Evaluate social class as a sociological concept

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The sociological concept of social class has been distinguished in many ways by many theorists. Many people represent social class simply as class, “a recognized form of social stratification by economic or cultural arrangements of groups in society”[1]. For this assignment I will examine “social class” as a sociological concept and the ways in which different sociologists represent social class over given time.

Functionalists are theorists that see society in a “positive way and tend to see the good”[2] in everything. For functionalists “stratification is something which is beneficial and positive”[3], as this is what structures humans into the norms and values in society.

Meritocracy is the main view of a functionalist. Talcott parsons argued that “education is like a bridge between the family and wider society. Preparing us for adult roles in society”[4]. Thus in modern society today we are judged on our status, which is achieved through education. This is available to everyone from young age, as “schools operate on a meritocratic principle”[5] therefore everyone is treated in the same way and everyone has the same chance to succeed, thus those who do succeed and make an effort will be rewarded, as they will fill the most important jobs in society, and will have enough money to enjoy the pleasures in life; however those who don’t, will have to work harder to support themselves and their families. Thus it is education what divides us different class structures in society and how we are recognized by others.

Marx Weber’s view on social stratification was quiet “multidimensional”[6]. He believed that social stratification involved three distinct dimensions of inequality. “A property class is primarily determined by property differences, a commercial class by the marketability of goods and services and a social class makes the totality of those class situations within which individual and generational mobility is easy and typical.[7]” Thus he suggested that class was divided by ones “economic position, status and power”[8].

Marxists tend to see society in a negative way. These sociologists tend to believe that “society is dominated by the ruling class”[9]. Therefore society is based on “conflict between the ruling class and the working class”[10].

Karl Marx was the creator of the Marxist theory. He believed that the capitalist society had split into two class systems. The “bourgeoisie who were the owners of capital, purchasing and exploiting labour power, using the surplus value from employment of this labour power to accumulate or expand their capital[11]”; and the “proletariat the mere owners of labour power with no resources other than the ability to work with their hands, bodies, and minds. Since these workers have no property, in order to survive and obtain an income for themselves and their families, they must find employment and work for an employer. This means working for a capitalist-employer in an exploitative social relationship, that is, the worker works extra time for a capitalist[12]” Marx believed that these two classes would always be at war with one another as the proletariat was getting exploited. Thus he presumed it was the status one was born with that lead them to their wealth and their position in life. Marx did believe that revolution would occur and the rise of communism therefore there would be no classes.

Adam Smith argued that society consisted of three major classes. He claimed society had split “into three parts; the rent of land, the wages of labour, and the profits of stock; and constitutes a revenue to three different orders of people; to those who live by rent, to those who live by wages, and to those who live by profit. These are the three great, original, and constituent orders of every civilised society, from whose revenue that of every other order is ultimately derived[13]”. Smith here suggests that there are three major classes in society. The landowners who obtain money by renting their land, capitalists who own the means of production and make profit and the labourers who sell their labour power to earn minimum wage.

Pierre Bourdieu is the most recent French sociologist. His theory of social stratification was based on social, economic and cultural capital. He suggested that “differences in cultural capital marks the differences between classes….one has to take account of all the characteristics of social condition which are associated from earliest childhood with possession of high or low income, which tend to shape tastes adjusted to these conditions”[14]. Here Bourdieu seems to suggest that one’s class has been distinguished from their birth and how one has been raised therefore if one was born in a middle class family, this persons attitude, choice of clothing, food and educational achievement would be much different to that of a working class family. Thus he suggests that the cultural capital identifies ones status or social class in society, thus it is embedded in us as soon as we are born.

In most modern western countries, stratification compromises of three layers. The first layer is known as the “upper class, this class is composed of the wealthiest members of society, whose wealth tends to be inherited[15]”. The second class is the “middle class, these people tend to have a good education, own a family home and hold a managerial or professional post”[16]. The final class is known as the “lower or working class, are those employed in lower tier jobs, they tend to be unemployed or hold below average incomes”[17].

To conclude the sociological concept of social class has changed to a certain extent over time. Karl Marx one of the first people to identify the structure of people amongst people suggested that society consisted of two classes. The bourgeoisie the owners of production who had inherited their wealth and the proletarians who had to work for labour power. Whilst Marx Weber’s and Talcott Parsons view of social class was quiet similar, both theorists believe that occupation is what labels individuals in society, thus is achieved through education. Whilst Pierre Bourdieu’s suggests that one’s is status is obtained as soon as one is born which is embedded in the lives we live. Overall I believe that the stratification system, is viewed differently amongst almost every country, however people in most modern countries no longer acknowledge themselves by class, as education is available to all, therefore every individual from a high or low income family has the opportunity for success.

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