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Sociology Class
by
Jeff Manza

Introduction

No concept is more widely used in sociology than that of “class.” Rooted in the writings of Marx and Engels, as well as Weber, Durkheim, Sorokin, and other classical social theorists, class has long been one of the key analytical concepts sociologists have deployed to explain a wide variety of outcomes. This wide usage does not, however, mean that “class” is always defined in consistent ways by sociologists, or that it is necessarily among the most important factors in accounting for any particular social phenomena. There are two features that all conceptualizations of class share. The first is that societies are organized unequally in a vertical fashion, with some people at the top possessing more power, income and wealth, and privileges than people at the bottom. These advantages (or disadvantages) are rooted (at least in part) in the economic relationships between individuals and households. Exactly how classes are defined and categorized, however, remains contested. Second, all class theories start from the proposition that the types of class relationships found in any society matter for other social processes. At the micro level, class location of individuals or households predicts such things as income and wealth, social and political attitudes, marriage, friendships and social networks, voting behavior, cultural consumption, and life chances. At the macro level, class power influences policy and political outcomes, as well as social movement organizations and capacities.

Textbooks, Reviews, and Edited Collections

Two textbook collections that contain a range of views on class and class analysis can be found in Grusky, et al. 2008 and Manza and Sauder 2009. Myles and Turegun 1994 provides a good summary of some of the comparative class literatures. The depth of the literature on class is revealed by the multiplicity of theoretical traditions that have emphasized class and class analysis. Wright 2005 is an excellent edited volume that contains essays by leading scholars on Marxist, Weberian, Durkheimian, and Bourdieuian approaches. The essays collected in Lareau and Conley 2008 provide recent and original contributions to the concept of class in contemporary sociology.

Theoretical Traditions of Class Analysis

As noted in the introduction above, the concept of class is a contested one in sociology. This section identifies five such traditions. Not surprisingly, given the importance of Marxism for the invention and development of the concept of class, there have been several generations of Marxist class analysis, beginning with the classical Marxism of Marx and Engels, the varieties of 20th-century Marxism, and contemporary Marxism, all of which have evolved in various directions. The tradition of stratification analysis associated with Max Weber represents a second distinct tradition. Durkheim and Bourdieu have provided the inspiration for alternative perspectives on class, with Durkheim’s focus on social integration giving rise to two distinct types of class analysis.

Classical Marxism

No theoretical tradition within sociology has paid more attention to class than Marxism, developed by Karl Marx (b. 1818–d. 1883) and his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels (b. 1820–d. 1895), although neither Marx nor Engels ever systematically defined or explicated what they meant by “class.” Rather, class operates as a kind of leitmotif throughout much of their work. The texts cited in this section are among the most famous and important of their writings on historical materialism (the Marxist theory of history; Marx 1978) and capitalism and politics (Marx and Engels 1998a, Mark and Engels 1998b, Marx 2004).

  • Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital: A critique of political economy. Vol. 1. Translated by Ben Fowkes. New York: Vintage Books.

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    Marx’s magnum opus. The defining work of Marxist political economy, sociologists will find most use in the following sections: “The Commodity,” “The General Formula for Capital,” “The Concept of Relative Surplus Value,” “Simple Reproduction,” “The Transformation of Surplus Value into Capital,” “The General Law of Accumulation,” and “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation.” Originally published in 1867.

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  • Marx, Karl. 1978. An introduction to the critique of political economy. In The Marx-Engels reader. Edited and translated by Robert Tucker, 3–6. New York: Norton.

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    The classic short statement of the materialist view of history in which the economic system is said to constrain the political system in the interests of its overall reproduction.

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  • Marx, Karl. 2004. Eighteenth brumaire of Louis Bonaparate. New York: International Publishers.

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    Originally published in Die Revolution, a monthly publication, this work constitutes the best application by Marx of historical materialism to a concrete political situation. Utilizing a class analysis, Marx’s explains the 1851 coup d’etat of Louis Bonaparte and in turn demonstrates how competing classes and class fractions shaped political history. Originally published in 1852.

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  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1998a. The communist manifesto. London: Verso.

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    The single most read of Marx and Engels’ writings. The Manifesto presents their core insights in a tight and literary style. This is an ideal first introduction to classical Marxism. It also contains their most precise formulation of the class struggle view of theory of history, in which the movement from one mode of production is driven by revolutionary struggles unleashed against the ruling power in the old regime. Originally published in 1848.

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  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1998b. The German ideology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

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    In addition to being a polemic against many of the prominent philosophers of the time, this work provides Marx and Engels’ only major exposition of the materialist theory of history. It also includes a famous section on ruling class ideologies. First published in 1845–1846.

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20th-Century Marxism

The generation of Marxists who worked and participated in politics as Marxism rose to prominence as a global political movement reshaped Marx’s original (and vague) notion of class into a centerpiece of social and political analysis. The works cited in this section represent a handful of some of the most important and influential of these works, with a special focus on those that represent critical reflections on the class status of Marxist movements themselves. Karl Kautsky was the leading Marxist theoretician at the turn of the century, and Kautsky 1988 uses a type of class analysis to explore the ongoing transformation of agrarian capitalism. Lenin’s famous polemic “What Is to Be Done?” (Lenin 1980) provides an early theorization of the class relations between political leaders and the working class, and the potential for workers to fall pretty to “trade union consciousness,” a question that would bedevil Marxism in theory and practice for generations to come. Luxemburg 2004, on the inherent militance of the working class, has long influenced “left-wing” Marxists. Braverman 1974 recovered Marx’s writings on the “labor process” to articulate a theory of how capitalism undermines working class autonomy and control in the labor process. Konrád and Szelényi 1979 used a class analysis to incisively critique “actually existing” socialist societies. Finally, Gouldner 1985, a posthumously published work on the class contradictions of “working-class” movement led almost without exception by intellectuals with middle-class origins, provides a tour de force analysis of classical Marxism’s trouble with turning class analysis on itself.

  • Braverman, Harry. 1974. Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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    This very influential work revitalized the study of the labor processes from a Marxian perspective. Braverman argues that capitalism incrementally reduces a worker’s control over the work process by deepening the division of labor and separating the conception of work tasks from its execution.

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  • Gouldner, Alvin. 1985. Against fragmentation: The origins of Marxism and the sociology of intellectuals. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    This work explains the rise of Marxism as rooted in the interests of middle-class intellectuals. Nearly all of the Marxist leaders were the products of middle-class upbringings. Marxism’s “dirty little secret” is that it was never a working-class movement to begin with, but remarkably incapable of self-reflection with regard to its own central tool of analysis.

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  • Kautsky, Karl. 1988. The agrarian question. London: Zwan.

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    This is an exposition of major changes brought about by the rapid decline in agricultural employment in Europe and America. Here Kautsky analyzes situations in which the capitalist mode of production is dominant but precapitalist forms of production are able to coexist. This work counters Lenin’s The Development of Capitalism in Russia (Moscow: Progress, 1974), which argues that capitalism was proletarianizing the Russian peasantry. Originally published in 1899.

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  • Konrád, George, and Iván Szelényi. 1979. Intellectuals on the road to class power. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

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    A remarkable work of class analysis generated from within eastern Europe, arguing that, within state socialism, a new technical intelligentsia had emerged that was becoming the ruling class of socialist societies.

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  • Lenin, V. I. 1975. What is to be done? In The Lenin anthology. By V. I. Lenin. Edited and translated by Robert Tucker, 12–114. New York: Norton.

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    Lenin’s theoretical treatise on what he regarded as the correct form of a revolutionary organization also grapples with critical questions of class analysis, including the nature of working-class consciousness and the connection between middle-class revolutionaries and the working class.

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  • Luxemburg, Rosa. 2004. The Rosa Luxemburg reader. Edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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    Luxemburg’s key works are included in this volume. In “Social Reform or Revolution” (pp. 128–167), she argues against Bernstein’s reform-oriented socialism in favor of working-class revolution from below; in “The Mass Strike, the Political Party, and the Trade Unions” (pp. 168–199), she articulates a theory of spontaneous mass action and makes the case for why the working class is inherently revolutionary. Included pieces first published from 1906 to 1913.

