Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

February 3-6, 2006

Class locations in contemporary North America


Readings:          Adams and Sydie, CST, pp. 104-110

Wright, Classes, pp. 122-132 (handout)

                        Tables in handout


Wednesday:     World system theory, CST, pp. 120-129


Erik Olin Wright


1. Introduction.  Erik Olin Wright (1947-  , United States) is a  professor in the Department of Sociology, University of WisconsinMadison.  His analysis of class structures in North America and Europe incorporates information about recent developments in capitalism and provides a way of examining class in contemporary society.  Wright’s work is within the Marxian and critical tradition, is theoretical, historical and quantitative, builds on earlier Marxian approaches to the study of social class, and also introduces ideas and approaches reminiscent of Max Weber and other writers.  His analysis is both theoretical and empirical – examining the organization of jobs and enterprises in addition to attitudes, views, and characteristics of members of the labour force.  Wright’s books include Class, Crisis and the State (1978),  Class Structure and Income Determination (1979), and Classes (1985), and Class Counts (1997). 


Some of the characteristics of Wright’s approach are as follows.

·        His analysis is historical and theoretical, using structural approaches from theorists such as Marx, Weber, and more recent Marxists.  Among the issues that Marxists have had difficulty explaining is the persistence of the middle classes – Wright provides a way of examining this issue.

·        Economic forms of organization of the economy are key to understanding social structures and the organization of society.  He argues that positions within the mode of production, and forms of and relationship to exploitation provide a way of describing and understanding social class. 

·        He focusses on positions within the society – locations and places occupied as a result of the manner in which production is organized.  His analysis begins with the positions and locations, rather than the individuals who fill these positions and locations.  Further, these form the basis for the social relationships people have those in other positions and locations.  These relationships are part of a totality and are reasonably stable over time, with conflicting social relationships leading to change.

·        Individual consciousness is related to position within the class structure.  That is, the attitudes and behaviour of individual has a connection to the location they occupy within the division of labour and the contradictory locations that exist in capitalism.  This provides a way of examining class formation and consciousness, as well as the possibility of class alliances.  


In Wright’s analysis the concepts of exploitation, class, conflict, and relationship to means of production are developed from Marx; from Parsons comes the concept of positions within the social structure, although Wright examines these in a different way than does Parsons.  Analysis of ways that individuals are positioned in or relate to job locations is reminiscent of Weber’s analysis of acquisition classes and class interests.


Wright’s analysis began with studies of class structure, attempting to investigate the suitability of various theories of class structure the United States labour force by using empirical analysis.  In doing this he first developed a theory of contradictory class locations and later a theory based on exploitation. 


2. Changes in capitalism


As background reasons for the existence of contradictory class locations, Wright argues that there have been three changes in class structure during the twentieth century.  These notes are developed from “Class Boundaries and Contradictory Class Locations” (Giddens and Held, pp. 112-129).


a.  Differentiation of labour process


Wright traces how control over the work process was taken away from workers during the development of capitalism.  In early capitalism, many workers (artisans, crafts) owned their own tools and controlled much of the actual work process.  The emergence of factory production and later developments such as assembly lines and scientific management were means that employers used to take control of the work process from workers.  Some jobs were deskilled while forms of job enrichment allowed other workers greater control over parts of the work process.


The importance of these developments was (i) to provide employers with ways of extracting more surplus labour and surplus value from the worker, by increasing relative surplus value. In addition, (ii) there has been a separation of mental and manual labour in many sectors of the economy.  The division of labour has extended itself to create jobs associated with high levels of skill or technology, but at the same time creating more manual jobs.  For Wright, this has resulted in a new class location, that of semi-autonomous experts – occupations such as computer technicians, engineers, social workers, or teachers.  The continuing development of the division of labour, along with the expansion of relative surplus value, create new divisions within the working class, perhaps resulting in a new class or classes, or in Wright’s terminology, a new class location (reminiscent of Weber’s class situation).


