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Chapter 2 Foundations Of A Neo Weberian Essay

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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 particular attention is social mobility. ‘A social class makes up the totality of class positions within which individual and inter-generational mobility is easy and typical’ (Weber 1978, p. 302). Weber suggests that, as a matter of empirical fact, four major social classes can be identified under capitalism, between which social mobility is infrequent and difficult but within which it is relatively common. The first distinction is between those who own property or the means of production, and those who do not, but both groups are ‘further differentiated ... according to the kind of property ... and the kind of services that can be offered in the market’ (Weber 1978, p. 928). The resulting four classes are the ‘dominant entrepreneurial and propertied groups’; the petty bourgeoisie; workers with formal credentials (the middle class) and those who lack them and whose only asset is their labour power (the working class). It is well known that Weber saw class as only one aspect of the distribution of power in society. In a famous definition, power is ‘the probability that one actor within a social relationship will be in a position to carry out his own will despite resistance, regardless of the basis on which this probability rests’ (Weber 1978, p. 53), and status groups and parties, along with classes are, for Weber, the major phenomena of the distribution of power in society. The distinction between them concerns the different resources that each can bring to influence the distribution of life chances. While membership of each will overlap, none of these dimensions can be wholly reduced to the other. Each of them can be a basis for collective action, but, according to Weber, status groups and parties are more likely to fulfil this role than are classes. For parties, collective action is their raison d’etre, while membership of a status group is more likely to figure in individuals’ consciousness, and thus act as a basis for collective action, than is membership of a class. Whether or not members of a class display ‘class consciousness’ depends on certain contingent factors: it is ‘linked to general cultural conditions ... and especially linked to the transparency of the connections between the causes and the consequences of the class situation’ (Weber 1978, p. 928-32). Different life chances, associated with social class membership, do not themselves give birth to ‘class action’: it is only when the ‘real conditions and the results of the class situation’ are recognized that this can occur. This review of Weber’s writings on social class serves, not least, to establish some limits to the ambitions of a Weberian class analysis. Perhaps most importantly there is no assumption that patterns of historical change can be explained in terms of the evolution of the relationship between classes, as is the case with Marxist historical materialism. Nor is there any supposition that classes are necessarily in a zero-sum conflict in which the benefits to one come at the (illegitimate) expense of the other. Indeed, there is no assumption in Weber that class will be the major source of conflict within capitalist society or that classes will

Chapter 2. A Neo-Weberian Approach to Class


necessarily serve as a source of collective action. Rather, the focus is on the market as the source of inequalities in life chances. But this is not to say that a Weberian approach takes market arrangements as given. Weber writes that markets are themselves forms of social action which depend, for their existence, on other sorts of social action, such as a certain kind of legal order (Weber 1978, p. 930). But in understanding how market arrangements come to be the way they are, one cannot simply focus on classes and the relationships between them. The evolution of social forms is a complex process that can be driven by a wide variety of factors, as Weber himself illustrates in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, where ideas are allotted a central role in the development of modern capitalism. Weber’s comments on class are rather fragmentary: there is, for example, very little in his work addressing questions of class conflict.1 This being so, it may, on occasion. seem easier to define a Weberian approach by what it is not, rather than what it is, and almost any class schema that is not avowedly Marxist could be considered Weberian. Indeed, the boundaries between the Marxist and Weberian versions are themselves often rather less than sharp. But, as I hope to show, there is a distinctive element to a Weberian class schema and this determines both how we should go about constructing it and how we should evaluate its performance as an explanatory factor in class analyses. But I see no virtue in seeking to follow Weber’s writings ‘to the letter’ (even supposing that it were possible to do so), and the approach I outline here, which I call neo-Weberian, may not be the only one to which Weber’s own rather unsystematic remarks on class could give rise. The aims of class analysis Understood as a general project, class analysis sees class as having the potential to explain a wide range of outcomes. A principal aim, of course, is to examine the relationship between class position and life chances, but class analysis is seldom restricted to this. Class is commonly held to have various possible consequences. Because a set of individuals shares a common class position they tend to behave in similar ways: class position is a determinant of the individual’s conditions of action and similar actions could be expected among those who have similar conditions of action (see Weber 1978, p. 929). But this might be distinguished from class conscious behaviour. This can occur when, as Weber says, individuals become aware of ‘the connections between the causes and the consequences of the class situation’. In principle, then, not just variation in life chances but in a whole range of action, behaviour, attitudes, values and so forth can be taken as objects that class might help to explain. But the link between classes and their consequences cannot simply be an empirical matter: there must be some theory or argument for why classes, defined in a given way, are salient for the explanation of these outcomes, and, in particular, for the explanation of variation in life chances. This is a point we shall revisit in this chapter. But now I turn to the question of how Weber’s ideas on social class might be operationalized. The development of a Weberian class schema To a Weberian, class is of interest because it links individuals’ positions in capitalist markets to inequality in the distribution of life chances. As we have seen, variations in market position arise on the basis of differences in the possession of market-relevant assets. One

Chapter 2. A Neo-Weberian Approach to Class


possible approach to constructing a Weber-inspired class schema might be to group together individuals possessing the same or similar assets. After all, Weber defines ‘class situation’ as the sharing of a ‘specific causal component of ... life chances’ (1978, p. 927) and it might therefore seem reasonable to define classes in terms of such causal components of ...

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