No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Social Inequality

Burzan, N. (2011), Soziale Ungleichheit - Eine Einführung in die zentralen Theorien, Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.

Marx's Class Theory and its Influence, Debates, and Criticisms in Understanding Social Inequality

The class concept according to Marx's class theory has been influential in later class models. Marx's class concept is based on economics. Ownership or non-ownership of means of production determines class membership, social position, and power relations in society. Social inequality, according to Marx, can be explained through the class concept. Classes are antagonistic and characterized by conflicting interests, leading to class conflict. The focus is on two relevant classes engaged in class struggle. The relationships between classes are of great importance in the class theory. Under certain conditions, class members develop a shared class consciousness that enables collective action. Classes are not just statistical categories but are seen as actors in the social power game. The analysis of class conflict dynamics can explain social change.

Marx's class model has been the basis for debates and criticisms in all mentioned aspects. Understanding Marx's class concept is not easy due to the lack of a formal definition provided by Marx himself. Critics question whether economic determinants alone can explain the phenomena of social conditions and power relations in society. They also doubt whether considering only two main classes is sufficient for a meaningful social structure analysis. Critics argue that Marx's model fails to account for the emergence of new middle classes and social mobility, as well as the absence of widespread impoverishment.

Added to this, the institutionalization of class conflicts and the non-realization of the predicted proletarian revolution and classless society have weakened class struggles over time. Discussions also arise regarding the notion of classes as concrete groups or as theoretical constructs. Alternative approaches, influenced by Marx and Weber, as well as stratification research, have emerged to analyze social inequality. These newer approaches consider multiple dimensions of inequality.


Discussions, Debates, and Convergences: Exploring Class and Stratification Models in Understanding Social Inequality

Various discussions on inequality models existed in the 1950s to 1970s. Helmut Schelsky rejected a clear stratification in favor of a leveled middle-class society, while Ralf Dahrendorf believed that the class structure depends on the norms enforced by the ruling class through sanctions. The discussion also included the recognition of multiple forms of domination and the social stratification in Germany in the mid-1960s, as well as the emphasis on social esteem, occupation, education, and income in class and stratification models.

During the 1970s, neo-Marxist approaches emerged as a secondary current alongside stratification research, focusing on power and oppression. The key characteristics of class models include economic aspects being primary, such as the position in the production process and ownership or non-ownership of means of production determining the class position. Other factors like Weber's understanding of class or neo-Marxist models may also be considered. Class membership affects all aspects of life, internal attitudes, and actions, and specific class interests can lead to a common class consciousness. The relationships between classes, seen as antagonistic by researchers, emphasize class conflict, although some models acknowledge the institutionalization of class conflict, reducing its intensity.

Class models focus on analyzing the causes of social inequality and social change, while stratification models primarily focus on unequal living conditions, including social opportunities. The criteria for assigning individuals to a specific class or stratum are often socioeconomically oriented, with additional socio-cultural considerations. The criteria's importance may vary across societies and time periods. Stratification models involve a hierarchical structure with at least three main strata, and the boundaries between them may be blurry. Individual mobility and its effects are considered, as mobility can lead to changes in class or stratum. Some approaches argue that social inequality is necessary for maintaining social order.

Despite their differences, class and stratification models share commonalities. Both approaches divide society vertically into groups based on economically oriented dimensions, and class or stratum membership typically results in characteristic behavioral patterns. Newer class models highlight the continued vertical aspects of social inequality while considering differentiation and attempting to empirically incorporate middle-class conceptualizations. Reinhard Kreckel introduced the Center-Periphery Model as a new conceptual framework.


The Individualization Thesis: Exploring Social Inequality in an Era of Shifting Structures and Individual Agency

The individualization thesis is a perspective on social inequality and is particularly associated with Ulrich Beck. According to this thesis, there are no longer societal groups that can be categorized as classes or strata. Instead, individuals are seen as independent entities, and both objective conditions and subjective lifestyles are considered separate from each other. Some authors interpret Beck's individualization thesis as an approach that emphasizes the dissolution or restructuring of social inequality. The thesis argues that society has experienced an individualization shift characterized by three dimensions: the liberation from traditional bonds, the disenchantment due to the absence of fixed orientations, and the reintegration through voluntary affiliations. Individualization is seen as a mode of social integration that emphasizes self-responsibility and self-management, but it also brings increased uncertainty for individuals. The thesis acknowledges the role of institutions in shaping individual choices and experiences. It highlights both the freedom and the restrictions associated with individualization, emphasizing that individual decisions are influenced by social structures and institutional constraints. The nature of individualization is double-faced, because the tensions between freedom and restrictions.

Causes of the individualization process in Germany are:

  • economic prosperity after World War II, which allowed people to afford more things (Beck refers to this as the elevator effect, because economic prosperity resulted in increased income and reduced working hours, accompanied by longer life expectancy);
  • the expansion of education, particularly benefiting women; with more education, individuals have more freedom of choice and their values may change;
  • Technological advancements in household chores;
  • The availability of contraception (the last two especially for women).

