Class and Status in Classical and Contemporary Sociology

Nick Osbaldiston

The key goals and objectives of this chapter are to understand the following:

  • a brief introduction to the development of sociology as a discipline in Europe
  • the classical sociological theories and ideas that relate to key areas of class and status
  • the development of class and status in contemporary sociological theory
  • explore and identify issues of class and status in contemporary Australia and New Zealand.


Sociology, like many other social sciences, utilises and draws upon theory to help it make sense of the data that it gathers on society. As you will find in the chapter on social research methodology, these theories are intrinsic to helping us understand our results in research and also help us push for new research directions as we attempt to unpack social phenomena. Theory is at the heart of the discipline’s historical formation with key sociological thinkers like Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead all playing significant roles in developing the discipline. In other first-year textbooks, we would normally go about exploring all these contributions in some detail, dividing them up into schools of thought. However, in this textbook, we do away with this approach and instead introduce you to four key areas that sociology has theorised within that contribute widely to the discipline’s research areas. These are class, status, identity and culture. This is by no means exhaustive and of course, there are several key areas that impact society today that we will miss. However, in this limited space and over the next two chapters, we aim to provide you with a solid understanding of where sociology has theorised in the past and today in the present, and how it might help us understand our society today.

Brief Introduction to the Emergence of the Discipline of Sociology

Sociology’s emergence coincides with the organisation and development of other disciplines in the enlightenment period of European history. Before this, the supposed ‘dark ages’ stifled progress and tended to be dominated by more traditional modes of thinking – especially religious. Systems of authority, the organisation of the economy and the role of society were largely the responsibility of kingdoms. However, with the decline of these and the challenge to religious authority over knowledge established by the Reformation period, a great  “awakening in intellectual thought, art, commerce, politics and other human pursuits” occurred in what is known as the Enlightenment (Turner et al., 2011, p. 1). This led to some significant changes to the structure of our society, but also to the organisation and pursuit of knowledge. Science in particular had grown as a dominant force in the understanding of our world.

This also coincided with some dramatic changes that occurred across Western Europe during the 18th Century. These included the rapid growth of cities such as Berlin, Paris and London, along with significant advances in industry, the advancement of capitalism as the dominant force of economic exchange, and the expansion of government through the impersonal authority of the state and bureaucracy. Changes were happening to everyday work, culture, social relations, family and how we understood ourselves (Harrington, 2014). We call this period modernity – and you will hear this term repeatedly throughout your sociological journey. It was within this context that the discipline of sociology (along with others) was born – a knowledge created out of both a scientific and humanistic need to understand what these changes were doing to modern life, and what it would mean for the future of societies (Turner et al., 2011).

Figure. Hebert Spencer by Unknown is in the Public Domain, CC0

While there are many who we can accredit to the rise of sociology during this time, two figures appeared as most influential in the development of sociology as a discipline – the French philosopher Auguste Comte (1798-1857) and English philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). For Comte, as you will read in our chapter on methods, social sciences (and indeed sociology) should follow the same principles as science in the seeking for truth. This is founded upon his positivist philosophy in which he saw sociology as integral to the understanding of societal phenomenon. In other words, Comte thought that sociology would be a science not unlike biology, and generate knowledge to understand general rules of how societies and individuals act. Spencer, somewhat like Comte, also considered sociology as a discipline that could understand societal changes and controversially focused on the theory of evolution to explain societal transformation. While his approach through evolution has been heavily criticised and was largely dismissed in the 1930s, his collected works especially in the dual volume Principles of Sociology published in the 1860s set the tone for sociology. His work especially to understand societal structures and institutions, such as the economic and religious, had a profound impact on the burgeoning field of sociology.

The growth in popularity of sociology across Europe led to the development of key critical junctures where different schools of thought grew as a result of different influential thinkers. As you will see in this chapter on class and status, and as we hope you will appreciate in your study of sociology, understanding something as complicated as the ‘social’, means that, unlike other disciplines such as biology, there are multiple perspectives that can be taken. Most sociology textbooks will provide you with three major names in this, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Max Weber (1864-1920) and Karl Marx (1818-1893). While Marx never formally called himself a sociologist, he was influential in the development of critical theory, utilised throughout sociology up to today. The French Durkheim on the other hand, heavily influenced by Comte, developed a sociological approach that would later be popularised as ‘functionalism’ by the American Talcott Parsons and others, and still today influences cultural sociology. Finally, the German Max Weber developed both a historical sociological tradition, and of more importance, a sociology that was opposed to science, interpretive sociology. This approach from Weber is largely responsible for contemporary traditions such as symbolic interactionism, and micro-sociology.