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Contemporary Marxism

Marxist thought underwent a remarkable resurgence in the 1970s, and the concept of class began to be analyzed in a serious way. This generation of Marxist writers was much more centered in the academy and wrote within the context of academic social science. In the case of class analysis, multiple avenues of investigation opened up. One line of analysis concerning class sought to elaborate or critique Braverman’s thesis about the labor process, described in 20th-Century Marxism, to better understand the historical trajectory of the working class and working-class consciousness. Burawoy 1979 and Edwards 1979 provide a detailed shop-floor ethnography and an alternative historical periodization. A second line explored questions of class formation. Przeworski 1985 is a strikingly original attempt to ground Marxist class analysis within the tools of rational choice theory and methodological individualism to reexamine Marxism’s claims about the politics of the working class. Finally, Marxists sought to address issues raised by changes in the class structure since the early 20th century. The various works of Erik Olin Wright early (Wright 1978) and late (Wright 1997) represent the gold standard in Marxist class analysis, albeit not without its critics. Wright’s work attempted to reconstruct the Marxist theory of class to take into account the rise of the “new” educated middle classes in modern capitalist societies, something not anticipated in classical Marxism. Van den Berg 1993 and the Wright 1989 collection contain a number of the leading criticisms of this work as well as Wright’s replies to his critics.

  • Burawoy, Michael. 1979. Manufacturing consent: Changes in the labor process under monopoly capitalism. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Uses ethnography of the shop floor to explain a missing component of Braverman’s account of the capitalist labor process (see Braverman 1974, cited under 20th-Century Marxism): How is workers’ consciousness shaped at work? Burawoy finds a collective striving among workers to achieve levels of production above 100 percent in a piece-rate system as the basis for status hierarchies in the shop, increased antagonisms between workers, and decreasing conflict with management.

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  • Edwards, Richard. 1979. Contested terrain: The transformation of the workplace in the twentieth century. New York: Basic Books.

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    This work provides an analysis of the varieties of control at work in historical terms. According to Edwards, the form that control takes is largely governed by workplace conflict and the economics of the firm’s operation. He identifies three historically successive forms of shop-floor control: simple, technical, and bureaucratic.

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  • Przeworski, Adam. 1985. Capitalism and social democracy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A remarkably creative and theoretically synthetic work that seeks to integrate some strands of classical Marxist class analysis, particularly that inspired by the Gramscian tradition, into a contemporary form that would contain a place for a “microfoundations” rooted in individual rationality. Includes Przeworski’s mathematical models of the likely transition costs of moving from capitalism to socialism.

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  • Van den Berg, Axel. 1993. Creeping embourgeoisement? Some comments on the Marxist discovery of the new middle class. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility 12:295–328.

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    Sharp criticism of the work of the 1970s generation of Marxist scholars such as Poultanzas and Wright who attempted to redefine classical Marxism.

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  • Wright, Erik Olin. 1978. Class, crisis and the state. London: NLB/Verso.

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    A classic and influential work of neo-Marxist thought in the 1970s. Attempts to provide a rigorous grounding for Marxist class analysis, particularly with respect to class structure. Wright grapples with the critical problems of “intermediate” class actors such as professionals and foremen and supervisors by identifying “contradictory” class locations.

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  • Wright, Erik Olin. 1989. The debate on classes. London: Verso.

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    A collection of essays examining Wright’s proposed reformulation of the Marxist theory of class and Wright’s replies to his critics.

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  • Wright, Erik Olin. 1997. Class counts: Comparative studies in class analysis. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    A major effort to summarize a lifetime of work on class, drawing on survey data collected in a dozen countries (not all of which is used in the book). The work includes a reconceptualization of class structure from Wright’s earlier work and empirical tests of the impact of class divisions on a range of outcomes.

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Weberian Approaches

In his writings on class and group inequality, Max Weber (b. 1864–d. 1920) established a second broad theoretical paradigm for understanding class and other types of social division. His landmark work, Economy and Society (Weber 1978), published posthumously, famously distinguished between “classes” (vertically organized groups based on market situation and identifiable by their differing “life chances”) and status group membership (which arise from social and political contests to define characteristics of individuals such as race, ethnicity, religion, or others) as the basis for inequality, as well as introducing the concept of social closure to understand the processes through which groups mobilize to monopolize opportunity or access to rewards. Breen 2005 provides a recent overview of the Weberian tradition in contemporary sociology. Parkin 1979 and Murphy 1988 reconstruct the concept of “social closure” in Weber’s writings. Weeden 2002 builds on these insights to provide an elegant theorization of the process of “occupational closure.” Wright 2002 offers a very useful summary of the differences between Marx and Weber and a Marxist critique of Weber’s concept of class, while Tilly 1998, a vital work on inequality, proposes a theoretical synthesis. Finally, Sørensen 2000 proposes a novel “rent” -based theory of class that suggests a striking alternative to other approaches to reconstructing the Weberian legacy.

  • Breen, Richard. 2005. Foundations of a neo-Weberian class analysis. In Approaches to class analysis. Edited by Erik Olin Wright, 51–69. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488900.004Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Thoughtful survey of neo-Weberian models of class and class structure.

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  • Murphy, Raymond. 1988. Social closure: The theory of monopolization and exclusion. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    A series of theoretical and case-study analyses of the neo-Weberian conception of social closure as the foundation for understanding both class and nonclass sources of social division.

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  • Parkin, Frank. 1979. Marxism and class theory: A bourgeois critique. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

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    The classical reinterpretation of Weber’s notion of social closure as the foundation for understanding social division, combined with a searching critique of the limits of classical Marxism.

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  • Sørensen, Aage. 2000. Toward a sounder basis for class analysis. American Journal of Sociology 105.6: 1523–1558.

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    Proposes a model of class analysis based on the capacity of different actors to extract “rents”—that is, sources of unearned income. Rents can take a variety of forms (rents from wealth assets, rents from professional credentials, and so forth). Those who extract rents “exploit” those who receive no rents. This is, according to the author in this intriguing proposal, the critical class divide in modern capitalist societies. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Tilly, Charles. 1998. Durable inequality. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Award-winning historical and theoretical survey of social divisions that seeks to combine the analysis of exploitation (in a Marxist sense) and what Tilly calls opportunity hoarding, building from the Weberian notion of social closure.

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  • Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and society. 2 vols. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Weber’s magnum opus, there are several parts of the two-volume work that are critical for his theory of classes. The essay “The Distribution of Power within the Political Community: Class, Status, and Party” (pp. 926–938) is one of the classics of the Weberian heritages, distinguishing classes from what Weber called “status groups”. Classes, he argued, are defined by people sharing common “life chances.” Originally published in 1922.

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  • Weeden, Kim. 2002. Why do some occupations pay more than others? Social closure and earnings inequality in the United States. American Journal of Sociology 108.1: 55–101.

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    Powerful exploration of the ways in which occupations engage in various kinds of collective action (professionalization, certification, unionization, etc.) to gain collective advantage for their members. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Wright, Erik Olin. 2002. The shadow of exploitation in Weber’s class analysis. American Sociological Review 67:832–853.

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    Thorough reconstruction of Weber’s original conception of class. Argues that in contrast to Marx, Weber’s notion of economic relations misses the inherent forms of exploitation that make those relationships antagonistic.

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Durkheim and the Micro-Class Model

Émile Durkheim (b. 1858–d. 1917) is the third of the founding figures of sociology who made important contributions to thinking about class, albeit subject, as Grusky 2005 notes, to multiple interpretations. Grusky 2005 argues for one interpretation, that in his classical work The Division of Labor in Society (Durkheim 1984), Durkheim’s writings about occupations as communities of interest and shared values provide an important insight to understanding where classes actually appear. A series of papers with his collaborators (Grusky and Sørensen 1998) argue that occupation best captures the main ideas sociologists have about class—that it is at the occupation level that individuals are most likely to find common ground.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1984. The division of labor in society. New York: Free Press.

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    Durkheim’s classical analysis of the concept of the “division of labor” implies two things. One is that social order is tied together by the differentiation of tasks. The second is that the steady differentiation of tasks within the occupational hierarchy is a direct challenge to the Marxist model that saw homogenization, rather than differentiation, as the hallmark of emerging capitalist societies. Originally published in 1890.

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  • Goldthorpe, John. 2002. Occupational sociology, yes: Class analysis, no: Comment on Grusky and Weeden’s research agenda. Acta Sociologica 45.3: 211–225.

