Skip to main content

Social Class Prejudice

Social Class Prejudice

Between the ages of three and five, people begin to categorize their personal experiences, including information about the people they meet and learn about. For example, some of the first categories of people children learn in the United States involve color of skin and gender. Prejudices may soon develop targeted toward these categories of people based on what children learn from parents, friends, and others they come into contact with through places such as church, school, and day care. It is not until later in a child's development that he begins to distinguish other people according to their personal wealth and social standing in the community. However, as described by Gordon W. Allport in his landmark book, The Nature of Prejudice, it is likely that prejudices based on these social categories will be an important part of the person's beliefs and behavior the rest of his life.

Social class

A social class is a group of people in a society who share a similar social and economic status. Class differences normally involve inequalities and prejudices between members of the different groups, such as between executive corporate officers and wage earners in factories. Life chances at education and jobs are highly influenced by the class a person is born into; the higher one's social status, the better his chances for a solid education and meaningful career.

The term "social class" was not widely used until the early nineteenth century. Until then the idea of rank (how one person is socially compared to another) was used to describe how societies structured themselves. By the 1770s, the idea of social class emerged as industrialization began to grow, in the British textile mills. Industrialization was the period (1878–1900) in America in which the nation's economy changed from one based on agriculture to one of industry and business. Machines located in factories powered by steam or moving water rather than human or animal power were used to produce goods in large quantities. Previously, goods were made one at a time by craftsmen in their home shops. At the same time, cross-country transportation in the form of rapidly expanding railroad systems played a key role in the spread of industrialization in America in the late nineteenth century. Goods could be transported inexpensively in large quantities.

Industrialization spread across Europe and North America in combination with the spread of capitalism. The new expanding factories needed capital (money) to begin operation. Capitalism is an economic system in which production is privately owned and financed, and the demand for goods is established through an open market system largely free of government involvement. The foundation of capitalism is competition among the private businesses.


Economic system in which production is privately owned, financed through private investments, and the demand for goods is established through an open market system largely free of government involvement and governed by competition among private businesses.
The establishment of an economic and social system characterized by large industries, machine production, and the concentration of workers in urban areas.
social class:
Groups of people sharing similar wealth and social standing.
social status:
A person's social standing in a society determined primarily through the prestige of his occupation, a family name, education, or profession.
social mobility:
The amount of opportunity a person has in a particular society to change his social standing from one social class to another.

The growth of capitalism along with industrialization created a new group: the urban (city) working class who depended on the wages paid by the wealthy factory owners known as industrialists. Lifestyles of the workers and industrialists contrasted sharply with owners living in roomy large houses on country estates and workers living in crowded city residential areas near the factories. By the late nineteenth century social classes had taken shape with the upper class including industrialists and investors known as financiers, and the working class comprised of wage-earning laborers. By the mid-twentieth century, a third class developed. Known as the middle class, it included business managers and other professionals.

The appearance of social classes

Prior to the seventeenth century, a feudal system consisting of peasants, or farmers, working for large landowners, or lords, existed in Europe. The growth of industry and related capitalist economic systems by the nineteenth century introduced the emergence of wage earners working for wealthy commercial and industrial capitalists (those who invest funds into private businesses seeking profits). The class of peasants became a class of laborers. The upper class owned capital and the factories and the working class depended on wages paid by the new businesses. The upper class received their income primarily from investments, such as real estate and business growth. This urban working class of laborers grew rapidly in cities where newly established factories became concentrated into industrial centers influenced by convenient transportation networks, such as roads and railroads, and sources of energy to run the factories, such as hydropower from dams on rivers.

As the growth of industrialization and capitalist economies swept the Western world of Britain, Europe, and the United States in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, societies naturally experienced major changes. Industrialization included an unequal distribution of power and wealth, which in turn shaped life chances and prejudices. Opportunities for higher education, occupational development, and financial betterment often dictated to which class a person would be limited. The opportunity to move up from one social class to another was still possible, but not without great individual effort often helped with some good fortune.