Sociology covers several different areas of our social lives, and it is difficult to capture all of that, even through these different foundational thinkers. However, there has been consistent concern right up into today with several features – class, status, identity and culture. In this chapter and the next, we seek to unpack what we see as four foundations for sociological thought, utilising not just these classical thinkers, but also a range of contemporary theorists from recent years. In what follows below, we focus on two areas that are dominant in the history and present of sociological thought – class and status.

Class – the Early Writings of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx

One of the areas of undoubted significance to the development of sociology was the interest in the impact of capitalism on society. Driven in part by political economists like the Scottish philosopher Adam Smith (1723-1790) and his widely consumed book The Wealth of Nations, capitalism had driven changes to how Europeans worked, consumed and lived their lives. For Smith (1776/1970), the importance of the market economy lay in its ability to advance people’s livelihoods through profit and exchange. Specifically, Smith (1776/1970) viewed capitalism as the answer to the ills of society and argued that the market economy should simply be left to run without interference from government. In doing so, consumers and producers would be free to exchange as they needed or saw fit (supply/demand economics) and over time, people would grow their wealth and society would prosper.

Figure. The Muir Portrait of Adam Smith by Unknown is in the Public Domain, CC0

A growing number of scholars during this time argued that there were inherent flaws in this sort of approach to economics. German philosopher and businessman Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) for instance, wrote a response to the ideas presented by Adam Smith in a paper called ‘Outlines of a critique of political economy’ in 1844. In it, Engels (1844, pp. 8-9) provides a scathing assessment of capitalism, arguing that the system of economics is inhumane, as it firstly allows “robbery in monopolising the land” for owners of private property who can rent out previous common land for profit, and secondly, as it drives a “division of mankind (sic) into capitalists and workers”. This last point is significant, as Engels (1844) saw this as a separation of people into two classes that would only deepen with time – those who work, and those who own the means of production and earn profit on the backs of the former. He argued further that while certain sections of the population may well benefit from capitalism, a large portion of society would not, continually being stuck in poverty (Turner et al., 2011). This was even more evident in his next piece which he published in 1845 entitled The Condition of the Working Class in England where he focused his writing on the transition of the city of Manchester from one of an agrarian rural society, into a deeply inequitable place defined by the separation of two classes mentioned – infamously called the bourgeoisie and the proletarians (Engels, 1845/1987). In particular, he argued that the bourgeoisie who were able to acquire wealth through working-class labour were able to shift away from the dirty and polluted city, while the proletariat lived in a state of poverty in slum-like conditions while labouring in the factories of the wealthy during the day. Engels’ work is an example of a significant debate that developed during this time around that of class which would influence sociological discussions for years to come.

Figure. Montage of Marx (Friedrich Karl Wunderand) and Engels (by George Lester) by Unknown is in the Public Domain, CC0

Another key theorist here, and probably one more recognisable by name, was Engels’ friend and co-author the German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx (1818-1883). For Marx, like Engels, capitalism and the arguments of philosophers like Adam Smith were flawed in that wealth would only ever be attained by one class of people – namely the bourgeoisie. In his 3 volume critique, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Marx goes into some detail to outline some key problems with unfettered capitalism. In particular, he critiques the changing nature of the commodity, arguing that the bourgeoisie have little interest in the use-value of the commodity and only in the exchange value or in simpler terms, the profit that can be made. The labour costs in the production of the commodity are of significance to the bourgeoisie, as the lower the costs (in other words how much the owners pay the workers), the higher the profit. All this serves to increase the division between those working in the factories and those who were earning wealth from it.