    DOI: 10.1080/00016990260257193Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that attempts to reformulate class as occupation have no obvious connection to class analysis, which is by definition concerned with the similarities across occupational locations. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Grusky, David. 2005. Foundations of a neo-Durkheimian class analysis. In Approaches to class analysis. Edited by Erik Olin Wright, 51–81. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Develops a particular interpretation of Durkheim’s writings in which the technical division of labor in advanced societies offers a counterpoint to Marxist accounts of “big” classes. Occupations are the places where individuals form group interests.

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  • Grusky, David, and Jesper Sørensen. 1998. Can class analysis be salvaged? American Journal of Sociology 103.5: 1187–1234.

    DOI: 10.1086/231351Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    First effort to present the case for a “small-class” analysis grounded at the occupational level. An elegant engagement with a wide range of alternative theories of class. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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Durkheim and the Functionalist Approach to Class

Émile Durkheim’s writings have been filtered in a very different way than the micro-class tradition proposes. The mid-20th-century class analysis of Davis and Moore 1945 emphasized Durkheim’s model of social order to understand class inequality. These inequalities arise not out exploitation and domination but rather out of the need to motivate individuals to acquire the skills needed to perform the most demanding jobs in order for social needs to best be met. As training periods increase in modern, complex societies, the incentives to create greater levels of inequality grow as well. Tumin 1953 provided a landmark criticism of the classic Davis and Moore 1945 essay. Other views of class inequality in the functionalist tradition have tended to emphasize that classes are best viewed on gradational scales, from high to low, as opposed to the categorical models of the Marx/Weber tradition (see Parsons 1970). Finally, the status attainment model, most closely associated with Blau and Duncan 1967 argues that it is differences in the status of occupations that represents the most important source of class division in modern society, and the task of stratification research is to understand the factors that (1) cause some occupations to have higher status than others and (2) model the factors that enable some individuals to attain higher status than others.

  • Blau, Peter, and Otis D. Duncan. 1967. The American occupational structure. New York: Wiley.

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    The foundational work of the status attainment tradition, building on Duncan’s earlier work on the prestige of occupations to propose a general model of social stratification and to study the factors predicting who (men in America, as measured in a 1962 Census survey) end up in what occupations.

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  • Davis, Kingsley, and Wilbert E. Moore. 1945. Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review 10:242–249.

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    The classical statement of the functionalist model of social stratification. Unequal rewards are necessary to encourage those with the most “talent” to pursue the most socially demanding and important positions in the division of labor.

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  • Dudley, Otis D. 1961. A socioeconomic index for all occupations. In Occupations and social status. Edited by Albert Reiss, 109–138. New York: Free Press.

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    The classic work on occupational prestige, proposing that all occupations can be ranked on a continuum of status depending on the amount of skill, training, and education they require. Later work on occupational prestige built on, but has not fundamentally revised, Duncan’s remarkable early achievement.

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  • Parsons, Talcott. 1970. Equality and inequality in modern society, or social stratification revisited. In Social stratification: Research and theory for the 1970s. Edited by Edward Laumann. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

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    Interesting essay by the dominant 20th-century functionalist scholar on the question of how best to understand social stratification.

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  • Tumin, Melvin M. 1953. Some principles of stratification: A critical analysis. American Sociological Review 18:387–394.

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    Landmark criticism of Davis and Moore 1945. Tumin argues that we cannot actually know what positions are the most important or whether the “sacrifices” asserted as necessary by Davis and Moore are indeed as arduous as they imply. Above all else, the Davis and Moore assertion that inequality (often at high levels) is necessary to motivate individuals is called into question.

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Bourdieuian Approaches

Probably no contemporary sociologist has been more widely influential than Pierre Bourdieu, and indeed much of Bourdieu’s work focused on the question of “class reproduction” in a wide variety of different contexts (Weinenger 2005 provides an overview). He popularized the concept of cultural capital (e.g. Bourdieu 1984), which provides one way of understanding how class inequalities manifest themselves through differences in cultural knowledge, taste, and consumption. Bourdieu 1977 also introduced the parallel concept of habitus, the process through which individuals develop habits of mind and everyday behavior that reflect their class location. Bourdieu 1986 provides a summary of his notion of the different “capitals” that individuals can possess, while Bourdieu 1987 provides a more general discussion about how he thinks about class structure and class analysis in relation to other models of class. Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992 contains an extended interview with Bourdieu that explicates some of his key concepts in very accessible terms. A variety of efforts to test Bourdieu’s theories exist in the literature. One of the classic treatments is DiMaggio and Mohr 1985, which found that although participation in middle-class culture does impact school performance in the United States, its effects are partially offset by other factors. Lamont and Lareau 1988 reviews the research and suggests that cultural capital theory has a number of useful applications. Kingston 2001 strongly challenges this conclusion.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a theory of practice. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Introduces the concept of habitus, the idea that individuals absorb and develop habits appropriate to their class station in life.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Classical study of the processes through which individuals create “distinction” for themselves through cultural knowledge and consumption. Argues that classes have distinctive patterns of cultural consumption and that patterns have important implications for determining “who gets what.” Originally published in 1979.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. Forms of capital. In Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. Edited by John G. Richardson, 241–258. New York: Greenwood.

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    Important essay that presents Bourdieu’s argument that there are multiple forms of capital (economic, cultural, social, symbolic) that can be converted, in varying degrees, to class advantage.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1987. What makes a social class? On the theoretical and practical existence of groups. Berkeley Journal of Sociology 32:1–18.

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    Essay that engages a range of questions in relation to class and class reproduction.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre, and Loïc Wacquant. 1992. An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    This book contains some introductory lecture notes by Bourdieu, but the centerpiece is an extended interview conducted and heavily annotated by Wacquant, in which Bourdieu is pressed to explicate key concepts such as habitus, cultural capital, and field.

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  • DiMaggio, Paul, and John Mohr. 1985. Cultural capital, educational attainment, and marital selection. American Journal of Sociology 90.6: 1231–1261.

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    DiMaggio and Mohr operationalize and test the importance of cultural capital to life chances. Their finding suggests that cultural capital has significant effects on educational attainment, college attendance, college completion, graduate attendance, and marital selection, although these impacts are also fairly modest. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Kingston, Paul W. 2001. The unfulfilled promise of cultural capital theory. Sociology of Education 74 (supp): 88–99.

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    Kingston argues here (as well as in Kingston 2000, cited under Critics of Sociological Class Analysis that the concept of cultural capital has not received nearly the critical attention it deserves and that serious efforts to measure and demonstrate its importance fall substantially short of demonstrating that it can provide a robust explanation for the patterning of inequality.

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  • Lamont, Michele, and Annette Lareau. 1988. Cultural capital: Allusions, gaps and glissandos in recent theoretical developments. Sociological Theory 6.2: 153–168.

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    A valuable review of research on, and the issues raised by, the concept of cultural capital.

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  • Weinenger, Elliot. 2005. Foundations of Pierre Bourdieu’s class analysis. In Approaches to class analysis. Edited by Erik Olin Wright, 82–118. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488900.005Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Review essay on Bourdieu’s varied and complex writings on class. A very useful introduction to Bourdieu’s thinking.

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Historical Studies of Class Formation and Class Conflict

A large body of scholarship has sought to understand the role of classes in history. The class hypothesis has occasioned enormous debates among social historians and historical sociologists, with partisans on both sides of the “class mattered” and “class did not matter” divide in many historical moments. In this section, some of the key theoretical writings on the question of class formation are presented, followed by a discussion of some of the leading scholarly works on the working class and ruling classes throughout history.

Theoretical Writings on Classes as Historical Actors

There is a classical distinction in Marx between a “class-in-itself” versus a “class-for-itself”—in other words, a distinction between the basic class structure of any society (which Marx thought could always be analyzed) and those rare moments or periods when class-wide mobilization occurs (and individuals become aware of their class location and act accordingly). Marx’s political writings (see Classical Marxism), most notably Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, provided one early example (analyzing the role of multiple classes during the revolutionary upheavals in France in the late 1840s). One of the critical questions is that of class formation: When do members of a particular class act on the basis of common material interest? In Przeworski 1985 the factors (ideological and political) that preclude classes from becoming actors are analyzed. Collections on the historical context of class formation can be found in the classical work and the classical collection of Katznelson and Zolberg 1986.

  • Katznelson, Ira, and Aristide Zolberg, eds. 1986. Working-class formation: Nineteenth century patterns in Western Europe and the United States. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    An important collection of essays by social historians examining the diverse patternings of working-class formation.

