Social Class

views updated May 14 2018


Charles Tilly

Social class has attracted a great deal of attention, not to mention bitter dispute, from social historians. Social class refers to categorical differences among clusters of persons when material inequality constitutes (a) the categorical boundaries or (b) a likely cause of differences among bounded categories. Social class by no means exhausts human inequality. People have often organized large material inequalities around gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, and locality, none of which qualify ipso facto as class. People also vary individually with respect to strength, size, health, volatility, and a number of other traits that affect the quality of their lives. Social class may shape or interact with these other forms of inequality, but it remains analytically distinct from them. If the idea of social class has deeply informed the study of social history, it has also generated profound disagreement among specialists in the field. As they disagree about class, analysts actually struggle over the salience, durability, impact, and categorical clustering of inequality in human life.

As they should, historians generally exclude a wide variety of human inequalities (for example, by gender, height, or religion) from social class. Beyond that minimum agreement, however, they range from considering class differences as fundamental in social life at one extreme, to denying the very existence of social classes at the other. Anyone who uses class terms to describe unequal positions or social relations makes a further theoretical commitment. Class terminology implies that the positions or relations in question cluster into categories having some degree of internal coherence and some connection with each other. Precisely the extent, nature, origins, and consequences of such coherence and connection remain controversial and the objects of extensive historical investigation.


Contending ideas of class circulated long before social history formed as a distinctive discipline. The Latin word classis referred to a vertical division of the Roman population according to property and entered English with that meaning during the sixteenth century. Over the next century the English word "class" applied increasingly to categories of the population; but "development of class in its modern social sense, with relatively fixed names for particular classes (lower class, middle class, upper class, working class and so on) belongs essentially to the period between 1770 and 1840, which is also the period of the Industrial Revolution and its decisive reorganization of society" (Williams, 1976, p. 51). By that time writers as diverse as James Madison, Hannah More, and James Mill freely used class terms to describe the world they saw around them. In the 1840s, when Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began treating social classes as fundamental divisions under capitalism, they incorporated common usage into their innovative theory.

So doing, however, Marx and Engels opened an enduring split between self-consciously materialist analysts of social processes and others who generally recognized differences among social classes but rejected marxist explanations of those differences. In the Marx-Engels account, material relations within every mode of production generated their own class divisions. As Marx later put the general point:

It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers—a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity—which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. (Marx, 1972, p. 791)

Accordingly marxists have commonly analyzed history in terms of distinct modes of production: primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism, and more (Marx, 1964). Each mode, in this analysis, centers on a characteristically different opposition of classes. Marx devoted the great bulk of his attention to capitalism. Although capitalism harbored multiple classes, he argued, its central processes of exploitation generated increasing division between capitalists, who owned the means of industrial production, and wage workers or proletarians, whose effort fructified those means. That divided material infrastructure, furthermore, shaped the basic institutions of social life, including government, education, and kinship. So ran the strict marxist view.


Since Marx's day social historians have repeatedly polarized for and against this relational and production-based conception of social class. Some dispute its exact application to particular historical settings, some forward alternative conceptions of class, and some deny the very applicability of class categories to the situations they study. A characteristic (if slightly disingenuous) statement comes from the great student of France's Old Regime hierarchies, Roland Mousnier:

Despite beginning with the conviction that social classes were indeed what Marxists mean by that term, that classes had started to exist when societies emerged from so-called primitive communism, and that class struggle was if not the whole of history at least one of its most important elements, my research with my students on societies and institutions brought us to quite different conclusions. We are now persuaded the Marxist conception of social class only applies to certain kinds of societies and has been improperly extrapolated. If we want a general term for the great variety of social hierarchies, we will do better to use the expression social stratum, which designates a universal concept, a family. (Mousnier, 1976, p. 5)

As elements of a social stratum, Mousnier names:

  • distinctive part in the social division of labor
  • distinctive way of carrying out that effort
  • disposition of effort by members of at least one other stratum
  • mentality and style of life
  • means of existence resulting from its social role

For location within a system of production, Mousnier thus substitutes function in society at large. His conception has several powerful consequences. It displaces the origins of inequality from relations of production to societal function; considers societies to consist of two or more unequal strata, differentiated vertically, in virtual isolation from each other; and excludes the lowest social level (who dispose of no one else's effort) from designation as a distinct stratum.

Mousnier goes on to argue that Old Regime France was a society of orders (honor-differentiated strata), not of classes, and that French classes formed only with nineteenth-century industrialization. He explains that change not as a direct consequence of alterations in productive relations but as an effect of shifting values: "social classes are a type of strata existing in societies where value judgments place the production of material goods and the creation of wealth at the top of the scale of social functions, in a market economy where capitalist relations of production prevail" (Mousnier, 1976, p. 7). Mousnier distinguishes five "scales" of stratification, legal, social status, economic, power, and ideological, whose relative prominence varies from society to society and age to age (Mousnier, 1973, pp. 15–18). Thus, in the widespread view represented by Mousnier, different societies value different attributes and rank people accordingly (compare with Barber, 1957). Class therefore represents no more than a special case of a general phenomenon.

Despite its concessions to other principles of differentiation, the Mousnier-style analysis clearly presents class as a particular variety of position, individual or collective, in a hierarchy of prestige, wealth, or power. Standard marxist views just as clearly differ. They identify class as collective location within a system of production. They stress inequality but deny hierarchy in the sense of orderly (and especially consented) precedence. Over the long run these two positions have contended for dominance within social history, yet other social historians have dissented from the two majority positions. Some (e.g., Parkin, 1979) have emphasized shared relations to consumption markets, while others (e.g., Stedman Jones, 1983) have based their conceptions of class on shared consciousness or culture. Later we shall return to these alternative views, as well as to denials that class exists at all.

Before World War II, most western European social historians used class terms loosely and descriptively, attributing distinctive characteristics to upper classes, middle classes, workers, peasants, and other categories but considering problems of class formation, class consciousness, and class distinction peripheral to their enterprise. In economic and political history, however, questions of class then loomed larger. There the causes and consequences of poverty, the origins of capitalism, and the changing power of landholders, merchants, and manufacturers became sites of acute controversy. Within each controversy at least one party attributed significance to changing class relations. In Great Britain, for example, left-leaning historians, such as R. H. Tawney, Sidney Webb, and Beatrice Webb, placed class firmly on the historical agenda. Soviet historians and non-Soviet marxists also organized much of their analyses around class categories. But it took the populist social history of the 1950s and thereafter to make social class an inescapable preoccupation.

Marxist and materialist historians outside the Soviet Union—for instance, Jürgen Kuczynski, Eric Hobsbawm, and Georges Lefebvre—led the way. They highlighted social class from two different angles: as a general framework for historical analysis and as an object of intense empirical study. The general framework featured the rise, fall, transformation, and conflict of different classes, with marxist ideas of social development its leading impetus. Social historians, however, spent relatively little effort on general theories. They concentrated especially on the empirical study of social classes, more often working classes than any others.


  1. Hierarchical position. A social class is a rank or stratum defined by recognized and effective differences in prestige, wealth, or power. For example, lords, merchants, and serfs are seen as public actors rather than legal categories. This implies vertical divisions crossing large populations and resting on widespread agreement, however grudging, and promotes social history of changing rank orders, their public representations, and their implications for styles of life.
  2. Market connection. A social class is a population segment defined by distinctive relation to land, labor, and commodity markets. For example, gentry, farmers, merchants, artisans, and tenants are seen as owners, producers, and especially consumers. This implies extensive but differentiated markets with significant impacts on the well-being of their participants and promotes social history of material culture, property, and consumption.
  3. Consciousness and culture. A social class is a set of people who regard each other as social equals or share a distinctive body of understandings, representations, and practices. For example, the aristocracy contrasts with the bourgeoisie as a community and style of life. This implies well-defined boundaries, extensive connections, and mutual recognition within boundaries and promotes social history of changing understandings, representations, and practices.
  4. Location in production. A social class designates occupants of a large but distinctive position within a system of material production. For example, capitalists versus proletarians are defined by control of capital versus dependence on the sale of labor power. This implies broad categorical divisions across whole systems of production and the significant impact of productive position on overall welfare. It promotes social history linking politics and social life to the changing organization of production and investigating shifts in forms and degrees of inequality.
  5. Chimera. In a particular setting or in general, social class is an illusion or at best a mistaken description of inequalities better characterized in other ways. For example, "middle class" is viewed as a broad idea about the population majority in contemporary industrial countries. This implies fragmentation of differences in material inequality and promotes social history of ideas about identity and inequality as well as investigation of nonclass bases of inequality.

A kind of populism swept over the field: enthusiasm for writing social history from the bottom up, for recovering and broadcasting the authentic vox populi. Populism became even more prevalent as it coupled with the campus mobilizations of the 1960s. Many students then moved into history with the hope of giving voice to the powerless and of identifying historical precedents for current struggles. Some took up analyses of popular political mobilization and rebellion, others reconstruction of workers' daily lives, still others detailed investigation of social inequality and mobility. For a while it looked as though social history and sociology would form an indissoluble alliance. Sociology beckoned as the only social science discipline prepared to take class seriously.

Then E. P. Thompson almost single-handedly changed the field's direction. No doubt a number of social historians had already become uneasy about the formalism, structural reductionism, and methodological conventionality of the sociology they saw invading their enterprise. They were already ripe for a more literary, ethnographic, and interpretive account of social life, especially one that offered a larger place to consciousness than most sociologists allowed. Still, in 1963 Thompson roared onto the terrain like an invading army. Descending from the heights of literary criticism and biography, he daringly attacked on two fronts, machine-gunning mechanistic marxism even as he cannonaded conservative condescension. At least for England from the 1780s to the 1830s, he swept the field, persuading a wide range of readers that something he called the "making" of a working class occurred through a sustained series of struggles and convincing the rest that they now had a new, seductive leftist thesis to combat.

Thompson scored his fellow marxists for structural reductionism—for assuming that one can read out people's motives and states of consciousness from their location within relations of production. The formation of class consciousness, he countered, is an arduous, contingent, struggle-ridden process whose vagaries historians must retrace in detail. Class, he objected, does not spring directly from economic position but emerges from dynamic interaction with other people. Class is a relation, not an attribute. Class consciousness, he further claimed, draws crucial parts of its content from available political understandings—in the case of eighteenth-century English plebeians, notably beliefs in the rights of freeborn Englishmen and in the priority of the moral economy over political economy. Thus he drew marxist class analysis toward a much more phenomenological, ethnographic, cultural, and idea-oriented approach than the one previously employed by most of its practitioners.

A fierce, witty polemicist, Thompson directed equal scorn toward liberal and conservative analysts of working-class experience. He attacked two recurrent errors: (1) reduction of workers' actions to ill-considered impulses generated by sudden hardship or rapid social displacement and (2) assumption that the working classes lacked sophisticated understandings of politics and economics and therefore responded gullibly to the exhortations of demagogues. To rebut these views he poured ample ingenuity and energy into uncovering popular ideas concerning rights and obligations; tracing connections among participants in such activities as machine breaking; and matching the slogans, symbols, avenging actions, testimonies, and demands of working-class activists with doctrines in the literary record.

With a literary historian's panache, Thompson mustered an extraordinary range of evidence for his thesis, drawing connections between political philosophy and popular culture, enormously broadening conceptions of relevant texts, and giving popular utterances and crowd actions a literary standing they had rarely achieved before. His victorious vision of class formation in England inspired numerous historians of other Western countries to search for parallel constructions in their own territories and periods, so much so that the phrase "making of the working class" acquired the immortality of a cliché.

