Social classes: Terminale SES course - SchoolMouv (2023)


Society produces social inequalities between the individuals who compose it. These inequalities lead to the formation of more or less homogeneous social groups that share common characteristics. To analyze the social structure, the relationships that these social groups maintain with each other, we use in sociology the notion of social classes. It is a rather complex concept to handle, since its definition depends above all on the point of view that one wishes to adopt.

In this course, we will define what a social class is and we will question the relevance of still talking about “classes” today in France. For this, we will start from the theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber, the first to have approached the analysis of the social structure through this notion of class. We will then discuss the arguments of those who have questioned these theories. Then, we will deduce from it what, nowadays, can constitute a criterion of differentiation between the social groups.

Social class theories

The traditional theories of social class are those ofKarl Marxand Max Weber, established at the end of the 19thecentury and at the beginning of the XXecentury. More recently, sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu or Henri Mendras have tried to correct these first theories, to adapt them to contemporary realities.

The realist conception (Marx) and the nominalist conception (Weber)

Karl Marx

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Karl Marx is best known as the German philosopher who theorized theCommunism, but you should know that he was also an economist, sociologist and historian. He was the first to introduce the concept ofsocial classes.

You should know that his analysis gives a central place to the economic dimension. For him, theindustrial Revolutionyou XIXecentury has upset the organization of societies. The concentration of capital has resulted in abipolarization of society and conflicting relations between two classes: THEbourgeois(which he also calls the capitalists) and theproletarians.

The bourgeois are those who hold the capital and theproduction methods(the land, the factories, the money to invest), and which make work the proletarians who are, them, owners only of their onlyWorkforce.

The definition of a class meets three criteria:

  • the first is that you have to be in the same position in the productive process, in other wordswhether or not to own the means of production;

  • the second is that we must share common values, aculture collective;

  • the third is for Marx the most important: one must have a collective conscience, in other words defend the same interests and be aware that one belongs to the same class. This collective consciousness marks the passage from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself”.

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“Class in itself” and “class for itself”:

The "class in itselfis a situation where individuals share identical living conditions. By becoming aware that they can act together to defend their interests and that they can improve their situation, by organizing themselves, these individuals then become a “class for themselves”.

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Bourgeois and proletarians each shareclass interests:

  • the bourgeois seek to exploit the proletarians to increase their quantity of capital,

  • the proletarians, for their part, seek to improve their living conditions and to benefit from the capital produced by their labor power.

For Marx, theSocial reportsare thereforeproduction reports. They are said to be related to the material conditions of existence, that is, they depend on the material situation in which one lives. According to this vision, all societies are class societies, antagonists. This antagonism is at the origin of the class struggle, which is a struggle against the capitalist model: by changing the way of producing, we can then overturn social relations.

It is said that Marx's class analysis is a realistic analysis, in the sense that the concept of social class translates an objective reality, which everyone can see: one owns or does not own the means of production.

Max Weber

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Max Weber, also a German economist and sociologist, opposed this Marxist vision. His criticism of Marx will essentially focus on two points:

  • first of all, it challenges the idea that society is totally bipolarized between two opposing groups;

  • it contests the exclusively economic foundation of the social structure.

For Weber, the social structure is multidimensional, it is organized in three dimensions:

  • the first dimension is that ofsocial classes. But the meaning here is different from the Marxist vision: to exist, individuals who share a class situation do not need to share a class consciousness, to be aware of belonging to the same group. The mere fact that they have common economic characteristics is enough to qualify them as such. Classes therefore do not need to have to organize or fight against each other;

  • the second dimension is that ofstatus groups. A status group is defined by the degree of prestige or honor that the individual members of the group recognize each other. These include, for example, the clergy, the homeless, doctors or judges: all those individuals who are aware of sharing an identical social status;

  • the third dimension is finally that of thepolitical parties, that is to say individuals who come together to defend the same social project.