To understand this further, we need to examine some of the key concepts of Marx’s (1981) work here briefly. Firstly, Marx viewed capitalism as deeply inequitable as we have outlined above already. However, he also saw some of the significant problems of capitalism that he argued were hidden away. In particular, due to the changing nature of the production of goods, in other words, workers now working in factory assembly lines, consumers were no longer in direct social contact with those who produced goods. In other words, there was a separation of consumers away from the actual people who made products. Think about it this way, do you have direct contact with the person who made the computer screen you are reading this book through? For Marx (1981), this serves as a problem as it further separates and isolates social relations, but provides what he described as a fetishisation of the commodity (where the object itself is the only thing you have a relation to). In the example of your computer screen, you have zero social contact with those who constructed your device, but right now, you are using the results of their labour. The commodity or product is the only reference you have to the whole process of capitalism.

Secondly, Marx and Engels both wrote in the now infamous Communist Manifesto (1848) that capitalists (the bourgeoisie) were largely protected those who governed society through politics, law, the state but also even ideology and religion. Law, for instance, for them, is a mechanism that only serves to protect the interests of people who own private property and not the rights of the working class and their labour. The state, and its politicians, therefore only debate and develop legislation that continues to serve the interests of this group, and fail, for Marx and Engels, to adapt their work to examining the needs of the proletariat (Vincent, 1993). Thus, the nation-state (or government) is not there to support collective needs, rather is there to uphold the interests only of the one ruling economic class, the bourgeois.

Figure. Cover of the initial publication of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 by Unknown is in the Public Domain, CC0

A large support for capitalism however does not come institutionally but through something called ideology for Marx and Engels. This can be understood as the prevailing beliefs, ideas and values that underpin society. For these two, ideology is vital to the continued support of capitalism as without it, individuals would revolt and eventually overthrow the economic system due to the inequality it produces. We can see this for instance in Marx’s dismissive critique of religion as the “opiate of the masses” (cited in Schnabel, 2021, p. 990). In this, he contends that society turns to religion to find meaning and comfort in life, even if there are dreadful situations that people live in (as Engels points out in his work above). Consequently, like other ideologies (such as freedom, responsibility, hard work, etc), this only serves to limit how one sees their current position in life, by promising a future happiness (eg. a heaven for poor people in Christianity). For Marx in particular, this sort of ideology promotes what he described as a false consciousness – which in short is the inability of people to see how they are being exploited and/or oppressed by the dominant classes. Ideology for Marx and Engels tends to legitimise the social conditions that capitalism creates, and thus justifies issues like poverty and inequality.

The significance of this is paramount for Marx and Engels (1848/2012) who argue in the Communist Manifesto that the working class must rise up, understand their exploited conditions, and take back control of the means of production and the system that supports it. In order to achieve this, a revolution needed to take place where proletarians would eliminate, especially private property, and seize control of the state. Once this was achieved, Marx and Engels argued that the state would need to reform a range of issues. These would include a heavier form of taxation to produce equality, public/state control over banking, state ownership of all the means of production, and even free education (Turner et al., 2011). It is worth noting that several nation-states have attempted this in their own ways (see chapter on political sociology). The most infamous being the Russian Revolution in 1917 which led to the creation of the United Soviet Socialists Republics (USSR) in 1922, one of the first genuine attempts to implement communism as a political and economic system, and one of the few attempts to run an alternative economic system to capitalism.

The driving force of Marx and Engels’ work ultimately was the removal of the bourgeoisie and the eventual transition into a classless society. However, it is worth noting that in later work, Marx (1981) also predicted that capitalism would inevitably fail for the following reasons.

  1. Workers would finally recognise that they are being exploited for their labour as capitalists seek to lower costs.
  2. Workers would also be unable to own private property and eventually would tire of these conditions.
  3. Capitalism is volatile and increased competitiveness would lead to the failure of many businesses, again exposing the true costs of capitalism to the proletariat.
  4. The market economy will always produce economic misery (via depressions for instance) which will expose capitalism’s follies to society, creating a need for change.

However, Marx’s predictions were wrong, and instead of failing, capitalism continued to grow and remains the dominant economic system in the world today. Only a few nation-states remain that operate under a communist system (most notably China). Yet, the impact of Marx and Engel’s work on class was substantial and their work still resonates today with several sociologists.

🛠️ Sociological Toolkit: Was Karl Marx right?