Social class theory

As social classes in Western society began to develop, they attracted the interest of political philosophers. Building on the earlier ideas of English philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) were French philosophers Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) and Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825). They explored the inequalities and prejudices that developed along with these social classes. Still later came German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883), who greatly influenced the study of social classes throughout the twentieth century by more fully exploring the potential rise of prejudices and conflict between social classes and the possible consequences. Many scholars in the past such as Marx believed economics was the dominant factor in establishing social classes. Marx wrote that those who controlled the means of economic production and distribution in a society and the capital for investment constituted the dominant (or upper) class. To sustain industrial production and profits, this dominant class exploited the lower class for its labor by imposing low wages, long hours, and unsafe working conditions. Therefore, these different classes performed different functions to economically sustain a society. Individuals learned their place in the production system by their class membership.

The resulting theories asserted that the newly formed industrial societies produced very distinctive social classes. The dominant class controlled industrial production, wealth of a nation, the flow of ideas or information through media, and formation of government policies. A working class provided labor and services. Marx believed that prejudices between the two classes would ultimately lead to conflict between them. Later scholars added other dimensions to the formation of classes besides economics. For example, German economist Max Weber (1864–1920) included nationalism (a strong belief that a particular nation is superior to other nations) and religious prejudice.

Social status

Within social classes are found social status groups whose members gained their standing primarily through the prestige of their occupation, family name, or even by living on a certain street that represented a wealthy neighborhood or area. Wealth is a secondary factor but often contributes to the higher social status. Social status groups are common in most societies, including undeveloped countries where social classes are less well established. In societies of industrially undeveloped countries clans and other types of social groups that were based on an individual social ranking formed the basis for people to have social status, either high or low. Their economies remained based on agriculture. Royal clans ranked at the top of these societies.

Social status of an individual in the twenty-first century was established in various ways: at birth based on family relations and wealth; through education at an elite school; attaining a respected occupation, such as a lawyer or business executive; personal accomplishments; holding important offices; or through marriage into a higher social status group. A high social status gives an individual certain rights and responsibilities in society, such as greater access to high political office.

Social Class Bias and the Founding Fathers

In the United States, the Founding Fathers who created the U.S. form of government in 1787 were already very aware of social classes. They were also influenced by the thoughts of Locke and others regarding social class development. Many of the Founders were wealthy plantation owners and businessmen. In the summer of 1787 the Founders gathered at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to create a new U.S. Constitution. Virginian James Madison (1751–1836) was the principal author of the historic document creating a new national government.

To promote adoption of the Constitution, Madison and others wrote a series of essays in 1787 and 1788, known as the Federalist Papers. In one of the essays, Madison noted that social classes were created by an unequal distribution of property among citizens. This inequity leads to differing political interests. Knowing that, Madison and others wrote into the Constitution safeguards for the upper class to maintain political and economic control. They were greatly concerned because the working class and poor vastly outnumbered the wealthy. For this reason, they feared a true democracy in which the majority rules.

The Founding Fathers believed only men of property should be able to vote in elections, and they could only vote directly for members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The individual state legislatures would elect U.S. senators for their states. An electoral college composed of wealthy men chosen by the states would elect the U.S. president. Supreme Court justices were to be nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Through this complex system, the selection of national leadership was safely buffered from influence of the large lower classes.

As with social classes, the difference in social status between people determines how they behave toward each other and the prejudices they likely hold toward each other. People of higher status do not generally mix with lower-status people and often are able to control other people's activities by influencing laws and social standards. Families in particular social status groups share common levels of economic wealth, prestige, and political power. In Western industrial societies, higher social status is reflected by possession of much property and goods, by appearance and clothes, and through etiquette (manners). As is true in social classes, certain material objects become status symbols indicating the importance of a person relative to others.

Social class prejudice

The division of Western societies into separate classes became widespread by the twentieth century. Differences in social class strongly affected the way people thought about others. Social classes came to represent inequalities with broad differences in opportunity, lifestyles, material standards, working conditions, and home environment. Each social class generally held a negative stereotype (an oversimplified opinion of others that often justifies negative prejudices) of other social classes. Working class looked at upper-class citizens as not doing real work, such as making products with their own hands. Upper-class and middle-class members viewed the working class as crude, uneducated, and toiling in unpleasant work conditions.

Often the higher social classes associated the lowest classes with race or nationality. This association is part of the stereotypes created by different class members. Due to prejudices, members of the lower classes become stigmatized. Of course, people placed in lower status groups can develop prejudices against those who exert dominance. Stereotypes of snobbery, not working with their own hands, and so on abound.

