Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Class Acts

So my tutorial sessions this week in the undergraduate economics course have tried, in part, to disentangle two different ways of thinking about social class: one approach that sees class as a function of the quantity of income or wealth that someone possesses; and another – Weberian or Marxian – approach that sees class as a function of the way in which your income is derived.

Both approaches have their strengths and weaknesses. The first approach – commonly seen in pictorial representations of social “pyramids” or in discussions of population quintiles – relies, essentially, on a descriptive definition, prone to debates over where lines should be drawn between different income groups, and potentially useful for analysing things like the correllation between wealth and life outcomes. The second approach, which was historically developed to try to explain patterns in the “ideologies” or political behaviour of social groups, relies on a structural definition and argues that the role you play in the economy predisposes you to perceive society and your choices within society in specific ways – commonly expressed in terms of “class interest”.

Problems arise when, as in some of the materials I was discussing with my students today, these two very different concepts of class come to be blended together.

To take a simple example: in the “descriptive” approach to class, people at a similar level of income or wealth are all taken to have something in common – whether someone is wealthy because they are a CEO, a land holder, an entrepreneur, etc. is not material to their class identity. In the “structural” approach, however, CEOs, land holders and entrepreneurs occupy quite different positions, in relation to how they derive their incomes – and would therefore be expected to perceive society in divergent ways, which the theorist would then try to identify. In the structural approach, CEOs are actually members of the working class, because they depend for their subsistence on their ability to sell their labour on the market. The fact that a CEO is a particularly well-compensated member of the working class may be important, but is not definitive of class identity.

One can – and theorists do – develop quite nuanced categories for segments of classes, so the claim that a CEO is, at base, just a well-paid member of the working class doesn’t necessarily and automatically imply that, within this framework, CEOs will be as likely as steel workers to mount the barricades when the revolution comes… Nevertheless, how you interpret the meaning of “working class” has profound implications for how you evaluate certain kinds of historical predictions – among other things, for what you think someone like Marx might have meant when speaking about the tendency over time for larger and larger percentages of the population to become wage labourers: if you think of this as a structural claim that more and more people will need to earn their living by selling their labour on the market, then you’ll probably evaluate this claim more favourably, than if you think it means something about people becoming poorer and poorer under capitalism over time.

The theory that you can use this structural definition of class to say something meaningful about people’s “ideologies” is of course extremely controversial. But the notion, which sometimes appears even in the academic literature, that you can use the descriptive concept of class for this purpose is something like a category error. At best, you’d need to admit that classical social theory does not provide a theory to support this kind of claim and, if you still want to use the descriptive definition of class for this purpose, then you’d need to recognise that you have a heavy theoretical burden on your hands to lay the groundwork for your analysis.

All of this would be just an interesting bit of pedantry among sociologists, except that political expectations are sometimes formed on the basis of this category confusion between the implications of two very different approaches to social class. My guess would be that at least some of the recent US political debate, particularly within the Democratic party, over why people don’t vote for their “interests”, but instead vote on “moral” issues, derives from this kind of confusion. But that’s a topic for another time…


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