There are quite intense debates nowadays about social classes between social scientists. Some argue that there is no need anymore to study the classes of society in the old ways, since in the twentieth century capitalism and the global economy altered the society and the way people live their lives so much; that classes became so fragmented, so layered that basically they have turned into lifestyles (Marsh et al, 2000). Others argue that, although there are changes in the class system, the basic classes still clearly can be found and studied (especially the upper class), and these social classes are still playing a decisive part in people’s life and identity. They agree that social classes became very layered and sometimes hardly identifiable, but they also say that people still identify themselves in the terms of classes and that the classes were not effected equally by these changes in global and national economy. They also say that inequality between people still makes the classes fairly identifiable (Macionis & Plummer, 2005).
These debates would not have made sense till the industrial revolution. Till that time there was a clearly identifiable working-, middle- and upper class. However the changes in the national and global economy, also in the ownership of the big companies and the birth of the joint-stock companies made the borders between social classes vague and, some say, led to the demise of the upper class (Marsh et al, 2000). Edgell (1993) cited by Kirby et al (1997, p. 125) states that there are two approaches of the upper class’s situation now days. The managerialist and the non-managerialist approach. The managerialist scientists, like Dahrendorf, say that the separation of ownership and control led to the birth of a manager class and through this change it also led to vast alterations in the upper class. They state that, on one hand, the workers can buy shares in any company and the control of the companies wandered from the owners (members of the upper class) to the managers, thus the upper class became just as fragmented and layered as the working-, and middle-class. On the other hand, because of the changes in the quality of life, the lower classes enjoy or will enjoy the same privileges just as the upper class (Kirby et al, 1997). Hence, argue they, it does not make sense to study classes in the old way, since the classes – in the way as people knew them – have disappeared.
However the scientists on the other side of the fence say that, though the class system became very layered, that change did not affected the upper class as much as the other classes. Moreover, they argue that the upper class is the only one which still can be identified and separated easily, although it became more layered than it was in the nineteenth century (Bilton et al, 2002). They prove this statement with statistics, surveys and other evidences.
The changes that made the working-, and middle-class almost too layered to be studied, also had an effect on the upper class. The scientists now days separate different layers. The basic partitioning separates it to two layers: the upper-uppers and the lower-uppers. The upper-uppers are the old landed aristocracy and the lower-uppers are the new rich, who became wealthy during the industrialization or in the twentieth century through the changes in the global and national economy. These are the very basic layers of the upper class, but we can separate them further. As Macionis & Plummer (2005) and Giddens (1980) cited by Kirby et al (1997, pp.124-125) state there are four main categories: the land-owning rich, whose income and wealth comes mostly from inherited lands and goods, the so called ‘fat-cats’ who have gigantic salaries, the ‘jet-set rich’ who made their wealth in the show-, or any other businesses, but one thing is common in them they are all very famous. The last group is the entrepreneurial rich who made their money through investments in companies or real estate.
Scott (1997) cited by Fulcher & Scott (2003, p.716) uses a different partitioning. He states that there are four layers of the lower-upper class. The first one is the ‘entrepreneurial capitalist’. They make their money through running the business of big companies, whose shares they own. The second group is the ‘rentier capitalist’. They made their money from the land or from any other business, but now days they make money by investing into many enterprises. The third layer is the ‘executive capitalist’ who own executive positions in big companies and reached this status by good education and hard work; and the last group is the ‘finance capitalist’. They make their income by holding part-time positions in many corporations’ leadership, mainly in the banking or insurance sector.
As it can be seen there are many layers in the upper class, but what makes these layers – can be asked – to constitute a well identifiable and basically single social group, called the upper class? Well, many things. In the nineteenth century the upper-upper and lower-upper class were quite separate. The landed upper class did not absorb the new rich till the end of the nineteenth century. This absorbing process was very slow. Though the lower-uppers had the same power and many times they were richer than many old-uppers, they did not have the prestige which the old-uppers had had for a long time. However, the unity of interests they have, slowly made them one single social class; and nowadays they are attached together by many things (Fulcher & Scott, 2003). In a Weberian view, they have the power, status and wealth to defend their interests and reproduce themselves, which can be seen in the statistics. As Macionis & Plummer (2005) state in 1997 there were 120.000 millionaires in Britain, this number grew to 200.000 till 2000. Furthermore between 1983 and 1993 the earnings of the top five per cent of the population rose by fifty per cent, whilst the earnings of the lowest five per cent were basically stagnating. In addition the top one per cent of Britain’s population owns the one fifth, one fourth of the country’s marketable wealth, while half of the whole population owns only the six per cent of it. That is because they have huge influence in society, hence they can protect each others interest, which they do so.
And what tides these people together as an upper class? As Kirby et al (1997) claim there is a social and economic unity amongst them. That means that they have similarities in background and education. They are mostly educated in public schools, and this public school system plays a very significant role in reproducing the upper class. As Stanworth & Giddens (1974) cited by Kirby et al (1997, pp.126-127) found that ‘…of those employed in each of the following occupational categories – bishops, senior ranks of the armed forces, principal judges, senior civil servants, Conservative MPs, and the directors of the largest industrial and financial corporations – more than half had been to a public school (in many cases the proportion was much higher). Some 73 per cent of the directors of industrial corporations and 80 per cent of the directors of financial firms had received a public school education.’ This ratio is quite huge considering that public schools educate only five per cent of the male school population. For the members of the upper class this educational system has many benefits. It reproduces them and as Fulcher & Scott (2003), Kirby et al (1997) and Marsh et al (2000) argue it establishes the so-called ‘old boy network’. Furthermore, as Fawbert states (2007), it helps them to maintain their cultural capital (which helps them to remain wealthy); also they make very close kinship connections and interlocking networks, which ensure that their privileges will be transmitted to the next generation.
Because of all these things it can be concluded that, although the upper part of society changed and got layered during the nineteenth and twentieth century, it still constitutes one well identifiable social class. The people, who belong to the upper class, manage to maintain their superiority. With the wealth and power they possess, they can ensure a privileged education to their children which leads almost straight to Oxford and Cambridge (‘Oxbridge’). During this education process the youth of the upper class can develop the ‘old boy network’, which helps them to get better jobs through the ‘elite self-recruitment’ (Fawbert, 2007). Furthermore, as Scott (1992) cited by Marsh et al (2000, p.306) argue, they are ‘…a group of people allied around certain social institutions. These institutions are the Conservative Party, the Church of England, the public schools and ancient universities, the legal profession and the Guards regiments…’.Therefore – despite of the changes – there is still a well identifiable upper class in Britain. Moreover it is the only social class left, which can be easily recognized and separated from the other social classes.
Bilton, T. et al (2002) Introductory Sociology 4th edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Fawbert, J. (2007) ‘Week 6: The class structure today: the upper class’. Identity & Structure. [Online]. Available at: http://breo.beds.ac.uk (Accessed: 7 December 2007)
Fulcher, J. & Scott, J. (2003) Sociology 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kirby, M. et al (1997) Sociology in Perspective Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers.
Macionis, J. & Plummer, K. (2005) Sociology: A Global Introduction 3rd edn. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Marsh, I. et al (2000) Making Sense of Society 2nd edn. London: Longman.