Sociology 250

October 23, 2002

Multiple Sources of Power – Class, Status, and Party

1. Introduction

Weber developed a different approach to the study of social groups and classes than did Marx. For Marx, there were two primary groups in society and these were classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, whose contradictory social relationship is the motive force for change in capitalism. Marx considers these classes to be defined and determined by whether they own the means of production (bourgeoisie) or whether they do not own the means of production and must sell labour power to those who do (proletariat).

In contrast, for Weber, social groups and classes are in the sphere of power and are connected to the distribution of power. Given that there are various ways that power can be exercised, for Weber it is not possible to reduce the organization of all these groups to a single dimension or factor such as ownership or non-ownership of the means of production. Rather, for Weber there is a pluralism associated with class structure in that people attempt to achieve ends using various means – each of these may create a grouping such as a class, status group, or party. Social stratification has multiple and overlapping dimensions and groups that involve a complex set of social relationships.

2. Power

For Weber, what we would call social stratification, social class, or social inequality is in the sphere of power, and can be analyzed by examining economic situation, status honour, or parties (organizations formed by people to achieve certain ends). In a section of Economy and Society concerned with the distribution of power, Weber begins his analysis of class status and party. Weber’s definition of power is as follows (quote 14)

In general, we understand by ‘power’ the chance of a man or of a number of men to realize their own will in a communal action even against the resistance of others who are participating in the same action. (Weber, 1946, quote in Gerth and Mills, p. 180).

This is a very broad definition that could include political or economic power exercised at the level of community or society as a whole, or it could refer to smaller scale actions taken by groups in communities such as religious or peer groups, or even the exercise of power in institutions such as the family. The examples that Weber provides are usually quite specific though and he is concrete in his application of this definition. Weber did not ignore economic sources of power, and considered these to be among the more important sources, especially in capitalism. But, unlike Marx, he claimed that power did not emerge only from economic sources.

3. Classes

Weber looks on class as rooted in the economic sphere and considers them to be economic entities in that the "market situation is primary in determining class" (Hadden, p. 148). This is a more general approach than that of Marx, since relationship to a market includes groups such as financiers, debtors, professional groups such as lawyers or doctors, and landowners. That is, for Weber there are many more possible classes than just capitalists and workers where capital and labour form the basis for class.

a. Class Situation. Weber begins his analysis by defining class situation as the relationship of a person or number of people to a particular market that has an important effect on the lives of these people. Weber notes (quote 15)

The typical chance for a supply of goods, external living conditions, and personal life experiences, in so far as this chance is determined by the amount and kind of power, or lack of such, to dispose of goods or skills for the sake of income in a given economic order. (Gerth and Mills, p. 181).

From this approach, Weber argues that there are three features of class situation. These are as follows (see quote 16)

i. Life Chances. "A number of people have in common a specific causal component of their life chances" (Gerth and Mills, p. 181). That is, a group of people in a similar situation so that they have their life chances determined more or less in common, by some factor that strongly affects this. The ownership or non-ownership of property is one factor that affects life chances. For example, the wealth, income and property of two people may be similar, and this tends to imply a similar outcome to their actions. To each of the sets of causes is attached a probability of a set of possible outcomes, so that people with the same life chances may end up in different positions. The meaning each person attaches to these, and the manner these are used, may differ quite considerably. Weber notes how the power of those with property, compared to those without property, gives the former great advantages over the latter. But Weber does not restrict the definition to property in the means of production though, and notes that it could emerge in the area of distribution, for example in sales, where owners of different types of sales operations could form different classes – wholesale, retail, mining, forestry, etc.

ii. Economic Interest. "This component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income" (Gerth and Mills, p. 181

iii. Markets. This component "is represented under conditions of the commodity or labor markets" (Gerth and Mills, p. 181).

