SOCY 151: Foundations of Modern Social Theory

Lecture 21

 - Weber's Theory of Class


Along with the macro-level shift from traditional forms of authority to legal-rational authority, Weber’s theory of class identifies a macro-level shift from status to class determining life chances. In feudal times, under traditional forms of authority, monarchs or others in power conferred high status upon individuals and material wealth followed; first a man would be named a nobleman, and then he would get his estate. In the modern capitalist era, individuals obtain their monetary or material wealth and their class position vis-à-vis the market determines their life chances. Weber, in contrast to Marx, argues that class is a modern phenomenon. However, this does not mean that our modern and contemporary world does not have versions of status. Like remnants of traditional and charismatic authority co-mingled with legal-rational authority in the state and other institutions, status still determines life chances to a certain extent. The influence of status is somewhat subsumed under Weber’s category of social class.

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Foundations of Modern Social Theory

SOCY 151 - Lecture 21 - Weber's Theory of Class

Chapter 1. Remarks for Final Exam [00:00:00]

Professor Iván Szelényi: Good morning. Well I think it is high time that you start thinking about your final paper. Let me just one more time tell you what my expectation is. Right? There are three major blocks in the course. For each of the blocks there is a test. You have done two; one more will be done, last week of classes. I mean, the idea of the paper is that you do a little more ambitious work. Right? You link two of the blocks to each other. So you compare Hobbes’ theory of human nature with Durkheim’s theory of human nature, or Hobbes, Rousseau and Durkheim, or something like this. Or you look at the question of power in Hobbes, Nietzsche and Weber. Right? Do two or three authors, as such.

I also highly recommend you that you go what excites you the most. You pick a topic what you find exciting. If there was anything in this course what made you excited, write about it. Right? And you can use earlier essay topics, what you wrote up; that’s no problem. That will be a new paper anyway–right?–because you have to link occasionally quite distant authors to each other. And talk to your discussion section leader, or send an email–it can be very short–just to make sure that you are on the right trajectory. Right? And probably your discussion section leader will give you just a two-sentence response to say, “Yes this seems to be fine.” Or, “No you are taking on too many; there are two many authors. Why don’t you do only two or three, rather than five, what you’re suggesting?” Or, “Well you should be a little more ambitious.” Right? This is the kind of feedback you should expect.

And otherwise–let me also say that one more time–you know us in this course, we want to make these abstract theories relevant to your life. So therefore don’t shy away. If you have opinions, if you can reflect how the course helped, or did not help, to understand yourself in society, do so. Right? But I think you really should talk to your discussion section leader, or at least on email, before you leave for the vacation. Because I want–when you are tired of turkey, or you had enough beer and watching football, and then you want to have fun, then you can start working on your final paper. Right? You don’t leave it to the very end–right?–but you can use your spare time during Thanksgiving’s break, to get started on it. And that’s not a big deal. We want you to do something like six or, at most, eight pages; but more like six pages. This is not really much more than the usual test essays. Okay. Is that all clear? Any question about this? No. Anyway, we will try to be as un-bureaucratic about this as in a bureaucratic organization you can be. All right? As you have seen in this course, we were trying to break the rules of bureaucracy, and hopefully not at the expense of efficiency.

Chapter 2. Introduction to Weber’s Theory on Class [00:04:06]

All right, so this is Weber theory on class. And this is probably–Weber, next to Marx, is the most influential theorist of class. And they are also on a collision course with each other–a collision course in many ways. I will elaborate on this. But just to foreshadow, there are really three fundamentally important issues where Marx and Weber disagree. Marx, as you recall, identified classes in property relationship. Right? The class dichotomy was between those who owned capital and those who owned only their labor power. Weber, in contrast, defines classes on the marketplace, as market situations. So the relationship–this will be more complicated–but then the class relationship is between the employer and the employee; it is between the manager and the worker, and not the owner–right?–and the possessor of labor power.

