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Statue of a coal miner in Charleston, West Virginia.

Lower class or Working class is a term used in academic sociology and in ordinary conversation to describe, depending on context and speaker, those employed in specific fields or types of work.

As with many terms describing social class, "working class" is defined and used in many different ways. The term typically incorporates references to education, occupation, culture, and income. When used non-academically, it typically refers to a section of society dependent on physical labor, especially when compensated with an hourly wage.

Casual and geographical usage of "working class" differs widely; in extreme cases, well-paid university-educated professionals in the United Kingdom may self-identify as working class based on family background, while many semi-skilled and skilled laborers in the United States are characterized as middle-class. It is usually contrasted with the upper class and middle class in terms of access to economic resources, education and cultural interests. Its usage as a description can be derogatory, but many people self-identify as working class and experience a sense of pride similar to a national identity. Working classes are mainly found in industrialized economies and in urban areas of non-industrialized economies.

The variation between different socio-political definitions makes the term controversial in social usage, and its use in academic discourse as a concept, and as a subject of study itself, is very contentious, especially following the decline of manual labor in postindustrial societies. Some academics (sociologists, historians, political theorists, etc.) question the usefulness of the concept of a working class, while others use some version of the concept.

In the United States and the United Kingdom, sociologists Dennis Gilbert, James Henslin, William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and Thomas Ayling have brought forth class models in which the working class constitutes roughly one third of the population, with the majority of the population being either working or lower class.[1][2][3]



Working class life in Victorian Wetherby, West Yorkshire, UK.

In feudal Europe, the working class as such did not exist in large numbers. Instead, society conceived of most people as the labouring class, a group which united different professions, trades and occupations. A lawyer, craftsman and peasant were all considered to be part of the same social unit, a "third estate" of people who were neither aristocrats nor church officials. Similar hierarchies existed outside Europe in other pre-capitalist societies. The social position of these laboring classes was viewed as ordained by natural law and common religious belief. This social position was contested, particularly by peasants, for example during the German Peasants' War.

In the late 18th century, under the influence of the Enlightenment, European society was in a state of change, and this change could not be reconciled with the idea of a changeless god-created social order. Wealthy members of these societies created ideologies which blamed many of the problems of working-class people on the morals and ethics of the working class themselves (i.e. excessive consumption of alcohol, perceived laziness and inability to save money — "shiftless and thriftless").

These processes were identified in English history by E.P. Thompson in his book The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson argues that the English working class was present at its own creation, and seeks to describe the transformation of pre-modern laboring classes into a modern, politically self-conscious, working class.


Definitions of social classes reflect a number of sociological perspectives, informed by anthropology, economics, psychology and sociology. The major perspectives historically have been Marxism and Functionalism.

The parameters which define working class depend on the schema used to define social class. For example, a simple stratum model of class might divide society into a simple hierarchy of lower class, middle class and upper class with working class not specifically designated.

Due to the political interest in the working class, debate has been raging over the nature of the working class since the early 19th century. Two broad schools of definitions emerge: those aligned with 20th-century sociological stratum models of class society, and those aligned with the 19th-century historical materialism economic models of the Marxists and Anarchists.

As the concept of the working class is important in Marxist, Anarchist and Socialist thought, there is a great deal of political interest in the precise definition of who the working class is. Key points of commonality amongst various ideas include the idea that there is one working class, even though it may be internally divided. The idea of one single working class should be contrasted with 18th-century conceptions of many laboring classes.

Marxist definitions

Main article: proletariat
File:Battle strike 1934.jpg

Class War: Workers in battle with the police during the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike of 1934.

Karl Marx defined the "working class" or proletariat as the multitude of individuals who sell their labor power for wages and do not own the means of production, and he defined them as being responsible for creating the wealth of a society. For example, the members of this class physically build bridges, craft furniture, fix cars, grow food, and nurse children, but do not themselves own the land, factories or means of production.

A sub-section of the proletariat, the lumpenproletariat (rag-proletariat), are the extremely poor and unemployed, such as day laborers and homeless people.

In a piece authored to galvanize organizing workers, Marx argued that it was the destiny of the working class to displace the capitalist system with socialism, changing the social relationships underpinning the class system and then developing into a future classless and stateless communist society in which "the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." (From The Communist Manifesto). Elsewhere, Marx also soberly dissected the ways in which capital can forestall such a revolutionary extension of the Enlightenment. (From "Capital").

Some issues in Marxist arguments about working class membership have included:

  • The class status of people in a temporary or permanent position of unemployment.
  • The class status of Domestic labor, particularly the children (see child labor), and also traditionally the wives of male workers, as some spouses do not themselves work paying jobs outside the home.
  • Whether workers can be considered working class if they own personal property or small amounts of stock ownership.
  • The relationships among peasants, rural smallholders, and the working class.
  • The extent to which non-class group identities and politics (race, gender, et al.) can obviate or substitute for working class membership in Enlightenment projects, where working class membership is prohibitively contradictory or obfuscated.

