Sociology Proletariat (Working Class)
Yunus Kaya
  • LAST REVIEWED: 12 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0089


The prevalence of wage labor has been a defining characteristic of modern societies. Following the Industrial Revolution, the people who sold their labor for survival in the newly emerging modern societies were usually labeled as the “working class” or the “proletariat.” Originally used by Romans to label citizens with very little or no property, the term “proletariat” was adopted by Karl Marx to categorize the working class in the newly industrialized European societies, and since then the two terms have been used interchangeably. The initial dominance of industrial work made the working class synonymous with manual work. However, as service-sector employment expanded and the number of people employed in white-collar occupations increased, the definition of “working class” also changed. Today, although there are serious debates and disagreements about the definition of “working class,” or even its very existence, many scholars define the term as comprising people who earn their living through wage labor, who do not own any assets or capital, and who do not possess workplace authority. Over the years, scholars have argued that working classes differ from the rest of the societies they belong to with their politics, culture, family structures, and the conditions they live in. However, it is also not possible to talk about a single and unified working class in any society, as working classes are divided through the lines of gender, race, and ethnicity. Today, working classes all over the world are struggling with the challenges of globalization and new technologies, although the specific challenges they face differ in developed and less developed countries.

General Overviews

Although it is hard to find comprehensive reviews or introductory texts on the working class, a few studies provide insights into the literature on the working class, and they shed light on the contemporary issues and challenges faced by the working classes. For example, Wright 2005 reviews major theoretical approaches to social class in general and the working class in particular. Roberts 1990 compares the literatures on proletariat and peasants and provides a comprehensive review of the literature until 1990. Arnesen 2007; Zweig 2012; and Mishel, et al. 2009 draw a compelling picture of working-class Americans and the various challenges they face. Bourdieu, et al. 1999 includes analyses of various aspects of the French working class, while Perrucci and Perrucci 2007 debates various effects of the new technologies and the global economy.

  • Arnesen, Eric, ed. 2007. Encyclopedia of U.S. labor and working-class history. 3 vols. New York: Routledge.

    These volumes include more than 650 entries that cover the history of the American working class from the colonial era to the present. They contain articles on a vast number of issues, such as race and ethnicity, gender, slavery, regions, occupations, working-class culture, labor unions, and resistance.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre, et al. 1999. The weight of the world: Social suffering in contemporary society. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    Although this is not strictly an analysis of the working class, it reviews and discusses many problems and challenges faced by the working class in France. The authors who contributed to this volume discuss many issues, including racism and discrimination, working-class culture, religion, deindustrialization, and social exclusion. Originally published in 1993 as La misère du monde (Paris: Seuil).

  • Mishel, Lawrence, Jared Bernstein, and Heidi Shierholz. 2009. The state of working America: 2008–2009. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    This work is the latest edition of The State of Working America, which has been published biannually by the Economic Policy Institute since 1988. Each volume includes an updated review of issues that are faced by working-class Americans and their families. It provides a comprehensive coverage of variety of issues, such as wages, education, health, and inequality.

  • Perrucci, Robert, and Carolyn C. Perrucci, eds. 2007. The transformation of work in the new economy: Sociological readings. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

    A very helpful source book and comprehensive reader on the new economy and the contemporary challenges faced by all working people, including working classes. The reader is divided into five sections: “Historical Background for the New Economy,” “How Globalization, Technology, and Organization Affect Work,” “The Changing Face of Work,” “Work and Family Connections,” and “Emerging Issues.” Can be used in upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses.

  • Roberts, Bryan R. 1990. Peasants and proletarians. Annual Review of Sociology 16:353–377.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    As an Annual Review article, it provides a comprehensive survey of the literature on the working class. It compares peasants and proletarians with regard to differences between them in political action, social structure, and demographic behavior, and discusses the effects of contemporary changes in economies and labor markets. Also includes references to various important works in the literature.

  • Wright, Erik Olin, ed. 2005. Approaches to class analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511488900

    This edited volume comprises six essays on different theoretical approaches to class analysis, as well as a review essay by the editor. It is a good overview of the different theories in the field, and it can be very helpful in an upper-level undergraduate or a graduate class.

  • Zweig, Michael. 2012. The working class majority: America’s best kept secret. 2d ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive and sometimes provocative account of the working class in the United States. It emphasizes the importance of the social class in understanding the social structure and work life in the United States. It discusses many issues, including the underclass, globalization, family, and the role of government. It also includes a useful section labeled “Working Class Resource Guide.”

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