Class is perhaps the most crucial concept in the social sciences; class location affects everyone’s life, and class struggles are at the core of social dynamics in all societies. Class can be viewed as a dichotomous system in which each class presupposes the other (e.g., there can be no masters without slaves and vice versa) or as a gradational system with a continuous ordering or ranking of people, from low to high, on the basis of income, skill levels, occupation, education, and so on (Ossowski 1963). The middle class can be identified on a purely descriptive, ad hoc basis, using a gradational approach to divide the population into aggregates sharing similar characteristics. The “middle class” is, then, the population aggregate that falls in the middle of the income, educational, and occupational profiles of a research sample, a given community, a region, or a nation-state. This descriptive approach yields only a superficial picture of the middle class, however. Theoretical analysis is required to identify the basis for the location of the middle class in the social and economic structures that, in turn, affect its economic, social, and political behavior and ideological commitments. Karl Marx (1818–1883) and Max Weber (1864–1920) set the foundations for the analysis of class. A discussion of their main ideas must precede consideration of more recent theories about the middle class.
Marx identifies two main classes in capitalist societies: the bourgeoisie or capitalist class (owners of the means of production), and the proletariat or working class (owners only of labor power or the capacity to work). Prior to capitalism, there was a “manifold gradation of social rank” (e.g., feudal lords, apprentices, serfs, etc.), and within each of these ranks there were “subordinate gradations” (Marx and Engels  1998, p. 2). In reply to the question, “What makes wage-laborers, capitalists, and landlords constitute the great social classes?” Marx offers a preliminary answer: “the identity of revenues and sources of revenues.” He rejects this conclusion because it would lead to defining as a class any group whose income has the same origin. Marx gives the example of physicians and officials and ends by stating, “the same would also be true of the infinite fragmentation of interest and rank into which the division of labor splits laborers as well as capitalists and landlords” (Marx  1967, pp. 885–886). For Marx, a social class is not an income group, but a necessary and unequal relationship between people, mediated or shaped by their relationship to the means of production. The relationship between capitalists and workers is necessary (they presuppose each other), it is exploitative (capitalists appropriate the surplus value produced by the workers), and it places the capitalist class in a position of power over the working class.
When examining capitalism theoretically, Marx uses a dichotomous concept of class. Empirically, he observed, classes do not appear in “pure form”; in England, for example, they were fragmented by the division of labor into “middle and intermediate strata” (Marx  1967, p. 885). The middle class, Marx’s writings suggest, is a descriptive concept that refers to an empirically variable, heterogeneous set of strata located in an intermediate position between workers and capitalists.
Weber’s concept of class is neither relational nor centered on exploitation. Weber’s focus is the effect of class situation on life chances, that is, on an individual’s economic and social opportunities. Classes are aggregates of individuals who, because they bring similar resources to the market (e.g., ownership of different kinds of property, different skills, etc.), they share similar life chances. “The term ‘class’ refers to any group of people that is found in the same class situation” (Gerth and Mills  1973, p. 181). In market exchanges, ownership of property gives power to owners over nonowners, that is, those who must sell their labor or goods made with their labor in order to survive. This is why “‘property’ and ‘lack of property’ are … the basic categories of all class situations” (Gerth and Mills  1973, pp. 181–182). These categories, however, are extremely differentiated according to the kinds and quantity of property and the type of skills individuals bring to the market. Weber provides an elaborate taxonomy of propertied, commercial, and social classes. The middle classes are located between the “positively” and “negatively” privileged propertied and commercial classes—for example, small property owners, craftsmen, self-employed farmers, public officials, professionals, and credentialed and highly skilled workers (Weber 1978, pp. 302–307).
Weber theorized about classes at the level of what Marx called “the Eden of the innate rights of man” (Marx  1967, p. 176), meaning the market, where capitalists and workers meet freely as buyers and sellers of commodities. Marx focused on the level of production, where capitalists exploit workers. Both levels of analysis are important for the study of class.
As capitalism developed in western Europe and the United States, it brought not only an increase in the size of the working class, but, especially during the first half of the twentieth century, a relatively greater increase in the number of nonmanual waged and salaried employees. Some of these “white-collar” workers were highly educated, well paid, and in positions of authority; others were poorly paid and differed from manual “blue-collar” workers mainly in the kind of work they did. Sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) referred to these workers as a “new” middle class, different in its dependent status and source of income (salaried work) from the economically self-reliant “old” middle class prevalent in the nineteenth century, composed of independent professionals, small farmers, small entrepreneurs, and property owners (Mills 1951). This new and growing intermediate strata or middle class, because of its heterogeneity in terms of occupation, education, income, and authority in the workplace, is difficult to categorize and identify.
