Class is a sociological concept describing a hierarchical social order based on money, property, commercial goods or quality of character, occupation, lifestyle, and in some instances, physical appearance.
Interesting tidbits from Wikipedia:
The term “class” is etymologically derived from the Latin classis, which was used by census takers to categorize citizens by wealth, in order to determine military service obligations.
In the late 18th century, the term “class” began to replace classifications such as estates, rank, and orders as the primary means of organizing society into hierarchical divisions. This corresponded to a general decrease in significance ascribed to hereditary characteristics, and increase in the significance of wealth and income as indicators of position in the social hierarchy.¹
In classical sociological theory, Karl Marx emphasizes the ownership or non-ownership of the so-called ‘means of production’ as a prime indicator of class. This ownership of the means of production includes land, factories, machines, tools and knowledge about how to be an effective producer of commodities.
Meanwhile, Max Weber stresses the importance of social status, prestige, and political power in addition to Marx’s ideas about ownership of the means of production.
Fairly recent sociological terms relating to class and hierarchical inequality are stratification and disparity.
Although classical sociologists took great pains to delineate just what class is, not too many contemporary thinkers agree on its definition. And some say that class doesn’t really exist. After all, how can we accurately determine a person’s supposed class? By money? knowledge? prestige? power? beauty? goodness? ability? age?
The term cultural capital refers to non-financial social assets that promote social mobility beyond economic means. Examples can include education, intellect, style of speech, dress, and even physical appearance, et cetera.²
Instead of focusing on the idea of class as some kind of absolute truth in itself, postmoderns like Michel Foucault emphasize the role of social power in determining outcomes among competing discourses. For Foucault, the idea of discourse refers to relative social truths (generated by soft and/or hard power) as well as institutionalized social practices. For Foucault, society is in constant struggle, so individuals and groups are always in a competitive kind of ‘war,’ even in peacetime.
Most sociological analyses of class overlook the message of many religious traditions, a message that essentially inverts worldly thinking about rank and order:
The worldly rich may be poor in spirit whereas the worldly poor may be rich in spirit (Matthew 6:19-20, Mark 10:21).
However, it seems a common mistake and gross simplification to suppose that all materially wealthy people are spiritually poor and that all materially poor people are spiritually rich (1 Timothy 6:17).
Whether or not the notion of class eventually disappears from our collective vocabulary remains to be seen.
- Is a sociology of the subject possible? An approach to the theories of Foucault and Touraine (2012) (foucaultnews.com)
- The Subject of Foucaultian Power (schizosophy.com)
- Why Sociology? (everydaysociologyblog.com)
- Re-reading Foucault: On Law, Power and Rights (2012) (foucaultnews.com)
- Doing Sociology Beyond Academia and Breaking Down The Otherness Of Applied Sociology (zuleykazevallos.com)
- Employers often more interested in hiring potential playmates than the very best candidates (eurekalert.org)
- Revisiting Marx (epages.wordpress.com)
- Sociology Majors on the Job Market (nortonbooks.typepad.com)
- Paul Krugman re-discovers Marx (leiterreports.typepad.com)
- The sociology of sociology: how sociology can help you become a better person (chrisattrill.wordpress.com)