composition. In these same areas, additional research will probably show reduced public service facilities (parks, pools, libraries, recreation centers) and reduced expenditures for schools and possibly even for police services. In short, expanded and race-specific studies of the geographic distribution of homicide rates will probably show that areas with high homicide rates are areas with concentrations of poor individuals and poor families, regardless of race or ethnicity.

To the extent that these rates reflect the impact of exclusion, isolation, and impoverishment, a continuing focus on short-term trends will leave the extensive and persistent long-term differences unexamined and unexplainedespecially the relatively stable and unusually high rates of homicide victimization and homicide offending reported for black males. To understand this long-term trend we will probably have to look to widespread practices and procedures that persist over time and continue to exclude and isolate a large number of black males from full participation in the economic, political, and social life of American society. It is in this sense that race is closely linked to class as a cause of violent crime in the United States. The class effects are compounded by racial separatism and racial discrimination.

Moreover, as John Hagan has suggested, the relationship between class and crime may be class- and crime-specific. It is also probably race- and gender-specific. He is probably also right in his assertion that not only does class have an impact on crime but some kinds of crime, or at least some responses to crime, have an impact on the social class of some offenders (Sampson and Laub). This is why he is right in his assessment that "the simple omission of class from the study of crime would impoverish criminology."

All of this suggests that the class-crime relationship will continue to generate research, comment, and debate well into the twenty-first century. As more of the research on this issue is focused on specific offenses and specific types of offenses, there may be greater coherence in the results than is now available. The development of standard measures of social class and greater attention to the kinds of questions being asked when using officially aggregated information as distinct from the kinds of questions asked in cohort or confessional studies may reduce some of the confusion surrounding the issue. However, the issue will remain controversial for reasons unrelated to scholarship or social research because of the implications for social policy suggested by any set of clear conclusions in one direction or the other.

Roland Chilton

See also Crime Causation: Biological Theories; Crime Causation: Economic Theories; Crime Causation: Political Theories; Crime Causation: Psychological Theories; Crime Causation: Sociological Theories; Education and Crime; Gender and Crime; Race and Crime; Unemployment and Crime; White-Collar Crime: History of an Idea.


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CLASS. "Class is obviously a difficult word," Raymond Williams wrote in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976). Class was a difficult word for Williams "both in its range of meanings and its complexity in that particular meaning where it describes social division." As a word in English, class probably first appeared in a Latin form, classis, during the sixteenth century. Classis was a Roman term for the differences of property among citizens. One mid-seventeenth-century scholar, Williams reports, glossed the term as "an order or distribution of people according to their several Degrees" but restricted the meaning by adding "in Schools (wherein the term is most used)." In 1705 Daniel Defoe remarked, "tis plain the dearness of wages forms our people into more classes than other nations can show." Defoe identified a main force in class formation within early capitalism: the payment of wages for labor. But Defoe referred to an ambiguous plurality of classes, not to a hierarchy based on a division between employers and employed. Class in its modern sense is defined not only by the form of economic subsistence but also by a hierarchical division of labor, privilege, and authority. The formation of classes in America—followed by modern usage of the term "class" to describe them—accelerated in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the commencement of the Industrial Revolution in the Atlantic basin. It began earlier, however, and occurred in relation to the historical development of race and gender.

The Division of Society into Owning and Working Classes

Long before the word "class" gave a label to the status arrangements within industrial capitalism, the conditions that the term would describe were developing. None were more important than the division between a large and growing population that owned nothing but its labor and a much smaller, profit driven population that owned productive property, whether land or tools and shops. Where this process began is a source of continuing debate, but one place to look for some of the earlier developments is early modern England. Beginning in the sixteenth century and stretching into the nineteenth century, a series of enclosure acts in England eliminated the traditional feudal rights of peasant communities to hold large pieces of land in common for general use. The termination of these rights made possible the creation of large private, individual holdings for commercial production. The English state simultaneously expanded its power to compel the dispossessed and mobile commoners to labor either in agriculture or the crafts. Commoners either worked in the new system voluntarily or were treated by the state as criminal vagrants and sentenced to workhouses. In North America, where land was much more widely available, workhouses were less common, but both forced and voluntary labor took contractual forms similar to those practiced in England: craft apprenticeships and agricultural indentures.

The indentured agricultural laborer contracted to work for a number of years for a master, or planter, in exchange for the cost of transport to the British North American colonies, not wages. During the late seventeenth century growers in the Chesapeake Bay region, the Carolinas, and the Caribbean shifted exclusively to enslaved African labor. Through the end of slavery, small planters and their families often worked alongside their handful of enslaved laborers and whites continued to do hired agricultural labor. But agricultural labor in commercial production of tobacco, rice, indigo, and cotton became the work of a caste of enslaved workers, distinguishing it from the wage system developing in the crafts. The craft apprentice served a master for a number of years, usually about seven or until maturity, and then became a journeyman who likely earned wages from his master. Journeymen lived with their masters until they married or became skilled enough to complete their own "masterpiece" and open their own shop. The English guilds, which enforced these relationships among craft workers and controlled prices, never crossed the Atlantic. Initially, there were fewer journeymen in craft operations in North America. Masters usually worked for themselves, perhaps with an apprentice or a journeyman. And many of those called masters were really journeymen who simply set up shop for themselves in American cities with few or no craft workers. During the late eighteenth century these masters, like many of their English counterparts, began to enlarge their operations, employing more labor and demanding more from it. These small groups of journeymen who worked together in the shops and lived together in neighborhoods apart from their masters increasingly organized themselves and found cause to strike over wages and hours. Consequently, although master bakers went on strike in New York City in 1741 and master carpenters struck in Savannah, Georgia, in 1746, demanding better prices, it was journeymen carpenters who went on strike in Philadelphia in 1791.

Between 1780 and 1840, the transformation of the craft system into a system of ownership and working classes was perhaps "one of the outstanding triumphs of nineteenth century American capitalism," according to Sean Wilenz (Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 [1984]). It was during this period that the changes in labor practices that were detectable in the eighteenth century suddenly seemed to move more rapidly, encompassing a wider demographic. Master craftsmen and shopkeepers had formed a significant—if uncertainly situated—middling class status, or rank, in the commercial cities of British North America from Boston to Savannah. But by 1815 merchant capitalists dominated some of the craft markets, such as textiles and many in this first middle class of small independent producers could no longer maintain themselves. Some masters, in crafts such as silver smithing, possessed significant wealth, but others endured hard labor and seasons of desperate want for themselves and their families. Many master craftsmen became managers working for capitalist owners who controlled the tools, inventory, and marketing and expected masters to push for the greatest possible productivity for the lowest possible wage. By 1820 New York City had twelve "manufactories" that employed twenty-five or more workers and thirty-five other facilities that employed tenor more workers. Many other masters lost their independence and became wageworkers in these early factories alongside journeymen and apprentices. After about 1820, the rise of stereotyping in printing and sweatshops in clothing and shoes heralded the expansion of mechanized, frenetic, and standardized production.

The emerging class relations of industrialization were broadly impacted by the American Revolution's ideological discourses, which lauded national and individual independence as masculine virtues. Masters who worked crafts that were still not industrialized maintained an independence that could put them in a middling rank, along with small-scale yeoman farmers. This independence was an important source of distinction—or class—and it defined white masculinity while separating it from the status of the enslaved and women, all of whom could not vote and owned little or no property. Even when they organized into citywide craft unions, larger and better organized versions of the eighteenth-century journeymen's combinations, white industrial workers were dependent on insecure employment over which they exercised little control. Class subordination and republican masculinity were contradictory. As both slave labor and wage labor expanded in the early nineteenth century, American workers discovered that "one way to make peace with the latter was to differentiate it sharply from the former," according to David Roediger in The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (1992). African Americans both enslaved and free were stereotyped by all whites as licentious, lazy, and dangerous by nature, fit only for hard labor and dependence on whites. A model of white masculinity defined itself in terms of protecting against blackness and blacks. In nonslave states, white working-class Republican Boys harassed the free black population of the cities, chasing them from public spaces. Whites produced and eagerly attended blackface minstrel productions, which were stereotyped and distorted representations of black culture. In the slave states, whites of all classes, including workers, helped police the enslaved and protect against insurrection.