Among Marxist analysts, the most important work has been done by Erik Olin Wright, who introduced complexity into the two-class schema by examining, in the context of concrete capitalist societies, variations in the extent to which the three dimensions of capitalist power—ownership and control over money capital, physical capital, and labor—coincide or not to form different kinds of class locations. There are, in light of this analysis, three “pure” classes: capitalists, the working class, and the petty bourgeoisie or owners of means of production who do not employ labor (Wright 2001, pp. 112–113). The middle classes are propertyless employees whose levels of skill and knowledge, and position in the authority structure, place them in “contradictory” class locations. As well-paid managers or experts, they are in a “privileged location within relations of exploitation” (Wright 1997, p. 22); they are exploited (as workers), while simultaneously sharing capitalist privileges that vary with their degree of authority and expertise.
A different criterion for separating the working class from the middle class is whether or not workers engage in productive labor, that is, whether they produce exchange values and, therefore, surplus value. Arguing that only productive workers are members of the working class, Nicos Poulantzas (1936–1979) considers all other wage and salary earners, those who only contribute to the circulation and realization of surplus value (i.e., those employed in banking, commerce, research, advertising, services, etc.), as unproductive workers: the middle classes are composed of such workers (Poulantzas 1973, pp. 30–31).
Today’s neo-Weberian analysis of class has to focus on the relationship between class or market situation and life chances. Given the exceedingly large number of possible market situations, social scientists have to identify clusters of those positions that could be considered classes (Breen 2005, p. 35). Aage Sørensen, for example, defines classes as “sets of structural positions. Social relationships within markets, especially within labor markets, and within firms define these positions” (Sørensen 1991, p. 72; cited in Breen 2005, p. 35). The nature of those positions and the number of classes that can be constructed vary.
Class location objectively determines people’s economic and political interests and influences, not their subjectivity, political consciousness, beliefs, behavior, and so forth. But classes, as Weber observed, are not communities; they are not groups whose members share a sense of belonging and a set of objectives. Classes are aggregates of people in the same “class situation,” and they become mobilized and politicized only under certain circumstances, such as, for example, interclass confrontations or rapid economic and technological change that undermines their life chances. The middle classes, like all classes in “contradictory” class locations, can vary in their political allegiances. Simultaneously placed in relations of subordination, domination, and relative autonomy, they are more likely to be motivated by ideological political commitments, values, beliefs, religion, and so on than by “objective” interests.
The paradoxical behavior of American voters who, despite their economic vulnerability, vote for a party that protects the interests of the capitalist class, illustrates the weight of politics, culture, and religion in shaping the political behavior of the middle classes (see, for example, Frank 2004). As long as the ruling classes continue to control the media and the production and dissemination of ideologies in harmony with the value commitments of the middle strata, these sectors of the population will most likely be swayed towards conservatism unless a sudden economic crisis, like the Great Depression of the 1930s, undermines their understanding of their real conditions of existence.
SEE ALSO Autonomy; Black Middle Class; Blue Collar and White Collar; Bourgeoisie, Petty; Class; Gramsci, Antonio; Hegemony; Jacobinism; Managerial Class; Marx, Karl; Middleman Minorities; Middlemen Minorities; Poulantzas, Nicos; Professionalization; Professionals; Stratification; Voting; Voting Patterns; Weber, Max; Working Class
Breen, Richard. 2005. Foundations of a Neo-Weberian Class Analysis. In Approaches to Class Analysis, ed. Erik Olin Wright, 31–50. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Frank, Thomas. 2004. What’s the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. New York: Metropolitan.
Marx, Karl.  1967. Capital. Vol. 1. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl.  1967. Capital. Vol. 3. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. [1845–1846] 1947. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels.  1998. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Mills, C. Wright. 1951. White Collar: The American Middle Classes. New York: Oxford University Press.
Ossowski, Stanislaw. 1963. Class Structure in the Social Consciousness. Trans. Sheila Patterson. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.
Poulantzas, Nicos. 1973. On Social Classes. New Left Review 78: 27–54.
Sørensen, Aage B. 1991. On the Usefulness of Class Analysis in Research on Social Mobility and Socioeconomic Inequality. Acta Sociologica 34:2; cited in Breen, Richard. 2005. Foundations of a Neo-Weberian Class Analysis. In Approaches to Class Analysis, ed. Erik Olin Wright. London: Cambridge University Press.
Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenter Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Wright, Erik Olin. 1997. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Wright, Erik Olin. 2001. Varieties of Marxist Conceptions of Class Structure. In Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in Sociological Perspective, ed. David B. Grusky, 112–115. 2nd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.
Wright, Erik Olin, ed. 2005. Approaches to Class Analysis. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
The British middle class never produced a formal class political movement. Few middle-class MPs entered Parliament immediately after the 1832 reform and middle-class politicians did not dominate the highest ranks of government until the 1860s. Middle-class formation and influence operated through two major social processes, which although not new became more important in the early 19th cent. The middle classes created an increasingly active public life of voluntary societies and pressure groups. These often had a major influence on the aristocratic-led government, such as the anti-slavery and Anti-Corn Law movements. Others, like the school societies and voluntary hospitals, became incorporated in the activities of the state. This associational culture created and spread middle-class values beyond the formal boundaries of the group.