Social classes are thus only one category of social group among others. They don't need to be self-aware to exist. There is no bipolarization. Weber's analysis is said to benominaliste: this means that classes are theoretical, abstract concepts which are “named” and developed by the sociologist to study society, but which do not correspond to an observed reality.

These analyzes by Marx and Weber are often referred to asfounders, since they are the ones who pose thebasics of a class analysis of the social structure. However, they date back more than a century, and have since been updated by new analyses. We find among them the attempt to go beyond the realist conception and the nominalist conception, operated by Pierre Bourdieu, and the analysis in terms of averaging, such as that proposed by Henri Mendras.

Attempt at overcoming (Pierre Bourdieu) and averaging (Henri Mendras)

Pierre Bourdieu

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Pierre Bourdieu is a contemporary French sociologist who died in 2002. His study of social space is based on several dimensions, several criteria that allow us to understand how individuals differentiate themselves and establish power relations between them.

In Bourdieu, social classes are characterized by the structure and the volume of the global capital of their members.

This global capital is composed of four dimensions:

  • theeconomic capitalfirst of all: that is to say all of an individual's income, but also his heritage (his real estate, his material goods such as jewelry or precious objects for example);

  • thecultural capitalthen or the set of worship practices that this individual has assimilated (his way of speaking or his artistic tastes);

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  • thecapital socialagain, that is to say the set of social relations at his disposal: these are the people or networks he knows and that he can mobilize;

  • and finally, thesymbolic capital(its reputation, honor or prestige).

It is according to the quantity of economic, cultural, social and symbolic capital of each that groupings take place between individuals. Bourdieu then distinguishes two types of classes: classestheoretical, which he calls “classes on paper” and theconcrete classes, called “real classes”, which are aware of themselves. He then countsthree different classes:

  • the ruling class;

  • the middle class;

  • the popular class.

The dominant class is the one that has the most cultural capital, the most social capital, the most symbolic capital and the most economic capital. Each of these classes adoptsdistinction strategies: she seeks to impose herdominationon others by adopting specific behaviors (attitudes, ways of speaking, dressing or entertaining). He explains that individuals who are members of the same class have ahabitusof the same class.

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Bourdieu defines thehabitusas a set of ways of doing, of thinking, of acting, of being specific to each individual and which results from learning linked to the group to which they belong.

With this analysis, Bourdieu seeks to overcome the opposition between theoretical and real analysis of social classes. He goes beyond Marx's analysis by insisting on the importance of non-economic criteria, and in particular that of the cultural factor. Another phenomenon will also challenge traditional analyses: it is the trend towards the averaging of society.

Henri Mendras and the concept of averaging society

To fully understand the concept of averaging, we must ask ourselves this seemingly simple question: do social classes still exist today in France?

If we observe the contemporary social structure, we can see that although inequalities are starting to increase again, they are nevertheless much less marked than a century ago. Wealth is better distributed, living conditions have improved. Our behaviors are more and more homogeneous, whatever our social background or our conditions of resources. The development of the tertiary sector and services has led to a reduction in the number of workers and the training of executives, intermediate professions who find themselves neither in a dominant class nor in a dominated class. We then speak of the “middle” class.

The French sociologist Henri Mendras, who died in 2003, studied this phenomenon of averaging, modeling society in the form of a spinning top.

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The company is made up of two major units: aconstellation centrale, composed of executives, teachers and higher professions, and apopular constellation, composed of employees and salaried employees. Around these two constellations gravitate other, smaller ones, which include the Independents. The large group formed by the "belly" of the spinning top represents the middle class: these are in fact individuals who belong to several different classes, but whose behaviors and lifestyles are similar.

At the very top, at the end of the spinning top, is the elite. And at the very bottom, at its base, are the poorest. The analysis of the evolution of the Mendras spinning top since the end of the 1950s is interesting. As seen in this diagram, its shape changes.