As the manufactory owners looked less for skill than for cheap, rapid output, they also participated in altering the economic role of women, creating new class cultures, particularly in the cities. In The North, the unpaid labor of women in the household helped fuel early capital accumulation by consuming and using the ever-expanding "labor-saving" devices produced by the industrial sector and reproducing the laboring population. The famous Lowell Mills in Massachusetts, one example of a regional practice, employed farm girls in factory production for fourteen hours a day at a fraction of the wages paid to men. In The larger cities, such as New York, the outwork system, in which women took wage work home, the low wages it paid, and the difficulty for these dispersed women workers to organize helped fuel a new street culture. Juvenile delinquency, attacks against women, and public intoxication all seemed more prevalent after 1820. Middle-and upper-class men sought prostitutes in the working-class neighborhoods. Workingmen had developed a moralistic and paternal attitude toward the street culture and women's labor exploitation. Middle-and upper-class women, claiming an especially moral status as women of "respectable" classes, discovered a public role in moral reform work within the workers' neighborhoods.

Racial Divisions and Rising Worker Consciousness

In the South, where the overwhelming majority of African Americans lived, most of them were enslaved. Slaves were workers, but racism divided them from "the working class," a phrase that, as in the North, carried an often unspoken association to "white." The degree to which the slave South was capitalist and class conscious continues to be a source of debate. Slavery was principally an agricultural labor system with some feudal qualities, but it was also a source of labor for the crafts and industry. In Charleston, South Carolina, artisans employed or owned enslaved African laborers in the eighteenth century. In the antebellum period the Tredgar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia—the third-largest iron producer in the United States—used slaves for about half of its one-thousand-person labor force. Tredgar's enslaved workers earned wages, mostly for their masters, and worked in every phase of production as founders, colliers, miners, teamsters, and woodchoppers. Slaves were cheap to hire from their masters and could be made to work hard. Racism divided this biracial workforce, making strikes difficult. An unsuccessful strike by white workers at Tredgar in 1847 unsuccessfully demanded the removal of black workers.

Although the Civil War, in a sign of a growing class consciousness, workers formed the first nationwide labor unions and organizations in the United States beginning in the 1860s. In 1877 railroad workers struck after four years of depression in the economy and repeated merciless wage cuts by the railroads, engaging the Pennsylvania militia in a bloody armed confrontation at Pittsburgh and spreading the strike throughout the national rail systems. Another sign of growing class consciousness was the fact that labor organizations grew despite failures such as a massive nationwide strike effort for the eight-hour day in 1886. The Knights of Labor, an early nationwide union, rejected the antebellum model of organizing only skilled white workers and instead organized skilled and unskilled, white and black, reaching possibly one million members, or nearly 10 percent of the American workforce, in 1886. That same year the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was organized by a group of national and regional craft unions. The more massive industrialism became, the more massive the confrontations and workers' organizations became. In 1892 the town of Homestead, Pennsylvania, had only 11,000 residents, but 3,800 of them worked in its twelve mills. When workers in Andrew Carnegie's Homestead mill went on strike that year after his associate, Henry Clay Frick, announced he would not renew the union's contract and would replace all the workers, virtually the whole town, men and women, joined in active support of the walkout. Frick hired several hundred armed soldiers, and after violent armed confrontations with the strikers and towns people, he ultimately succeeded in breaking the strike and the union. The Homestead strike and the use of armed force to break it became common during the early twentieth century and underscored the class divisions within American society.

The movement of European, Asian, and Latin American immigrants and African American migrants into U.S. industries during the years between the 1890s and the 1940s greatly altered the class system. Millions of immigrant workers labored in Chicago factories and Colorado mines alongside southern-born African Americans who moved North in two great migration waves between 1910 and 1940. Both the men and women of these populations worked in industry. In 1910 nearly one-third of working women still labored in domestic service, but the numbers of women in industrial wage labor were increasing. Ten percent of married women worked for wages in 1920, the year women won the right to vote. Women's total employment reached eleven million before World War II, nearly doubling the female workforce.

These changes in the rapidly expanding industrial workforce stimulated a reformation of the middle class, both outside the corporations and within them. Problems and injustices that were of interest to philanthropic gentlemen and ladies in the British colonial, early national, and antebellum periods—orphan rescue, poor relief, and educational reform—became the concern of new intellectuals. This class not only managed the factories and corporations, but also taught in the expanding universities and colleges, administered the growing state bureaucracies, and founded settlement houses to address the poverty of the largely immigrant and working-class urban population. Their approach to social problems remained moralistic and paternal—teaching immigrant women to be "good mothers," for example—but as in the factories, where managers sought to regulate production through "scientific" discipline and efficiency, reformers adopted "scientific" methods, expanding the study of poverty and creating state welfare programs.

The Great Depression and the administrations of President Franklin D. Roosevelt further institutionalized this new middle, bureaucratic class and removed the barriers of violence and law to union organization that employers and state governments had erected. In addition, the Great Depression delegitimized the capitalist class and its system of private corporate benefit programs. These conditions encouraged not only an expanded welfare state but vigorous union organizing: total American union membership tripled between 1932 and 1939, exceeding eight million. By the end of World War II, as many as one-third of American workers were union members. But the growing Cold War ideological tension between the United States and the Soviet Union following World War II fundamentally altered class politics. After nearly a century, that "spectre" that Marx had declared was "haunting Europe" in 1848 seemed to haunt Americans anew: communism, more as a specter than as an actual mass movement, became enmeshed in American racism and class politics. The Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO)—later to merge with the AFL—expelled nine unions in 1949 and 1950 because of their refusal to purge communists. The CIO had organized 800,000 southern workers during the war, one-third of them black, but it stagnated under accusations that unions were the leading edge of a communist miscegenation plot to subvert white Christian capitalism. Many workers in the South, North, and West supported the anticommunist campaign. The mainstream of worker consciousness had never been revolutionary; rather it supported the development of a welfare state that protected laborers from the worst vicissitudes of capitalism.

In the later twentieth century, the stall in working-class organization and the relatively higher wages that industrial workers earned, compared to prewar levels, helped spark debate about the reality of class divisions in the United States among the intellectual middle classes. Qualitatively it seemed obvious that class divisions mattered in America: strikes, unions, and police repression of workers all seem to indicate serious class conflict. One Chicago worker in 1940, answering a question about whether there was a working class, expressed a common opinion when he cited class-segregated neighborhoods and social networks:

Hell, brother, you don't have to look far to know there's a workin' class. We may not say so. But look at what we do. Work. Look at who we runaround with and bull with. Workers. Look at where we live. If you can find anybody but workers in my block, I'll eat 'em." (Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939 [1990])

In 1940, however, Fortune magazine announced the results of a survey showing that 80 percent of Americans identified themselves as middle class. Fortune took the results as evidence that capitalism, "the American way of life," produced general affluence, not class animosities. Fortune's findings were soon challenged by sociologists who found a majority of Americans identified as working class. Ultimately, however, querying Americans on their self placement within the class system offered few solid conclusions. As study after study tested each others' assumptions, methods, and categories and ended with different conclusions, the Left grew skeptical of the objectivity of sociological surveys and the Right grew skeptical of a putatively leftist academy.

