Chapter 2 Foundations of a Neo-Weberian Class Analysis

Topics: Social class, Marxism, Sociology Pages: 26 (9107 words) Published: April 3, 2013
Richard Breen

Introduction In the broad project of ‘class analysis’ a great deal of effort goes into defining class and delineating the boundaries of classes. This is necessarily so, because class analysis is ‘the empirical investigation of the consequences and corollaries of the existence of a class structure defined ex-ante’ (Breen and Rottman 1995b, p. 453). By starting from a particular definition, sociologists can assess the extent to which such things as inequality in life chances among individuals and families are structured on the basis of class. This approach stands in contrast to one that discovers a class structure from the empirical distribution of inequality in society (Sørenson 2000 labels this the ‘nominal classifications’ approach). In class analysis the theoretical underpinnings of the version of class that is being used have to be made clear at the outset, and the concept of class has to be operationalized so as to allow claims about class to be tested empirically. If we examine the two main varieties of contemporary class analysis – namely Marxist class analysis, particularly associated with the work of Erik Olin Wright and his associates, and the neo-Weberian class analysis linked to the use of the class schema devised by John Goldthorpe – we find that these two tasks are central to both. In this chapter I will discuss some of the issues involved in seeking to pursue class analysis within a broadly Weberian perspective. I begin by outlining Weber’s own views on social class, as these are presented in Economy and Society. This serves to set out the broad parameters within which Weberian class analysis operates and to suggest the extent and limits of its explanatory ambitions. I go on to discuss, in very general terms, what sort of operationalization of class is suggested by the work of Weber and then to outline the Goldthorpe class schema, which is widely held to be Weberian in conception (for example, Marshall et al 1988 p. 14). The chapter concludes with a discussion of some of what I see as the fundamental objections to a neo-Weberian approach to class analysis and with some clarifications about exactly what we might expect a neo-Weberian class classification to explain. Social class in the work of Max Weber In capitalism the market is the major determinant of life chances. Life chances can be understood as, in Giddens’s terms, ‘the chances an individual has for sharing in the socially created economic or cultural “goods” that typically exist in any given society’ (1973, pp. 1301) or, more simply, as the chances that individuals have of gaining access to scarce and valued outcomes. Weber (1978, p. 302) writes that ‘a class situation is one in which there is a shared typical probability of procuring goods, gaining a position in life, and finding inner satisfaction’: in other words, members of a class share common life chances. If this is what members of a class have in common, what puts them in this common position? Weber’s answer is that the market distributes life chances according to the resources that individuals bring to it, and he recognized that these resources could vary in a number of ways. Aside from the distinction between property owners and non-owners, there is also variation according to particular skills and other assets. The important point, however, is that all these

Chapter 2. A Neo-Weberian Approach to Class


assets only have value in the context of a market: hence, class situation is identified with market situation. One consequence of Weber’s recognition of the diversity of assets that engender returns in the market is a proliferation of possible classes, which he calls ‘economic classes’. Social classes, however, are much smaller in number, being aggregations of economic classes. They are formed not simply on the basis of the workings of the market: other factors intervene, and the one singled out by Weber for...
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