Together, items ii. And iii. mean that class situation refers to a similar position with respect to the ownership of property or goods, or having (or lacking) opportunities to obtain specific types of income on the market (e.g. lawyers, entertainers). That is, those having similar economic interests with respect to particular markets are in a similar position. And note that these need not just be markets in labour or means of production, but could be an interest in any form of market, where that market has a strong effect on life chances. Examples of non-Marxian forms of class situations might be professionals (lawyers, doctors, accountants), technicians with different specialties (carpenters, computer programmers), entertainers, or professionals in sports. While individuals in each of these may have different backgrounds, in conducting their profession and selling their expertise, each has a common relationship to a market.

b. Class. "The term ‘class’ refers to any group of people that is found in the same class situation" (Gerth and Mills, p. 181). Together these three aspects define the class situation, and those with a common class situation form a class. For example, the working class is a social class for Weber, since this is a grouping of people who each have the same relationship to labour markets, and their connection to this market determines their life chances. The petty bourgeoisie is another class, since its members have in common the characteristic that they have ownership of means of production, but in such limited manner, that they must also use their own labour as well.

While Weber considers classes to be important, especially for life chances, he does not think that the common class situation will necessarily form the basis for social action. He notes "In our terminology, ‘classes’ are not communities; they merely represent possible, and frequent, bases for communal action" (Gerth and Mills, p. 181). With respect to the working class, Weber notes that

the direction in which the invidividual worker, for instance, is likely to pursue his interests may vary widely, according to whether he is constitutionally qualified for the task at hand to a high, to an average, or to a low degree. … The rise of societal or even of communal action from a common class situation is by no means a universal phenomenon. (Gerth and Mills, p. 183).

c. Types of Classes. Classes may be distinguished in several ways and since there are many markets, interests, and class situations, there are potentially a multiplicity of classes in any society. Weber develops the following classification for different possible types of classes.

i. Ownership Classes. These are the positively privileged who own mines, cattle, slaves, capital goods, stocks, money, land and real estate, buildings, and in today's world new forms of property such as forests, water, technology (patents), communications (media sells audiences), franchises, and intellectual property. Capital becomes highly differentiated depending on how it is used in the market, and how the owner of capital employs it. One can lend money and merely collect interest or a return on this money (rentier), or the owner of capital can become actively involved as an entrepreneur. Weber does not consider capital as merely a technical aspect of production, but examines the meanings which the owners of this capital attach to its use. The consequences of each different type of use of capital can be quite different, in terms of societal effects.

ii. Commercial Classes. Among the possible forms taken by the commerical class are merchants, bankers and financiers, professionals, and industrial and agricultural entrepreneurs. Where there were different classes of this sort, there could be struggles if there was some difference in economic interests, e.g. between debtors and creditors.

The positively privileged portions of this class have great wealth. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who are negatively privileged – those without property. These are not necessarily an undifferentiated group. Just as there are several types of property ownership, there are also many ways in which individuals or groups may lack property. Debtors represent a class situation where net assets may be positive, but where the benefit of the asset is taken by others (farmers and small businesses). This is different than those with no property at all. Some of those without any property may be slaves (unfree), the poor, paupers, or homeless. These latter groups differ from proletarians, in that they have reached a condition where they are unable to sell even their labour power. Further, some with no property, may have something else which can improve their market situation, the acquisition classes. Even the proletarians of Marx must have something to sell – their labour power or their ability to work. The lumpenproletariat may lack even this.

iii. Acquisition Classes. These are individuals 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, such as entertainers or sports professionals, may be able to be well situated with respect to some market. Those who 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.

iv. Major Classes. While there could be such a pluralism of classes that it would be difficult to analyze class structure, Weber also argued that at a particular time and place there were a number of major classes that are most important. In "Status Groups and Classes" (Giddens and Held, pp. 69-73), Weber identifies the major social classes as

For the latter two groups, Weber notes that members of the propertyless intelligentsia may have a chance to move become members of the classes privileged through property or eduction, and Weber notes that "money increasingly buys everything." (Giddens and Held, p. 72).

Weber’s methodology could be applied to Saskatchewan or Canada today and, with some additions and modifications, the major classes might be farmers, petty bourgeoisie, lower level white collar (clerical and sales), industrial working class and trades, upper level white collar and professional, and propertied. The latter differs in this province from that of large centres with very wealthy capitalists having greater amounts of control over capital and the economy. There are also different sections of the propertied – real estate, industrial, financial, oil, or mining.

d. A Note on Groups

Sociologists since Weber have distinguished groups from aggregates or a collectivities. An aggregate of individuals may have a common class situation, they may be considered a class, but this class may not be a group. This collectivity could even have a common set of values, ideas and norms, but do not interact in a sustained or patterned fashion.