Globalization and a New Class Formation

In 1963 the widely influential English historian E. P. Thompson insisted, in The Making of the English Working Class, that class was not a fixed social structure or a possession of a fixed set of people, hinting that sociology was looking in the wrong direction. Rather, "class" was simply "something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships." With similar logic, two American sociologists argued in the late 1980s that the role of authority and the nature of work have become "central in the capital accumulation process and … the exploitation of the working class" (Reeve Vanneman and Lyn Weber Cannon, The American Perception of Class [1987]). What defines class is not ownership of property or self-identification, but a person's type of labor and ability to control it. The industrial working class had been defined by hourly and insecure wage labor since its formation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. And workers built ever-larger organizations—first in shops, then cities, and finally, nationally—to combat this insecurity and its frequent poverty. As the globalization of industrial capitalism picked up pace in the late twentieth century, North American industrial workers watched their multinational employers move their higher-wage jobs overseas, precipitating a new class formation still unfinished at the end of the century.

The first feature of the new class formation was increased poverty and insecurity, but this "flexibility" and "efficiency" in the workforce—as corporate culture described it—yielded only a moderate degree of new militancy from worker organizations in the United States. During the last decades of the twentieth century, actual poverty—the inability to pay for necessities, such as health care and housing—among low-wage workers deepened. Meanwhile, women and minorities continued to be disproportionately represented among the lowest wage earners. The 1990s poverty rate of 13 percent—which incorporated a short-term decline in poverty among minorities—was misleading because it was calculated on the cost of food. While food prices remained more or less stagnant between the 1960s and 2000, rent and health care costs far outpaced inflation, market wage increases, and governmental adjustments in the minimum wage. Even after modest wage growth for low-wage workers during the 1990s, many American workers lived on 1973 wages at 1999 prices. A disproportionate percentage of the working-class poor were nonwhites and the working class remained divided by race, even after the civil rights movement had run its full course. The southern civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s had tended to address race but not class dynamics within the black community. For all its dramatic successes in expanding democracy in the United States, the urban rebellions of the 1960s could be understood as stemming from the failure of the movement to win effective solutions to economic inequalities. The 1992 rebellion in working-class black neighborhoods of Los Angeles, following the acquittal of police officers in the brutal beating of Rodney King, made plain the depth of continuing frustration in the black working class.

A second feature of the new class formation was the official labor movement's efforts to moderate—not revolutionize—globalization and the race and gender disparities and divisions within the American class system. Unions declared a renewed interest in organizing the unorganized, democratic internal governance, international labor coalitions, antiracism and antisexism efforts, and the mobilization of workers to resist globalization on corporate terms. Alongside church, environmental, and student activists, unions supported local anti-sweatshop and living wage campaigns across the country. A Teamsters strike at the United Parcel Service in 1997 seemed to many to announce a newly assertive working class. And the thousands of union members who protested against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999 alongside thousands of students and environmentalists seemed to herald a new activist, militant, mass, and global working-class agenda. The challenge seemed likely to rest in how well the labor movement could address both globalization, with its formation of industrial classes in undeveloped nation-states primarily in the Global South, and the persistent race and gender divisions within the American working class—divisions of wage scales, privileges, and opportunities.


Boydston, Jeanne. Home and Work: Housework, Wages, and the Ideology of Labor in the Early Republic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

Brody, David. In Labor's Cause: Main Themes on the History of the American Worker. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Cohen, Lizabeth. Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919–1939. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.

Kelley, Robin D. G. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Levine, Bruce et al. Who Built America? Working People and the Nation's Economy, Politics, Culture, and Society. Vol. 2: From the Gilded Age to the Present. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992.

Marx, Karl. "The Manifesto of the Communist Party." In The Marx-Engels Reader. Edited by Robert C. Tucker. 2d ed. New York: Norton, 1978.

Montgomery, David. Citizen Worker: The Experience of Workers in the United States with Democracy and the Free Market during the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Morris, Richard B., ed. A History of the American Worker. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976.

Roediger, David. The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso, 1991.

Stansell, Christine. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.

Vanneman, Reeve, and Lyn Weber Cannon. The American Perception of Class. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

Wilentz, Sean. Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. 1976. Rev. ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

James O'NeilSpady

See alsoAmerican Federation of Labor–Congress of Industrial Organizations ; Civil Rights Movement ; Discrimination: Race ; Gender and Gender Roles ; Indentured Servants ; Industrial Revolution ; Knights of Labor ; Race Relations ; Slavery ; Trade Unions ; andvol. 9:The Theory of the Leisure Class .

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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 (18181883), Max Weber (18641920), and Émile Durkheim (18581917), 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.


Any discussion of class must begin with Karl Marx. As Lipset once noted, while David Ricardo (17721823), Adam Smith (17231790), 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, ones class is determined by ones 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 Marxs 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 Marxs definition of class, its centrality in modern life compared to other forms of domination, and the apparent inevitability of class action in Marxs work. In Webers 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 Durkheims 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 (19081997) and Wilbert Moores (19141987) 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 Webers 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 (19191994), 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 (19182002) 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 Parsonss (19021979) functionalist social system that could better account for internal conflict. A Left Weberian who saw class as fundamentally exploitative, Dahrendorf argued that Marxs 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 (19361979), 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.


In the aftermath of the Soviets repression of democratic movements in Hungary (19561957) and Czechoslovakia (19681969), class analysis and in particular Marxism were assailed on several fronts both for what was seen as the perversion of Marxs 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 Marxisms 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 social-movement 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 womens 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 (18201895) 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.

E. P. Thompsons (19241993) 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 Scotts account of subversive everyday behavior in Weapons of the Weak (1985); the indigenous culture of workers, such as Craig Calhouns reactionary revolutionaries; and the proces-sual, as opposed to the positional, dimensions of class formation exemplified by Anthony Giddenss concept of structuration and Pierre Bourdieus (19302002)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 ones class, very much as a professional soccer player, to use Bourdieus 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.


One possible implication of this constant reworking of class is that it is no longer a workable analytical concept. Paul Kingstons 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 neoliber-alism 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.

SEE ALSO Bahro, Rudolf; Bourdieu, Pierre; Bureaucracy; Capitalism; Class Conflict; Durkheim, Émile; Elites; False Consciousness; Feudal Mode of Production; Feudalism; Habitus; Hierarchy; Labor; Labor Theory of Value; Left and Right; Marx, Karl; Mode of Production; New Class, The; Oligarchy; Poulantzas, Nicos; Power Elite; Ricardo, David; Slave Mode of Production; Smith, Adam; Stratification; Surplus; Thompson, Edward P.; Weber, Max; Working Class


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Cedric de Leon

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The term class is used in a wide range of intellectual discourses, including logic, the natural sciences, and pedagogy. At its Latin origins, however, classis was first and foremost a social term, denoting the division of the Roman people attributed to King Servius Tullius (r. 578534 b.c.e.). In early Rome, class connoted a distinction in rank between those who paid tribute (property tax) and those who did not, as well as the system of divisions between types of military service. In particular, classis often seems to have been reserved to describe citizens on the lower social and economic rungs. Only after the principate of Augustus (31 b.c.e.14 a.d.) did classis come to be employed in a more general sense to mean a division of all sorts of things into groups.

