The class system is a social hierarchy in which society is divided up based upon their socioeconomic status and cultural values. At its worst, it causes social barriers and prejudices that discriminate against the lower and working-classes.
Social class is not just about how much money you have. Rather, it is a reflection of a range of factors including wealth, social values, and cultural attitudes. For example, the working-class and upper-class often pursue differing sports, have different accents, and practice different social norms.
Some class-conscious scholars such as Karl Marx argue that capitalist society is characterized by class struggle, where the working class are subjugated and exploited by the capitalist class.
Definition of Class System
Social class is defined by Lois A. Vitt as follows:
“Class refers to a stratification system that divides a society into a hierarchy of social positions.” (2007)
It is a method of social ranking that involves “money, power, culture, taste, identity, access, and exclusion”. It includes both tangible things (such as economic circumstances and lifestyles) as well as intangible things (like esteem and respect).
Class is categorized in multiple ways. One common category is the distinction between objective and subjective class, as defined by Hoult (1974):
- Objective social class refers to all the aspects of social class that can be expressed in objective terms, such as income, occupation, and education (Hoult, 1974).
- Subjective social class refers to how people choose to perceive and categorize themselves and their class alegiances. Hoult explains it this way: “[subjective class is] how people place themselves within the society”.
Class System Theories and Theorists
The following are some key scholars that inform contemporary understandings of social class.
1. Karl Marx
Karl Marx argued that class conflict exists in every society. In industrial societies, this primarily occurs between two classes: the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production, such as the factory owners) and the proletariat (those who work for the owners and earn a wage for a living).
The bourgeoisie controls all social institutions. They use control over the social institutions and economic capital to maintain their dominance over the proletariat. They exploit the proletariat by employing them for below their real value, and scraping the profits for themselves, thereby increasing social inequality.
When the proletariat became aware of their exploitation by the capitalist class, Marx believed, it would lead to societal change and the rise of communism. This is the core thesis of the theory of Marxism.
The proletariat would revolt against the exploitative relationship of capitalism and create a more just (a “classless”) society through. This would involve the working-class claiming ownership of the means of production, and business ownership would be banned.
2. Piere Bourdeau
Bourdeau, in my opinion, creates a very useful conceptualization of class that is far less radical, and helps to demonstrate how class operates in society to maintain the power of the upper class over the middle-class and working-class.
Bourdieu’s ideas boil down to a conceptualization of three types of capital, held by the elites in greater quantities than the working-class:
- Economic Capital: Economic capital refers to money and assets, such as the value in your home. If you have economic capital, you can get a better life by buying what you want, going on more holidays, getting a good education, and so forth. The working-class owns far less economic capital than the middle- and upper- classes.
- Cultural Capital: Cultural capital involves the cultural aptitudes of an individual or group. It can include a person’s accent (where upper-class accents are considered more desirable in job interviews, etc. than working-class accents), their tastes (where the elites have refined tastes in art and food, for example), and institutionalized cultural capital, such as possession of a university degree from an elite institution which can open doors for you.
- Social Capital: Social capital refers to the people you know. Generally, the upper-classes and elites know more people in power (such as judges, CEOs, and politicians), which can open doors for them through a simple phone call that the working-classes cannot achieve.
From the above examples, we can see how possessing economic, cultural, and social capital leads to greater opportunities in life, while lacking these three forms of capital makes life hard, because it’s so difficult to gain the capital (i.e. it is hard to achieve social mobility).
The Three-Tiered Class System
One of the most common ways to conceptualize social class is to envisage it through a three-tiered class system. This system conceptualizes three classes: the working class, the middle class, and the upper class.
1. The Working Class
The working class represents those people in society who work paycheque to paycheque and have minimal leverage in the labor market. They tend to work in low-paid and low-skilled jobs, often which require physical labor and are in the services sector of the economy (see: blue collar jobs examples).
Often, the unemployed or those in casual or precarious employment are also placed in this class group.
Sociologists estimate that the working class makes up 30%-35% of the population.
Working-class people also tend not to have a college degree, but may contain some sort of vocational qualification such as a trade certificate.
