In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Class and Social Structure

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Class Studies
  • Debates
  • Early Modern England
  • The Iberian Atlantic World
  • The French and Dutch Atlantic World
  • Africa and the Atlantic World

Atlantic History Class and Social Structure
Simon Middleton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0081


The study of social structure—meaning the relationships between different social groups and the significance of those relationships and groups in historical processes and change—has deep roots in modern historiography, beginning with 17th-century demographers and political economists. Similarly, as Raymond Williams notes in Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, the first use of the word class to describe an “order or distribution of people according to their several degrees” also dates from the early modern era. Thereafter the term served commentators and social theorists who described the division or ordering of society according to status, rank, or grade. One of these social theorists, Karl Marx (b. 1818–d. 1883), was particularly influential in later historiography. For Marx, class denoted a shared relationship to social and economic processes of production. It also implied distinct and ultimately contradictory class interests. Thus workers have a different relationship to the social and economic processes of production than capitalists, one seeking to maximize wages and the other profits. At some point, according to Marx, these contradictions lead to conflict and historical change. Other commentators have disagreed and stressed variables that characterize class and do not fit with Marx’s model, such as status, life chances, and wealth. In the early 20th century the study of class and social structure became a feature of increasingly materialistic approaches to history. Historians’ focus shifted away from biography and the doings of prominent individuals to considerations of deeper social and economic structures and contexts and how they figured in change over time. In the modern post–World War II era, historians continued to investigate social structure, but the study of class became the subject of a long and complex controversy: first, when scholars set out to explore Marx’s notion of class formation and to connect a shared experience of difficult social and economic conditions to the development of radical political consciousness, and second when a powerful set of critiques under the heading of the linguistic or cultural “turn” challenged this materialist approach to political consciousness, which had expanded to include other, previously marginalized social groups such as women, slaves, and Native Americans. In this respect, the pairing of class and social structure masks significant and continuing historiographical disagreement. This bibliography offers citations to the works of leading social theorists and studies of social structure in the early modern Atlantic world. It also includes citations on different conceptions of class and the historiographical controversy of recent decades.

General Overviews

It is common for introductions to class to gloss the ancient and early modern origins of the term and to then concentrate on key theorists, such as Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Antonio Gramsci and their influence on scholarship in a range of disciplines from history to sociology and literary theory. And it is more than coincidence that so many introductory surveys, such as Calvert 1982 and Cannadine 1999, appeared following the declining purchase of class on political and academic considerations after the collapse of the Soviet Union and rightward drift of European and American political parties in the 1980s and 1990s. These assessments differ from the earlier and ideologically more sympathetic overview offered by Williams 1983. Others, such as Day 2001 and Dworkin 2007, continue to see an analytic utility for class, and Joyce 1995 offers an excellent anthology of key texts and arguments concerning class analysis. Nobles 2003 and Wrightson 2002 provide useful historical overviews of class in early North America and the Atlantic world.

  • Calvert, Peter. The Concept of Class: An Historical Introduction. London: Hutchinson, 1982.

    Provides a guide to the development of different concepts of class—from classical through pre-Marxian, Marxian, and post-Marxian variants. Also considers recent debates and the usefulness of class for understanding contemporary socialist and capitalist societies. Concludes that since no stable definition can be found, perhaps we should jettison the term altogether.

  • Cannadine, David. The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

    Studies class in Britain from the 18th through the 20th century and argues that class is best understood as a shorthand term for three distinct ways in which subjects have visualized their social worlds and identities: class as “us” versus “them”; class as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower”; and class as a seamless hierarchy of individual social relations.

  • Day, Gary. Class. London: Routledge, 2001.

    Aimed at literary scholars and focuses on the role of class in constructions of notions of the “literary” and canonical works. Draws on historical, sociological, and literary examples and examines the complex relations between “class” and “culture.” Comparatively positive about usefulness and continuing worthwhile applicability of the term in literary and cultural contexts.

  • Dworkin, Dennis. Class Struggles. Harlow, UK: Pearson Longman, 2007.

    Another review of debates concerning class, this time within sociology rather than history. Argues that accelerating globalization, proliferating multinational corporations, and unbridled free-market capitalism of the 1990s and early 2000s give the study of class new significance, prescient in light of events in 2008.

  • Joyce, Patrick. Class. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    Edited collection of key works on class from a key figure in the debate on class and social history. Features excerpts of classic essays by British Marxists such as E. P. Thompson and Richard Hoggart; critics and supporters such as Gareth Stedman Jones, Joan W. Scott, and Ellen Meiksins Wood; and social theorists and thinkers from Europe and the Americas such as Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Zygmunt Bauman, and Cornelius Castoriadis.

  • Nobles, Greg. “Class.” In A Companion to Colonial America. Edited by Daniel Vickers, 259–287. Blackwell Companions to American History. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003.

    The best and most accessible review of class in early American scholarship. Nobles argues that many have denied the utility of class analysis in a republic characterized by a commitment to individualism, social mobility, and equality—with the inconvenient exception, of course, of slavery. Includes an excellent bibliography of key works.

  • Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1983.

    Williams was a leading Marxist literary contemporary of Richard Hoggart and E. P. Thompson. In Keywords he examines the history and changing meanings of more than one hundred terms and concepts. Once used mostly as a source of definitions, it now also provides insight into assumptions and arguments of the 1970s. First published in 1976.

  • Wrightson, Keith. “Class.” In The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. Edited by David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, 133–154. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

    Insightful essay in influential collection by a leading early modern English historian. Adaptation of his earlier essays on class and “sorts” of people. Traces history of social categorization from 16th-century England to the 18th-century Atlantic world. Rare attempt to integrate English and American scholarship.

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