Thompson never quite escaped the shadow of teleology. The idea of working class formation—of "making"—easily attaches to the teleological notion that every mode of production assigns a destiny to each of its constitutive classes (Katznelson and Zolberg, 1986). The big historical questions thus become how and to what degree each class actually fulfills its destiny. By stressing consciousness, Thompson forwarded the idea that class formation depends critically on the developing mutual awareness of people who already occupy a distinctive location within the system of production. Indeed Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class (1963) stops in 1832, by which time, in his account, popular struggles during the 1790s had prepared working-class consciousness, postwar conflict had sharpened it, worker mobilization around reform had accelerated it, and the exclusion of most workers from benefits of the 1832 Reform Act had embittered it. But the full denouement still lay ahead, presumably in Chartism and its aftermath.

So great a challenge could not go unanswered. Sociologically inclined critics (e.g., Calhoun, 1981) objected that Thompson misread the organizational bases of popular collective action, while critics who were speeding toward discourse and consciousness even faster than Thompson himself had (e.g., Jones, 1983) rejected Thompson's concessions to structural determinism. Still others (e.g., Anna Clark, 1995; Frader and Rose, 1996) complained that Thompson had produced an excessively masculine account of class formation, quite neglecting the crucial place of women and gender relations in the process. Since Thompson, historical studies of class have frequently formed their battle lines along epistemological and ontological divides: explanation versus interpretation, realism versus idealism, practical action versus consciousness, sociology versus anthropology.

The works of Patrick Joyce and James Vernon on nineteenth-century Britain are representative. Both sought refuge from marxist realism in linguistic analysis, Joyce fretfully and Vernon with shrill bravado. Each proposed his own interpretation of English popular culture and its creeds as an alternative to the Thompsonian history of class formation. In the baker's dozen of essays that fill his Visions of the People (1991), Joyce explored a wide variety of materials recording popular discourse, popular literature, slogans, demands, theater, dialect, and much more, asking to what extent their uses set workers off from other people and to what degree they conveyed direct awareness of class difference as formative experience and source of grievances. Joyce concentrated on Lancashire and the North between 1848 and 1914, eventually concluding with great unease that something like widely shared class consciousness began to emerge not in Thompson's 1790s but toward World War I.

Vernon's Politics and the People (1993), for its part, took on all of England from 1815 to 1867 but used as recurrent points of reference close studies of public politics in Boston, Lewes, South Devon, Tower Hamlets, and Oldham. Although his announced period overlapped the one examined by Thompson, Vernon did not aim his empirical investigation at Thompson's account of political action between 1815 and 1832. Instead he looked chiefly at post-Reform politics to document his claim that for ordinary English people the public sphere, far from opening to democratic participation, actually narrowed dramatically between 1832 and 1867.

Despite avoiding direct confrontation with Thompson's treatment of 1780 to 1832, Joyce and Vernon both sought self-consciously to displace Thompsonian analysis of class formation. They did so by means of three maneuvers: denial that economic experience shapes class consciousness; insistence on the variety of economic and social experience; and embedding of all meaningful experience in language. In so doing each made two further moves he did not quite recognize and therefore did not bother to defend. The first was to adopt radical individualism, an assumption that the only significant historical events or causes consist of mental states and their alterations. The second was to doubt the intersubjective verifiability of statements about social life. Together the two moves brought them close to solipsism, the doctrine denying the possibility of any knowledge beyond that of the knower's own individual experience.

Vernon and Joyce thereby avoided questions of agency: who does what to whom and with what effects. Their occultation of agency separates them from conventional historical narrative, in which limited numbers of well-defined, motivated actors, situated in specific times and places, express their ideas and impulses in visible actions that produce discernible consequences. Those consequences typically are the objects of explanation. Conventional narrative entails not only claims to reasonably reliable knowledge of actors, motives, ideas, impulses, actions, and consequences but also (a) postulation of actors and action as more or less self-contained and (b) imputation of cause and effect within the narrative sequence. Solipsism makes most of these elements difficult, and denial of agency renders them impossible.

Vernon and Joyce also ruled out alternative modes of social-scientific analysis, which require less access to other people's consciousness as well as allowing actors, actions, and environment to interact continuously but demand strong conceptions of causal connection (Bunge, 1996; Hedström and Swedberg, 1998). Either solipsism or denial of agency suffices to command rejection of these forms of social analysis. In short the Joyce-Vernon philosophical position obliterates any possibility of historical explanation. It also undermines any grounds they might propose for accepting the validity of their interpretations in preference to Thompson's or anyone else's. At this point social history reaches an impasse ( Joyce, 1995). Yet the rich, sensitive deployment of textual analysis in the Joyce and Vernon studies underlines the strong desirability of uncovering firmer philosophical ground. The challenge is to incorporate the explanation of texts, discourse, and changing consciousness into the ongoing work of social history.


Despite many dud grenades hurled across the lines in both directions, fortunately debate did not much deter historians' concrete investigations of social class. Hobsbawm, for example, continued to turn out major historical syntheses pivoting on broadly marxist class analyses. In collaboration with social scientists, drawn from many disciplines besides sociology, social historians have actually advanced the program of explanation (see Mohr and Franzosi, 1997; Monkkonen, 1994; Morawska and Spohn, 1994). Two developments look particularly promising: (1) systematic study of class-relevant language and texts in the context of their production, transmission, and political deployment and (2) introduction of network models and metaphors into the analysis of class relations. Both, as it happens, draw some of their inspiration from Thompson, the first from Thompson's broad treatment of texts and the second from Thompson's insistence on class as a social relation rather than an individual attribute.

An excellent example of linguistic analysis in political context comes from Marc Steinberg's treatment of dialogue among workers, employers, and public authorities in Britain's Spitalfields, Ashton-Stalybridge, and elsewhere during the early nineteenth century. Steinberg showed how available forms of discourse channeled interaction among the parties to struggle but also changed as a consequence of that interaction, indeed in the very course of struggle. Responding more or less directly to the work of Joyce, Vernon, and other linguistically sensitive historians, Steinberg concluded:

I have argued that despite recent critiques from the linguistic turn, theories of historical class formation and of political process and resource mobilization provide essential windows on fundamental processes that have been and continue to be part of great transformations in the modern world. I have also maintained, however, that the critics raise compelling issues concerning the centrality of discourse in class formation and collective action. Although rejecting the linguistic turn's alternatives, I have proposed revising Thompson's perspective on class and the political process/resource-mobilization model of contentious action with discourse as a critical intervening process. Rather than choose between material and discursive analyses, we need to conjoin the explanatory powers that each perspective offers. (Steinberg, 1999, p. 229)

Such inquiries promise to narrow the epistemological and ontological fissures that have riven studies of class.

The network approach to social relations receives prominent attention in Don Kalb's study of class transformations in North Brabant, Netherlands, between 1850 and 1950. Both the dispersed shoemaking industry and the large-scale manufacturing of the Philips Corporation attracted Kalb's relentless curiosity as he combined material from collective biography, administrative records, governmental correspondence, and interviews of survivors. Kalb characterized his approach as anthropological:

My case studies of class formation in subregions of industrializing Brabant tend to illustrate that an anthropological interest in popular culture, discourse, and everyday life can, and indeed should, be wedded to social power and social process. This is so not only because power, change, and inequality are central aspects of social life that ought not be missed by any serious analyst of human affairs (that is, unless he or she accepts political irrelevance), but more importantly because class-oriented analysis can reveal crucial ambiguities, contradictions, divisions, limits, obstacles, and dynamics of culture that cannot be uncovered in other ways. In short, by consciously elaborating an approach based on a materialist idea of class with the intention to study social power and social process, I claim a more penetrating methodology for explaining and understanding culture. (Kalb, 1997, p. 2)

This historical anthropology of class rests not only on examination of utterances and representations but also on reconstruction of the dynamic social relations that constitute class. Both the linguistic and the network versions of recent class analysis retain an emphasis on relations of production but make unprecedented efforts to integrate dialogue, daily practice, and social ties as more than straightforward expressions of productive organization.


What then is social class? As the foregoing discussion suggests, social historians have generally adopted one of five answers to the question.

  1. Social class consists of position, individual or collective, in a hierarchy of prestige, wealth, or power or is a special case of such hierarchical differentiation.
  2. Social class describes a connection, individual or collective, to markets that produces significant differences in quality of life.
  3. Social class resides in mutual consciousness or shared culture among sets of persons who collectively regard themselves, however justly or unjustly, as superior or inferior to others.
  4. Social class is or depends on collective location within a system of production.
  5. Social class is an illusion or at best a mistaken description of inequalities better characterized in other ways, for example, as variable individual competence, ethnic culture, or occupational specialization.

Except for the last, these competing views do not entirely exclude each other. But they imply different priorities. Marxist social historians have, for example, sometimes combined the first four in the argument that collective location within a system of production determines both hierarchical position and relation to consumption markets while shaping mutual consciousness and culture. Thus arguing, marxists give priority to production. Other social historians assign priority to hierarchical location, consumption markets, or consciousness. In line with the first or the fifth alternative, still others deny the validity of class as description or explanation of social behavior for particular situations or even for history in general. Inequalities, even hierarchies, may exist, doubters declare, but they do not constitute social classes. When social historians do speak of social class, however, they generally stress one of the first four competing conceptions. Hierarchical and productivist ideas (alternatives one and four) have predominated in social history over the long run, but the other three positions have all competed at times.

What is at stake in this competition? Social historians who treat class as hierarchical position often take vertical division as part of a natural order given by custom, historical accretion, prevailing values, or social function. Relations among classes therefore play little or no part in their explanations of class differences. Changes in class structure, according to such a view, result from long-term, incremental alterations in values, mentalities, population composition, or societal type. In functional versions of the argument, agrarian societies simply require one type of hierarchy, industrial societies another.

Social historians who emphasize connections to markets as bases of class distinctions generally consider classes to be recent social creations. Their existence depends on the commodification of capital, land, goods, and services. This commodification can create distinct classes when two conditions converge: (1) segmented access to markets and (2) variable property rights according to the kinds of goods in question or the status of their possessors.

Emphasizing relations to labor and commodity markets, Max Weber made a famous statement of this view:

Those who have no property but who offer services are differentiated just as much according to their kinds of services as according to the way in which they make use of these services, in a continuous or discontinuous relation to a recipient. But always this is the generic connotation of the concept of class: that the kind of chance in the market is the decisive moment which presents a common condition for the individual's fate. Class situation is, in this sense, ultimately market situation. The effect of naked possession per se, which among cattle breeders gives the non-owning slave or serf into the power of the cattle owner, is only a fore-runner of real "class" formation. (Weber, 1968, vol. 2, p. 928)

Weber explicitly distinguished class divisions from status group and party divisions, which he regarded as more crucial where labor and commodity markets were ill developed. Other historians have added markets for land to Weber's labor and commodity markets. In such a perspective class and class conflict become salient under certain special conditions, notably the predominance of land, labor, and commodity markets, but classes do not exist everywhere, need not form regular hierarchies, and often coexist with crosscutting divisions by status and party.

To focus class analysis on mutual consciousness and shared culture articulates well the widespread idea that social categories matter only to the extent that people recognize and participate in them. The idea appeals to an odd assortment of social historians. They include not only methodological individualists (who regard rationally deliberated choices as prime historical motors), but also phenomenologists (who regard individual consciousness as the seat and source of human action) and theorists of mentalities (who regard society-wide shifts of shared understandings as driving forces in history). In any of these lines of thought, classes only exist if, when, and because many people come to conceive of them as existing. Consequently, for them processes of class formation and transformation operate chiefly within the cognitive sphere.

