What is Social Class, and Why Does it Matter?

How Sociologists Define and Study the Concept

Peter Dazeley/Getty Images

Class, economic class, socio-economic class, social class. What's the difference? Each refers to how people are sorted into hierarchies in society, but there are, in fact, important differences among them.

Economic class refers specifically to how one ranks relative to others in terms of income and wealth. Simply put, we are sorted into groups by how much money we have. These groups are commonly understood as lower, middle, and upper class. When someone uses the word "class" to refer to how people are stratified in society, they are most often referring to this.

This model of economic class is a derivation of Karl Marx's definition of class, which was central to his theory of how society operates in a state of class conflict, whereby power comes directly from one's economic class position relative to the means of production (one is either an owner of capitalist entities, or a worker for them). (Marx, with Friedrich Engels, presented this idea in The Manifesto of the Communist Party, and at much greater length in Capital, Volume 1.)

Socio-economic class, or socioeconomic status (SES), refers to how other factors, namely occupation and education, combine with wealth and income to position one relative to others in society. This model is inspired by the theory of Max Weber, as opposed to Marx, who viewed the stratification of society as a result of the combined influences of economic class, social status (the level of a person's prestige or honor relative to others), and group power (what he called "party"), which he defined as the level of one's ability to get what they want, despite how others may fight them on it. (Weber wrote about this in an essay titled "The Distribution of Power Within the Political Community: Class, Status, Party," in his book Economy and Society.)

Socio-economic class, or SES, is a more complex formulation than simply economic class, because it takes into account the social status attached to certain professions considered prestigious, like doctors and professors, for example, and to educational attainment as measured in degrees. It also takes into account the lack of prestige, or even stigma, that may be associated with other professions, like blue-collar jobs or the service sector, and the stigma often associated with not finishing high school. Sociologists typically create data models that draw on ways of measuring and ranking these different factors to arrive at a low, middle, or high SES for a given person.

The term "social class" is often used interchangeably with socio-economic class or SES, both by the general public and by sociologists alike. Very often when you hear it used, this is what it means. However, it can also be used to refer specifically to social characteristics that are less likely to change, or harder to change, than one's economic status, which is potentially more changeable over time. In such a case, social class refers to socio-cultural aspects of one's life, namely the traits, behaviors, knowledge, and lifestyle that one is socialized into by one's family. This is why class descriptors like "low", "working," "upper," or "high" can have social as well as economic implications for how we understand the person described. When someone uses "classy" as a descriptor, they are naming certain behaviors and lifestyle, and framing them as superior to others. In this sense, social class is determined strongly by one's level of cultural capital, a concept developed by Pierre Bourdieu, which you can read all about here.

So why does class, however you want to name it or slice it, matter? It matters to sociologists because the fact that it exists reflects unequal access to rights, resources, and power in society--what we call social stratification. As such, it has a strong effect on things like educational attainment and quality of education; who one knows socially and the extent to which those people can provide advantageous economic and employment opportunities; political participation and power; and even health and life expectancy, among many other things.

To learn more about social class and why it matters, check out the fascinating study of how power and privilege are transmitted to the wealthy through elite boarding schools, titled Preparing for Power.