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upper class

upper class Conventionally the upper class is often thought of as equivalent to the ‘aristocracy’: that is, the (often hereditary) noble class, comprising peers (in medieval England the dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons) and landed magnates (or ‘gentlemen’). However, while the aristocracy is an important symbolic element of the upper class, it does not completely account for its membership. We come closer to an understanding of what the upper class is if we equate it with Karl Marx's bourgeoisie or capitalist class. That is, the upper class is the property-owning class, those who live from earnings made from the ownership, control, and exploitation of property such as land, capital, large businesses, or share holdings. Proportionally, therefore, this is much the smallest class, perhaps as little as 1 per cent of the population of most advanced capitalist societies.

However, the power which the ownership of property confers is out of all proportion to the size of the upper class. Many members of this class effectively control large companies, either directly via their positions within these organizations, or more subtly through their occupation of key positions in the financial sector. Some of these individuals also have leading positions in politics and other spheres of public and cultural life. There are also important status distinctions within the upper class, between those who have ‘old money’, and the nouveaux riches. The highest status tends to be conferred on the landed upper classes, the true aristocracy, as represented by individuals such as the Duke of Westminster (the wealthiest individual in the UK after the Queen). Often they operate exclusionary strategies against the nouveaux riches, for example, by restricting the membership of very exclusive aristocratic clubs. ‘New money’ confers less status—though by no means less power. Hence, it is no accident that the nouveaux riches have long sought to acquire a more aristocratic status via inclusionary strategies, such as the purchase of landed estates, intermarriage with the aristocracy for themselves or their children, and the education of their children in élite schools.

Popular conceptions of the upper class correspond more with old money than with new. In their survey of social class in Britain in 1984 (Social Class in Modern Britain), Gordon Marshall and his colleagues discovered that two-thirds of their sample referred to the upper class in terms of status factors, for example rank or title; two-fifths of the sample mentioned income; and one-third referred to occupation. Only one-quarter of the sample mentioned property ownership as the defining characteristic of the upper class—although sociologically this is its key feature. The best sociological work on the upper class is to be found in the voluminous writings of John Scott (see, for example, The Upper Class, 1982
). On the link between ownership and control of capital, on the one hand, and the development of modern corporate capitalism on the other, see Maurice Zeitlin , The Large Corporation and Contemporary Classes (1989
). See also CLOSURE.

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upper class

up·per class • n. [treated as sing. or pl.] the social group that has the highest status in society, esp. the aristocracy. • adj. of, relating to, or characteristic of such a group: upper-class accents.

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