Social class as collective location within a system of production introduces relations among members of different categories much more explicitly into class analysis. The view has two contrasting versions, one aligned approximately with classical and neoclassical economics, the other identified broadly with marxism. The economistic version considers that markets link holders of different sorts of capital, including human capital, and apportion rewards among them according to the current value of their capital to productive processes. Although Adam Smith argued explicitly that organizational and power differentials affected what different classes (for example, merchants and landless laborers) could gain from market relations, within those limits he laid down the doctrine of returns proportionate to productive contributions. Smith's successors have portrayed production as built around freely contracted bargains among holders of different varieties and quantities of capital. Classes therefore correspond to divisions with respect to capital. Following this understanding, extensive historical research has gone into changes in living standards and in material inequality. Increasing inequality in income, wealth, and welfare becomes the evidence of increasing class differentiation (Kaelble, 1983).

Marxists counter neoclassical explanations of class differences with an interpretation of productive relations, not as freely contracted bargains but as exercises of coercion among inherently unequal parties. The organization of production, in this view, lays the bases of class divisions; those divisions arise from unequal interaction among categories of participants in productive processes and generally involve struggle. For either the economistic or the marxist view, then, change in the organization of production generates change in class structure.

Finally, some claim that social class is a chimera. In fact the rejection of class analysis for particular situations or for history in general arises from several rather different groups of social historians. Antimarxists (including former marxists) sometimes take the fully revolutionary proletariat of Marx's Communist Manifesto (1848) as their standard for existence of a class, then set out to prove that workers' consciousness or behavior fell short of the standard. Joyce and Vernon undertook just such proofs. (This form of argument provides an ironic counterpoint to the frequent marxist practice of explaining workers' failure to act collectively against their exploiters by the absence of conditions for class-conscious action sketched in the Manifesto.) Market enthusiasts sometimes argue that competition among unequally competent individuals produces differential rewards but nothing like social classes. Students of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and other forms of categorical inequality often claim that what other historians see as class differences actually result from discrimination in these other arenas.

The choice among conceptions of class does not merely concern the words historians apply to the same phenomena. It involves profoundly different understandings of how history works. Competing views of fundamental social processes are at stake. Advocates of hierarchical models, for example, commit to the existence of an overarching social system or culture that generates, sustains, and transforms the relevant hierarchies. Interpreters of class as grounded in production relations, however, inevitably attribute coherence and power to material production. Such contrasting worldviews have implications far outside the workings of class.


To appreciate those implications, it is helpful to examine a trio of historical phenomena whose explanation depends in part on social class. In these cases the choice of one class conception or another should make a difference to the explanation itself. Beginning with obvious cases, the examination then moves to increasingly subtle manifestations of social class: first the development of capitalism, then popular political contention, finally demographic change.

Development of capitalism. All accounts of capitalist development recognize changing configurations of work and capital. They differ greatly, however, in the significance attributed to social classes. Views of class as hierarchical position generally treat class formation as a significant by-product, but not a significant cause, of capitalist development. Causes lie elsewhere: in a society's inevitable differentiation, in alterations of collective mentalities, or perhaps in the diffusion of new technologies. Market-connection accounts of class leave somewhat more space for class formation as a cause of capitalist development, since changes in the character of merchants and of consumers both affect the organization and extent of markets. Nevertheless, market-connection models generally portray their major relations with class formation the other way around: however it occurs, expansion of labor and commodity markets differentiates participants into distinct categories—social classes—disposing of contrasting bundles of goods, services, work opportunities, and life chances.

To argue that social class resides in mutual consciousness or shared culture does not necessarily rule out origins of class consciousness or class culture in hierarchy or market position. Yet it does predispose its advocates to favor ideological and cultural explanations of capitalism as well. (In fact Weber stressed the influence of a Protestant ethic on the development of European capitalism while laying out one of the most coherent market-connection conceptions of class.) Such explanations abound; they often pivot on the assertion that western European culture predisposed its beneficiaries to competitive enterprise, an assertion that typically gives great weight to capitalist entrepreneurs in the creation of capitalism as a whole.

Analysis of class as collective location within a system of production likewise typically gives great weight to capitalist entrepreneurs but in relation, often in struggle, with other social classes. In such analyses class relations constitute major elements of any productive system, class interactions alter production, and class structure responds sensitively to shifts in the logic of production. Historians who regard class as a chimera are predisposed to explain the development of capitalism in terms of autonomous, impersonal forces, such as science, technology, the market, or changing mentalities. Thus different conceptions of social class imply distinct approaches to explanations of capitalist development.

Popular political contention. Popular political contention means ordinary people collectively making claims bearing on other people's interests when some government is either the object of those claims or a significant third party to them. Popular political contention includes collective retribution for moral offenders, intervillage fights, invasions of enclosed fields, deliberate disruptions of public ceremonies, market conflicts, strikes, and rebellions, but it also includes the demonstrations, public meetings, petition drives, and electoral campaigns that nineteenth-century Europeans eventually lumped together as social movements (Tilly and Tilly, 1981). Popular political contention does not involve social classes by definition. Indeed nonclass categories, such as religion, gender, ethnicity, and locality, have often figured in European contention. Nevertheless, differing conceptions of class have significant implications for the description and explanation of popular political contention.

Strong marxist views of class imply one of two positions. Either (1) all popular contention rests at bottom on class interests and class conflict, in which case apparent nonclass action stems from false consciousness or indirect effects of class formation; or (2) in the long run class interests and class conflict supersede other forms of division, hence other bases of contention. In the first position, excavating nationalism or religious conflict with sufficient care will eventually expose its foundation in class structure. In the second position, a variety of solidarities, interests, and conflicts arise in the short run, but, within any given mode of production, class polarization eventually prevails. Indeed that polarization eventually produces a crisis in which popular contention propels transition from one mode of production to another.

A competing version of social class as collective location within a system of production depends on non-marxist economics. If, as this second version implies, classes form around market-mediated divisions with respect to capital, popular political contention may still have a class basis. But two rather different scenarios apply. One is the case of a class having shared interests in the production of some collective good, such as protection of its kind of capital from predation or erosion, redistribution of returns from capital, or monopoly control of some market. In this case standard collective action problems arise.

A second scenario, however, involves collective reactions to consequences of occupying a common economic location, as when a labor market segment shrinks (handloom weavers are a famous European example), crucial commodities suddenly become more expensive (bread prices are a famous European example), or a productive resource disappears (enclosures of common lands are a famous European example). In contrast to the first scenario, economic analysts commonly regard the contention involved in such cases as irrational, since it resists the inexorable long-run logic of the market and of returns to capital. Nevertheless, both scenarios call up economistic accounts of class action that differ significantly from marxist accounts.

Obviously conceptions of social class as hierarchy, as market connection, as shared culture, or as illusion point to still other characterizations of popular political contention. Social theorists in the styles of Gaetano Mosca and Vilfredo Pareto have, for example, repeatedly spun out hierarchical theories of class in which political struggles emerge chiefly from efforts of subordinates to displace currently ruling classes. Shared-culture theorists of class, in contrast, typically take several steps beyond Thompson by making political tradition, altered consciousness, and response to evocative symbols central to popular action (see Herzog, 1998; Hunt, 1984; Sewell, 1980). Clearly, competing conceptions of social class lead analysts of popular political contention in significantly different directions.

Demographic change. Each approach to class has distinctive implications for the study of basic demographic processes, especially categorical differences in birth, death, marriage, sickness, mobility, and growth or decline (for a general introduction to the literature, see Willigan and Lynch, 1982). Demographers commonly think in terms of populations and imagine that categories are little more than convenient identifiers for subpopulations likely to have more homogeneous experiences than the population as a whole (Desrosières, 1998). The relevant categories then include age, sex, religion, ethnicity, and nationality, but they also include representations of class, such as income, occupation, or estimated social standing.

Social historians who study population processes more often take the categories seriously. They do so on either or both of two grounds: that the sheer existence of known unequal categories is a social fact with consequences for social behavior, including demographic behavior; and that the categories actually represent inequalities in social ties, culture, and quality of life more or less accurately.

Still, our competing answers to the question "What is social class?" lead to different expectations concerning categorical differences and their explanations. Class as hierarchical position lends itself readily to the expectation of continuous differences in behavior as a function of proximity to elite values and resources. Explanations of such differences may well involve varieties of upbringing and education, but they also can emphasize social connections or access to resources and opportunities. Discontinuous distributions and well-marked boundaries—for example, in types of illness or in contraceptive behavior—then suggest discontinuous distributions of upbringing, connections, resources, and opportunities.

If social classes consist of population segments defined by distinctive relations to land, labor, and commodity markets, continuous distributions appear less likely as causes or effects of inequality. Segmented labor markets, for example, bundle interpersonal connections, identities, mobility opportunities, and a wide variety of resources (Tilly, 1998, chapter 5). Observing such effects, analysts can plausibly explain categorical differences in mortality and age at marriage by delineating clustered and market-driven differences in exposure to risks and opportunities.

Consciousness and culture? If a social class is a set of people who regard each other as social equals and share a distinctive body of understandings, representations, and practices, certainly their sharing should affect their demographic behavior and change. In fact two different kinds classes of effects should occur, the first resulting from the existence of a boundary around equals and the second resulting from shared culture. The boundary presumably limits sexual relations, marriage, kinship, mutual aid, and information flows, all of which affect birth, death, marriage, sickness, mobility, and growth or decline. The shared culture presumably includes such demographically crucial matters as contraception, abortion, child care, diet, health care, migration, and sexual practices. These are not mere speculations; many students of population change have bet heavily on class differences in consciousness and culture for their explanations (e.g., Gillis, Tilly, and Levine, 1992; Poppel, 1992).

However, about as many have adopted conceptions of class as depending chiefly on location in production. Once again a distinction arises between advocates of neoclassical and marxist approaches to the problem. For neoclassically inclined analysts, class effects on demographic change occur through the formation of similar conditions for individual decision making that affects fertility, mortality, mobility, and other demographic processes (see Goldstone, 1986; Wrigley, 1987). Although marxist reasoning sometimes overlaps with neoclassical explanation in this regard, marxists in general assign more importance to social relations at production sites. In the best social history, to be sure, those production sites include households and neighborhoods as well as shops and factories (see Hanagan, 1989; Levine, 1984, 1987).

Some students of demographic change, however, declare class a chimera. A case in point is Simon Szreter's study of fertility change in Great Britain from 1860 to 1940. Szreter organized interpretation of his voluminous data around an attack on the (common) idea of nationwide fertility differentials and declines corresponding to class differences and responding to diffusion of ideas and knowledge downward through the class hierarchy. He argued instead (a) that rising costs of raising children moved couples toward increasingly effective prevention of conception by means of sexual abstinence and coitus interruptus, (b) that this happened not class by class but according to small-scale variations among occupations and localities, and (c) that changing gender relations mattered far more than any effects one could reasonably attribute to class. Szreter summed up his findings:

The evidence presented here suggests that falling fertility among this part of the nation was far from a process graded by neat and identifiable, nationally applicable status or social class patterns. It was the relatively massive, and highly localised variations between communities, especially in the degree to which their labour markets were sexually segregated and divided, which may well largely account for occupational fertility differentials during this period of falling fertilities. This was something which was integrally linked to the history of local industrial relations and work practices in each of these places. (Szreter, 1996, p. 364)

Szreter rejected class interpretations in the name of local and occupational particularism. In that respect he joined the sort of attack on Thompsonian class analysis mounted by Joyce and Vernon.

Examination of ideas about capitalism's development, popular collective action, and demographic change establishes that competing conceptions of class do not matter for themselves alone. They lead to different explanations of major social phenomena. The same sort of demonstration applies to historical studies of welfare, of migration, of family structure, of electoral politics, or of revolution. The conclusion would be the same: social historians contend about social class because the experiences those words point to are fundamental and because competing conceptions of social class entail conflicts about the very nature of social processes.