Since the industrial era certain occupations are consistently associated with certain social classes as well as certain behavior such as taste in music, income, and overall lifestyle. An education at an elite school can establish prestige and different types of schools breed different sets of social values and perspectives, such as serving in public offices or contributing to philanthropic (donating to a cause for the good of society) causes. In this way, they can actually encourage prejudice among social classes. These perspectives, knowledge, and skills, as well as prejudices, are passed on from one generation of students to another. The elite schools tend to legitimize membership of their students in dominant social classes.

Social class prejudice normally involves elitism. Elitism is the attitude that members of a certain social class have personal abilities, such as intelligence or leadership skills, that place them at the top of the social stratification. Their views are taken more seriously than others. They are considered the most fit to govern a nation. Elites hold special positions of authority and enjoy special privileges that set them apart from others in society. They are accustomed to being treated specially with favoritism. Examples of well-known elites in America include wealthy presidents, including Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882–1945; served 1933–45) and George H. W. Bush (1924–; served 1989–1993), and celebrities such as professional athletes like basketball star Michael Jordan (1963–), actor Tom Cruise (1962–), and singer Michael Jackson (1958–). Some people are treated with favoritism simply because they are famous; however, being famous does not automatically make a person elite.

Indian caste system

Some governments, strongly influenced by the upper-class wealthy and elite, passed laws supporting the existence of social classes. As a most striking example, this included the formal establishment of social castes, or social order, in India.

The ancient caste system in India is an extreme version of social class stratification and prejudice. Castes are highly stratified societies that offer very little opportunity for social mobility. Castes have existed in various societies throughout time and around the world. Other examples of caste systems in the twentieth century include apartheid in South Africa and legally enforced racial segregation in the American South. In ancient Israel castes were primarily related to religious activity and privileges. They included three levels: the Cohamin priesthood; the Levites with slightly fewer privileges than the Cohamin; and the remainder of Israelite society.

The Hindu society of India was composed of four castes plus a lower social level not considered a caste. Members of this lowest level were referred to as outcastes and also Untouchables. They worked in poor sanitary conditions and were considered to be very impure.

The categories of castes were called varna. These include the priestly varna (Brahman), military and government leaders (Kshatriya), main society members such as farmers, merchants, and businessmen (Vaishya), and laborers and servants (Shudra). Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) tried to end caste prejudices in the early twentieth century by calling the outcastes Harijans or "people of God." However, strong prejudices against them persisted as he saw little success.

Within each of the varna are jati, the actual functioning social groups. These are the groups that Indians most readily identify with during their daily lives. It is within jati that people are born and marry. These locally based groups consist of people in similar occupations; they are not grouped by skin color or economic standing. Networks of similar jati extend across India. Jati groups were accepted as the main building blocks of Hindu society. With the multiple varna and more numerous jati, the social structure of India was very complex.

Unlike social stratification in many Western societies including the United States, the Indian caste system was based on social status rather than economic standing. Only members of the upper castes received education. Lower caste members were forbidden to seek educations or even acquire books. Shudras also could not practice professions that would give them financial independence or any accumulation of wealth. Their role was to serve the first three castes in a sort of economic slavery. All wealth in Indian society was reserved for the top three castes.

Any close contact with people of lower caste polluted the person of a higher caste. Following contact, the higher caste members had to undergo a ritual purification. At the extreme were the Harijans, who worked at jobs such as street sweepers who pick up the manure of cattle allowed to freely roam. They could not walk on the same streets, use the same water, or live in the same housing areas as people in other castes. They were forced to drink unsafe water, which led to disease and unhealthy lives.

Persistence of caste prejudice

In 1947 the Indian government passed legislation outlawing official recognition of the caste system. It could no longer legally enforce the caste system and began prohibiting discrimination among castes. To counter the many years of prejudice, the government established an aggressive affirmative action program (programs to open up opportunities in education and employment long denied to minorities). The program opened opportunities for lower castes to attend college and obtain government jobs. Over 20 percent of higher education entries were reserved for members of the lower castes.

Despite government actions, the caste system and its prejudices continued. Many Indians considered the caste system as a divinely ordained (created by God) natural order. Castes were still distinguished by degrees of purity and pollution. Marriages between members of different castes remained taboo despite the antidiscrimination laws. Each caste continued to have its own codes of conduct and unique lifestyles. The United States witnessed the same pattern of prejudice against blacks. As Jim Crow laws were repealed through the 1960s the social customs of prejudice persisted into the twenty-first century.