Then Marx also said, “Well all history of humankind is history of class struggles.” So Marx has a theory of class which is overarching the whole human history. Weber is very specific about this. Class is a modern phenomenon. Classes only emerged with the emergence of the market economy, market capitalism. Before capitalism they are not–the stratification system is not based on class, but it is based on status, and we will talk about the notion of status a great deal.

And finally there is a third important political difference. Marx believed that class struggle gets more intense over time, and therefore the subordinated class eventually will revolt and overthrow capitalism. Weber believed that–in the opposite: Class struggle is the most intense in early stages, rough stages of capitalism, and as capitalism becomes consolidated and bureaucratized, class struggle is actually reduced. So these are the three fundamental differences.

And this is the outline of the presentation today. So first of all I want to talk about the usual interpretation of Weber, and I want to challenge this interpretation. If you ever took a course in which Weber’s theory of class was discussed, you usually had the interpretation what I present now. If you go on the internet and you find what Weber’s got about class, this is what you get. I disagree with it, and I will try to show you why this is the wrong approach. The usual interpretation goes back to a British sociologist, Runciman, who wrote about this already in the 1960s–he’s still active actually–and he interpreted Weber as offering a theory of social inequality in three dimensions. Again, go on the internet; ninety percent of internet posting on Weber and class will give you this view.

What are those three dimensions? Status or prestige is one dimension; the second is class, usually defined by income or wealth; and the third dimension is power. And therefore if you look at stratification in society, people can be unequal in any of these– can be privileged in any of these dimensions, or all of the dimensions, as such. Runciman’s conceptualization of Weber’s theory of class was extremely influential empirical research. There was a lot of empirical survey research carried out which was trying to measure how people fare in these three dimensions. Gerhard Lenski, who was Emeritus Professor, was professor at the University of North Carolina, created the theory of status inconsistency. The idea was that people actually can be high in one of these dimensions, and relatively low in another dimension. So, for instance, you are a professor of sociology. Then your prestige is sort of reasonable–probably somewhat higher than average. If you are a professor at Yale, it’s sort of even a little higher than average, substantially higher than average. Well in terms of income, if you are a professor of sociology you will be again only slightly higher than average–will not be very high. In terms of power, well you will be very low in the power hierarchy. At least in the United States–right?–nobody listens what sociologists are saying. Students do have to–right?–and occasionally they have to take a sociology course. That’s the only power really a professor exercises.

Well if you are a Supreme Court justice, then your prestige is extremely high; you are on the top of the prestige hierarchy, at least in the United States. If you are asking who is the most prestigious occupation in the United States? In surveys people will say to be a Supreme Court justice–right?–to serve on the Supreme Court. Well in terms of income, the Supreme Court justices probably don’t do all that well. They probably do about as university professors do. Right? People in public service usually don’t do all that well. I think probably a governor of a state is not earning more than a university professor. But in terms of power they will be very high. Right? Supreme Court justices are very high. Occasionally they can even appoint–right?–the President of the United States; if I may crack this joke. Right? Anyway, they are very powerful.

Well if you think about a Mafioso. The prestige of a godfather, except in the Mafia, will be very low. Right? You regard it as criminal. In terms of income, will be on the very top. Right? In terms of power, well will have some power, but mainly in the Mafia, not really nationally. You see what they are getting at? So therefore you can measure status, class and power as three dimensions. And it is very helpful to understand whether the social status is crystallized. People who have high prestige also have high incomes and high power, and let’s say somebody who is sweeping the floor–right?–will have very low prestige, very low income and no power at all. Right? So that is a useful way how to stratify society for upper-upper class to lower-lower class. That is the way how Weber usually has been used.

Well I will challenge this. I don’t think I’m the only one who does challenges. Anthony Giddens, I think, gets very close to what I am describing, though probably he doesn’t stick his neck out as much as I do. My fundamental argument is that Weber’s distinction between class and status is a historical distinction. And this is not accidental that this is an English speaking person, Runciman, who reads the notion of status the way how he reads it. Because if you know a little German, and you try to read Weber in German–you know that the word status is actually translated from the word Stand. And Stand, well it can be translated into English as status, but it’s a not very good translation of the word. The better translation is estate. Now if you would translate Stand as estate, it would become obvious that what Weber is trying to suggest, that there is something archaic about status stratification, as distinct from class stratification, which is a modern phenomenon. Right? So this will be one of the major points what I’m trying to make, and will try to show this from Weber text.