The debate need not remain, however, a battle of philosophical premises. Social historians are a skeptical, practical, empirical lot. The synthesis among production-based, relational, and discursive approaches to social class promises to give them superior guidance in actually explaining the processes of change and conflict they so painstakingly document.

See alsoMarxism and Radical History (volume 1);Capitalism and Commercialization; The Industrial Revolutions (volume 2);Collective Action (volume 3); and other articles in this section.


Aminzade, Ronald. Ballots and Barricades: Class Formation and Republican Politics in France, 1830–1871. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Barber, Bernard. Social Stratification: A Comparative Analysis of Structure and Process. New York, 1957.

Bearman, Peter S., and Glenn Deane. "The Structure of Opportunity: Middle-Class Mobility in England, 1548–1689." American Journal of Sociology 98 (1992): 30–66.

Belchem, John. Industrialization and the Working Class: The English Experience,1750–1900. Aldershot, U.K., 1990.

Bottomore, T. B. Classes in Modern Society. New York, 1966.

Bunge, Mario. Finding Philosophy in Social Science. New Haven, Conn., 1996.

Calhoun, Craig. The Question of Class Struggle: Social Foundations of Popular Radicalism during the Industrial Revolution. Chicago, 1981.

Clark, Anna. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the BritishWorking Class. Berkeley, Calif., 1995.

Clark, Samuel. State and Status: The Rise of the State and Aristocratic Power in WesternEurope. Montreal, 1995.

Desrosières, Alain. The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. Translated by Camille Naish. Cambridge, Mass., 1998.

Engelstein, Laura. Moscow, 1905: Working-Class Organization and Political Conflict. Stanford, Calif., 1982.

Esping-Andersen, Gøsta, ed. Changing Classes: Stratification and Mobility in Post-Industrial Societies. Newbury Park, Calif., 1993.

Frader, Laura L., and Sonya O. Rose, eds. Gender and Class in Modern Europe. Ithaca, N.Y., 1996.

Geremek, Bronislaw. Poverty: A History. Translated by Agnieszka Kolakowska. Oxford, 1994.

Gillis, John R., Louise A. Tilly, and David Levine, eds. The European Experience ofDeclining Fertility, 1850–1970: The Quiet Revolution. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Goldstone, Jack A. "The Demographic Revolution in England: A Re-Examination." Population Studies 49 (1986): 5–33. Grusky, David B., ed. Social Stratification: Class, Race, and Gender in SociologicalPerspective. Boulder, Colo., 1994.

Grusky, David B., and Jesper B. Sørensen. "Can Class Analysis Be Salvaged?" American Journal of Sociology 103 (1998): 1187–1234.

Hanagan, Michael P. Nascent Proletarians: Class Formation in Post-RevolutionaryFrance. Oxford, 1989.

Hanagan, Michael P. "New Perspectives on Class Formation: Culture, Reproduction, and Agency." Social Science History 18 (1994): 77–94.

Hedström, Peter, and Richard Swedberg, eds. Social Mechanisms: An Analytical Approach to Social Theory. Cambridge, U.K., 1998.

Herzog, Don. Poisoning the Minds of the Lower Orders. Princeton, N.J., 1998.

Hobsbawm, E. J. The Age of Capital, 1848–1875. London, 1975.

Hobsbawm, E. J. The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914–1991. New York, 1994.

Hobsbawm, E. J. "Class Consciousness in History." In Aspects of History and Class Consciousness. Edited by István Mészaros. London, 1971. Pages 5–21.

Hobsbawm, E. J. Labouring Men. London, 1964.

Hunt, Lynn. Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution. Berkeley, Calif., 1984.

Jones, Gareth Stedman. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working Class History,1832–1982. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Joseph, Antoine. "The Solidarity of Skilled Workers: Creating a Logic of Particularism." Journal of Historical Sociology 6 (1993): 288–310.

Joyce, Patrick. "The End of Social History?" Social History 20 (1995): 73–92.

Joyce, Patrick. Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class,1848–1914. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1991.

Jütte, Robert. Poverty and Deviance in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Kaelble, Hartmut. Industrialisierung und soziale Ungleichheit: Europa im 19. Jahrhundert: Eine Bilanz. (Industrialization and social inequity in nineteenth-century Europe.) Göttingen, Germany, 1983.

Kalb, Don. Expanding Class: Power and Everyday Politics in Industrial Communities, the Netherlands, 1850–1950. Durham, N.C., 1997.

Katznelson, Ira, and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds. Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States. Princeton, N.J., 1986.

Korpi, Walter. The Democratic Class Struggle. London, 1983.

Kriedte, Peter. Peasants, Landlords, and Merchant Capitalists: Europe and the WorldEconomy, 1500–1800. Cambridge, U.K., 1983.

Kuczynski, Jürgen. The Rise of the Working Class. Translated by C. T. A. Ray. New York, 1967.

Lachmann, Richard, and Julia Adams. "Absolutism's Antinomies: Class Formation, State Fiscal Structures, and the Origins of the French Revolution." Political Power and Social Theory 7 (1988): 135–175.

Lefebvre, Georges. The Coming of the French Revolution, 1789. Translated by R. R. Palmer. Princeton, N.J., 1947.

Levine, David. Reproducing Families. Cambridge, U.K., 1987.

Levine, David, ed. Proletarianization and Family History. Orlando, Fla., 1984.

Linder, Marc. Labor Statistics and Class Struggle. New York, 1994.

Lis, Catharina. Social Change and the Labouring Poor: Antwerp, 1770–1860. New Haven, Conn., 1986.

Marx, Karl. Capital. Vol. 3. London, 1972. First published in 1894.

Marx, Karl. Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations. Edited by Eric Hobsbawm. Translated by Jack Cohen. London, 1964.

McNall, Scott G., Rhonda F. Levine, and Rick Fantasia, eds. Bringing Class BackIn. Boulder, Colo., 1991.

Merriman, John M. ed. Consciousness and Class Experience in Nineteenth-CenturyEurope. New York, 1979.

Mohr, John W., and Roberto Franzosi, eds. "Special Double Issue on New Directions in Formalization and Historical Analysis." Theory and Society 28, nos. 2 and 3 (1997).

Monkkonen, Eric H., ed. Engaging the Past: The Uses of History across the SocialSciences. Durham, N.C., 1994.

Morawska, Ewa, and Willfried Spohn. " 'Cultural Pluralism' in Historical Sociology: Recent Theoretical Directions." In The Sociology of Culture: Emerging Theoretical Perspectives. Edited by Diana Crane. Oxford, 1994. Pages 45–90.

Mörner, Magnus, and Thommy Svensson, eds. Classes, Strata, and Elites: Essays onSocial Stratification in Nordic and Third World History. Gothenburg, Sweden, 1988.

Morris, R. J. Class and Class Consciousness in the Industrial Revolution, 1780–1850. London, 1979.

Mosca, Gaetano. The Ruling Class (Elementi di scienza politica). Edited by Arthur Livingston. Translated by Hannah D. Kahn. New York, 1939.

Mousnier, Roland. Recherches sur la stratification sociale à Paris aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. Paris, 1976.

Mousnier, Roland. Social Hierarchies, 1450 to the Present. Edited by Margaret Clarke. Translated by Peter Evans. New York, 1973.

Osberg, Lars, ed. Economic Inequality and Poverty: International Perspectives. Armonk, N.Y., 1991.

Pareto, Vilfredo. The Mind and Society: A Treatise on General Sociology. Edited by Arthur Livingston. Translated by Andrew Bongiorno and Arthur Livingston. 4 vols. New York, 1963. English version first published in 1935.

Parkin, Frank. Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique. New York, 1979.

Poppel, Frans van. Trouwen in Nederland: Een historisch-demografische studie van de19e en vroeg-20e eeuw. Wageningen, Netherlands, 1992.

Roy, William. "Class Conflict and Social Change in Historical Perspective." AnnualReview of Sociology 10 (1984): 483–506.

Sen, Amartya. Inequality Reexamined. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Sewell, William H., Jr. Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848. New York, 1980.

Steinberg, Marc W. Fighting Words: Working-Class Formation, Collective Action, andDiscourse in Early Nineteenth-Century England. Ithaca, N.Y., 1999.

Steinmetz, George. "Reflections on the Role of Social Narratives in Working-Class Formation: Narrative Theory in the Social Sciences." Social Science History 16 (1993): 489–516.

Szreter, Simon. Fertility, Class, and Gender in Britain, 1860–1940. Cambridge, U.K., 1996.

Tawney, R. H. The Acquisitive Society. New York, 1948. First published in 1920.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. London, 1963.

Tilly, Charles. Durable Inequality. Berkeley, Calif., 1998.

Tilly, Charles. "Proletarianization and Rural Collective Action in East Anglia and Elsewhere, 1500–1900." Peasant Studies 10 (1982): 5–34.

Tilly, Chris, and Charles Tilly. Capitalist Work and Labor Markets. Boulder, Colo., 1998.

Tilly, Louise A., and Charles Tilly, eds. Class Conflict and Collective Action. Beverly Hills, Calif., 1981.

Vernon, James. Politics and the People: A Study in English Political Culture, c. 1815–1867. Cambridge, U.K., 1993.

Webb, Sidney, and Beatrice Webb. The History of Trade Unionism. London, 1920.

Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Translated by Ephraim Fischoff et al. 3 vols. New York, 1968.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York, 1976.

Willigan, J. Dennis, and Katherine A. Lynch. Sources and Methods of HistoricalDemography. New York, 1982.

Wirtschafter, Elise Kimerling. Social Identity in Imperial Russia. DeKalb, Ill., 1997.

Wright, Erik Olin. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. Cambridge, U.K., 1997.

Wrigley, E. A. People, Cities, and Wealth: The Transformation of Traditional Society. Oxford, 1987.

Socioeconomic Status

views updated May 18 2018

Socioeconomic Status




As social scientists in the twentieth century became more aware of and interested in social stratification and social class as a basis for understanding large areas of human behavior, interest grew in finding direct and useful ways of measuring socioeconomic status when conducting empirical research. Socioeconomic status had been taken into account in early American sociology, and seems to have been conceived as an indicator of social class itself. During the 1920s, the highly influential Chicago school of sociology had developed several creative research techniques in relation to the ecological theories of urban structure and process. Most of their research was carried out in the Chicago area and used a residential approach to social characteristics of the urban population of the Chicago area. This research was predicated on the assumption that physical distance was correlated with social distance, and that people from different ethnic groups and social classes live in different areas or zones of the city. By implication, a persons social class location was at least indirectly indicated by the area of residence, or zone of the city. This approach was part of a larger ecological orientation to the study of urban communities and posited a close correspondence between the utilization of physical space and the overall urban structure, with tendencies to place the social structure on a broad theoretical map of the city. Social stratification was regarded by these scholars as an ancillary aspect of social structure.

As a measure of socioeconomic status, the residential approach had severe limitations. Type of residence is an imperfect indicator of social-class position, as is residential location. Comparison across cities with different areal patterns of distribution of social and economic activities, including residential patterns, would also be difficult.

Interest on the part of social scientists in social class qua class itself grew during the economic depression of the 1930s. A social anthropologist, William Lloyd Warner (18981970), studied a northern East Coast community in the United States and used a reputational method applied to individuals. Warner and his research staff employed extensive observations in this small community where most adults had knowledge of the reputations of others residing in the community. These investigators relied extensively on the judgments and relative rankings of the status of community members by others in the small community. The application of the reputational method to Yankee City, the pseudonym accorded to the community, resulted in the designating of six social classes on the basis of reputational rankings of status.