A group carries with it the notion of interaction among group members. Two examples of sociological definitions of groups are as follows. Quote 18: "Social groups are collectivities of individuals who interact and form social relationships. ... They have their own norms of conduct and are solidaristic. Within this category may be included the family, groups of friends and many work groups." (Theodorson, pp. 97-98). Groups could be considered (a) to have an ongoing and independent reality, with individuals coming and going but the group remaining active, (b) to have an effect on the attitude of members, and vice versa, socializing new members, and (c) there will be some difference of opinion among group members. (Burkey, pp. 9-12). The group may be a community, and it may cut across class lines, or at least across class situations.

Weber notes the possibility that classes may form groups, but considers this to be unlikely. The common class situation does not usually lead to social action on the basis of the common class situation. In order for such social action to take place, there have to be proper cultural and intellectual conditions, and the nature of the contradictory market situation would have to be relatively transparent to all. These struggles are likely to be most clearly expressed when other aspects, such as status differences, are removed. Weber notes (Giddens and Held, p. 72) that there is class conscious organization where (a) there are no groups between the real adversaries, (b) large numbers of persons are in the same class situation, (c) it is technically easy to organize those in the common class situation, and (d) where the goals of the class are well understood, and this understanding is led by those outside the class (intelligentsia).

Note how different this is from Marx's view of class. For Marx, class involved not only a common market situation or position (and one restricted primarily to the capital-labour relation), but also the recognition of this common position by members of the class, the ability to act as a class, and the opposition of the class to the interests of another class. Marx’s expectation was that this class consciousness would develop. Weber is much more skeptical of consciousness developing on the basis of class and argues that there are many different bases for common class situation.

4. Status and Status Groups

a. Definition. Weber argues that groups are more likely to be formed on the basis of status or status honour. He notes in quote 19:

In contrast to classes, status groups are normally communities. They are, however, often of an amorphous kind. In contrast to the purely economically determined ‘class situation’ we wish to designate as ‘status situation’ every typical component of the life fate of men … is determined by a specific, positive or negative, social estimation of honor. this honor may be connected with any quality shared by a plurality, and, of course, it can be knit to a class situation: class distinctions are linked in the most varied ways with status distinctions. (Gerth and Mills, pp. 186-7).

Honour refers to any distinction, respect, or esteem that is accorded to an individual by others. Such social recognition may be a formal process (titles, awards) or it may be in ordinary forms of social interaction whereby we respect or disrespect others (forms of greeting, inclusion or exclusion in a formal or informal group, nature of friendships). Social honour is expressed in social relationships, in how we interact with each other. Social esteem may be either positive or negative, so that an individual may be given a high level of social esteem or honour, or at the other ending, a low level of such esteem. Status groups can thus be considered positive or negative, those who are favoured and those who are less favoured or excluded.

For Weber, social honour is social in nature, in that it does not automatically result from some market or property relationship in the economic sphere, but is an expression of social relationships. It can be associated with any quality that is socially valued (positive) or is not desirable (negative).

Status honour is linked to social evaluations, whereas class is related to the economic or market situation. Weber considers status honour to be a more important basis for people forming themselves into groups or communities. Or communities may be formed, and this community and its mode of behaviour and norms become the basis for status honour in this community. This may be more subjective (social esteem) than objective (common market situation). It can also be considered to be a difference between consumption (standards and levels of living associated with particular status) as opposed to production (position within this is the basis for class).

b. Forms of Status Groups. A status group could be formed on the basis of any characteristic that is socially recognized by others, and which becomes the object of social honour. For example, social honour could recognize ethnic or religious characteristics, male-female characteristics, or lifestyle characteristics such as bikers, musical tastes, sports, etc. There is a multiplicity of status groups, but in terms of the major types of social honour that can form the basis for power, affecting the life chances of individuals and groups, Weber identifies three. Note that the status situations and groups that interest Weber are those in the sphere of power, where life chances are related to the status groups. Thus peer groups or groups based on musical tastes or some lifestyles factors may be important in terms of status honour, but are not really status groups in the Weberian sense.

i. Property is an important basis for a status group, especially where markets prevail. Those with considerable property or wealth have the means to develop a certain style of life, and those without property are not able to exercise this style. Because of this, or on the basis of property alone, social honour may also be accorded these same people.