In Classes, Wright notes that these experts with credentials may, in some manner, exploit workers without such credentials.  Whether this can be considered to be exploitation in the sense of taking surplus value directly from the manual workers is not so clear.  However, Wright regards the surplus value to be taken from uncredentialled workers, and redistributed to those with skills and credentials.  In terms of class interests and political organization, this can mean that workers with more privileged positions in the division of labour identify with those above them in the social hierachy – the owners and top level of management.  If so, then this acts to divide these more privileged workers from less privileged or uncredentialed workers.  At the same time, Wright considers these privileged, expert workers to be in a contradictory class location in that this group is not part of the bourgeoisie or the petite bourgeoisie – rather it occupies what Wright terms a contradictory class location between the working class and the petite bourgeoisie.


This set of privileged workers is unable to legally own the means of production, and is unable to establish and generate the labour process on its own.  It may have surplus labour extorted from it by the bourgeoisie, and is generally prevented from exercising economic ownership by the bourgeoisie, or those who control the means of production.  Further, to the extent that this is a highly educated class, it may view the manner in which the means of production is organized as being irrational.  As a result, this group may identify with the less privileged working class, so that there are common interests between privileged and less privileged workers in opposing some of the political agenda of the bourgeoisie – for example, both sets of workers might have a common interest in maintaing a strong public health care system.  Wright concludes that these more privileged workers have contradictory ideological, economic, and political interests – interests which at times push them to support employers and at other time the working class. 


b.  Differentiation of capital


In early capitalism, the entrepreneur was both capitalist and manager, organizing finances and production, and being directly responsible for both capital accumulation and exploitation of workers.  As the concentration and centralization of capital developed and as the economy and the corporation became more complex, it became difficult for one person to perform all of these tasks.  In particular, the development of the large scale corporation, with separate divisions, and the separation of economic and legal ownership mean that capital became a complex phenomenon.  Since Marxists view capital as a social relationship, this has meant that the nature of the social relationship is not as clearly oppositional between capitalists and workers as in early capitalism.  Weber argued that intermediate layers between capitalists and workers blocked the development of working class consciousness among workers.  That is, workers might struggle against their immediate managers and representatives of capital, rather than against the owners or capitalists themselves.  These intermediate layers of managers and supervisors, between workers and owners, obscure the capital-labour relationship, sometimes making it difficult for workers to see the real contradictions inherent in the relationship.  Today, with large corporations having headquarters in one location and branches around the world, there are many such intermediate layers. 


c.  Complex hierarchies


As capitalism developed, the scale of companies increased and economic ownership (control over investments and finance) concentrated more rapidly than did possession (control over production).  That is, businesses organized by capitalists can manage with relatively few owners, but require many supervisors and managers.  This has resulted in multidivisional corporations within the business sector, and other bureaucracies in the state and other sectors.   A few of the levels of these hierarchies can be described by considering the various kinds of decisions that are made within these corporate hierarchies.  The decisions concern what is to be produced involve

  • control over the means of production
  • control over how things are to be produced
  • control over labour power 


Each of these types of control are separate, although inter-related.  In general, more control means a position closer to the real owners, the capitalist class.  But control over means of production (owners, stockholders) is separated from control over how things are produced (managers and technicians).  As a result, each of these three aspects of decision-making result in different forms of control over workers and the labour process.  They are in different dimensions so that each combination can represent a different location within the class system.  Wright argues, along the Marxian lines, that all class positions are contradictory, but

... certain positions in the class structure constitute doubly contradictory locations: they represent positions which are torn between the basic contradictory class relations of capitalist society.  ... I will ... refer to them as “contradictory class locations.”  (Giddens and Held, p. 113).

For Wright, there are three primary classes within the capitalist system of organization, the capitalist class, the working class and the petty bourgeoisie.  The three contradictory class locations are

  • small employers
  • managers and supervisors
  • semi-autonomous employees. 

The analysis of Wright is similar to that of Weber – the class situation of Weber can be compared to the class location of Wright.  Wright attaches contradiction to this, so he blends the Marxian and Weberian approaches.  Like Marx, these locations and classes become the basis for the formation of class consciousness, but like Weber these classes and locations are defined on a multidimensional basis, and with more characteristics than simply ownership or non-ownership of the means of production.  The basis becomes the extent and type of control, and the position within a hierarchy (Weber's means of administration).


