1. Introduction and Summary
Even cursory reading in the field of class and stratification will reveal much terminological and conceptual controversy.... It is a fact that among sociologists and other scientists different words are used for the same object; it is also a fact that they mean, or seem to mean, different things by the same word.
---- Carlsson, 1969
An immediate problem is determining a core meaning that is consistent with usage. Unfortunately, the literature shows little agreement on what constitutes class.
Fourth, all definitions assume that class membership has continuity. There is disagreement as to whether membership may be frozen, as for castes, but in no case are classes considered ad hoc or momentary aggregations, like a crowd. There may be a circulation of members between classes, but it is not so rapid as to homogenize their distinctive behaviors nor to change in a generation more than a small proportion of class membership.
Fifth, all definitions assume that interests are associated with class membership. Interests may be directed toward status mobility or maintenance, overcoming or protecting the privileges of the upper class, or changing or defending the status quo (as in my definition). In any case, class divisions form latent or manifest interest groups. A class is considered potentially or actually a group which shares similar interests vis-à-vis some other class.
Sixth, a class is always defined within a system of relations constituting an opposing class or classes, analogous to hot being defined relative to cold, up relative to down, virtue relative to vice, and so on. Class as rank, esteem, privilege, or position, requires an opposition to complete the definition. This is because all definitions assume a superior-inferior stratification, and an inferior or superior cannot be defined without the other.
Finally, all assume that class constitutes a basic component of the social order (as I have made it a common component of social space). To understand the major social divisions in society, patterns of interaction, and conflict is to understand class.
Such are the common assumptions in the literature. These notwithstanding, since definitions of class do vary, some markedly different assumptions must exist.
One difference is whether classes can be latent groups or must be manifest in behavior or consciousness. I treat class as manifest within an organization's empirical division of power, but common class interests and consciousness may be latent. Authoritative roles structurally divide people into classes which constitute different life situations. Out of these different structural relationships and resulting experiences develop similar attitudes (latent interests), which are the seat of common class interests.
A second difference has to do with whether one can indeed define "class." Because of the confused state of the literature, some simply pose a definition "for research purposes," or treat class as a construct, a stepping-stone concept towards empirical analysis. A confused literature, however, does not mean a confused reality. Clearly, there is some important aspect of society that all definitions have captured. I believe my definition reflects this common reality in a way consistent with our scientific and normative interests, while focusing specifically on the power-conflict-process complex of specific concern to me.
Another difference in assumption concerns the significance of class. Some argue that class is a functional division of society based on talent or aptitude.
The upper class, being those who contribute scarce resources required for society to function, are thus rewarded more than the lower class. Others argue as I do that classes are divisions resulting from historical conflicts of power. The privileges of an upper class result from their dominance, usually through monopolization of force.
As should be evident, those in the employ of the elite are rewarded in proportion to the value of their services to the elite, and the scarcity of the supply of replacements. Contrary to such functionalist theorists as Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, these roles are not rewarded in proportion to their contribution to the common good. It is the needs of the elite, not the needs of the total society, which determine the demand curve for such services. The distribution of rewards in a society is a function of the distribution of power, not of system needs. This is inevitable in such imperfect systems as human societies. |
---- Lenski, 1966, p. 63
A final difference concerns whether class is a term applicable only to capitalist societies, and not to traditional and communist systems. Clearly, my definition applies to all societies at all times. All societies are held together by law-norms, an aspect of which is to define authoritative roles that divide people everywhere into those who can command and those who obey. This is true no less for communist societies, than for the so-called capitalist. In any society this division determines who gets what.
In sum, class as I use the term shares those assumptions commonly underlying usage. Moreover, I also assume that the concept captures a meaningful aspect of society, and that the idea of a latent class does this. Finally, I clearly see classes as engaged in a struggle and the superordinate class as having won its privileges through power.
First, I must clarify my definition of class at this level. A Great Class is a quasi or partially organized class traversing society. Class interests are active; members have some consciousness of a class identity; and leaders use class slogans and interests in a struggle for power at the state level, thus forming the conflict front dividing field and antifield.
Such Great Classes have in one society or another comprised:
The managerial class manage and control organizations and the state. In socialist countries, this class is unified, since those who manage the state also manage all the other major organizations. Clearly today in the worldwide movement towards socialism, the bourgeoisie are being transformed into a managerial class.
How do we get to such Great Classes from my definition? Great Classes are large clusters of individuals at different ends of the class component of social space. That is, when society is divided so that the class distances between individuals are either large or small (some will always be superordinate, most will always be subordinate), then the class component will have two clusters of individuals at opposite ends with few in between. A great Class represents such a distinctive cluster.
If there are many classes in a society, individuals will be spread more or less evenly along the class component in their distances. Then, a bipolar distribution of individuals on the class component is identical with a division of society into two Great Classes.
A final note on class and the elite. My notion of class generalizes the conception and analysis of the elite made by Mosca (1939) and Pareto (1963), who restricted their definition to those who formally control the government.
In terms of the Great Classes, however, who are the elite? At one time the large landowners (aristocracy, the feudal barons), at another the bourgeoisie who controlled the state machinery, and now increasingly, the managers (bureaucrats, party members, planners). When society becomes divided into two classes, the theoretical distinction between class and elite empirically disappears.
* Scanned from Chapter 25 in R.J. Rummel, The Conflict Helix, 1976. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.
1. For general reviews of the literature on class, see Ossowski (1963), Bendix and Lipset (1966), Carlsson (1969), Simpson (1939), Gordon (1949/1950), and Gross (1948/1949). Sorokin's review (1969, pp. 261-75) is the most thorough and substantive, but should be balanced against the more analytic reviews of Ossowski and Carlsson. For a bibliography on social stratification including class, see Glenn, Alston, and Weiner (1970).
2. For a similar attempt to uncover common assumptions, which has influenced my own fist, see Ossowski (1963).
3. My classification agrees with Sorokin's (1969, p. 273), except for the last class. Of the first four classes, he says, "that the dominant role played by these four classes in the western world during the last two centuries is weft attested by the history of this period. One need not be a Marxian to recognize that this history has been largely the resultant of their mutual alliances and antagonisms, which account for a large proportion of the revolts, revolutions, and social movements of the western nations, as well as for many international wars and alliances."
4. On this managerial revolution, see Burnham (1941). Note also Banfield's (1960, p. 288) finding: "The notion that 'top leaders' run the city is certainly not supported by the facts of the controversies described in this book. On the contrary, in these cases the richest men of Chicago are conspicuous by their absence. Lesser business figures appear, but they do not act conceitedly: some of them are on every side of every issue. The most influential people are the managers of large organizations the maintenance of which is at stake, a few 'civic leaders' whose judgment, negotiating skill, and disinterestedness are unusual and, above all, the chief elected officials. Businessmen exercise influence (to the extent that they exercise it at all) not so much because they are rich or in a position to make threats and promises as, in the words of one of them, 'by main force of being right.' "
5. For Pareto (1963), see especially his articles #2031, 2032, 2034, 2047. Note also the footnote to article #2032 regarding Kalabinska's definition of elite.