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  • Przeworski, Adam. 1985. Capitalism and social democracy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Chapter 2, “Proletariat into a Class: The Process of Class Formation,” develops an incisive, historically grounded analysis of how Marxism treated the problem of class formation and a powerful critique of its totalizing assumptions (in which individual action is relegated to a nonfactor). Other chapters treat various dilemmas of class formation in advanced capitalism and provide a materialist explanation for why workers rarely act as a class.

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Case Studies of the Working Class

There are many wonderful studies of particular classes in particular historical contexts (see Katznelson and Zolberg 1986 under Theoretical Writings on Classes as Historical Actors). Studies of the role of the working class in the making of history are all indebted to the classic Thompson 1963, which reconstructs with exquisite detail workers’ collective struggles in the early 19th century in England; however, Calhoun 1982 challenges some of Thompson’s interpretations and theoretical assertions for exaggerating the role of material class interests and understating the role of community. Other classical accounts of working-class formation include Sewell 1980 on France, Bonnell 1983 on Russia, Biernacki 1995 on Germany and Britain, and Katznelson 1981 and Voss 1994 on the United States. Silver 2003 provides a sweeping historical overview.

  • Biernacki, Richard. 1995. The fabrication of labor: Germany and Britain, 1640–1914. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Immensely learned and sweeping analysis of how modern systems of control over working-class labor emerged and spawned new practices, theoretical models, and philosophical justifications for systems of inequality.

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  • Bonnell, Victoria E. 1983. Roots of rebellion: Workers’ politics and organizations in St. Petersburg and Moscow, 1900–1914. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Analysis of the social and historical conditions that gave rise to militant workers’ movements in the two largest cities in Russia.

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  • Calhoun, Craig. 1982. The question of class struggle: Social functions of popular radicalism during the Industrial Revolution. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Challenges E. P. Thompson’s attempt to use a class logic to understand the populist forms of collective action that emerged in England in the late 18th and early 19th century.

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  • Katznelson, Ira. 1981. City trenches: Urban politics and the patterning of class in the United States. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Study of working-class formation in urban America in the 19th century, focusing on the tensions between ethnic, racial, and class conflict.

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  • Sewell, William Hamilton. 1980. Work and revolution in France: The language of labor from the Old Regime to 1848. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Develops an account of the cultural sources of the class struggles in France during the critical and contentious period from 1789 to 1848. Resistance stems not from factory workers but artisans who were challenged by the rise of the factory system.

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  • Silver, Beverly J. 2003. Forces of labor: Workers’ movements and globalization since 1870. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Sweeping overview of the trajectory of working-class struggles around the world in response to the dynamics of capitalism.

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  • Thompson, E. P. 1963. The making of the English working class. New York: Vintage Books.

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    Thompson’s book is both pivotal and leading in the new Marxist historiography. In it, he aims to show that the English working class (1780–1832) made itself and constituted its own class consciousness through traditional values of solidarity, methodism, and mutuality. The book can be read as a counter to highly structural accounts of class.

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  • Voss, Kim. 1994. The making of American exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and class formation in 19th century America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

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    Examines the rise and fall of the Knights of Labor in the 1880s in the United States. The Knights were the largest mass labor organization in the United States prior to the rise of the industrial unions in the 1930s and comparable to European labor movements at the same time. Voss argues that their defeat was driven by employer opposition.

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Case Studies of Ruling-Class Elites

If working-class actors received the bulk of the attention in the 1980s, more recent scholarship has paid increasing attention to the key historical roles of elite actors. Therborn 1978 develops a typology of modes of ruling-class power. Chibber 2004 argues that relations between the capitalist class and the state play a powerful role in determining the trajectories of developmental states. Lachmann 2000 and Lachmann 2009 carefully examine the role of elites in the formation and decline of states in early modern Europe and offer a powerful alternative class-based approach to European state formation. Winters 2011 provides a sweeping historical analysis and case studies of power-holding by groups he refers to as “oligarchs.”

  • Chibber, Vivek. 2004. Locked in place: State-building and late industrialization in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Study of state-driven industrialization in India, with a contrast case of South Korea. The role of the relationship of dominant classes to state bureaucracies emerges as a critical source of political change.

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  • Lachmann, Richard. 2000. Capitalists in spite of themselves: Elite conflict and economic transitions in early modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Study of the rise of modern states in early modern Europe. The key factor postulated by Lachmann is the relationship between economic elites and state builders. Where elites competed, state formation was intractably difficult; when elites could find common interests, state formation was facilitated.

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  • Lachmann, Richard. 2009. Greed and contingency: State fiscal crises and imperial failure in early modern Europe. American Journal of Sociology 115.1: 39–73.

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    Lachmann examines here the impact of ruling-class conflict and divisions on the ability of early modern European states to fund state bureaucracies and military forces. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Therborn, Göran. 1978. What does the ruling class do when it rules? State apparatuses and state power under feudalism, capitalism and socialism. London: Verso.

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    Historical/theoretical study of diverse modes through which ruling classes have maintained control.

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  • Winters, Jeffrey A. 2011. Oligarchy. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Argues that “oligarchs”—ruling-class groups—find common ground in the defense of wealth. Winters argues that oligarchs can rule through a variety of different institutional formats, including democracies, although the strength and stability of oligarchy varies across time and space. A wide range of case studies show how oligarchs mobilize to defend and reproduce privilege.

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Studies of Classes in Contemporary Capitalist Societies

A wealth of literature has analyzed the major classes of contemporary capitalist societies. This section identifies some key scholarly writings on four classes: the working class, the new middle class or so-called new class, the contemporary upper class, and the self-employed (or “petty bourgeoisie,” in Marx’s terms).

The Working Class

Studies of the contemporary working class have centered on three questions: (1) how class is formed (or not) at the point of production, or in the “labor process” (see, e.g., Edwards 1979 and Burawoy 1985 for comparative analysis); (2) the consciousness of workers (Fantasia 1988; Goldthorpe, et al. 1969); and (3) the political organization of the working class in unions or political parties (see Piven 1992 on labor-based political parties; Western 1997,a masterful study of the labor movement; and Seidman 1994,a comparative study of the diverse patterns of working class militance).

  • Burawoy, Michael. 1985. The politics of production: Factory regimes under capitalism and socialism. London: Verso.

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    Sweeping historical and theoretical examination of the contexts of working-class militance and cooptation.

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  • Edwards, Richard. 1979. Contested terrain: The transformation of the workplace in the twentieth century. New York: Basic Books.

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    Provides analysis of the varieties of control at work in historical terms. The form control takes is governed by workplace conflict and the economics of the firm’s operation. Edwards identifies three forms of shop-floor control: simple, technical, and bureaucratic.

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  • Fantasia, Rick. 1988. Cultures of solidarity: Consciousness, action, and contemporary American workers. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    This innovative work challenges the notion that American workers lack class consciousness. Examining situations of collective action, such as strikes and wildcat protests, Fantasia suggests instead the contingent and historical character of the development of class consciousness.

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  • Goldthorpe, John, David Lockwood, Frank Bechhofer, and Jennifer Platt. 1969. The affluent worker in the class structure. Cambridge Studies in Sociology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    The concluding volume of a multivolume study of the British working class in the 1960s. The motivating question was to critically challenge the theory of working-class “embourgeoisment,” the idea that workers are becoming increasingly affluent and similar to the middle class in terms of attitudes, lifestyles, aspirations, and work situation.

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  • Piven, Frances Fox, ed. 1992. Labor parties in postindustrial societies. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Valuable survey of labor and social democratic parties in Western Europe and the United States, as the “golden age” of the welfare state and left influence was eroding.

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  • Seidman, Gay. 1994. Manufacturing militance: Workers’ movements in Brazil and South Africa, 1970–1985. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    This comparative analysis of South African workers and Brazilian workers asks how two countries that are so different could produce two labor movements committed to the broader working class, as opposed to more narrow sectoral interests. Seidman’s study shows that state policies, which increased demand for skilled workers but simultaneously degraded the positions of the skilled alongside the nonskilled urban poor, generated general animosity toward the state.

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  • Western, Bruce. 1997. Between class and market: Postwar unionization in the capitalist democracies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Book-length study of the decline of unionization in eighteen OECD countries. Argues that union decline resulted largely from a fundamental reorganization of labor market institutions and the decline in influence of social democratic parties.