3.  Contradictory class locations (the ovals in diagram 1 of the handout)


a. Small employers


The capitalist class is clearly within the dominant capitalist mode of production, while the petty bourgeoisie can be characterized by simple commodity production.  In the latter case “production [is] organized for the market by independent self-employed producers who employ no workers” (Wright, 1978, p. 74).  There is no clear dividing line between these but as soon as one employee is hired, there may be a capitalist form of exploitation that can develop.  But it is likely that the real separation of small employers from the petty bourgeoisie only begins when there are several employees, and Wright uses the range of 10-50 employees as being characteristic of this group. 


There are likely to be controversies between large and small capitalists.  In Regina, the debate over store hours pitted parts of the working class, the petty bourgeoisie and smaller employers against large employers, other workers and some of the middle class.  On issues related to taxation and government regulation, it is often small employers who oppose these most, because of their lack of resources.  In this situation, the large and small employers may argue somewhat differently, with large employers sometimes appearing to be more on the side of workers, because the latter have the resources to accomodate the workers' demands.  On issues related to government intervention more generally, both large and small employers are likely to oppose this.


b.  Managers and Administrators


In this contradictory class location, Wright places all those workers who supervise other people on the job, or who can be considered managers or executives. 


Senior or top-level managers are often tied directly to the owner through legal ownership of stocks and bonds as part of their pay – many corporate executives receive stock options as a bonus to their pay.  They are also in possession of the means of production in that they control these, give orders that are obeyed, and generally manage and superintend the process of production.  They may have skill and organizational asssets (control over means of administration) and share in the surplus value that is produced, directing the process of exploitation of labour, and benefitting from it.  As a result, senior managers are likely to have, or to develop, and ideology and political view that ties them to owners and the bourgeoisie. 


Middle level managers are in a more contradictory position, and the exact nature of this position may depend on the level they are at, the degree of control they have, the income they gain from this, and their chances for upward mobility.  These middle and lower level managers and administrators do not have sufficient resources or ownership to become employers themselves, and may have little actual control, so that they may be very similar in many ways to the proletariat.  Yet their position within the chain of command in an organization likely ties them ideologically to the employer and top level managers in many cases.


Lower level supervisors and foremen are very close to being workers themselves, and usually began as workers.  In that sense their objective situation is not really very different from most workers.  Wright notes that “they have moved further from workers by becoming less involved in direct production, and they have moved closer to workers by gradually having their personal power bureaucratized”  (Giddens and Held, p. 125).  That is, the foreman once may have been in a powerful position, as head of an internal labour force, perhaps even being a subcontractor.  In a more bureaucratized organization, the foreman becomes subject to rules that provide little autonomy, and these people may side with the workers under their supervision more than with the administration of the organization.


In each of these positions, there is obviously considerable room for individual and group differences.  While Wright does not discuss actual workplace situations, a study of any workplace would show how individuals and groups react to their situation within the administration of an organization, and develop allegiances that are more with the workers or with the top administrators and owners.


c. Semi-Autonomous Employees


These are employees that, for the most part, do not supervise others but are likely to have some autonomy in the work situation because they are professionals of have special skills or technical training.  Some of these are engineers, teachers, professors, programmers, and some health professionals.  These are people in occupations that have a degree of autonomy in terms of decisions related to the job, and while subject to orders, are likely to fill positions that requires their own judgment concerning production and related decisions. 


The semi-autonomy is described by Wright as being

certain degree of control over their immediate conditions of work, over their immediate labour process.  In such instances, the labour process has not been completely proletarianized.  ....   they can still be viewed as occupying residual islands of petty-bourgeois relations of production within the capitalist mode of production itself.  (Giddens and Held, p. 127). 

While there are always attempts by employers and managers to limit the autonomy of the semi-autonomous employees, the technical expertise of the latter does give them a degree of bargaining power.   In most cases, this expertise is required, and this has allowed these workers to maintain considerable flexibility in the workplace, and considerable control over the actual work process. 


d. Summary


Wright’s analysis preserves the basic structures of the Marxian theory of class, but shows how these relationships may not be as clear cut, or produce such clear class allegiances as claimed by many Marxists.  He has used features of the economic and social structure that are very similar to features discussed by Weber.  While he may not have derived these directly from Weber, but more from some of the analyses of United States corporate structures, the implications of Wright's analysis is also similar to some of those of Weber.  That is, class interests and class struggles will not be as clear cut as many Marxists claim.  The immediate interests of the various groupings may differ by time and place, and there are many possible combinations of interest groups.  These are similar to some of the factors mentioned by Weber as making class struggle difficult. 