Beck argued that individualization does not mean unlimited freedom or isolation but rather a shift from traditional fixed social structures. While inequalities between the rich and poor still exist, the ability to afford certain goods or experiences may make the subjective experience of inequality different. The concept of social mobility becomes relevant in this context, as individuals are no longer confined to the same social environment throughout their lives, and they may make decisions such as leaving a partner more easily. This negotiation of roles and responsibilities within relationships is referred to as the negotiation landscape.

There are different interpretations and misunderstandings associated with the concept of individualization. Beck emphasizes that individualization does not imply atomization, loneliness, or the end of society. There are still connections and bonds between individuals, although they may be less fixed than in the past. The critique of the concept of individualization raises questions about the comparison period, the universality of its applicability, and its relationship with pluralization and social inequality.


Critiques and Considerations in the Analysis of Lifestyles and Milieus: Moving Beyond Descriptions and Exploring Structural Dynamics

There are criticisms and open questions regarding the mainstream analysis of lifestyle and milieu. Lifestyle research tends to be descriptive without sufficient theoretical grounding. There is a lack of clarity in defining what it means for life to become a matter of style and a failure to explore the implications of this phenomenon for modern society. The emphasis on variance and the methodological focus on individual perspectives obscures the larger social context and the impact of economic factors on lifestyle. The analysis of lifestyles should consider both the overlapping and distinctive aspects of different social groups and be cautious of overlooking power structures and reinforcing existing inequalities. Overemphasizing individual preferences without considering structural influences is potentially dangerous. One needs to avoid circular reasoning when using lifestyles as explanatory factors. Considering different levels of analysis is important to move beyond simplistic interpretations. The lack of systematic research on the formation and development of lifestyles calls for further investigation and integration with life course research.

Lifestyles and milieus are relatively stable, but have a potential for change. Changes in life circumstances and cohort effects can affect lifestyles and milieus over time. Pierre Bourdieu emphasized the role of capital, social trajectories, and habitus in understanding social positions and mobility.


Individualization, Social Inequalities, and the Challenges of Analyzing Lifestyles and Class Structures

While social relations of equality have remained relatively constant in post-war development, the conditions of the population have undergone radical changes, leading to the dissolution of subcultural identities and the emergence of individualization and diversification of lifestyles. This process undermines hierarchies, social classes, and societal norms. There is a debate about the extent and nature of individualization, with some arguing that it does not completely dissolve social structures. Individualization is connected to the formation of lifestyles. It’s important to understand the contextual factors and institutional frameworks that shape individual choices.

Peter Berger identified different types of social mobility patterns and connected them with everyday life strategies. He acknowledged that stability rates can be manipulated when considering additional factors and time points of analysis. Berger's approach emphasizes the role of individuals and their status trajectories, distinguishing it from macro-level approaches like class models. He also highlights the importance of considering inequality dynamics, both within and between social strata. Berger's perspective aligns with the arguments of Beck's individualization thesis.

Karl Ulrich Mayer acknowledged the role of life courses in the formation and persistence of social inequalities. Mayer's research suggests that social inequalities multiply and solidify over the course of individual lives, influenced by the resources of the family of origin. Mayer's approach differs from Berger's, as he maintains a stronger focus on class and acknowledges the continued impact of social origins on educational opportunities and social mobility.

The perspectives of Marx, Weber, Geiger, and functionalist stratification theory vary in their emphasis on social change and mobility. Schelsky and Dahrendorf discussed the leveled middle-class society and the changing dynamics of power and authority in modern societies. Neomarxist approaches emphasize dynamic and pluralistic class structures. Newer class models tend to focus more on describing complex life situations rather than analyzing mechanisms of change.

Models that aim to incorporate both the objective level of living conditions and the subjective level of typical practices and attitudes face challenges in their implementation. These models, influenced by certain trends or emphases, cannot fully capture the objective formations of structures and their development, thus contributing to the reproduction of social inequality. These limitations naturally lead to emphasizing specific focal points, as evident from the strengths and criticisms of individual approaches. Newer approaches face the complex task of integrating processes of differentiation and the influence of persistent and differentiated factors of inequality while considering mechanisms that depend on social structure and ways of life. They also provide insights into the developmental principles of power relations. It will be interesting to see which refined discussions and approaches will be developed to address these challenges in the future.


Exploring Connections: Social Inequality and its Relevance to Diverse Sociological Theories

Can the study of social inequality, beyond its narrower sense, be relevant to other sociological theories? Some connections with middle-range approaches, such as gender research, network analysis, life course models, organizational sociology, social change, and rational choice theory, have already been established. Further systematic connections, such as those with differentiation theory, could be explored. While it may not be possible to develop a comprehensive integrated theory that addresses all aspects of social inequality and sociology as a whole, researchers can aim to incorporate different perspectives and keep their concepts open to other theoretical frameworks. The discussion in this regard is expected to continue.

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