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What is Social Class?

In sociology, the term ‘social class’ is most often used to refer to the primary system of social stratification found in modern capitalist societies. Social stratification refers to ‘the presence [in society] of distinct social groups which are ranked one above the other in terms of factors such as prestige and wealth’ (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p.1). The defining feature of a stratified society, then, is that of inequality in terms of the ‘arrangement of individuals…in a hierarchy of advantaged and disadvantaged life chances’ (Fulcher and Scott 1999, p. 601).

It has been suggested that social inequality is a feature of all human societies (Haralambos and Holborn 2004, p.1; Bilton et al 1994, p.34). Sociologists have identified a number of different forms of stratification systems existing in other societies or historic periods, for example, the caste system in traditional India, slavery and feudalism (Bilton et al 1994, pp. 36-41). From a study of other systems it is clear that not all systems of stratification are organised in terms of social class; the caste system for example was stratified in terms of status. In societies where ‘economic relationships are primary’, however, the division of members into groups in terms of similarities in attitudes, lifestyles and occupations is generally termed divisions of class. (Bilton et al 1994, p.36)

For classic sociologist Karl Marx, an examination of the workings of social strata was essential to an understanding of social inequality. Stratification by class was particularly important to him and he in fact argued that ‘all societies, except for the most primitive and tribal ones, were…class societies’ (Fulcher and Scott 1999, p. 605). Marx further argued that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ (Marx and Engels 1848 in Fulcher and Scott…...

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