These considerations imply many different forms that coalitions for political and social change develop.  This can be seen in much of current politics, where various lobby groups aroung particular issues develop, but often with shifting alliances. 


In his more recent writing, Wright has shifted his analysis somewhat to concentrate on different forms of assests, skill and credential assets and organizational assets, along with assets in the means of production.  This multidimensional scheme becomes even more similar to Weber's analysis of class, although Wright still lays primary emphasis on class, class relationships and class alliances, rather than on status groups.


4. Class Locations determined by assets and exploitation (Tables 2 and 3 of handout)


In revising his theoretical and empirical approach to class structure in North America, Wright is deals primarily with domination and subordination, distributive inequalities, and exploitation.  He is concerned with these at the level of society as a whole, dealing with what are often termed the class structure of a society.  While there are many forms that domination, subordination, oppression, and injustice can take, Wright works within the Marxian tradition, focusing on the specific inequalities and injusticese associated with exploitation. 


While any observer of society and social organization would agree that there are inequalities of income, wealth, and opportunity in modern society, a Marxian analyst argues that these are organized in a particular manner.  These inequalities are systematic, comprehensive, and continuing in that they emerge from how the society organizes the production of goods and services, that is, the economic organization of society.  These inequalities cannot easily be changed since the population is organized into those who gain from such organization and those who lose, with powerful social and economic structures maintaining this division and ensuring that it continues over time and from generation to generation.  In a Marxian analysis, these inequalities emerge from exploitation of one group by another, meaning that the wealth and power of the exploiters depends on the poverty and subordination of the exploited. 

To describe an inequality as reflecting exploitation is to make the claim that there exists a particular kind of causal relationship between the incomes of different actors….the rich are said to exploit the poor when it can be established that the welfare of the rich causally depends upon the deprivations of the poor—the rich are rich because the poor are poor, they are rich at the expense of others.  (Wright, 1985, p. 65).

For Marx, in capitalism the exploitation that occurs is the exploitation of workers by capitalists.  Capitalists are those who own the means of production (factories, warehouses, raw materials, land) while the workers own nothing more than themselves and their ability to work and labour.  Workers have to sell their labour power (their ability to work) to capitalists in order to gain a wage so they, and their families, can survive.  But these capitalists, as owners of the means of production, are able to make the workers work more hours at the job than what would be necessary to ensure mere survival of workers.  While the workers are paid for their work, this extra labour time the workers spend on the job produces a surplus for the owners.  Marx refers to this surplus labour as producing surplus value for the owners – the source of profit for the owners.  In this analysis, the owners exploit the workers, since they take something from the workers (extra labour time), and the wealth of the owners depends on this.  This is exploitation in the sense described in the quote in that the owners are rich because the workers are poor.  In Capital, Marx demonstrated how this exploitative form of inequality takes place through the seeming equality of market exchanges. 


While the exploitation of workers by capitalists is the main form of exploitation in the Marxian analysis, Wright argues that there are other possible forms of exploitation – there are situations where some benefit from others by exploiting the property or skills of others.  This can result from unequal forms of market exchange, where some do not have the same opportunities as others and are prevented from obtaining these opportunities.  For example, a group of farmers might find they are exploited by grain companies because the farmers are denied access to owning the means of transporation of their commodities to consumers.   Similarly, fur trappers might be exploited by a fur trading company for the same reason.   While Wright does not discuss such cases, some of the exploitation could also emerge through control of what Wright terms organization assets. 


For Wright, exploitation involves control of productive assets and use of these to extract a surplus from those who do not control the productive assets.  Further, exploitation involves a dependence of the exploiter on the exploited.  These assets could be ability to work (labour-power) or means of production (buildings, raw materials, land), but can also involve what he terms organizational assets and skills or credentials.  The latter are especially relevant to class structures and class relationships in capitalism today.   For Wright, exploitation involves not just an inequality in distribution of assets, but also a transfer from some to others (worker to capitalist, slave to slave-owner) with the wealth of those benefiting from the transfer depending on this transfer.   In this approach, some inequalities are not exploitation – for example, the situation where two individuals have the same starting point but one works more or is more acquisitive of material goods than the other. 


