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  The term class (Latin, ‘assembly’) refers to social and economic divisions between groups which create differences in wealth, prestige and power. The word is frequently used, but there is much debate as to its precise meaning.

Marx used class to refer to the relationship of individuals to the productive forces of a society. He argued that there were two main classes—those who owned the forces of production and those who did not—and their interests were in conflict. The majority class shared a common situation in a system of production which exploited them, though each individual may not necessarily be aware of this fact. Marx called this ‘false consciousness’. He thought that this conflict between the classes—the class struggle—was the driving force of social change. Under a capitalist system of production, for example, the continued exploitation of workers by the bourgeoisie eventually leads workers to develop an awareness of their common class position. He believed that when workers developed this class consciousness they would rise up, overthrow the ruling capitalist class and replace an exploitative and unequal capitalist society with a fair and equal communist society.

A more complicated model of class was developed by Max Weber. Weber believed classes were the reflection of differences of ‘market capacity’ which resulted in different ‘life chances’. According to Weber, capital is only one of a number of sources of market capacity; other sources include skill and education. He identified four main classes: the propertied class; the administrative and managerial class; small businessmen; and the working class. Weber believed conflict would occur between groups whose interests were immediately opposed, for example between the propertied class and the managers. Weber also suggested that social divisions could also develop along the lines of status and honour.

In practice, a number of indicators of social class have been employed by social researchers. Income and occupation have been adopted as crude indicators of class position though neither is entirely satisfactory. Critics have pointed out that other social divisions may have important consequences for life chances which are not covered by these indicators, such as gender and race. Different classes are also characterized by distinct social habits, styles of speech and values. Class consciousness refers to the way people think about class and class divisions. Most agree that in the West class consciousness is strong—in the West the main groupings are upper, middle and working class. An individual who is class conscious has an awareness of the class system, his or her place in it, and the specific attributes associated with the different class groupings.

Studies have shown that class membership may crucially affect one\'s life chances. DA

See also conflict theory; culture; division of labour; embourgeoisement thesis; ethnicity; feminism; labour process; Marxism; occupation; power; profession; Protestant ethic; social closure; social mobility; social stratification; society; sociolinguistics; structure; values; work.Further reading A. Heath, Social Mobility; , E.O. Wright, Classes.



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