Social stratification in classes has its origin in the transition from feudalism to capitalism and is fully established in capitalist society, mainly with its consolidation after the Industrial Revolution, in England, during the second half of the 18th century.
What are social classes?
In order to properly understand this form of inequality prevalent in the modern and contemporary world, it is interesting to note its differences in relation to the traditional forms of social stratification, the systems of caste and estates :
- Unlike caste and estates societies, in which the social hierarchy is based on hereditary, ethnic and religious aspects, stratification into social classes is based on essentially economic criteria.
- In caste and estate systems, different social strata have their own rights and duties. In class society, rights and duties tend to be the same for all citizens, regardless of the social class in which they are located. In other words, legal equality prevails – everyone, despite their class status, is equal before the law.
- Compared to the social immobility that characterizes, in an extreme way, the division into caste and, at a less rigorous level, the stratification into estates, the class society is considerably open. What does that mean? In the social class system, the insertion of individuals in a class is not fixed, that is, there are, at least theoretically, traditional and legal impediments to social mobility: a wage worker can accumulate economic resources and, thus, migrate to a higher social class, just as it is possible for a wealthy individual to lose his property and move to a lower social class.
Thus, in previous systems of social stratification, elements such as social prestige of families and traditional sociocultural values delimit the social hierarchy, which gives greater or lesser access to the groups to the material wealth produced in society. In capitalism or, if we prefer, in class society , the starting point is economic: the belonging of individuals to a social class is defined by their level of wealth and their position within the scope of socioeconomic relations. To put it briefly: the economic condition establishes social prestige, not the other way around.
Legal equality, in turn, reinforces this economic basis of social inequality . In terms of laws, there are no specific privileges or duties for different social groups, because what distinguishes them is their socioeconomic situation. As we have highlighted, this socioeconomic condition is not, in theory, fixed and lifelong, providing the possibility of social / vertical mobility for individuals – the rise or decline of citizens to another social class.
This last point mentioned, however, deserves a closer look. If, on the one hand, in class society, there are no criteria external to socioeconomic relations that determine in advance and forever the position of an individual in the social hierarchy, on the other hand, social mobility is not, in practice, very frequent.
After all, the initial belonging to a social class interferes decisively with individual possibilities. In stratification into social classes, educational and professional opportunities are not the same for all people, just as immediate access to the economic, cultural and political resources available in society is uneven. In other words, an individual who is born in a higher social class has very favorable conditions for his permanence in that group, while an individual who is born in a lower social class will face a set of concrete difficulties to ascend socially.
To complete this exposition on the division of society into classes, we must register that it is a theme examined by Sociology since its origin, precisely by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Max Weber (1864-1920), who present different considerations about this question.
For Karl Marx , social classes are defined by the position of groups in relation to the means of production (land, machinery, industries, etc.), that is, by aspects such as the ownership of the means necessary for the economic production of society. In capitalism , the main social classes are the bourgeoisie – the owners of the means of production – and the proletariat – the workers or, in the broadest sense, the wage workers.
Max Weber , for his part, does not consider only the position of the groups in the relations of production as a determining factor of social classes, including, rather, elements such as professional qualification and access to socioeconomic resources in the definition of the social division into classes.
Although Weber accepted Marx’s view that social class is based on objectively determined economic conditions, he noted the importance of a greater variety of economic factors in class formation than those recognized by Marx. According to Weber, class divisions originate not only from the control or lack of control of the means of production, but from economic differences that have no direct relation to property. Such resources include especially the skills and credentials, or qualifications, that influence the type of jobs that people are able to get. Weber believed that the market position of the individual has a strong influence on their “life opportunities”. Those who develop managerial or professional occupations earn more and have more favorable working conditions than, for example, workers.