The concept itself has Marxian origins. In the late 1880s, Friedrich Engels attempted to explain the failure of the British working class to exploit the franchise of 1867 in terms of the workers' ‘craving for respectability’, and enjoyment of a standard of living sufficient to encourage bourgeois values, life-styles, and political ideals. Orthodox Marxists since have often deployed this argument as an explanation for working-class quiescence under capitalism.
However, the proposition attained a much wider credibility when it was taken up by (mainly North American) liberals such as S. M. Lipset and Clark Kerr, during the two decades following the Second World War. Proponents formulated the thesis of embourgeoisement in a variety of ways and identified a range of disparate causal mechanisms behind the process itself. In its most general formulation, however, the thesis claimed that the sectoral transformation in the structure of employment—the move from manufacturing to services, and from unskilled labouring to the new knowledge-based occupations—created high levels of class mobility, and led to a shrinkage of the working class, considered as a proportion of the economically active population. Advanced Western societies were therefore literally becoming more middle class, in the demographic sense at least, if none other.
Additionally, however, tendencies intrinsic to production (notably automation) were granting manual workers greater control over their work and undermining their sense of workplace alienation. Urban renewal after the war led to the dissolution of long-established, tightly knit, often occupationally homogeneous working-class communities in the inner cities, as workers spilled out into the less dense, more heterogeneous suburbs of the new commuting areas. Official statistics of this period purported also to show a ‘homogenization’ of incomes and living standards, both because of the high-wage and full-employment-based expansion in Western economies, and the redistributive social policies pursued by welfare-minded social democratic states. This was the era of ‘high mass consumption’ and the ‘affluent society’ : ownership of consumer durables became widespread and even manual workers could realistically aspire to car-ownership and purchasing their own home. A mass-market of ‘middle-income’ consumers was created.
These objective changes allegedly prompted, in turn, the homogenization of life-styles and social values. Increased income facilitated working-class participation in middle-class styles of dress, leisure practices, and styles of décor. Finally, the increase in incomes and integration of rank-and-file workers into their employing organizations as skilled operatives together changed the workers' attitudes and values, fostering a new identification with the objectives of the capitalist enterprise, a weakening of the traditional loyalties to workmates, trade union, and class, and the growth of a typically middle-class concern with status. Workers became family-minded and home-centred rather than neighbourhood-centred and collectivist. Conservative values came to dominate their world-views: manual workers now sought security and respectability, and by individualistic rather than solidaristic means. Ultimately, this translated into voting behaviour, as the old class-based parties of the Left were abandoned in favour of the bourgeois or petitbourgeois parties of the political Right.
The clearest statement of this thesis is Ferdynand Zweig's The Worker in an Affluent Society (1961), which has the additional virtue of being empirically grounded, since Zweig conducted interviews with workers in five British firms. Most other proponents of embourgeoisement argued principally on the basis of speculation and anecdote.
The thesis prompted a number of important sociological studies in the 1960s. These were generally more rigorous than the original statements and greatly undermined the credibility of the argument. The most notable of the critical treatments were probably the so-called Affluent Worker Studies in Britain, carried out by John H. Goldthorpe, David Lockwood, Frank Bechhofer, and Jennifer Platt (see especially The Affluent Worker in the Class Structure, 1969
); Bennett M. Berger 's study of a Working-Class Suburb (1960
) in the United States; and, for France, Richard F. Hamilton 's Affluence and the French Worker in the Fourth Republic (1967
). These and a host of similar studies showed convincingly that the working classes of the advanced West were not as wealthy as their middle-class peers, retained important aspects of their proletarian identities, and still had distinctive social values, political ideals, and styles of life.
Although theories of embourgeoisement were widely held to be discredited during the 1970s, they made a curious return in the midst of the recessionary 1980s, when commentators of both the extreme Right and Left argued that working-class support for the policies of right-wing governments across Europe and North America provided testimony to a new consensus around middle-class norms, values, and life-styles.See also CONSUMPTION, SOCIOLOGY OF; INCORPORATION; LABOUR ARISTOCRACY; PRIVATISM; SUBURBANISM.
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