II. What Is Social Class, and Why Is It Important?
When discussing social class, we frequently hear terms such as upper class, middle class, lower class, working class, and underclass. These terms attempt to differentiate social groups according to their access to economic, social, political, cultural, or lifestyle resources. Although such terms present an overly simplistic description that ignores the complexity and difficulties in defining social class, they do provide a starting point for discussing social stratification.
Economic resources consist of the wealth and/or income controlled by different social groups. The extent to which groups can exert political influence and/or cultural authority constitutes social resources, and the ability to directly shape the actions of governmental institutions such as political leaders or governmental functionaries, or indirectly through the exercise of power outside of government, constitute political resources. Cultural capital refers to the capacity of social classes to shape popular perception through access and control of mass media, education, and other platforms of public communication.
Finally, the phrase lifestyle resources refers to the degree to which group-based patterns of behavior and belief are valued or devalued within a society. These include such things as modes of speech, style of dress, attitudes and values, and preferred and/or available pleasures. As illustrated in studies of ghetto youth (see, e.g., Bourgois, 1995, and Wilson, 1987), the less individuals can look, talk, dress, and act in the approved white, middle-class manner, the less likely they are to be hired, even when they have the necessary skills for a job.
Attempts to understand social class typically fall into one of two types: (1) those following a Marxian model of social class and (2) those following a Weberian model of social class. Marxian models are concerned with locating individuals within distinct groups with respect to their relationship to the means of products, for example, those who earn some or all of their income through the ownership of productive wealth versus those whose only source of income is their ability to work for a wage. Because the social structure of modern industrial societies involves many more class locations than the simple distinction between owners and workers would allow, some analysts have developed the notion of class fractions; that is, although many people work for wages, some, such as corporate managers, are more closely linked to ownership structures than others, such as low-income wage workers. Considerable effort has been devoted to creating more precise definitions of where one class fraction ends and another begins. This theoretically grounded approach to social class has been incorporated into sociological and economic research, but it has rarely been used within criminological research.
Criminological research typically treats social class from a Weberian perspective that views class as a matter of relative income levels. A more useful model for viewing social class is to understand it not simply as a matter of relative income but as the intersection of economic, cultural, and political resources that place social groups somewhere along a social class continuum ranging from the least to the most advantaged groups. At the highest level of this social class continuum in the United States are those groups that (a) earn large annual incomes; (b) control much of the country’s wealth, in the form of real estate and material objects as well as in financial securities such as stocks, bonds, and hedge funds; (c) exert substantial influence over developing and implementing laws and governmental policy; (d) use wealth and power to shape the content of mass media; and (e) live the kinds of lifestyles that many people envy and would like to emulate. At the lower end are social groups that (a) earn relatively low annual incomes; (b) own little material property and almost no financial securities; (c) have minimal influence over government or media; and (d) have patterns of speech, dress, and behavior that are often viewed as disturbing or “dangerous” by better-off segments of the society. Between these two extremes are other groupings characterized by differing configurations of economic, social, and lifestyle resources that afford them fewer benefits than elites but more than the worst off.
The criminological significance of this differential distribution of resources is how it influences justice processes. Specifically, the social class system in America enables resource-advantaged groups to implement definitions of crime and justice that ensure elite-caused harms will rarely be treated as crime while harms more common among less advantaged groups—so-called street crimes— will be criminalized and vigorously punished.
Another important question to address is: Why do social classes exist? Like most of the world, the United States is based on a political–economic system organized around free-market competition. In these competitive market systems, some people win a larger share of the society’s resources and assets than others. A number of reasons explain why some people may fare better in the competition for resources than others. A commonly held perception is that people obtain more because they work harder and sacrifice more; however, this is not always the case. Some people fare better than others because they are healthier or start life with more cultural and economic advantages than others. Others gain more because they have more hope and have not succumbed to the frustrations caused by the constant negotiation of the obstacles that society has placed in front of them. Although these represent some individual reasons for success or failure, they are not the cause of inequalities among large social groups.
For societies organized around economic competition, the division of society into social classes based on varying levels of material success is an inevitable, structural outcome. In the absence of measures that work to reduce social inequality, these differences tend to solidify into highly unequal class systems, in which people who are advantaged acquire more than the disadvantaged. The division of society into social classes also has a cumulative effect on economic disparity, whereby the more resources individuals bring to the game, the more resources they can win, in particular because economic expansion does not produce equal benefits to all social classes.
Between 1979 and 2005, for instance, the United States experienced a period of substantial economic growth. By 2005, however, the after-tax income of the richest 5% of the U.S. population had grown by over 80%, while the income of the bottom 20% of the population had declined by 1%. Although the middle fifth of the population, which represents the heart of America’s hard-working middle class, did experience a 15% increase in net income during this time, this was still only about one fifth of the growth experienced by the top 5% of income earners (U.S. Census Bureau, 2006). In other words, according to a number of sources, it was clear that, during one of the strongest periods of income growth, income inequality increased.
In addition to shaping the distribution of financial wealth, economic stratification ensures the continuation of social class distinctions by determining access to social capital, that is, the nonmonetary resources and skills that enable individuals to do well in competitive societies. Children who grow up in financially advantaged homes in neighborhoods with high-quality schools, and who enjoy important developmental experiences such as early exposure to reading, writing, and analytic reasoning, will characteristically do better in school, pursue more advanced levels of education, obtain better careers, and earn more money over the course of their lives than people who grow up in households that could not provide these benefits. It is true that some individuals who are born poor succeed beyond expectations, while some who have every advantage fail; however, this is atypical. For most of the people, most of the time, their social class origins will shape much of their adult lives. The process of uneven competition ensures that wealth will concentrate within relatively small segments of the population, ensuring the continuation of social class differences.
Although an uneven distribution of wealth and cultural advantages is inevitable in any competitive-market society, the degree of inequality is the result of political forces. Governmental policies can either intensify or lessen class inequalities. Progressive taxation of income and capital gains can finance programs and policies that improve the chances of the people who are less well off while reducing income and wealth inequality. Alternatively, governments can pursue policies that make the poor poorer and the rich richer, such as regressive sales taxes and reducing the amount of money spent on social programs that would close the wealth gap.