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Class, in sociology, a concept that denotes social strata in human societies.

The notion of the class entered relatively late in human evolution into societies, which already had established systems of caste, estate, or status distinctions between the groups making up the society. Each of these systems defines individuals and groups in terms of four functions—how they are recruited; what they do; whom they can marry; and what their ritual rights and duties are in relation to other strata. Moreover, each of the systems is primarily sanctioned by a particular regulatory or norm-maintaining process. Caste is religious, estate legally, and status socially, sanctioned. The class is distinctive in that its only sanction is economic. Everyday usage or media terminology is different from the sociological definitions given here.


The stratification of caste, estate, and status precede class in history. Classes are formed by markets out of those people who produce a specialized type of labour or capital. Thus classes became conspicuous with the beginnings of industrialization. Karl Marx is recognized as the principal founding author of class terminology, though Max Weber is credited with an important advance in the clarification of the terms used.

Marx linked his class terminology, especially the terms “bourgeoisie” and “proletariat”, to a theory of history that held that material interests are the fundamental human motivators and that people in a state of nature (as Thomas Hobbes saw) lived in perpetual, endemic, and fragmented conflict. People in civil society had structured struggles over the means of production (the wherewithal to wrest a living from nature); these struggles are class conflict. On the basis of this theory it was predicted that there would be a revolution by the exploited proletariat, a period of proletarian dictatorship, and finally, an end to war and specialization once a classless society had been reached.

With Marx and the transition to industrial society, the terminology changed. Before, the references of stratification were to the aristocracy, the merchants, and the “lower orders”. Now the fight between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat dominated political analysis. In current times, with the postulated rise of post-industrial society, the question has been raised whether the class has lost its relevance; whether history, in the sense of the Marxist dialectic, has come to an end.


Nevertheless, the importance of class in certain countries, such as Britain, as a fundamental determinant of the life chances of individuals and groups is difficult to deny the evidence by non-Marxist as well as Marxist observers. In most countries, the inequalities of capital, income, health, and education are dramatic. While some social scientists attempt to explain inequalities by reasons of gender, race, religion, region, or intelligence, other writers point to the large shifts in stratification which have taken place as the social structure of human society is transformed by technology. For example, the underclass is said to have developed with the growth of affluence, the welfare state, the wider division between rich and poor, the availability of drugs, and the rise of absentee paternity.

The case for retaining class analysis is strong. There are persistent inequalities of health and educational attainment that have proved highly resistant to social policy in rich countries and that are closely related to the class position. A class is defined as a group with common relations to labour or capital markets. The anatomy of the class lies in the occupational structure of a country. This means that classes have distinctive and usually unequal access to privileges, advantages, and opportunities.

Both the market and the working conditions of different classes are typically unequal. In contemporary societies, for example, there are directors of large corporations with salaries of several million per annum, while recipients of public welfare or pensions receive less than £5,000. The children of these parents are more likely to attend different schools, gain unequal qualifications, have contracted occupational fortunes, have very different housing conditions, have systematically unequal access to marrying partners of uncommon beauty or wealth, and unequal chances of actual physical survival. These are the continuing realities of class.


However, it is often not noticed that, historically, class was a liberating force in the lives of individuals. Compared with caste, which persisted in India for over 3,000 years, or estate, which was to be found in Europe for a thousand years after the decline of the Roman Empire, class does not tie a person to the occupation pursued by his or her parent; nor does it oblige people to marry within the sub-caste of their own birth. The class is not a formally hereditary principle; it permits social mobility between generations.

A rough estimate is that a correlation between the parental and filial class of about 0.35 has been typical of modern industrial societies, where 0 would indicate a totally flexible relation between the generations and 1 would represent a rigid caste society. The class has been emancipating in that it does not legally or religiously require a person to enter any particular profession or trade. Self-recruitment has also been the order of the day for many professions, from doctors to dockers, and restriction has been widespread. However, openness in this respect has been the distinguishing mark of class systems, despite a natural tendency for parents to try to turn their own advantages into opportunities for their own children, and despite the disadvantages of poorer families in launching their children towards success in school.

Finally, because the productive system of society undergoes more or less permanent revolution, there have been vast changes in the class structure, especially in the 20th century, in all parts of the industrial world. At the end of the 19th century, countries like Britain or Belgium were almost wholly proletarian consisting greatly of the semi-skilled and unskilled factory and other workers. Other countries such as the United States, USSR, France, or Poland were dominantly agrarian with a majority population of farmers, peasants, or rural workers. The working class was then defined essentially as men employed in factory production who, together with their wives and children if they had them, constituted nearly 90 per cent of the population. Today it is quite different. The working class in the sense defined has shrunk to less than half, and various middle-class occupations, far less in manufacturing and increase in service industries, have expanded to fill the gap. More people have access to education, including higher education.

Class, in any case, may be thought of as dominating a lesser space in social life. There has been a spectacular rise in the employment of women and the growth of part-time jobs. The traditional working-class factory worker started in early adolescence, retired at 65, and died soon after (or before). Now childhood is protracted, work is less certain and to be found in the home as well as in the workplace, retirement comes earlier, and death is more likely to occur later. In the 1930s the ratio of workers to non-workers was 9 to 1. It is now 3 to 1 and is likely to become 2 to 1 on present demographic trends.

Contributed By:
A. H. Halsey

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