Charts 5 and 6 in the handout may help understand this difference.  In feudalism or a slave system, the peasants or slaves did not own themselves.  The feudal lord or slaveowner was able to benefit by extracting labour from the peasant or slave directly.  In feudalism, peasants were forced to work for their superiors for so many days each year or provide produce to the superior.  Slaves had to work for the slaveowner, since the latter owned the slaves.   Such situations continued with the use of physical force, where those who disobeyed were physically punished.  


From this concept of exploitation, Wright developed a new typology of class locations based on ownership or non-ownership of various forms of assets.  This approach is outlined in this section.


a. Organizational Assets.  (Wright, 1985, pp. 79-82, 151-2, 303-313)


For Wright, “the technical division of labour among producers [is] a source of productivity” (p. 79) and this means that “organization—the conditions of coordinated cooperation among producers in a complex division of labour—is a productive resource in its own right” (Wright, 1985, p. 79).  The assets of an organization are generally controlled by the managers of the organization, who are hired to exercise and manage this control.  In an individual or family enterprise, the organizational assets belong to the owner of the business (the entrepreneur), but in a large corporation, the organizational assets are usually turned over to the top managers, who manage the corporation in the interests of the owners.


Wright notes that organizational assets are closely related to authority and hierarchy, so that those who control and benefit from these organizational assets are those that exercise control “through a hierarchy of authority” (Wright, 1985, p. 80).   Note the similarity to the means of administration of Weber and how this can form the basis for a status group or class – means by which workers in a bureaucracy could exercise control over the bureaucracy.  The exercise of authority within an organization means that owners dominate workers.  These tasks are often delegated to supervisors and managers, who conduct surveillance of workers, reward some workers and discipline others, and generally conduct the tasks of domination for the owners.  In addition, managers and supervisors are well paid because they exercise a crucial role in assisting owners in extracting surplus from workers.  This means that highly paid managers may share in the surplus, so that their earnings are not based so much on how much to costs to produce and reproduce the managerial labour, but on the contribution they make to producing the surplus for the owner. 

The strategic position of managers within the organization of production enables them to make significant claims on a portion of the social surplus…in the form of relatively high earnings.  In effect this means that the wages and salaries of managerial labour power are above the costs of producing and reproducing their labour power.  (Wright, 1997, pp. 20-21).

This means that while executives, managers, and supervisors are employees (not owners), they may have interests more closely allied with owners, especially if they anticipate the possibility of a management career.  He terms the positions of managers as occupying “privileged appropriation location within exploitation relations (Wright, 1997, p. 22).


In his empirical work, Wright considers specific issues such as type and extent of decision-making power, authority in terms of sanctions that the manager can exercise over others, formal position in a hierarchy, and extent of supervisory power.  From this he develops a three-fold classification of (i) managers – positions with “effective authority over subordinates” (Wright, 1985, p. 151), (ii) supervisors – “positions which have effective authority over subordinates, but are not involved in organizational decision-making” (Wright, 1985, pp. 151-2), and (iii) those without any organizational assets in terms of being managers or supervisors. 


In Class Counts, he uses the term “relation to authority” rather than “organizational assets.”


Wright’s Typology of Class Locations in Capitalist Society


Assets in the means of production



Owners of means of production



Non-owners [wage labourers]



Owns sufficient capital to hire workers and not work

1  Bourgeoisie


4  Expert Managers

7  Semi- Credentialled Managers

10  Uncredentialled Managers




Owns sufficient capital to hire workers but must work

2  Small Employers


5  Expert Supervisors

8  Semi-Credentialled Supervisors

11  Uncredentialled Supervisors


>0  Assets – Relation        

      to Authority


Owns sufficient capital to work for self but not to hire workers

3  Petty Bourgeoisie


6  Experts non-managers

9  Semi- Credentialled Workers

12  Proletarians













    Skill/credential assets or relation to scarce skills



Source: Wright, 1985, Table 3.3, p. 88.


b. Skills and Credentials.   (Wright, 1985, pp. 85-6, 152-3, 313-315). 


