Social stratification refers to the hierarchical classification of people into categories of wealth, power, social class, status, and groups in the society. Inheritance is a major determinant of one’s social status. Those who inherit wealth have a chance of raising their social status. Other people climb through the social status as a result of hard earned wealth (Lenski, 2013: 4-5). These varied lifestyles are a result of social stratification in the contemporary society. As a consequence, varied individuals have different social status which results to different remuneration and appreciation. Social stratification is thus a reality in all forms of societies, be it, communist, capitalistic or a mixed society (Ferrante, 2012: 67). The objective of this essay, therefore, is to critically compare the different ways in which Marx and Weber conceptualise social stratification, focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of both approaches. Further, the essay will investigate to what extent the work of Mike Savage and his colleagues (2013) change the way we think about class in the twenty-first century. In the contemporary society social stratification is understood in terms of social class, that is, the lower class, middle class, and the upper class. However, within these classes, there are subdivisions which are determined by one's occupation.
Karl Marx conceptualizes social stratification in terms of social class. However, according to Marx social class does not reflect possession of wealth but the fundamental division of labour. He argues that social classes have their origin in the division of labour in the production. Once these classes are established, they are transformed into active agents in history. The dominant class ensures it is represented in the government; hence it acts in and through the state. Interesting for Karl Marx, social classes are a consequence of continuing process of struggle. Human history is founded on the tension between social classes. This tension gradually leads to a revolution and emergence new method of production. In his Communist Manifesto of 1847, Karl Marx argues that human history of until then existing societies was a history of social class struggles which led to revolution (Marx and Engels, 2002: 32). For example, the struggle between slaves and the freemen, serfs, and lords, plebeian and patrician, journeyman and guild-master these classes have been in struggling until revolutions happened. He further elaborated that, class struggles and conflicts also characterise the emerging bourgeois society from the remnants of feudal society. The emerging society has invented new oppressive conditions and new approaches of the struggle to replace the old. As a result, society is, in fact, splitting up into opposing classes, that is, Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie.
Marx thought bourgeoisie as the most revolutionary compared to the proletariat. He thought them to be revolutionary because they were the initiators of industrialization and they remained critical players in the manufacturing industries. For Marx bourgeoisies are the owners of the means of production, hence the employers. On the other hand, proletariat lack means of production, hence they sell their services to live. Bourgeoisie explores the global market by their cosmopolitan products to boost consumption. The overgrowth of their business enterprises threatens the survival of bourgeois properties. Besides, Marx argues that proletariats are mere labourers who are at the mercy of the owner of production. He further postulates that proletariats have no ability to own means of production because they lack financial security. Liberation of the proletariat is anchored in self-conscious. He also thought of communism as the solution to such kind of social stratification (Marx, 2010).
Marx Weber understood social stratification to be constituted of three elements, that is, party, status, and class (Weber, 2015). In his Economy and Society of 1978, Weber presents class as the individual economic position with society. However, Weber notes that “mare economic” ability and specifically “naked” money ability is not a ground for the social honour. He thus thought that social prestige or honour is the avenue to economic power. Class according to Weber has its origin in the market situation. He thus defined “class” as a situation when different people have a similar objective which is propelled by opportunities for income and economic gains in production of goods (Smelser and Swedberg, 2010: 18). The manner of distributing the opportunities of income and the economic gains of production is dictated by the law of marginal utility. This law, therefore, excludes the poor fro competing for highly valued goods. As a result, it only favours those who possess the means of production hence making them have monopoly in the production industry. Those who have the monopoly of production acquire properties hence becoming entrepreneurs. Therefore, class can be categorized as those who “have property” and “those who lack property.”
These two classes are further classified into subdivisions. That is, according to the services that can be offered in the market and according to the property which can be used for returns in the market. In his Economy and Society Weber argues that class has a generic connotation. For example, a slave whose situation is not dictated by the ability to use good and services in the market to get returns, then this is not class but status group. For Weber then, status refers to the social prestige/honour or popularity within a society. However, status and class are not linked in any way. In fact, those who “have property” and “those who lack property” can share the same status group (Weber, 1978: 938). Social stratification can be sustained through constant distribution of the economic powers. A change in economic classification leads to change in social honour which exposes on to economic empowerment thus a change in class or vice versa. Party, on the other hand, refers to the individual’s ability to achieve social power in the midst of resistance. Parties interest is to acquire social power then utilize it to influence the social actions. Parties vary depending on whether the society in question is stratified by classes or by status.
