Sociological Perspectives Through Time By: James Lanier ’14
Classic sociologist, Karl Marx, analyzed and explained class systems through a unique perspective that remains to be extremely useful and relevant to today’s society. His ideas began in the nineteenth century when a bourgeoisie label proved to give one a successful life, while a proletariat label caused immediate life struggle and hardship. A very different classic sociologist, Max Weber, delineated social class in a very different way than Marx. He saw social class as a more complex structure, perhaps adding a different perspective because his studies occurred at a very different time than Marx’s. Nevertheless, these two very different sociologists were both intrigued by how social class affects a person’s life. Their explanations remain an imperative base for the science of Sociology today. Further, applying their theories are useful in understanding the influences of social class.
“Communist Manifesto” gives a thorough explanation of Karl Marx’s perspective on social class. He is famously known as a conflict theorist. Marx describes social class as consisting of the “oppressor and oppressed” (Marx and Engels 1967:79). The oppressor is the bourgeoisie and the oppressed is proletariats. Marx describes how a “primeval” community evolves from a society which contributes equally somehow to the community develops into social classes dividing them. He states “dissolution of these primeval communities society begins to de differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic class” (Marx and Engels 1967:79). According to Marx, this leaves no room for the possibility of separate classes working together.
His outlook on social class explains that there must only be the bourgeoisie and proletarians. Even the possibility of a middle class eventually “sinks” into the proletarian group in reaction to the interest of the bourgeoisie. Marx claims “the lower strata of the middle class…sink gradually into the proletariat, partly because their specialized skills rendered worthless by new methods of productions” (Marx and Engels 1967:79).
The way he describes the exchange between the two classes is like an un-ending battle between good and evil. He explains that the proletariat is a man trying to live happily through hard work. This is evident when he says “class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work” (Marx and Engels 1967:87). On the other hand he describes the bourgeoisies as an evil class who cause trouble for the proletarians. They dominate all and determine what the proletarians may and may not do, to an extreme extent. Marx states how “the bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family to a mere money relation” (Marx and Engels 1967:82). It is important to view the words that Karl Marx uses very carefully. He uses the word “family” which is primarily the first most important thing to a man. The fact that he describes the bourgeoisie as reducing a man’s family to a mere monetary gain is a harsh statement towards the class. He concludes that the outcome is a clash between the two groups. Marx believes that “a fight that each time end either in revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx and Engels 1967:79) Karl Marx’s view on social class is interesting, there is evidence of possible favoritism for the proletarian class. This is a complex view on social class that directly relates to his identity as a conflict theorist.
While Karl Marx has his ideas about social class, Max Weber has his own perspective which differs from Marx’s opinion. Weber’s explanation of social class is more complex than Marx’s bourgeoisie and proletarians clash. Weber examines social class through understanding the impact of different class circumstances. Weber expresses this idea by saying “A social class makes up the totality of those class situations within which individuals and generational nobility is easy and typical” (Weber 1978:302). The big difference between Marx and Weber is the issue on the conflict between the classes. Weber does not believe that just because there is an obvious difference between certain types of classes in the structure of his idea of social class that there has to be an eventual conflict. Evidence of his opinion is seen when he claims that “The mere differentiation of property classes is not dynamic that is, it need not to result in class struggles and revolutions” (Weber 1978:303). The main example he uses of this peaceful coexistence between different classes is the age of the slave owners and poor whites in the south. He states “privileged class of slave owners may coexist with much less privileged peasants or even the declassed” (Weber 1978:304). Recent research of social class has been influenced by Weber’s more complex ideal of social class.
In a study by Tak Wing Chan and John H. Goldthorpe, it is clear that Weber’s distinction between class and status is not only “conceptual cogent, but empirically important as well” (Chan and Goldthorpe 2007:512). They present the idea that social class becomes not a clash between two different groups but a social norm between the two. They state how “we regard a status order as a structure of relations of perceived, and in some degree accepted, social superiority, equality, and inferiority among individuals” (Chan and Goldthorpe 2007:512). Max Weber’s exploration into social class brings complexity to the idea presented by Karl Marx as the dominant class manipulating a lower class. Studies have been performed to see how social class affects different aspects of life such as the act of voting choice, racial inequality, and the poor. In a study recorded by Lynn McDonald the affects of social class were monitored in the Canadian Federal election in Ontario. McDonald reports in the “Social class and voting: a study of the 1968 Canadian Federal election in Ontario”, that “Canadian findings and those of other countries pointed out. Almost all the previous studies have shown social class to have some significant association with voting, and very often it has a closer association than…religion and ethnicity” (McDonald 1968:412). The interviews were obtained from 1,916 voters, which is a substantial amount of people contributing to the validation of the connection between social class, voting, religion and ethnicity. When observing the study McDonald notes that they discovered “the effect of occupation on voting is only weak” (McDonald 1968:414). No major effects of social class were found throughout the study. The main variables associated closely with social class had little or no effect. This study displays the idea that social class does not determine a sure probability of how different classes will vote. McDonald writes that “a person’s status in society…did not significantly increase the explanation of voting beyond that already explained by the main status variables of occupation, ethnicity, and religion” (McDonald 1968:418). The mere fact that such a project was pursued to answer questions about the effects of social class gives evidence of its importance to understanding society and how it changes, and conducts itself.