Experts, or those with credentials, skills, and knowledge own or control these and by using these in production “are able to appropriate some of the surplus from production” (Wright, 1985, p. 85) and also occupy a privileged position within organizations.  This can emerge because these individuals have abilities, talents, skills, or credentials that are in scarce supply, thus creating the possibility that employers are required to pay them well to attract and retain them for the organization.  In addition, the types of work these individuals perform is difficult to monitor and evaluate – employers and managers do not have the same skills so they can only determine the contribution of the skilled worker indirectly, if at all.  These employees are thus able to obtain some of the surplus “because of their strategic loxcation within the organization (as controllers of knowledge), and because of their strategic location in the organization of labor markets” (Wright, 1997, p. 22).


While this strategic location results in the skilled workers occupying a distinctive class location, Wright does not consider this to necessarily mean that skilled workers directly exploit workers without scarce skills or organizational assets.  Those with such expertise or knowledge may work alongside or with less skilled workers, not having the power to exploit the latter directly.  That is, experts may not control the less-skilled, and may have little supervisory or hierarchical authority over them.  Rather, they are hired to carry out certain tasks, and they are well paid to perform these tasks.  At the same time, these skilled workers may share in the social surplus and may be better paid because some are less well paid.  Further, the possessor of skills, credentials, abilities, talents, etc. does not have any actual legal or economic ownership of the means of production, although the technocrat or professional may be able to exercise some discretion concerning how production is to be organized. 


Wright measures the skills and credentials by “using a combination of occupational titles, formal credentials and job traits as a basis for distinguishing people in jobs where certain credentials are mandatory” (Wright, 1985, p. 152).  While formal job titles and educational credentials are primary in measuring this, Wright also specifies job autonomy as a key aspect of it.  For example, some sales jobs allow for considerable autonomy (real estate, insurance) while others are strictly controlled (cashier).  In doing this, Wright’s analysis is based on credentials and also on job autonomy and discretion.  He argues that “the degree of conceptual autonomy in the job is likely to be a good indicator of the skill asset attached to the job” (Wright, 1985, p. 314). 


Using these criteria, Wright develops a three-fold classification into (i) experts such as professionals, technicians, and managers with university or college degrees; (ii) skilled employees such as school teachers, craftworkers, managers and technicians not having college degrees, and salespersons or clerical workers with college degrees and having some job autonomy; and (iii) nonskilled workers – other clerical and sales, and noncraft manual and service occupations. 


In Class Counts, he uses the term “relation to scarce skills” rather than “skill/credential assets.”


Wright’s distribution of the labour force in the class matrix using the exploitation-centred concept of class.  United States Labour Force.

Assets in the means of production




Non-owners [wage labourers]



1  Bourgeoisie




4  Expert Managers



7  Semi- Credentialled Managers


10  Uncredentialled Managers





2  Small Employers




5  Expert Supervisors


8  Semi-Credentialled Supervisors


11  Uncredentialled Supervisors



>0  Organizational        



3  Petty Bourgeoisie



6  Experts non-managers


9  Semi- Credentialled Workers


12  Proletarians













Skill/credential assets



Source: Wright, 1985, Table 6.1, p. 195.


Note on Weber’s acquisition classes:  These are those who have no (or very little) tangible, marketable property but have certain skills or abilities which can be offered on the market, and which are likely to receive a return over and above that received by those who have only labour power to offer on the market. There are many different types of marketable skills, both in terms of specific type, and the value of this type.  Specialists, or those with unusual or rare talents, may be able to be well situated with respect to some market.  Those which are able to exercise a monopoly over their skills by keeping others from acquiring these skills (monopoly or some closure to the group) are able to be well situated.  Those who have higher levels of education, qualifications and credentials may be similarly well situated. 


c. Assets in the Means of Production.  (Wright, 1985, p. 149-51). 


