Max Weber’s Theory of Social Stratification – Explained

According to Weber a class is there when:

(a) A number of people have in common a specific causal component of their life chances,

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(b) This component is represented exclusively by economic interests in respect of the possession of goods and opportunities for income, and

(c) Is represented under the conditions of the commodity or labour markets”.

For Weber, a class consists of a group of people who stand in the same relationship to the economic opportunity structure in a given society. Besides, they live under similar conditions which are determined by the amount and kind of economic power they possess.

His basic definition does not differ from the Marxist conception. However, Weber did not conceive of classes as self-conscious groups. He perceived these merely as aggregates of people in similar economic positions.

Weber identifies three types of classes:

(1) Property Class, whose situation is based on differential property holdings;

(2) Acquisition Class, whose situation is determined by the opportunity for exploitation of services in the market;

(3) Social Class, which is composed of the plurality of class statuses between which an interchange of individuals is on personal basis or, in the course of generations, is readily possible and typically observable.

Two of these three classes, the Property Class and the Acquisition Class are analysed further on the basis of “privilege”. Each is held to be either positively or negatively privileged.

1. (a) Positively Privileged Property Class lives on income derived from the ownership of property. It is able to monopolize the purchase and sale of consumer goods and the opportunity to accumulate capital and to be educated.

Weber says that capitalists are in this category by virtue of essentially positive privileges.

1. (b) Negatively Privileged Property Class is composed of property-less people. These are the poor, the uneducated and the debtors.

1. (c) Middle Privileged Property Class includes both negatively and positively privileged property classes.

The Proletarians belong to the virtue of negatively privileged property class.

The same scheme is applied for a description of the ‘acquisition class’.

2. (a) The Positively Privileged Acquisition Class monopolizes the management of productive enterprises. Its members are typically entrepreneurs, bankers, financiers and industrialists. These people not only control management but also influence the economic policies of the government.

2. (b) The Middle Privileged Acquisition Class includes independent farmers and artisans, minor public and private officials and professionals.

2. (c) The Negatively Privileged Acquisition Class is categorized as skilled, semi­skilled and unskilled workers.

3. (a) Weber does not analyse “social classes” according to privileges. He simply gives examples of these classes. These include the working class as a whole, the lower middle classes, the intelligentsia and the class occupying a privileged position through property and education

(B) Weber’s view of Class Action:

Weber holds that a class may, at certain times and under certain conditions, act together in their own interests. He terms one kind of class action as “communal (community) class action” because it arises out of the feeling of belonging together.

The other kind of class action is called by him as “societal class action” because it is oriented towards a change in societal conditions. However, Weber does not believe that class action is a universal phenomenon; or even that it is likely to occur often.

According to Weber, these classes are not necessarily self-aware entities. These are only economic in nature. As such they are unlikely to unite into action groups to fight for their interests. A class is merely a group of people who are in similar economic position in the market place.

They experience the same life chances to acquire the things which are valued by the society. Only under very unusual conditions are they likely to develop “class consciousness” and to act in unison. Weber is of the opinion that “when this happens, a class becomes a community”.

(C) Weber’ View of Status Groups:

Status Groups are usually understood as the opposite of economic class stratification. Whereas classes are based on old economic considerations, the status groups are based on similar interests resulting from similar market positions.

Status groups fall in the realm of culture. They are not mere statistical categories but real communities. These are people with a common life style and viewpoint of the world, people who identify with one another as belonging to a group.

(i) Difference between Class and Status Group:

Weber distinguishes between class which represents life chances in the market place, and status group which represents a style of life. Each is a different way in which people can be unequal. For example, a person can be in a high class if he is smuggler with a high school education and makes rupees ten billion a year.

In spite of it, he will remain in a low status group because the society does not approve of his way of life. On the other hand, one can be in a low class if one is a primary school teacher with a graduation degree earning Rs. 50,000 a year. Such a person however has a high status and a good deal of honour because society values his vocation. At the same time, however, class and status frequently overlap. A doctor is in a high income as well as in a high status group because society respects his occupation.

(ii) An “Occupational Group” is also a Status Group:

Each type of occupation generally yields a similar income to the people within it enabling them to maintain a certain style of life. Members tend to live near each other and wear clothes of similar quality.

Moreover, they enjoy the same kinds of recreation and share the same values and goals. Finally, the members may form virtually a closed circle as in the case of the I.A.S. officials who restrict their membership to “their own kind”.

(D) Webers’s View of Party:

Weber places classes within the economic order of the society and status groups within the social order. Parties, however, may represent interests determined through “class situation” or “status situation” and these may recruit their followers respectively from one or the other. But these do not have to be either purely “class” or purely “status” parties.

In most cases, these are partly class parties and partly status parties. But sometimes these are neither. In any event, “their action is oriented towards the acquisition of social ‘power’ that is to say towards influencing a “communal action”. Thus although parties fall within the political order, power can accrue from many avenues. These can be money, influence, authority, pressure etc.

According to Weber, “Parties live in the house of power”. These inhabit the state. These use political power in the state. Since state is an organization it essentially has bureaucracy.

Weber identifies two different types of parties:

a. Parties of Patronage which has no strong moral commitments and clearly stated aims.

b. Parties of Principles which espouse firm doctrines and do not conduct themselves in a purely opportunistic fashion. Weber declares that there is a marked tendency among this type of parties to become heavily bureaucratized.

Weber makes subtle and important distinctions between three types of inequality and three forms of social stratification. No doubt, there does exist, with some imperfections, a correlation between Class, Status and Party.