Definitions of Social Class and What to Do with the Non-Economically Active

Sociology argues that social group membership influences just about everything people think and do.  Membership in social groups is usually akin to location in social structure.  Membership in economic groups is of particular importance, as it is said to influence a wide range of social outcomes.  Defining social groups—and the qualifications for membership – is a major preoccupation among sociologists.  In everyday use, and even among sociologists, the word “class” is used non-sociologically, meaning “a kind of category:”  “A set, collection, group or configuration containing members regarded as having certain attributes or traits in common: a kind of category” – American Heritage Dictionary 4th ed. (2000).  Similarly, the term “status” is used in many ways, including a “position relative to that of others,” “a state of affairs” (also Amer. Heritage Dictionary). [see Lecture Notes on social class on this point]

Most sociological definitions of social class say that class is social grouping that has something to do with/is related to economic resources/assets (see esp. Marx and Weber).  With regard to class and social stratification, the question is whether the divisions and boundaries in a scale of economic assets comprises a distinct class.  We must seperate social class from social stratification.  Economic divisions does not constitute class divisions.  Let’s se how this works by discussing what is meant by “economic.”  If it is simply income or occupation, or market capacity, then no, class is not economic division, though class certainly has a relationship to these assets.  Class is therefore more than strata.  It is relationships between/with other classes that makes class a real entity.

Classes in the Weberian sense are relational in that “resources shape strategies for acquiring income.”  In class societies, these strategies are inherently conflictual.  Classes share material interests – how people realize their interests depends on their wealth and market capacities.  However, each class has a conflict of interest with other classes because each class seeks to keep what they have and add more to what they have.  Because resources/assets are finite and are distributed unequally within capitalist society each class is in a struggle with other classes to realize their material interests.  This is referred to as “distributional conflict.”  It is the relational aspect of class that puts the “social” in “social class.”

Where does this conflict take place?  In the workplace between managers and office workers; between professional associations; between political organizations/political parties; in the neighborhood, keeping lower class housing away from upper class (high rents and credit checks, though sub prime lending offered the illusion of mobility, these houses are still not within upper class neighborhoods). 

What form does this conflict take?  Social closure (Parkin, Weber), exclusion, pay differentials legitimized within bureaucracies, access to professional organizations, educational institutions, government policy of economic redistribution policy. 

What is the consequence of this conflict? Rigidifying the stratification structure, differential life chances.  Class conflict is struggle over wages, working conditions, social welfare, and living conditions, and freedom from authority.

If class is primarily one’s relationship to the economic sphere and spheres of production, what to do with the non-economically active?  A paper from Marshall et al (1996) empirically demonstrates that these non-economically active groups do not constitute a social class:

Social Class and Underclass in Britain and the USA
Author(s): Gordon Marshall, Stephen Roberts and Carole Burgoyne
Source: The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 47, No. 1 (Mar., 1996), pp. 22-44


It is commonly argued that the research programme of class analysis is undermined by its apparent neglect of large numbers of economically-inactive adults who do not form part of the analysis, but are affected by class processes, and form distinctive elements within any class structure. This paper disputes the claim that welfare dependents, the retired, and domestic housekeepers show distinctive patterns of socio-political class formation. Nor are the class-related attributes of the supposed underclass so distinct that they require separate treatment in a class analysis. Evidence which supports the orthodox strategy of sampling economically-active men and women is taken from national sample surveys of adults in Britain and the USA.

For class measurement, see here.

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