Weber's Theory of Social Class
Prof. Timothy Shortell, Department of Sociology, Brooklyn College, CUNY

Class, Status & Party

Marx saw class divisions as the most important source of social conflict. Weber's analysis of class is similar to Marx's, but he discusses class in the context of social stratification more generally. Class is one dimension of the social structure. Social status, or "social honor," is another. Both are significant contributors of social difference.

Weber's treatment of class and status indicates the manner in which the material basis of society is related to the ideological. Social conflict can result from one or the other, or both. Social action is motivated by both, though in some cases more one than the other. By bringing in status, Weber provides a more flexible view of the details of social differences, and their implications for the lived experience of social actors.

In order to fully understand Weber's perspective on stratification, we need to be familiar with a few general concepts: (i) power; (ii) domination; and, (iii) communal and societal action.

I. Power, Domination, Communal & Societal Action

A. Power
Weber defines power as the ability of a actor (or actors) to realize his or her will in a social action, even against the will of other actors. Power relates to the ability to command resources in a particular domain. Economic power, then, is the ability to control material resources: to direct production, to monopolize accumulation, to dictate consumption.

Societal power includes economic power, social power, legal or political power, and so forth. Although the control of these domains of resources usually go together, they represent different mechanisms of power, and are conceptually distinct.

B. Domination
Domination is the exercise of authority. Possession of power in a sphere results in dominance. Weber articulated three ideal types of domination: charisma, tradition and rational-legal.

Charismatic domination rests on the character of the leader. Through inspiration, coercion, communication and leadership, a particular individual may succeed in occupying a central role in the planning and co-ordination of social action. Charisma, Weber believed, emerges in times of social crisis. People lose confidence in existing forms of authority, and the charismatic leader takes advantage of the crisis. Because it is a personalized form of authority, it tends to be unstable. It does not normally survive the death of the original leader, and it often abandons the leader while he or she is alive. For charismatic authority to be sustained, it must be routinized.

Traditional authority is based on the belief in the legitimacy of well-established forms of power. Tradition implies an inherent, natural, or metaphysical quality in the state of affairs that makes it resistant to challenges by reason. Tradition often functions in a society with rigid forms of social hierarchy, because of the role of social inheritance and custom.

Traditional authority is based on loyalty to the leadership. Power is exercised by commands issued from the leader or leadership group. Officials are obedient to that person or group, and the lines of authority are often unstated and vague. Traditional authority tends not to distinguish between public and private affairs. The task specialization, in terms of the exercise of power, is minimal.

Rational-legal authority is based on a set of rules, and the belief in the legitimacy of the process of rule creation and enforcement. This form of domination is routinized through bureaucracy. It tends to remain independent of particular individuals, because authority resides in the office, or the organizational position of the role.

In the bureaucracy, rational-legal power is exercised on the basis of knowledge and experience, not on personality or custom. Authority functions by means of obedience to the rules rather than persons. Bureaucracy tends to separate the personal and public spheres. Task specialization is extensive within the bureaucracy.

C. Communal & Societal Action
A communal action is oriented on the basis of a shared belief of affiliation. In other words, actors believe that they somehow belong together in some way. Their action stems from, and is co-ordinated by this sentiment. In contrast, societal action is oriented to a rational adjustment of interests. The motivation is not a sense of shared purpose, but rather, a recognition of shared interests.

II. Class

Weber identified three aspects of class: (i) a specific causal component of actors life chances (ii) which rests exclusively on economic interests and wealth, and (iii) is represented under conditions of labor and commodity markets. The possession of material resources, accumulated by advantage in the marketplace, results in distinctive qualities in terms of the standard of living.1

The possession of property defines the main class difference, according to Weber. The owners of property have a definite advantage, and in some cases a monopoly on, action in the market of commodities and, especially, labor. They have privileged access to the sources of wealth creation, by virtue of ownership and control of the markets. Weber identified a subdivision among property owners based on the means of their wealth creation. Entrepreneurs use wealth in commercial ventures. Rentiers profit by interest on their property, through investments or rent of land.2 Both forms of ownership yield advantages resulting from the ability to convert property to money.

