In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Middle Classes

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Theoretical Perspectives
  • Historical Emergence of the Middle Class
  • The New Class
  • Lifestyles, Norms, and Values
  • Education and Parenting
  • Religion
  • Space and Place
  • International and Comparative Studies

Sociology Middle Classes
Scott T. Fitzgerald
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 November 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0093


Despite copious studies on the middle classes, there is no single, widely held definition of the middle class. Some scholars define the middle class in terms of the relation to the means of production, others in terms of relative incomes, and still others in terms of consumption patterns. A common working definition might include those with incomes in the middle third of the income distribution; who work as upper- or lower-level managers, professionals, or small-business owners; who graduated from a four-year college or university; and whose primary source of wealth is home ownership. The sociological study of the middle classes has a long and varied past and has been driven by both theoretical and empirical concerns. Theoretically, much attention has been given to conceptualizing the historical middle classes in relation to other social classes and also accounting for the emergence of the new middle class in the latter part of the 20th century. Neo-Weberian and neo-Marxist theories of class represent two influential perspectives on the middle class. Both perspectives emphasize the importance of market capacities in shaping life chances and how the middle classes differ from the working class and the upper class on this dimension. Neo-Marxist arguments differ primarily in their additional focus on the relationship to the means of production as a key dimension of the class structure. A third influential approach to studying class structure focuses on the role of tastes, consumption patterns, and cultural boundaries in defining class relations and identifying the middle classes. Empirically, the literature on the middle class addresses the structural forces shaping the emergence of the middle class in different national contexts and how the political, economic, and social trends of the time shape the experiences of the middle class. Since the late 20th century there has been considerable attention given to analyzing the “new middle class” and uncovering in what ways members of this class differ from other classes in terms of political orientations and activities. Other work has focused on how the changing economic landscape of the postindustrial economy has led to economic uncertainty for many members of the middle class, causing an increase in consumer debt, bankruptcies, and downward mobility. The notion of social reproduction and middle-class advantage (vis-à-vis the working class) is a theme running throughout work examining the education system and studies examining religion. Additional topics of research on the middle class include the intersectionality of gender, race, and ethnicity; the importance of geospatial dimensions of space and place; and cross-national comparative work and case studies of various subpopulations and nations.


There are no standard textbooks written exclusively about the middle class. Instructors interested in teaching a course or module on the middle class will generally need to use books dealing with stratification and social class more broadly. For upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses, Grusky 2008 is the volume of choice. For a slightly more accessible collection of articles, see Manza and Sauder 2009. Two standard textbooks on stratification, Kerbo 2009 and Marger 2010, provide sections on the middle class. Alternately, courses could incorporate works that give accessible overviews of important data and analyses while focusing on particular topics. For example, Leicht and Fitzgerald 2007 focuses on the social, economic, and political trends affecting the American middle class, and Perrucci and Wysong 2008 offers an engaging analysis of class and power in the United States.

  • Grusky, David B., ed. 2008. Social stratification: Class, race, and gender in sociological perspective. 3d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.

    With more than a hundred reprinted selections, this is the single best place to gain breadth and depth of knowledge on the study of stratification. Part 2 (“Forms and Sources of Inequality”), Part 3 (“The Structure of Contemporary Inequality”), and Part 8 (“The Consequences of Inequality”) are the most relevant selections relating to the middle class. Most appropriate for graduate student use.

  • Kerbo, Harold R. 2009. Social stratification and inequality: Class conflict in historical, comparative, and global perspective. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

    This textbook is well suited for use in undergraduate courses on stratification. Includes an entire chapter on the middle and working classes.

  • Leicht, Kevin T., and Scott T. Fitzgerald. 2007. Postindustrial peasants: The illusion of middle-class prosperity. Contemporary Social Issues. New York: Worth.

    Accessibly written account of the causes and consequences of the indebted American middle class. Contains analyses of labor markets, macroeconomics, and tax policy. Appropriate for undergraduate courses.

  • Manza, Jeff, and Michael Sauder. 2009. Inequality and society: Social science perspectives on social stratification. New York: Norton.

    Similar in breadth to Grusky 2008, this edited volume is pitched more to undergraduate students. The sections “Class Analysis” (chapters 28–30) and “Consequences of Inequality” (chapters 57–61) directly turn attention on the middle class.

  • Marger, Martin N. 2010. Social inequality: Patterns and processes. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    This textbook is well suited for use in undergraduate courses on stratification. Includes an entire chapter on the middle class.

  • Perrucci, Robert, and Earl Wysong. 2008. The new class society: Goodbye American Dream? 3d ed. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

    Provides an alternate view of class structure in the United States and details the influence of media and elites in shaping class relations. Well suited for use in the undergraduate classroom.

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