But working class is more than just about economics. The working class are often defined by their shared cultural experiences, such as their shared awareness of exploitation by their employers, restricted individual agency in their jobs, and shared ‘low culture’ tastes in sports, food, and drinks.
2. The Middle Class
The middle class represents the largest class group in advanced economies, making up about 50% of the population of nations like the USA, UK, Australia, Germany, and Canada.
This group sits between the working and upper class, where they still have to work for a living, but also have disposable incomes, and are often amassing capital through their mortgages and home ownership.
People in the middle-class often have college degrees and work in professional white-collar professions such as accounting, teaching, the civil service, and marketing. It can also include small business owners.
They’re often seen as the aspitational class because they use their disposable income to invest in their futures, such as their children’s education or paying off their houses. This is in order to transition from the lower middle class through to the upper middle class.
3. The Upper Class (Elites)
The upper class is the smallest class group and represents the owners of capital. Often, this group does not need to work for their money, or, as business owners, they delegate responsibilities to the managerial class for managing their capital.
This class group is reserved for highly successful large business owners, people with inherited wealth, and nobility.
They’re defined not just through their wealth (although this is a primary marker), but also their refined tastes, ample leisure time, and high cultural pursuits such as playing polo, collecting art, and going ot the opera.
Class Systems Around the World
- The USA: Americans take pride in living in a “classless society” but this is not exactly true; class plays a significant role in the United States. Historically, America has been portrayed as a land of opportunity where anyone can succeed through hard work and determination. However, recent studies indicate that class is a powerful force in the country, and even public perception is slowly changing. Vitt points out that the income gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened. Moreover, the popular “rags to riches” stories are now almost impossible—there is very little upward mobility, and downward sliding is much more common than we acknowledge.
- The United Kingdom: Unlike the United States, European countries have historically been perceived to be more class-oriented. A true class society, as Vitt writes, is one where population segments have distinctive attitudes and values, leading to the creation of subcultures. Historically, social hierarchies have played a huge role in Europe, and its remnants remain today—their monarchy being the most obvious one. Members of each class are familiar with certain manners, share similar lifestyles, and feel a sense of community with other class members (Vitt, 2007).
- South Africa: In South Africa, the class system has been shaped by the apartheid and is still deeply linked with race. Between 1948 and 1994, the government institutionalized a system of racial segregation and discrimination, which benefitted the white minority at the cost of the Black majority. This led to huge disparities (in wealth, education, etc.), and today, South Africa has one of the highest levels of income inequality. There is also very little social mobility in society: poor people remain poor and so do their children.
- Russia: Unlike Western countries, Russia went through a workers’ revolution. Marx had predicted that capitalist systems, due to their exploitative nature, would give way to more advanced social systems where workers would own the means of production and there would be no classes. The revolution did occur in Eastern Europe, but the communist system ultimately failed. After the revolution, the Soviet Union ended up creating its class structure, with powerful party elites. After the fall of the Union in 1991, Russia transitioned to capitalism, and it led to a new capitalist class (called “oligarchs”) that acquired great wealth by privatizing state assets.
- India: In India, class has been deeply tied with the other major social stratification factor—caste. Caste divides people into different groups (Brahmins, Kshatriyas, etc.) and assigns each a specific occupation. Since this system was hereditary, it severely limited social mobility—everybody was expected to do what their parents did. Historically, Dalits have faced immense oppression, and even today, lower castes face limited access to economic resources and opportunities. The government has adopted affirmative action policies to help the lower castes, but there is still a long way to go.
The class system is a hierarchy of social positions, each of which has different levels of wealth and cultural power.
Different societies have different class systems, and while some like the US take pride in being “classless”, the truth is that class is a powerful force in every society. It affects almost every aspect of our life—from educational performance to something as intimate as love relationships.
The class system is just one form of social stratification. It combines with other factors, such as caste in India or race in South Africa, to create our overall social position.
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Hoult, T. F. (1974). Dictionary of Modern Sociology. Littlefield Adams.
Vitt, Lois A. (2007). “Class” in (ed.) George Ritzer’s The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Blackwell.
Weber, M. (1982). “The Distribution of Power: Class, Status, Party.” in Classes, Power, and Conflict. University of California Press.