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Challenges to Traditional Class Analysis

Since the 1990s, there has been a rush of debate about the usefulness of the concept of class for explaining social stratification and political conflict. This debate occurred within mainstream sociological fields of class and sociological theory, and also led to new debates about identity and reflexivity that originated within cultural sociology.

According to Clark and Lipset in a well-known article in the journal International Sociology, new forms of social stratification are emerging. Much of our thinking about stratification – from Marx, Weber, and others – must be recast to capture these new developments. Social class was the key theme of past stratification work. Yet class is an increasingly outmoded concept, although it is sometimes appropriate to earlier historical periods. Class analysis has grown increasingly inadequate in recent decades as traditional hierarchies have declined and new social differences have emerged. The cumulative impact of these changes is fundamentally altering the nature of social stratification – placing most theories in need of substantial modification.

In 1996, Pakulski and Waters (1996) published a book with the title The Death of Class. In their introduction, they suggest that disciplinary ossification has occurred as a result of over-using the concept and hanging on to it for too long. The class has collapsed and is decomposing, leaving only the merest traces of its effects. This means that sociologists cannot go relating and reducing every social phenomenon, from feminine subordination to taste in music, to class. We must begin the search for a new theoretical terra firma. However Pakulski and Waters are careful to point out that the processes that structure these new forms of inequality best relate to specific regions of the world, in particular the advanced Western economies of the United States, Western Europe and Australia.

Traditional Marxist conceptions of class were based on the ownership of productive property and the capacity of such property to generate profits. Yet throughout the twentieth century there has been a weakening of the influence of property on social position as more and more people have begun to purchase and own their own homes.

This has meant that ownership of capital has slowly been distributed down the social ladder. Small businesses have grown in number, and the extent of share ownership in Western countries has expanded greatly.

The privatization of government utilities in many Western countries since the 1970s has ushered in a new phase of 'people's capitalism', where members of the middle and even working class can be part owners of the means of production. The impact of this on the development of the revolutionary consciousness about which Marx talked the working and middle classes have become gradually wealthier and more comfortable, and consequently less likely to challenge, or even identify, the exploitative basis of systems of production.

The nature of productive resource has drastically changed since Marx's time. Before the time when Marx was writing, ownership of land constituted the most valuable form of capital, useful for agricultural production. At the stage of still relatively early capitalism, when industrial expansion intensified, factories and machinery were clearly at the centre of economic productivity, and because they were expensive assets, only a relatively small segment of society was able to own them.

However, as the twentieth century progressed and capitalism matured and moved into the post-industrial era, various forms of technical and professional knowledge come to be more highly valued, skilled workers began to command higher wages, and production became controlled not just by the bourgeoisie but by skilled technical and professional classes.

In the workplace work teams and cooperative forms of production become popular – workers had more flexibility and a little more say about how they worked, and in some instances they were able to demand more meaningful patterns of work. The workplace therefore became relatively de-hierarchicalized. It did offer workers the opportunity for more autonomy, status and meaning within their workplaces, which ultimately meant that class-consciousness was less likely to develop.

A further factor challenging class theory relates to changing patterns of political affiliation in Western, industrial democracies. Many Western nations are now observing the rise of third parties, minority parties, single-issue parties and lifestyle parties, in preference to political parties that many people perceived as too monolithic and traditional to respond effectively to urgent social issues. Given the fusion of political discourses with public perceptions and symbolism, single-issue and independent parties can have significant effects on political outcomes.

Reference: Cultural Sociology: An Introduction by Les Back Andy Bennett Laura Desfor Edles Margaret Gibson David Inglis Ronald Jacobs Ian Woodward, Chapter – 4: Class, Culture and Social Difference

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