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US Classes

Author: Zach Lamb

Differentiate between classes in U.S. society. 

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to sociological studies. We've got a great lesson, probably my favorite lesson in the entire course, US classes. I'd like to start this lesson with a quote from E.P. Thompson, a sociologist, who wrote a great book called The Making of the English Working Class.

E.P. Thompson, with respect to class, argues that, "I do not see class as a structure, or even a category, but as something which in fact happens, and can be shown to have have happened, in human relationships. Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences, articulate their interest as opposed to the interests of others."

What E.P. Thompson's quote implies, then, is that the class system is not fixed. It's flexible. It changes. Which is why class is interesting to study. I'm going to give you some sociological attempts, famous theorizations of class. We'll do that briefly in the first part of the lesson. And then we'll finish defining class in American society, and discussing some trends in the American class system, specifically the rise of an educated or creative class.

First, let's look at Marx, who saw class as starkly divided by your ownership of property or non-ownership of property, and your relationship to capitalist production, to the instruments and means of capitalist production. So class positions the bourgeoisie, those who owned the factories, the means of production, the capitalist versus the proletariat, the laborers, those who only own their labor.

So the question then is, OK well, where's the middle class Marx? The middle class is only weakly theorized in Marx's system as the petty bourgeois. And they don't really have a place in Marx's scheme all that much. They're just people who have pretenses to the bourgeoisie, but aren't quite there yet, and they're not quite proletariat. He doesn't really spend a lot of analytical time on them.

So the existence of a bona fide middle class then, which we see develop in mature capitalism, is an embarrassment to Marx's theorization. We didn't have a revolution. Instead, we had a blossoming middle class. Well, how did this happen?

So neo-Marxists have spent a lot of theoretical time trying to understand why we have a middle class, and how we can fit the middle class into some Marxist typology of class structure. And we do this-- neo-Marxists do this often by hitting on the idea of a class in itself versus a class for itself. Class in itself is just a class out there objectively that exists, say all machine operators, all mechanics. So they are objectively in the same class structure Marxists would maintain.

But there's a difference between class for itself, which is a class that all those machinist out there, then they recognize that they're connected. And they recognize that their interests are the same, like E.P. Thompson had said. And so then you become recognized subjectively as united in a class with the common interests. And so that is a class for itself.

And so neo-Marxists have shown, particularly Erik Olin Wright, great famous sociologist, that the class system has complexified such that there are many different positions in the class structure that articulate different interests. And so we have many different interests in society that might not necessarily align in the same way that Marx saw bourgeoisie and proletariat.

And Max Weber's theorization of class was really good at helping us to understand this. Weber introduced the idea of status and party as affecting your class position. So for Weber, market outcomes or the income you get entering the market-- so I'm getting income right now entering the labor market as your teacher-- so that will be one component, plus status, plus party affiliations or group affiliation, all intersect then to determine one's social standing, one's social positioning, or one's class position. This is much more complex.

And as you can see then, the intersection of these three elements, there are many different class positions and interests. Class interests then flow from class position. And so necessarily then with many class positions and then many corresponding interests flowing from those class positions, they're going to be smaller. And groups aren't going to necessarily see themselves as united across class positions as easily, because of the complexity of the middle class.

Sociologist, anthropologist, philosopher Pierre Bourdieu, one of the most brilliant social scientist to have ever written, who have ever studied sociology in my opinion, gives us another way to look at class. And Bourdieu argued that class is determined, or class position is determined by our amounts of social, economic, and cultural capital that we possess. These are three unique forms of capital that one can have, Bourdieu theorized.

So social capital is our group membership, what groups we belong to. Economic capital is just our money, our money value. And our cultural capital is our knowledge, skills, and abilities that we possess. So one can be rich in cultural capital and poor in economic capital. So a professor, for example, lots of advance education and training, but doesn't have a lot of economic capital. So they have a different class interest. They want to make their cultural capital dominant in society, Bourdieu theorized.

Likewise, a business person might have a lot of economic capital, but not a lot of esoteric, cultural capital. So they want to monopolize the value of their capital in society, economic capital. So Bourdieu theorized then that we were always trying to assert our capital that we possess as the dominant form in society, and that we use our consumption preferences.

Each of these forms of capital then has its own aesthetic taste in consumption preferences associated with it. So we display this then when we consume. We display our capital, our class position in society. Bourdieu's argument then is that a multitude of consumer interest based on differing social positions necessitates a class faction.

And Bourdieu writes that each faction then, defined by their differential amounts of capital, has its own artists, its own philosophers, newspapers, and critics, just as it has its own hairdresser, interior decorator, or tailor. So this varies by class. This is Bourdieu's key insight, was a fascinating insight. And with it then, we flip the notion of class on its head, and put it into the realm of consumption, into the realm of taste and preferences.

And so Bourdieu went on to argue then that we use our consumption to assert our distinction in society and position ourselves, social positioning relative to others. And that this is the stuff of class. So now that I've thoroughly muddied the waters of US classes for you, and shown you how sociologist can approach class in many different ways, and how sometimes, and arguably we can't even define class at all, I'm going to try to define class for you and make them concrete.

So there's absolutely no consensus on how to do this, and how define class sociologically, but I chose yearly income values to do it. So an upper class person then makes more than $200,000 a year. Middle class makes between $30 and $200,000 a year, lower class less than $30,000 a year, working class-- some combination here, it's blurry-- between $30 and $50K a year. A lot of Americans, most Americans are working class.

And finally the working poor-- working poor are people who work hard, but cannot seem to get ahead. So for instance, that woman who takes the bus an hour to get to work, to work a low wage job, and then works a night job as well, just to make ends meet and feed her son. This is an example of someone who is in the working poor.

Beyond the numbers, I'd like to finish by describing some changes, some major changes in the American class structure in the last 40 years. We've seen the rise of what has been called many different labels. Richard Florida, who called this class the creative class, writes of them that if you are a scientist or engineer, an architect or a designer, a writer, artist or musician, or if you use your creativity as a key factor in your work and business, in education, in health care, in law, in finance, or some other profession, you are a member of the creative class.

This class has accumulated advanced degrees, MAs MSs, MBAs, PhDs JDs. They're decorated with degrees. And it's because of these people and their advanced degrees and talent that the rewards to just a regular old BA isn't what it used to be. And we see tons of student saddled with lots of, lots of debt, but not a lucrative job with a BA.

So the economy has changed with the information society and globalization, such that it now rewards individual talent and creativity more than ever before. We're on our own constantly. Everyone is. If you wish to get ahead, you're forced to go out and make something of yourself. Be an entrepreneur. Use your creativity and talent to try to create something and be innovative, and get ahead.

It used to be that you could graduate high school and then either went down the street and got a job at the Ford company, for instance, or you were wealthy enough and you went on to college. So you did one of the two, and life was simple. You were either a company man your entire career.

We don't have company men anymore. Companies gain or lose workers all the time. So you need to invent yourself as a brand, as an entrepreneur, in order to stay hired across many different terrains. It's very difficult to navigate this. And class then is exceedingly complex.

Terms to Know
Lower Class

Members make less than $30,000 a year.

Middle Class

Members make between $30,000-$200,000 a year; contains 3/5 of Americans.

Upper Class

Members make more than $200,000 a year.

Working Class

Members from both the lower class and the upper class who make up to $50,000 a year and have little or no savings or investments.

Working Poor

People who work hard but cannot seem to get ahead, they live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to make ends meet.