Those seeking social reform and elimination of castes believed the Indian government was still promoting prejudice between castes even through the very programs meant to end discrimination. They claimed the Indian affirmative action policies designed to fill quotas for education and jobs actually perpetuated castes and prejudice by categorizing people into different castes. For example, the affirmative action programs set quotas for members of the "backward castes." Despite the high level of quotas set, the lower castes saw little social improvement. They also enjoyed very few educational opportunities, largely due to the lack of available facilities and to the poor quality of education offered. Many teachers also remained highly prejudiced against members of lower castes.

Not only do members of one social class hold prejudices against members of other social classes, but social class distinctions serve to incite prejudices based on other factors, such as race and nationality. For example, another way of identifying social groups is by skin color, a concept known as racism. Such racism serves to maintain a working class. Race in the United States serves as a key marker of social class.

Prejudice against members of other social classes or status groups leads to fear of unwanted influences or contamination by the other groups. This fear drives social classes apart. In addition, the more dominant social class maintains the power by excluding certain people from the social class or even limiting interactions by members of the dominant class with persons in lower social classes. In this way, the dominant group limits certain economic and other opportunities available to members of other classes.

A custom of prejudice

In most societies with social classes throughout the world, the classes are kept separate by both law and social custom. As described by author G. William Domhoff in his book Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change, just as racism became institutionalized through biases built into business hiring practices and bank loan procedures that limited loans to minorities, the class system became institutionalized. For example, many in the working class are unable to accumulate a savings to begin businesses, leaving them committed to low-paying wage earning jobs. Also the acquisition of bank loans for their house mortgages and student loans to educate their children keeps workers motivated to spend many hours in wage earning jobs. Through these policies workers are kept needy and dependent in order to provide the supply of labor needed in the American workplace.

The national economic system of the United States poses barriers to people's ability to accumulate property, find good paying jobs, or afford suitable housing and move up to a higher social class. Race in America is strongly associated with social class. Many racial minorities in the United States lack assets (property owned and savings). Therefore they find it difficult to obtain bank loans for home mortgages or for businesses. People living in certain neighborhoods, especially black neighborhoods, find it more difficult to obtain home improvement loans. The poor in the lower classes have to decide if their limited funds should go to food, housing, or medicine.

Because of the massive scale and complexity of the problem of poverty in America, government programs established in the 1960s to reduce the high level of economic inequality failed to make housing more accessible. In addition, despite the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibiting racial discrimination in the workplace, minorities still found it more difficult to enjoy social mobility by attaining better paying jobs. Even by the early twenty-first century blacks were still less likely than whites to be hired for upper management positions.

Separation of the upper-class members in a community begins earlier than college. Boarding schools separate the youthful members of upper classes from other students in the community. Expenses charged by these private boarding schools and elite prep schools ensure the exclusion of students from lower classes and isolates the upper-class students. Students graduating from the prep schools and elite colleges learn how to carry out their responsibilities to the upper class. Following university training, they often gain positions of influence in legal and corporate institutions. As in college, where they participated in the appropriate clubs, such as prestigious fraternities, as professionals they participate in exclusive city clubs (nonprofit community organizations that promote civic responsibilities and seek solutions to social issues). When a new social group of wealth becomes set up, such as through establishment of a new technology or industry like computer software, the previously well-known elite will look at the new wealth as lacking in sophistication.

Social Classes in the United States

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, about 1 percent of the U.S. population was categorized as members of the upper class by sociologists. They were commonly graduates of high-ranking universities and held top-level executive positions. Many were also heirs (receiving property or money from a deceased relative) to wealth. The upper middle class consisted of some 14 percent of the population. They were commonly college graduates, enjoyed comfortable lifestyles, and worked in management positions for larger companies. About 30 percent of the U.S. population was in the middle class. They represented lower level company managers and supervisors in white-collar jobs, farmers, self-employed shopkeepers, or higher-paying blue collar employees. The working class also included approximately 30 percent of the population and consisted of lower income white-collar workers and skilled blue-collar workers. The working poor constituted 13 percent of the population. They were largely service industry workers, such as sales clerks and hotel maintenance workers, and clerical staff. Many had no high school degrees. The lowest-income group identified was the underclass, composing about 12 percent of the population. This group included part-time workers and unemployed. Many relied on social services (organized assistance programs to help the needy), such as food bank programs and housing subsidies. Persistent poverty distinguished the underclass from the working class. The working poor and underclass lived in neighborhoods with high crime rates and poor health conditions.

