Practice question  – What is Weberian critique of Marxist notion of social stratification? (20 Marks) [UPSC 2017]

Approach – Introduction, Explain Marxists and Weberian notions of Social Stratification, Emphasise the differences between two, Outline Weberian notions as criticism to the marxist approach,  Conclusion.



Social stratification implies relations of superiority and inferiority among individuals, families and groups. Such relations are governed by a set of norms and values upheld and enforced by the state and the society. Social stratification is a process through which groups and social categories in societies are ranked as higher or lower to one another in terms of their relative oposition on the – scales of prestige, privileges, wealth and power. Social stratification is also historical process. It emerged as a social institution of societies at a certain level of social evolution and social development. The hunting and food gathering societies had individual levels of social differentiation, for example, a top-hunter or shaman acquired higher status due to his personal qualities or skills which society considered to be mystical or divine in origin; or differentiation could be in terms of age and sex of the members of the society. But owing to the limits on the population growth due in less developed production technologies and precarious and often nomadic nature of these societies, their social structure was quite simple endowed as it was with elementary skills along people for communication (limited language vocabulary), simple technologies, elementary forms of belief systems, and rules of social control such societies did not produce any produce any substantial economic surpluses and accumulation of wealth for any member was impossible. Such simpler societies did have social differentiation, but were without the institution of social stratification. 



Karl Marx is the foremost architect of the dialectical approach to the study of society and history. His theory is not restricted to economic understanding and analysis only, it is a
wide structural theory of society. However, despite such a grand theorization Marx accords pre-eminence to class over status and power, which Weber largely does not accept. ‘Base’ is economic structure, and ‘superstructure’ includes polity, religion, culture etc. To clarify further, according to Marx stratification is determined by the system of relations of production, and ‘status’ is determined by a person’s position in the very system in terms of ownership and non-ownership of the means of production. The owners are named as ‘bourgeoisie’ aid the non-owners are called as ‘proletariat’ by Marx. These are in fact social categories rather than bare economic entities.

Classes to Marx are basic features of society; they are the product of the processes of the productive system which is in effect a system of power relations. To own means of production tantamount to domination and power and to render services, and to supply the human labour amounts to subordination and dependence. In this sense, class is a social reality, a real group of people with a developed consciousness of its existence, its position, goals and capabilities. It is like a looking glass of society by which one can see its social fabric and internal dynamics. 

Karl Marx and F. Engels considered the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as polar opposites always involved in clash of interests. The two hostile camps, also united against each other
Marx harped upon unity of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie to defend their interests as a political organization. This was necessary as the ruling classes (bourgeoisie) suppressed autonomy of ideas, culture, religion and polity. Even the state became subservient to the hegemony of the owners of the means of production. Thus, class for Marx was a perspective, a method and concrete reality to understand structure and stratification of  society and culture. In a nutshell, class is an all-inclusive concept and reality.



The whole Marxian perspective about social stratification revolves round the concept of social classes. No theorist stressed the signifi­cance of class for society and for social change more strongly than Karl Marx. Marx viewed class differentiation as the crucial deter­minant of social, economic and political inequality. According to Marx, there is always a dominant and a subordinate class—a ruling class and a subject class.



Commenting on the theory of Marx, T.B. Bottomore (Classes in Modern Society, 1965) has observed: “For the past eighty years Marx’s theory has been the object of unrelenting criticism and tenacious defence.” This observation remains true even today. Marx’s analysis of class is seen as too simplistic. Critics argue that even in Marx’s own time the class structure of capitalist societies was becoming more complex rather than a bio-polar system as envisaged by Marx. Marx is also criticised for exaggerating the importance of class and particu­larly class conflict. His prediction about future classless society seems to many unlikely and unachievable. In modern societies, the consciousness and behaviour of the working class has proved much more ‘moderate’ and open to compromise than Marx hoped. Marx’s class analysis is sometimes seen as loaded with political and ideological bias. It is also said that his analysis is quasi-religious wishful thinking in the garb of scientific analysis. 



More concrete formulation of social stratification is presented by Max Weber in his analysis of ‘class, status and party’. Weber not only clearly distinguishes between economic structure, status system and political power, he also finds interconnections , between these three in the form of the system of social stratification. ‘Class’ is an economic phenomenon, a product of the ‘market situation’ which implies competition among different classes such as buyers and sellers. ‘Status’ is recognition of ‘honour’. People are distributed among different classes, so are status groups based on distribution of honour which is identified in terms of a range of symbols in a given society. Though analytically, classes and status groups are independent phenomena, they are significantly related to each other depending upon the nature and formation of a given society at a given point of time.
The word ‘party’ implies a house of power, and power is the keynote of Weberian theory of stratification. Power may be for the sake of power or it may be economically determined in  power. And the economically determined power is not always identical with the social or the legal power. Economic power may be a consequence of power existing on other groups.
Striving for power is not always for economic well-being. As we have mentioned it may be for the sake of power or for social honour. All power does not provide  social honour, and
power is not the only source of social honour.

Weber presented the categorization of society in four ways:-

  1. The propertied upper class– They were the upper-class people who had an immense amount of property which was their way of collecting revenues from tenants. For example, the landlords collected revenue from the tenants when they gave a portion of their land to them.
  2. The propertyless white-collar workers- They were the skilled labours who sat behind the tables to earn a proper salary. Mostly middle-class people were seen doing the white collar jobs. Comparing with the present situation, workers working in MNC’s or power plants can be termed as white collar seeking employees.
  3. The petty bourgeoisie– They were belonging to lower class people. Marx was in the favour of highlighting their declining position in the society.
  4. The manual working class– They can be called as the lower class medium also popularly known as blue collar jobs at that time. They had to do work manually and were paid less than the necessity.


It is argued that the models of class structure presented so far are incomplete. Class models based on ownership (Marx) and those on personal marketability (Weber) tend not be effectively combined. Another area of distinct concern has arisen in recent class theory, that of control. This has focused particularly on the rise of white-collar management. W.G. Runciman has developed an ambitious class scheme to integrate differences of ownership, marketability and control in a single model of class.

His unifying concept is that of economic role which he considers to be the basis of class. Assessing the power of economic roles, Runciman constructs a seven-part class model: upper class, upper-middle class, middle-middle class, lower-middle class, skilled working class, unskilled working class and underclass. Runciman’s analysis of class in terms of economic power combines elements of neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian analyses.

Contemporary sociologists have also debated the political conse­quences of the new system of social stratification ushered in by industrialism and information technology. Gerhard Lenski (Power and Privilege, 1966) maintains that “the appearance of mature indus­trial societies marks the first significant reversal in the age-old evolutionary trend toward ever increasing inequality”. Other writers—most notably F. Hunter and C.W. Mills—contend that indus­trial societies have produced a new type of power elite, who controls the destiny of modern nations such as America.


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