A social class is a group of people characterized by the same socioeconomic status (Jones, 2001).
The social class that an individual belongs to will depend upon factors such as their:
- Education level,
- Cultural beliefs and attitudes (aka cultural capital),
- Income level (aka economic capital),
- Social connections (aka social capital),
Scholars generally divide classes into types of social class such as:
- Lower class,
- Middle class, and
- Upper class.
However, as the following examples show, there are many ways to define social classes.
For example, Marxists scholars will more often use terms such as “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat.”
Social class and socioeconomic status are sometimes used as distinct concepts, with social class referring to a wider set of concepts such as cultures, values, attitudes, and traditions (Rubin et al., 2014).
Types of Social Class
|Type of Social Class||Explanation|
|Transnational capitalist class||This term is generally used in neo-Gramscian and Marxist literature. It refers to the global class that influences the global economy and politics through transnational corporations like the World Trade Organization. The term comes from Leslie Sklair’s 1995 book, Theory of the Global System.|
|Underclass||The underclass is the segment of the population lowest in a class hierarchy. The underclass is the social class below the working class. The term was popularized in the second half of the 20th century.|
|Working Class||A socio-economic group characterized by its lack of ownership of the means of production and its consequent dependence on wages or salaries for a living. This group is often said to include manual workers, factory workers, and other laborers, as well as some lower-level white-collar workers. “Working-class culture” is also a term used to refer to popular and low culture attitudes and beliefs.|
|Lower Middle Class||The lower middle class is the segment of the population that occupies the space between the working and middle classes in terms of income and education level. Members of this group may have some college education or technical training and may hold jobs that require specialized skills or knowledge.|
|Middle Class||A socio-economic group considered to be between the upper and lower classes in terms of income and education level. Members of this group often have college educations and professional or white-collar jobs. They have enough resources and capital to be comfortable but not rich.|
|Upper Middle Class||The segment of the population that occupies the space above the middle class and below the upper class in terms of income and education level. Members of this group may have graduate degrees and hold high-level white-collar jobs, and are often considered to be among the most educated and affluent members of society.|
|Upper Class||The segment of the population that tends to hold the means of production and uses them to earn a living, and embraces a set of elite cultural values (often referred to as high culture). It is made up of the wealthiest and most powerful members of society who have access to other elites due to their high levels of social capital. This group is often characterized by its ownership of large amounts of property and assets, as well as its political and economic power.|
|Elites||The elites are a small group of powerful people who hold a disproportionate amount of political power, wealth, privilege, or skill. Elites may be composed of members of the nouveau riche, politicians, business leaders, upper class, and other influential figures. However, elites are the very top of the upper class and garner their status from being in a small and exclusive grouping.|
|Blue Collar||A blue-collar person is a working-class member engaged in manual labor. A blue-collar work may be skilled or unskilled. It may involve manufacturing, farming, logging, landscaping, and so on. The term comes from the idea that people in manual labor jobs wear shirts with blue collars so as to not reveal stains on their clothing.|
|White Collar||A white-collar worker works in an office, sells their intellect for money (rather than their bodies through physical labor). They perform professional serviews, managerial work, or administrative work. White-collar workers can wear white shirts because they aren’t at risk of getting dirty at work (except for spilling their coffee!). They also tend to shower at the beginning of the day rather than the end of the day.|
|Lumpen-proletariat||This is a term used by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to describe the “dangerous class.” They described this class as a lower stratum of the working class, which included people like beggars, deviants, criminals, and the permanently unemployed. According to Marx, the lumpenproletariat is devoid of class consciousness and are morally corrupt. This contrasts them to the working class whose hard labor gives them class consciousness (Odekon, 2006).|
|Lumpen-intelligentsia||At the other end of the spectrum to the lumpenproletariat are the lumpenintelligentsia, a social group of intellectuals, academics, or professionals who (despite their education and expertise) fail to contribute to the positive development of society and instead engage in harmful activities and attitudes. They’re the rich and intelligent who are overindulgent and don’t care to be productive social actors.|