Early Histories

The Latin genesis of class nomenclature does not mean that the idea behind it (in either a social or general sense) did not exist prior to the rise of the Roman Republic. Aristotle's Organon proposed a logical system of classification of natural and linguistic types into genus and species according to categorical criteria. For the ancient Greeks, the Few and the Many constituted a central measure of division within the social order. Both Plato and Aristotle divided social groups into functional classes whose status and power was graded according to the contributions each made to the purposes of the civil community as a whole. Plato's Republic famously identified within the city three partsrulers, soldiers, and laborerswhile Aristotle distinguished six socioeconomic classessoldiers, priests, judges, farmers, artisans, and tradersof whom only the first three were deemed fully qualified to exercise the rights associated with citizenship, at least in the best political system.

Class thus has generally been associated with systems of social exclusion. Indeed, elaborate mythologies have been generated to support or justify class divisions. The tale of Noah's curse on the descendents of his son Ham, in Genesis 9:2027, has been taken as an explanation for class inequality. Likewise, the Koran (Sura 43:31) declares that social differentiation arises from Allah's will that the inferior should be subjected to the superior. The caste system that long governed social organization and relations in India and elsewhere in Asia purported to reflect the disparate origins of the various groups as described in the Vedas: the Brahmans from the lips of Brahma, the Kshatriya from the shoulders, the Vaisya from the thighs, and the Sudra from the feet.

During the European Middle Ages, the idea behind class distinctions was popularly captured by various forms of organic unities. Many medieval thinkers, quite possibly under the indirect influence of Plato, divided society into the threefold functional ordering of those who fight, those who work, and those who pray. In the High Middle Ages, this was gradually replaced by the more developed organic doctrine of the body politic, the most influential exponent of which was John of Salisbury (1115 or 11201180). His Policraticus (completed 1159) contained an extensive account of how each of the organs and limbs of the human bodyfrom the head to the toeshad a direct counterpart in society, from the king, his advisors, soldiers, and diverse magistrates all the way down to the peasants and artisans. Class divisions were natural and necessary in order to maintain justice and the common good. Essentially this view enjoyed wide currency in Europe well into early modern times.

The Renewal of Class

For the first millennium and more of European history, the term class was not invoked in order to describe the distinctions between and identities of social groups. Rather, class was invoked through what we might call "status language," such as gradus in Latin, état in French, Stand in German, and "orders" or "estates" in English. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, a notable linguistic shift that renewed the nomenclature of class appeared in most major European languages. This change seems to have accompanied the transformations wrought by the industrial revolution and the rise of political economy: class conveyed an essential economic overtone that was not fully captured by the status language of earlier times. The work of authors such as Thomas Malthus (17661834) and David Ricardo (17721823) did much to disseminate class discourse, and especially phrases such as "the laboring classes" and "the working class."

The nineteenth century was the heyday of discussions about class in this updated economic sense. Class divisions were upheld by classical political economy on the grounds that the division of labor and the competition implied therein were necessary for the efficient use of productive resources. Critics of capitalism, whether communitarians such as Claude-Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon (17601825) or utopians such as Charles Fourier (17721837) or anarchists such as Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (18091865), remained convinced that the sources of exploitation were not inherent in class divisions per se so much as in unequal distribution of property or wages or the material benefits of work. Differentiation in the contributions made by laborers thus did not excuse their subordination in economic, political, or social standing.

The Marxist Transformation

Without doubt, the most famous promulgator of the idea of class in the modern world was also its most profound critic: Karl Marx (18181883). Marx treated class distinction as a universal characteristic of human history from the earliest times of social organization until his own day. For Marx, classes were economic groups constituted by differential access to the means of productionthat is, the technologies and natural resources necessary for human beings to reproduce their physical existence. In every social formation, there were two essential and contending classes: a working class, which used, but did not directly own or control, the means of production; and an appropriating class, which lived directly or indirectly from the labor of workers. In different economic systems, the type and nature of technology, and of the social relationships employed in organizing labor and maintaining domination over it, might vary considerably. Hence, tribal societies met the physical and extraphysical needs of their members differently than did subsequent ancient slave or feudal systems. But the fundamental clash of interests between workers and appropriators was a permanent feature of history up to the present day.

In previous social systems, Marx held, the struggle between the classes had wound up with the replacement of one exploitative mode of production (the material and social elements of the economy) with another, culminating in capitalism. On the one hand, capitalism, with its veneer of freedom and equality, produced the most intense exploitation of the worker ever achieved. Yet, on the other hand, just because the condition of the capitalist working class, termed the proletariat, was so degraded, Marx believed that it formed a "universal class," capable of releasing and realizing all of the untapped potential of a truly liberated humanity. For this reason, Marx held that the proletariat, once it became conscious of its own circumstances and the source of its immiseration, would revolt against its capitalist oppressors and would generate a qualitatively different kind of society. The future society, which Marx called communism, would be classless, since the proletariat, as the most completely exploited class in history, would have no remaining object to exploit. Communism would see the end of human history as a dynamic series of class struggles and would instead herald a new beginning of history in which each and every individual as a full human being would have the opportunity to pursue and attain his or her freely chosen needs.

The Weberian Reply

The primary response to Marx's conception of class was proposed by the German sociological thinker Max Weber (18641920). Weber's main insight was to recognize the empirical faults of an exclusive emphasis on class as an economic phenomenon. Rather, Weber saw societyin particular, in the modern worldas far too complex in its stratification to fit into the straightjacket of economic determinism. It should be noted that Weber's critique was directed not just at Marx and other radical critics of capitalism, but also at the classical political economists, who shared with Marxism a stridently economistic orientation.

In one sense, Weber does adopt an economic conception of class ; it is the term he employs to designate social differentiation based on occupation and function as defined by the market. But class is simply one form of distinction. Equally important are status and power. Status denotes the factors of honor and reputation that attach to specific ways of life and are accorded deference by others. Thus, individuals of certain status (say, from a landed nobility) may enjoy greater repute than those of a given class who are wealthier but whose sources of income (say, commerce) are generally held to be debased or ignoble. Power applies to the capability of a group to impose its collective will on others, even in the face of their resistance. Weber points out how, in the modern world, those with the greatest class position or status often do not occupy the positions of administrative or bureaucratic authority. In turn, bureaucrats can and do enact policies that run contrary to the real or perceived interests of economic and reputational elites. This demonstrates that their social position depends on a sourcepowerthat cannot be entirely assimilated to class or status.

Later social scientists have extended and enlarged the factors that influence social differentiation well beyond Weber's original triad. Such elements as kinship, occupation, race and ethnicity, and education have been added to the basic dimensions of class, status, and power. But it seems safe to say that the dominant perspective on social stratification both normatively and empirically during the last century remained Weberian in orientation.

Marxist Rejoinders

Somewhat ironically, many of the fiercest critics of the classical Marxist doctrine of class would consider themselves to fall into the Marxist camp. The failure of the proletariat to rise up against and to crush capitalism even as the conditions of its exploitation worsened led some Marxists, especially in Western Europe, to revisit Marx's conception of class struggle. The so-called Frankfurt School of Critical Social Theory renounced the crass economism of classical Marxism in favor of an analysis that emphasized the cultural sources of working-class conservatism, including the mass media, out-group scapegoating (anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic and racial hatred), and the predominance of so-called technological rationality. Members of the Frankfurt School embraced, alternately, pessimism about the possibility of successful class struggle (as in the work of Max Horkheimer [18951973] and Theodor W. Adorno [19031969]) or optimism that other marginalized groups, such as racial minorities, students, denizens of Third World nations, women, and environmentalists, might become the bearers of the revolutionary subjectivity of Marx's proletariat (as Herbert Marcuse [18981979] asserted). In either instance, traditional Marxian class analysis leading to proletarian revolution was set aside as an unrealistic and unrealizable expectation.