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The New Middle Classes and the “New Class”

The rise of a professional and managerial middle class has long occasioned a vigorous debate. Kocka 1980 provides an important historical analysis. Bell 1973 provides a classical analysis of the rise of what the author calls “postindustrial society,” a social order where wealth-generating activities increasingly draw on knowledge rather than capital. Derber, et al. 1990 provides a radical version of the postindustrial hypothesis, arguing that the new middle classes focused on their possession of “knowledge resources,” which, the authors argue, provides a new kind of class power. One set of theories of the middle class characterize them as a “New Class,” with distinctive class interests. Gouldner 1979 advances one version of a new class analysis of the intelligentsia, while Szelényi and King 2002 surveys the much longer history of the concept. Boltanski and Goldhamer 1987 is an important study of the rise of the French “cadres,” the elite technocrats of the grand écoles.

  • Bell, Daniel. 1973. The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social forecasting. New York: Basic Books.

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    An influential treatment of the rise of what the author calls the “postindustrial society,” in which the role of knowledge in producing wealth becomes increasingly important. Postulates a fundamental shift in the class structures as a consequence of the professional and technical sectors of the economy.

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  • Boltanski, Luc, and Arthur Goldhamer. 1987. The making of a class: Cadres in French society. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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    Analysis of the French “cadres,” graduates of the grand écoles in France who are groomed for management and government positions. Explores the development of a class-wide ideology.

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  • Derber, Charles, William A. Schwartz, and Yale Magrass. 1990. Power in the highest degree: Professionals and the rise of a new Mandarin order. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Argues that knowledge constitutes a new form of class power akin to labor and capital. Knowledge, like capital, allows its possessors to exploit others and extract extra income or rewards. The growing proportion of professional labor in the workforce is significantly altering the class structures of rich democratic countries.

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  • Gouldner, Alvin. 1979. The future of intellectuals and the rise of the new class. New York: Continuum.

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    Gouldner argues that the history of capitalism is one in which “intellectuals”—by which he means professionals and managers as well the “cultural intelligentsia” of writers, artists, and professors—have been gradually coming to assert their power over the economic bourgeoisie. This “new” class is, in Gouldner’s view, well on its way to displacing the “old” class (the bourgeoisie) as the ruling class in the modern world.

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  • Kocka, Jürgen. 1980. White collar workers in America, 1890–1940: A social-political history in international perspective. SAGE Studies in Twentieth Century History 10. Beverly Hills, CA: SAGE.

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    The prominent German historian situates the growth of white-collar work and professions in the historical context of the rapid transformation of capitalism in the United States and elsewhere after 1890.

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  • Szelényi, Iván, and Lawrence King. 2002. Theories of the new class: Intellectuals and power. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press.

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    A survey of theories of the New Class, the long-standing idea that as capitalism evolves, a segment of the educated middle classes begins to make demands for social, economic, and political power.

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The Self-Employed

The growth of self-employment in many Western societies in the late 20th and early 21st centuries reverses a long-standing trend from the late 19th century onward where the largest category of the self-employed, small farmers, were largely incorporated into the paid labor force. However, the rapid growth of new forms of self-employment shook up the class structure of capitalist democracies everywhere. Arum and Müller 2004 provides a major cross-national investigation of both the trends and the factors driving the trends. The interesting debate between Linder and Houghton 1990 and Steinmetz and Wright 1989 suggests some of the complexities of interpreting the larger significance of this trend: On the one hand, many of the self-employed are, in fact, marginally able to support themselves and are self-employed out of necessity, not choice. On the other hand, there is a clear growth in self-employment in desirable jobs and by choice as well, for example with the rise of independent professionals, consultants, and other self-employed experts. With regard to the marginalized self-employed, Venkatesh 2009 provides an important ethnographic examination of informal economy in low-income neighborhoods in the United States, and Portes, et al. 1989 provides a comparative analysis.

  • Arum, Richard, and Walter Müller, eds. 2004. The reemergence of self-employment: A comparative study of self-employment dynamics and social inequality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A major work of comparative stratification research examining the rise of self-employment.

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  • Linder, Marc, and John Houghton. 1990. Self-employment and the petty bourgeoisie: A comment on Steinmetz and Wright. American Journal of Sociology 96.3: 727–735.

    DOI: 10.1086/229577Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Criticizes Steinmetz and Wright for failing to acknowledge the marginalization of many of the self-employed in their historical survey of changes in the class structure (Steinmetz and Wright 1989). The vigorous reply by Steinmetz and Wright suggests the issues are serious ones that have not been fully resolved in the research literature. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Portes, Alejandro, Manuel Castells, and Lauren Benton, eds. 1989. The informal economy: Studies in advanced and less developed countries. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    Wide-ranging collection of studies of informal economies—both legal and illegal—in a dozen countries. The editors’ introduction provides a broader perspective on the patterning of self-employment in the informal economies around the world.

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  • Steinmetz, George, and Erik Olin Wright. 1989. The fall and rise of the petty bourgeoisie: Changing patterns of self-employment in the postwar United States American Journal of Sociology 94.5: 973–1018.

    DOI: 10.1086/229110Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Documents the rising proportion of self-employed persons in the postwar American class structure, situating these trends in relation to other shifts in the class structure. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Venkatesh, Sudhir Alladi. 2009. Off the books: The underground economy of the urban poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Ethnographic study of the urban underground economy. The author includes concrete estimates of earnings, hours worked, and other conditions of employment for a variety of underground activities, including prostitution and drug dealing.

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Elites

Sociological research on the upper class was revived in the early 2000s. Bottomore 1993 provides a valuable summary of the classical traditions, while Daloz 2009 provides a more recent examination of the literature. Mills 1956 is the classical study of the American power elite, while Domhoff 2010 extends and updates the Millsian classic. Ostrower 2004 explores one major type of social upper-class activity (philanthropy). The growing income received by the super-rich is the subject of an increasing number of studies; Piketty and Saez 2006 provides a major comparative analysis.

  • Bottomore, Tom. 1993. Elites in society. London: Routledge.

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    Classic and still valuable study of elite theories. First published in 1966.

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  • Daloz, Jean-Pascal. 2009. The sociology of elite distinction. Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230246836Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Evaluates a variety of theoretical approaches to understanding the social position (and distinction) of “elites.” Reach is both comparative and historical.

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  • Domhoff, G. William. 2010. Who rules America? 6th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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    An accessible introduction to Domhoff’s work on the operation of power in America. Powerful actors—a combination of the social upper-class, the corporate elite, and the policy experts they certify—exert disproportionate influence over elections, the policy formation process, public opinion, and ultimately the exercise of political power. First edition published in 1967.

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  • Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The power elite. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The famous work of elite studies. Mills explores the American power structure, arguing for a “power elite” containing corporate, military, and political wings rooted in the Executive branch. These elites are the products of institutions of socialization and are selected into positions of power.

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  • Ostrower, Francie. 2004. Trustees of culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    One of the characteristic activities of social upper-class members is private philanthropy. In this study of the trustees of major cultural institutions, Ostrower explores the ways in which philanthropic activity sustains elite status.

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  • Piketty, Thomas, and Emmanuel Saez. 2006. The evolution of top incomes: A historical and international perspective. American Economic Review 96.2: 200–205.

    DOI: 10.1257/000282806777212116Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Economists Piketty and Saez transformed the field of inequality research by using tax-return data to isolate the very highest earners and track their incomes over time in several countries. For the United States, they demonstrate that the overwhelming bulk of the increase in income inequality has flowed to the very top earners. In this paper, they present results from comparisons with five other countries using similar data. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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Politics

The impact of classes on political life, and conversely the way political systems and welfare states regulate and modify class divisions, is a central question of class analysis. Lipset 1981 provides the classic class analysis of elections; Evans 1999 is a collection of studies employing more sophisticated methods to test the impact of class on parties and elections, while Bartels 2008 is a major reinvestigation of how American politics and public opinion has been skewed toward upper-class interests. Elite and upper-class influence in politics is explored by Bourdieu 1998 in France and Parenti 2001 in the United States (see also Domhoff 2010, cited under Elites). Block 1987 and Offe and Wiesenthal 1985 are classic works examining the structural advantages of capitalists in the political economy of capitalism. These studies primarily examine the influence of class factors on political outcomes.

  • Bartels, Larry. 2008. Unequal democracy: The political economy of the new gilded age. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A careful examination of various aspects of the political dimensions of rising inequality in the Untied States. In a series of case studies, Bartels argues that Americans favor tax policies that are not in their “material” interest, policy preferences vary by both class and political knowledge, and Congress is vastly more responsive to the rich than the poor.

