Today in the United States, we read in the newspapers constantly about the state of â€œclassesâ€ in our country. For instance, it is often said at tax time that the Federal budget is balanced on the backs of the â€œmiddle class.â€ To people in the â€œlower class,â€ the promise is held that in a capitalist society, by working hard you can lift yourself out of the lower income bracket to join the â€œmiddle class.â€ Entrepreneurs who can â€œfind a need and fill itâ€ can make it into the â€œupper class.â€ The point is that this kind of thinking, a product of â€œsocial stratification theory," is ingrained upon our minds. As a society, we accept it as a fact that we live in a multi-tiered â€œclassâ€ system, and that this is the way it should be because it is central to our nature as human beings.
As a society we should ask ourselves why we think this way, and whether there is another possible way of explaining our current situation. In contrast to this social stratification theory, we can examine the class theory of Karl Marx, who defines â€œclassâ€ in a completely different way. Marx proposed that there are only two classes in capitalist society, owners of capital (elite), and producers of capital (popular masses). Marx believed these are by nature involved in a basic and historical conflict.
The proponents of each theory are attempting to make a model of society in an attempt to understand the inequalities between individuals in that society; however, they differ in approach. The proponents of social stratification theory hold that inequality derives from the differing abilities of the members of society, and that societies need to put their most qualified individuals into the most vital positions, which earn them greater rewards. The proponents of Marxâ€™s class theory state that the relationship between the two basic classes is historical and based on exploitation of one class by another, and that the current capitalist system, having grown out the feudal system by means of the industrial revolution, is designed to keep the elite class dominant over the larger lower class. Marxâ€™s simple model is more comprehensive and useful because it endeavors to explain how we arrived at our current state of affairs, and to predict the outcome of the obvious class conflict in our society.
An example of a social stratification model can be made of the Feudal System, with a dominant nobility (betters). Barons were at the upper strata, higher than the knights, who were at a lower strata. The subjected masses (lessers) were serfs and peasants; undoubtedly some were more clever and successful than others who occupied a lower strata. Another model would be the current United States, where the social strata starts with the â€œupper-upper class,â€ the â€œupper class,â€ the â€œupper-middle class,â€ and so on down to the poor, or â€œlower-lowerâ€ class. In highly detailed social stratification models, trends and analyses are very complex. An excellent example of this is The Process of Stratification: Trends and Analyses by Robert Hauser and David Featherman. The many pages of tables and detailed analysis are exceedingly difficult to comprehend, which makes them difficult to use.
A model of social stratification is a snapshot in time which details the society as it exists at that time. In The Persistence of Social Inequality in America, John Dalphin states that â€œsocial stratification suggests that a society has divisions, cleavages, or splits within it. More specifically, it means that a society is divided into hierarchically arranged levels of families (and, increasingly, individuals), who have unequal access to what is valued in that society.â€ It is important to understand that the differing levels in the stratification model correspond to differing social strata, not to social classes as defined by Marx.
In â€œMarxist Class Analysis Versus Stratification Analysis as General Approaches to Social Inequality,â€ James Stolzman and Herbert Gamberg argue that social stratification theorists are not even really interested in explaining class, its origins and potential changes, and are not interested in assigning any historical context. It is helpful and important to know and understand stratification models in our society, but to be comprehensive we should also ask how social stratification became the way it is, and try to predict how it is going to change in the future. In Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in the United States, Harold R. Kerbo explains social stratification theoristsâ€™ view that â€œsociety is held together by the general consensus over the major values and norms in the society.â€ He goes on to say that they view the â€œtask of social science as that of making a value-free analysis of society in order to uncover basic social laws, rather than attempting to promote social change.â€ We should be interested in social change, assuming we can better our society.
Marxian class theory does attempt to explain the existence of classes through historical perspective, and to make predictions for the future of capitalist society. Stolzman and Gamberg state that â€œMarxist class analysis provides a radical or critical perspective in the sense that it endeavors to lay bare the foundations of class inequality by commencing inquiry with an examination of the historically specific institutional arrangements and social relations attending the prevailing mode of production.â€ They go on to argue that Marx did not claim that his definition would best show the stratification of capitalist society, but â€œrested the case for the utility if his mode of class analysisâ€ for its â€œillumination of the structural basis and direction of macroscopic change in the development of capitalist society.â€
Marx believed that class and class conflict begin with private ownership of the means of production, and that at the root of the conflict is differing class interests. His model of class conflict is basically a statement of a relationship that exists in capitalism: that the elite class (the smallest sector in society) owns the means of production, the product, and its surplus value, and therefore holds the power to dominate the larger working class. Marx also believed that with the continued development of class consciousness and the intensification of class conflict, â€œsociety would become polarized between the owners of the means of production and the rest of society. Since the holders of power would never voluntarily give it up, revolution would be necessary.â€
We are increasingly aware of the truth of Marxâ€™s beliefs in our society. We have seen many revolutions throughout the world. At home, we have a small, elite group of individuals who hold the overwhelming majority of the capital, and a huge, stratified working class, every level of which is subject to the control of the elite. In some cases Marxâ€™s predictions have not yet proven to be valid. Harold R. Kerbo points out that â€œthe nations that have experienced â€œcommunist revolutionâ€ (Russia, China, Cuba, Vietnam), contrary to Marxian ideas, were less industrialized, principally agrarian societies. In the most advanced capitalist nations, where he saw communist revolution as most likely, the working class has been less than revolutionary.â€ But being a good scientist, Marx used his theory to make a prediction, which is more than can be said for social stratification theorists. Furthermore, it may be too soon to pronounce Marx wrong. His theories in time could prove to be correct.
We realized our misinterpretation of the nature of social classes when â€œcorporate downsizingâ€ became a well-known phrase in our societyâ€™s individual and collective consciousness. Members of our society have felt endangered by the threat of loss of their individual means of sustenance, and to many that loss has become reality. We have become aware that in many cases only one paycheck makes the difference between a homeless person and ourselves (assuming we arenâ€™t already homeless). â€œWorkers, however affluent, are exploited and impoverished insofar as the creative power of their labor is contracted to build a social world which, by buttressing the sovereignty of capital, only further entrenches their own subjugation.â€ It is against these thoughts that one realizes the illusion of the â€œmiddle class.â€ It does not change oneâ€™s class if one moves up or down a few tiers of social strata. If one does not own oneâ€™s own product, but is continually basing their livelihood at the discretion of a capitalist employer, then one is subject to losing that livelihood at the same discretion, no matter how affluent.
Both social stratification theorists and class theorists agree that social stratification exists. The main difference between them is what questions they are asking about their society. The former group is attempting to see the world detailed as it exists, but the latter group is asking additional questions in an attempt to better understand how we got to where we are, and to predict where are we going. The importance of these questions and finding their answers is what makes the class theory more useful. After all, the best use of social science would give the most complete understanding of our present society and its historical perspective, while at the same time giving us tools to attempt to predict and hopefully influence social change for the better.