The property-less class is defined by the kinds of services individual workers provide in the labor market. Workers are classified as skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled. These distinctions are based on the value of different kinds of labor. Different wages result in different qualities in terms of the standard of living.3

Weber did not believe that class interests necessarily led to uniformity in social action. Neither communal nor societal action is the inexorable result of class interest. Weber challenges, here, the Marxian notion of the primarily material basis of social action. He is not denying it outright, but rather, introducing an element of unpredictability. Weber did not believe that proletarian revolutionary action would arise as a certain result of structural contradiction.

Communal or societal action may develop from a common class situation in certain conditions. Weber believed that the general cultural conditions played a large role in this determination. Intellectuals occupy a key position in this regard. Weber argued that the extent of the contrasts between the property owners and the property-less workers must become transparent to the workers in order for collective action around the issue of class to occur. Intellectuals function either to call attention to and explain these contrasts, or, to obscure them.

For communal or societal action to take place, the workers must not only recognize the differences in wealth and opportunity, but these differences must be seen as the result of the distribution of property and economic power. If the differences are believed to be a natural characteristic of society, as a given fact, then only occasional and irrational action is possible.

Very often, collective action centers on the labor market. Workers seek higher wages, and see this as the goal of their struggle. Most class antagonism, Weber noted, is directed at managers, rather than at owners—stockholders and bankers—because they appear to be have the power to set the price of labor power.

III. Status

While class groups do not constitute communities, according to Weber, status groups normally are communities. Status is defined as the likelihood that life chances are determined by social honor, or, prestige. Status groups are linked by a common style of life, and the attendant social restrictions.

Wealth is not necessarily the primary cause of status, though it is generally associated with it. Some forms of property ownership are connected with prestige, others are not. "Old money" typically confers greater status than "new money." Rentiers usually hold greater status than entrepreneurs, because their wealth is less visibly connected to labor.

Wealth is a key determinant of the lifestyle differences upon which status depends. Weber notes that "material monopolies are the most effective motives for the exclusiveness of a status group." Social restrictions, such as marriage patterns, residence, and so forth, follow from differences in wealth reflected in prestige.

Status distinctions are usually not ethnic. When carried to their fullest extent, as a caste system, perceived ethnicity is sometimes involved. In the case of caste, social distinctions are reinforced by legal and ritual restrictions. Caste usually develops into a functional system, by virtue of occupational differences.

The dignity of high status groups is always worldly. It involves their distinctive life style, as manifest in patterns of association and consumption. Low status groups, on the other hand, project their sense of worth on salvation hopes. Their due, they believe, is guaranteed in the life to come. It is common for low status groups to believe that they enjoy a special relationship with their god or gods.

Status divisions tend to codified on the basis of the stable distribution of economic power. When economic stratification is relatively invariant, status differences tend to increase.

IV. Party

Class and status interests interact in the realm of the legal order, the arena of politics. Political power is, obviously, often based on class and status interests. Parties are the organizations of power. Their purpose is the struggle for domination. Parties commonly operate in the political/legal domain, but as an ideal type, parties are not restricted to this field.

Although parties are based on class and status, they are usually organized across these distinctions. That is, it is rare for parties to be based solely on class or status interests, such that a party of entrepreneurial class interest would be in competition with one based on high status. Since economic power binds class status together in some way, it is no surprise that parties reflect these complex patterns of interest.

Parties represent a high degree of rationality in social action. Parties require planning; their motives are strategic. Irrational types of social action are not completely excluded, however. Tradition and affect are a part of the operation of parties.

1 This view is not far from Marx, though it is stated very differently. Marx certainly discussed the implications of class in terms of the material conditions of existence. He also saw possession of property as definitive, though he identified the market with capitalist class relations, and not earlier forms.

2 The distinction is between active and idle wealth.

3 Marx did not think the differences in the kind of labor were important, though he acknowledged that skilled labor had greater value, and thus higher wages, than unskilled labor. Weber believed that the differences in wages resulted in significant material conditions, and therefore, different patterns of social action. Weber's suggests that antagonisms among the property-less groups can be based on rational motives, and not false consciousness.