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  • Block, Fred. 1987. Revising state theory: Essays in politics and postindustrialism. Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press.

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    A collection of influential papers, most published in the late 1970s and early 1980s, examining the structural power of capital in capitalist democracies. Strikes a middle ground between class-centered theories of the state and neo-institutionalist accounts.

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  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. The state nobility: Elite schools in the field of power. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    A study of the exercise of power in France by a group Bourdieu calls the “state nobility,” a group trained and groomed for positions at the top of the French state through elite schooling and careful screening at each stage of career advancement.

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  • Esping-Andersen, Gøsta. 1990. The three worlds of welfare capitalism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Pathbreaking study of welfare states, identifying differences among liberal, conservative (later characterized as Christian Democratic), and social democratic welfare states. Esping-Andersen argues that welfare-state “regimes” have major impacts on the class structures, and capacities for class formation, in capitalist society. This book set in motion an enormous number of studies on welfare states and their consequences.

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  • Evans, Geoffrey. 1999. The end of class politics? Class voting in contemporary context. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    An excellent collection of studies of class-based voting behavior in European countries and the United States. The motivating question of the volume is whether and to what extent class location has declined as an influence on individual voting behavior.

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  • Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1981. Political man: The social bases of politics. Updated and expanded ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

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    The classic study of class influence on politics, which in the expanded edition Lipset himself characterizes as “apolitical Marxism.” Includes examinations of class differences in support for left- and right-wing parties (with the latter introducing the so-called working-class authoritarianism thesis). The book also emphasizes the importance of the rise of a middle class for the establishment of stable democracy.

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  • Offe, Claus, and Helmut Wiesenthal. 1985. The two logics of collective action. In Disorganized capitalism: Contemporary transformations of work and politics. Edited by Claus Offe. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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    A brilliant exposition of the different strategic capacities of capitalists versus workers and the poor. Because individual capitalists (or firms) control the decision to invest, they can influence the political process acting alone, whereas only when very large numbers of workers or poor people organize themselves into ongoing (and frequently high-cost) forms of protest (such as strikes) can they do so.

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  • Parenti, Michael. 2001. Democracy for the few. 7th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

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    Textbook treatment of the range of ways in which democracy as currently practiced in the United States is corrupted by powerful capitalist interests.

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Culture

Sociologists have extensively explored how and why cultural differences between classes become meaningful. The work of Pierre Bourdieu (see Bourdieuian Approaches) and his concept of cultural capital—the cultural habits that are inherited from one’s family background—has been particularly influential here (see Bourdieu and Passeron 1979). Lareau 2003 suggests that cultural capital can help explain class differentials in educational attainment in the United States, paying special attention to differences in parents’ cultural capital and class differences in the style of upbringing. Kingston 2001 argues that the concept has become too broad to be useful for explaining educational attainment. Other research suggests the importance of cultural capital in the workforce. In this regard, Erickson 1996,a study of workers in the security industry in Canada, is intriguing, suggesting that diversity in cultural knowledge, rather than high culture, provides a critical advantage. Lamont 1994 and Svallfors 2006 examine class differences in attitudes in comparative perspective, with the former using in-depth interview methods and the latter using cross-national survey data.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron. 1979. The inheritors, French students and their relation to culture. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    An important early work on cultural capital explaining why economic obstacles are not sufficient to explain class differentials in educational achievement. Originally published in French in 1964.

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  • Erickson, Bonnie. 1996. Culture, class, and connections. American Journal of Sociology 102.1: 217–251.

    DOI: 10.1086/230912Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Tests Bourdieu’s thesis about the advantages of cultural knowledge and finds evidence that it is diversity of cultural knowledge, not high-culture knowledge, that seems to provide the greatest advantage. Further, Erikson finds that diverse cultural knowledge reflects network ties, not class location. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Kingston, Paul W. 2001. The unfulfilled promise of cultural capital theory. Sociology of Education 74 (supp): 88–99.

    DOI: 10.2307/2673255Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Kingston argues here that the concept of cultural capital has not received nearly the critical attention it deserves, and that serious efforts to measure and demonstrate its importance fall substantially short of demonstrating that it can provide a robust explanation for the patterning of inequality.

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  • Lamont, Michele. 1994. Money, morals, manners: Culture of the French and the American upper-middle class. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Using interviews with professionals and managers in France and the United States, Lamont finds evidence of how these educated middle-class actors create symbolic distinctions between themselves and others.

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  • Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Comparing the experiences of middle-class and poor children, some black and some white, Lareau’s intensive ethnography argues that the kinds of “cultural capital” possessed by parents influences their parenting styles and interactions with school officials.

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  • Svallfors, Stefan. 2006. The moral economy of class: Class and attitudes in comparative perspective. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Using cross-national survey data from the International Social Survey Programme, Svallfors examines class differences on a range of important class-linked and normative questions for Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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Social Mobility

One of the most vibrant and long-standing areas of sociological research on class has concerned the question of the intergenerational transmission of class location or, to put it another way, the link between one’s family of origin and one’s ultimate destination in life. The prospects for upward mobility through individual hard work and merit is one of the hallmarks of many normative views of the “good society”—that is, that individuals should have the prospect of getting ahead. On the other hand, where high levels of class disadvantage are handed down from one generation to another, studies of social mobility have almost exclusively focused on occupational attainment, albeit with analysts employing different class or occupational schemes. Sorokin 1927 and Lipset and Bendix 1959 are landmark treatments, while Kerckhoff 1984 provides an introduction to the classical literature.

  • Kerckhoff, Alan C. 1984. The current state of social mobility research. Sociological Quarterly 25.2: 139–158.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.1984.tb00179.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A good overview of the two main types of mobility research—that is, the social class tradition and the status attainment model—and how differences between the two approaches could possibility be bridged. Also discusses the relative importance of structural and individual factors in the social mobility process. Available online by subscription.

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  • Lipset, Seymour M., and Richard Bendix. 1959. Social mobility in industrial society. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    An important and widely influential comparative study of the pattern of social mobility, famously arguing that the overall pattern of social mobility is very similar across Western industrial societies. Also makes the influential argument that mobility is linked to economic development and certain stages of economic development universally maximize opportunities for upward mobility.

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  • Sorokin, Pitirim. 1927. Social mobility. New York: Harper.

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    The first major study of social mobility, one that introduced many of the key terms and concepts that later researchers would employ.

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Class Mobility in the United States and Britain

The patterns of social mobility have been most widely studied in Britain and the United States. The landmark work of Blau and Duncan 1967 on mobility in the United States is the classic work of the field; it dramatically raised both the methodological and theoretical standards for mobility research. Hout 1988, an assessment of trends in the 1970s and 1980s, highlights the variable role of education and educational policy. Goldthorpe 1987, on social mobility in Britain, had a similar galvanizing impact on mobility research in Europe. Mazumder 2005 represents one example of the increasing interest in social mobility processes by economists, while Morgan, et al. 2006 contains recent contributions by both economists and sociologists, all centered on the United States. Spilerman 2000 is important for considering the role of wealth in the stratification process.

  • Blau, Peter M., and Otis D. Duncan. 1967. The American occupational structure. New York: Wiley.

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    The classical treatment of social mobility that truly revolutionized the field through the introduction of the path analysis approach to modeling the relationship between fathers and sons. The findings reinforced previous but less well-grounded understandings of the critical role of family background and educational attainment on adult outcomes.

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  • Goldthorpe, John. 1987. Social mobility and class structure in Britain. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    The classical treatment of social mobility in Britain, first published in 1979. Innovative in the way it conceptualized class structure and methodological in insisting on the importance of relative rates of mobility as a key source of overall societal trends.

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  • Hout, Michael. 1988. More universalism, less structural mobility: The American occupational structure in the 1980s. American Journal of Sociology 93.6: 1358–1400.

    DOI: 10.1086/228904Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Using data from the General Social Survey, Hout shows that in the 1970s and 1980s there was a decrease in the association between family background and adult outcomes. He attributes this to the substantial investments made in the United States in higher education after World War II and the failure to continue at the same pace beginning in the 1970s. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Mazumder, Bhashkar. 2005. Fortunate sons: New estimates of intergenerational mobility in the United States using social security earnings data. Review of Economics and Statistics 87.2: 235–255.

    DOI: 10.1162/0034653053970249Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Study of social mobility based on earnings data. Mazumder uses social security earnings data to examine children’s earnings in comparison with their parents, finding relatively high levels of intergenerational income elasticity. Available online by subscription.

