Sociology 250

November 25-27, 2002


A. Review of approaches to sociological theory


Have covered a variety of classical or earlier social theories, some conservative and others more radical or critical.

·        Classical – Durkheim, Marx, Weber, Simmel

·        Micro sociological – Simmel, Mead, Blumer, Goffman, Hochschild

·        Structural functionalism – Parsons


Sections VII – IX  survey a variety of contemporary sociological approaches and we do not have time to sample all of these.  I will cover many of these in Sociology 319, Contemporary Social Theory, next semester.

·        Modernity and structuration – Ch. 15.  Themes of earlier sociology – structures, action, change, development of self are examined by Giddens and others.  Agency and structure.

·        Critical theory – Ch. 16.  Frankfurt school, Adorno, Marcuse, Habermas.  Critique of capitalism, media, culture.  Emphasis on culture and communication.

·        Other critical approaches – Ch. 17 - 18.  Marxist or neo-marxist (Baran and Sweezy), Wright.  World systems and theories of globalization – Wallerstein and Skocpol.


Will examine one example of these contemporary critical social theorists to see how they approach the social world today, use earlier approaches, and develop new insights.  The work of Erik Olin Wright demonstrates these.  He examines social class, class structures, and the position of individuals within these structures in the United States today.  Parallel analyses of the Canadian class structure have been developed by Wallace Clement and John Myles – I will review these later in the week. 


B. Wright and class locations


1. Introduction.  Erik Olin Wright (1947-  , United States) is a  professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Wisconsin – Madison.  His extensive writings on class analysis provide a perspective that seems more useful for structural class analysis in North America.  He   incorporates analysis of recent developments in capitalism in this class analysis.  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.  Wright’s analysis is not only theoretical but is also heavily empirical – examining organization of jobs and enterprises along with views and characteristics of individuals in the labour force.  The work of Wright is contained in 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. 

·        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.


From this, the influence of both Marx and Parsons should be clear.  From Marx come concepts of exploitation, class, conflict, and relationship to means of production; from Parsons comes the concept of positions within the social structure, although Wright examines these in quite 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


The major developments in capitalism which Wright points to in “Class Boundaries and Contradictory Class Locations,” in Giddens and Held, pp. 112-129, are three.


a. Loss of control over the labour process by workers


Wright traces the manner in which control over the actual work process was taken away from workers during the development of capitalism.  Originally, workers owned their own tools, and controlled many of the aspects of the actual work process.  The development of the factory and developments within the factory such as assembly lines and scientific management all have acted to take control away from the worker.  There has been a deskilling of many jobs (Braverman), with new skills of other types being created.  Wright also notes though how job enrichment, or allowing some workers greater control over some aspects of the work process, is a development which has recently begun to return to some parts of the workplace.


The importance of these developments has been (a) to provide means of extracting more surplus labour and surplus value from the worker, by increasing relative surplus value. In addition, (b) this has increased the gap between mental and manual labour in many sectors of the economy. The division of labour expands in such a way as to create jobs associated with high levels of skill or technology, at the same time that more manual labour jobs are also created.  For Wright, this is a means by which a new class location is created, 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 creating 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 uncredentialed 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 even 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 irrational.  There are thus also a number of aspects to this group which lead them to 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 really do have contradictory ideological, economic and political interests. 



b. Differentiation of the functions of capital


In early capitalism, the entrepreneur was both the capitalist and manager, organizing capital and production, being directly involved in 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 carry out all of these functions.  In particular, the development of the large scale corporation, with separate divisions, and the separation of economic and legal ownership mean that capital itself is much more complex phenomenon than in early capitalism.  Since Marxists view capital as a social relationship, this also means the nature of the social relationship is not as immediately clear as earlier.  Weber noted this as a factor blocking the development of class consciousness.  That is, workers might struggle against their immediate managers and the representatives of capital, rather than against the legal owners themselves.  The intermediate layers between workers and owners obscure the class relationships, making it difficult for workers to see the real contradictions inherent in these relationships.  Today with large corporations having headquarters in one location and branches around the world, there are many such intermediate layers. 


c. Development of complex hierarchies


Wright notes that as capitalism developed, the scale of companies increased and economic ownership (control over investments and finance) concentrated more rapidly than has possession (control over production).  That is, capitalist organization can manage with relatively few owners, but requires considerable numbers of supervisors and managers. This has created multidivisional corporations within the business sector, and other bureaucracies in the state and other sectors.  Weber already say this as a major development, and placed considerable emphasis on these developments.


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), for example, may be quite separate from control over how things are produced (managers and technicians).  As a result, each of these three aspects of decision making lead to different types of control or lack of control.  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 becomes 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. 


a. Small Employers


The capitalist class is clearly within the dominant capitalist mode of production, while the petty bourgeoisie could be considered to 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” (Class, Crisis and the State, 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.  This location itself includes a broad range of types of jobs. 


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 the sense 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 mean 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. 


What these considerations might imply is that there are many different forms in which coalitions for political and social change will appear.  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


In his later analysis, 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.


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          Organizational        



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




Source: Erik Olin Wright. 1985. Classes. London:Verso.  Table 3.3, p. 88.


Wright’s distribution of the labour force in the clas 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: Erik Olin Wright. 1985. Classes. London:Verso.  Table 6.1, p. 195.


a. Organizational Assets.  (Classes, 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” (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” (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.  For Wright, the possessor of skills, credentials, abilities, talents, etc. may not have any actual legal or economic ownership of the means of production, but there may be some degree of possession of the means of production.  That is, the technocrat or professional may be able to exercise some discretion concerning how production is to be organized. 


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” (p. 151), (ii) supervisors – “positions which have effective authority over subordinates, but are not involved in organizational decision-making” (pp. 151-2), and (iii) those without any organizational assets in terms of being managers or supervisors. 


b. Skills and Credentials.   (Wright, Classes, 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” (p. 85).  Wright does not consider this to necessarily form a basis for a class relationship since 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. 


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” (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 is not just using credentials, but 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” (p. 314).  Again note how this classification comes from Poulantzas and Weber.  Weber noted the possibility of acquistion classes as a major part of the class structure, and added these to the three classes of Marx:


Notes 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.  (Note the basis for the middle classes and the upper middle class here).


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. 


c. Assets in the Means of Production.  (Wright, Classes, 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 and Class Consciousness


Wright’s classification of people and jobs into various class locations is a useful way of sorting through the maze of different types of jobs and class positions in contemporary North America.  The assets on which the 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” (p. 241).


Wright discusses various meanings of class consciousness and settles on three dimensions of subjectivity (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 the members of his sample a variety of questions (p. 263) concerning issues related to these.  The questions asked people to respond to the following views:

·        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 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 (p. 260).  In contrast, the bourgeoisie (cell 1) and expert managers (cell 4) are least class conscious, with those in cells 2 and 5 close to this.  Intermediate are cells 3, 6, 7, 8, 10. 


From this, Wright draws three conclusions (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 very structuralist in nature – 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. 





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. 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 on November 29, 2002

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