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.