Week 6: Class and Status Inequality:
During this week we will be exploring social class as a form of social inequality
Sociologists tend to argue that inequalities are socially structured and are not based on
There are diverse sociological theories in explaining causes of social inequality
Inequalities are explained and often legitimized by existing ideologies in the society.
Social inequality: differences that become socially structured.
Social inequality reflects the characteristics of the society.
Social inequality is structured in the sense that it is:
o not random but follows a pattern
o displays relative constancy and stability
o backed by ideas that justify and legitimize it
Social differentiation: refers to separation of roles, and positions, division of functions division
of labour in society. It does not necessarily require or lead to social stratification.
Status: a recognized social position that an individual occupies in society
Ascribed status: a social position attached to a person at birth or one is involuntarily assumes
later in life; assigned on the basis of characteristics that one cannot control. Examples, estate in
Britain in medieval times, or caste in India.
Achieved status: a social position that people assume voluntarily and that reflects a significant
measure of personal ability and effort; assigned on the basis of performance. We tend to believe
most inequalities in modern industrial societies are achieved.
Meritocracy: The belief that social inequality is entirely based on personal ability and effort.
Class systems in industrial societies move towards meritocracy but keep some ascribed status to
maintain order and unity.
Conflict (Marxist) Perspectives on Class Inequality:
Karl Marx argued that society is best characterized by conflict.
A distinguishing feature of capitalism is that it is split between two central classes: the
bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
o The bourgeoisie control the means of production while the proletariat have only
their labour to sell in the marketplace.
Social Class: refers to a group of people with a common relation to the means of production
The means of production refer to things that create wealth including tools, factories, land,
and investments. Several characteristics of the capitalist mode of production distort the social structure:
private property, expropriation of surplus wealth, division of labour, and alienated labour.
Capitalists are able to keep wages low because capitalism ensures the existence of a
reserve army of labour.
The reserve army of labour refers to people who are unemployed and, consequently,
Marx argued that class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat would become
inevitable as inequality became more pronounced.
Eventually, this polarization would lead to the proletariat developing class consciousness.
Class consciousness is an awareness of workers’ shared interests and their ability to react
in those interests.
Marx predicted a socialist revolution, the eradication of capitalist economies, and a new
mode of production.
Often people who belong to a certain social class may not be aware of it. This implies
that class is an objective (can be observed by sociologists according to a certain criteria)
as well as subjective side to it (what a person perceives her/his class status)
ideologies: set of ideas values, beliefs that describe, explain, or justify various aspects of
the social world, including the existence of inequality
class -in-itself: a group of people who share a common relationship to the means of
class-for-itself: a social class is aware of their common interests in the production and
circulation of commodities and who are organized socially and politically to defend such
Declining role of the industrial working class in the modern society
Failure of socialist experiments in 20th Century
Class determinism: While paying due attention to class inequality Marxist approach
did not pay enough attention to other forms of inequality (gender, race etc.)
Separation of ownership and control (corporation, stock market) created confusion
about the nature of ruling class and created at least in appearance an impression of
Significance of consumption and material possessions in modern society:
consumerism created a sense of prosperity hiding widening gap between the rich and
the poor in many instances
Contemporary sociologists such as Eric Olin Wright adopted Marxist notion of exploitation
in modern industrial society.
According to Wright exploitation is present if three criteria are met:
• The inverse interdependence principle: the material welfare of one group causally
depends on the material deprivations of another
• The exclusion principle: exclusion of the exploited from access to productive resources
• The appropriation principle: exclusion allows exploiters to appropriate the labour of the
Weber was a conflict theorist who argued that there was more to social class than just property
ownership and economic inequalities.
His approach to social stratification included class, status, and party.
multiple dimensions of social inequality
Wealth –refers to the ownership