Does Class Matter in Canada?

A script I wrote in 1993 for a Knowledge Network telecourse.

There are various ways that we can think about the question: Does Class Matter in Canada.  Because the question arises in the context of the conflict perspective in sociology, I want to address it from that perspective, but from a classical conflict perspective as well as from a more contemporary perspective.  From the classical conflict perspective in sociology, the question relates to the genesis of capitalism.  That is, to what extent class analysis can explain the course of history.  There is a contemporary conflict perspective on the question too, but it focusses on inequalities in society and life chances.


The question “Does Class Matter” arises partly because, in the popular mind, history is created mostly by politicians and political and military decisions.  That’s what gets into the history books.  Class, by any definition, doesn’t enter into the picture.  But there’s more to it than that.  In an article called “Does Class Matter,?” Wallace Clement of Carleton University notes that class analysis is currently under attack for being too narrowly focussed and for not bringing ethnicity, region and gender sufficiently into sociological and historical analysis.  I agree with Clement when he concludes that these factors are important, but that fact alone doesn’t lessen the importance of class.  And it’s necessary to point out, I think, that class doesn’t refer only to the “economic” relationship between the working class and the capitalist class, it refers to the entire spectrum of relations in society that are the experience of living in class society.


Class does kind of hit you square between the eyes, though, in a situation like the one surrounding closure of the Cassiar mine in northern British Columbia in February, 1992   In this case, the “company,” a subsidiary of the Princeton Mining Corporation of Vancouver, decided to close the mine for various reasons.  The effect of this closure, whatever the reasons, was the dislocation of 400 workers and their families, who were required to move out of their community, the company-owned town of Cassiar.  The place was then put up for auction.  The mine owners had every right to close down the mine and, in a sense, miners have to expect that mines must eventually shut down.  The decision on the part of the mine owners, nevertheless, demonstrates clearly the absolute power that the capitalist class has in disposing of the working class as it sees fit without regard for community, democratic process or anything else.  There’s no question of who’s in control here.  Same goes for mill shutdowns in Port Alberni and in single-industry towns all over the province.  Just ask the people of Sparwood how they were affected by the bankruptcy and shutdown of a Westar mine there.


The clear demonstrations of power by the capitalist class in these circumstances are not so clear in others, especially with regard to the experience of everyday life in capitalist society.  Many contemporary conflict theorists have focused on class inequality and its effects in everyday life.   Here, the overwhelming “collective consciousness” or ethos of capitalist life more often than not masks its class-based origins and sometimes, as with racism, family violence or education, there seems to be no connection whatsoever with class.  We have the illusion of living in a relatively classless society.


Class analysis from a classical conflict perspective is not concerned so much with documenting the personal experience of life in capitalist society as with how history unfolds in the dynamics of class conflict.  According to Marx, if you occupy a position in the class that owns the means of production, the factories, mines, mills, etc., then you are considered a member of the ruling class.  If not, you’re working class.  Obviously, however, there are significant differences in the life chances of a bank vice-president sitting in the top floor office in a downtown Vancouver skyscraper and those of a kitchen worker in a fast food restaurant, even though they’re both, technically, working class.  Furthermore, there are a number of ways that we get sorted out in our society, by gender, ethnic origin, religion, education, occupation, income, citizenship, organizational affiliation, etc…

There’s a very significant fragmentation and stratification of the working class in our society.


There’s very little chance of moving from one class into another in our society if we think in terms of a ruling class and a working class.  Hope burns eternal in most of us, however, of “getting ahead,” or of doing just a little bit better than the Joneses…even if we’re all on welfare.  Even at this level, however, there is really not as much mobility as you might think and we hold our relative positions in the class structure remarkably consistently from generation to generation.  The reason is that once a particular group gains an advantage in the class structure, it will do whatever it has to to maintain, strenghten and transfer that advantage to the next generation.


