Assess the sociological explanations of the relationship between occupation and social class.
The term “Social Class” is widely used in sociology to differentiate the population on grounds of economic considerations, such as inequality in terms of wealth or income. An occupation is an individual’s established choice of employment which provides most of the time a steady source of income.
According to Karl Marx, the transition from feudalism to industrialization has produced a highly unequal capitalist society consisting of only two classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are the property, capital owning class. They own the means of production and monopolize the profits and values of industrial production. The proletariat are the landless wage workers, the mass of working people who labour for the bourgeoisie as the mode of production. Their rewards are mainly to be exploited by the bourgeoisie and be made poorer, not richer, by the social and technical advances of industrial development. This process is called pauperization.
The bourgeoisie derive their class position from what Bilton et al. (1997) calls productive wealth. Productive wealth is wealth which generates additional income, such as capital invested in property or stocks and shares. However, Marx argues that it is not the bourgeoisie’s high income which allows them to become capitalists, rather it is the fact that they own the means of production. This therefore also makes them the sole owners of the products and their surplus, that is, the difference between the value of the labour and the value of the product of that labour.
For example, Westergaard (1997), using statistics from government resources claimed that the power of the top class, which is only 1% of the population, has grown steadily from 1979 to the late 1990s. Denationalization of public enterprises (like British Airways and British Steel) has concentrated power in the hands of private businesses. The power of finance capitalists “comes from mass corporate assets whose strategic deployment they lead”.
The globalist, Leslie Sklair (1995) takes this argument a step further. According to Sklair, the capitalist or ruling class is increasingly exercising power in transnational relationships, that is, relationships that cut across state boundaries. The capitalist economy has become the basis of the global system. Thus, wealthy corporatives like Sony or Ford can exercise as much power as many nation-states. Their products and ideology are increasingly penetrating places like the “Third World” market with advertising campaigns, brainwashing the masses there to accept these ideologies and products, even as they (the masses) complainingly join the ranks of the exploited.
These are the main reasons why Marxists view social class as divisive rather than integrative. They do not believe it is functional for society like the Functionalist, but they do agree it is inevitable within capitalist societies. However, they also argue that there is conflict of interest between the two classes. Hence one day the proletariat will gain true class consciousness, become a class for itself instead of a class by itself, and overthrow the bourgeoisie. Only when this happens, and the means of production are communally owned will classes disappear. Marx for his part, refused to acknowledge class in terms of such categories as occupation, but rather in terms of a deeper understanding of property relations, control and ownership vis-à-vis the proletariat.
There have been many criticisms made of Marx’s theory of social class. Peter Saunders (1990) rejects the Marxist view that such a small group of people in society constitutes a capitalist ruling class. While he does not deny that the hundred largest companies produce more than half of Britain’s manufacturing output, and therefore are ‘responsible for taking the bulk of the key financial and administrative decisions’ which influences Britain’s industry, he merely views such individuals as “an influential economic elite”.
Elite theorists also accept that power is concentrated in the hands of a few but denies that this power comes from the wealthy. They see instead power deriving from the occupation of top jobs in society. For example, the position of Prime Minister automatically places one in the highest class and gives one power.
In addition, Marx’s theory fails to take into account the Middle Class. Although Marx identified the trend towards more non-manual workers, he made no analysis or explanation of the influence of this group in the class structure. These workers neither own the means of production nor can they be put into the proletariat. They enjoy tremendous benefits in employments, more than their manual labouring counterparts. They have greater job security, shorter hours, longer holidays, more fringe benefits, greater promotion prospects, higher life chances, higher standards of living, less chances of being convicted of criminal offences and higher incomes. For example, Westergaard and Resler (1976) found that men in full time non-manual employment in 1913-14 earned 142% of the average male wage, whereas those in manual employment earned 88%.
The British sociologist, Anthony Giddeons believes that this class receives greater job benefits than the lower class or manual workers because they possess widely recognized skills, mainly mental and normally rather functional for society, which they can sell to the highest bidder. The sociologists, Roberts et al. (1977), interestingly discovered while conducting a study of a sample of 243 male white-collar workers that four images within the middle class exist. These four images were very different views of the white-collar workers and their position in the middle class and were affected by their occupational choices.