Another school of Marxist thought, drawing upon the rigorous methodological principles of modern economics and the other social sciences, sought to wed so-called rational choice doctrines of economic behavior to a radical worldview. Authors such as Jon Elster (b. 1940) and John Roemer (b. 1938) argue that class should be reinterpreted according to the standards of methodological individualism, so that a class is not greater than the sum of its parts, but a coordinated body of similarly positioned individual agents. Known as "rational choice" or "analytical" Marxism, this approach attempts to strip class of perceived metaphysical accretionsfor example, the holism criticized by Sir Karl Popper (19021994)without eliminating it as a workable foundation for a viable theory of economic exploitation.

Still other thinkers within a Marxist vein have set out to restore the "political" dimension to Marx's conception of class struggle. Historians such as Robert Brenner (b. 1943) and political theorists such as Ellen Meiksins Wood (b. 1939) stress the contingency of class relations depending on political context, and thus they foreground local juridical-coercive institutions in understanding the constitution of class identities. This perspective insists on the wholly illusory nature of the supposed separation of the economic and the political under capitalism. Political power shapes class conflict, and thus the state itself is the prime site for class struggle and opposition.

Beyond Class

An important trend in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has been to resist both Marxian and Weberian theories of social differentiation in favor of other fundamental sources of division among human beings. Feminism provides an example of one such line of reasoning. Feminist theory claims that gender, rather than class, constitutes the defining division in human historical dynamics. Broadly stated, feminists assert that reproduction trumps production as the organizing principle around which human social institutions are fixed. Thus, it is the gender divide, emerging from the male oppression of women, that drives social processes throughout history. Patriarchalism, not classism, constitutes the major division among human beings, and the obsession with class is itself a patriarchal trick to divert attention from the fundamental struggle between the sexes.

Class-oriented conceptions of social power and dynamic have also come under attack from proponents of critical race theory. The orientation of critical race theory raises questions quite similar to those of traditional Marxism concerning the ways in which state power (in its legal-juridical and coercive applications) reinscribes and reinforces racial divides. Thus, just as gender is foregrounded in feminist analysis, so race becomes the central focus of analysis among proponents of the critical race school.

The Future of Class?

Class has become anathema in political discourse in the West. Politicians are able to silence their opponents with the mere assertion that "class war" is being invoked. Liberalismdemocracy's insistence that equality constitutes the salient feature of social lifeeven in spite of the evident social, economic, racial, and political disparities that exist in liberal-democratic regimessuggests that class is effectively dead as a category of social analysis and critique. Yet the discourse of class seems to reappear regularly among the intellectual categories with which social thinkers, and social movements, narrate their self-understandings. May class yet outlive those whose interests prescribe its obsolescence?

See also Communism ; Critical Race Theory ; Marxism ; Power .


Brennan, Catherine. Max Weber on Power and Social Stratification: An Introduction and Critique. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 1997.

Brown, Donald E. Hierarchy, History, and Human Nature: The Social Origins of Historical Consciousness. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988.

Calvert, Peter. The Concept of Class: An Historical Introduction. New York: St. Martin's, 1982.

Carling, Alan H. Social Division. London: Verso, 1991.

Clark, Terry Nichols, and Seymour Martin Lipset, eds. The Breakdown of Class Politics: A Debate on Post-Industrial Stratification. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Crenshaw, Kimberlé, ed. Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement. New York: Norton, 1995.

Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Translated by John Cumming. New York: Herder and Herder, 1972.

Horowitz, Maryanne C., ed. Race, Class, and Gender in Nineteenth-Century Culture. Rochester, N.Y.: University of Rochester Press, 1991.

Marcuse, Herbert. An Essay on Liberation. Boston: Beacon, 1969.

McNall, Scott G., Rhonda F. Levine, and Rick Fantasia, eds. Bringing Class Back in Contemporary and Historical Perspectives. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1991.

Moravcsik, J. M. E., ed. Aristotle: A Collection of Critical Essays. London: Macmillan, 1968.

Roemer, John, ed. Analytical Marxism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Russ, Joanna. What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism. New York: St. Martin's, 1998.

Skeggs, Beverley. Formations of Class and Gender: Becoming Respectable. London: Sage, 1997.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Cambridge, U.K., Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Cary J. Nederman

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Class and Community

Class and Community


Class Distinctions. One of the first qualities European visitors to antebellum America noticed was the natives fierce belief in democracy and equality. Another was that most Americans were constantly on the move: the English writer Harriet Martineau commented that asking the average American about the state of his well-being was likely to produce the answer moving, Sir. It is true that, by comparison to Europe, America was a relatively egalitarian society: there were no aristocratic titles, and the idea of the self-made man was a cherished one. Everyone, it was widely held, could achieve prosperity with the application of sufficient effort and Yankee shrewdness. The American public was enchanted with Horatio Algers rags-to-riches stories, which were published throughout the period. But the truth is a bit more complex. By the eve of the Civil War inequalities in wealth had become pronounced in American society, and by the end of Reconstruction, class differences were firmly entrenched. Class distinctions varied widely from region to region, and even from state to state; in addition, the differences between urban and rural life contributed to the way in which people experienced their relative levels of wealth. It can, however, be said that most white Americans saw themselves as the equals of even the wealthiest, at least at the ballot box and under the law. Further, most believed fervently in the possibility of upward mobility, and many of them acted on the belief by pulling up stakes and moving west or to a nearby town. Thus, upward mobility translated roughly into geographic mobility.

Sectional Differences. From colonial times, northerners had become used to a diversified economic life based on independent farming, manufacturing, artisan crafts, and shipping. After the Industrial Revolution began, large cities drew both natives and immigrants, who formed a cheap source of labor. In the West, the gold rush and the pioneer movement brought a rough equality: few gold miners became rich, and most of the farmers who made the westward trek had to work hard to eke out

a meager living. The South had the most stratified society, consisting of wealthy white plantation owners, poor white farmers, and black slaves. Deference on the part of the lower-class whites toward those of the upper class combined paradoxically with a stubborn individualism, as well as a perennial hope of joining the wealthy class by obtaining slaves.

Urban Poverty. By 1860 there were more than five million immigrants, crowded into unimaginably dirty and dangerous slums, in the big northeastern cities. Even the most hopeful reformer could hardly conceive of a social program that could cope with the massive influx of poor, unskilled workers who flooded into the port cities of Boston and New York, willing to take almost any job at almost any wage. Housing shortages made overcrowding a serious problem; three or four families would share a tenement apartment in some of the worst slums, such as Bostons notorious Half Moon District, where more than a hundred people used one filthy outhouse. An observer in the early 1850s claimed that There has never been so deplorable an exhibition of mendicancy in our streets as may be witnessed daily at this time . . . hundreds of destitute men and scores of women . . . little girls are to be found in front of the city saloons at all hours of the day, going through their graceless performances. While there was little chance of any of these families acquiring great fortunes, such as those of the As-tors or the Vanderbilts, over the next few generations many of them did improve their lot in life.

From Artisan to Skilled Laborer. Experiencing a significant decline during this period was the artisan classshoemakers, carpenters, bricklayers, blacksmiths. Once the head of a thriving workshop, the master oversaw the work of journeymen and apprentices. This little group formed a kind of family, in which the master craftsman bore the moral as well as professional responsibility for the workers under his supervision. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, as well as the increased demand of a growing market, it became necessary to divide tasks into ever smaller components. This process was particularly evident in the shoemaking industry. In the past, master craftsmen fitted, cut, stitched, and finished one pair of shoes at a time. After the advent of the factory system, workers could be trained to perform smaller portions of the original task, such as stitching the same seam on hundreds of pairs of similar shoes. The workshops gave way to larger concerns, and smaller groups who lived, prayed, and drank whiskey with their master dissolved into larger groups of workers, answerable to the factory manager. Although this process took several generations to complete, the status of formerly skilled artisans declined after the Civil War.

