Social classes can be defined as the categorization of the individuals in a society according to their financial viability or intellectual capability thus forming a hierarchical arrangement of the society which can also be termed as social stratification. The most basic form of social classification is between the powerful and the powerless, the wealthy and the poor.
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On the other hand, culture is defined as the cumulative collection of information, knowledge, beliefs, values, property, religion and attitudes possessed and shared by a group of people which are passed down through generations and are obtained individually and group in social learning.
This makes the definition of culture broad in the sense that it is the mutual structures of information that are possessed by a reasonably large group of people. Therefore, culture in a collective aspect is the way of life of a group of people which represents generally accepted explicit and implicit codes of conduct and behaviors which are formed as a result of former deeds or habitual demands. With the above definitions, it is apparent to note that undeniably class can be seen as a cultural phenomenon.
Historically, social classes have been inherent to human beings in all forms of civilizations. Documented literature of the early Roman Empire reveals that societies were classified according to intellectual achievements and also according to material possessions (Day, 2001). There are principally two theories that study and explicate the different impressions of social class and they are the Weberian and Marxian theories.
According to Maximilian Carl Emil Max Weber a German sociologist who introduced the seminal sociological elucidation of class and initiator of the Weberian theory; society is basically divided into the upper class, the middle class and the lower class (Goldthorpe & Erikson, 1992). The three-component theory of stratification of class was based on status and politics as the fundamental determinants of class with Weber noting a divergence in the interaction of these two values according to different societies (Day, 2001).
Karl Heinrich Marx another German sociologist derived that social classes were determined by the ownership of the means of production such as the machines, property and materials used in the production of goods and services (Elster, 1986). In addition, the capacity to procure and own Labor power through wages or salary by essentially owning the physical and mental capability of the workers also constituted class (Barbrook, 2006).
According to Marx, there existed only three major classes which are the petite bourgeoisie or the self employed owners of the means of production, the proletariat or working class and the bourgeoisie who own the means of production and also pay for labor power (Elster, 1986).
Analysis of the Marxian and Weberian models
In order to identify with the assertion that class can be seen as a cultural phenomenon, it is imperative to analyse the different perceptions of class. Bearing in mind that the Marxian and Weberian theories were based on sustained historical analysis, the study of the application of these theories makes the examination of class on a cultural arena comprehensible.
In the Marxian model, the petite bourgeoisie own businesses which are the means of production and are basically self-employed (Elster, 1986). Therefore, petite bourgeoisies have no interest in external labor power consequently do not have any form of employment and work for themselves (Barbrook, 2006). The other class in Marxian model is the proletariat who are the working class. This class holds the individuals, who sell their labor power for wages or salary and therefore have no ownership of the means of production.
The other class is the bourgeoisie which is the commercial class that owns the means of production and also purchases labor power (Day, 2001). This class creates wealth through the accumulation of the surplus value acquired through the input of the labor power. However, the Marxian social classes do not identify the vocational partitions of the classes nor does the model distinguish between the levels of income (Day, 2001).
If for instance an individual works as an electrician, then that person could be classified as a proletariat or a constituent of the working class since the electrician sells labor power but does not necessarily own the business. The electrician can be a bourgeoisie and through his business he can procure the services and the labor power of other electricians. The electrician can furthermore be a petite bourgeoisie meaning he is entrepreneurial and basically runs the business in his own (Goldthorpe & Erikson, 1992).
The electrician who procures the services of a few employees may also earn an inferior income per annum as compared to another engineer who is working for a successful larger business (Barbrook, 2006). Nevertheless capitalists or bourgeoisies possess the economic achievement of the workers hence profoundly influence the distribution of wealth, since the bourgeoisies manage the means of production.
The working class or the proletariat is not also entirely prepared in presenting their grievances for instance through unions, movements or political organizations leaving the capitalists with massive economic power (Day, 2001). There exists a prevailing conflict of interests between the bourgeoisie and the working class in the Marxian model of capitalism for instance the disputes pertaining to wages and the capitalists’ antagonism to the formation of labor unions.
This is a global phenomenon whereby the capitalists strive to maintain low wages yet aim at high output in order to get the most of the market ratio in as far as the distribution of wealth is concerned(Barbrook, 2006). Workers employed for their labor power on the other hand endeavor to augment their allocation of wealth by calling for an increase in wages and an enhancement of their working environment.
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Several societies have exhibited a Marxist-oriented form of classification and with regard to culture; this kind of social stratification has been documented in the history of many developed countries (Elster, 1986). Britain and America for example have practiced the Marxian model ever since the industrial revolution that began in the late eighteenth century (Goldthorpe & Erikson, 1992).
