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Class

The Weberian Reply

The primary response to Marx's conception of class was proposed by the German sociological thinker Max Weber (1864–1920). Weber's main insight was to recognize the empirical faults of an exclusive emphasis on class as an economic phenomenon. Rather, Weber saw society—in particular, in the modern world—as far too complex in its stratification to fit into the straightjacket of economic determinism. It should be noted that Weber's critique was directed not just at Marx and other radical critics of capitalism, but also at the classical political economists, who shared with Marxism a stridently economistic orientation.

In one sense, Weber does adopt an economic conception of class; it is the term he employs to designate social differentiation based on occupation and function as defined by the market. But class is simply one form of distinction. Equally important are status and power. Status denotes the factors of honor and reputation that attach to specific ways of life and are accorded deference by others. Thus, individuals of certain status (say, from a landed nobility) may enjoy greater repute than those of a given class who are wealthier but whose sources of income (say, commerce) are generally held to be debased or ignoble. Power applies to the capability of a group to impose its collective will on others, even in the face of their resistance. Weber points out how, in the modern world, those with the greatest class position or status often do not occupy the positions of administrative or bureaucratic authority. In turn, bureaucrats can and do enact policies that run contrary to the real or perceived interests of economic and reputational elites. This demonstrates that their social position depends on a source—power—that cannot be entirely assimilated to class or status.

Later social scientists have extended and enlarged the factors that influence social differentiation well beyond Weber's original triad. Such elements as kinship, occupation, race and ethnicity, and education have been added to the basic dimensions of class, status, and power. But it seems safe to say that the dominant perspective on social stratification both normatively and empirically during the last century remained Weberian in orientation.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Chimaeras to ClusterClass - Early Histories, The Renewal Of Class, The Marxist Transformation, The Weberian Reply, Marxist Rejoinders