In the short video [3:22] below, the economic magazine The Economist overviews some of the things that Marx got right in his analysis of capitalism, but also some of the things that he got wrong, along with a critique of the communist system that he advocated for. While watching this video, ask yourself a few questions:

  • What do you think of Marx and Engel’s idea of the working class? Importantly, do you think that the working class (as proposed by them) exists today in Australia and/or New Zealand?
  • What is we put this on a global perspective? Is there a working class globally in relation to the developed world? In other words, can we implement Marx and Engel’s analysis to the manufacturing of our goods (eg. our clothing, our technology)?
  • Why do you think communism failed in places like the USSR?

Status – the Sociological Interpretations of Max Weber

One of the most important figures in the development of sociology in the early ‘modern’ period was German scholar Max Weber (1864-1920). Like others, Weber was concerned with the changes that were happening in modern society and had broad interests in the impact of science on modern life. However, like Marx and Engels, Weber also saw class as an area of some importance (Weber, 1922/2019). Unlike the two communist advocates, however, Weber (1922/2019) recognised class as a position within the market economy that could be objectively identified, but which extended beyond merely two classes as identified by Marx and Engels. Weber also strongly criticised communism/socialism on the basis that it would require significant bureaucracy or a proletarian dictatorship to run, which he thought would create conditions that stifled freedom (Mommsen, 1977). He also argued against socialist critiques of capitalism by showing that despite the existence of the bourgeois class, broadly everyone was getting richer as products became cheaper and wages grew in value (Mommsen, 1977). In some respects, Weber was correct. Wages did increase in value and created, inevitably, conditions that led to the rise of living standards in the developed western nations. Conversely, in the USSR where communism prevailed, large-scale bureaucracies and the Stalin-led dictatorship did little to improve economic standards of the poorest people and also created the conditions that destroyed freedom.

As noted, Weber (1922 /2019) agreed however with Marx and Engels that class was indeed important for sociological analysis. He further agreed that there were certainly two broad classes – the propertied (those who owned property) and the nonpropertied (those who did not). But within these groups, there were various different subsets of classes that existed. For the propertied classes, Weber (1922/2019) distinguished the rentiers, those who lived off the income of their properties (such as landlords), away from the entrepreneurs who made money through economic activity within professions that developed wealth (such as bankers, business owners, etc). The important distinction between the two for Weber was that the latter had less social status or prestige than the former, who largely came from established wealthy families already. Status is something that is of importance to Weber as we shall see soon.

Weber (1922/2019) also identified four different class groupings within the nonpropertied categories, the middle class, skilled workers, semi-skilled workers and unskilled workers. Although he did not articulate much on the latter three, Weber spent some time detailing what the middle classes were. For him, the middle-class was largely made up of what we might call white-collar workers today. Importantly for Weber (1922/2019) these were people who did not own property, but unlike the proletariat, they did not labour in factories like ‘blue-collar’ workers might. For instance, the middle classes tended labour in areas that did not produce, but rather served the community for profit such as bankers, teachers, academics, and public officials or bureaucrats. Unlike the capitalists in Marx and Engels’ analysis, these people were those with some form of status in society. However, their social standing did not come from wealth or other forms of private property. Rather their standing or status was achieved at times through occupational prestige, position within the community, and other areas. The latter three classes conversely (the skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers) in Weber’s analysis were those who we might term the blue-collar workers – those with skills, those with some, and those without any. Skilled workers for instance such as tradespeople still held some social standing and were still able to accumulate wealth through their labour, but not often private property.

Figure. Max Weber, 1894 is in the Public Domain, CC0

The important thing for Weber (1922/2019) here, which you might have noticed already, is that status, prestige and honour were important to consider, not simply class position. People in modernity use status to compare with and contrast against other groups unlike class which is relatively fixed for people like Marx and Engels according to your economic position as a worker or owner of a capitalist enterprise. For Weber (1922/2019), class is merely a position that you occupy in the market economy whereas status is understood as the judgements and comparisons that individuals within groups make towards others on the basis of sociological categories such as occupation, familial background, character, social networks, and standing in the community. Status groups therefore are more important than class for Weber, as people who believe they share similar values, ideas, and character, come together in a type of exclusive membership.

