What is Social Class, and Why Does it Matter?

How Sociologists Define and Study the Concept

Opening the velvet rope.
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Class, economic class, socio-economic class, social class. What's the difference? Each refers to how people are sorted into groups—specifically ranked hierarchies—in society. There are, in fact, important differences among them.

Economic Class

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 (the poorest), middle, and upper class (the richest). When someone uses the word "class" to refer to how people are stratified in society, they are most often referring to this.

The model of economic class we use today is a derivation of German philosopher Karl Marx's (1818–1883) definition of class, which was central to his theory of how society operates in a state of class conflict. In that state, an individual's 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 one of the owners. Marx and fellow philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) presented this idea in "The Manifesto of the Communist Party," and Marx expounded in much greater length in volume one of his work called "Capital."

Socio-Economic Class

Socio-economic class, also known as socioeconomic status and often abbreviated as SES, refers to how other factors, namely occupation and education, are combined with wealth and income to rank a person relative to others in society. This model is inspired by the theories of German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), 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"). Weber defined "party" 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 1922 book "Economy and Society" published after his death.

Socio-economic class is a more complex formulation than 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 academic 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.

Social Class

The term "social class" is often used interchangeably with SES, both by the general public and by sociologists alike. Very often when you hear it used, that is what it means. However, in a technical sense social class is used to refer specifically to the characteristics that are less likely to change, or harder to change, than one's economic status, which is potentially changeable over time. In such a case, social class refers to the 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 "lower," "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 French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002), in his 1979 work "Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste." Bourdieu said that levels of class are determined by the attainment of a specific set of knowledge, behaviors, and skills which allow a person to navigate in society.

Why Does it Matter?

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 the access an individual has to education, the quality of that education, and how high a level they can reach. It also affects 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.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Cookson Jr., Peter W. and Caroline Hodges Persell. "Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools." New York: Basic Books, 1985.
  • Marx, Karl. "Capital: A Critique of Political Economy." Trans. Moore, Samuel, Edward Aveling and Friedrich Engels. Marxists.org, 2015 (1867).
  • Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "The Communist Manifesto." Trans. Moore, Samuel and Friedrich Engels. Marxists.org, 2000 (1848). 
  • Weber, Max. "Economy and Society." ed. Roth, Guenther and Claus Wittich. Oakland: University of California Press, 2013 (1922).