ANT 323. Last updated: .

Exerpted with some substantial changes and additions from: http://thunder1.cudenver.edu//sociology/introsoc/topics/UnitNotes/week06.html#Classes, May 14, 2002

© Richard H. Anderson, by permission

a. The upper class: the corporate rich

Represents the upper class of the United States, the very wealthy, those in the very top level of corporate America. These families constitute about 0.1% of all families in the United States. Every April Fortune Magazine publishes a list of the wealthiest families in America. Some are quite old (the DuPonts, the Rockefellers, the Hunts), others are very new (Bill Gates). If you do not know who these families are, go to the library and find a copy of Fortune and read up on them. You can visit the Forbes Magazine web site and see a comparative list of the world's all-time wealthiest people.

Great wealth does not automatically qualify one to be a member of the upper class.  Michael Jackson would not belong here, Tiger Woods might.  The former and his activities do not have the cultural capital of golf.  Cultural as well as economic capital is required for membership in the upper class.

Through membership in exclusive social clubs, and listings in the social register (e.g., the Denver Club in Denver, similar clubs in San Francisco, New York, Boston and Philadelphia) the families maintain links among one another. According to E. Digby Baltzell they can discuss their business and social interests in these contexts without fear of it getting into the hands of the public.

Many of these families do not become directly involved in politics (although some do, the Rockefeller family is notable in this respect -- governors of New York, Virginia and Arkansas). This does not mean that they are not involved in the politics at the local or national level. It was Avirell Harriman's widow that decided Bill Clinton would make a good president of the United States. She held a number of social gatherings to which the Clinton's were invited so they could meet the people with the money needed to support a run for the presidency. She also convinced these fellow members of the elite that Bill Clinton would be the kind of president that would do the things they felt necessary to save the country. Ronald Reagan was the product of similar activites as was Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy.

In summary, the upper class is an exclusive group that tends to marry and socialize entirely within its own groups. They occupy positions of power in the board rooms of American corporations and business and to be actively involved directly or indirectly in politics.

b. The upper middle class: professional / managerial

This upper middle class consists of lawyers, physicians, other top management of large and medium corporations, top level engineers, some college university professors and others whose careers depend on advanced education.

The class is characterized by 'doing.' Some  have attended public schools, relatively exclusive colleges and Universities, prestigious public Universities. Others have constituted the majority in private secondary schools, selective ivy league or private colleges and universities (where members of the upper middle class may also go). In these settings they met the children of the upper class.  Together they  learn how to 'govern,' to run large economic enterprises and how to represent the interests of the upper class in the board and governing rooms of America.  In general the upper middle class carries out the mandates of the upper class or supports them in a variety of ways.  It may provide it with cultural capital, which is often associated with education.  However, the interests of the upper class may also clash with those of the upper middle class at times.

c. The (lower) middle class: clerical / sales

These are the 'white collar' lower middle management type people, the solid middle class. Occupations tend to be those of teacher, lower level management and so forth. Education is often limited to state colleges and universities, possibly community colleges.

The members of this class, the largest in contemporary western societies, do most of the work of the society, manage much of the low level sectors of the organizations. They are often quite conservative and very active in their religious communities. Today this group is a mixed bag, often including the small business owner and family farmer. Individuals in these last two groupings often feel threatened by the changes in the society and by large corporations, government and business.

d. The working class: skilled and unskilled

The working class, what is often seen as the backbone of America. This class consists of people who build the goods that we all consume (if they are indeed made in America!). These are the truck drivers who deliver the goods to us, the policeman who maintain order, firefighters who keep it cool. This class also includes those who have very minimal skills.

It used to be that one could make a good living as a member of this class, often with very little formal education (in the 1940s and 1950s some high school was all that was needed). The cities of the upper Ohio Valley in Ohio, the manufacturing communities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana are filled with these families. The towns of Virginia and Pennsylvania also have their share of these families (steel workers and coal miners). As more and more manufacturing is leaving the United States this class is under severe pressure. It is increasingly difficult for their children to follow in their parents footsteps. It is increasingly difficult for individuals with less than a high school education to find well-paying jobs and to be able to support the life styles that their parents found very familiar and comfortable.

e. The lower class: the poor / an underclass?

This is often seen as an underclass, a group that is perpetually underprivileged, often not even managing to get by. There is a very fine line between this group of people and the ones in the two 'classes' above. Any kind of financial downturn, unemployment or major medical crisis will put many people in the above two groups into this one.

The members of this class are characterized as having little formal education and few if any marketable skills. Their existence is from hand to mouth, day-to-day. For many there are also health problems (mental and physical). Marriage comes early and with it parenthood. Poverty or near poverty is a standard condition of life for the members of this class (however, do keep in mind that poverty is relative to the wealth of the society).

The difficulties faced by this class is such that attempts to deal with any single feature of their lives is doomed to failure. For example, it is often argued that all that is needed for this class to join the main stream is a steady job. However, that is predicated on more cultural capital, e.g. a better education. Achievement of either is often hindered by severe health problems that keep them from focusing on study or from working steadily as is expected by the middle and upper classes.