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Sociology: Did Class Die? sample essay

Some commentators claim that Britain is becoming a classless society, one where the stamp of class leaves only a faint impression on people’s lives. Before checking whether this statement is true or not, the definition of “class” should be fathomed first. In a broad sense, social class is a collection of similarly placed individuals from a certain social group, who not only share common interests, but also similar lifestyle and cultural identities (Giddens, 2009: 458). Another key phrase supposed to be clear is the “faint impression”, which indicates that the class system now only has little influence on people’s lives. This essay will first introduce three basic theories of social class-Functionalism, Marxism and Weberianism. After examining the class changes in UK, it will discuss the significance of social classes from two opposite views. Finally, an evaluation of class will be conveyed, and question deriving from the first sentence will be answered.

Functionalists held a positive attitude towards social classes (also called social stratification). Talcott Parson, one of the famous functionalists, argued that the emergence of different social classes is both inevitable and functional. The social stratification is thought to stem from the common values. Once common values exist, dissimilar individuals will be evaluated by shared values and thereby forming their own value consensus, which is the agreement of their group identity, resulting in the ranked social classes (Haralambos, Holborn, 2004:4). Durkheim, recognised as the funder of Functionalism, claims that the relationship among diverse social classes is cooperated and interdependence. Integrating together, these social groups perform different functions to prevent society from breaking down, which makes stratification functional to promote social stability (Parsons, 2009:7).

Though in functionalists’ opinion, social classes show the harmony of a society, Marxists’ attitude towards social stratification is relatively more cautious and realistic. As Marx used economic factors to define classes, whose members share the same relationship to the means of production, there appear two major social classes in a capitalism society-bourgeoisie (ruling class) and proletariat (working class), which proves to be assertive later. It’s believed that the conflicts between these two classes won’t stop once capitalism exists in the society, because proletariats, who sell their labour force in order to gain more money, are constantly exploited by bourgeoisie (Haralambos, Holborn, 2004: 11).

Moreover, Marx used the idea “class in itself” to describe a group of people who only share the same means of production, while “class for itself” describes those classes which have class consciousness and class solidarity with a higher level. Marx stated that because of the wider utilisation of machinery, proletariats will gradually aware their exploited by bourgeoisie, being “class for it” and overthrow the bourgeoisie (Kirby, 1999:81). However, with finally the winner going for bourgeoisie as they become wealthier quicker than proletariat, the disparity between these two classes will be larger, which is called “the polarisation”.

Similar to Marx, Max Weber admitted the importance of economic factors in dividing social classes. Nevertheless, he also saw the significance of non-economic factors including status, ethnics, religions, occupations, and lifestyles. Thus, the criteria used to evaluate classes should include both economic production as well as cultural issues from a wider concept. Additionally, Weber denied the Marx’s prediction about polarisation. Holding the view that the majority of petty bourgeoisie will be white-collars or skilled manual workers instead of being non-skilled thereby being ruled out by the society, Weber believed the “middle class” will surely expand although new technology and machinery spreads (Fulcher, Scott, 2007:793).

In the past few decades, there have arisen dramatic changes in the UK society. Above all, the process of being converted into a fragmentary society deserves attention. A fragmentary society means that the boundaries outlining the different level of classes become less clear or precise (Fulcher, Scott, 2007:801). One major cause is the occupational change and social mobility. With the expanding production and the advanced technology, occupational needs in primary economic sector as well as second economic sector decline, while it provides more job opportunities in tertiary economic sector, including service and commercial occupations. Therefore, numerous previous manual workers succeeded in getting rid of the dreary and monotonous work, getting closer to the living standards of middle class.

At the same time, some wealthy executives or capitalists, who belonged to upper class prior, may mobile downwards along the class levels, as the booming growth of economy and increasing numbers of shareholders in the market make them less competitive compared to the past. Another factor causing fragmentary society is geographic alienation. That manual worker got higher standard living conditions caused them living far from each other. Lacking of interaction, the poor class solidarity emerges, far from being “class for itself”. After all, it was their dinking their fill in the pub previously that let them integrate and unit together. Thus, the differentiation between middle and working class is reduced. Attention should also be drawn in another influential change-the globalisation, which provides divers opportunities that everyone can access to, shortening the distance of world while increasing consistency.