Hadden notes that status "may get in the way of communal action on a class basis" (p. 148). Markets concern gains and losses through exchange and do not have honour associated with them. If markets were allowed to operate fully, this would destroy status differences and only market considerations would influence life chances. While property can form an important basis for status, property alone is not the key to status, and status "normally stands in sharp opposition to the pretensions of sheer property" (Weber, quoted by Adams and Sydie, p. 187). Those who acquire property may not be accorded the same status privileges are those who originally held property. One example of this is the distinction between established society and the nouveau riche. Status groups may thus attempt to hinder some market activities, or may give market privileges only to those with the proper status levels (old boys network).

Note how this might be developed into a model of gender stratification, with male status denied to females. Male status privileges may extend across property or income lines, denying women the same levels of status. The factors associated with male status may even be denied to those women who have property or have acquired a prominent or high income position. While Weber develops this approach for ethnic groups, an analysis of sex or gender stratification comes from recent feminist writers.

ii. Styles of life based on consumption differences commonly form status groups in the Weberian sense. Property and income are the source of funds required for consumption. It not so much the source of the income that forms the status group as the set of objects and services consumed which leads to the social honour associated with group interaction. Groups may form around residential neighbourhoods, professions, and educational levels (community associations, professional associations, restrictions based on educational qualifications).

iii. Groups unrelated to property could also be formed. These could be ethnic groups, religious groups, groups around sexual orientation, and the various urban communities and groups which form around common sets of interests. In each, there is likely to be some social honour accorded members, there is likely to be some closure of the group, and membership may carry with it certain duties and privileges. Some of these groups may have effect on life chances, especially where religion and ethnicity is an important feature of social organization.

c. Features of Status Groups. Status groups may cut across class lines. This is especially the case with ethnic groups, where social honour is accorded those with the same ancestry, and disrespect or dishonour may be associated with those who do not have this ancestry. This honour or dishonour can form the basis for awarding jobs, opportunities for promotion, and privileges in the political sphere. Characteristics of this type that affect life chances may be more meaningful to people than is relationship to markets (class situation), so that social status is the basis on which groups are formed. Another example is where groupings of men create "old boy networks" which control hiring, promotion, and rewards within institutions. When these men act together as a group, they exercise control over life chances to almost the same degree, or even more so, than do labour markets.

Since honour and dishonour are socially formed, those who are members of a status group associate meaning with the characteristics honoured. While this may be income and a particular style of life, it is not so much the relationship of the individual to the means of production as the meaning associated with the income and style of life. In this sense, relationship to the market and class situation may be an underlying factor, but it is the status honour or dishonour associated with lifestyle which Weber regards as more crucial to group formation.

Status groups are usually associated with some restrictions on social intercourse or interaction. That is, there is some degree of closure to outsiders, and the status group exercises some degree of management of relationships of those within the group. In ethnic or religious groups, marriage may be endogamous within the group. Those who are members are likely to belong to a circle or community. Various religious groups may operate in this manner, with fairly close guidelines concerning who one can associate with, and with whom marriage is to be arranged.

In contemporary society, with great geographic and social mobility, it may be difficult to maintain this closed nature. In contrast, where there is little social or geographic mobility, Weber notes that social status groups may solidify into castes.

5. Parties

Parties are organizations, rather than communities or groups, and they involve striving for a goal in a planned manner. They are associations of people that attempt to influence social action. Since they are concerned with achieving some goal, they are in the sphere of power in that. In Weber’s words,

Whereas the genuine place of ‘classes’ is within the economic order, the place of ‘status groups’ is within the social order, that is, within the sphere of the distribution of ‘honour.’ From within these spheres, classes and status groups influence one another and they influence the legal order and are in turn influenced by it. But ‘parties’ live in a hose of ‘power.’ Their action is oriented toward the acquisition of social ‘power,’ that is to say, toward influencing a communal action no matter what its content may be. (Gerth and Mills, p. 194).