Strength of Karl Marx Argument
Strengths mark Karl Marx sociological observation. One of the key strengths was the ability of Marx to view society as an evolving interconnected whole. He thus built a logical dialectical evaluation that illustrates how contrary forces in a society leads to revolution and hence structural changes. The change in structural changes results into a communist form of government. However, for Marx, this form of government should ensure human rights, equal accesses to education and health care to all and equal gender roles. Besides, government should provide equal economic opportunity for all, equality before law and in all other government services (Evans and Tilley, 2015: 298-304). In addition, Karl Marx view that individual in the communities works together to assist each other with the help of government is instrumental in equal distribution of resources and reduction of debt tendency. Importantly, Karl Marx also advocates for strengthening of the worker unions. This creates solid check and balances systems as well as strong bargaining powers for workers (Scaff, 2015: 19).
Strength of Marx Weber Argument
Essentially, Weber's strengths lie in the expansion of Marx's rather simplistic perspective about stratification. Weber recognized the presence of other subclasses within the dominant social classes. These small classes are based on status and what he later terms as party. While Marx divided people into bourgeoisies and the have nots, Weber distinctively identified four classes. These are; the manual working class, the leading property owners and the commercial class, the small business owners or petty bourgeoisie and the white collar intelligentsia. Weber contends that these categories of people subscribe to diverse market situations. These market situations, therefore, either result to privilege or vulnerability of some individuals. Additionally, Weber expounds on how classes are generally formed. According to him, the people that lack property mainly depends on their skills within the market economy. The scarcity of such skills, he argues that it enhances the people's market position. Consequently, those with little or no qualifications belong to different class with the highly qualified individuals (Chan, 2010: 37-38).
Another of Weber's strength is portrayed in his view of the society. His is not the perception of a polarized society but viewed a society that continues to split into smaller segments. People within a given society have different statuses hence different social standing. In respect to this view, an individual status and the market position significantly explain why there exist social differences in a given society. In general, Weber's perspective helps in the description of the contemporary society.
Weaknesses of Karl Marx Argument
The major weakness of the Karl Marx theories is creation of animosity between the bourgeoisies and the proletariat in all his writings. He further zealously advocated for a revolution to bring communism, he thus held that communism was to prevail no matter what happens (Ibrahim and Mahmood, 2016: 45). This may infer a blood revolution for communism to prevail. Similarly, Marx failed to illustrate how capitalism as a system was unjust in nature. Besides, he could not adequately demonstrate what made communist society morally superior. Marx ideas also present serious shortcoming to the entrepreneurs (Berlin, 2013: 32-34). This thus means if one were to initiate a business within the Marxism concepts, then one would be toiling solely for government. Hence, individual investors do not reap any gains from their business investment within this kind of society. Equally, Marx system abolishes the idea of private property. The government is the sole owner of all that is within a state. Therefore, an individual can only contribute to the common good with no private ownership. Furthermore, Marx makes it impossible for anybody to explore any business opportunities (Giddens, 2013: 34).
Weaknesses of Marx Weber Argument
On the other hand, Weber's multidimensional view on social stratification is not devoid of weaknesses. Firstly, he offers a pluralistic analysis of soil stratification. For this reason, it is not easy to make a distinction between the stratified groups in the society. Secondly, Weber does not show the distinct boundaries that exist between the various stratified groups hence all that is seen is a highly fragmented stratification system (Anderson, 2016: 2-3).
Mike Savage and his colleagues argue that class stratification is a reality which is still powerful as before. It is only the nature of class distinction which has changed. Savage and his colleagues believe that seven-class schema characterises the 21st-century society. The seven-class schema manifests the widening disparity in terms of wealth and power between "precariat" and the "elite." Savage and colleagues are of the view that the old classification of upper, middle and lower classes is no longer relevant (Savage et al., 2013: 221-223). The 21st-century classification includes Super-wealthy class, super elite, new-elite, established middle class, technical middle class, traditional working class, and precariat. As a result of these classifications, inequality is on the increase. Super-wealthy and the elite enjoy high salaries, and thus they possess big houses. Savage and the team postulate that class classification is not only economic sphere but also in cultural and social sphere. It is thus clear from Savage that 21st century enjoys varied resources, that is, social capital, economic capital, and the cultural capital which in turn determine the social standing (Savage, 2015: 45-47).
In conclusion, it is clear that both Marx and Weber agree on existence of social stratification. However, Marx Weber developed Karl Marx concepts on the social class to a greater extent. While Marx thought of social class to be determined by owners of production versus non-owners of means of production, Weber, on the other hand, thought class to have origin in market situation and market capacity. In his presentation of the social stratification, Weber opts for a multidimensional approach as compared to the dialectical approach adopted by Marx. Each of the approaches however has its strengths and weakness. After analysis of the two theories, it is my considered opinion that nor Marx neither Weber who sufficiently postulated a theory that clearly demonstrates social stratification. On the other hand, Savage and the team contribute to the debate of social stratification by pointing out the inequalities present in the 21st-century society. Similar to Marx and Weber, Savage and the team illustrate there is conflict among the varied classes.
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