From a Marxian viewpoint, the measurement and classification of these is relatively straightforward and unproblematic.  Wright’s measurement of the different forms of the bourgeoisie is based on  who own means of production and who is self-employed.  The bourgeoisie proper are those among these who employ ten or more workers.  Small employers are those who employ between two and ten workers, and the petty bourgeoisie are those who employ one or no workers, but who are self-employed.  All others are non-owners or wage labourers, although some may have high incomes.


d. Class structure, formation, and alliances


Wright’s classification of people and jobs into various class locations provides a way of sorting through the maze of different types of jobs and class positions in contemporary North America.  The assets on which the classification an analysis is based make considerable sense historically and theoretically, and correspond to much contemporary social theory and practical experience. 


If these class locations are to make sense in a structuralist framework, Wright also needs to demonstrate that people think or act on the basis of the position occupied.  That is, if the class location is to be useful theoretically and politically, these class locations should connect to class consciousness, the possibility of political alliances, and class action.  While Wright cannot measure the latter issues using survey methods, social researchers consider it possible to connect class structure with some measure of class consciousness.  Wright does this in the latter part of Classes, where he examines “the empirical relation between class structure and an attitudinal measure of class consciousness” (Wright, 1985, p. 241).


Wright discusses various meanings of class consciousness and settles on three dimensions of subjectivity (Wright, 1985, p. 247):

·        Perceptions of alternatives.  One part of consciousness is to be aware of alternatives, which have a class content, and which are consequential for class actions. 

·        Theories of consequences.  People must have an understanding of the expected consequences of a given course of action.  For Wright, this aspect of class consciousness revolves “around the ways in which the theories people hold shape the choices they make around class practices.”

·        Preferences.  This aspect involves the preferences of people, their evaluation of the desirability of those consequences. 

Wright examines these by asking several questions of those surveyed in samples of adults in the United States (Wright, 1985, p. 263).  The questions asked respondents to give their views about the following statements:

·        Corporations benefit owners at the expense of workers and consumers.

·        It is possible to run a society effectively without the profit motive.

·        Non-management employees could run things without bosses.

·        Strikebreaking should be prohibited.

·        Big corporations have too much power.

While Wright’s analysis includes a number of other factors and illustrates a variety of connections between class location and working class consciousness, he generally finds that those in the working class (proletarians of cell 12) are most class conscious, with semi-credentialled workers (cell 9) and uncredentialled supervisors (cell 11) close to this (Wright, 1985, p. 260).  In contrast, the bourgeoisie (cell 1) and expert managers (cell 4) are least in agreement with working class conscious, with those in cells 2 and 5 close to this.  Intermediate are cells 3, 6, 7, 8, 10.  (References to Table 4).


From this, Wright draws three conclusions (Wright, 1985, p. 278):

·        “Class attitudes are polarized in ways predicted by the exploitation-centred concept” and they vary in the way that one would expect from this approach.

·        “The data support the thesis that the underlying structure of class relations shapes the overall pattern of class consciousness.”  In both the United States and Sweden, where he conducted these surveys, attitudes are “polarized along the three dimensions of exploitation.”

·        “While the overall patterning of consciousness is structurally determined by class relations, the level of working-class coalitions that are built upon these class relations are shaped by the organizational and political practices that characterize the history of class struggle.”

The first and second points in this conclusion are structuralist – arguing that meaningful class locations can be constructed from some basic economic and sociological concepts.  People occupy these class locations as they are recruited for and fill the various occupations and jobs in the economy and society, and as they do the work required in these jobs.  It is these class locations that have a strong effect on their consciousness, in particular on their class consciousness.  This, in turn, is likely to affect the political choices and actions of the people in these class locations. 


While Wright spends most of his book dealing with these structural aspects of the social class system, in his conclusions he also notes that the historical experiences, the organizational practices (trade unionism, strikes, work actions) and politics can affect the outcome of any specific group.  In recognizing the latter, he recognizes that structural sociology does not provide all the answers, and he attempts to include some of these political and organizational features in his analysis. 