Legislation of social class prejudice

Prejudice and discrimination between social classes creates a stratified (social classes arranged in an order based on their perceived degree of importance) society. The social group controlling political and economic power resides at the top. Those with little political power and residing in poverty are at the lower end of the stratification. Such social stratification can and often does become legalized through laws. One example was the Jim Crow laws that maintained a separation of races in the U.S. South in the early twentieth century (see Jim Crow chapter 17). Another was the apartheid (a government-enforced policy of racial separation and discrimination) social system in South Africa in the late twentieth century (see Apartheid chapter 22). In each case, social classes determined by racial traits were created and maintained by law.

Social class in the late twentieth century

Open conflict between social classes in the Western industrial societies never developed as Marx thought it would, although social class prejudices certainly did. Most violent clashes in industrial societies in the twentieth century involved striking workers and union (an organized group of workers joined together for a common purpose, such as negotiating with management for better working conditions or higher wages) members battling factory security guards and police. The bloody confrontations did not grow into general class conflict.

Marx and others did not foresee the rapid global economic growth following World War II (1939–45). As peacetime jobs became plentiful for the first time since the 1920s, people were ready to use their newfound purchasing power to buy luxuries they could not afford for the past sixteen years due first to the Great Depression (a major economic crisis lasting from 1929 to 1940 leading to massive unemployment and widespread hunger) and then global war. Rising living standards (the necessities and luxuries expected by individuals of a group) and the growth of a middle class desiring a comfortable lifestyle largely forestalled social class conflicts. The distinction between social classes decreased for a time as national wealth increased in the postwar world. The social classes developed a more harmonious working relationship as the standard of living increased for the working class until the 1970s during the postwar boom. In addition the middle class provided a buffer between the upper and working classes by offering opportunities for financial improvement among working-class laborers. As a result, social mobility between classes in these public societies also improved. For those unable to benefit from the postwar economic boom, governments introduced social programs to assist the working poor and unemployed, included subsidized housing for the poor and food stamps to assist in the purchase of food. These programs also helped keep prospects of social class conflict at bay by providing a safety net in the form of economic assistance, or at least the appearance of a safety net, to those not benefiting directly from a healthy national economy.

Despite the blurring of class distinctions, the upper class in America still held great political influence through large campaign contributions to candidates running for public office and by intensely lobbying (seeking to influence public office holders) those who won public office. Nonetheless, chances of social class conflict in the United States seemed remote into the twenty-first century. Social movements seeking change in the late twentieth century were not directly related to class prejudice but to race, women's rights, sexual orientation, or other rights.

Social classes of Western societies

Most people in Western societies of Europe and North America often identify with a particular social class through a combination of several factors including education, occupation, and wealth. Prejudices readily develop between members of different social classes. For example, prejudices of upper-class members are common against people in unskilled, often referred to as blue-collar, jobs, against those with limited education, and those who live in poverty. Other factors may include religious affiliation, speech patterns, and clothing styles. Values built around these social class distinctions perpetuate prejudice in a society.

Upper classes

Many members comprising the upper class in Western societies acquire their membership by inheriting wealth and being a member of a well-to-do family. Upper class in Europe was earlier tied to nobility before the birth of the United States. A sense of unity involving a shared political power exists within any dominant social group. Members share common experiences. They acquire symbols of prestige to mark their status apart from other groups. They hold certain club memberships, have large property holdings, are educated at elite academic institutions, and learn certain behavior patterns. Upper-class members are expected to marry the right kind of person and to hold acceptable occupations. These occupations include bankers, lawyers, business executives, physicians, and financiers. Their lifestyle includes extensive cultural pursuits and leisure activities, such as attending operas and owning vacation homes. The dominant group members look upon manual labor as undignified. They live in exclusive gated communities or secure buildings and enjoy summer homes and winter retreats. Even in death, social separation from other groups is maintained through burial in mausoleums (large tombs) or monuments (a building or structure built in memory of a person). The upper class exerts considerable influence on political decisions and economic policies to perpetuate their dominance in a society, such as maintaining tax laws favorable to the wealthy.

