Classical Social Theory Essay

Social class can be defined as a hierarchy in which individuals and groups are classified on the basis of esteem and prestige acquired mainly through economic success and accumulation of wealth. In today’s society, amid the clamour for equal rights and opportunities for all, social class continues to present division throughout the globe. In an effort to realize the concept of social class, there have been many theories and explanations promulgated on social class and its effect on society.

This paper will examine two of the more prominent theories contributed by Karl Marx and Max Weber. While both Marx and Weber recognized the importance of private property in the difference between classes, they differ over the causes which create the different classes. Marx and Weber also differ in their thoughts on social mobility. Weber argues that social mobility can either move us upwards or downwards depending on our choices and opportunities.

While Marx does recognise social mobility, he relates this mainly to the petty bourgeoisie principle, and its likelihood of being absorbed by the other two classes due to its transitional nature. For Marx, class is a clearly defined and rigid structure with little in the way of social mobility being possible or likely. It is evident that Marx was more focused on the economic aspects of social stratification, particularly ownership of wealth and control of material possessions creating conflict and alienation within society where two main classes exist, that is, the ‘Bourgeoisies’ and the ‘Proletariat’.

On the other hand, Weber’s conception of what he calls ‘life chances, that is, an individual’s class position as a direct determinant of how his life will turn out, was critical in his comprehension of social class. Weber identified four different constellations of class, namely, the dominant property-owning and commercial class, white collar intelligentsia, petty bourgeoisie, and the manual working class. He says that within each class, there are major social divisions based around status and what he calls ‘party’.

Marx’s concept of social class is based on economic conflict, where one group in society is oppressed and taken advantage of by another. He was convinced that in industrialized societies, different classes were created as a result of the economic conditions at the time, in particular, the position of the classes in relation to the means of production. Therefore, the class that owns or controls the means of production is the class that extracts the surplus value at the expense of the other class. [1] It is this difference in the ownership and control of the productive process that creates class conflict. 2] Marx’s theory therefore, showed that in any society based on class, there will generally be two main classes, the class that produces the surplus value and the class that significantly benefits from that surplus value. Marx was convinced that classes were separated by their ‘economic conditions of survival’. This difference of conditions actually places the classes in hostile opposition. [3] Marx believed that the workers would revolt against the capitalist, take control of the means of production and usher in a classless society.

Weber found that this is a very simple view that does not take into account all the other forms of class inequality that people experience in society. Marx argued that there were two main social classes, the ruling class and the subject class. He defined these as the Bourgeoisie or capitalist and the Proletariat or landless wage workers. [4] Marx believed that the bourgeoisie use the mode of production in the form of capitalism to oppress the proletariat. The owners of production, the bourgeoisies, use the landless workers’ or the proletariats’ labour to produce their surplus value.

In turn, they paid their workers the smallest wage possible in order to ensure the highest possible profit, thus exploiting the working class. Yet, and in contradiction to this, both groups are also dependent on each other. The bourgeoisie depend on the proletariat to provide labour to increase their surplus value, and the proletariat depends on the bourgeoisie for financial survival. So through this forced union of common interests for each of the groups, such as the pursuit of personal gain by the bourgeoisie pulling one way, and the proletariat attempting to survive financially pulling the ther, this conflict creates a division and through this class is born. [5] Class for Marx was always defined in terms of its potential for conflict. Individuals from one class are in common conflict with members of the other class over the surplus value which may lead to an overthrow of the bourgeoisies. In capitalism, it is this inherent conflict that produces classes. [6] Marx believed that the capitalist in their drive for large profit margins not only exploited wage workers but caused them to be alienated from their jobs.

Workers in a capitalist society are alienated from their productive activity. They do not produce items based on their own ideas or to directly satisfy their own needs, but instead, they work for the bourgeoisie, who pay them a token wage in return for the right to use them in any way they see fit. Also, workers are alienated from the fruits of their labour, the product. This product is now the private property of the bourgeoisie to use as they deem appropriate. In addition, the worker is alienated from his fellow workers.

Marx’s assumption is that people generally need and want to work cooperatively as a natural aspect of bonding and belonging. Workers do not see their labour as an expression of their purpose but instead, they are alienated from their labour and therefore alienated from their true nature. Weber agreed with Marx’s class distinction between the bourgeoisie and proletariats but on the other hand, he disagreed that social inequality needed to be understood in terms of a number of defined categories and that it cannot be reduced merely to economic property relations, as put forth by Marx.

He argued that while the ownership of land and the means of production is an important determinant of social position it is only one factor shaping social stratification. [7] It is clear that Weber seemed to be more interested in an individual’s ‘market value’, that is to say, their level of education, skills and acquired knowledge. With these skills, the individual is open to numerous life chances and opportunities to further their career and improve their standard of living. [8] Weber’s belief that classes were made up of many groups’ ‘market opportunities and life chances’ were objectively much the same as that of

Marx but had no formal definition to distinguish the various classes. [9] He differed from Marx by arguing that the inequalities that created class were as a result of inequalities of the marketplace. The landless class is defined by the type of services individual workers provide in the market place. Workers are classified as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled and these distinctions were based on the value of the different types of labour. The wages paid for different skilled levels resulted in various standards of living.

This showed that those with the highest skill levels and skill sets will have the best life chances and, it is this that creates the different classes. For this reason, the highly qualified have a different class situation from those with no qualification. Weber’s theory of social class is based on the view that class division and inequalities reflect different life chances in the market and that a person’s class position is determined by the job market. These markets serve to divide and sub-divide classes, and as a result, differentiation between groups of workers becomes increasingly complex.

For example, the white-colour intelligentsia class include accountants and managers of public and private corporations and the petty bourgeoisie include owners of small businesses. Weber placed these two classes between the two classes identified by Marx. Weber presents a further view of society as being split into smaller groups in contrast to Marx’s prediction of an increasingly polarised society, that is, a society based on only two classes. Weber’s key point is that within class there is further separation in terms of status. His analysis of the market position and status is very useful when explaining differences in society.

For example, in the workplace, women, the disabled and the elderly have all found themselves discriminated against regardless of their class position. Therefore, people occupying the same class position may well be differentiated by status. For the individual, their status may be more significant than class as a source of identity. Weber also recognised that difference between classes cause conflict, but unlike Marx, he did not believe that this was a bad thing because conflict over resources was entirely normal in all societies. [10]

In conclusion, both theories were found to have relevance in today’s society as social class structure throughout the twenty first century is based upon Marx’s theory of the bourgeoisies and the proletariats and their struggle and the conflict which resulted between upper and working classes in society. Similarly, whilst Weber took a different approach in his determination of class position, with his idea of natural talents and skill and the income status this provides, his determination is relevant to class mobility in society today.

Weber thought that Marx’s concept of social class was a very simple view that does not take into account all the other forms of class inequality that people experience in society. In his analysis Weber recognised four different groups of class in contrast to Marx’s two. He identified two additional groups falling between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Weber’s starting point was to recognise that people are individuals and indicated that within each class there are major social divisions based around status and what he calls ‘party’.

By party he meant any organisation that helps their members pursue their common interest. Such common interest was summarised as a ‘market position’. Weber’s analysis can therefore be described as ‘gradational’ in contrast to the ‘relational’ approach of Marx. There was strong indication that traditional Marxist theory of the bourgeoisie class was based largely on economic wealth derived from ownership of production which is inaccurate for today’s society in class determination while on the other hand, Weber’s flexible theory of ‘life chances’ allows for a more realistic and modern understanding of how class is determined. It is admitted that while some aspects of the theories differ, the structure of class and inequalities are still present.


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