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CLASSES, CLASS CULTURES, AND INEQUALITY: THE CONFLICT THEORISTS

Empirical research also got going in the 1940s and 1950s on the stratification of social classes in general. A lot of this research might be called an effort to soften the class model: to show, for example, that there is a continuum among occupations ranked by prestige. This eliminates class boundaries and thereby presumably does away with class conflict, at the same time that it shifts attention away from economic interests and towards the subjective or cultural differences among individuals. Another popular form of stratification research has concentrated on social mobility, which focuses on the extent to which social class membership is not permanent, especially between generations.

Nevertheless social' class positions exist, however long people may happen to be in any one of them. During the time they are there, class positions exert a powerful influence on the way people think and behave. Economic inequalities still exist, even if we avert our faces from them to look at prestige or mobility. And as organizational analysis has already shown us, there is a continual struggle for advantage among occupants of different sorts of positions. The key question is: What is the nature of the dividing lines? Given that there are all sorts of organizational factions and that gradations of prestige can become fairly minute, is there nevertheless a basic line of cleavage that strongly affects what people will do?

In the late 1950s and the 1960s, a position emerged that

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arrived at some consensus on just such a crucial factor. It did not turn out to be economic property per se. Inside the complex bureaucracies of modern society, the main social dividing line has been between workers and managers. These groups belong to different networks, have different cultures and outlooks, and engage in struggles with each other. But the managers, especially at the middle levels, are not actually property owners at all, but only administrative labor. Conversely, small independent businesses (like plumbers, electricians, and so on) are in many respects more similar to workers than they are to big business owners. The German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf proposed a revision of Marx to deal with these anomalies. The major class dividing line is between power groups, between those who give orders and those who take orders. Sometimes property may be the basis of power: in those cases power classes coincide with economic classes. This was the situation observed by Marx and Engels in the early 1800s that had mislead them into thinking that property was the basis of class conflict. Instead of property, Dahrendorf proposed that power divisions are more fundamental.

Dahrendorf's position generated a self-conscious tradition of conflict theory that is more general than Marxism, although it includes Marxism as one of its intellectual predecessors. Dahrendorf took the Marx Engels conception of class and generalized it in a Weberian direction, making Weber's conception of power conflict more basic. In my opinion, this is a strategically important move for several reasons. As we have seen, Weber's theory of power conflict connects directly with the theory of organizations because it is in organizations that power is mobilized. Furthermore it enables us to bring what has been learned in organizational analysis into the service of a theory of social classes. Organizations and classes are just different ways of slicing up the same social reality; classes always have their basis as parts of some organizations, and organizations create classes and class conflicts.



There is also a payoff on the level of understanding the subjective and individual side of class, the way in which individuals think and act differently because of their class posi-

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tions. If the fundamental reality of classes is the division between giving and taking orders, that points us to the social psychology of just how those experiences take place: What is it like to be an order-giver? How does that affect one's consciousness? What kinds of maneuvers must one go through in the course of an ordinary day in such a position? The same questions of course must also be asked about the experience of taking orders. Now it happens that Erving Goffman, starting from an entirely different point of view, showed us a model of social life as a series of frontstages and backstages, a kind of theatre of everyday life. The persons who control the frontstage (i.e., official parts of the society) turn out to be the ordergivers, the higher social classes, whereas those who are merely compliant audiences for these official performances are the order-takers, the working classes of society. I will leave the details of this theory for Chapter 3 because Goffman came out of the Durkheimian theory of social rituals, not from conflict theory at all. But as my Conflict Sociology ( 1975) attempts to show in detail, putting together Dahrendorf and Goffman's models enables us to explain fairly rigorously why different classes have the kinds of outlooks that so much empirical evidence tells us they do.

One other sign that the power-conflict model is fundamental was provided by a successful theory of the distribution of wealth. Gerhard Lenski Power and Privilege ( 1966) was the first major comparative analysis to ask the question: What conditions determine whether a society will have a large or small degree of economic inequality? Lenski examined all types of societies, ranging from hunting-and-gathering tribes on through the great agrarian (medieval-style) empires and the modern industrial societies. He showed that as the amount of economic surplus increases, the total wealth is increasingly distributed not by economic need or by productive contribution, but by the organization of power. The most severe inequalities occur where there is a sizable surplus and where power is most concentrated. Historically, the most unequal societies fit this description: they are the agrarian empires, where the economy produces. a considerable surplus

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but where the military aristocracy, the only politically mobilized group, appropriates virtually all of it. In industrial societies, the distribution of. wealth becomes somewhat more equal, precisely to' the degree that there has been a political revolution that has given more power to the masses of the population. In capitalist countries, it has been mostly the middle and upper-middle classes that have been the beneficiaries of this power shift. In countries where there has been a political shift towards socialism, as further research has shown, the degree of inequality is reduced still further. To the extent that inequalities remain in the socialist states, it is not because of economic property but because of concentration of power in the hierarchy of party officials. The Lenski and Dahrendorf models together, thus, throw considerable light not only on inequality in modern capitalist states, but also on the quite apparent class divisions and conflicts that have been going on in Poland, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere.


Date: 2015-04-20; view: 659


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