The first image known as “middle-mass” was held by 22 percent of the sample. This 22 percent believed themselves between a small, rich upper class and an improvised lower class. They held the view that the middle class made up the bulk of the working force, and made no distinction between manual and non-manual workers, different lifestyles and images, and ideological cleavages. Most holding this view were in the middle-range of incomes for white-collar workers.
The next image was called the “compressed middle-class” image and held by 19 percent of the sample. This 19 percent saw themselves squeezed between two groups: the small upper class and an increasingly working class. They felt threatened by both groups. Persons falling into this category were usually small business people.
The third image only had 15 percent of the sample subscribing to it. This image was named the “finely graded ladder” and contained four or more strata. This image is assumed as typical middle class image and persons holding this view tended to be well educated with professional qualifications and received impressively high wages. They had no sense of class loyalty and rejected the whole principle of social class.
The fourth image called the “proletarian image” received 14 percent of the sample. They considered themselves working class and having more in common with manual workers than top management and higher professionals. Those holding this view were usually in routine white-collar jobs with little possibility of promotion and received rather low wages. Roberts et al. concluded that whilst it is true that there are factors present for the development of middle class attitudes among the white collar workers, such wide variations in white-collar class imagery meant that the middle class was fragmented. In this case, if one is to believe Robert et al. then one can argue that an individual’s occupation and his/her opinion of the social status of his/her job, normally encouraged by his/ her level of income, results in what he/she deems as his/her social class, regardless of whether his/her personal view is correctly assumed or not.
However, Roberts et al. have received numerous criticisms for their work. Many sociologists believe that one should never rely on subjective class images. Neo-Marxists believe that the middle class is in reality split in two with the upper part closer to the bourgeoisie and the lower part closer to the working class. In fact, the American Neo-Marxist, Erik Olin Wright (1978) acknowledges the presence of a petty bourgeoisie and identifies “the Small Employers”, that is, those persons who employ other workers, but more than half the profit their business comes from their own labour or that of other family members. This group exists between the Petty bourgeoisie and the Bourgeoisie and make up in the USA in 1969, 6-7%. Wright also notes the “Managers and Supervisors” group which is between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat. This group creates 30-35% of the population and is actually in a contradictory position within class relations. They possess characteristics of both groups but have neither as much control over the means of production as the Bourgeoisie nor as little control as the Proletariat.
Persons within this class are normally managers, supervisors, technocrats and “foremen”. “Foremen” do not have the control over the means of production or investment but they do have minimal control over the means of production or over the labour of others. Finally, there are the “Semi-autonomous wage-earners” which consist of 5-11% of the population and are situated between the Proletariat and the Petty bourgeoisie. They have some control over how they work, how they produce and what they produce and hence have minimal control over the means of production. Wright uses as an example, professors in elite universities. According to him, the Bourgeoisie only took up 1-2% of the population. Marxists such as Harry Braverman, struggling to explain what Marx’s doctrine does not, goes as far as to say that increasingly more members of the lower middle class are becoming part of the working class because many of them earn less than many manual workers. This process is called proletarianization. Marxists like Westergaard and Resler believe in the existence of a coherent middle class.
They refer to the upper middle class as the Petty bourgeoisie. Marxists claim that while the Petty bourgeoisie does not own the means of production, they are firm believers in the ruling class’s values and usually have power over working class members. Marshall et al. (1988) criticises both Robert et al.’s study and the Marxists’ theory. Instead, they point to Weber’s work on social class which they claim is “a valuable explanation for the very broad differences in occupational rewards and position of manual and non-manual workers, as well as allowing gradations of social position within each class grouping”. Like Marx, Weber specifically believed that ownership and non-ownership of property are important in the formation of classes. However, he disagrees with Marx on just how important owning property is. Weber preferred to determine a person’s class based on their market situation, that is, their buying power in the marketplace.
Neo-Weberians like John H. Goldthorpe also prefers to use market and work situation to explain the relationship between occupation and social class. For example he views the middle class as “the intermediate stratum” [Goldthorpe, 1980]. The intermediate stratum possesses a very weak class identity because the range of occupations within it differs considerably and because its members are socially mobile. Hence, members remain only a short period before moving to a different class. Goldthorpe concluded that the middle class could not be united because they were divided into various strata.
