Meaning of SOCIAL CLASS in English


also called Class, a group of people within a society who possess the same socioeconomic status. Besides being important in social theory, the concept of class as a collection of individuals sharing similar economic circumstances has been widely used in censuses and in studies of social mobility. The term class first came into wide use in the early 19th century, replacing such terms as rank and order as descriptions of the major hierarchical groupings in society. The usage reflected changes in the structure of western European societies after the industrial and political revolutions of the late 18th century. Feudal distinctions of rank were declining in importance, and the new social groups that were developingthe commercial and industrial capitalists and the urban working class in the new factorieswere defined mainly in economic terms, by the ownership of capital, on one side, or dependence on wages, on the other. Though the term class has been applied to social groups in a wide range of societies, including ancient city-states, early empires, and caste or feudal societies, it is most usefully confined to the social divisions in modern societies, particularly industrialized ones. Social classes must be distinguished from status groups; the former are based primarily upon economic interests, while the latter are constituted by evaluations of the honour or prestige of an occupation, cultural position, or family descent. Theories of social class were only fully elaborated in the 19th century as the modern social sciences, especially sociology, developed. Such political philosophers as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau discussed the issues of social inequality and stratification, and French and English writers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries put forth the idea that the nonpolitical elements in society, such as the economic system and the family, largely determined a society's form of political life. This idea was taken further by the French social theorist Henri de Saint-Simon, who argued that a state's form of government corresponded with the character of the underlying system of economic production. In the writings of Saint-Simon's successors, there first appeared a theory of the proletariat, or urban working class, as a major political force in modern society, and this directly influenced the development of Karl Marx's theory. Marx's theory of class has dominated all later discussion of the topic. According to Marx, what distinguishes one type of society from another is its mode of production (i.e., the nature of its technology and division of labour), and each mode of production engenders a distinctive class system in which one class controls and directs the process of production while another class is, or other classes are, the direct producers and the providers of services to the dominant class. The relations between the classes are antagonistic, since they are in conflict over the appropriation of what is produced; and in certain periods, when the mode of production itself is changing as a result of developments in technology and in the utilization of labour, such conflicts become extreme and a new class challenges the dominance of the existing rulers of society. The dominant class controls not only material production but also the production of ideas; it thus establishes a particular cultural style and a dominant political doctrine, and its control over society is consolidated in a particular type of political system. Subject classes that are growing in strength and influence as a result of changes in the mode of production generate political doctrines and movements in opposition to the ruling class. The theory of class is at the centre of Marx's social theory, for it is the social classes formed within a particular mode of production that are regarded as establishing a particular form of state, animating political conflicts, and bringing about major changes in the structure of society. Subsequent theories of class have mainly been concerned to revise, refute, or provide an alternative to Marxist theory. The German sociologist Max Weber questioned the importance of social classes in the political development of modern societies, pointing out religious mores, nationalism, and other factors as playing a role as well. But Marxist theory's emphasis on the importance of class conflicti.e., on conflict and struggle between the classes for control of the means of productionhas been the most controversial issue dividing social theorists in their analysis of class structure. Many of those opposed to Marxist theory have focused attention on the functional interdependence of different classes and their harmonious collaboration with each other. And indeed, by the late 20th century it seemed undeniable that the classes in capitalist societies have tended to lose their distinctive character, while the antagonism between them has declined to such an extent that in most economically advanced countries it no longer produces serious political conflict. Moreover, Marxism's prediction of the proletariat's successful revolution against the bourgeoisie and its replacement of the capitalist system by a classless society have rung increasingly hollow in light of the dismal record of most 20th-century Marxist governments and their wholesale collapse from internal causes between 1989 and 1991. Despite controversies over the theory of class, there is general agreement among social scientists on the characteristics of the principal social classes in modern societies. Sociologists generally posit three classes: upper, working (or lower), and middle. The upper class in modern capitalist societies is distinguished above all by the possession of largely inherited wealth. In the United States, for example, more than 30 percent of all wealth is concentrated in the hands of the top 1 percent of property owners. The ownership of large amounts of property and the income derived from it confer many advantages upon the members of the upper class. They are able to develop a distinctive style of life based on extensive cultural pursuits and leisure activities, to exert a considerable influence on economic policy and political decisions, and to procure for their children a superior education and economic opportunities that help to perpetuate family wealth. The principal contrast with the upper class in industrial societies is provided by the working class, which traditionally consisted of manual workers in the extractive and manufacturing industries. Given the vast expansion of the service sector in the world's most advanced economies, it is necessary to broaden this definition to include in the working class those persons who hold low-paying, low-skilled, nonunionized jobs in such service industries as food service and retail sales. There are considerable differences within the working class, however, and a useful distinction exists between skilled, semiskilled, and unskilled workers that broadly corresponds with differences in income level. What characterizes the working class as a whole is lack of property and dependence on wages. Associated with this condition are relatively low living standards, restricted access to higher education, and exclusion, to a large extent, from the spheres of important decision making. Aside from the dramatic rise in living standards that occurred in the decades after World War II, the main factor affecting the working class in the second half of the 20th century was a general shift in the economy from manufacturing to service industries, involving a contraction in the numbers of manual workers. In the United States and Great Britain, among other countries, the decline in traditional manufacturing industries left a core of chronically unemployed persons isolated from the economic mainstream in decaying urban areas. This new urban substratum of permanently jobless and underemployed workers has been termed the underclass by some sociologists. The middle class may be said to include the middle and upper levels of clerical workers, those engaged in technical and professional occupations, supervisors and managers, and such self-employed workers as small-scale shopkeepers, businessmen, and farmers. At the topin the case of wealthy professionals or managers in large corporationsthe middle class merges into the upper class, while at the bottomwhere routine and poorly paid jobs in sales, distribution, and transport are concernedit merges into the working class. It seems clear that rising living standards in Western industrial societies after 1945 and changes in social policy that resulted in the provision of more elaborate welfare services have generated significant changes in the class system. A general diminution of class differences has resulted from higher standards of living, greater social mobility, and a limited redistribution of wealth and income. These changes were generally reflected in a decline of class ideologies and class conflict. The middle class, which rose to dominance in Western capitalist societies in the 19th and 20th centuries, consolidated its position in the decades after World War II, and this process was being repeated in the expanding economies of Japan and other East and Southeast Asian countries in the late 20th century.

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