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Max Weber on Social Stratification

The work of the German sociologist Max Weber represents one of the most important developments in stratification theory since Karl Marx.Weber sees class in economic sense and says that classes develop in market economies in which individuals compete for economic gain. He defines class as a group of individuals who share a similar position in market economy and by virtue of that fact receive similar economic rewards. Thus in Weber's terminology a person's class situation is basically his market situation. Those who share a similar class situation also share similar life chances. Their economic position will directly affect their chances of obtaining those things defined as desirable in their society.

Weber argues that the major class division is between those who own the forces of production and those who don't. Those who have substantial property holdings will receive the highest economic rewards and enjoy superior life chances. However Weber sees important differences in the market situation of the property less groups in the society in particular the various skills and services offered by different occupation have differing market values. In capitalist society, managers, administrators and professionals receive relatively higher salaries because of the demand for their services. Weber distinguish the following class grouping in capitalist society:
The propertied upper class
The property less white-collar workers
The petty bourgeoisie
The manual working class

According to Weber factors other than the ownership or non-ownership of property are significant in the formation of classes. In particular the market value of the skills of the property less varies and the resulting differences in economic returns are sufficient to produce different social classes. Weber sees no evidence to support the idea of polarization of classes. He argues that the white-collar middle class expands rather than contracts as capitalism develops. He maintained that capitalist enterprises and the modern nation state require a rational bureaucratic administration that involves large numbers of administrators and clerical staff. Thus Weber sees a diversification of classes and an expansion of the white-collar middle class rather than a polarization. He rejects the view of the inevitability of the proletarian revolution. He sees no reason why those sharing a similar class situation should necessarily develop a common identity recognize shared interest and take collective action to further those interests. A common market situation may provide a basis for collective class action but he sees this only as a possibility. Finally he rejects the Marxian view that political power necessarily derives from economic power. The class forms only possible basis for power and that distribution of power in society is not necessarily linked to the distribution of class inequalities. In many societies class and status situations are closely linked. Weber notes that property as such is not always recognized as a status qualification but in the long run it is and with extraordinary regularity. However those who share the same class situation will not necessarily belong to the semi status group. The nouveau riches are sometimes excluded from the status groups of the privileged because their tastes, manners and dress are defined as vulgar. Status gross may create division within classes.

Weber's observations on status group are important since they suggest that in certain situations status rather than class provided the basis for the formation of social group whose members perceive common interests and a group identity. In addition the presence of different status groups within a single class and of status groups which out across class division can weaken class solidarity and reduce the potential force class consciousness. These points are illustrated by Weber's analysis of parties. He defines parties as groups that are specifically concerned with the influencing policies and making decisions in the interest of their membership. In Weber's words parties are concerned with the acquisition of social power'. Parties include a variety of association from the mass political parties of western democracies to the whole range of pressure or interest groups which include professional associations, trade unions, the automobile association etc. Parties often represent the interest of classes or status groups but not necessarily in Weber's words, parties may represent interests determined through class situation or status situation in most cases they are partly class parties and partly status parties. Weber presents that the evidence provides a more complex and diversified picture of social stratification.

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