Social changes in society – class differences

Social class is no longer relevant in modern Britain. Discuss Social stratification refers to the hierarchical arrangement of individuals into divisions of power and wealth within a society. Social class, which is sometimes called social differentiation, describes a group of people within a society who possess the same socioeconomic status. Since the industrialisation of Britain, stratification has been based on social class.

Postmodernist sociologists such as Pakulski and Waters believe that social class is no longer relevant in modern Britain: “It is simply, for us, an obvious truth that class can no longer give us purchase on the big social, political and cultural issues of the age”. (Pakulski & Waters, 1996, pp. vii, line32) They argue that in the late twentieth century, Britain has changed to a ‘status-conventional’ society, a move away from the traditional economic class society that has defined industrial Britain in the past.

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This type of ‘status’ society is based on cultural rather than economic differences and has four key features: Culturalism – stratification is based on lifestyle; Fragmentation – people have different statuses based on their membership of different groups, which can overlap; Autonomization – people are independent in their values and behaviour and predictions can no longer be made based on their class background or other characteristics; Resignification – peoples identities are fluid and they consistently change what they see as important.

(Haralambos & Holborn, 2004) People are now, more and more, defined by their lifestyle choices, for example football fans are a group united by a shared interest and identity, but may all be from different backgrounds i. e. a surgeon may stand next to a butcher and feel equal as they are both part of the group.

Pakulski and Waters gave several reasons for the death of class; the agreement of governments and unions have reduced the impact of class relationships along with the development of welfare states; educational and professional skills have become more important than social class regarding job opportunities; property ownership has become more shared out, making it less of a source of power; a broader scattering of wealth means more people are consuming beyond necessity. Ulrich Beck also believes that class is dying out, but rather than changing into a post modern society, it is transforming into a ‘risk’ society.

He states that there are three main stages in the development of societies – premodernity, simple modernity and reflexive or late modernity. In simple modernity, the main concerns were with lack of money and the distribution of wealth. People’s faith in religion and tradition were replaced with trust in science and technology. In reflexive modernity, a risk society is established, science and technology is seen as creating rather than solving problems and class and status lose their social significance.

(Haralambos & Holborn, 2004) Beck argues that science and technology have brought us more problems and worry in the form of pollution, global warming and the health implications of consuming processed foods. He reasons that people no longer feel a sense of class identity and we are all open to the same risks, such as unemployment, regardless of class and background. Contrary to this view, Karl Marx believed that class was of the upmost importance in modern society.

He stated that there were two groups in society, the ruling class or bourgeoisie and the subject class or proletariat. This type of society is based on power and ownership with the bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat to increase their profits and protect their interests. These two groups are in conflict with each other, therefore Marxism is known as a conflict theory. (Giddens, 2006) Those who have economic control also control politics which again protects their interests and keeps the workers in their place.

Marx said there would be three changes in society – class differences would become more concentrated, for example multi-national corporations would grow and the working class would become more impoverished; deskilling of the workforce i. e. improvements in technology will push jobs into unskilled work thus ensuring the growth of the working class, maintenance of low wages and high levels of unemployment; and economic crisis is inevitable due to the fact that capitalism is an erratic and unstable system. (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004).

Marx believed that the proletariat have a false class consciousness i.e. a flawed view of their society and their position in it and they have been fooled into thinking that capitalism is fair. He predicted that the middle class would disappear and the two classes would polarise, widening the gap between them and will culminate in communism when the workers realise their position and start a revolution. Max Weber agrees with Marx up to a point. He acknowledges the importance of class in society but believes that class is related to labour market position and that status can be a source of privilege or disadvantages as well as a basis for the formation of social groups.

Weber, like Marx saw the division of class between owners and non owners but could see significant differences in the market position of non owners. He identified that non owners could still hold powerful positions in the labour market, for example a doctor or managing director, and these positions offer many benefits and life chances. Weber discerned five class groupings in capitalist society – the propertied upper class, the property-less white collar workers, small property owners or petty bourgeoisie, the manual working class and the very poor or underclass.

(Haralambos & Holborn, 2004) Those at the bottom of the scale have a very negative status therefore less life chances compared to those at the top. Weber asserted that groups form because they share a similar status situation and that status can influence life chances. Status groups can cut across class divisions, for example homosexuals from different class backgrounds come together to be involved in gay rights. The analysis of status enables us to recognise that not all inequalities come down to class and ownership; they can equally be based on ethnicity, disability and age.

Weber predicted that the middle class would grow and jobs would become more complex with improvements in technology and eventually class would begin to fragment due to these complexities in the labour market. Marxist theories are openly radical and are formed on the basic understanding that communism is the only just and fair arrangement, however critics argue that it ignores other important divisions in society, such as those between different ethnic groups and those with disabilities.

Marx underestimated the importance of the middle class and his predictions that it would disappear have not come true, in fact the middle class has grown, in line with Weber’s predictions. Similarly, his projection that communism would replace capitalism has not become a reality. Weber however, underestimated the importance of ownership and wealth, as can be illustrated in the Time’s rich list: 24 out of the top 25 are owners of business or property, showing that even today ownership is directly linked to wealth and power. (Staff, 2009)

While Pakulski and Waters have recognised some vital changes in capitalist society, their claim that class is dying out has drawn criticism. By claiming that differences in lifestyle and consumption patterns have become more important than differences in class, they are ignoring the simple fact that class differences influence the type of lifestyle that different groups can afford. John Westergaard said “consumer power, after all, is money power: quite simply, the rich and the comfortably off have much more of it than ordinary wage-earners, let alone the poor who are out of wage work”. (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004, p.87 line 7).

Beck has been criticised for exaggerating the shift from society in which risk stemmed from scarcity to one where risks affect all classes. Alan Scott argues that even in pre-industrial times the rich could not isolate themselves from all risks; they would have been affected by problems such as crop failure and disease. Scott also argues that in modern society money can give protection from risk, people will move away from polluted and seemingly dangerous areas if they can afford to do so. (Haralambos & Holborn, 2004) So in conclusion, social class is still very much prevalent in modern Britain.

While other factors are important in gaining life chances, it cannot be argued that being born into a privileged position of high economic power will give an individual a better chance in life. Those with more money, live in better areas with better health care facilities, better educational institutions and better leisure facilities. These all equate to better life chances. Those with disabilities will come up against barriers to their life chances as will those from different ethnic backgrounds and whether they are men or women but class will always play a key part.

Bibliography Giddens, A. (2006). Sociology (Fifth ed. ). Cambridge: Polity Press. Haralambos, M. , & Holborn, M. (2004). Sociology – Themes and Perspectives (sixth ed. ). London: HarperCollins Publishers Limited. Pakulski, J. , & Waters, M. (1996). The Death of Class. London: SAGE Publications Ltd. Staff, S. T. (2009). Sunday Times Rich List 2009. Retrieved 24 02, 2010, from Times online: http://business. timesonline. co. uk/tol/business/specials/rich_list/rich_list_search/.