Social Class | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Social Class

Social class refers to persistent social inequalities. Two distinct types of social inequality have been identified by researchers working with 2 different sociological theories.

Social Class

Social class refers to persistent social inequalities. Two distinct types of social inequality have been identified by researchers working with 2 different sociological theories. One theory is derived from the work of Karl Marx, the other from writings by Max Weber, which are somewhat critical of Marx's work. The Weberian approach became popular in Canadian and American sociology in the 1940s to 1960s, but currently the Marxian approach is in ascendancy.

In the Marxian approach, social classes, which are defined by ownership of the means of production and labour power (see also ECONOMICS, RADICAL) exist in all capitalist societies. Means of production include the machines, buildings, land and materials used in the production of goods and services. Labour power (the physical and mental capacity of people to work) is bought and sold for wages (or salary) by the owners of the means of production or by their agents.

Marxists identify 3 main classes: the petite bourgeoisie, who own businesses (the means of production), work for themselves, and do not employ others; the proletariat or working class, who do not own the means of production and who sell their labour power for wages; and the bourgeoisie or capitalist class, owners of the means of production, who purchase labour power and acquire a living and accumulate wealth from surplus value provided through workers' labour. (The theory of surplus value is based on the premise that part of the value of goods or services that people produce is determined by the labour power that goes into them.) Surplus value is the total value of commodities when exchanged in the marketplace, minus the value of labour power and the value of the means of production. The rate of surplus value is surplus value divided by total wages. This rate is used by Marxist researchers as an indicator of the rate of class exploitation, ie, the rate at which value is being extracted from the labour power of the working class by the bourgeoisie.

The Marxian social class distinctions do not refer to types of occupation or levels of income. For example, a plumber could be a member of the working class (because he sells labour power and does not own a business), or he could be a small capitalist who owns a company and purchases the labour of several plumbers, or a member of the petite bourgeoisie. Also, members of different classes may have similar, or overlapping, incomes. An owner of a small engineering firm with a few employees may in one year earn less than a worker, eg, a successful engineer employed by a large firm. However, capitalists generally have more power than workers to determine the distribution of wealth, because capitalists own and control the means of production and because the working class is not fully organized in opposition (eg, in unions or political organizations). Marxists believe that a conflict of interests (eg, wage disputes, and opposition by capitalists to the formation of unions) between capitalists and the working class is an inherent feature of capitalism. Capitalists try to keep wages low and productivity high to maximize their proportion in the distribution of wealth; workers attempt to increase their share of wealth through higher wages and to improve their working conditions.

The non-Marxists claim that social classes can be defined through inequalities in income, educational attainment, power and occupational prestige, and they often study these forms of social inequality to the neglect of social class in the Marxian sense. They have identified different kinds of social classes depending, for example, on which of the other dimensions of social inequality has been selected for study. People are categorized and given ranks according to their income, occupational prestige, power or education, the difficulty being that the same people may fall into different ranks according to different dimensions of social class. For example, the very rich, the middle class and the poor can be easily distinguished from one another by using standards of income and wealth, but those in the middle-income category, eg, white-collar and blue-collar workers, will be accorded quite different degrees of prestige for their different jobs. By the same token, although white-collar jobs usually carry more prestige and income, this is not always the case. The same is true of differences in educational levels. Those with secondary-school diplomas more often have white-collar jobs and higher incomes than those with less education, but some skilled blue-collar workers, such as electricians, earn comparatively high wages without high-school training. Finally, the respective amounts of power attached to different jobs, incomes and educational credentials are difficult to discern.

Non-Marxists emphasize the distribution patterns of scarce rewards, ie, the numbers and social backgrounds of the people who acquire university educations or high prestige jobs, while Marxists emphasize the social activities and interactions of the classes, eg, who purchases labour power from whom and what is the rate of exploitation of one class by another. Non-Marxists are concerned with explaining the patterns of social inequality, while Marxists study the way class relations explain social change. Because of the attention to change, Marxist research generally has a historical dimension.

Marxist-oriented researchers in Canada have studied the development and consequences of Canada's branch-plant ECONOMY, the process of "de-industrialization," the heavy investment of both foreign multinationals and Canadian-owned corporations in the Third World and the exploitation, in Canada, of staple raw materials for export, which incurred a dependence on export markets beyond the control of local capitalists and workers. Other research of this kind indicates that there has been a long-term trend in industrialized countries of a rise in the rate of surplus value, and that owners in various industries have stood together to try to enforce low wages. Studies have also shown that Canada's petite bourgeoisie has declined to a small proportion of the labour force (eg, from 12% in 1951 to about 6% in 1986), that the working class has remained fairly stable over recent years (approximately 86% in 1951 and 90% in 1986), and that the capitalist class has grown slightly (2% in 1951 to about 3% in 1986). There is also evidence that the capitalist class has evolved into a class of investment capitalists, with stock ownership but limited managerial control. At the same time, a large category of top-level managers has been formed.

Non-Marxist researchers have discovered that, by the occupational criterion, Canada has a large and growing middle class of white-collar workers (eg, 25% of workers in 1921, 55% in 1986); a smaller and rather stable blue-collar sector (eg, 31% in 1921, 40% in 1986); and fewer workers in the primary sector (fishing, logging and mining) and in agriculture (the number of workers in agriculture declined from 33% in 1921 to 4% in 1986). In education, the middle category of those with some secondary-school education is the largest (48% for males and 51% for females in 1986). The category of those with some post-secondary training had grown to 21% for males and 22% for females in 1986. Studies of income distribution reveal that the top 20% of individual income earners receive about 40% of all earned income while the bottom 20% receive only about 4% of all income (see INCOME DISTRIBUTION). Further studies have shown that the attainment of income, education and occupational prestige are related to the social class of parents and to region and ethnic origin. Also, it has been found that people with better occupations, income and education have better life expectancies, better health, use medical facilities more, belong to more clubs and organizations, vote more frequently and have fewer children. A study by Wigle and Mao has found, from data on 21 metropolitan areas in Canada, that the life expectancies at birth of men living in the most affluent areas of the cities were 6.2 years longer than those for males from the least affluent areas. The comparable figures for females showed less difference, however, at 2.9 years. What accounts for the income-life expectancy association is still a matter of debate.

A synthesis of Marxist and non-Marxist approaches to social class may eventually emerge because researchers from each tradition are now beginning to study the types of inequality emphasized by the other. This should result, fortunately, in different terms being used for the categories identified in each approach. "Social class" or "class" is increasingly being reserved for the types of distinction described by Marx, while the term "socioeconomic status" will likely apply to differences in income and occupational prestige.

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