Using one definition to define exactly what class is can be difficult because it involves many elements and partially is determined by the types of social systems by which one is influenced. Rather than attempting to develop a strict definition of class, this essay discusses various views of class. In order to understand class and its relationship to embodiment more fully, one must analyze class from multiple perspectives.
The first thinker to develop a sociological theory of class was Karl Marx. He defined class as the division of labor within a society (Marx et al., 1978: 439). In light of the prevalence of modern capitalism, he developed theories of class based on the distinction between those who owned private property and those who had no ownership (Edgell 2002:14) – those who exploited the labor of others and those who used their bodies for labor in exchange for wages. After the implementation of modern capitalism, he was disturbed by the growing gap between those who controlled capital and those who were forced to sell their labor as a commodity. Marx thought that capitalism made the working people and their bodies became an extension of production machines (Marx et al., 1978:439). However, Marx’s understanding of economic capital is limited to money and ignores symbolic and cultural capital. In Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class, all human practices have an economic purpose – that is, all actions and strategies help one navigate and obtain material and non-material goods in the form of social, cultural or symbolic capital. There are several forms of economic capital: social capital, valued relations with significant others; cultural capital, valued information or educational qualifications; and symbolic capital, other forms of capital recognized as legitimate in the forms of prestige and honor. Each of these forms of capital can be exchanged with another one (Urban 2003:360).
Bourdieu’s definition of class explains the relationship between the human body and the larger social body. He defines class as the habitus, a system of structured, structuring bodily dispositions that are carried out in practice and always oriented toward practical functions (Bourdieu and Nice 1992:70). Bourdieu advances the claim that all cultural symbols and practices including tastes, how we style our bodies, what we put into our bodies/eating habits, religion and ritual acts, science, philosophy, and how we communicate with our bodies embody interests and function to enhance social distinction (Urban 2003:360).It is the way in which the structures of the social order are imbedded into the individual body. The social inscriptions, class habits, are visual in an individual’s gestures, accents, dress, hairstyle, eating, walking, and talking (Urban 2003: 360).
Aage Sorenson (2000), attempts to update Marxist class theory in light of the disappearing labor and production forces in America. His idea of class, however, is through an analysis of wealth, defined as the ability to generate an economic return on an asset, directly or indirectly through exchange (p. 1525). Like Marx, his theory is still based on the control of property because property rights define a person’s wealth. From this perspective, class can be seen as one’s life conditions, how one lives (p. 1525). It reflects a person’s total wealth, generated returns on assets or the collection of rents, returns on assets that are in fixed supply because single owners control the supply of those assets (p. 1525). These assets are inelastic and will not respond to an increase in price. Those who own these rent producing assets and receive return in the form of rents exploit those who do not own such property, essentially delineating two classes, property owners and non-property owners- the haves and the have-nots (p. 1525). Whether one possesses property outside of personal use, like owning a primary residence, and whether one is able to receive a return on that asset directly influences the quality of life one enjoys within a society and the ability to create and pass wealth from generation to generation.
Bourdieu, Pierre et. al. The Logic of Practice. First edition. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1992.
In this book, Bourdieu deals with problems in social scientific research such as the generic relationship between social scientific observers and their objects of study, the need to overcome the gulf between subjectivism and objectivism, the interplay between structure and practice, the place of the body, the manipulation of time, varieties of symbolic capital, and modes of domination. Bourdieu also develops detailed case studies based on his ethnographic fieldwork in Algeria. Based on his research, he analyzes kinship patterns, the social construction of domestic space, social categories of perception and classification, and ritualized actions and exchanges.
Edgell, Stephen. Class: Key Concepts in Sociology. New York: Routlegde, 2002.
Marx, Karl, Friedrich Engels, and Robert C. Tucker. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978.
Urban, Hugh B. “Sacred Capital: Pierre Bourdieu and the Study of Religion.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 15 (2003), 354-89.
Sorenson, Aage B. “Toward a Sounder Basis for Class Analysis.” American Journal of Sociology 105:6 (2000), 1523-58.