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We realize that as the years pass, the weight of the poorest class and the elite decreases, while the spinning top grows in its center: this means that the middle class develops more and more.

However, many other sociologists contest this tendency towards averaging: according to them, to speak of "middle class" as such is sociologically unfounded for several reasons:

  • the appearance of new technologies constantly reactivates the distinction within this middle class (for example, not all individuals have the means to own a 3D television or the latest iPhone), consumption habits are therefore not completely identical;

  • within the middle class, individuals do not always defend the same interests. They can even confront each other (we see this in particular during debates on pensions or Sunday work, between executives, shopkeepers or employees);

  • for the past fifteen years, the progression of inequalities has also affected the components of this middle class, with on the one hand individuals who are economically well off, on the other people who can barely live decently;

  • cultural practices remain different, whether it concerns, among other things, musical choices, shows or simply the programs we watch on television.

In concrete terms, we can therefore no longer analyze the social structure in terms of classes in the sense that Marx and Weber understood it, even if their theories allow us to better understand how society was organized. Bourdieu's analysis remains relevant.

Thus, we can deduce that the concept of "social class" provides an explanation for the analysis of the evolution of the social structure, although this notion is very widely contested in France today.

The differentiation criteria

To define what the criteria of social differentiation are, it suffices to study what are the criteria that explain the social differences between individuals. In France, there is a statistical tool based on differences in professional status called thePCS, THEprofessions and socio-professional categories. However, work is not always the cause of the inequalities that we see.

Professional status (the PCS)

The current nomenclature of professions and socio-professional categories has existed since 1982. It consists of grouping into eight categories professions considered similar, either in terms of field of activity (for example the environment or new technologies), or in terms of functions , of tasks performed by workers (for example execution tasks or decision tasks). “Nomenclature” means that it is a classification: individuals are “named” according to their profession, their activity, whether they are salaried or not.

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To remember

Among these eight groups, themselves subdivided into subsets, we find:

  • Farmers;
  • Craftsmen, traders and entrepreneurs;
  • Executives and higher intellectual professions;
  • Intermediate professions;
  • Employees;
  • Workers;
  • Pensioners;
  • Other people without professional activity.

Each of the sets is supposed to bring together people who share common behaviors, similar opinions, identical lifestyles: they are said to be “socially homogeneous". To group them, we relied on several criteria:

  • their profession;

  • their status, i.e. whether they are salaried or self-employed;

  • their level of qualification, which includes hierarchical position, level of diploma and skills;

  • their sector of activity: agricultural, artisanal or industrial, for example.

The PCS are a tool for analyzing the population at a given time: the classification makes it possible to know how the French population is made up in order to analyze its evolutions. Speaking of changes, it is interesting to observe how the workforce of each category has evolved, since their creation in 1982, until 2015.

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Workforce in percentage
1982 2000 2015

1 and 2: Farmers, artisans, traders


3: Executives and higher intellectual professions


4: Intermediate professions


5: Employees


6: Workers


Source: National Assembly

The table above, which does not take into account retired people and people without work, shows that for more than thirty years, the categories which have been declining the most in numbers are farmers, craftsmen, traders and business leaders: they fell from 10% of the population in 1982 to 4% in 2015. This is mainly due to the decline in the number of farmers, due to the reduction in the primary sector.

Workers also go from 32% to 25%. Again, this is the phenomenon oftertiarisationof the economy which explains this reduction, as well as the increase in the number of executives (from 14 to 21%) and intermediate professions (from 14 to 17%).

The PCS grid is therefore a relevant tool for analyzing French society, for understanding its inequalities and for revealing its socio-economic transformations. However, it also has limitations, attributable to the choice of classification.

It does not indicate, for example, the social origin of each individual, the type of employment contract he has signed: whether it is a precarious job, a fixed-term contract (CDD) or an indefinite one ( CDI) or interim. The groups are also not all homogeneous within them (for example, among farmers, some are autonomous smallholders while others hire several people).