Some answers to some of these issues, as argued, analyzed, and formulated over the centuries, are:

  • Unemployed workers are proletariat.
  • Class for dependents is determined by the primary income earner.
  • Personal property is clearly different from private property. For example, the proletariat can own houses; this is personal property.
  • The self-employed worker may be a member of the petite bourgeoisie (for example a highly paid professional, athlete, etc.), or a member of the proletariat (for example, a contract worker whose income may be relatively high but is precarious).
  • Students' class status depends on that of their family, and also on whether they remain financially dependent on them.
  • Race, gender and class are overlapping social stratification categories. It is possible for capitalists to strategically substitute the members of race, class, and gender groups to attain capitalist objectives; but once these stratification categories are formed and deployed, membership balkanizes experiences and interests.

In general, in Marxist terms, wage laborers and those dependent on the welfare state are working class, and those who live on accumulated capital and/or exploit the labor of others are not.

This broad dichotomy defines the class struggle. Different groups and individuals may at any given time be on one side or the other. For example, retired factory workers are working class in the popular sense; but to the extent that they live off fixed incomes, financed by stock in corporations whose earnings are profit extracted from current workers, retired factory workers' interests, and possibly their identities and politics, are not working class. Such contradictions of interests and identity within individuals' lives and within communities can effectively undermine the ability of the working class to act in solidarity to reduce exploitation, inequality, and the role of ownership in determining people's life chances, work conditions, and political power.

Of course, class does not end with the working class in capitalism. Examining the capitalist class can help us better see the contours of working class membership. In contrast to the working class, the position of core capitalists is not nearly as contradictory within a capitalist system. Capitalists get their income, wealth, status, and power from owning the means of production, and they will have it managed for their own aggrandizement. From the capitalist perspective, it would be silly to manage production (or build political resources that could influence economic relationships) for the benefit of, as they see it, one of their "factors of production"--that is, workers. (To the extent that workers sometimes, in some places benefit in some ways from capitalism, it is not a central goal, but a byproduct, although a much-beloved byproduct.) Thus, operating with less class interest contradiction and less identity contradiction, and more resources for political coordination, capitalist class members can often coordinate and prosecute their interests with a great deal of efficacy, over and against workers.

Other definitions

Identification of a person as a member of the working class is often based on the nature of the work performed (blue collar/white collar), the income, and the extent of formal education. However, studies of social class generally include other traits, such as the basis for the person's access to the means of production, or amount of control that the person has over his work environment.

Working-class people are generally paid wages, usually on a weekly or monthly basis. In popular American political discourse, medium-income skilled workers and tradespeople are termed "middle class", despite having minimal investment income, as are college-educated white-collar workers.

Explanations for the situation of the working class have varied dramatically over the centuries and are still hotly contested. The main points of contention are what causes an individual to be a member of the working class, and what are the causes for troubles faced by the working class.

Cultural views on the working class in the United States

Further information: Social structure of the United States In the United States, the concept of a working class remains vaguely defined and is especially contentious. Since many members of the working class, as defined by academic models, are often identified in the vernacular as being middle class, there is considerable ambiguity over the term's meaning. Sociologists such as Dennis Gilbert and Joseph Kahl see the working class as the most populous in the United States,[2] while other sociologists such as William Thompson, Joseph Hickey and James Henslin deem the lower middle class slightly more populous.[1][3] In the class models devised by these sociologists, the working class comprises between 30% and 35% of the population, roughly the same percentages as the lower middle class. According to the class model by Dennis Gilbert, the working class compromises those between the 25th and 55th percentile of society. Those in the working class are commonly employed in clerical, retail sales and low-skill manual labor occupations. It should be noted that low-level white-collar employees are included in this class.

Since the 1970s, economic and occupational insecurity have become a major problem for American workers, their families, and their communities. While out-sourcing, the busting and decline of unionization and welfare supports, and the rise of immigration, the prison-industrial complex and unemployment (hidden and official) have brought increased competition and considerable economic insecurity to working-class employees in the "traditional" blue collar fields, there is an ever-increasing demand for service personnel, including clerical and retail occupations.[2] Sociologist Gosta Esping-Anderson describes these supervised service occupations as "junk jobs", as they fail to pay living wages in the face of inflating asset costs and commodity inflation, they fail to pay benefits, they are often insecure, unstable, or temporary, and they provide little work control and little opportunity for skill development or advancement. In contrast to other expensive countries with higher proportions of quality jobs, the U.S. has developed an economy where two-thirds of jobs do not require or reward higher education; the other one-third of jobs consists largely in managing the junk job workers.[4] Recalling this American labor market reality as well as the high cost of higher education in the US, lower educational attainment can be a rational calculation. The alternative is probably not a better job. It is the junk job, with educational debt added on top. In fact, even if more Americans were to become highly educated, there would be more competition for the relatively few high quality jobs, and those wages would decline. This logically suggests that the middle and working classes in the US may not be distinct classes, but rather opposing subgroups of the same class.