5.  Women in the class structure


In the selection from Classes, Wright addresses three issues concerning possible differences in class location for men and women.  In these few pages, he primarily deals with issues raised by Marxist feminists.  In Class Counts, he also addresses the issue of whether class locations of individuals emerge from the class location of the household or from the class location of the job.  Since men and women have different distributions of jobs, the two can give different results.  For the most part, Wright analyses class locations by jobs and then addresses issues related to household work.


a.  Acquisition and distribution assets.  Inequalities in acquisition of skill and organizational assets.   Women traditionally disadvantaged in obtaining these, given their exclusion from higher education and from some professions and trades.  Within organizations, the “glass ceiling” – limits on the ability of women to advance within organizational structures.  Wright also notes that gender discrimination in or exclusion of women from jobs can result in a “feudal” form of exploitation.  That is, the inability of women to sell their labour power, on a basis equal to that of males, means that women do not completely own their labour power as a productive resource.


b.  Housewives and the class structure.   The issue here is what is the class location of women who are part of families or households.  For Parsons, the connection of the family to the labour market was through the adult male and his occupation.  Until the 1960s and 1970s, Marxian analysis was similar in that it tended to associate the class position of women and family as that of the male in the household who worked in the paid labour force.  Wright (1985, p. 128) notes that with respect to the working class, husbands and wives are in similar positions in that neither owns or controls means of production, organizational assets, or skill and credential assets.  Further, both are exploited in the sense that they would be better off “if they withdrew…from the capitalist game with their per capital share of capital assets.”   The latter is another criterion for exploitation, arguing that capitalists take the products of workers’ labour from workers, whether directly employed by the capitalist or not.   At the same time, the situation is not so clear for the intermediate positions in the class structure, since a male manager or professional often has a wife with a job in a working class location. 


The issue Wright addresses on pp. 128-9 is whether husbands exploit their wives, extracting unpaid household labour from their wives.   He argues that there are two social relationships – husbands and wives, and family members relationships with employers.  In terms of exploitation within the household, Wright focuses on the question is whether “there is a net transfer of surplus labour from housewives to their working husbands.”   One criterion he uses is whether working class men or women would be better or worse off if there was a completely egalitarian distribution of work in the household and workforce.   


Wright concludes that there is no single answer to this question, that housewives of workers are in a working class location in the economy, but there is a variety of possibilities concerning location in the household.  The implication may be that criteria, other than those devised for determining class location from the economy, are necessary.


c.  Women as a class.   Wright argues that while patriarchal views, actions, and structures may oppress women, these may not constitute exploitation, so women are not a class.  Again, in class terms the issue is whether women are exploited by men in that their labour, or products of their labour are taken away from them, and men made better off only as a result of this.  While Wright agrees that there may be oppression, he does not consider there to be exploitation in the sense he uses for determining class locations.  Working class women are exploited, just as are working class men, but whether it is working class males who exploit their wives is not so clear.  While there are common situations and experiences of women, and some of these relate to exploitation and class location, other forms of social relationship may be more central than class exploitation. 


d.  Class locations of women.  In Class Counts (pp. 61-4), Wright identifies the following differences between the class locations of men and women.

  • Smaller proportion of women than ofmen in the expert-manager category.
  • Men more likely to be expert supervisors than are women, although equal percentages in Canada.  This means gender inequalities in access to authority/organizational assets is a key characteristic of capitalist societies.
  • Men are more likely to be small employers and small capitalists than arewomen.  Japan is a exception to this. 
  • Women are much more concentrated in the working class than are men.  60 per cent of women are in the working class, compared with 25-45 per cent of men. 


6.  Conclusion


Ending exploitation would involve changes in organizational structures of corporations, or at least a change in the way that managers are selected and paid.  In terms of skills and credentials, it would mean reducing entry restrictions for professions and trades where these allow some to obtain high incomes. 


See Wright’s conclusions, pp. 130-131 of Classes.




Giddens, Anthony and David Held. 1982. Classes, Power, and Conflict: Classical and Contemporary Debates. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Ritzer, George. 1996. Sociological Theory, fourth edition.  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Turner, Jonathan H. 1998. The Structure of Sociological Theory, sixth edition.  Belmont California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Waters, Malcolm.  1994.  Modern Sociological Theory.  London: Sage Publications.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1978. Class, Crises, and the State. London, Verso.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1979. Class Structure and Income Determination. New York: Academic Press.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1985. Classes. London:Verso.

Wright, Erik Olin. 1997. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.


Last edited February 7, 2006