Given the changes above, the concept of social class seems to become less practical in the modern society as the boundaries of division is getting more ambiguous, implying the death of class. Indeed, some sociologists, such as Pakulski and Waters, supporting to Postmodernism, didn’t believe that social class is still that important. They thought that social mobility and changes in property ownership turned former social class now into a mixture of variety of people who have less class consciousness, plus globalisation increases the similarities among people and makes capitalists class less competitive in the market. Those are the reasons why industrialised society was viewed to be changed from being organised class societies to a new stage “status conventionalism”, where people are judged by their consumption patterns, lifestyle and other cultural factors. Pakulski emphasised four features of the status-conventional societies-Culturalism, Fragmentation, Autonomisation and Resignification. Culturalism means social classes lie in lifestyles, aesthetics and information flows.

Fragmentation stresses the importance of patterns of consumption for the associations and identifications among different status groups, which indicates that it’s people’s consumptions that determine who they are. Autonomisation separates individuals’ independent values and behaviour from their class background. Resignification denotes the fluidity for people’s changes of their preference and recognition. Hence, postmodernism is more about style of consumption rather than means of production. Being faced with increasing number of choices, ranging from marriage partners to occupational and educational opportunities, individuals are allowed to choose identities themselves by choosing their lifestyle values. Although Pakulski and waters admitted existence of the social inequalities, they employed a new set of criteria instead of the concept of class to cognise them as new cleavages. (Kirby, et al. 2000:674)

“The biggest concerns of late modernity are problems created by modern science and technology.”(Beck, 1992: 19) By stating that, Beck put forward a “risk society” concept to describe the risks deriving from the development of modern technology, including radiation, excess agricultural production and atomic energy. The problem is that there is no difference for people from diverse classes to take these risks, even the upper class cannot avoid them completely, thus the dissimilarities among classes reduced while individuals’ identities were enhanced, weakening the impression of class.

Though what Beck claimed was correct, a few sociologists criticised that Beck exaggerated the influence of modern risks on the class. However, they are still other sociologists who don’t think the class is doomed to death. John Westergaard argued that the differentiation of class in Britain turned out to be harder in the late 20th century, showing the class is still alive or even harder. The Postmodernism myths of classlessness was criticised by Westergaard neglecting the results of scrupulously conducted research (Kirby, et al. 2000:674,675). Meanwhile, following the theories of Marx and Weber, Westergaard acknowledged that social structures are set by people’s economic order, and stressed the importance of life chances in the form of social inequalities. Westergaard used numerous statistics and findings from British government to show the larger income inequalities among social groups, which no doubt reinforces the stratification. Between 1980 and 1990, the earnings white-collar workers grew rapidly with 40 percent while the real incomes of blue-collar workers remained no rise.

Additionally, between the late 1970s and the late 1980s, the share of poorest household’s income declined by 3 percent whiles the income share of richest rose by 7 percent. Moreover, the private ownership of property was emphasised as the denationalisation of public enterprise focused on more power in private businesses (Haralambos, Halborn, 2004: 89). All of those evidences show the larger economic gap between rich and poor, and Wstergaard attributed this to the threat of Asian’s growth of economy and government’s encouragement in competitive market economy. Though Westergaard accepted there are others divisions emerged involving of gender and ethnics, he denied they have superseded class. Westergaard also realised though objectively social stratification has been strengthened with “class in itself” being sharpened, “class for itself” should be promoted to prevent the class consciousness from collapse (Haralambos, Halborn, 2004: 90).

Given the points examined above, however the factors that used to evaluate social class changes, what has never changed is that the division of social class always has a strong relationship with the economic growth. Previously, when world economy is not as prosperous as today, people of all classes have their own limitations of economy.

Thus, people enjoy getting together sharing their interests and scarce resources. On the contrary, in modern society, with the boom of economy, diversification and choices of productions and life patterns give them higher quality of life, thereby people don’t need to depend on with each other, which seems to make “class” leave only a faint impression on people’s lives. However, it’s still arbitrary to assert the death of class. Once there are still differentiations and similarities among people, the class exists. After all, it’s the differentiations that separate “us” from “them” while it’s the similarities that unite people together. What matters most is the class consciousness, once people aware its significance, the class will keep flourishing.

Reference:

Fulcher,J. and Scott, J. 2007. Sociology. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press.

Giddens, A. 2009. Sociology. 6th edn. Polity Press.

Haralambos and Holborn. 2004. Sociology Themes and Perspectives. 6th edn.
Collins: Harpercollins Publishers Limited.

Kirby, M. 1999. Stratification and Differentiation. Macmillan Press ltd.

Kirby, M. et al. 2000. Sociology in Perspective. AQA edn. Heinemann Educational Press.

Parsons, R. 2009. A2 Level Sociology. Exam Board: AQA. Coordination Group Publications ltd.

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