Sociological Ideas: Class and social stratification

Osama Al Mahdi*

Bahrain, October 20, 2015 (Alochonaa):  This article summaries and discusses the idea of ‘social stratification’ which describes how societies historically and globally are composed of groups of people with more or less advantages (e.g. more or less opportunities, material rewards, or social honour).

Giddens & Sutton (2013) summarise three key features that define social stratification:

  1. The larger social strata include group of people sharing certain characteristics, even though they might not interact or identify with each other. The strata stay, but individuals move in or out.
  2. The ranking of the social category has more power to determine an individual’s opportunity in life than chance.
  3. Although one person may move from rank to rank, or there is relatively greater mobility up or down in the ranks, the general rankings themselves change very slowly.

Class, race, gender and age are different types of social stratification.

Four Types of Social Stratification in History

Human societies have had many different systems of social stratification. They can be grouped under four main ideal types. By ideal types we mean models that don’t necessarily represent a particular historical reality but are useful for understanding actual phenomena. The four types are: slave societies, cast societies, the estate system, and class societies.

Slave Societies – Slave societies are those in which people can be owned as property by other people. Slave societies vary in terms of how many rights the slaves have (e.g. some can purchase their freedom, some have no legal rights). Slavery is illegal nowadays but there are still specific types existing (e.g. labour, sex and human trafficking).

Cast Societies – These are where an individual’s position is ascribed from birth because of specific characteristics (e.g. skin colour, parents’ religion or social status). Usually these are agricultural societies, such as India and South Africa in the past).

The Estate System – This system (in pre-industrial Europe and East Asia) existed for many centuries. It features social positions ascribed from birth with slightly more fluidity than cast societies as it is based on feudalism and aristocrats).

Class Societies – The class system is the main social stratification system in the current globalised world. It involves large populations that are divided into layers according to wealth, property, control over resources and lifestyle. Wealth and occupation are the main components of class differences. The class system is different from other class stratification types because:

  • Class in not wholly based on ascribed characteristics or on economic position.
  • Class is comprehensive and impersonal.
  • Education, work experience and marriage can change a person’s life chances and can have great impact on their class position.


Marx and Weber

Classical sociologists tried to deal with the dramatic changes that marked the industrial revolution by categorising them as changes from earlier forms of social stratification to the class stratification. Karl Marx’s theories were based on the idea that capitalism, as a new economic system, was replacing older economic system in terms of access to ‘the modes of production,’ or how people gain their livelihood.  In earlier modes of production the social strata divided people into those who owned land (aristocrats, gentry, slaveholders) in opposition to the people who produced for them (serfs, slaves, free peasantry).

In the capitalist mode of production, society divided into two main groups which were opposed to each other – capitalists (industrialists) and the rest of society (people who must sell their labour). Capitalists need ever cheaper labour to stay competitive and that creates ever worsening conditions for workers. The wealth created by workers selling their labour exceeded any wealth created in previous economic systems, yet workers had little or no access to it. According to this theory, increasing distance between the rich and the poor would lead to ‘class revolution’ where workers seize power from the capitalists. Many of Marx’s predations have not become reality, so some sociologists argue that Marx’s analysis is too simplistic.

Weber extended the Marxist image of class by introducing the concept of status and party into the analysis of social stratification. Weber thought that means of production is not the only element that decides social class. There are other factors such as:

  • A person’s market position (their skills, qualifications and experience)
  • Social honour/status (relations with influential people, dress, language ability, their homes and occupation)

A ‘status community’ is a group of people which has a shared identity based on similar levels of social honour accorded to them. Weber introduced the idea of a ‘party’ as a way of thinking about social stratification. A party is similar to an interest group but broader. It is a group that works together because of shared characteristics, such as religion, or ideals which link its members though shared backgrounds or goals. Weber’s ideas of class, status and party provided a multi-dimensional view which expanded on Marx’s ideas.

Marx and Weber Combined: E. O. Wright

Eric Wright developed a synthesis of Marxist and Weberian ideas. Wrights agrees with Marx that control over economic resources is vital element of class. There are three key dimensions of this control:

  • Control over investment or capital
  • Control over labour
  • Control over the physical means of production

The leading capitalist class has all these dimensions whereas working class has none. However, according to Wright, within those two extremes are groups that have access to some control and almost all people with society have to sell their labour. What differentiates people is their authority and skills. Possessing skills and expertise allows workers to negotiate for rewards for their labour.

Studying Class: Preoccupation with Occupation     

Sociologists tried to produce measurement for social class by looking at stratification in relation to a person’s occupation. Durkheim attempted to look at the differences between a pre- and post-industrial division of labour. Later sociologists looked at occupation as a marker of class because people in the same occupation tended to share similar experiences and circumstances.