Expensive jewelry, mansions, large property holdings, and luxury cars indicate the financial success and importance as a member of a high social class. The upper classes usually maintain an impressive appearance—from the way they dress to the way they conduct themselves and speak—to help sustain their dominance. The general population considers the upper class more valuable to society than other social classes—despite the fact that, by percentage, the upper class is the smallest class in American society but holds an overwhelming percentage of the nation's wealth. They control and manage the nation's wealth and provide the core of the nation's leadership.

Middle classes

In between the upper and working classes in Western capitalist societies is the middle class, which came into being in the late nineteenth and gained prevalence in the twentieth century. The middle class included supervisors and managers in business and industry, farmers, clerical workers, self-employed shopkeepers, and skilled blue-collar workers. The higher-income workers of the middle class consisting of wealthy professions and managers in large corporations blended into the upper class. The lower income end of the middle class blended into the working class. A sharp distinction existed between upper and working class, but the addition of a third class, the middle class, caused distinctions to become more blurred. In some industrially developing regions such as East Asia, the middle class was still emerging in the twenty-first century. To be born in the middle class means a person needs a special talent or energy to increase his position into the upper class.

Life within a Social Class

As different levels of social classes form, a tendency grows to marry and interact with people within one's own class rather than with people of other classes. Members of a group share certain social traditions or general conventions of behavior. People become associated with a group because of the characteristics they share with the group. They each own certain kinds of possessions and behave similarly. Certain types of vehicles even represent certain social groups, such as Lincolns and Porsches representing upper-class choices, and trucks and common sedans representing working-class transportation. Lifestyle becomes a major way to distinguish members of groups. Lifestyle is a person's pattern of living as expressed in his behavior, opinions, and activities. All of these characteristics of a person's daily life become considered the norm for the group they belong to. A person becomes accepted and maintains acceptance in that particular class or group. Ultimately she forms close bonds only with certain kinds of people and holds prejudices against members in other social classes. Often, this leads to the formation of stereotypes about those people.

The new middle class with its rapid growth and expanded buying power became the class that America began targeting to in terms of advertising and consumerism in the twentieth century. Although relatively new, this class became a major influence on U.S. society. For example, the new middle-class members began a migration from the cities to the outskirts and built suburban America. The influence of the middle class affected every aspect of America's society.

Working class

Members of the working class are manual laborers in manufacturing and other types of industries. Of the working class, special memberships used to maintain a unity include labor unions (an organized group of workers joined together to gain better working conditions). Through the unions, relations with other social classes are maintained through the quest for better work conditions. However, the decline in membership and power of labor unions in the late twentieth century took away political power and a critical form of unity from the working class. Working-class members do not normally possess expensive objects and are considered less valuable to society, maybe even disposable. Those in the lowest economic level of the working class may be even viewed as a burden on society much as the chronically unemployed underclass is viewed. The nature of working classes varies around the world; therefore, the manner in which they live, identify with one another, and the activities they participate in can be quite variable. Normally savings are not accumulated and working class families live day-to-day on tight budgets.

Perpetuating social class

Like social status, membership in social classes is hereditary, meaning a person born into a certain social class is considered a member of that class at least through his early life. If the classes are largely distinguished by racial traits, the person will be assigned to that class throughout her life. Opportunities for movement upward from one class to another vary from one society to another. Limited mobility is largely owing to the barriers posed by the dominant groups to maintain their status.

When interaction does occur between members of different social classes, a certain degree of deference (yielding to the other's will) is expected of members of the lower or subordinate class to members of the upper class.

Social class in the twenty-first century

In the twenty-first century, most people still recognized the social class system in some way but it was a difficult aspect of society for them to actually define. Still blurring class distinctions was the middle class, bridging the gap between upper class and working class. For example, the U.S. social class system did not officially exist, but most citizens were aware of it and knew their place in it. No formal laws governed social classes even though social policies existed that worked against the lower classes, such as limitations on available bank loans and on participation in society, such as acceptance into civic organizations. Many in the upper class publicly denied the existence of social classes to help obscure the extent of their dominance of power and control. A key economic factor used by sociologists and other researchers to define social classes was the difference in their ability to save money for the future.