|Proletariat||The “proletariat” is a term used by Karl Marx to describe the working class. The people of the proletariat grouping are usually factory or manual workers employed by capitalists, and are analogous to the working-class. Proletariats are a class of people who have only their labor to sell to survive, because they do not have access to capital or the means of production. According to Marxist theory, the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat for their labor. This leads to a class struggle between these two groups, and this class struggle is what propels history (and, for Marx, means capitalism is unsustainable). Proletariats are the oppressed class in capitalist societies and will be the instigators of the socialist revolution (Marx & Engels, 1948).|
|Bourgeoisie||This is a term used primarily in Marxist scholarship to describe the capitalist class. The bourgeoisie consists of business owners, investors, and entrepreneurs who own the means of production and exploit the working class. They are engaged in the ownership and management of factories, mining, transportation, and other means of production. They are the oppressor class in capitalist societies and the key agents of maintaining the status quo (Marx & Engels, 1948).|
|Leisure Class||The term originates from Thorstein Veblen’s first and most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class (Veblen, 1899). It refers to a social class of individuals who have the wealth and leisure time to engage in activities not directly related to making a living. Members of the leisure class show their “higher standing” not by their capacity to lead, but by their wastefulness. They disdain labor and show patterns of conspicuous consumption.|
|Intelligentsia||A status class composed of highly educated people who are engaged in complex mental labor. Members of the intelligentsia critique, shape, and lead the politics and culture of their society. Scholars, academics, teachers, writers, and journalists are all members of the intelligentsia (Williams, 1985, p. 170).|
|Petite Bourgeoisie||This social class includes small business owners or self-employed professionals and lower middle-class people who run a small enterprise and earn a modest income. These individuals typically own their businesses and do not rely on wages or salaries to make a living. They tend to have more independence and autonomy than the working class, but less wealth and power than the capitalist class or bourgeoisie (Marx & Engels, 1948). They also tend to hold more traditional values and tend to be more socially conservative than the intelligentsia.|
|Old Money||This term refers to the inherited wealth of upper class families. It can also refer to a person, family, or lineage possessing inherited wealth. it is distinguished from those members of the upper class who recently entered it.|
|Nouveau Riche||A nouveau riche is a person or family who has recently acquired wealth. This term means “new rich” They have usually obtained their wealth through business or investment, such as through selling-off a tech startup, rather than through inheritance. These individuals tend to have minimal experience with the norms of the upper class and may not be as well-educated, well-traveled, or well-connected as the people of old money. As a result, the old money groups may reject them. They tend to be considered social climbers and are sometimes viewed with suspicion or disdain by those who are culturally upper class.|
|Ruling Class||As the name suggests, the ruling class of a society is the social class that makes major decisions in that society. This term is most often used in Marxist scholarship and it refers to the members of the capitalist class who own the means of production. By extension, the ruling class determines the dominant ideology of a society. The term is closely related to the concept of a transnational capitalist class defined above.|
|Aristocrats||As a social class, the aristocracy is associated with the upper class of people who have hereditary rank and titles. The term is therefore related to the concept of old money. In certain societies, such as ancient Greece and Rome, aristocratic status resulted from belonging to a military caste. In other societies, aristocrats belong to priestly castes. Aristocratic or noble status usually involves legal or feudal privileges.|
A social class is a grouping of people into a social category. How a given individual’s social class is determined remains a matter of debate. Similarly, the list above might not be exhaustive, and what a given thinker means by social class categories might differ based on the context.
Jones, R. J. B. (2001). Routledge Encyclopedia of International Political Economy: Entries A-F. Taylor & Francis.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1948). Manifesto of the Communist Party. International Publishers.
Odekon, M. (2006). Encyclopedia of World Poverty. SAGE.
Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K. E., Stehlik, T., & Zyngier, D. (2014). “I Am Working-Class”: Subjective Self-Definition as a Missing Measure of Social Class and Socioeconomic Status in Higher Education Research. Educational Researcher, 43(4), 196–200. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X14528373
Veblen, T. (1899). The theory of the leisure class: An economic study of institutions. Macmillan Co. ; Macmillan.Williams, R. (1985). Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Revised, Subsequent edition). Oxford University Press.