Protests. Antebellum workers did protest unfair working conditions and mounted strikes. Such demonstrations were usually aimed at improving specific conditions. Factory owners and workers alike had faith in the Jacksonian-era self-made man and held fast to Victorian ideas of self-reliance. They believed that everyone had to pull himself up by his bootstraps, and that industry, energy, and Yankee shrewdness would result in a successful life. By 1860 one-fourth of all native New Englanders had moved to different states. Naturally, this philosophy applied mainly to native-born white Americans, not to immigrant workers and certainly not to slaves.


An editorial in the 6 October 1863 issue of the New York Herald denounced unscrupulous northern manufacturers and financiers who made immense fortunes during the war, often at the expense of the war effort. These men included such notable businessmen as railroad magnates Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, and meatpacker Philip Armour. The term shoddy is the name for the poor-quality, reused wool that was used to make uniforms for soldiers. These uniforms (as well as poorly made boots, blankets, and other supplies) did not hold up well in the field, and the term came to refer to any inferior product with pretensions of being better than it really is:

The world has seen its iron age, its silver age, its golden age and its brazen age. This is the age of shoddy. The new brown stone palaces on Fifth Avenue, the new equipages [carriages] at the Park, the new diamonds which dazzle unaccustomed eyes, the new silks and satins which rustle over loudly, as if to demand attention, the new people who live in the palaces and ride in the carriages and wear the diamonds and silksall are shoddy. From devils dust they sprang, and unto devils dust they shall return. They live in shoddy houses. They ride in shoddy carriages, drawn by shoddy horses, and driven by shoddy coachmen who wear shoddy liveries. They lie upon shoddy beds which have just come from the upholsterers and still smell of shoddy varnish. They wear shoddy clothes purchased from shoddy merchants who have erected mammoth stores, which appear to be marble, but are really shoddy. They set or follow the shoddy fashions, and fondly imagine themselves à la mode de Paris when they are only à la mode de shoddy. Their professions and occupations are pure shoddy. They are shoddy brokers in Wall Street or shoddy manufacturers of shoddy goods, or shoddy contractors for shoddy articles for a shoddy government. Six days in the week they are shoddy business men. On the seventh they are shoddy Christians. . . .

Source: New York Herald, 6 October 1863.

The Emerging Middle Class. Most antebellum Americans considered themselves to be of the middling classes. This meant that they were part of the largest group in the nationpeople who were self-sufficient, making their own living on farms or in workshops. Most middling Americans, then, were skilled artisans or independent farmers. The average American, during this period, still lived on an independent, self-sufficient farm and was relatively cash-poor. But the era of the Civil War saw a significant change; a new class was emerging. Now husbands left the home in the morning to go to work; wives stayed home to take care of the housework and children; and a new fluidity of spending money made it possible (and even important) to acquire the symbols of comfort and wealth. Perhaps the single most important status symbol was the parlor piano, which naturally included piano lessons for the daughter of the house. The increasing growth of markets, the availability of cheap consumer goods (however poorly produced), and the gradual increase in spending money allowed the growth of the new middle class. This class would not become firmly entrenched until after Reconstruction in the late 1870s. Meanwhile, the increased industrialization of the wartime economy helped shape the future of the American family.

Merchants and Manufacturers. Perhaps the most upwardly mobile group in northern society were those men who recognized the possibilities of making a profit in the newer manufacturing processes. Although extensive mechanization did not set in until after the Civil War, the new way of breaking up processes allowed greater control, increased speed, and far more productivity. Naturally, these changes took their toll on workers. At the same time, in the years before the Civil War, bankruptcies destroyed many of these budding fortunes. Still, most entrepreneurs simply picked up and moved on, or else began a new business, many of which failed again. Other professionals who tended to earn at least a comfortable income, if not extreme wealth, were attorneys, bank and corporate officers, and physicians.

The Very Rich. In 1860, 5 percent of American families owned half the nations wealth. Among southern planters and northern industrialists, the disparity in wealth was particularly pronounced. In addition it is among the very wealthiest Americans that we find the greatest refutation of the self-made man myth. The very rich inherited their wealth, and married within their own social circles. Family connections counted for a great deal in mid-nineteenth-century courtships, and vast fortunes were often enhanced and increased through prudent marriages. This was an exclusive club in-deed;Horatio Algers congenial myths notwithstanding, very few poor men ever entered this exalted company. The great American fortunes, furthermore, were roughly comparable to the great European ones; lavish country estates, great houses on New York Citys Fifth Avenue, and immense plantations all testified to the enormous wealth of Americas richest families. In comparing the wealthiest individuals in the United States and England, one historian has found that although American wealth originated in business, and English wealth was largely derived from landed estates, the respective fortunes were about equal. John Jacob Astors immense fortune could be compared favorably with that of the Duke of Bedford, or Nathan Mayer Rothschild of France, generally regarded as the richest man in Europe.

Southern Planters. The wealthiest class in the antebellum South were those families owning more than one hundred slaves. Fewer than one-half of 1 percent of southern families belonged to this elite group. Some of the richest families lived deceptively simple lives. The fabled white plantation houses were rare. Most of them had sunk all their capital into slaves and next years crop and could not afford to build fancy homes or furnish them with European imports. Still, sharp class distinctions were respected. Independent yeoman farmers deferred to their social betters and hoped one day to join them. The one sure way of moving upward in the southern social scale was to purchase slaves. Even successful professionals did not feel that they had arrived in southern society until they owned slaves. All whites enjoyed political equality and democracy before the law. Still, the poorest southern whites, the clay eaters who were not given the same respect as their betters, suffered the most during the Civil War.


No. of Families No. of Slaves Percent
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976).
1,733 100 or more .49
6,196 50-99 1.7
29,733 20-49 8.5
54,595 10-19 15.7
80,765 5-9 23.3
105,683 2-4 30.4
68,820 1 19.8
6,120,825 southern whites (75 percent of the population) owned no slaves.

The Civil War. During the Civil War, however, some underlying class tensions broke throughvisible in the South as well as in the North. The protest of a poor mans blood for a rich mans war was heard on both fronts. When the U.S. government enacted a draft in 1863, many poor laborers took to the streets in protest. They were outraged by the commutation clause, which provided that a drafted man could pay $300 for a substitute. Naturally, poorer men could not buy their way out of military service. Although fewer southerners bought substitutes, the Confederate government did make allowances for white men on plantations with more than twenty slaves. Since most Union and Confederate soldiers were from the independent farmer class, they felt that such provisions were unfair and clearly favored the wealthy.

The Ruined South. After the devastation of the Civil War, some of the extremes of wealth along with slavery disappeared. But the old distinctions died hard. The military titles of major and colonel remained in usage to honor former officers who served during the conflict. Perhaps most poignantly, black people remained on the bottom of the social ladder. After the enactment of the Black Codes and the rigorous enforcement of segregation laws, their status seemed irremediably fixed in southern society.


Paul Faler, Mechanics and Manufacturers in the Early Industrial Revolution: Lynn, Massachusetts, 1780-1860 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981);

Mathewjosephson, The Robber Barons: The Great American Capitalists, 1861-1901 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1934);

Edward Pessen, Riches, Class and Power before the Civil War (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1973);

Christine Stansell, City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789-1860 (New York: Knopf, 1986);

Stephan Thernstrom, Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth-Century City, revised edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991).