The reputational approach to socioeconomic status applied by Warner has been found to have several problems. As a methodology, it is confined to quite small communities, a serious limitation during this last century of accelerated urbanization. This approach does not enable facile comparisons across communities and hence is limited in contributing to discussions of a national class structure. Also, as other social scientists studied other North American communities and found different numbers of social classes or strata in the other communities, questions were raised regarding reliability. The numbers of classes found in other studies ranged from two to as many as eleven or more, indicating serious problems in comparability. These various difficulties in using the reputational method for studying socioeconomic status pointed toward the need for measures with greater simplicity and precision that could be applied to larger communities, or the nation or a national sample, than was possible with the reputational method.


The first large-scale study of the stratification of an entire city was carried out by Robert S. Lynd (18921970) and Helen Lynd (18961982) during the 1920s and published in 1929. Middletown, the title of their resulting book, was also a pseudonym for a city of 35,000 people in Indiana. Their research method involved the detached observation techniques of social anthropology. Middletown was to be the first of two books on the social class structure and its consequences for the life of the citizens of this middle-sized city in Indiana.

The research by the Lynds made an important contribution to the study of socioeconomic status due to the simple, direct measures they used to indicate the social class position of the residents of the city of Middletown. To measure social class itself, the basic distinction the Lynds used was between people who work with people in selling and promoting consumer goods, ideas, or services, on the one hand, and people who work with things, often using tools in making products or performing services. The first category of occupations was referred to as the business class ; the second broad category was designated as the working class. In Middletown, there were twice as many people in the working class as in the business class. The Lynds found that membership in one class in contrast to the other had large consequences in regard to many areas of life, including whom one married, opportunity for and likelihood of attending a college or university, club memberships, access to bank credit, recreational patterns, and even whether one owned an automobile and, if so, what sort of car was driven.

The Lynds found in their second study of the same city that by the middle 1930s they needed a more complex set of distinctions, and so they used six categories of people in their analysis of social class. These were reported in 1937 in Middletown in Transition. The observation of greater complexity in the class structure of Middletown was significant and seems to have revealed subtleties in social stratification that would influence others to follow in later research on social stratification.

Only a short time later the U.S. Bureau of the Census attempted a classification of occupations that reflects the recognition of growing complexity in the way people in the United States earn their living. The classification scheme developed by Alba Edwards (18721947) for the U.S. Census moved away from the Lynds original classification between businesspeople and workers and attempted to designate greater distinctions within categories of business owners, managers, and various categories of workers.

The classification of occupations developed by Edwards in 1943 had the following major categories:

  1. Professional, technical, and kindred workers
  2. Managers and administrators
  3. Sales workers
  4. Clerical workers
  5. Craftsmen
  6. Operatives
  7. Laborers, except farmers
  8. Farmworkers

The Edwards scale did represent an attempt at the development of a scale of occupations by a ranking method that correlates with income, education, and prestige. Later research in sociology and economics showed that these correlates existed, in a general sort of way. Nonetheless, earnings overlapped considerably across such categories as professionals and managers, with managers outearning professionals, though the latter is a higher category; also the classification of skilled craftsmen contained many who earned more than clerical and sales workers. The categories are actually quite heterogeneous and cover a large number of occupations that are not very similar within a category, as for example, laboratory technicians, nurses, and public educators who are classified with physicians and lawyers, within the highest broad category of professional, technical, and kindred workers.

Edwards had attempted to develop a classification of occupations within the existing census categories, and his effort sought to separate occupations that clustered by similarity of work, educational requirements, and income. The heterogeneity within his major categories prevented him from fully achieving his goal of a national occupational system of categories of jobs based on occupations recorded by the Bureau of Census.

During the late 1950s, August B. Hollingshead (19071980) and Frederick Redlich (19102004) conducted a major study of social class and its linkages to mental illness. They used a combination of the Edwards classification scheme combined with reported educational levels of respondents that progressed from grade school through graduate education. They also utilized a series of measures of the urban ecology of the community studied. Hollingshead and Redlich not only uncovered clear relationships between social class position and mental health status, but also contributed a measure of socioeconomic status, now sometimes referred to in handbooks on social measurement as the Hollingshead two-factor index of social position. The main features of occupational type and educational achievement were retained and the measures of residence and neighborhood used in the original project were dropped to make it a two-factor index.

The first attempt to do research on the national ranking of the prestige of particular occupations resulted in significant advances in 1947. This research was conducted on ninety occupations, with each receiving an estimate of its prestige rather than being categorized into a set of similar occupations represented as a class of one sort or another. This research on occupational prestige was carried out on a national sample by Cecil C. North (18781961) and Paul K. Hatt (19141953) through the National Opinion Research Center.

A national and representative sample of the entire adult population for the United States was interviewed. This first effort to create a scale of occupational prestige at the national level included 2,920 persons.

Each person was asked to select one of six alternative statements representing their opinion of the general standing of a job. The alternatives were:

  1. Excellent standing
  2. Good standing
  3. Average standing
  4. Somewhat below-average standing
  5. Poor standing
  6. Do not know where to place that one

A list of ninety occupations was read to each respondent, with opinions recorded. There was a low proportion of dont know responses. Numerical weights were given by assigning a score of 100 for excellent and 20 for poor, and then averaging answers to develop a composite score. The highest-ranking scores ranged from 96 for U.S. Supreme Court Justice and 93 for physicians and state governors, down to a low of 34 for street sweeper and 33 for shoe shiner. In general, professional and managerial occupations ranked the highest and unskilled manual laboring occupations the lowest, with many office and sales positions, as well as more highly skilled blue-collar occupations, in the middle and lower-middle levels.

The respondents were asked the main reason they had ranked the occupations as they did, and income was the most commonly given reason, followed by service to humanity and education. None of these reasons was given by more than 18 percent of the sample, indicating no broad uniformity in bases for rankings.

This scale has become known as the North-Hatt scale. The scale was replicated in 1963 with a national sample of 651 adults and showed strong consistency in the prestige ratings of the occupations used in the original North-Hatt scale sixteen years earlier. These scales then began to be widely used in empirical research on social stratification.

It remained for the demographer-sociologist Otis D. Duncan (19212004) to expand the original scale with its ninety occupations to a more complete listing. By a weighting of income levels and education of people in various occupations, Duncan was able to construct a list of 425 occupations with composite rankings known as the Duncan socioeconomic index. This index was published in a larger work titled Occupations and Social Status (1961) by Albert J. Reiss (19222006), Otis Duncan, Paul Hatt, and Cecil North.

The question arises as to the benefits and advantages of the various measures of occupational prestige utilized in scales that attempt to measure socioeconomic status. In answer, it can be said that occupation is utilized by large sectors of the public in modern developed societies as an indicator of social position, and hence has some significant meaning in regard to general social status and class position. Second, occupation is clearly an imperfect indicator but nonetheless correlated to some degree with other dimensions of social stratification, such as educational level and income. It is probable that these three dimensionsoccupational prestige, education, and estimated incomeare utilized in a simplified manner by adult members of modern societies in placing individuals in day-to-day social interaction. A third advantage is that occupation, as scaled in measures of socioeconomic status, can be ascertained directly and without great difficulty. Connected to this third advantage is the inarguable degree of objectivity in the determination of occupation. A fourth advantage of scales that indicate occupational prestige is their ease in use in comparative and international research. This is in stark contrast to the familiarity required with community standards in the studies of status rankings and stratification in smaller cities and towns. Finally, the use of occupational rankings as a socioeconomic index can and has been successfully applied in research on national levels of stratification, as well as in research on smaller communities.

In summary, measures of socioeconomic status that are based on occupation are to be seen most strongly as a methodological index of social stratification with the limitations that an index entails. As will be discussed below, this is greatly preferred over the widespread tendency to utilize occupational rankings as a synonym, or single indicator, of social class. Some scholars have used the scores on socioeconomic status measures as an alternative to making a theoretical statement about their own position on the nature of social classes, with the effect of limiting the degree of investigation of the character and impact of social classes in social life.

There is another methodological limitation in the use of socioeconomic scales. They are widely used in correlation and regression analysis and treated as interval and ratio scales of measurement. These statistical applications utilize the arithmetic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and even division. The assumption of equal-appearing intervals between the score values of the prestige ratings is a dubious assumption, as is that of an absolute zero point on the scale. No occupation has been scaled with zero prestige. The effect is the violation of some of the basic assumptions of parametric statistics used in the research on stratification.

The interest that social scientists have shown in measures of socioeconomic status is considerable, and scholars in the social sciences and neighboring disciplines have been willing to borrow these measurement scales and use them in correlation analysis with a range of variables in their fields. Perhaps this popularity of the concept of socioeconomic status, and its measurement, is a product of the interest in status and status attainment in American studies of social stratification. These concepts are most consonant with North American beliefs in personal achievement and recognizable social location or position in a community, and even ideals regarding democratic consensus. Status in popular imagery is contained within the reality of individual influence and control. An emphasis on status and status aspirations is linked with occupation, and features personal achievement and success rather than family heritage, the importance and accident of birth, much less the influence of aristocratic advantage or the more distant, structural, and superindividual effects of class. Status achievement and status attainment can also be analyzed with facility through the use of occupational rating scales that seem to quantify the prestige of occupations and their relative social standing.

The updating of the North-Hatt scale sixteen years later in 1963 by Robert Hodge, Paul Siegel, and Peter Rossi demonstrated longer-range similarity in patterns of prestige evaluations. This consistencywith a few notable exceptional occupations such as nuclear physicist, recognized by only around half of the sample in 1947 in contrast to 90 percent in 1963was so strong that the expanded lists, along with the Duncan socioeconomic index, established the reliability of these measures. Overall, these studies have demonstrated that large sectors of the American public agree on the prestige ranking of occupations in the United States and that most of these rankings are similar across a large number of industrial societies of the world. The effect was that one or another scale for the measure of socioeconomic status has frequently been used in the interim in sociological and social-psychological research.


As seen above, scholars who study socioeconomic status have conceived the inequality of socially stratified orders in complex societies as consisting of ranked statuses, with the ranks ordered on the basis of shared evaluations of the importance of the various positional ranks. An assumption of shared values is made in the approach. There is also an assumption of continuous gradations in socioeconomic status positions. Sharp breaks between status gradations are not envisioned, nor is there necessarily an individual consciousness of membership in the various status levels, nor group interactions based on status levels, nor interacting groups based on prestige of position, nor demarked social classes that possess distinctive boundaries and objectively measured social characteristics.

In the mid-nineteenth century, an earlier tradition in social theory developed. This tradition emphasized the reality of social classes as the primary dimension of social stratification. These ideas have European antecedents and are seen most clearly in the scholarly writings as well as political polemics of Karl Marx (18181883), a social thinker of German origin. Born to a generation following Marx, another German scholar, Max Weber (18641920), offered strong criticism of Marx, but refined certain aspects of this overall approach, which carried a much greater emphasis on conflict, power, and social change in human social life. Since approximately the middle of the twentieth century, American sociologists such as C. Wright Mills (19161962) have also been developing conceptual approaches and theoretically informed research projects that analyze the role of power and conflict in social life.

This research continues to the present. To these conflict theorists, social stratification and social classes are among the most important aspects of society and social life, with enormous consequences for society as well as for the individual. This group of thinkers is likely to retain Max Webers emphasis on social class as economic behavior with consequences for the life chances of individuals. These life chances include the likelihood of experiencing such important matters as living out the first year of life, marrying within a social stratum, attending a college or university, and engaging in certain forms of political activities.