These can be placed into two groups: the service class, which hold higher and lower professionals, and the intermediate class, that is, routine non-manual workers, the self-employed and supervisors. Goldthorpe though changed his theory later. He decided that there did exist a primary division between different sections of the middle class based on employment status. Secondary divisions were based on employee relationships and this distinguishes class. Salary, increments, pension rights and career development opportunities on the other hand distinguished the service class.
Savage et al. (1992) criticized both of Goldthorpe’s theories claiming that there existed a major division between professionals and managers in his service class. Goldthorpe admitted the next problem with his theory: large employers should be place in a separate category. He explains however that the group was so small that he did not see the need to place them by themselves and accepts that this might produce a small amount error. As mentioned before, Giddeons (1973) tends to see the Middle Class as those who possess educational or technical qualifications. They therefore have an advantage over the Working class and Underclass who have only their manual labour power to sell. The Underclass in particular are severely disadvantaged in that they tend to secure employment in the least desirable and most insecure jobs.
Ralf Dehrendorf (1959) argues that the working class is divided into three levels: the unskilled manual worker, the semi-skilled manual worker and the skilled manual worker. He claims that this is due to differences in economic and prestige rewards linked to hierarchy of skill. Therefore, persons of the skilled manual workers group, such as skilled craftsmen, enjoy higher wages, more valuable fringe benefits, greater job security and higher prestige than semi-skilled and unskilled groups.
In addition to this, Bilton et al. (1997) with regard to occupational labour markets, claim that there has been an erosion, over the past twenty to thirty years, of the traditional distinction between manual and non-manual jobs due to the expansion of the service sector. Today, white-collar jobs in offices, retailing, repairs and servicing are so poorly paid and “routinised” that they are little different in terms of status and reward from traditional manual, or “blue-collar” work. This is especially true of those white-collar jobs which have become “feminised” in the sense of employing a disproportionate number of female staff.
Giddeons furthers this argument, noting that women and ethnic minorities are particularly likely to be found in the lowly paid Working class and Underclass jobs. Employers recruit women to these type of jobs partly because of social prejudice, but also because they are likely to interrupt their careers as a result of marriage and child birth. Ethnic minorities are also the victims of discrimination and prejudice. In these cases, one’s ethnic origin, gender and social background determines one’s occupation and hence one’s social class. To quote Giddeons:
“Where ethnic differences serve as a ‘disqualifying’ market
capacity, such that those in the category are heavily concentrated
in the lowest paid occupations, or are chronically unemployed, we
may speak of an underclass.”
In conclusion, occupation and social class are normally linked to one another. In most instances one’s job tends to influence his place in the social strata and vice versa. Many sociologists examine how occupation and social class influence each other differently. In numerous cases they arrive at even more divisions within society than previously considered. Another interesting detail to note is that various other aspects like one’s ethnicity and gender actually determine one’s occupation and hence one’s class. While the intricacies of occupation within the Working class and the Underclass is not discussed to the degree of which they deserve, let it be noted that divisions found within the Working class is discussed in length by W.G. Runciman(1990) and Marshall et al(1988). The basic idea being that the Working Class is even more influenced by an individual’s occupation than the Middle class. The Underclass is considered both by Charles Murray and Ralf Dehrendorf as a sort of disease but whether they are to be blamed for their economic state or not or whether certain occupations are just considered as underclass jobs is where these two sociologists depart in their theories.
In many instances sociologists like Jan Pakulski and Malcolm Waters (1996) abandon the belief of the existence of social class and claim vigilantly that occupation cannot be influenced by some thing that does not exist. Others, such as Peter Saunders(1996) argue that the strict dictatorial ability of class is disappearing due to societies such as Britain becoming Meritocracies. Therefore, workers are not placed within strict strata because social mobility has now become easier. Instead, as the Functionalists, Talcott Parsons(1964) and Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore(1945) indicated, workers are now placed in socioeconomic order through a competitive process in which skills and abilities of different value and scarcity are carefully identified, evaluated and matched with societal needs.