Britain for example experienced a dynamic shift from small scale manual production of goods to mechanized manufacturing in the textile, iron and coal industries (Day, 2001). This improved trading opportunities leading to an expansion of the transport system as the production capacity increased. Capitalists had to employ manual labors of the working class to toil in the factories owned by the bourgeoisie (Barbrook, 2006).
Industrialization basically divided the society into the bourgeoisie, a larger portion of the proletariat. The American case is quite similar with the emergence of the cotton, steel and oil industries. The working class in both nations strived to form labor unions that were adamantly resisted and participated in several strikes through which they demanded better pay and better working conditions (Day, 2001).
Max Weber was more of the view that classes in societies were grouped in accordance to variations in income, political power, academic achievement and occupational values which seem to have been omitted in the Marxian model. Weber acknowledged that social class was a dynamic aspect with diverse kinds of social classes on different perception denominators which were essentially property, prestige and power (Day, 2001).
The Weberian model acknowledged that though individuals are classified according to their income, occupational status and power, there was an inherent paradox in which the same people may be classified into different categories according to different dimensions of social class (Goldthorpe & Erikson, 1992).
The wealthy for instance, could be classified apart from the middle class and the poor and also be a separate class easily distinguished from one another when income and wealth are used as a common denominator. However, individuals in the middle class group for instance will be accorded relatively diverse levels of prestige determined by their different jobs for example white-collar and blue-collar workers.
In the academic sphere, individuals with degrees and higher diplomas are usually allocated white-collar jobs and generally receive higher incomes than those with lower academic achievements though some skilled blue-collar personnel for instance technicians might receive similar or moderately higher income without necessarily banking on higher academic achievements (Barbrook, 2006).
The Weberian model more or less underscored the distribution patterns of scarce rewards which is reliant on the number and social backgrounds of the individuals who make up a social class thus accentuating the patterns of social inequality. Though this model is more difficult to discern, it can be identified in almost all levels of society (Day, 2001).
In its most basic form it can be identified in individuals who share a common value. For example football players or accountants or doctors will form a class of their own for they believe they possess power or prestige in their activity hence their common activity acts as a form of social glue (Barbrook, 2006). On a broader scale, classes will simply be divided into the upper, middle and lower classes.
The upper class can be determined through the level of income or family wealth. The middle class is the broadest of all classes and constitutes the upper and the lower middle classes. In developed countries like Germany for instance, there has a great and emergent number of middle class white-collar workers. The upper lower class has constituted a smaller but constant blue-collar sector.
This is true in all strata of society with education for example being dominated by the middle class who compose of the individuals with some secondary school education. Income distribution is profoundly not in favor of the lower class with the individuals receiving an average of sixteen percent lesser of what individuals in the upper class earn as income (Barbrook, 2006). This model can be successfully applied in all societies, modern and historic due to the inherent nature of man to classify himself.
The study of the Marxian and Weberian is a key pointer as to how class has been effectively achieved and maintained in society. The Marxian model was launched during the industrial revolution when large scale production became part of economic growth.
Wealthy individuals became the bourgeoisie by owning land, factories and other means of production while the workers became the ones to create value through the given means of production. Petite bourgeoisies were present but few and usually produced at a relatively small scale for example painters and artists.
People eventually identified with the Marxian model as a stable form of social stratification and it became widely accepted in the world over. Since the eighteenth century to the twenty first century, people still practice the Marxian model with the capitalists being the individuals who own large companies or organizations and employ workers to increase production. The companies could be local, national or international such as energy companies, banks, car manufactures among several others.
The Weberian model on the other hand was present even before the industrial revolution but more subtle when compared to the Marxian model. Rather than be only validated from an economic perspective like the Marxian model, the Weberian model is more reliant on power, prestige and property.
Therefore, this model essentially creates more classes within the Marxian classes with regard to social inequality. This can be viewed as the most prevalent form of social stratification since it is more based on social opinion. For example, the English monarchy has been in power since the seventeenth century and was and still is viewed as an upper class because of the power, property and prestige they bear.
If the monarchy was to be placed in a Marxian model, it would not logically fit since the monarch is not perpetually involved in the means of production. Therefore, the notion and awareness of social class has indeed been passed down from generation to generation to a point whereby individuals naturally associate with those whom they share a common social background with.
Barbrook, R. (2006) The Class of the New. 2nd Ed. London: OpenMute.
Day, G. (2001) Class. 2nd Ed. New York: Routledge.
Elster, J. (1986) An Introduction to Karl Marx. 3rd Ed. London: Cambridge.
Goldthorpe, J., and Erikson R. (1992) The Constant Flux: A Study of Class Mobility in Industrial Society. 4th Ed. London: Macmillan.