In summary, scholars using these approaches that analyze conflict and power in social life view social classes as real, and as having boundaries. Social classes in this view also have strong consequences for individual members. The relations between classes are an important aspect of social processes in complex societies, and the various social classes and their relations are significant components of social organization, particularly in advanced, industrial societies. Persons may or may not be conscious of membership in a class, and may be confused regarding their status, but the consequences of class are real, nonetheless. In this view, class membership under some conditions can lead to heightened consciousness and organized political activity.

From the standpoint of the conflict approach, the emphasis on socioeconomic status in stratification research has taken the political fangs away from the concept of social class. In their place, the study of socioeconomic status has created an image of individuals who compete for occupations and occupational status in open markets, and through their individualistic actions pursue higher status, with the prestige of these statuses based on shared evaluation of the social import of occupations with their allied skills and contributions to the social life of the society. In much of the earlier American research on socioeconomic status, classes are nominalistic classifications, or exist in name rather than by being distinguishable through definable boundaries. Status gradations are seen as continuous, without sharp breaksperhaps resembling a ladderrather than as broken into class components with consequences for action in the politics of redistribution. Research that favors the analysis of socioeconomic status as a continuous line in a status hierarchy is likely to utilize concepts from structure-functional analysis and to emphasize order and integration in the stratification structures of societies. This integration of stratified orders is likely to be viewed as permeating various institutional spheres, such as the family, religion, education, and economy, and to contribute to the stability of the social order.

In conclusion, social scientists whose research and theoretical orientation have convinced them that social classes are real social entities that involve inequality on significant social goods assert that there are severe limitations with the typical use of measures of socioeconomic status. In their view, the research that applies these latter measures of inequality does not grapple with the reality of social classes within the social structure or their consequences for the life chances of individuals. The research that utilizes measures of socioeconomic status is also likely to overlook power in social life and the possibilities for political action that are implied in the historical usage of social classes in analyzing important aspects of social organization.

SEE ALSO Blau, Peter M.; Blue Collar and White Collar; Class; Duncan, Otis Dudley; Education, Unequal; Hierarchy; Lynd, Robert and Helen; Marx, Karl; Middle Class; Occupational Status; Social Status; Social Theory; Stratification; Weber, Max>; Working Class


Edwards, Alba M., and U.S. Bureau of the Census. 1943. Sixteenth Census of the United States: 1940. Population: Comparative Occupational Statistics, 1870 to 1940. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Gilbert, Dennis, and Joseph A. Kahl. 1982. The American Class Structure: A New Synthesis. Homewood, IL: Dorsey.

Hodge, Robert, Paul Siegel, and Peter Rossi. 1966. Occupational Prestige in the United States. In Class, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective, ed. Reinhardt Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset, 322334. 2nd ed. New York: Free Press.

Hodge, Robert, Donald Treiman, and Peter Rossi. 1966. A Comparative Study of Occupational Prestige. In Class, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective, ed. Reinhardt Bendix and Seymour Martin Lipset, 309321. 2nd ed. New York: Free Press.

Hollingshead, August B., and Fredrick C. Redlich. 1958. Social Class and Mental Illness: A Community Study. New York: Wiley.

Kerbo, Harold R. 2006. Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in Historical, Comparative, and Global Perspective. 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Krauss, Irving. 1976. Stratification, Class, and Conflict. New York: Free Press.

Landry, Bart. 2007. Race, Gender, and Class: Theory and Methods of Analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall.

Lynd, Robert, and Helen Lynd. 1929. Middletown: A Study in Contemporary American Culture. New York: Harcourt.

Lynd, Robert, and Helen Lynd. 1937. Middletown in Transition: A Study in Cultural Conflicts. New York: Harcourt.

Miller, Delbert. 1977. Handbook of Research Design and Social Measurement. 3rd ed. New York: McKay.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nakao, Keiko, and Judith Treas. 1994. Updating Occupational Prestige and Socioeconomic Scores: How the New Measures Measure Up. Sociological Methodology 24: 172.

North, Cecil C., and Paul K. Hatt. 1947. Jobs and Occupations: A Popular Evaluation. Opinion News 9: 331.

Reissman, Leonard. 1959. Class in American Society. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Treiman, Donald J. 1977. Occupational Prestige in Comparative Perspective. New York: Academic Press.

Weber, Max. 1947. The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Free Press.

Kenneth N. Eslinger

Socioeconomic Status

views updated May 17 2018

Socioeconomic Status

Social inequality is a fundamental characteristic of the fabric of society. Rich or poor; advantaged or disadvantaged; privileged or underprivileged: each contrast speaks to differences among people that are consequential for the lives they lead.

Whether in describing patterns of inequality or examining the consequences of inequality, the results depend upon how inequality is conceptualized and measured. Socioeconomic status is among the most prominent concepts in inequality research. The term socioeconomic status refers to the relative hierarchical placement of a unit (e.g., an individual, a community) along a gradient stratified by social and economic resources.

Theoretical Background

The sociologist Max Weber (1958) conceptualized inequality along three related tracks—class, status, and party. Each was understood as a basis for power and influence. Whereas class focused on economic resources and partly referred to political clout, status was understood as honor and prestige. For Weber, status groups were hierarchically arrayed on the basis of distinctive lifestyles, consumption patterns, and modes of conduct or action.

In North America, the sociologist Talcott Parsons (1970) has been most influential in delineating the theoretical underpinnings of socioeconomic status. First, Parsons understood the idea of status as a position in the social structure, as part of the social differentiation in society (different occupations, different family positions). Although Parsons associated status with position (a status is occupied, such as accountant, and a role is performed, as in financial auditing), the concept carries with it a hierarchical referent as in Weber's notion of honor and prestige.

A status is evaluated, and this social evaluation is central to Parsons's contribution to the idea of socioeconomic status. Social status was, for him, the core notion of social stratification, or rank. This differential evaluation in terms of honor and prestige lay at the heart of inequality. In social relations with others, status distinctions affect how people interrelate. For Parsons, income and wealth were important, but secondary to social status or honor.

Second, Parsons understood family units as the key component of stratification. Families were assumed to be units of solidarity sharing similar interests. He also assumed that families had a single breadwinner. That is, the concept of the head of a family was central to his understanding of the family unit.

Although there is a tendency to interpret this idea of a single breadwinner as sexist, various reasons at the time gave some plausibility to the assumption. First, the inequities of domestic labor meant that most families had one principal wage earner, and this was typically the male head of the household. Second, many families had made investments in a single earner, either via decisions about geographic mobility or support for education (in both cases, women's careers typically were de-emphasized). Third, Parsons and others assumed that family members had a shared interest not only in their own well-being, but also in the well-being of their children. These ideas were the basis of the thinking that the family was the key unit of stratification and that the male head of the household was the principal determinant of the family's social status.

Finally, Parsons and his followers (Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, in particular) developed the functional theory of stratification. The core premise of this theory was that society had to differentially evaluate positions so that members of society would be motivated both to pursue the training necessary for the most important positions and, once in those positions, to perform them as well as possible. Encouraging the most qualified and competent people in a society to perform the most important jobs required that jobs be differentially ranked. Differences in socioeconomic status were one way to understand this necessary hierarchy.


Socioeconomic implies at least two dimensions to inequality—social and economic. Although these two dimensions are understood as closely associated, they nevertheless incorporate two different aspects of stratification. The economic dimension is best represented by money or wealth as reflected in employment income, home ownership, and other financial assets (e.g., pension plans, property ownership). The social dimension incorporates education, occupational prestige, authority, and community standing.

The very earliest measures of socioeconomic status in North America relied on community reputation. A family's social standing as judged by others was used to differentiate between upper, middle, and lower classes. Although the term class was used, this was a very North American usage that understood classes as loose aggregates of families who shared similar social and economic traits. However, this early measurement tradition rested mainly in community studies. As social scientists started to focus more on entire societies, a different measurement technique was essential.

In 1947, Cecil North and Paul Hatt conducted a study in the United States in which they asked people to judge the prestige of different occupations. This study marked a watershed in the measurement of socioeconomic status. Prestige studies typically ask respondents to judge the social standing of about one hundred occupations. However, working independently, Bernard Blishen in Canada and Otis Dudley Duncan in the United States devised a way to combine the prestige scores of occupations with the typical incomes and educations of occupational incumbents. For example, Duncan's Socio-economic Index (SEI) was constructed by weighting an occupation's median education and income on the metric of occupational prestige (via a regression equation that can be simplified as follows: Prestige = a + B1[Income] + B2[Education] where each variable represents an occupational average). SEI scores were developed for all of the major occupations and allowed researchers to assign a person an SEI score based on one variable, occupation.

In the United States, prestige studies done in 1947, 1963, 1971, and 1989 have been used to generate SEI scores. Although the hierarchical placement of a few specific occupations has changed over time, the relative placement of most occupations is stable. This stability in the prestige hierarchy has meant that specific scales of socioeconomic status can be used with confidence long after they are first constructed.

More recently, scholars of inequality in North America, in particular, have moved away from single scales of socioeconomic status to amalgam measures. Rather than relying on a summary SEI score, contemporary researchers are often asking a set of questions related to socioeconomic status (SES). Thus, for example, many researchers now measure SES by combining (often through factor analysis or some analogous statistical method) measures of at least three of the following: an individual's education, earnings, home ownership, occupation, and net worth. In measuring the SES of a family, a frequent approach is to combine the education, earnings, and occupation of wives and husbands or communal partners (sometimes along with home ownership or net value of a family home).

However, researchers at times want to examine the relative effects of the separate components of SES. Therefore, measures of education and income (for example) are sometimes used separately and are not combined in a scale or index. Important information may be lost in combining education, income, occupation, and residential status. Summative family scales are also not appropriate when scholars seek to compare the relative influence of the SES of spouses or partners on, for example, the educational attainment of their children or the health status of family members.

The old assumption of the male breadwinner, whatever its historical validity, is highly problematic. Family forms have changed (e.g., single parents, gay and lesbian couples). Women's labor force participation and career commitment increased dramatically in the last decades of the twentieth century. The contributions of partners who are not in the paid labor force have been increasingly recognized. For all of these reasons, the use of a family SES measure based on information about a single family member is sometimes inadequate. However, it is also important not to exaggerate the force of this claim because the SES of spouses and partners are often similar. In the British sociological literature, there is a long-running debate on this very issue, although the referent is more often to social class than to SES (see Goldthrorpe 1983).

Individuals or families have their own SES, but they also live and work in contexts that may be defined by different levels of SES. In this sense, the SES context in which a person finds him or herself may be more or less powerful than his or her own individual SES when it comes to predicting outcomes (e.g., job satisfaction, psychological stress). This is often understood as the ecological setting or context of people or groups. For example, do children in school classrooms where the SES of their classmates is greater than their own do better academically than would be predicted simply from their own families' SES?

Today, there is no consensus upon exactly how SES should be measured. In modern research, the following considerations are important in devising one or more indicators to measure SES. First, is SES the relevant conceptual approach to inequality? Second, if SES is a core variable, how many indicators should be used, and should these be combined in a scale? Third, what is the validity and reliability of SES measures in comparison to alternatives? Fourth, will measures of SES provide the necessary comparability with other research studies in the area? Fifth, is SES applicable to all members of the population being studied? Especially in this last case, the SES of students, the unemployed, recent migrants, and the retired may be problematic.

When analyzing data, different scholars may or may not treat SES as an ordinal (i.e., ranked [beauty]) or interval (i.e., equal distance between categories [age]) measure. Often, when an ordinal measurement preference is chosen, SES is collapsed into groups, frequently with labels like upper class, middle class, and lower class. The boundaries between these groups are typically relatively arbitrary, there being no natural or theoretical cutting point in deciding at exactly what SES score the boundary should be drawn. Often, for this reason, others choose to assume SES has interval measurement properties, and they use more sophisticated statistical techniques.