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Class System


When the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, they did so in the name of Russia's proletariat and to a lesser extent the "toiling masses" of peasants who made up the vast majority of the population. The Bolsheviks' aimto overthrow the rule of capital (the bourgeoisie) and establish a socialist societywas to be achieved via a "dictatorship of the proletariat." The dictatorship was enshrined in the first Soviet Constitution of 1918, which disenfranchised large property owners, the clergy, and former tsarist officials and gave urban-based voters the advantage over peasants in elections to all-Russian soviet congresses. Ironically, during the civil war, much of Soviet society was declassed: the old privileged classes were expropriated, industrial workers returned to the countryside or were recruited into the Red Army, and millions of other citizens were uprooted and lost their social moorings.

In the course of the 1920s, during the period of the New Economic Policy (NEP), social structures began to resolidify as industrial production and trade expanded. Those whose occupation defined them as workers, and those who could authenticate their social origins in the working class, received privileged access to housing, higher education, health and pension benefits, and perhaps most important of all, party membership. But the upheavals of the First Five-Year Plan years (19281932) uprooted millions once again, as whole classes (socalled NEPmen, kulaks, and remnants of the urban bourgeoisie) were "liquidated." Cities and construction sites were overwhelmed with peasant migrants fleeing collectivization, and hundreds of thousands of others were resettled in remote regions of the country or sent to labor camps.

The social structure that emerged from these upheavals was officially characterized as consisting of two classes: one of workers (essentially industrial wage earners and state farm workers) and collective farmers, the other a "stratum" consisting of the intelligentsia. This putative class system remained virtually unchanged throughout the remaining decades of the Soviet Union's existence. In reality, a complex hierarchy, reminiscent of tsarist Russia's estate (soslovie ) system, developed, involving highly differentiated access to the state's goods and services. At the top of the Soviet pecking order stood the party elite and other recipients of the Kremlin emolument (kremlovka). Next came those who appeared on the party's nomenklatura: high military and state officials, People's Artists, Stalin-prize-winning scientists, academicians, writers, and other members of the cultural, scientific-technical, and managerial elites. Lower-level officialsthe police, teachers, junior military officers, engineers, and state and collective farm bureaucraciesenjoyed certain privileges, as did outstanding workers (Stakhanovites in the 1930s and 1940s, innovators, and "advanced workers" from the 1950s onward). Collective farmers, who were denied the right to internal passports until the mid-1970s, occupied perhaps the lowest rung in the class hierarchy, with the obvious exception of prisoners and inmates of labor camps and colonies.

Cutting across this system were such factors as political geography (capital cities vs. provincial towns; towns vs. villages) and the strategic significance of the enterprise or institute to which one was attached. Scientists living in such closed facilities as Dubna and Akademgorodok enjoyed a particularly high standard of living. The entire structure was mitigated by petitioning, but also by informal connections based on kinship or friendship, exchanges of favors, and other semi-legal transactions that were very much a part of quotidian reality during the Soviet Union's "mature" stage.

See also: five-year plans; intelligentsia; new economic policy; soslovie


Fitzpatrick, Sheila. (1999). Everyday Stalinism: Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times, Soviet Russia in the 1930s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matthews, Mervyn. (1972). Class and Society in Soviet Russia. London: Allen Lane.

Lewis H. Siegelbaum

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class is about power. The history of social class is about the way in which men and women gained and used power over others, in matters of government and the state, in ideas, culture, and education, but above all in the relationships of production and consumption. The concept of social class has been and is used by historians in their struggle to understand the experience, social relationships, and social conflicts of past and present.

By the 1960s, historians had established the major outlines of this story. Sometime in the late 18th–early 19th cent., the way in which the British people began to think about their own society and the way in which the major conflicts and relationships of that society developed began to change. Eighteenth-cent. society was a hierarchy of ranks and orders held together by relationships of deference and patronage, although the sense of a bi-polar division of rich and poor, rulers and ruled, aristocracy and people might inform debates on poverty, consumption, and the nature of the constitution. The new relationships and consciousness of class were associated with economic change, with the dominance of capitalist property relationships, with the intensity of competition in commerce, and, above all, with the reorganization of work through the division of labour and new machine-based, often steam-driven, technologies. Early conflicts were associated with trade unionism and the new technologies. The 1830s and 1840s were decades of intense conflict associated with constitutional change. There were key periods of industrial conflict in the 1880s and the quarter-century before 1926.

Social class was used to explain a wide variety of other changes and relationships. The demographic transition to low birth rates and low death rates was linked to middle-class experience in the second half of the 19th cent. and then filtered down to skilled and then unskilled working-class people. The voting patterns and political behaviour of the 20th cent. and the rise of the modern Labour and Tory Parties were related to middle- and working-class interests. Class was related to privilege in housing and education, to habits of dress, food consumption, and speech.

Behind this interpretation lay a series of assumptions. British writing was dominated by a three-class model, loosely related to the three factors of production identified by Ricardo in 1817. The aristocracy were rent takers, the middle class were profit takers, and the working class wage earners. A rigid Marxist presentation assuming an increasingly divisive conflict between capital and labour was rare, but the notion of a potential conflict derived from relationships to the means of production and the stabilization of this conflict in the 1850s and 1860s was central to the story. Explicit references to the ideas of Max Weber are even rarer, but his assumptions provide valuable guidance. Class was related to market position and hence involved privileges of education as well as property. Class was related to status which involved recognition by others in social status or ‘social honour’.

This story has been questioned. Eighteenth-cent. historians have identified a ‘middling sort’ not least in patterns of consumption. The re-examination of the political events of the 1830s and 1840s, especially the language of those contests, yields little evidence of self-aware conflict groups based upon economic relationships. The closer study of work revealed a lack of homogeneity of experience within the major social classes. Divisions within classes, of gender, party, religion, region, ethnicity, were seen as providing identities more dominant than class itself.

Social class has lost its privileged position in the narrative of British social history, but it remains a crucial means of explaining the conflicts and inequalities that arose and arise from the relationships of production and consumption, not least because, in the last 200 years, the language of class has been used in covert and overt ways by the people of Britain.

See also social history.

R. J. Morris

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class interest

class interest The basic concept of class interest derives from Karl Marx's theory of social class. Marx argued that the social relations which define class generate inherently opposing interests. Hence, for example, the interests of the bourgeoisie are different from and antagonistic towards those of the proletariat. It is in the interests of the bourgeois class to exploit the proletariat and in the interests of the proletariat to overthrow the bourgeoisie. Note that this definition of interest is in-built to the definition of class: classes have objective interests. As the American Marxist Erik Olin Wright puts it, ‘class structure is … a terrain of social relations that determine objective material interests of actors, and class struggle is understood as the forms of social practices which attempt to realize those interests [and] class consciousness can be understood as the subjective processes that shape intentional choices with respect to those interests and struggles’ (see his Classes, 1985
). Here it is possible to see the role assigned to the concept of class interests within a Marxist theory of class action.

However, there are many problems with this concept. In particular, it is more satisfactory to examine how far objective conditions actually exist, which are sufficiently similar for there to be the possibility of common interests emerging. What form those interests might take also becomes an empirical question. Hence, for example, David Lockwood has noted how workers form attachments to (rather than antagonisms towards) the existing form of capitalist society, through the activities of trade unions. John H. Goldthorpe, on the other hand, argues that whether or not individuals become conscious of possessing a class identity, and seek to pursue common class interests with others similarly placed, will depend in part upon the nature and degree of ‘demographic class formation’; that is, ‘the empirical question … of how far classes have in fact formed … in the sense of specific social collectivities … that are identifiable through the degree of continuity with which, in consequence of patterns of class mobility and immobility, their members are associated with particular sets of positions over time’ (see Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, 1980
). But neither Goldthorpe nor Lockwood assumes that there are objective class interests. Rather, each argues that the interests pursued by a class or its representatives are contingent upon a complex pattern of historical and political circumstances, and emerge out of social action rather than being an inherent condition of such action. In particular, people have to assume social identities as members of a class, before it becomes possible for sociologists to identify its interests.