That is, classes are in the economic order, status groups in the social order, and parties in the sphere of power. In some senses, power is not a separate order, in that classes and status groups are concerned with power. The difference between parties on the one hand, and status groups and class on the other, is in the level of analysis. Parties are organizations, whereas classes and status groups are groupings of people. If status groups or classes become well organized, they may form parties, or their parties may become the organizational wing of the class or status group. Trade unions, professional associations, ethnic organizations, and religious institutions are examples.

Parties also differ from classes or status groups in that they attempt to achieve goals in a planned manner, and thus are rational. There are various aims, goals, or purposes that the party attempts to achieve. It considers various possible ways of achieving these, and selects a course of action that it considers the most likely to achieve that goal. The structure of the party is also rational in that these actions are not a byproduct of social interaction, but are carefully considered and selected. The party is likely to have a constitution, a set of officers, and means of filling these positions with people most suited for them.

Parties may be political parties, or they may be other organizations aimed at achieving other goals. As such, they can cut across both status and class lines, expressing interests that may be common to those from many different sectors of society. Examples could be groups organized around helping to solve the problems of specific diseases (Cancer Society, Arthritis Society), groups such as the Wildlife society, or even sporting and recreation organizations. Some may have political ends, others may merely attempt to pursue a particular aim of those in the organization. Adams and Sydie note that parties are likely to be mixes of class or status group interests, "they are more likely to be mixed types’ (p. 187).

For political parties to gain political power, they must attempt to represent a fairly broad range of interests. Putting together a political program involves identifying issues which are key, and other issues which will pull in various groups. Some parties, such as the British Labour Party, may primarily represent a specific class. Other parties, such as the Canadian Liberal Party or the Saskatchewan NDP attempt to put together programs which appeal to a wide variety of interests.

It might also be noted that these parties may acquire a life of their own and pursue ends that are not part of their original purposes. Weber noted how social actions can have unintended consequences which may be no part of the original intentions of the class, status group, or party. The most famous example is the Protestant ethic, which was established for purely religious or spiritual reasons. Weber argued that the establishment and power of this ethic had the unintended consequences of assisting the development of capitalism. Particular political parties are established with certain ends in mind, but as organizations, especially ones with some power, become subject to a variety of social influences which may change their purposes. Some long-time NDP supporters claim that the NDP has become more interested in maintaining power than in pursuing principles of social democracy.

Parties tend to be a feature of modern societies, where power is exercised in a more formal, rational, and planned manner than in traditional societies. They do not operate in traditional societies, where personal relations or patronage may dominate. Parties are means of organization to achieve specific ends in modern society and, once organizations are developed as parties, they become more rational, that is systematic and permanent.

6. Conclusion

Weber's discussion of class, status and party give an idea of how markets affect people, and how people form themselves into groups, partly as a result of markets and partly on the basis of other factors that are socially important. To some extent, Weber's status groups would appear to be ways in which people in capitalism protect themselves from the effects of markets, but at the same time using the market as they can, and using the means of power they have at their disposal.

In spite of the myriad factors that must be taken into consideration when looking at these social structures and institutions, Weber concludes that there are relatively few dominant features of social structure. In terms of classes, the major classes are the working class, the capitalist class, and the middle professional group. For Weber there are also a number of major status groups and parties, not necessarily identical to or determined by the same factors as are classes. That is, one may consider some of the major styles of life as those of upper class, middle class, and lower class. Within this system of stratification, the working class does not fit, although the working class has been and continues to be an important social class in capitalism. Finally, people in societies create some major parties, political parties and other organizations, each aiming to achieve some end. Again, it is likely that only a few of these organizations will acquire major importance for people at any one time.

Weber's writings can thus be used as a guide, but one should not get lost in the mass of details to be considered. Rather, one must attempt to reconstruct the major groups and classes in society, determine how people related to these, and how these interact.


Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Sociological Theory, Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge, 2001

Burkey, Richard M., Ethnic and Racial Groups: the Dynamics of Dominance, Menlo Park, Cummings, 1978. HT1521 B82

Gerth, Hans and C. Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press, 1958.

Giddens, Anthony and David Held, Classes, Power, and Conflict: Classical and Contemporary Debates, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1982). HT675 C55 1982

Hadden, Richard W., Sociological Theory: An Introduction to the Classical Tradition, Peterborough, Broadview Press, 1997.


Last edited on October 30, 2002

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