Then the question is where is the third dimension? Right? As I’ve said, status and class are historical categories, but where is power? And when I was working on one of my books, I was very much attracted to Runciman’s idea, and tried to interpret Weber this way. And, in fact, it appeared to me a great deal to use power as an independent dimension of the class position. I was trying to understand the social structure of communist societies, and their power appeared to be an independent dimension. So I was looking into the Weber text, and I read cover to cover Economy and Society a couple of times, and I could not find the third dimension. Read it: it is not there.

So trying to understand what Weber is getting at, I came to the conclusion that for Weber power is the dependent variable. But he wants to explain where power comes from, and whether power exercised is exercised on the basis of class privileges, or whether it is a status type of, or estate type, of power which is exercised in society. And this is very consistent what you already know about Max Weber–right?–type of authorities, where power comes from. What legitimates power–right?–tradition or legal-rational authority? Right?

Class stratification corresponds to societies based on legal-rational authority. Status stratification corresponds to traditional authority. All right? Well I will elaborate a little on this–will qualify this somewhat, primarily because Weber–like in his types of authority as well–has two balls in the air at the same time. He has a macro-theory–right?–of historical variations of stratification. For him, transition from traditional society in modern rational societies is a transition from estate type of stratification to class stratification. But Weber also has a micro-theory. He also said, “Okay, society today is primarily class stratified, but I can identify status power in modern societies as well,” just exactly as he does with the types of authority. Yes, the United States today is legal-rational authority, but I can spot elements of traditional authority, or charismatic authority, operating within legal-rational authority. Since it is dominantly legal-rational authority, it will be secondary. Law will make a difference. But tradition in this society, in this very America today, does make a difference. Right? It is consequential where you are in society. Traditional authority is consequential. Right? We are all equal before the law, but in practice where we end up has a lot to do with tradition, traditional prejudices, the traditional way how power operates.

The same goes for–he brings back the idea of status. This is why I said translating Stand as status is not completely wrong. It only gets a footnote in the Weber concept. Right? The footnote is Stand is primarily a historical concept for past traditional societies. But by the way–this is the footnote–even in contemporary society, in class stratified societies, there is power occasionally exercised on the basis of status. Well and obviously the power which is exercised by a Supreme Court judge, or the power exercised by a university professor, the little one we have–that we may probably in some way try to change your mind–right?–which is an act of power, some would say even an act of coercive power. Right? Bourdieu called it symbolic violence. Right? I violate your mind; if I can penetrate your mind and put a new idea into your mind. Right? This is an act of power. Well it’s primarily done, or a great deal done, by status; that you say, “Well, this is a professor who has a Ph.D., must know it.” Right? Then it is really–right?–the reason why you start believing me has a lot to do with my status. Hopefully not only the status; hopefully I can make a good argument and persuade you. But occasionally–it’s a mixture why you tend to believe me or disbelieve me. Right? And the very fact of the status, what I am incumbent of, has something to do–right?–of you trying to believe your professors.

Chapter 3. Definition of Class [00:19:57]

So let me work on the notion how Weber defines classes. And the most important issue is–the uniquely Weberian idea is that class has to be identified on the market. And then I will also say a few words about class interests and how he–to what extent he’s different from Marx in this respect. So class and market. Now here you have famous definitions. He said class situation is determined by market situation. Class situation is ultimately a market situation. And this is very important now, as follows. Right? “The effects of naked possession per se is only the forerunner of real class formation.” “Slaves”, he said–or you can say serfs–“are not a class. They are rather a status group.” Now here you can see–right?–the historical uses of the distinction between class and status. Right? And also the challenge to Marx. Those who have property and deprived from property do not constitute a class.

