What is Social Class?
A social class is a group of people of similar status, rank, or common characteristics (i.e. lifestyle) and commonly sharing similar levels of power and wealth.
This group of people is identified on the basis of their relationship to the means of production (economic) who have differential access to wealth, power, and certain styles of life. Although the two main criteria such as wealth and occupation together were considered to create social classes, other criteria such as education, hereditary prestige, skills, and recognition by others also play an important part in class formation.
Social class is a principal type of social stratification found in all societies. Sometimes the word class is used to represent a group of professors, artists, engineers, doctors, etc., it is also used to refer to things whether good, better, best, and so on.
But the concept of social class is more used in sociology representing a kind of social stratification than anything. Society is divided into various classes. A class represents people with certain economic features in society.
Karl Marx has divided society economically into the capitalist and proletariat class. In sociological interpretation, a class should not only be defined as an economic class but also as a social class. The social structure encompasses various classes through which a society is stratified. We can see people considered as black or white as per color, rich or poor as per their economic status, upper or lower as per their caste. Thus a group of people affiliated to certain characteristics is called class.
- According to Giddens (2000), “a class is a large-scale grouping of people who share common economic resources, which strongly influence the type of lifestyle they are able to lead”.
- Horton and Hunt (1968) write: “A social class is defined as a stratum of people of a similar position in the social status continuum.”
- Ginsberg, ” A class is a group of individuals who through common descent, the similarity of occupation, wealth and education have come to have a similar stock of ideas, feelings, attitudes, and forms of behaviors.”
- Karl Marx, “A social class as all those people who share a common relationship to the means of economic production.”
- Maclver and Page, “A social class is any portion of the community marked off from the rest of the social classes.”
Nature or Characteristics of Social Class
C.N. Shankar Rao in his book ‘Sociology’ has described the characteristics of social class, the importance of which are given below:
Class is a status group: Class is related to status. Different statuses arise in a society as people do different things, engage in different activities, and pursue different goals.
Class is a mode of feeling: Class system exhibits three modes of feelings. They are:
- A feeling of equality in relation to the members of one’s own class.
- A feeling of inferiority in relation to those who occupy the higher status in the socio-economic continuum.
- A feeling of superiority in relation to those who occupy the lower status in the hierarchy.
It is an element of prestige: Each social class has its own status in society. Status is associated with prestige.
Mode of lifestyle: A social class is distinguished from other classes by its customary modes of behavior. This is mostly referred to as ‘life styles’ which include such matters as the mode of dress, the kind of houses and neighbor in lives in, the cultural products one enjoys, the kind of books, magazines, and TV shows to which one is exposed, one’s way of spending money and so on.
It is is an open group: An open class is one in which vertical mobility is possible.
It is an economic group: The basis of social class is mostly economic.
Class consciousness: It is the consciousness that makes the members of the same class aware of the socio-economic status of their own class. In Marx’s analysis, class consciousness creates an atmosphere for the working-class people to seek their right to go against the capitalist class in order to seize the power for their own sake.
Class consciousness and the class struggle: Karl Marx laid great emphasis on class consciousness among the working class that leads to the realization of class identification, class solidarity, and finally to class struggle.
Nature or Characteristics of Class System
The following are the key characteristics of the class system:
Hierarchy of status group: It is a system of hierarchy of the status group. In general, there are 3 classes – the upper, middle & lower classes.
Social ranking: It is a system of social ranking based on occupation, wealth, education, age, sex.
Inequality: It is a system marked by unequal distribution of wealth and power.
Open system: people of one particular class can change into another status, thus there is greater social mobility from lower to higher social class. It is a system in which status is achieved by one’s own efforts rather than ascribed.
Class consciousness: Wherever a class is formed, there arises the feeling of in-group i.e. we-feelings that lead to the conflicting between the haves and have nots and when the proletariats (i.e. working class) become conscious of the situation where the upper class is exploiting them, then they unite and revolt.