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  • Morgan, Steven L., David Grusky, and Gary Fields, eds. 2006. Mobility and inequality: Frontiers of research in sociology and economics. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    A high-quality collection of papers on issues about social mobility in the contemporary United States.

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  • Spilerman, Seymour. 2000. Wealth and stratification processes. Annual Review of Sociology 26:497–524.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.26.1.497Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A through review of the literature on the impact of wealth on a range of stratification outcomes, including social mobility. Family wealth has an enormous impact on children’s outcomes and life chances. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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Comparative Studies

Although class mobility in the United States has been most widely studied of any country, a large body of comparative social mobility research also exists. Ganzeboom, et al. 1991 provides a fine review of the literature through 1990. Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992 is a classical comparative analysis, while Breen 2004 includes a series of case studies across Europe. Western and Wright 1994 develops a Marxist perspective.

  • Breen, Richard, ed. 2004. Social mobility in Europe. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/0199258457.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    An edited volume containing state-of-the-art country-specific chapters on mobility in eleven European countries since 1970 employing similar methods and data. The editor’s introduction also provides an exceptional overview of social mobility research and its key findings.

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  • Erikson, Robert, and John H. Goldthorpe. 1992. The constant flux: A study of class mobility in industrial societies. Oxford: Clarendon.

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    Arguably the single most comprehensive, theoretically sophisticated one-volume comparative examination of social mobility. Tests the proposition that industrialization has increased upward social mobility but argues that measured properly, “relative” mobility has not changed significantly. A wealth of other tests probe questions of cross-national variation, gender differences, and the impact of different educational systems.

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  • Ganzeboom, Harry, Donald Treiman, and Wout C. Ultee. 1991. Comparative intergenerational stratification research: Three generations and beyond. Annual Review of Sociology 17:277–302.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.so.17.080191.001425Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides a good review and critique of stratification research before the 1990s. Divides research in the area in the three “generations,” focusing mostly on the third generation. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Western, Mark, and Erik O. Wright. 1994. The permeability of class boundaries to intergenerational mobility among men in the United States, Canada, Norway, and Sweden. American Sociological Review 59.4: 606–629.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095934Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Comparative analysis of intergenerational class mobility, using Erik Olin Wright’s (see Contemporary Marxism) model of class structure (distinguishing property, organizational, and knowledge assets). Results suggest that cross-national differences in mobility (so measured) are substantial, with property assets being least permeable in the United States and Canada than in Sweden or Britain.

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Education

Class analysts have increasingly paid attention to the role of education as a factor structuring class systems in contemporary societies. Bowles and Gintis 1976 argues against the view that education in the context of inegalitarian capitalism can provide a pathway to greater social equality. However, more recently, questions of the multiple class impacts of education have appeared: It is a system of credentialing that certifies some people for advancement; it is a major institution through which cultural capital is transmitted; it is itself stratified, to varying degrees, by class inequality in society; and (perhaps) education is the social institution most capable of enabling individual upward mobility or, under special circumstances, greater equality. With respect to mobility, Fischer, et al. 1996 makes the strong case for education’s importance, while Goldin and Katz 2008 examines cross-national patterns of investment in education and the consequences for social mobility and international competitiveness. Breen and Jonsson 2005 provides a review of the literature, while Breen and Jonsson 2007 presents a sophisticated analysis of the equalizing impact of education in Sweden. Shavit and Blossfeld 1993 presents a series of comparative studies of educational inequality. Kahn 2011 provides an ethnographic exploration of the inner workings and status hierarchies of an elite high school, and Stevens 2007 offers an ethnographic study of how a highly selective American university chooses to pick among applicants seeking admission.

  • Bowles, Samuel, and Herbert Gintis. 1976. Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.

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    Marxist analysis of schooling asserting that formal education primarily serves to train and control future generations of workers. Rejects the idea that there is equality of opportunity for people from all class backgrounds.

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  • Breen, Richard, and Jan O. Jonsson. 2005. Inequality of opportunity in comparative perspective: Recent research on educational attainment and social mobility. Annual Review of Sociology 31:223–243.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.31.041304.122232Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    A review essay focused on the question of how educational attainment is linked to the patterning of social mobility in the comparative research literature.

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  • Breen, Richard, and Jan O. Jonsson. 2007. Explaining change in social fluidity: Educational equalization and educational expansion in twentieth-century Sweden. American Journal of Sociology 112.6: 1775–1810.

    DOI: 10.1086/508790Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Argues that active efforts to provide equal educational opportunities have had significant consequences in Sweden. This rigorous study provides strong support for the view that it is possible, at least in some contexts, to significantly improve the life chances of children entering schools with disadvantaged backgrounds. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Fischer, Claude, Michael Hout, Martin Sánchez Jankowski, Samuel R. Lucas, Ann Swidler, and Kim Voss. 1996. Inequality by design: Cracking the bell curve myth. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    A response to a best-selling book by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray that argued that intelligence is largely immutable and a significant factor in structuring unequal outcomes in adulthood, Fischer, et al. mount a powerful case suggesting criticizing the concept of generalized intelligence but powerfully arguing that any measurement of intelligence can be improved through training and education.

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  • Goldin, Claudia, and Lawrence F. Katz. 2008. The race between education and technology: How America once led and can win the race for tomorrow. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

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    Provides a careful analysis of the role of education in fostering a productive national workforce. The historic leadership of the United States in education began to erode in the 2000s, producing macroeconomic weakness and declining opportunity for the working class.

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  • Kahn, Shamus Rahman. 2011. Privilege: The making of an adolescent elite at St. Paul’s School. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press.

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    Ethnographic analysis of the status hierarchies at one of the most elite prep schools in America. Working as a teacher at a school he had earlier attended, Kahn shows how in an age of multiculturalism and diversity, the practices of status making and distinction persist.

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  • Lareau, Annette. 2003. Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Demonstrates that regardless of race, middle-class parents tend to cultivate their children’s talents and skills, while working-class parents tend to allow their children’s talents to grow on their own, focusing instead on ensuring that their basic needs are provided for. This “concerted cultivation” by middle-class parents results in their children having higher performance.

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  • Shavit, Yossi, and Hans-Peter Blossfeld, eds. 1993. Persistent inequality: Changing educational attainment in thirteen countries. Boulder, CO: Westview.

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    An edited volume of studies of the factors explaining educational attainment in thirteen countries. Investigators include some of the most important figures in educational sociology, and the studies employ similar analytical strategies. Cross-national variations in such questions as working-class and female access to higher education is highlighted.

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  • Stevens, Mitchell L. 2007. Creating a class: College admissions and the education of elites. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Ethnographic account of the working of an admissions committee at an elite private university. Stevens shows a pattern of “systematic preferencing” in which admissions officers seek to balance their classes across a range of different criteria.

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Gender

There are several widely debated questions about the relationship between gender and class. One traditional question is the place of women in the class structure. Goldthorpe 1983 argued vigorously for the “traditional” view, in which married women are assigned to the same class location as their husband, a widely controversial and debated proposition. Wright 1989, by contrast, argues that a married woman can have a different class location than her husband, when their work situation diverges. Another key issue concerns how men and women are slotted into the class hierarchy in the division of labor. Occupational segregation describes the difficulty women have penetrating many male-dominated occupations (or being restricted to less desirable niches within those occupations). Charles and Grusky 2004 provide the seminal contribution to the debate over occupational sex segregation. See also Cohen and Huffman 2003 on the wages of male- versus female-typed occupations and Williams 1995 on the relative advantages of men even in female occupations. Wright, et al. 1995 demonstrates a gender gap in authority in the workplace, although the extent of this gap varies cross-nationally. Finally, Bernhardt, et al. 1995 examines the striking decline of the gender wage gap in the 1980s in the United States (a pattern repeated elsewhere but generally only up to a certain point). The authors argue that declining gender inequality reflects rising class inequality among men.

  • Bernhardt, Annette, Martina Morris, and Mark Handcock. 1995. Women’s gains or men’s losses? A closer look at the shrinking gender gap in earnings. American Journal of Sociology 101.2: 302–328.