These status groups are important. Weber (1922/2019) argues they operate within everyday life within society, in a manner that includes and excludes others. Specifically, people will mix socially only with those who they deem to be of equal status, thus reducing social interaction with those outside of their status groups. This results, for Weber (1922/2019), in certain limitations and functions in a society of social groups. This could include limiting who they will marry, ensuring that they marry only those within their status, working, living and raising children in geographical areas of the same status, and conducting business and leisure with those in the same groups. This is especially important for Weber (1922/2019) in relation to labour, where status groups will close off entry from others. For instance, lawyers will make it difficult for outsiders to understand and then practice law, closing off opportunities for others from other status groups to participate in the occupation.

We can see status groups throughout our societies where we live, work and play. For instance, across the world, colloquial terms are used to designate different social groups with different levels of status, sometimes in a negative manner. A classic case in Australia is the term ‘bogan’, which denotes not just someone who may come from the poorer classes, but specifically as Chris Gibson (2013, p. 64) argues, someone who has “an absence of cultivated aesthetics or tastes”. Bogan is synonymous with other labels with give to other status groups who have distinct aesthetics in what they wear, their education, what occupation they might have, their mannerisms, and their geographical location. In Australia there was even an ABC comedy television series entitled Upper Middle Bogan (2016) that followed the plight of a relatively wealthy suburban woman who is also a medical doctor, adopted at birth, who discovers her real biological parents are bogans who own a drag racing team. The comedy builds on a tension between the two status groups, posh vs bogan, to make light of the differences between their mannerisms, values and expectations.

🛠️ Sociological Toolkit: Where do you see status as important in your social interactions?

For someone like Weber (1922/2019) one’s social status, or status group, means that in certain contexts you could have more prestige than others. For instance, as a university professor on campus, we might have a certain level of status and prestige that students might not. However, in another context, the student might have more status than us. As an example, Nick (the author of this chapter!) once taught a first-year class where he had one student, let’s call him Fred, who he held status over due to the power given to him by the university. However, a week after the first class, Nick attended his local football match as a player, and was astounded to find Fred was his referee. Fred was held in high esteem by the players as one of the best referees in the competition. Nick conversely was new to the competition and did not know many people. Fred in this situation held more status amongst the players, but also of course, had power over Nick during the game! Luckily for Nick, he didn’t receive any yellow or red cards from Fred.

What different status groups can you identify in your local community/society? Think about the following sociological categories and ask, what groups have more social standing/prestige than others and why?

  • occupation
  • education
  • geography (what suburb/town someone lives in)
  • family
  • ethnicity.

Class and Status – Pierre Bourdieu’s Attempt to Embrace both

The interesting question then is what should we privilege in our discussions around modern society – class or status (or neither!)? This question was taken up by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) in his book entitled Distinction: A social critique on the judgement of taste. Crucial to Bourdieu’s (1984) analysis is that of the concept of habitus. For him, habitus refers to the dispositions, ideals, values, or tastes that an individual has which predisposes them to certain behaviours (Power, 1999). While an individual still carries with them agency (or the ability to choose), our habitus or predisposed ways of thinking, means that we will act in accordance to our habitus in different social conditions, contexts or structures that present themselves to us. Habitus is not something you are born with, rather it emerges through socialisation and cultural conditioning over time, usually in one’s childhood.

This is slightly difficult to comprehend so let’s use an example of this. Let’s say that a child is born in a middle-class family in Sydney with two parents who have a university education and are both working as professionals. The parents take the education of their child seriously, sending her to a private school in inner-city Sydney, where the school teaches her the importance of study and provides her with the appropriate resources to do so. Both parents take an active role in the development of her education, teaching her the importance of doing well, but also learning areas that align with middle-class professions such as law, healthcare and so on. As time progresses, the child becomes predisposed to furthering her education, and when she graduates, having succeeded in school, she chooses to attend university, studying a law degree. While the child had a choice to do what she wished, her upbringing socialised certain predispositions (habitus) in her, which encouraged her to take the pathway of higher education. The ability to choose is always there, but we often choose according to Bourdieu (1984) in keeping with our habitus, albeit unconsciously.

For Bourdieu (1984) though, habitus is not just exhibited in choices we make about careers. We can see habitus in a range of our choices, tastes, and even bodily dispositions. For instance, the music that we listen to, the food we eat, the way we speak, the sport we are more likely to play, how we dress, our extroverted or introverted natures, and what we value or appreciate in life. Take a moment to consider your own habitus. What sorts of things are you predisposed to because of your upbringing? Consider that your habitus is not simply defined by your parents, but also those who surrounded you in your childhood, and even today.