Goldthorpe developed a relational class scheme through survey research. His system was based on market and work situation to analyse class, and he found that eleven classes fit in three general employment categories: service, intermediate and working class. However, many sociologists today think that stratification is achieved through cultural consumption, not just class position, e.g. cars, clothes, houses and holidays.

Internal Changes of Class Systems: The Bloated Middle Class

Sociologists have long debated class. Is it based on occupation or consumption? How can it be measured? By market position, or property control?

Nowadays the world is changing and the middle class has grown. Blue collar occupations have been replaced with white collar occupations.  The middle class usually includes white collar jobs who sell both mental and physical labour, however, the middle class is difficult to demarcate because its members are varied in backgrounds and interests.

White collar workers (professional, managerial and administrative occupations) are changing in our time because:

  • Modern societies require large scale organizations
  • Welfare states require professionals (social workers, teachers, health care staff)
  • Development of economies and industries increases demands for service experts (in law, finance, accounting and IT etc.)


Blue collar workers are not necessarily poor. More people have become middle class through material resources that blue collar occupations can now afford. Goldthorpe’s study (1968) found that although blue collar people might be changing in their consumption to match the middle class, blue collar workers stilled faced unstable work conditions and didn’t mingle with other classes.

Objective and Subjective Class Determinants

Pierre Bourdieu (1974) worked on notions of ‘capitals’ to identify different classes in France. According to Bourdieu, capital refers to the different sorts of resources a class group has. Four types of capital are important in determining and maintaining one’s class position.

  • Cultural capital: education, appreciation of arts, leisure
  • Social capital: networks of friends and contacts
  • Symbolic capital: good reputation, social status
  • Economic capital: property and money

Savage et al (1992) agreed with Bourdieu that class is connected to specific lifestyle and consumption patterns. Savage found three sectors based on cultural tastes and assists:

  • Professionals in public service had high cultural capital marked by active lifestyles and high community participation
  • Managers and bureaucrats had ‘indistinctive’ consumption with little activity in community participation and traditional preferences
  • There is a post-modern group with a lifestyle which combined unusual elements of the arts, sport and community activity

Savage et al (2013) published an update – the Great British Class Survey 2013 – which expanded the study of class in UK. It described seven main social classes:

  1. Elite
  2. Technical experts
  3. New affluent workers
  4. Lower levels of the class structure
  5. Ageing traditional working class
  6. Precariat (low levels of capital)
  7. Emergent service workers


Elites and Social Exclusion

Class is one system of social stratification that is connected to other systems in various ways (e.g. race and ethnicity, gender, life course). Some groups of people face disadvantages because they belong to certain social stratification systems. The idea of an underclass (marginalized or socially excluded people) has been used for groups that are subjected to forms of inequality such as long-term unemployment, homelessness and welfare dependency. For example, there are areas in the USA which are more social segregated where African Americans or Hispanic Americans are deprived of social capital (education, health care, transportation). This has created a culture of exclusion where people in these areas have little in common socially, politically or economically with people outside. Immigrant communities in Western Europe are facing similar circumstances.

‘Elite’ refers to the rich members of society, either within one state or globally. The elite tend to become increasingly rich and form a small proportion of society that is divided from the mainstream or majority of the society. The is one component of the ‘transnational capitalist class.’ This class has a number of features

  • They have international and prestigious qualifications
  • Have important roles in governments and central banks and globalizing organizations
  • Have positions in the world economic organizations


Interplay of Gender and Economic Inequality

Gender is one of the most entrenched fields of inequality. What is the overlap between gender and class inequality? Until recently, many sociologists assumed that class inequalities governed gender inequality. In other words, a women’s class position depends on their father or husband social status. There have been number of criticism of this idea because of the changing nature of households. More women are working, women can have better jobs than their husbands, and single mothers or unmarried women can have good jobs too.

Class Mobility and Rigidity

Social strata changes slowly, however, there can be great deal of internal movement of individuals. Social mobility is when individuals move up or down between different socio economic levels. Vertical mobility (moving up to a higher class) is a measure of a society’s openness. There are other types of mobility such as downward mobility and horizontal mobility.

  Social Class Now

Some of the older elements of class are starting to disappear. Class stratification still holds a powerful determining force over the lives of many people, whether measured by occupation, wealth or consumption. Class is connected to a range of inequalities such as educational access, health and life expectancy. Class polarisation both within and between nations in also increasing.


* The Writer is an Assistant Professor at the University of Bahrain

** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on this topic. Please send us your submission at 

Categories: Sociology

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