And the fundamental argument for this is that in traditional societies it is not really property which puts you into a high status position. You being in a high status position has the consequence that you are wealthy. Right? So the king or the queen decides to give you nobility, and gives you an estate. Right? In capitalism this works the other way around. In order to become a billionaire–right?–you don’t have to get the approval of the President of the United States. Simple enough: you go to Wall Street, you invest your money smartly. You start with a thousand dollars and in no time you have a billion–right?–if you invested it in a smart way. And then you are in the class–right?–of billionaires. Right? So here it is your property, and your activity on the marketplace, which helps you to enter the class. Right? In the aristocracy it was a legal act–right?–a political act, by a king or a queen, which made you nobility, made you a lord, and then as a consequence you became wealthy. Right?

It’s also interesting, by the way, that well if you lost your wealth–there was some poor noble people–you still retained your status estate privileges. So if you were nobility, in most societies, for instance, you did not have to pay taxes. Now if you lost all of your estate, because you gambled–for instance–right?–you wanted to go to Monte Carlo where you gambled everything away–then you became very poor. You were still noble and you still did not have to–right?–pay taxes. Your status privileges remained. The opposite–right?–in capitalism. You start fully investing your money and you lose your money on the stock market, you cease to be a capitalist. Right? Then you will have to seek to find a job. Right? And since you lost all of your money, you probably will not find a very good job, because who wants to hire a loser? Right? Okay.

This is also a very important citation from Weber. He said, “Class position really means that people have common life chances.” Right? If you are located differently, there are positively and negatively–this is the Weberian point–positively and negatively privileged positions on the marketplace. And if you are negatively privileged in the marketplace, your life chances are not very good. Right? If you are positively privileged in the marketplace, then your life chances are great. You guys in this room are all very positively privileged–right?–because you are getting a Yale degree; and probably a Harvard degree would be even better for you. Don’t tell Rick Levin that I said that in class. Right? But this is about the best degree what you can have. So you are extremely well-positioned on the labor market. Right? Your life chances are great. Right? You have to make a lot of mistakes to screw this one. Right? You are on the right trajectory. If you are in a community college–right?–or you are a high school dropout, then your life chances on the labor market will be lousy. Right? Especially you are poor, you are African-American, you dropped out of high school, well your chances that you will end up in jail before you turn thirty is, I think, seventy percent. So–right?–this is life chances–right?–which in this case, of course it is not only class. Right? There is a special type of status group. Right? Race, it also plays a role–right?–in your deteriorating life chances.

Now let me also say that Weber actually suggests that you can think of classes on every single market situation. So, for instance, some people–and myself in my work–have been writing about housing classes. The differences between the owner of a house and the tenant who rents this house is a class relationship–can be interpreted as a class relationship. The landlords, very often by the tenants, are seen as bloodsuckers–right?–because they charge too high rent and they do not maintain your unit properly. You know? When you call them and you say that the water is dripping, and I need a plumber, they will find excuses why they do not fix your water, or why they do not fix your heating. Right? So they are bloodsuckers. Right? And, as a tenant, you are in a negatively privileged class position. That’s true. But on the other hand Weber is quite clear that there are two important market positions which fundamentally define your class position, and these are the labor market and, in fact, the capital market, will define whether you are–have good life chances or poor life chances.

And all other positions, on other markets, will be a consequence of your position primarily on the labor market, or on capital markets. Well this actually brings Weber and Marx a little closer than it appeared for the first time–right?–because, as we will see, Weber does acknowledge that if there is a market economy, differences in property are very important to creating class positions. But, unlike Marx, he emphasizes this is only the case if there is a market economy in place. Now just very briefly about class interest and class action. And here he said, “Well the statement by a talented author”–he doesn’t tell us who that author is; I assume it must be Karl Marx–“that the individual may be in error concerning his interests but the class is infallible about its interest, is false and pseudo-scientific.”

So he said, “Well the classes are actually not communities.” Right? A community may have a kind of collective understanding. You belong to a class just because of your position of the labor market, and you actually–here he subscribes to Adam Smith. Right? Class members are individuals acting out of self-interest, and not acting out of collective interest. But they are in a similar position, and therefore they have common class interests, and–surprise, surprise–occasionally they will act the same way–right?–because they have a collective interest; but not as a community, but as rationally acting individuals, determined by their rational actions–right?–on the marketplace. And therefore, he said, “Well classes will really exist–well how can I tell that the classes really exist? I can tell if I see classes acting. Classes materialize in action–right?–because I speculatively cannot make any class distinction, but people will make distinctions for classes by acting upon their class interest.”