Distinct mode of lifestyle: It is a system where each social class has a distinctive mode of life (lifestyle), behavior, a set of values, and cultural expressions of each class.
Feeling of superiority & inferiority: It is a system based on the recognition of superiority and inferiority in relation to those who stand or below in the social hierarchy.
Social restriction: In general there is endogamy in a class. To maintain their status & position they mix among themselves & it is seldom that marriage between upper & lower class is wished.
Types of Social Classes
The number of social classes is not fixed, nor do any definite boundaries separate them.
Giddens (2000) developed a four-fold classification that exists in western societies. These are;
- Upper class (the wealthy, employers, and industrialists, plus top executives)
- Middle class (which includes most white-collar workers and professionals)
- Working-class (those in blue-collar or manual jobs)
- Peasants (people engaged in traditional types of agricultural production)
- Underclass, which is composed of ethnic majority and underprivileged minorities. Members of the underclass have worse working conditions and living standards than the majority of the population. In the Nepalese context, we can keep “Dalits” in this category.
How is a Social Class basis for Social Stratification?
Karl Marx and Engles are considered the pioneer of the concept of “social class”. In sociology, social classes describe one form of social stratification. When a society is organized by social classes, it is possible for people to attain higher status than the status with which they started.
This movement is possible because social classes are not based on birth but on factors such as education and professional success. For e.g. someone born into a low-income family can achieve a higher status through education, talent, and work, or perhaps through social connections. Hence, a society with social classes allows for some social mobility.
Stratification can also be based on social class. The social class that refers to divisions in society based on economic and social status forms various strata (upper class, middle-lower, peasants, underclass). People in the same social class typically share a similar level of wealth, educational achievement, type of job and income, set of values, attitudes, beliefs, and behavioral norms which differ from those of the other classes.
People are treated differently by others based on social class. For e.g. the social status of an office clerk is not the same as that of the professor and therefore, students will not greet them in exactly the same manner.
Approaches, Theories, or Views to Social Class
The functionalists such as Marx, Weber, etc. have all provided their sociological views on social class. On the basis of class (3p= power, prestige, and property), there are classes in our society. For e.g. upper class, middle class, and low class.
According to Marx Karl
Karl Marx believed that class membership was determined by economic factors (ownership & non-ownership). He identified two main classes in capitalist society:
- Bourgeoisie (capitalist/ruling class): Wealthy and own property, big businesses, land, and factories their main interests are higher profits.
- Proletariat (working classes): Own no property and are forced to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie in order to survive. Their main interest is higher wages.
These two classed have very different interests and this leads to conflict between them (conflict theory).
According to Weber
Max Weber identified four main classes with different life chances in the labor market:
- Property owners
- Petty bourgeoisie
Both, Marx and Weber, saw class as based on economic factors but Weber also stressed the importance of status and power factor in determining life chances.
According to Chaitanya Mishra
Chaitanya Mishra a renowned sociologist of Nepal has categorized the class structure of Nepalese society in two broad categories. i.e. Upper class and lower class
The upper class is categorized into four subgroups;
- The land-owning nobility
- Urban administrative, technical, and business elites and
- National and local level politician.
Lower class also is categorized in to five subgroups;
- Petty traders
- Wage labors
- Marginal and non-marginal farmers
- Tenants and
- Landless people of rural Nepal
Difference between Caste & Class
Caste and class are two dimensions/bases of social stratification, which differ in the following ways;
- Caste is based on birth. Whereas, class is based on birth, education, wealth, type of occupation, etc.
- The number of castes comparatively higher. Whereas class has five subclasses such as upper, middle, lower, peasants, and under-class.
- Caste is a closed system with no or least social mobility. Whereas class is an open system with increased social mobility.
- The caste system is based more on birth or hereditary relations. For e.g. a child of Brahmin will always be a Brahmin but not so in class. Whereas class is more based on achievement than birth.
- Even, Sanskritization is unable to change caste. Whereas, the class can be changed quite easily.
- Status in Caste System is inborn and ascribed. Whereas, status in the Class System is acquired & achieved.