Contemporary class analysis must embrace the study of a wider range of social relationships than just those located within the sphere of work and production. Patterns of consumption and the lifestyles and opportunities that they facilitate have become particularly important in understanding the divisons and inequality on which the system of stratification is based in modern industrial societies.
Some post-modern theorists have gone even further by questioning whether class still exists. Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Water (1996) argue that classes exist only if there is ‘minimum level of clustering , or groupness’ and such clusterings or groupness are no longer evident. People no longer feel that they belong to class groupings, and members of supposed classes include a wide variety of very different people.(Barnes et al., 1999)Pakulsk and Waters believe that class can be seen as just one, not very important, division in society along with ethnicity, gender, age, disability, etc. They offer a number of explanations for the death of class.
The development of welfare states and the institutionalisation of class conflict have reduced the direct impact of class relationships. Property has increasingly moved from private hands to being owned by organisations and the division of labour has become more complex. (Woodward, 2000)Moreover, increasing affluence for the majority has meant that most people are able to exercise choice in what they consume and therefore in how they create their identities. Class background no longer restricts people’s opportunities, confining them to a particular pattern of life and range of experiences.(Barnes et al., 1999) Consumerism makes it possible for people to create different identities and associations, and to relate to each other in ways that are more flexible and fluid than used to be the case when relationships were dominated by social class and economic status.
As with many issues in sociology, therefore, the issue of whether or not class is ‘dead’ is hotly debated and subject to many different interpretations. From here the debate can go in two directions – one, to greatly emphasize the importance of consumption (in its widest definition). The other is to recognize that before there can be consumption there must first be production.(Adonis & Pollard, 1997) If this is the case, the concept of ‘relationship to the means of production must be redefined in such a way as to include not only those in paid employment, but all members of the population, working or not.
A. Adonis and S. Pollard, A Class Act: The Myth of Britain’s Classless Society. Hamish Hamilton, 1997C, Barnes, G. Mercer and T. Shakespeare, Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction, Polity Press, 1999K. Woodward (ed), Questioning Identity: Gender, Class, Nation. Routledge, 2000