How does class influence identity in contemporary society?The class structure involves some degree of shaping our identities. Income and paid work are important sources of individual and collective identity. Social class is a means of classifying the economic and social divisions of a society, which involve some degree of inequality. For example classifying some people as poor, working class or middle class. We may adopt or contest these representations.
People define their economic position through ideas about the incomes and opportunities of others, therefore identities are influenced by income, whether we imagine peoples incomes to be in the middle or if we see it as between the rich and poor.
There are two main traditions within the concept of social class and its effect on identity. These traditions are in the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Max Weber (1864-1920). While they differ in the understanding of class and society, they share views on classes structured out of economic relationships.
The Marxist theory of class shows that the class a person belongs to is a fundamental part of their identity. For Marx, society generated two main classes, a capital-owning class and a property less class. They called these the ruling class and the working class or the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Class is rooted in the economic organization of production i.e. those groups who own factories, farms, coal mines or raw materials. These groups look after their own interests, live in similar surroundings and send their children to similar schools. Marx believed that class consciousness is particularly important to our understanding of identity. This is an awareness of a shared class interest and the existence of classes with opposing interests. Class consciousness would emerge through solidarity and collective action. For Marx, the key factor is private ownership of economic resources.
Max Webers theory saw class as important when forming an identity. Weber saw class as a group of individuals who have certain interests in common; this is known as market position, for example having similar opportunities for earning income through work or trade. Weber recognised that status is also important within social groups. Status is the different amounts of prestige, honour or social standing that is attached to different social groups. So where we live, manner of speech, our schooling and leisure habits decide our social class. This would suggest maybe status could have as much influence on identity as class. Webers theories would suggest that although, like Marx, agreed that different classes exist, Status was the key factor in deciding our identities and which group we belong to.
Class is becoming more diverse with wider reference points within the structures. Some sociologists have gone as far as to say class is dead; (Pakulski and Waters, 1996), although a survey in 1996 showed that two thirds of those interviewed felt that there is one law for the rich and one for the poor (Adonis and Pollard, 1998, p.11)Sociologists and political scientists have argued that there has been a shift from collective to individual identities and also a shift from occupation to consumption patterns. It was argued that well paid working class were adopting middle class values, therefore eroding class identity.
A study at Vauxhalls Luton car plant (Goldthorpe et al., 1969), on car workers attitudes and class identity showed signs of a fragmenting working-class identity and a new one developing.
This would suggest that work based identities are becoming less important. The change in employment structures as well as job stability has maybe caused this shift.
Peter Saunders put forward that consumption and lifestyle are now more important in shaping identities than occupation-based class. He argued that there was a growing division between those who could satisfy their consumption needs, through housing, cars and private health care and those who relied on public transport and state provided housing and health care. Saunders was criticized for being unable to prove that consumption influences peoples identities.
To conclude, social class can provide us with a sense of belonging and how we can relate to the world around us. Who we are and what we do and have, change over time and economic structures such as inequality have an effect on our ideas of who we are and can be. However, although societies exist and function within class structures it does not mean that all members of that society identify with a class. It seems as class is becoming more diverse, it is becoming less important within identity as individuality becomes more valued and encouraged.
Adonis, A. and Pollard, S. (1998) A Class Act, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
Goldthorpe, J., Lockwood, D., Bechhoffer, F. and Platt, J. (1969) The Affluent Worker: Industrial Attitudes and Behaviour, Cambridge, Cambridge University PressPakulski, J. and Waters, M. (1996) The Death of Class, London, Sage.