Chapter 4. Definition of Status Group [00:29:59]

Now let’s go on to the question of status groups; what are status groups? And well I briefly want to identify who status groups are, what status privileges are, and then status stratification and the caste, and the question of ethnicity in Weber. So what is a status group? Well, unlike classes, status group, or Stande–this is the plural of the word Stand–are nominally groups. Status groups means that you belong to a group–right?–and you have a high esteem, and you have a solidarity within the group. You have an honor; a certain honor is attributed to you when you are in a status group. Right? You are initiated–right?–into becoming a nobleman by an act of the king or the queen.

Well in order to get a university degree, you are initiated–right?–into a status group. In a way to earn a university degree–a Bachelor’s degree, a Ph.D.–is entering in some ways a status group. It’s not accidental that we wear these funny medieval robes on those ceremonies where the degree is conferred on you. And many professions which require formal university training act as a status group; like the doctors constitute–right?–a status group. Like, in some ways, university professors constitute a status group. Lawyers constitute a status group, and they somehow control ethics and entrance into the law profession. Right? There you have to pass a board exam if you want to become a lawyer. Right? And, in fact, states will make–in California, if you want to move to California, you want to get a law degree and you want to move to California, you will sweat blood–right?–to pass the board exam. If you want to go to South Dakota, you will easily pass the board exam. Because there are not many lawyers who want to be lawyers in South Dakota, but there are many lawyers who want to be lawyers in San Francisco, and therefore the board, California board, will be much stricter than the South Dakota board. The same goes for medical exams. Right? It will be–again you have to pass exams, and it will be different, depending on the labor market condition.

And it’s very important: The status honor is expressed with a specific lifestyle. The way how you dress, the way how you eat, the way how you behave, is constituting what is status group. Traditionally–right?–noblemen could wear arms; non-nobles couldn’t. And well if you are a Yale professor you wear J. Press. Right? I mean, not everybody does, but you can tell this is a Yale professor. You can see this is a J. Press coat. So there are–right?–lifestyles, what in a way, even in modern society, constitute status groups. Even within class stratification, you have this uniquely lifestyle specific stuff, what you adapt in order to belong to this status group kind of subgroup within a class. So if you are a “yuppie”–young urban professional, right?–you get a nice job on Wall Street, you move to Manhattan. Right? Then you rent out–right?–or buy a condo somewhere in a Trump building. Right? Then you want to be driven by a limo to your workplace. You will be reading Wall Street Journal, and you will be going–right?–and you will be having croissants for the morning. Right? You see what I’m getting at. Right? You will be dressed in a certain way. People can tell–right?–this person must be a broker–right?–on Wall Street. There are these lifestyle characteristics what in a way creates an almost status group. You know each other. Right? You recognize each other. Right? There are places where you hang together. Right? There are yuppie places. You look outside and you know this is a yuppie bar, filled with yuppies. This is the lifestyle by which you have status.

There are also, of course, status privileges–which is ideal and material goods, which is a consequence of you being in that status group, rather than the source of it. And there are also specific special employment opportunities, if you belong to a status group, and it’s being controlled this way. I mean, the medical profession is a very good example. And it’s being actually debated and questioned why on earth do we need a system in which people have to have registered–do have to have a medical degree in order to practice medicine? Right? Why on earth people do have to have a law degree in order to appear in court and defend somebody in court? Right? These are kind of status group barriers to enter the system. Well the market, on the other hand, knows no personal distinction. On the market it matters whether you are successful or you are a failure. Right? And therefore if you have these status group kind of privileges, this is a limitation on the functioning of the market. Right? And therefore stronger the status groups are, it can be a hindrance of free development of a market economy.