When sociologists talk about life chances in capitalist society, they refer to the ability or potential to live a happy, healthy and economically secure life…to quality of life.  It’s pretty obvious that there are different qualities of life, that there are major differences in the life chances of a single mother on welfare and those of a college president.  Conventional wisdom and liberal ideology don’t recognize the existence of social class, so inequality between a single mother on welfare and a college president is always seen as the result of personal characteristics.  The burden is always on the individual.  You occupy your place in society because of intelligence, or lack of it, willingness to work, thrift, courage, etc… By this analysis, those of you who have poorly-paid jobs, who are unemployed, underemployed, or on welfare, with low levels of schooling and no money are that way because you’re stupid, aren’t willing to work hard enough, or you’re wimps, or all three.  You may even believe that yourselves.  If you’ve bought the dominant ideology in our society, you probably do go along with this “cream rises to the top” business.


The problem is that persistent inequality in our society is not explainable with reference to personal characteristics alone although they may play a role in some cases.  In our society there are gradations of statuses on the basis of income, occupation and education.   Sociologists often refer to these gradations as strata or classes.  These should not be confused with the classical conflict definition of class, which refers only to your relationship to the means of production.  It’s not quite as simple as this, but if you score high on all three characteristics, good job, high education and lots of money you are considered upper class.  Score low and you’re lower class.  It’s only too obvious we’re not all equal in terms of condition, but what about opportunity? We have equal opportunity don’t we?  If we work hard, we can get ahead, can’t we?  Sorry to disappoint you.


If you were born female to native parents in Masset on the Queen Charlotte Islands what do you think your chances would be of being appointed to the Board of Directors of Noranda, or General Motors, or the Bank of Montreal?  Would your chances be any better if you were born male to a single mother in Burnaby?  What about if you were born male or female to the president of a major corporation living on the waterfront in West Vancouver, in Point Grey or Shaughnessy?  What all of these questions address is the relationship between social stratification, social mobility and life chances, but at the individual level.  Stratification goes much beyond the individual level.  It is a social fact.  What we have a hard time accepting is that we are somehow locked into a particular strata or class.  Is there social mobility? Let’s look at the way most of us think of as the best way to get ahead: education. Is there a class bias in access to higher education in B.C.?  Is a post-secondary education accessible to all and does it lead to social mobility and a better life?  In a paper called Education Under Seige: Financing and Accessibility in B.C. Universities, published in 1985 but still very much relevant today, Neil Guppy of UBC concludes that there has been no democritization of access to university.  He reports, based on a study he conducted that vocational institutes and community colleges cater to working class or lower middle class students while universities continue to cater to upper and upper middle class students.  And the reality is that a university education still produces greater material rewards so unequal access to university tends to reinforce social inequality.


For most of us, most of the time, class, defined both in classical and contemporary terms, has an enormous influence on our life chances. There you have it.

Class: What is it?

On Class: A script for the Knowledge Network Sociology Series.

By: Roger Albert

© 1993 Knowledge Network.


Boy, that guy sure has class!  Have you ever heard that before?  Or maybe you’ve heard: she doesn’t have much money, but she’s sure got class!  Well, what do we mean by class in this context?  We can’t just say “well, you know what I mean”…because this is a sociology course and sociologists don’t say “well, you know what I mean.” Sociologist need more than that.  As sociologists we can’t assume that other people know what we mean, or that we share their meanings with them.  So what DO we mean by class here?  I think that we’re communicating a whole lot of things when we talk about class like this. although I think that we’re mostly unconscious of the content of this kind of communication and its symbolic significance.  We can tell a bit about what’s important to us, and what we value by paying attention to the hidden messages in our conversations.  Implicit in the notion of class as I just used it in my examples is the fact that in our society people have different incomes, occupations and educational levels and those who have lots of income, prestigious occupations and lots of education are better than people who don’t .  They can afford to dress expensively, drive new luxury cars, eat in “classy” restaurants.  We admire them, wish we were like them and see them as being successful.  People who are less wealthy but who have discriminating tastes and try to emulate the people who have more are given thumbs up for giving it a good shot.  It also happens, of course, that we run across the comment: boy, that guy’s loaded, but he’s got no class at all! In this case, we have expectations of what rich people do, how they behave, you know, swavely, and we are disappointed when an obviously wealthy person doesn’t live up to our stereotypes and expectations.