Finally, the PCS do not take into account other forms of discrimination, other criteria of social distinction which are nevertheless also explanatory factors of social stratification, such as gender, origin or age.

Other sources of cleavages

One of the first sources of cleavages between classes is generational: it is a distinction linked to age. Because new inequalities and discriminations have appeared, between young and old:

  • theschool consolidationhas led to an increase in the duration of studies for young people. They enter the labor market later and are the first to be affected by precariousness, whether in terms of professional instability, with unemployment, fixed-term or temporary employment or in terms of housing, for example;

  • at the same time, we are living longer and longer. While we spoke of “third age” in the 1980s to characterize the elderly, we now speak of “fourth age” to designate people over 75 years old.

The French sociologist Louis Chauvel studies thisgenerational dividefor thirty years. He established that thepurchasing powerof young people compared to seniors was considerably reduced. He also pointed out that young people today are excluded from a multitude of segments of social life, compared to their elders.

Social ascent is, for example, less easily accessible to them, as is immediate access to stable and well-paid jobs. It also highlighted their exclusion from political power, whose representatives are more sensitive to the older electorate, and who are also mostly quite old themselves. His conclusion is radical and somewhat provocative: he believes that the "class struggle", asMarxexplained it, is no longer relevant, but has instead given way to a new struggle: the struggle of the ages.

Thegenreis also a source of discrimination. The fact of being a man or a woman has consequences on access to certain professions, on career development, during recruitment and even on the level of remuneration. It is estimated, for example, that women earn about 20% less than men for identical jobs. Gender inequalities also affect women in the domestic world, since unpaid domestic work is still largely performed by women today.

This form of domestic exploitation has repercussions in terms of part-time work (80% occupied by women), retirement pensions, career prospects, and thereforepoverty(80% of the working poor are women). Two complementary explanations can be given: an explanation in terms ofhabitusgender (the devaluation of female work, and the overvaluation of the role of mother), and an explanation in terms of discrimination (which explains part of the salary and career inequalities).

L’Ethnicityor thereligionare also at the root of inequalities. This is a proven fact in the professional environment and this is why some people want the anonymous CV to be introduced for recruitment, that is to say a CV without the candidate's name or photo (in order to avoid, for example, that he could be ousted because of his skin color or the sound of his name). We know less, but discrimination also regularly takes place in access to rental housing, services or leisure spaces.

L’urbanisationand thepopulation growthare also a source of inequality; they do not allow everyone access to the same services (for example, the difference between the inhabitants of the Paris region, who monopolize most of the cultural offers, administrative services and those of the "province" who only benefit from some, or, more broadly, between the inhabitants of urban areas and those of rural areas.)

Beyond age, gender, origin, place of life, we could extend the list to find other forms of criteria that divide contemporary French society into several groups. However, these criteria are not sufficient to speak of social classes, as the lifestyles, aspirations and habits of the individuals who compose them are so diverse. Especially since they do not lead to "class consciousness" strictly speaking.


Traditionally, the analysis of social structure is done in terms of social classes. A distinction must be made between Marx's realist analysis, based on the antagonism between capitalists and proletarians, which differentiates "classes in themselves" from "classes for themselves" and is based on the analysis of the economic model, from the nominalist analysis of Weber, who conceives of social structure in three dimensions (social classes which are not necessarily self-aware, status groups and political parties). By introducing the notions of capital (social, cultural, symbolic and economic) and habitus, Bourdieu attempts to overcome this opposition. Mendras, with his study of the spinning top society, also challenges these traditional theories by highlighting the growing importance of the middle class.

To understand what today explains the structure of our societies, we take less account of this notion of social class and we generally consider professional status, since it is this that generates income and social status. In France, the PCS are used as a statistical tool to understand social changes and inequalities. But there are also other types of criteria, such as age, gender, ethnic origin or even where you live.


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