And now an idea about caste and ethnicity. He said if the boundaries between status groups are particularly sharply drawn, in that case we can talk about castes. The caste differences occur, for instance, when there are prohibitions to intermarry between castes. Lower castes are usually seen as polluted, as dirty; you even cannot touch them, or if you did touch a low class person, let’s say in Indian culture, you have to go some purification procedures. Right? And he said status groups–segregation grows into castes, that transforms a horizontal coexistence of ethnically segregated groups into a vertical social system. This is also very important–right?–his notion of ethnicity. It’s a very innovative idea in writing this around 1920, about this. Right? The differences are held to be ethnic, based on the belief that it has something to do with blood relations. Right? He does not believe–right?–that ethnic differences really have anything to do with blood relations. You have ethic or racial differences when there is a common belief that blood relations do matter and are socially consequential. He doesn’t believe it is.

Chapter 5. Class and Status Compared; Types of Classes [00:38:19]

Now class and status compared. I am sort of running out of time; don’t want to operate on–to do too much on this. The point is–right?–that there is some kind of stability in status stratification. Class stratification is dynamic and conflictuous. This is where his idea will come from that, that in fact, class relationships are not becoming more antagonistic over time, but is becoming less antagonistic over time. But the point is, as you can see, that the main point is that there are two basic stratification systems: one based on status or Stand, and the other one is on class stratification. Historical difference, but there is also a subtype of stratification in a class stratified society based on status differences. So what are–he makes a distinction between different types of classes.

Let me just briefly rush through of it. He does not negate that there is actually a class based on property. There is actually–property differences can be very substantial, as long as they are operating in a marketplace. If your property can be sold or bought–which was not the case under feudalism–and if there is a labor market which complements capital markets, then differences in capital markets is the source of differences. But the most important distinction is what he calls commercial classes. And commercial classes are based–right?–on the market situation, and particularly especially based on labor markets. And therefore the basic class distinction for Weber, in modern society, is between management and employees, rather than owners of capital and owners of labor power; unlike Marx. And that, I think, is a very insightful argument, at least an important qualification on Marx, or probably a useful replacement of Marx with a better fitting theory to understand modern societies.

Okay, and then there are–he introduces the notion of social classes. There is a third type of class in modern society, which is social class. And what is social class? People are in a social class situation when individual and generational mobility is easy and typical within that class. And then he said, “Well what are social classes?” And interestingly he said, “Well these examples are–working class is a social class, the petit bourgeoisie is a social class.” The basic argument here is working class is not a commercial class. Working class–well he’s writing in the nineteenth [correction: early twentieth] century. But it’s still to some extent true in the United States today, probably the least so in the U.S. than in other economies. Then being working class was certainly very true in Europe, probably less so now, but even during the second half of the twentieth century in Italy and France there was a very strong working class consciousness. You were proud of being working class.

In the U.S. the term working class hardly exists. Right? We are talking about the working people rather than the working class. But in Italy or in France there was a very strong identity of being a working class–very clearly identifiable lifestyle features. Not that even, in fact, in the United States you can’t really–you usually can tell, I think, with ninety percent certainty, if you walk into a tavern–right?–who is a manual worker and who is not a manual worker. Right? The way how people behave, the way how people dress, gives you a very good clue. And in France or in Italy, to some extent even in the United States, working class will say, “Well, it was good enough for me to be a plumber. Why on earth my son doesn’t want to be a plumber and continue my business as a plumber? That’s good enough.” Right? If it was good enough for me, should be good enough for my son.

How he understands social class as distinct from economic class. You become social class when you will say–well you are in working class and your daughter is dating a lawyer. Then you will say, “Can’t you find a decent working class guy? You want to date with this egghead?” Again, in the United States it is much less common. Right? There is many more marital mobility across class lines–much less so in Italy or in France, even today. Anyway, this is social class, but as you can see, social class in a way bringing back the idea of status groups. It is a modern version of status group, what is being constituted as a social class. because it has a lot to do with lifestyles, values, culture–right?–and typical patterns of mobility and aspirations, as such. Well that’s about it. Thank you very much.

[end of transcript]

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