Despite, or perhaps because of the well-known limitations that the US labor market, inequality-- including deep educational inequality, and other structural factors set on social mobility in the US, many commentators find more interesting the idea of class cultures. Education, for example, can pose an especially intransigent barrier in the US, and not just because of gross educational inequality; culture plays some role as well. The middle class is often recognized in the US by educational attainment, which is correlated with (but may not cause) income and wealth, especially for white men. Members of the working class commonly have a high school diploma and many have only some college education. Due to differences between middle and working class cultures, working-class college students may face "culture shock" upon entering the post-secondary education system, with its "middle class" culture.[5]

Some researchers try to measure the cultural differences between the American middle class and working class, and suggest their ahistorical sources and implications for educational attainment, future income and other life chances. Sociologist Melvin Kohn argues that working-class values emphasize external standards, such as obedience and a strong respect for authority as well as little tolerance for deviance. This is opposed to middle-class individuals whom, he says, emphasize internal standards, self-direction, curiosity and a tolerance for non-conformity.[2]

"... views were quite varied at every class level, but the values we are calling working-class become increasingly common at lower class levels... Kohn's interpretation... is based on the idea that the middle-class parents who stress the values of self-control, curiosity, and consideration are cultivating capacities for self-direction... while working class parents who focus on obedience, neatness, and good manners are instilling behavioral conformity." - Dennis Gilbert, The American Class Structure, 1998.[2]

Other social scientists, such as Barbara Jensen, show that middle-class culture tends to be highly individualistic, while working-class culture tends to center around the community.[5] Such cultural value differences are thought to be closely linked to an individual's occupation. Working-class employees tend to be closely supervised and thus emphasize external values and obedience.

Working class culture can be broken down into subgroup tendencies. According to Rubin (1976) there is a differential in social and emotional skills both between working-class men and women and between the blue-color working-class and college-educated workers. Working-class men are characterized by Rubin as taking a rational posture while women are characterized as being more emotional and oriented towards communication of feelings. This constellation of cultural issues has been explored in the popular media, for example, the television shows, Roseanne or All in the Family featuring Archie Bunker and his wife Edith Bunker. These popular television programs also explored generational change and conflict in working-class families. One does need to note, however, that there are great variations in cultural values among the members of all classes and that any statement pertaining to the cultural values of such large social groups needs to be seen as a broad generalization.[2]

Further, if the hypothesis that culture primarily produces class were true, such a non-dialectical, causal relationship pertains more validly in some low-social mobility societies. Scandinavian countries by contrast have discovered that removing structural barriers (and to some extent broadly valorizing working class culture) is effective in increasing social mobility, if not in eradicating social class under capitalism.

Working class cultures around the world

Main article: Working class culture
See also: British working class

As the working class is divided among nations, and internally divided along very broad lines of rural, blue collar and white collar occupations, there is no one unitary culture. Working-class cultures tend to be identified on national and occupational bases; for instance, Australian rural working class culture, or New Zealand white-collar working-class culture. There are, however, many stereotypes of the working class. These and other stereotypes of working class are studied in painstaking detail by sociologist Isaac Ogburn in "Life at the Bottom."

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus, Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure, New York: Wadsworth Publishing. 0-534-50520-1.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships, Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-36674-0.
  4. Esping-Anderson, Gosta. 1990. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Page 207.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Zweig, Michael (2004). What's Class Got To Do With It, American Society in the Twenty-First Century, New York, NY: Cornell University Press. 0-8014-8899-0.

Further reading

  • Engels, Friedrich, Condition of the Working Class in England [in 1844], Stanford University Press (1968), trade paperback, ISBN 0-8047-0634-4 Numerous other editions exist; first published in German in 1845. Better editions include a preface written by Engels in 1892.
  • Ernest Mandel, Workers under Neo-capitalism [1]
  • Moran, W. (2002). Belles of New England: The women of the textile mills and the families whose wealth they wove. New York: St Martin's Press, ISBN 0-312-30183-9.
  • Rubin, Lillian Breslow, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family, Basic Books (1976), hardcover ISBN 0-465-09245-4; trade paperback, 268 pages, ISBN 0-465-09724-3
  • Shipler, David K., The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Knopf (2004), hardcover, 322 pages, ISBN 0-375-40890-8
  • Skeggs, Beverley. Class, Self, Culture, Routledge, (2004),
  • Thompson, E.P, The Making of the English Working Class - paperback Penguin, ISBN 0-14-013603-7
  • Zweig, Michael, Working Class Majority: America's Best Kept Secret, Cornell University Press (2001), trade paperback, 198 pages, ISBN 0-8014-8727-7

External links

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Wiktionary: Lower class

Social stratification: Social class
Bourgeoisie Upper class Ruling class Nobility White-collar
Petite bourgeoisie Upper middle class Creative class Gentry Blue-collar
Proletariat Middle class Working class Nouveau riche Pink-collar
Lumpenproletariat Lower middle class Lower class Old Money Gold-collar
Slave class Underclass Classlessness

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