Middle-class influence was also expressed through a domestic culture based upon gender subordination, increasing standards of material consumption, a desire for order and security, and for the separation of home and work. The residential suburbs which grew rapidly in the last thirty years of the 19th cent. were an important expression of this.
There is considerable debate over the outcome of the turbulent years before 1850. Some see a victory for the middle class and its values of respectability, of rational negotiation in social relationships, and of freedom for profit-seeking within the regulation and support of the state. Others see the failure of an entrepreneurial spirit in the face of gentlemanly aristocratic-led capitalism, a failure responsible for the slow-down in British economic growth after 1870. Part of the problem lay in the lack of a coherent middle-class set of values. Ideologists of both right and left look for an aggressive profit-seeking middle class central to the conflict between capital and labour. In practice, such values and actions were tempered by a paternalistic sense of obligation, often guided by the dictates of evangelical religion.
The years after 1870 saw an increasing number of low-paid, salaried, and professional people included in the middle class, notably schoolteachers and clerks. Increasing feelings of insecurity, growing ambitions for children, and a desire to sustain higher standards of consumption led to new strategies based upon smaller families, birth control, and saving through insurance policies. The opening of the civil service to competitive examination and the growing importance of professional and scientific knowledge after 1870 increased the value and need for middle-class education.
In the 20th cent. the relationships of the middle class to property and to the rest of society changed. The number of salaried and professional people increased, especially in the state sector and in the managerial structures of large manufacturing and commercial corporations. Even small firms were owned through private limited liability companies rather than directly. Middle-class property and privilege increasingly relied upon owner-occupied housing, distinctive forms of education, and superior pension rights. Older privileges were eroded by universal suffrage, by narrowing income differentials, and by the growth of a mass commercial culture.
See also class; professions.
R. J. Morris
In popular perception, all white-collar work is middle class, but sociologically it is necessary to sub-divide this class into distinct groups sharing similar market, work, and status situations. For example, John H. Goldthorpe (Social Mobility and Class Structure in Modern Britain, 1980) distinguishes the service class of senior managers and professionals; the junior or subaltern service class of lower professionals such as teachers, junior managers, and administrators; routine non-manual workers such as clerks and secretaries; and owners of small businesses (the traditional petit-bourgeoisie). Conventionally, the service class is referred to as the upper-middle class; the junior service class as the middle class proper; and the others as the lower-middle class. Thus defined, in Britain the upper-middle class comprises some 10 per cent of the population; the middle class accounts for around 20 per cent; and the lower-middle class takes in a further 20 per cent. Taken together, therefore, the middle class is the largest single class in the overall structure.
However, some sociologists (especially those of a Marxist persuasion) would not accept that most routine white-collar workers were middle class, on the grounds that their employment situation is generally equivalent (or even inferior) to that of many working-class people. They prefer to call this group the new working class. This is not a view which most white-collar workers themselves share, nor one which is substantiated by sociological evidence. Equally, the term ‘middle class’ is now often used by journalists and politicians to refer to what might better be called the ‘middle mass’ of those earning somewhere close to average incomes. Evidence from Gordon Marshall et al.'s national study of Social Class in Modern Britain (1984) shows that ordinary people are somewhat more discriminating. For example, 35 per cent of the sample defined the middle-class as professionals; 11 per cent mentioned managers; only 7 per cent talked of the middle class as being all white-collar workers.
As with the term upper class, distinctions can be made between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ middle class. The former generally refers to the petite bourgeoisie and independent professionals (whose existence as distinct groups pre-dates the twentieth-century expansion of the class as a whole), while the latter refers to all other elements of the middle class: that is, salaried professionals, administrators and officials, senior managers, and higher-grade technicians who together form the service class, and routine non-manual employees, supervisors, and lower-grade technicians who form a more marginal middle class (or, in Marxist terms, a new working class). See also CLASS POSITION; CONTRADICTORY CLASS LOCATION; PROLETARIANIZATION.
mid·dle class • n. [treated as sing. or pl.] the social group between the upper and working classes, including professional and business workers and their families.• adj. of, relating to, or characteristic of this section of society: a middle-class suburb. ∎ attaching too much importance to convention, security, and material comfort: the sterile goals of middle-class life.DERIVATIVES: mid·dle-class·ness n.
440. Middle Class
- Babbitt self-satisfied conformer to middle-class ideas and ideals. [Am. Lit: Babbitt ]
- Forsyte representative of property-owning class in early 20th century. [Br. Lit.: The Forsyte Saga ]
- Podsnap, John smugly complacent in his Britishness. [Br. Lit.: Our Mutual Friend ]