Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Max Weber's Theory of Stratification - summary

Max Weber, like Karl Marx, begins his analysis of class and social stratification from an economic point of view, arguing that 'property and lack of property are ... the basic categories of all class situations'. Weber's use of the word property is similar to Marx's view of capital or means of production. But where property and capital were the starting point for Marx, for Max Weber his starting point is to recognize that people are individuals. He says that within each class there are major social divisions based around status (see: Max Weber on social inequality) and what he calls 'party'. By 'party' he means any organisation (such as trade unions, professional associations, etc) that helps their members pursue their common interests. Such common interests can be summarized from a materialist point of view as market position. Weber's analysis can therefore be described as 'gradational' in contrast to the 'relational' approach of Marx. Weber identified four different 'constellations' of class:
·        The dominant property-owning and commercial class;
·        The white collar intelligentsia;
·        The petty bourgeoisie (owners of small businesses);
·        The manual working class.

These different class groupings have in Weber's view distinct market situations which either privilege them or make them more vulnerable to exploitation. Weber introduced the important sociological concept of life chances which refer to the opportunities (or lack of them) individuals have for success in education, employment, housing, health, etc. Within the market economy individuals without property depend upon the skills they can offer, and the relative scarcity of these skills improves their market position (based on supply and demand). For this reason, the highly qualified have a different class situation from those with no qualifications and therefore better opportunities . Weber's theory of social class is based on the view that class divisions and inequalities reflect different life chances in the market and that a person's class position is determined by the job market. Because such markets serve to divide and sub¬divide classes, the result is differentiation between groups of employees becomes increasingly complex. With this view we could not be further from Marx's dichotomous view of a society of just two classes. An additional aspect important to Weber's stratification theory is that economic characteristics are not the sole determinant on an individual's status and life chances, since aspects of group belonging like ethnicity are also crucial factors.  

Weber presents a view of society as becoming split into smaller groups or increasingly fragmented, in contrast to Marx's prediction of an increasingly polarized society. Weber's view of stratification, in other words, is more of a stretching spectrum rather than polarities. Weber's key point is that within class there is further differentiation in terms of status that reflects the different amounts of social standing individuals and groups have. Weber's analysis of status and market position can usefully, and arguably more accurately, explain social differences in society when compared with Marx's theory of stratification. For example, in the workplace women, the disabled, the elderly and many ethnic minority groups have found themselves discriminated against, irrespective of their class position. Therefore people occupying the same class position may well be distinguished by differences in status. For the individual, their status may be more significant than class as a source of identity. Weber thus sees class, status and party as cross-cutting and offers a more complex theoretical matrix of individual class position that Marx did.

Weber's approach is useful precisely because it allows us to describe the complex reality of contemporary society and comprise of different intertwining features. However, Marxists argue that Weber's concepts of class and status groups lack the close relationship with a theoretical position that Marx's concept of class exhibits. They question Weber's concept of status group, arguing that life chances are primarily shaped by class location more than anything else.

Suggested reading: