Classes and Workplaces
Karl Marx and Max Weber both acknowledged social class as a key determinant of
inequality. For Marx, people’s relationship to the means of production determines their class
position. Weber, on the other hand, developed a multidimensional concept of social class.
This chapter also looks at how workplaces and work relations have changed since the
nineteenth century, and the impact of this change on social class formations. More recently, as
Canada has shifted to a post-industrial economy, non-standard work arrangements are becoming
increasingly common, as is unemployment and underemployment. While unionization has been
effective in redressing workplace inequality, union membership has been declining steadily.
While work is a significant source of meaning and identity, it is also a source of stress,
anxiety, and depression, especially if the job involves low pay and low autonomy. The stresses of
unemployment and underemployment are also associated with mental health problems. Low-
paying, low-autonomy jobs are associated with physical health risks, as well, such as heart
Despite these grim findings, the chapter closes on an optimistic note: a small minority of
Canadians would leave the workplace forever if they were to win a million dollars.
In this chapter, you will
• learn about the theories of class relations that various sociological thinkers have
• observe how the organization of work has changed over time and recognize the factors
that have influenced these changes; and,
• identify the kinds of class inequality that exist today and their effects on health and crime.
bourgeoisie: According to Marx, the controlling class, which owns the means of production.
class: According to Marx, a group of people who share the same relationship to the means of
production, or to capital; according to Weber, a group of people who share a common economic
situation, based on (among other things) income, property, and authority. 2
class consciousness: A group’s awareness of their common class interest and their commitment
to work together to attain collective goals.
false consciousness: A willingness to believe in ideologies that support the ruling class but that
are false and disadvantageous to working class interests.
non-standard work arrangements: Dead-end, low-paying, insecure jobs, also known as
petit bourgeoisie: The lower middle class; a group of people who own the means of production
on a small scale, such as owners of small shops.
post-industrialism: An economic system based more on services and information than on
manufactured goods or primary production.
proletariat: According to Marx, the subordinate class, who work for wages from the
reserve army of labour: People who, because they are impoverished and often unemployed,
form an easily mobilized, easily disposable workforce at the mercy of employers.
Inglehart, R. (1997). Modernization and Postmodernization: Cultural, Economic, and Political
Change in 43 Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
This book contends that we can view societal development as a package of economic, social,
and political trends, having great consistency and predictability. The author’s argument is
supported by data from the World Values survey, based on data from over 40 countries.
Moore Jr., B. (1967). Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the
Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.
Here, the author outlines the divergent paths different societies take toward modernity, and the
ways these paths influence the political outcome. Moore analyzes modern political systems—
and the rise of fascism, communism, and liberal democracy—against the backdrop of their
development. His main argument is that it is the evolving relationship between lords and
peasants, more than any other factor, who foreshadows a country’s future political orientation. 3
Roscigno, V. J. (2007). The Face of Discrimination: How Race and Gender Impact Work and
Home Lives. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield.
This work focuses on the prevalence, character, and consequences of racial and sexual
discrimination in the workforce and their impact on aspects of personal life (for example,
home life). Topics include discrimination in particular economic sectors, sexual harassment
at work, and the racialization and sexualization of certain workplaces.
Sennett, R., & Cobb, J. (1977 ). The Hidden Injuries of Social Class. Cambridge, UK:
Cambridge University Press.
This book introduced fascinating new theories about the effects of social class on people at
the bottom of the class structure, including the effects on those who cannot find ways of
improving their situations. For those who think ‘class’ is a trivial abstraction, this book is an
Veblen, T. (2007 ). The Theory of the Leisure Class. Oxford, UK: Oxford University
This classic work, a landmark study of the ‘upper class’ of American society, outlined the
habits and behaviours of the very rich, showing how they used all means possible to distance
themselves from people who had to work to survive. Their strategies engaged fashion,
beauty, animals, sports, business, religion, education, and so on. Veblen shows how many of
the tactics used by the upper class were narcissistic and wasteful, exacerbating societal
inequality in the process.
Warner, W. L., Meeker, M., & Eells, K. (1949). Social Class in America: A Manual of
Procedure for the Measurement of Social Status. Chicago: Science Research Associates.
In this classic work, the authors undermine popular beliefs that all people have equal
opportunity in a democratic society. The authors outline the typical nine-level status order of
societies, from the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich. They assert that social class
permeates every aspect of our lives and influences our decisions, our experiences, and even
our personal development.
International Labour Organization (ILO)
Human Resources and Skills Development Canada (HRSDC)
Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS)
Ontario Ministry of Labour
Canadian Labour Congress (CLC)
Canadian Committee on Labour History
Multiple Choice Questions
1. According to Karl Marx, a social class is
a) a group of people who own the means of production.
b) a group of people who own the means of production on a small scale.
c) a group of people who works for wages.
d) a group of people who share the same relationship to the means of production.
2. According to Max Weber, a social class is
a) a group of people who share the same relationship to the means of production.
b) a group of people who share a common economic situation, based on income, property,
c) a group of people of who have a similar level of wealth and income.
d) a group of people who share a social position in society, with a common degree of
prestige, esteem, and honour.
3. Karl Marx believed class conflict as a problem inherent in __________, while Émile
Durkheim saw class conflict as a problem inherent in __________.
a) exploitation; anomie
b) power differences; the decline of solidarity
c) capitalism; industrialism
d) alienation; power differences 5
4. What is the term Karl Marx used to refer to an easily mobilized, easily disposable workforce?
a) reserve army of labour
b) lumpenproletariat army of labour
c) proletarian army of labour
d) exploited army of labour
5. Which of the following statements about feminist theory of the workplace is true?
a) Feminist theorists tend to subscribe to a critical analysis of the workplace.
b) Women and men, even within the same class, may have very different work experiences.
c) Capitalists profit from the work of women even more than they profit from the work of
d) all of the above
6. The meanings of work and unemployment are of particular interest to
a) social constructionists.
b) symbolic interactionists.
d) critical theorists.
7. According to Richard Edwards, the dominant management practice today is
a) simple control.
b) technological control.
c) bureaucratic control.
d) Both a and c are correct.
8. The term ‘job degradation’ is associated with the work of
a) Karl Marx.
b) Harry Braverman.
c) Max Weber.
d) Erik O. Wright.
9. Karl Marx referred to a group’s awareness of its common class interest and the commitment
of its members to work together to attain collective goals as
a) incipient unionization.
b) dominant ideology. 6
c) class consciousness.
d) class collectiveness
10. Karl Marx used the term _________