Max Weber: Class, Status, and Power



Class, Status, and Power

Weber differed only marginally from Marx when he defined as a class a category of men who (1) "have in common a specific causal component of their life chances in so far as (2) this component is represented exclusively by economic interests in the possession of goods and opportunities for income, and (3) it is represented under the conditions of the commodity or labor market." He was even fairly close to Marx's view, though not necessarily to those of latter-day Marxists, when he stated that class position does not necessarily lead to class-determined economic or political action. He argued that communal class action will emerge only if and when the "connections between the causes and the consequences of the 'class situation' " become transparent; Marx would have said when a class becomes conscious of its interests, that is, of its relation, as a class, to other classes. Yet Weber's theory of stratification differs from that of Marx in that he introduced an additional structural category, that of "status group."

Classification of men into such groups is based on their consumption patterns rather than on their place in the market or in the process of production. Weber thought Marx had overlooked the relevance of such categorization because of his exclusive attention to the productive sphere. In contrast to classes, which may or may not be communal groupings, status groups are normally communities, which are held together by notions of proper life-styles and by the social esteem and honor accorded to them by others. Linked with this are expectations of restrictions on social intercourse with those not belonging to the circle and assumed social distance toward inferiors. In this typology we again find Weber's sociological notion of a social category as dependent on the definition that others give to social relationships. A status group can exist only to the extent that others accord its members prestige or degrading, which removes them from the rest of social actors and establishes the necessary social distance between "them" and "us."

Empirically there are fairly high correlations between standing in the class and in the status order. Especially i capitalist society, the economically ascendant class will, in the course of time, also acquire high status; yet in principle, propertied and propertyless people may belong to the same status group. At certain times, an economically weak element, such as the East Elbian Junkers, may exercise considerable influence and power because of its preeminent status. Generally, as much pos-Weberian analysis of American politics has shown, political behavior may at times be influenced by men who are fearful of losing their status or who bridle at not having been accorded a status they think is their due; such influence may be as powerful as class-determined modes of political behavior.

In Weber's view every society is divided into groupings and strata with distinctive life-styles and views of the world, just as it is divided into distinctive classes. While at times status as well as class groupings may conflict, at others their members may accept fairly stable patterns of subordination and superordination.

With this twofold classification of social stratification, Weber lays the groundwork for an understanding of pluralistic forms of social conflict in modern society and helps to explain why only in rare cases are such societies polarized into the opposing camps of the "haves" and the "have-nots." He has done much to explain why Marx's exclusively class-centered scheme failed to predict correctly the shape of things to come in modern pluralistic societies.

In regard to the analysis of power in society, Weber again introduces a pluralistic notion. Although he agrees with Marx in crucial respects, he refines and extends Marx's analytical scheme. For Marx, power is always rooted, even in only in the "last analysis," in economic relations. Those who own the means of production exercise political power either directly or indirectly. Weber agreed that quite often, especially in the modern capitalist world, economic power is the predominant form. But he objects that "the emergence of economic power may be the consequence of power existing on other grounds." For example, men who are able to command large-scale bureaucratic organizations may wield a great deal of economic power even though they are only salaried employees.

Weber understands by power: the chance of a man, or a number of men "to realize their own will in communal action, even against the resistance of others." He shows that the basis from which such power can be exercised may vary considerably according to the social context, that is, historical and structural circumstance. Hence, where the source of power is located becomes for Weber an empirical question, one that cannot be answered by what he considers Marx's dogmatic emphasis on one specific source. Moreover, Weber argues, men do not only strive for power to enrich themselves. "Power, including economic power, may be valued 'for its own sake.' Very frequently the striving for power is also conditioned by the social 'honor' it entails."

From Coser, 1977:228-230.