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class imagery

class imagery The commonsense or everyday beliefs about social class that are held by ordinary members of society—particularly in respect of the number, size, and characteristics of the various classes in their society.

Studies of social stratification often distinguish objective and subjective structure, the former pertaining to relationships of power or privilege, the latter being the domain of class imagery. The term itself dates from 1957 and gained British currency through David Lockwood's influential work on working-class images of society (see M. Bulmer ( ed.) , Working-Class Images of Society, 1975

Two accounts of subjective stratification exist. One is Marxist, in which consciousness or awareness of the class structure is postulated as arising from class conflict and experience of social inequality, and any departure from a conception based on class interest is deemed to be false consciousness. Reputationalist studies, on the other hand, based on community studies of class and occupational prestige, have also detected different perceptions of the class structure, noting that people differ in the extent to which their image is dichotomous (‘us’ versus ‘them’) or multiple and finely graded. Different bases for these images or models (such as power and money) have been described by a number of sociologists—but, in most cases, systematic class images are difficult to identify empirically. The most recent studies of class imagery and connotations suggest that there exists a more fluid, complex, and open stock of such class and occupational images and meanings than is usually assumed, and that individuals use different imagery and conceptions for different purposes and strategies (see, for example, N. Britten , ‘Class Imagery in a National Sample of Women and Men’, British Journal of Sociology, 1984

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class / klas/ • n. 1. a set or category of things having some property or attribute in common and differentiated from others by kind, type, or quality: the accommodations were good for a hotel of this class. ∎  Biol. a principal taxonomic grouping that ranks above order and below phylum or division, such as Mammalia or Insecta. 2. the system of ordering a society in which people are divided into sets based on perceived social or economic status: people who are socially disenfranchised by class. ∎  a set in a society ordered in such a way: the ruling class. ∎  (the classes) archaic the rich or educated. ∎ inf. impressive stylishness in appearance or behavior: she's got class—she looks like a princess. 3. a group of students who are taught together. ∎  an occasion when students meet with their teacher for instruction; a lesson: I was late for a class. ∎  a course of instruction: I took classes in Indian music. ∎  all those graduating from a school or college in a particular year: the class of 1907. • v. [tr.] (often be classed as) assign or regard as belonging to a particular category: conduct that is classed as criminal. • adj. inf. showing stylish excellence: he's a class player. PHRASES: class act a person or thing displaying impressive and stylish excellence. in a class of (or on) its (or one's) own unequaled, esp. in excellence or performance: the delicacy of English roses puts them in a class of their own.

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class awareness

class awareness A term—broadly synonymous with ‘class identification’—referring to the subjective definition and interpretation of social class in the public consciousness. Sociological investigations of class awareness therefore examine the class labels (if any) that are commonly used in popular discourse; the extent to which people personally identify with these labels; which factors determine identification with particular classes; and the implications of class identities for broader political orientations and social behaviour generally. The term has a much wider currency in the United States than in Britain or Europe, mainly because it carries less of the ideological baggage associated with the Marxist notion of class consciousness, although there are obvious overlaps between the two concepts and indeed in the relevant sociological literatures. For example, and rather confusedly, Reeve Vanneman and Lynn Weber Cannon (The American Perception of Class, 1987) argue that lack of an organized working-class movement in the United States does not mean that American workers lack class consciousness—by which the authors mean class images and identities that affect other perceptions of society (in other words class awareness). It is doubtful whether this minimal conception of class consciousness would be accepted by Marxists or other class analysts. A more typical (and probably the best) treatment of the American material is Mary R. Jackman and Robert W. Jackman's Class Awareness in the United States (1983). See also CLASS IMAGERY.

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class culture

class culture During the 1980s, a number of (mainly American) sociologists and social historians developed the argument that the tradition of studying class consciousness via survey methods inevitably abstracted this phenomenon from social action and the context of class practices, with the result that the continuing salience of social class in American life was systematically underestimated. Using historical, ethnographic, and participant observation techniques, these critics attempted to identify and ground class consciousness in everyday cultural practices, shop-floor collective action, and local forms of social organization. Michael Burawoy's celebrated study of Manufacturing Consent: Changes in the Labor Process under Monopoly Capitalism (1979) is an early example of this genre, which had much in common with the understanding of class to be found in the work of the English historian E. P. Thompson, who viewed class consciousness and class formation as cultural expressions embodied in the development of neighbourhood solidarism, mutual aid societies, social clubs, class-specific forms of leisure, and so forth (see The Making of the English Working Class, 1968
). For an overview of this diverse and expanding literature see Rick Fantasia , ‘From Class Consciousness to Culture, Action, and Social Organization’, Annual Review of Sociology (1995)

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class position

class position In a study of class consciousness among clerical workers (The Blackcoated Worker, 1958; 2nd edn., 1989), the British sociologist David Lockwood introduced an influential theory of ‘class position’, which distinguished the three component factors of market situation (‘the economic position narrowly conceived, consisting of source and size of income, degree of job-security, and opportunity for upward occupational mobility’); work situation (‘the set of social relationships in which the individual is involved at work by virtue of his position in the division of labour’); and, finally, status situation (‘the position of the individual in the hierarchy of prestige in the society at large’). It was the particular combination of experiences originating in these three spheres which, according to Lockwood, constituted the principal determinants of class consciousness among clerks. See also GOLDTHORPE CLASS SCHEME.

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class In social science, a section of society sharing similar socio-economic status. A person's class is usually determined by the income and wealth of their parents. A class society is a system based on the unequal distribution of wealth. In Marxism, class is defined in relation to the means of production (land, capital). The bourgeoisie own the means of production and the proletariat provide the labour. In the Communist Manifesto (1848), Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels asserted that “the history of all society up to now is the history of class strugglerdquo;.

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class division of persons or things. XVII. Prob. first in gen. use in the sense ‘division of pupils in a school’, and immed. — L. classis each of the six ancient divisions of the Roman people, body of citizens under arms, spec. fleet. Cf. (O)F. classe.
Hence class vb. XVIII. So classification XVIII ( — F.), whence classify XVIII.

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a rank or position of society; a division into units in a school or college; in the United States, those students who enter college the same year; a number of persons with similar qualities or skills grouped together; a range of items or things graded according to quality.

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class A category used in the classification of organisms that consists of similar or closely related orders. Similar classes are grouped into a phylum. Examples include Mammalia (mammals), Aves (birds), and Dicotyledoneae (dicots).

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class A facility introduced in the programming language SIMULA. The class provides a form of abstract data type. It is also the basis of the concept of object that underlies Smalltalk and other object-oriented languages.

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class In biology, part of the classification of living organisms, ranking above order class and below phylum. The class names for plants all end in ‘idae’, but animal class names are more varied.

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class, in taxonomy: see classification.

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classarse, baas, brass, carse, class, coup de grâce, farce, glass, grass, Grasse, impasse, Kars, kick-ass, kvass, Laplace, Maas, Madras, outclass, pass, sparse, stained glass, surpass, upper class, volte-face •badass • lardass • sandglass •eyeglass, spyglass •wine glass • tooth glass • subclass •hourglass •fibreglass (US fiberglass) • underclass •masterclass • weather glass • bypass •underpass • wheatgrass • ryegrass •knotgrass • sawgrass • bluegrass •goosegrass • smart-arse

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