Thorstein Veblen, an American economic historian and social philosopher who died in 1929 wrote a book called The Theory of the Leisure Class.  In this book he explains that we can relate to people just above and just below us on the social scale.  We are scared as hell of dropping down a notch and we’d sure like to catch up to the Joneses.  As regular people we can’t relate to people whose lives are so different from ours, that is, members of the leisure class, that class of very wealthy people who don’t need to work, at least not in the way most of us think of work.  They tinker with their stocks and bonds, or hire other people to even do that.  They invest.  They don’t collect wages or a salary.  They are the David Rockefellers of the world.   But let’s get back to basics.  Class, what is it?  Is it simply an attitude, a set of behaviours that we see as cool, calm and collected?


Well, class is different things to different people.  There’s a major difference in the way a structural functionalist or liberal sociologist and a conflict theorist or Marxist conceive of class.  And their conceptions have little in common with the common view of class in the sense of “classy” restaurant.  I’ve got a dictionary of sociology that defines class as a totality of persons having one or more common characteristics.  Class, according to the dictionary, may or may not signify the existence of a hierarchical scale of social power.  There are age, nativity, occupational, industrial, social, ideo-politico-economic, and income classes says the dictionary, but races and nationalities don’t qualify as classes although they divide the population.


In the “m” section of the same dictionary, we find the definition of middle class.  It says here that the concept of middle class used to really mean something in the 19th century, but that now most of us think of ourselves as middle class:  intellectual workers with moderate incomes, skilled artisans, prosperous farmers, white collar workers and salaried employees of large mercantile and financial establishments.   According to the dictionary, they have few common economic interests and whatever unity they possess lies in their standard of living and ideals of family life, their mores and recreational interests.  Well, this dictionary was first published in 1941 and it isn’t politically correct anymore (although my copy was printed in 1970).  The dictionary definition of class is basically a liberal definition whereby class is defined in subjective terms, by the way people think of themselves and describe themselves.  Not all sociologists are happy with that definition, however, and some think that the word class is too ambiguous or ideologically charged to be much good to use in a scientific study of society.  They want to be able to measure class objectively, recognizing that people don’t all have the same standard of living.  In doing so, they borrow a term from geology, stratification, which describes how the earth’s crust gets layered over millions of years via sedimentation and other processes.  Sociologically, the term refers exclusively to one’s relationship with the market…at the level of consumption.  If I can buy more than you, I’m higher class.  Class in this sense is separated from what is considered a person’s political and social status.  All three phases of life, class, status and political power constitute the context of the distribution of power in society.  This way of thinking also fits with the ideas that in our society, politics, business. education, law. etc., are all separate and independent spheres of activity and power in one is totally unrelated to power in another.  From this perspective, class can be measured objectively and people can be ranked on the basis of income, occupation and education.


A conflict theorist or Marxist would say that the concept of stratification is fine but it doesn’t explain much.  Sure, some people are rich and some aren’t, but just because a person is wealthy doesn’t mean that that person is powerful.  Win a lottery and get rich, sure, but do you have power? Depends on what you mean by power.  If we think that the ability to purchase things is power then we might think of the wealthy as powerful, no matter what the source of their wealth.  If we believe this, we are basically subscribing to a liberal view of the world.  The conflict theorist looks for the source of power elsewhere, at least initially…in the production and reproduction of wealth and ownership of the tools to recreate wealth…that is the factories, mines, mills, etc..  From this perspective, the basic class division is between the owners of the means of production (mines, mills, etc) and those who work for  the owners of the means of production and who are dependent on them for their livelihoods.  And the issue here is not relative individual power, Bill Gates versus you and I, but in the role that the owning and working classes play historically in the evolution of capitalism.  In this way of thinking, the affluent worker, who may hang out at the club and work in the highest offices in the highest sky scrappers downtown, is relatively wealthy, maybe, but is still dependent on the owning class.  And the determining factor for class analysis is not the worker’s affluence or poverty, but his or her dependence.  From a structural conflict perspective, its not the fact that there is social inequality based on relative wealth that’s important, but the problem of access to the opportunities to get that wealth.  That’s the difference between equality of condition and equality of opportunity, but that’s a topic for another day.