What makes a collection of people a “class”? Does grouping people into classes help to explain anything?
Class is a concept much used in both sociology as well as everyday language, but it is surrounded by much confusion about its meaning. There are many different definitions of class and many different views on how people can be grouped into classes. In sociology there is an ongoing debate whether or not class is a relevant concept in contemporary societies and whether it can be used to explain any issues. I am going to look at the different meanings of “class”. Further I am going to investigate whether grouping people into classes helps to explain anything.
The use of class to indicate lifestyle, prestige or rank is probably the most commonly used sense of the term. Here class is bound up with hierarchy, of being higher than or lower than some other person or group. Rank is often indicated by lifestyles and particular patterns of consumption. Marx and Weber have provided two of the most influential explanations about what classes are and how they influence society. Marx believed that systems of stratification derive from the relationships of social groups to the means of production. He used the concept class as referring to the main strata in all stratification systems. A class is a social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production with the ruling class oppressing the subject class. He argued that on the one hand there exists a “class in itself” which is just the relationship of the social group to the means of production, but on the other hand a social group only fully becomes a class when it becomes a “class for itself”, when its members have class consciousness and class solidarity. Weber also saw class in economic terms and he believed that classes develop in market economies in which individuals compete for economic gain. He saw a class as being a group of individuals who share a similar position in a market economy, and by virtue of that fact receive similar economic rewards. Therefore an individual’s class situation resembles his or her market situation. Like Marx, he also thought that the major class division could be made between those who own the forces of production and those who don’t. However, he saw differences in the market situations of the propertyless group because the various skills and services offered by different occupations also have different values. Therefore he believed that there were more than two classes of importance in capitalist societies. He also believed that the status situation or the unequal distribution of social honour was important in societies. Occupations, ethnic and religious groups as well as lifestyles are accorded differing degrees of prestige or esteem by members of societies. A status group are individuals who have been awarded similar amounts of social honour and thus share a similar status situation. Unlike in classes, members of the same status group tend to be aware of their common status situation and often lead very similar lifestyles. Weber believed the concepts of status and class to be closely linked, but he showed that people who share the same class may not necessarily share the same status.