🔍 Look Closer: Case study. Bourdieu, the boom and the cashed-up ‘bogan’

In much of what we read in sociology, there is a heavy European emphasis, and Bourdieu’s (1984) work is no exception. For the most part, his writing emerged out of an analysis of French social/cultural life. English scholars such as Bev Skeggs, however, have used his work in England but also claimed that this might not work in Australia, which could be more driven by economic wealth. Pini and Privet (2013) set out to investigate this by exploring the boom for mining that created significant wealth for former ‘working class’ people. The authors in particular wanted to know how much status the ‘cashed up bogans’ (CUBs) (as newspapers described them) have now, and how much economic opportunity this provided them. They found that, while there was an increase in wealth, CUBs were still held back due to their “lack” of “cultural competencies and skills legitimated
by the middle class to such an extent that they are unable to enhance their social status as a result of their material success” (Pini & Privet, 2013, p. 265). While there were limitations to the study, it demonstrates the potential importance of Bourdieu’s (1984) work in the antipodes.

The other side of Bourdieu’s (1984) theory then relates to how we operate or practice in the world we live in, carrying these dispositions. For Bourdieu (1984), unlike Marx and Engels, and to a degree aligned with Weber’s thoughts, our social worlds are made up of fields. Fields are “structured spaces organised around particular types of capital, consisting of dominant and subordinate positions” (Power, 1999, p. 50). Every area of modern life consists of these fields from law through to university education. Each field has its own rules, like a sport, but also consists of its own knowledge, ideas, goods, and capital. The important point for Bourdieu (1984) is that in each field, individuals strive for status and capital within. To succeed within these fields, one must have the necessary capital to spend, to increase status, and dominate.

There are different types of capital in Bourdieu’s (1984) theory that allows an individual to succeed in the different fields of social life – and each of them are linked to habitus in different ways. Of course, economic capital is important for Bourdieu (1984) as this is what we hope to acquire, but also can open up different pathways (eg. private school education) that has a distinct impact on habitus. Social capital is also important as it allows for connections that are linked to ones social position/status as Weber points out. Social capital can provide opportunities but also can impact on someone’s habitus. Symbolic capital, also important, refers to the accumulated prestige or honour one has afforded to them in a society or community. Importantly, this symbolic capital is the intersection between class and status. An individual can come from the middle-classes, but hold low social status for a variety of reasons, and vice-versa. Consider the prestige or honour that American society gives to those from the military as an example. Or the prestige or honour that Olympic gold medalists receive, even if they are not from the middle-classes. For Bourdieu (1984), both class and status are important to how people perceive other people.

The most regularly discussed capital though that Bourdieu (1984) theorises on is that of cultural capital. There are three types of cultural capital that are of importance to our discussion here that reflect class and status – embodied, objectified and institutionalised. Embodied cultural capital refers to those dispositions, skills, knowledge and ideas we referred to in habitus which we carry throughout our lives that are important to social status in particular. If I have a disposition to a particular career path that is associated with the middle classes, say economics, then as Weber might argue, I will be predisposed to pursuing this career path, accumulating knowledge and skill in that area. Conversely, if I have a disposition that privileges working with tools, I might follow the career path of a tradesperson. This embodied capital, Bourdieu (1984) argues, generally means you are surrounded by those with the same social class as you, which then tends to provide certain opportunities for social mobility within that class. Your embodied capital is significant to how you navigate fields. Objectified cultural capital is similar in that the cultural goods that we surround ourselves with, reflect our habitus (but also our class and status). For instance, I might drive a Mercedes Benz, as this reflects my social status, but also evidences my class position. Lastly, institutionalised cultural capital refers to the awarding of status via social institutions like schools and universities. If I have a degree, say from Harvard University, in Law, I may have advantage over others who have degrees from less prestigious universities. Institutionalised cultural capital is of course heavily influenced by ones upbringing, class position, and habitus.