As described by author Arthur Marwick in the book Class: Image and Reality in Britain, France, and the USA Since 1930, the three Western countries of the United States, France, and Britain provided a contrast of social class relationships toward the end of the twentieth century. Among the three nations, mobility between the social classes was greatest in the United States, less in France, and least in Britain. Of the three, Britain had maintained the most developed social class structure with a large gap remaining between middle class and working class. The largest social class gap remaining in the United States was between the upper class and middle class as the wage earning powers of the middle class dwindled. The middle class was economically merging with the working class whose wages were higher than in Britain and France. The distinction between middle and working classes was becoming much less apparent. The upper class in all three countries generally gained income from investments rather than from earned income. A smaller percentage of the French population was considered to be members in the upper class than in the other two countries where 1 percent of the population controls almost one-third of the nation's wealth. In the United States, France, and Britain a person could often readily tell the social class of another person by viewing at a glance the neighborhood the person was from. Different areas of a city or region represented specific habitats for different social groups.

Class distinctions, including differences in social habits and culture among social classes, remained greatest in Britain. Even accents revealed the social status of a person. Maintaining a position in a social class was a preoccupation of British citizens.

In some countries, social classes were becoming less distinct. Social mobility between classes was increasing and fewer discriminatory laws supported maintenance of social classes. In the early twenty-first century, it appeared that social classes in these areas were transforming back into a continuous range of social rankings or social statuses in some countries. For example in the strongly social-democratic states of Europe such as Sweden, where wealth was more evenly distributed among the population, social class distinctions became very weakly structured. The expanding economies of Japan and other Southeastern Asian countries also lessened class distinctions in their societies.

Globalization in the twenty-first century

In the late twentieth century, about 170,000 manufacturing jobs disappeared in the United States. For the sake of corporate economic efficiency, some of these jobs were outsourced to foreign countries, where labor was cheaper. Automation replaced other jobs. The transition from well-paying factory jobs protected by unions to lower-paying, part-time service industry jobs became a hallmark of the American economy in the early twenty-first century. The new minimum-wage jobs also included no benefits such as for health, retirement, vacation, or sick leave. The practice of outsourcing, which also meant hiring workers temporarily rather than through a permanent workforce, was particularly detrimental to minorities as well as women and children. Outsourcing became popular just three decades after women and minorities had gained access to better jobs in the workplace. As a result, this economic globalization began sending Western social class ideas to Third World countries that traditionally operated under different social class divisions such as social ranking based on hereditary prestige.

In the United States workers began shuttling between two or three jobs daily. Temporary employment agencies became major employers, supplying workers to businesses on an as-needed basis. The wage gap between the wealthy and others grew, as did greater separation of classes. A chronically unemployed class developed, excluded from the economic mainstream. Higher rates of divorce and family instability were recorded in this underemployed class. Many other economic changes affecting the social class system were occurring in the early twenty-first century. In addition to the increasing number of minimum wage jobs, the number of self-employed shop owners also declined with the growth of large international store chains. Even doctors, academic professors, and lawyers became more like wage laborers and represented the declining upper-class professions.

As throughout history, societies still divide their members among the social groups they create. Through time in some parts of the world the nature of such groups has transformed from social rankings based on prestige to class based on economic standing. Prejudices formed between the social groups largely determine the nature of interaction between the groups and between individuals of different groups. These classes form the basis for a society to assign political power and wealth among its members. No community of any substantial size has been able to avoid the development of social classes within its society and likely that will persist into the foreseeable future.

For More Information


Allport, Gordon W. The Nature of Prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1979.

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

Devine, Fiona. Social Class in America and Britain. Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

Domhoff, G. William. Who Rules America? Power, Politics, and Social Change. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2005.

Fussell, Paul. Class: A Guide Through the American Status System. New York: Summit Books, 1983.

Marwick, Arthur. Class: Image and Reality in Britain, France, and the USA Since 1930. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Steinberg, Stephen. The Ethnic Myth: Race, Ethnicity, and Class in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Social Class Prejudice." Prejudice in the Modern World Reference Library. . 6 May. 2019 <>.

"Social Class Prejudice." Prejudice in the Modern World Reference Library. . (May 6, 2019).

"Social Class Prejudice." Prejudice in the Modern World Reference Library. . Retrieved May 06, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.