In contrast to Europe where the idea of social class was more influential, in North America, seen as the land of opportunity and upward mobility, social status with its hierarchical stress was more prevalent. Among the more important studies in demonstrating the utility of socioeconomic status was the work of Otis Dudley Duncan and Peter Blau on social mobility. Using SEI scores as their basic measure, they were concerned with, among other things, the relative chances of upward mobility across generations for whites and blacks in the United States. More recently this tradition has prospered in North America and elsewhere in the guise of status attainment models, addressing a variety of research questions involving who achieves status and how they do it.

Socioeconomic status has been shown to be significantly, consistently, and universally correlated with a variety of measures of life chances (e.g., occupational attainment), lifestyles (e.g., health status), sociopolitical orientations (e.g., ideological leanings), and modes of action and association (e.g., association memberships). Why these correlations exist remains one of the central questions continuing to be pursued. Simply put, what is it about SES that creates a causal effect and why does this effect occur? It is now well understood that although economic resources are important, it is not so clear exactly why (e.g., is the effect due to access to better nutrition, better information, or more powerful networks?). Similarly, education is an important SES measure, again correlated with many diverse outcomes, but its precise role is often unclear (i.e., is it the cognitive dimension, is it the credential, is it the network of contacts?).

Finally, it is worth noting that although socioeconomic status is most frequently found in the academic literature, it is a term increasingly employed in research outside the academy. For example, the marketing firm A. C. Nielsen (which measures television audience share around the world) uses socioeconomic status as a core measure for differentiating types of viewers. Other marketing firms do likewise in reporting on voter preferences or consumer product choices.


Although its roots in the functional theory of stratification are now obscured, much of North American social science research continues to focus upon stratification (and socioeconomic status) as opposed to inequality. To a significant extent this is because stratification imagery focuses upon gradients, upon higher and lower status, whereas the conceptual perspectives that employ the imagery of inequality (e.g., class, gender differences) stress group conflict. Especially where this gradient approach makes theoretical sense, as in studies of status attainment, the idea of socioeconomic status has been used worldwide.

Debate continues as to whether class or SES is the stronger measure of inequality. Depending upon the theoretical framework and the research question being addressed, SES remains a viable concept. A significant amount of empirical research has demonstrated the power of SES in predicting life chances, lifestyles, sociopolitical orientations, and modes of action and association.

See also:Academic Achievement; Acculturation; Cohabitation; Housing; Intergenerational Transmission; Migration; Names for Children; Single-Parent Families


adler, n. e., and coriell, m. (1997). "socioeconomic status and women's health." in health care for women: psychological, social, and behavioral influences, ed. s. j. gallant, g. p. keita, and r. royak-schaler. washington, dc: american psychological association.

blau, p. m., duncan, o. d. (1967). the american occupational structure. new york: john wiley and sons.

davis, k., and moore, w. (1945). "some principles of stratification." american sociological review 10:242–249.

ensminger, m. e.; forrest, c. b.; riley, a. w.; kang, m.;green, b. f.; starfield, b.; and ryan, s. a. (2000). "the validity of measures of socioeconomic status ofadolescents." journal of adolescent research 15:392–420.

gerth, h., and mills, c. wright, eds. and trans. (1958).from max weber: essays in sociology. new york: oxford university press.

goldthorpe, j. (1983). "women and class analysis: indefense of the conventional view." sociology 17:465–88.

hertzman, c. (2000). "the case for an early childhooddevelopment strategy." isuma, canadian journal of policy research 1(2):11–18.

kawachi, i., and kennedy, b. p. (1997). "socioeconomicdeterminants of health: health and social cohesion: why care about income inequality?" british medical journal 314 (april 5):1037.

parsons, t. (1970). "equality and inequality in modernsociety, or social stratification revisited." in social stratification. ed. e. o. laumann. new york: bobbs-merrill.


Class, Social

views updated Jun 11 2018


CLASS, SOCIAL. Social class or social stratification is defined by unequal access to desirable resources (such as money, goods, and services) or personal gratification (such as prestige or respect). The sociologist Max Weber argued that social class was a function of differential wealth, political power, and status. The various dimensions of social class have different influences on food consumption and its consequences. Income and wealth provide access to food or constrain food purchases. Education provides knowledge, skills, and beliefs that shape food desires and place constraints on food choices by means of information acquisition and food preparation. Occupation not only represents prestige but also structures time and constrains the attention that can be given to food. Occupation-generated work hours and lifestyle choices affect what is eaten as well as where and with whom food is eaten.

Distinctions are made between classes. The lower class (often referred to as "working class" or blue-collar workers) is generally associated with people with low levels of education, unskilled or semiskilled occupations, and low income. Middle-class people (often seen as "white-collar" workers) generally have more education, usually having graduated from high school or college, hold technical or mid-level managerial positions, and earn average to above average incomes. Upper-class people tend to have high education, the highest salaries, and the most prestigious occupational positions.

The whole notion of taste, as refined food sensibilities, is class-based. Members of lower classes often strive to emulate the taste and taste practices of higher classes, who in turn attempt to change their notions of taste and eating behavior to maintain the distinction between themselves and those perceived as of lower status. Thus, what, where, and when food is eaten is shaped by social class in many societies. Historically, members of the lower class have found many of the foods of the wealthy to be strange if not disgusting. (Such stereotyping, however, applies equally to both groups: while the so-called lower classes might find raw oysters disgusting, the middle or upper classes might find roast goat equally unpalatable. These kinds of tastesor distastesevolve over time and cultures and are not fixed.) Members of higher classes have come to identify certain foods with impoverished status. For instance, after World War II, chicken became associated with low income and was eschewed by the wealthy because of this association. Currently whole-wheat or brown bread tends to be consumed more by people of middle-or upper-class background; by contrast, bread prepared with processed wheat (white bread), which is less expensive, is more often the choice of working-class consumers. The reason for this difference is a historical reversal of fortune. The white flour was once that of the elites, who would even color it with alum. The highly refined flour was reserved for those with great status, whereas the whole-grain flours were those of the poor. Beer is the alcoholic beverage of the working classthe exception being pricey imported beers, microbrews, and gourmet beers that are popular with "yuppies"while wine, particularly wines with a lineage, tend to be the choice of individuals of upper-middle and upper-class backgrounds.

Restaurants were once a place where only the upper class would dine, while today persons of all classes eat in restaurants. However, the choice of type of restaurant and the frequency of eating meals out varies by social class. Part of this difference is a function of income. Those with higher salaries or greater wealth can afford to eat out more frequently and to visit more expensive restaurants. Use of restaurants, however, is also a function of attitudes, which themselves vary by social class. Those in blue-collar positions are more likely than those in white-collar jobs to perceive eating outin restaurants, that is, not fast-food establishmentsas something that is done for pleasure. Those with higher incomes, university degrees, and white-collar positions seek more variety in restaurant fare. Interest in eating a variety of ethnic foods, an indication of cultural cosmopolitanism, is also more frequent among those with greater education, income, and occupational prestige.

The desire to imitate those of higher social class background is practiced by some individuals, and restaurants play a role in this phenomenon. Restaurants with expensive dishes with a cosmopolitan atmosphere are sometimes the choice of people who wish to exhibit the consumption of the upper class. At the same time, differences in consumption represent a routine form of social dominance exercised by upper-middle and upper-class members. Thus, efforts of the lower-middle class to imitate upper-class behavior are met by changing behavior among the upper class. New, more exclusive restaurants are often sought in attempts to maintain a class distinction in restaurant patronage.

Class background is also associated with the use of meals as a form of entertaining friends. As income and education rise, so does the likelihood of entertaining friends by feeding them a main meal. Those with white-collar positions are more likely to entertain friends by having them over for a main meal, though this generalization may apply more to urbanites; poor folk in the country often have big dinners, where everyone brings something potluck-style. Low-income families not only lack the money to provide such entertainment but may also inhabit housing that lacks the space to feed many people at one time. Among the very low-income, space may be so limited that the family itself cannot sit down to a meal together. Eating in the homes of kin is not a function of class, but eating with friends and coworkers is: professional and managerial classes are more likely to eat in the homes of friends than those in working-class occupations. When it comes to cooking, those with more education and income are more likely to be willing to experiment with new dishes or dishes of their own creation than are those with less income and education.

Social class background makes a difference in the food-related lifestyles practiced by many people. In addition, people's life chances are affected by their social class. The poor tend to devote high percentages of their household budgets, after paying rent, to food, yet generally have to settle for lower-quality food items and a more monotonous diet. Obesity is far more likely among persons of low income than persons in higher income groups. In more economically developed countries, the poor are more likely to experience food insecurity or food insufficiency, and in less economically developed countries, the poor are more likely to experience various nutrient deficiency diseases.

See also Cost of Food ; Fast Food ; Food Pantries ; Food Politics: United States ; Food Stamps ; Food Supply, Food Shortages ; Hunger Strikes ; Malnutrition ; Obesity ; Places of Consumption ; Poverty ; Restaurants ; School Meals ; Sociology ; Soup Kitchens ; WIC (Women, Infants, and Children's) Program .


Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Calnan, M. "Food and Health: A Comparison of Beliefs and Practices in Middle-Class and Working Class Households." In Readings in Medical Sociology, edited by S. Cunningham-Barley and N. P. McKegany, pp. 936. New York: Tavistock/Routledge, 1990.

Charles, N., and N. Kerr. Women, Food, and Families. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1988.

DeVault, M. J. Feeding the Family: The Social Organization of Caring as Gendered Work. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Dubois, L., and M. Girard. "Social Position and Nutrition: A Gradient Relationship in Canada and the USA." European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 55 (2001): 366373.

Erickson, Bonnie H. "What Is Good Taste For?" Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 28 (1991): 255278.

McIntosh, William A. Sociologies of Food and Nutrition. New York: Plenum, 1996.

Sobal, J. "Obesity and Socioeconomic Status: A Framework for Examining Relationships between Physical and Social Variables." Medical Anthropology 13, no. 3 (1991): 231247.

Warde, A., and L. Martens. Eating Out: Social Differentiation, Consumption, and Pleasure. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wm. Alex McIntoshJeffery Sobal

Social Class

views updated May 21 2018


Social class is a concept that has been discussed and argued about throughout the ages. Many different theories exist concerning a workable definition. The basis often used for describing social class comes from nineteenth-century German theorist Karl Marx. He believed in a three-class system consisting of capitalists, workers, and petty bourgeoisie. Since then, sociologists have provided new conceptualizations of social class. These conceptualizations include social class as more than just an economic measure. Many define social class as more of a social status, meaning people in a specific class share similar experiences, background, and position in society. Other factors that influence social class rankings are occupational prestige and general opinion of others in the community. The concept of social status from German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) is used by a number of American sociologists when explaining social class. Weber saw property, skills, and education all contributing to the concept of social class. His view is similar to and sometimes used interchangeably with socioeconomic status.

Classes are apparent in every large, complex society, such as the United States. In this type of society, roles are divided so that the group may function efficiently. Social classes continue to exist within society because people have learned how to live within them and have passed this knowledge on to the next generation. People, or families, often associate with those who are similar. They may have similar careers, incomes, and goals in life. By sticking together, people reinforce the presence of social classes. These classes extend across generations because social class is somewhat inherited. A middle-class family cannot give birth to an upper-class baby. The child is born into the social class of the parents. As the child grows, he will most likely form friendships with others similar to him, once again reinforcing the social class system.