The argument here for Bourdieu (1984) is that your habitus, which develops from birth, reflects your class position. The cultural capital in particular which you embody, display and own is significantly linked to class. An individual then uses that cultural, and social, capital in such a way to succeed in different fields, and essentially increase your chances for economic capital or status within that field itself. For Bourdieu (1984), this is a more complex way of showing that class reproduction exists in society – not simply through class, but through our lifestyles, labour, and status. Children born into the lower classes, for him, will find it far more difficult to navigate their way into middle or upper class society, due to these different types of capital that act to preserve class distinction. There is far more to Bourdieu’s (1984) work here that we do not have space to discuss. However, his legacy continues throughout sociology today.

If you are still unsure of what cultural capital is, hopefully this short video [5:29] might help in understanding this term.

Class and Status Reconsidered for Contemporary Society

Attempts to re-interpret Marx and Engels, and Weber’s work, into more modern approaches have been undertaken not just by Bourdieu (1984) but by others including Wright (1997) in the United States and Goldthorpe (1979) in the United Kingdom. In the case of Wright (1997), class relations were expanded upon from Marx and Engel’s initial reading of the bourgeoisie and proletariat to include different types of owners of the means of production from petite bourgeoisie (those who do not hire), the small businesses (those who hire small amounts of people but also work) and the large bourgeoisie (those who employ labour but do not work). He then distinguished the proletariat by their skills and demonstrated that there were managers, supervisors and workers with varying degrees of skills with the true proletarian being the unskilled labourer with no authority. In his research in the 1980s, he discovered that 40% of the American workforce were true proletarians.

Conversely, Goldthorpe (1979, with Llewelyn and Payne’s collaboration) expanded on Weber’s approach to class/status through empirical analysis and categorized three classes, the service, intermediate and working class, with structural layers within each. The service class had two types, the higher-skilled and paid professionals, and the lower-skilled and lesser-paid professionals. Conversely, the intermediate classes held a mix of non-manual workers, small business owners, farmers and skilled technicians. Finally, the working class held a mix of skilled manual labourers, semi-skilled workers, and unskilled workers in both primary/agricultural production and manufacturing.

In recent times there have been calls to refresh this again and investigate how class operates in today’s modern world. Savage et al. (2013) worked with the British Broadcasting Corporation to undertake the ‘Great British Class Survey’ to explore the changing nature of class in Britain using Bourdieu (1984) and others as a guide. They found by investigating people’s economic, cultural and social capital, there were in fact seven classes which are as follows: Elite, Established Middle Class, Technical Middle Class, New Affluent Workers, Traditional Working Class, Emergent Service Class, Precariat. Through this survey, Savage et al. (2013) demonstrate that social class is still a major issue in the United Kingdom, but is complicated by a relatively large middle-class, and those on the outer including the elite and the precariat.

The category of the precariat is one that has occupied the mindsets of social scientists recently. Precariat workers are not necessarily under-educated or under-skilled people in some analyses. The economist Guy Standing (2014, p. 10) for instance describes the precariat as a group of people with unstable employment such as those in casual and part-time positions and/or short-term contracts. They are also identifiable by their lack of secure income in cases of sickness or holiday. Those in this category tend to find themselves self-funding for things that full-time workers attain in their employment contracts – such as annual leave. Finally, Standing (2014) argues that the precariat are also those who struggle to obtain support from the nation-state. He writes (2014, p. 11), “they are supplicants, reduced to pleading for benefits and access to public services, dependent on the discretionary decisions of local bureaucrats who are often inclined to moralistic judgments about whose behavior or attitude is deserving”. As noted, precariat workers do not necessarily have no skills. As Mauri (2019) demonstrates in his research, even those with PhDs working in the university sector, can find themselves in a cycle of casual and short-term contract labour that is unstable.

Jill Sheppard and Nicholas Biddle (2017) replicated the work undertaken by Savage et al. (2013) above to investigate whether the same ‘classes’ they discovered in the United Kingdom would be found in contemporary Australia. Influenced heavily by their work along with Bourdieu (1984), Sheppard and Biddle (2017) surveyed over 1200 Australians, measuring social class via metrics in social, economic and cultural capital. In their analysis, unlike the United Kingdom, they found 6 classes operating in Australia – the Established Affluent, Emerging Affluent, Established Middle, New Workers, Ageing Workers and Precariat. These are detailed in the table below.