    DOI: 10.1086/230726Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Sophisticated analysis of the decline in the male–female wage gap in the United States in the 1980s that offers a class-based interpretation. The authors demonstrate that stagnating male wages, except at the top of the income distribution, combine with rising incomes for high-earning women (but not all women). The decline in the gender gap class did not evolve in ways that benefited all women. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Charles, Maria, and David B. Grusky. 2004. Occupational ghettos: The worldwide segregation of women and men. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Comprehensive and careful analysis of the trend in occupational sex segregation. Explores the gendered segregation of occupations in ten countries (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Portugal, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan). Charles and Grusky find evidence that the patterns of segregation between manual and nonmanual occupations are varying, suggesting that egalitarian ideology has allowed women to make gains in the latter but not much in the former.

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  • Cohen, Philip N., and Matt L. Huffman. 2003. Individuals, jobs, and labor markets: The devaluation of women’s work. American Sociological Review 68:443–463.

    DOI: 10.2307/1519732Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Provides an up-to-date analysis of the consequences of the sex typing of occupations and the consequences for their wages. Evidence of declining occupational wage gaps for male versus female jobs is very limited.

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  • Goldthorpe, John. 1983. Women and class analysis: In defence of the conventional view. Sociology 17.4: 465–488.

    DOI: 10.1177/0038038583017004001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Defends the view that married women should be classified according to the class position of their husbands. Touched off a furious debate about women in the class structure and whether there is male bias in the stratification literature more generally. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Williams, Christine. 1995. Still a man’s world: Men who do “women’s work.” Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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    Examines the processes through which men working in feminized occupations still make higher wages than women, which the author refers to as the “glass elevator” effect.

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  • Wright, Erik Olin. 1989. Women in the class structure. Politics & Society 17.1: 35–66.

    DOI: 10.1177/003232928901700102Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines the issues raised for analyzing class structure by marriages in which the class location of husbands and wives are at odds. Rejects the Goldthorpe 1983 “traditional” solution. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Wright, Erik Olin, Janeen Baxter, and Gunn Elisabeth Birkelund. 1995. The gender gap in workplace authority: A cross-national study. American Sociological Review 60:407–435.

    DOI: 10.2307/2096422Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines one important aspect of how gender relations impact workplace authority and, in the authors’ schema, their class location. Significant cross-national variation is discussed.

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Race and Ethnicity

Class structures and class formation intersect in various ways with racial and ethnic divisions. The classic work of Bonacich 1976 argues that capitalists in the United States benefitted from a split labor market, where black labor was used to undermine white laborers. Oliver and Shapiro 1995 demonstrates that because of racial dynamics in the United States, blacks have had fewer resources to accumulate wealth than whites and therefore cannot readily pass on class advantage to their children. On the question of class mobility, Duncan 1968 argues that for African Americans in the United States, there was a kind “perverse openness” in which background advantage could not so readily be inherited; Hout 1984 reexamines this trend with later data and finds evidence that in the post–Civil Rights era, with increasing opportunities for middle-class African Americans, the pattern of class mobility more closely resembles that of whites. In a classic study of rising class disparities among African Americans, which led to what the author calls “the declining significance of race,” Wilson 1978 framed much of the debate that followed.

  • Bonacich, Edna. 1976. Advanced capitalism and black/white race relations in the United States: A split labor market interpretation. American Sociological Review 41:34–51.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094371Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Discusses the development of the black/white split labor market that emerged after the 1930s in the United States. Suggests that blacks were used by capitalists to undermine the initiatives of white workers and their unions. This resulted in blacks being excluded from the white labor movement, which in turn resulted in their more precarious position in the labor market.

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  • Duncan, Otis Dudley. 1968. Inheritance of poverty or inheritance of race? In On understanding poverty: Perspectives from the social sciences. Edited by Daniel P. Moynihan, 85–110. New York: Basic Books.

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    Classical essay demonstrating the “perverse openness” of the mobility patterns among African Americans in the United States in the pre–Civil Rights era. Class advantages could not be passed on from one generation to another; or to put it another way, because so few blacks had the opportunity for upward social mobility in the class structure, the role of class background was far less significant than for whites. Originally published in 1966.

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  • Hout, Michael. 1984. Occupational mobility of black men: 1962 to 1973. American Sociological Review 49:308–322.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095276Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Reassessment of Duncan’s finding about race and class with data from the 1970s. With the passage of the major civil rights legislation of the 1960s, the patterns of social mobility for blacks were similar to those for whites.

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  • Oliver, Melvin, and Thomas Shapiro. 1995. Black wealth/white wealth: A new perspective on racial inequality. New York: Routledge.

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    An influential work on the racial divide in wealth accumulation in the United States. Oliver and Shapiro demonstrate the powerful legacies of slavery and racial inequality on the patterning of wealth holding. Further, because of such factors as racial segregation in housing, African Americans have made much less progress in wealth inequality than income inequality.

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  • Wilson, William Julius. 1978. The declining significance of race: Blacks and changing American institutions. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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    Landmark and widely debated study of rising class inequalities within the African American community. The book’s title is somewhat misleading, in that Wilson never claims that racial factors are disappearing, only that there is a complex race and class dynamic in the age of rising opportunity for middle-class blacks in which race is no longer as powerful a determinant for all blacks as it once was.

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Globalization and Class Inequalities

Class inequalities are inevitably impacted by the increasingly flows of goods, capital, and labor across national borders. Alderson and Nielsen 2002 and Firebaugh 2003 demonstrate that within-country inequalities are rising; Firebaugh shows that this increase is occurring at the same time that between-country inequalities are declining, as very large countries like China and India begin to move closer to the global income mean. Korzeniewicz and Moran 2009 examines the global trends in inequality, situating country trends in a larger context. Gustafsson and Johansson 1999 provides an analysis of the dynamics of inequality over time. Goldthorpe 2006 provides a careful reexamination of claims that domestic class structures are being transformed by globalization processes.

  • Alderson, Arthur S., and François Nielsen. 2002. Globalization and the great U-turn: Income inequality trends in 16 OECD countries. American Journal of Sociology 107.5: 1244–1299.

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    One of the first systematic studies of the growing income inequality that occurred in the late 1990s and into the 2000s. Based on an analysis of trends in inequality in sixteen OECD countries, the authors argue that globalization, and direct investment in particular, has had a profound effect on the growth of inequality. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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  • Firebaugh, Glenn. 2003. The new geography of global income inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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    Argues that between-country global income inequality has declined due largely to the exceptional growth of incomes in China and India. Globalization, and in particular the growth of industrialization in poor countries, which is in large part a product of investment from the North, has served to reduce global poverty and inequality.

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  • Goldthorpe, John. 2006. Globalisation and social class. In On sociology. Vol. 2, Illustration and retrospect. 2d ed. By John Goldthorpe. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

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    Sharp critique of the view that domestic class structures are being completely transformed by the increasing flow of capital, goods, and labor across borders.

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  • Gustafsson, Björn, and Mats Johansson. 1999. In search of smoking guns: What makes income inequality vary over time in different countries? American Sociological Review 64:585–605.

    DOI: 10.2307/2657258Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

    Examines a range of factors that have contributed to changes in income inequality within countries.

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  • Korzeniewicz, Roberto Patricio, and Timothy Patrick Moran. 2009. Unveiling inequality: A world-historical perspective. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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    Argues for the importance of looking at inequality on a global scale and in historical perspective, rather than focusing only on individual nation-states. Individual life chances reflect not just within-country inequality but also the place of country of residence in the world economy. The patterning of inequality (and over-time equilibria) varies depending on a country’s place in the world system.

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Critics of Sociological Class Analysis

Class has become an increasingly contested concept in sociology as a whole, as noted in the introduction to this bibliography. Several key issues have been raised (see Pakulski 2005 for a survey). One is the lack of agreement about what exactly we mean when we use the term “class”; analysts have operationalized class in a wide variety of different ways, and there remains, after nearly four decades of debate, no easy or universally accepted resolution to the “boundary” problem. Second, a number of analysts have questioned whether class (however measured) provides much analytical power, either for explaining individual or societal social change. A number of collections have explored these issues; see for example, Lee and Turner 1996 and Clark and Lipset 2001. Kingston 2000 provides the most compelling and detailed examination, focusing on the United States but bringing comparative data as well and covering many of the topics of class analysis (mobility, cultural capital, voting behavior) mentioned earlier. Finally, a number of other analysts have argued that while class may once have been a powerful concept, it no longer seems to hold much sway (e.g., Pakulski and Waters 1996). Wood 1986 provides an examination of the critics of class analysis from post-Marxist directions). The Lareau and Conley 2008 collection, featuring essays by prominent class analysts, attempts to respond to these criticisms, although whether it succeeds is open to question.

LAST MODIFIED: 07/27/2011

DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0067

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