Social classes may be described differently for each region of the country, but most observers would agree upon three general classes: upper, middle, and lower. Because of the broad nature of these categories, the three main classes are often split into six, more descriptive categories: upper-upper, lower-upper, upper-middle, lower-middle, upper-lower, and lower-lower. The additional classes help to discriminate who falls into which class, but there is still some ambiguity. The way in which each class is defined depends on the perspective one takes. Someone in upper-upper class may label upper-middle class people differently than someone in the lower-middle class would label them. Although definitions may differ, a generality in American class structure is the criteria required to gain the acceptance of a particular class. The process begins with money, which influences behavior and material goods, which in turn influences participation with the group, which finally leads to acceptance by the social class. This last aspect of acceptance is needed for an individual or family to "belong" to a certain social class.


When measuring social class, which is often used simultaneously with socioeconomic status, the characteristics of the male father figure are most often used to represent the status of the children. This approach seems logical when assessing children from two-parent, intact families. The father figure approach may not always be an accurate portrayal of most families in society. With a high rate of divorced, stepparent, and single-parent, often female, families, looking at the father's income not only may be inaccurate but may sometimes be impossible. Therefore, when measuring the socioeconomic status of children it may be best to examine the characteristics of the person who heads the family whether that person is a male or a female. Since social class is about more than just money, researchers may want to consider other features besides the basic financial feature. Nonmaterial resources and social environment are factors that influence social class as well.

Income is the most recognized form of measuring social class or socioeconomic status, but it may not always be the best indicator. Children often do not know how much their parents make and adults are sometimes hesitant to answer. Some people take the "income question" very personally because of the stigma that often accompanies level of income. Non-material resources also factor in determining class. This category contains information about education, including the highest degree attained and the highest grade in school completed. It is important to know the educational background of the parents when children are being studied because it helps provide insight into the kind of educational support the children receive at home, such as encouragement and help on homework. Social environment is the third suggested contributor for measuring social class or socioeconomic status. This refers to the environment around children, especially that of family structure.

Poverty is also associated with social class. The U.S. Bureau of the Census publishes yearly reports on the amount of income that constitutes the poverty threshold. In 2000 the poverty threshold for a family of four was $17,761. Along with poverty information, it is also helpful to know the occupation of the parents. Information regarding occupational prestige scores is available from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor.


The effects of social class can be felt anywhere. Almost every aspect of society is influenced in some manner by social class. The magazines one reads, the television shows one watches, and the clothes a person buys affect social class. School, work, religious, and home lives are also linked to the influence of social classes. Schools and the workplace are greatly influenced by social class. The look of employment is changing because workers can no longer expect to work their way up through a company. Many companies look outside of the company for people with the right educational background instead of hiring from within. This greatly limits the potential for advancement of workers who lack formal education. For people to move up in the social hierarchy, they must obtain higher education. Instead of spending years at a lower level position, people are spending more time in school and moving directly into management. Thus the change in the workplace influences the educational system.

Social class also plays a part in families, especially in the development of children. Youth are often taught to fit in with their social class, thus developing a personality that correlates with social status. Educational systems can help or hinder the prospect of social mobility. Although many teachers work hard to ensure against favoritism, this is not always possible, partly because of the stigma attached to social class. Teachers may give special opportunities to certain groups. They may also wrongly anticipate the knowledge or potential of specific classes of children. For example, children from high-class families are sometimes viewed as being more intelligent than those from lower social classes. Sometimes more attention will be invested in the children who have more knowledge attributed to them. The idea that upper-class children are smarter has been passed down throughout the ages, but there is no conclusive evidence to back it up. In fact, lower-class children do not have lower IQ scores than upper-class children as previously suspected. This means there must be a glitch in the system somewhere because a greater number more of high social class children are going on to college and getting jobs with advancement potential while lower-class children are in positions without hope of advancement. The lack of money in lower social classes may contribute to the problem, but the presence of social class in the educational system may be contributory as well. Thus it is vital to study how the effects of social class are entering into classrooms and helping to determine the future of children.

Social class is often used when researching children. Despite its frequent use, it is difficult to use social class as a reliable variable. The lack of a consistent definition is one of the reasons. Each researcher uses a different definition of social class, thus making it difficult to study it as a variable across research. Not only does the definition of social class cause a problem, so does measuring it. Once again there is not a specific assessment process used universally. The reporting of social class contributes to the lack of reliability as well. Since social class is often self-reported, it is difficult to assure the accuracy of the information collected. Even if the data is accurate, social classes are not the same in each region or city. What constitutes upper class in one location may be middle class in another. The lack of consistency involved in researching social class accounts for the difficulty in using it as a reliable variable.


Although it may be difficult to get a universal definition for social class and the inconsistency surrounding it is abundant, there are reasons to continue researching this concept. Social class has a large impact on how children are raised, how they are schooled, and even whom they are friends with. For these reasons, it is important that social class be taken into account when studying child development, as long as the limitations are understood.



Argyle, Michael. The Psychology of Social Class. London: Routledge, 1994.

Brantlinger, Ellen A. The Politics of Social Class in Secondary School: Views of Affluent and Impoverished Youth. New York: Teachers College Press, 1993.

Levine, Rhonda F. Social Class and Stratification: Classical Statements and Theoretical Debates. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998.

Warner, W. Lloyd, Marchia Meeker, and Kenneth Eells. Social Class in America: A Manual of Procedure for the Measurement of Social Status. Chicago: Science Research Associates, 1949.

Linda K.McCampbell

Social Class

views updated May 11 2018


Since prehistory, all societies have perceived hierarchy among their members. Leaders and followers, strong and weak, rich and poor: social classifications are universal. Humans have invented numerous ways to classify peopleby wealth, power, or prestige; by ability, education, or occupation; even by where they live. The term "social class" originally referred to groups of people holding similar roles in the economic processes of production and exchange, such as landowner or tenant, employer or employee. Such positions correspond to different levels of status, prestige, and access to political power, but social class eventually took on a more generic meaning and came to refer to all aspects of a person's rank in the social hierarchy.

Belonging to a social class is not merely an objective fact, but is generally accompanied by a perception of class identity. In this sense, social class is not merely a personal attribute, but also a contextual variable that characterizes a group of people. The shared culture of a particular class influences, and is influenced by, people's attitudes and lifestyle. Social class, therefore, influences health. Centuries of observations have linked social class to patterns of disease (see Krieger, Williams, and Moss, 1997). Accordingly, epidemiologists frequently present statistics on mortality and morbidity tabulated by social class, as shown in Figures 1 and 2. However, social class is an abstract and complex concept whose influence is blended with many others in predicting disease. Both Figures 1 and 2, for example, show how the effects of social class (here, indicated by family income and educational level) interact with racial or ethnic factors. However, classifications by age, religion, race, or sex lack the implication of hierarchy and are not normally considered under the heading of social class.

Social class may be ascribed at birth, as with royalty or nobility, or with castes in Hindu societies. More commonly, however, a person's position at birth is modified by his or her achievements, typically through education, occupation, or income. Class cannot be measured directly. Instead, indicators of socioeconomic status, typically based on educational attainment, income, wealth, or occupation, are used. While few would consider these to be ideal indicators of social class, they nonetheless show consistent associations with health status, such that poorer or less educated people die younger and experience more illness and disability than richer or more educated people. These indicators each have strengths and shortcomings.

A simple occupational classification has been used in Britain throughout the twentieth century for analyses linking social class and health. The British Registrar General for Births and Deaths ranks occupations in six broad categories that reflect a judgment of the skill level and social prestige of each occupation. This has been followed by other, more complex classifications, such as the 100-point occupational scale of Tremain. This applies internationally and allows comparisons between developing and industrial countries. These categories have the advantage of capturing the notion of shared culture implicit in social class,

Figure 1

but they are limited because there is no adequate way to classify people who are not in the labor force, such as retired people, housewives, or students. Furthermore, the status of occupations changes with economic development, complicating comparisons across times and across cultures. Finally, occupation shares a limitation with income, in that reverse causality may occur whereby occupational status (or income) may be influenced by the level of health.

The advantages of education as an indicator of social status include simplicity and universality: educational level can be recorded for all adults, whether working or not, and it is less likely than occupation or income to be influenced by health. But education is generally finished in early adulthood, and may no longer reflect a person's status in later years. Care must also be taken when drawing comparisons of educational levels across generations, since educational attainment changes from generation to generation.

Income or wealth are also frequently used as indicators of social class, and hold the advantage of sensitivity to variations in a person's status over time. Wealth is not simple to record, however; data on income must be supplemented by information on the number of people supported by the income, and on other assets such as savings and property. Because of shortcomings in each of

Figure 2

these indicators, several authors have used indicators that combine education, occupation, and income.

While socioeconomic status is generally considered a characteristic of individuals, contextual measures of social class may also be relevant in explaining patterns of health. Thus, for a population we may record not only the average level of income or wealth, but also the extent of income disparities, or class divergence, in the society. Such indicators can indicate social class characteristics of the society, rather than summarizing patterns in the society.

Contemporary epidemiologic analyses assume that it is not so much social class per se that influences health, but characteristics associated with class. There are several channels through which class or socioeconomic position may influence health:

  • Certain health hazards may be directly associated with social position, such as exposure to hazardous substances or processes in the workplace.
  • Alternatively, social class may influence health via behaviors that follow social patterns, such as diet, cigarette smoking, or leisure-time physical activity.
  • Wealth can influence health directly, by providing access to safe and healthy housing, adequate food, and medical care and supplies when needed. Wealth also enhances educational attainment in a person's children, and so influences their subsequent earning capacity; in this manner the association between poverty and health tends to perpetuate itself across generations.
  • Education also facilitates access to information that can benefit health. More educated people are better able to communicate with their physicians and interact with the health care system, and make informed choices among treatment options.
  • Higher social status is associated with attitudes, such as positive self-esteem or a sense of being in control of one's life, that are positively associated with a range of indicators of health (especially mental health). Such feelings are difficult to maintain when a person is unemployed.

Contemporary analyses of social class in health research have evolved from using it as a simple classification toward using class as a starting point for a more complete analysis of possible channels of influence. The next stage, perhaps, will be to incorporate an understanding of social class dynamics into designing approaches to prevention and health promotion.

Ian McDowell

(see also: Cultural Factors; Economics of Health; Ethnicity and Health; Inequalities in Health; Social Determinants )


Berkman, L. F., and Macintyre, S. (1997). "The Measurement of Social Class in Health Studies: Old Measures and New Formulations." In Social Inequalities and Cancer. eds. M. Kogevinas, N. Pearce, M. Susser, and P. Boffetta. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Krieger, N.; Williams, D. R.; and Moss, N. E. (1997). "Measuring Social Class in U.S. Public Health; Research: Concepts, Methodologies, and Guidelines." Annual Review of Public Health 18:341378.

Smedley, B. D., and Syme, L. S., eds. (2000). Promoting Health: Strategies from Social and Behavioral Research. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Available at

Szretzer, R. S. (1984). "The Genesis of the Registrar General's Social Classification of Occupations." British Journal of Sociology 35:522546.

Tremain, D. J. (1977). Occupational Prestige in Comparative Perspective. New York: Academic Press.

Wilkinson, R. G. (1996). Unhealthy Societies: The Afflictions of Inequality. London: Routledge.

socio-economic status

views updated May 23 2018

socio-economic status Any measure which attempts to classify individuals, families, or households in terms of indicators such as occupation, income, and education. One of the first major uses of socio-economic status can be found in the social class measures introduced by the British Registrar-General in 1911. See also STATUS ATTAINMENT.

social class

views updated Jun 11 2018

social class See CLASS.

About this article

Social class

All Sources -
Updated Aug 18 2018 About content Print Topic


Social class