Table. Classes in Australia Class Survey with their Characteristics (Adapted from Sheppard & Biddle, 2017, pp. 505-509)
Class Average/Mean Age % of Sample Characteristics
Precariat 56.2 years 13% Lowest in household income, lowest property/savings, educational achievement, participation in cultural activities, low social contact, lowest occupational prestige.
Ageing Worker Class 58.2 years 14% More resources than precariat overall, moderate rates of household income, property and assets, educational attainment higher than precariat, parental occupational prestige higher than precariat comparable to new worker class.
New Worker Class 51.34 years 24% Higher rates of educational attainment, income, savings, property and social/cultural capital than ageing workers. Lower occupational prestige but greater wealth.
Established Middle 51.95 years 24% Slightly higher income, educational attainment than new workers. Higher social/cultural capital and parental occupational prestige. Advantages higher over worker class
Emerging Affluent 51.09 years 15% Greater economic, social, cultural capital than all except the established affluent class. Lower wealth than the affluent class and established middle class.
Established Affluent 52.42 years 11% Greatest economic, social, cultural capital than all classes. Very high rates of occupational prestige. Highest rate of educational attainment.

The work of Sheppard and Biddle (2017, p. 512) exemplifies the need for social class analysis in Australia which has often been described by commentators and even other academics as “comparatively egalitarian, having forsaken the class hierarchies of its British antecedent”. For instance, the importance of the classes identified for sociological and economic analysis is apparent in the table above. The precariat class as identified in this research in particular, represents a group of people who are relatively underprivileged and under-resourced in Australian society today. These are not just young people looking for work or students in universities. The precariat also represents a large section of retirees (36%) who are reliant on government pensions and other welfare services. In addition to this, the ageing worker class includes 35% of people who are recipients of welfare (Sheppard & Biddle, 2017). When we consider statistics like this, we can also examine government payments such as pensions and ascertain whether this is enough to live or whether it drops below the poverty line (Saunders et al., 2022).

🛠️ Sociological Toolkit: What social class are you?

As highlighted, Sheppard and Biddle (2017) found in their research that those surveyed were able to correctly identify their social class relatively well, once they had been explained to respondents. What about you? Using their research, do you think you could correctly identify what social class you belong to?

What do you think about the concept of class from what you have read here? Do you think that class is an important concept for those living in the antipodes or is it becoming an outdated category today?

Here is a link to a condensed quiz provided by the ABC where you can check your answer, and what social class you might actually belong to. You might be surprised!

In Aotearoa/New Zealand, sociologist Charles Crothers (2013; 2014) argues that there has been a reluctance, like Australia, in interrogating class in the past due to the belief that the country was inherently classless. However, in his analysis of survey results and census data, he argues that conceptually there are six classes in Aotearoa/New Zealand including an upper class which have significant power and wealth, the upper middle who are highly educated professionals who are relatively wealthy, the lower middle comprised of managers and semi-skilled professionals, skilled and semi-skilled workers categorised mostly by trades/craftspeople, the unskilled workers who are often under-employed and finally the ‘lumpen proletariat’ who are reliant on the state for welfare and services (Crothers, 2014, p. 91). Importantly in his analysis, Crothers (2014) highlights that despite a history of considering the country as egalitarian, many New Zealanders are actually quite aware of class, and openly identify their social class position. Similarly, Sheppard and Biddle (2017) found that in their survey, when presented with the class options, many Australians correctly identified their social class. This is an interesting finding in relation to both countries, and highlights the importance of the category or concept of class to everyday life.

Of course, there is much more to the analysis of class and status in sociological literature that could be covered in a chapter like this. Arguably, there could be an entire textbook written just about these two concepts. What we hope you have understood in this chapter is the significance of these sociological concepts, and their role in shaping sociological analysis not only in the inception of sociology as a discipline, but through to today.


In Summary

In this introductory chapter to sociological foundations you have learned about the following key points

  • The conditions and contexts through which the discipline of sociology emerged with specific reference to the works of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer.
  • The work of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx and their description and critique of political philosopher Adam Smith, and capitalism more generally.
  • The concepts from Engels and Marx of class, false consciousness, ideology, bourgeoisie, and proletariat.
  • The work of Max Weber in his critique of class by examining the function of status in modernity especially through status groups.
  • The contribution of Pierre Bourdieu in his work on cultural capital in his attempt to understand class via means other than wealth.
  • The work of contemporary sociologists on class including the new social class analysis of Australia.


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