The Encyclopedia of Democracy

Authors: Lipset
Summary: In only about 900 words, this short entry defines class, discusses Marx's and Weber's theories about class, and analyzes twentieth century developments and their significance for class theories.
The entry defines class as a group within a social hierarchy based upon economic relations. Although often conceptualized in terms of wealth accumulation, class divisions stem historically from differences in economic ownership.
Karl Marx differentiated between two classes--the bourgeoisie or capitalists and the proletariat, the wage-earning laborers. According to Marx, the dominant class--the capitalists in industrialized states--seeks to keep the weaker class subordinate. Ultimately, however, the subordinate classes would attain a level of consciousness about their social position that would motivate them to initiate protest and conflict.
Max Weber provided an influential responsive critique to Marx. Weber differed from Marx because he believed that industrialized societies have more economic-based class cleavages than just capitalists and workers, such as borrowers and lenders or sellers and consumers. Weber further distinguished his views from those of Marx with his belief that culture is more influential than class. Finally, the two have distinctly different views about the role of the state in class conflicts. Marx sees the state as a neutral arena for class conflict, while Weber views it as an active social force often engaged in conflict itself.
Twentieth century developments like high finance, computers and other technology, and bureaucratic growth have contributed to the rise of a new class--the mental-laboring middle class. The term 'middle-class' is an umbrella for a variety of classes between the capitalist and working classes, including professionals, middle managers and small-business owners. Voting along class lines began decreasing after World War II, and some scholars, like Bryan Turner, now suggest that class terminology be eliminated altogether.