Unlike Karl Marx’s view that the society could be simply stratified into different classes, Max Weber argued that there should be three main dimensions in social stratification: class, status and party. In this essay, I would try to critically evaluate Weber’s contention that class, status and party are distinct entities and cannot be resolved under the single concept of class.
Though Weber agreed with Marx that in capitalist society, the ownership and non-ownership of the means of production is a very important factor to determine different classes, he considered the market situation as an important one as well and defined a class as a group of individuals who share a similar position in a market economy, and by virtue of that fact receive similar rewards. (Haralambos, 2000, p36) Weber classified the capitalist society generally into four classes: the propertied upper class, the propertyless intelligentsias (white-collar workers), the petty bourgeoisie and the manual working class.
The members of the top class always possess property through birth, inheritance or education, and the propertyless intelligentsias are employed by the top class to run their businesses or high-ranking state employees such as university teachers. Petty bourgeoisie are small businessmen and the manual working class are those who maintain their living by selling their labour. Weber differentiated the situations of propertyless classes mainly according to the skills and services people could offer.
People in different occupations owning different skills and services possess different market situations in return of different rewards, opportunities, job security, etc. Professionals, for instance, belong to propertyless intelligentsias, and have a higher income than small businessmen who belong to the petty bourgeoisie. That is because they have some specific skills and the labour market is in high demand of their services. Therefore they are considered as belonging to different social class.
With his two-class theory, Marx believed that the classes are polarizing and the members of middle class which was called “petit bourgeoisie” will sink into proletariat. But Weber rejected this view. He argued that some petty bourgeoisie may sink to lower classes due to the failure of competing with large companies, but they mostly enter into white-collar or skilled manual workers because the world requires large number of administrators and clerical staff as the capitalism develops.
So the middle classes, especially white-collar, are expanding. Therefore, there is a diversification of classes in contrast to a polarization of society suggested by Marx. Also, Weber rejected Marx’s another view that proletarian revolution is inevitable. He saw no reason why those sharing a similar class situation should necessarily develop a common identity, recognize shared interests and take collective action to further those interests. Haralambos, 2000, p37)
As middle classes grow, and the working class fragments due to various market situations of its members, it is difficult for the propertyless to develop a significant class consciousness so that they can take collective action to overthrow capitalism. On the other hand, Weber admitted this as a possibility because it might happen on the basis of a common market situation. Moreover, Weber argued that political power does not necessarily derives from economic power against Marx. Mr.
Tony Blair possesses great political power, but his income is not very high; and Bill Gates, who has been the richest businessman in the world for over ten years has little political power. The second dimension is status. Status refers to the unequal distribution of ‘social honour’ and status groups are stratified according to the principles of their consumption of goods as represented by ‘special style of life’. (Kirby, 2000, p641) Differently from class, the members of a status group always have very strong sense of identity and their status situation.
They share similar life style and make collective action for their share interests or objectives, for example, preventing outsiders from interacting with them, which was called “social closure” by Weber. An extreme example is the caste system in India. No one is allowed to marry a person from another status group by the law, so no one could join into another group. Similarly, in South Africa before 1992, there was an apartheid system that kept people from different race apart.
Another typical example is that in modern Britain, some specific occupations always only accept people educated in public school and only the children from high status family could go to public schools. This is called elite self-recruitment. Property, which is the key element of class, will be the qualification of status in the long run, so status and class are closely linked, but they differ at the same time. A class could be divided into a few different status groups sometimes.
Margaret Stacey distinguished the manual working class in 1950s into three status groups: the respectable working class, the ordinary working class and the rough working class. Though the rough working class always has the similar income with the ordinary working class, they belong to different status groups. So economic factor does not determine status solely. On the other hand, sometimes the members of a status group could come from different classes. Take homosexuals for instance.
Gays might have different skills and sources of incomes, so they are from different classes, but they are all involved in Gay Rights organizations, which illustrates that they belong to the same status group. As class is respected to the market and status is outside the market and respected to consumption, so it also separates from class as a distinct entity. Party is the third dimension of social stratification. Weber defined parties as groups which are specifically concerned with influencing policies and making decisions in the interests of the membership. Haralambos, 2000, p38) As class and status are related to market and honour, party refers to social power, not specifically political power. Social power is the chance of a man or a group of men to achieve their goals and the capacity of them to influence others’ interests and action. Therefore, parties do not refer to political parties as well; it also includes various pressure or interests groups such as trades unions and professional associations. Moreover, the relationships between individuals are not always clear-cut.
Parties in most cases are partly class parties and partly status parties, though sometimes they are neither. For example, the Nation of Islam in the USA. It is based on working class and is a religious party as well. So it represents both class interests and status interests. Although economic factors and political ones would affect each other, the relationships between class and party are far more complex. Parties can cut across both classes and status groups.
Weber argued that people should put class, status and party into particular society during particular time period when studying them and there is no single theory that could explain the complex and variable relationships between them. In conclusion, Marx stratified the society into two main classes based on the ownership and non-ownership of mean of production. By agreeing that the ownership of economic resources is the key factor, Weber introduced a more pluralistic and voluntary theory that social stratification should be based on class, status and party.
Class represents the market situation, status represents the social honour and party represents the social power. As described above, it is very clear that these three dimensions are distinct entities and cannot be resolved under the single concept of class. This is a much more complex theory that is much closer to the reality nowadays, but to some extent, it could not understand the crucial importance of the ownership of the means of production so that the significance of class as a way of analyzing social inequality is reduced.
Also, as there are so many different groups in the society due to Weber, and the groups can fragment further, so it is difficult to differentiate between them. But, on the other hand, many people choose to use it because sometimes distinctions simply in the ownership of property could not analyses the problems well. Moreover, Marxists cannot accept two views of Weber’s that status and party could equal value to class and social divisions could be based on race or gender that belong to status rather than to class differences. They think that Weber ignored the existence of oppression experienced by some social groups.
Weber also argued that the working class is consisted of various groups so that there is no unified class consciousness and there is social mobility existing in working class which is very difficult to occur. At last, a serious failure made by Weber is that when he explained the social stratification, he seldom considered of the class position of women and members of ethnic minorities in terms of conflict within society. (Griffiths, 2000, p22) As my evaluation, Weber made a great leap in the studies of social stratification after Marx, but his theory is still not completely right and good enough due to the concrete social situation he lived.