Figure 5 - The dynamic macro-model

Understanding class

Erik Olin Wright
Erik Olin Wright

As I promised (in Class analysis in Australia), here, I provide a summary of Erik Olin Wright’s paper, Understanding class – towards an integrated analytical approach. The article distinguishes three main approaches to class analysis: the individual-attributes approach, the opportunity-hoarding approach, and the exploitation-domination approach. Wright argues that these approaches are not sharply distinct. It is possible to develop a holistic analytical approach, integrating all three as various aspects or levels of analysis. Wright maintains that the integrated approach is better capable of analysing the dynamic of class relations.


The individual-attributes approach

The individual-attributes approach class with individuals’ attributes, material conditions, and the interactions and interconnections between the two. This approach, which is used in stratification research in market economies, considers several key attributes including education, cultural resources, social connections, and individual motivations.

This approach categorises the population into four classes with respect to the ‘mainstream’ way of life.

  • The ‘middle class’, with enough education and economic resources to live the ‘mainstream’ life
  • The ‘upper class’, with more than average resources.
  • The ‘lower class’, lacking education and resources to live securely above the poverty line.
  • The ‘underclass’, living in extreme poverty and lacking basic education and skills for stable employment.

This approach cannot fully explain inequalities and relational nature of people’s positions.

Figure 1 - The individual-attributes approach
Figure 1 – The individual-attributes approach

The opportunity-hoarding approach

The opportunity-hoarding approach defines classes based on their access to or exclusion from economic opportunities and resources. It is based on the concept of ‘opportunity hoarding’ (associated with Weber’s work) and the process of social closure. For certain jobs to (continue to) offer high incomes and benefits, the incumbents must restrict the access to them and exclude others. In other words, the value of skills relates to their scarcity.

Higher education, citizenship rights, and private-property rights are some of the means to access economic resources. The private-property rights are particularly important. They create the ‘core class division’ between capitalists and workers, which is a crucial issue to both the second and the third approaches.

Figure 2 - The opportunity-hoarding approach
Figure 2 – The opportunity-hoarding approach

This approach categorises the society into three classes:

  • Capitalists, exclusive owners of the means of production
  • The middle class, having access to the acquisition of education and skills
  • The working class, excluded from higher educational credentials and capital. The unionised labour is either a privileged stratum or part of the middle-class.

The first two approaches differ on how they explain class positions. In the first approach, mere individual conditions result in inequalities. In the second approach, privileged class positions are causally related to the disadvantages of the excluded.

The exploitation-domination approach

The third approach is based on the concepts of exploitation and domination.

‘Domination’ refers to the ability to control the activities of others; ‘exploitation’ refers to the acquisition of economic benefits from the labour of those who are dominated. All exploitation therefore involves some kind of domination, but not all domination involves exploitation.

Domination and exploitation are morally charged notions and imply a normative approach. Thus, many sociologists try to avoid this approach and leave it to its original tradition, i.e. Marxism.

This approach views inequalities as a structural issue, which is the outcome of “the continual active cooperation between exploiters and exploited, dominators and dominated”.

Figure 3 - The exploitation-domination approach
Figure 3 – The exploitation-domination approach

Among the three, the individual-attributes approach is the least relational because does not consider economic conditions or activities to directly reflect social relations. The Weberian approach only considers conditions as the result of exclusion. The Marxian approach is the most relational and does not limit its analysis to only conditions but also considers the relationship between activities.

An interim combined approach

Each of the mentioned approaches has advantages and limitations. The Weberian and Marxian approaches consider power crucial in the class structure leading to inequalities. The Weberian approach also demonstrates how opportunity hoarding creates barriers to exclude the working class from access to ‘middle-class’ jobs. The stratification approach is helpful to understand who can have access to and who is excluded from certain jobs.

Wright suggests that the three approaches can be combined in a novel approach that can incorporate all their advantages. A combined approach is proposed as presented in Figure 4. The setback of this approach, as presented in the figure, is that it seems as if power relations and institutional rules are exogenous structures. However, they are, in fact, under the effect of class processes and conflicts.

Figure 4 - Combined class analysis: macro and micro processes
Figure 4 – Combined class analysis: macro and micro processes

The dynamic macro-model

To overcome the above limitation, Wright presents a ‘recursive, dynamic macro-model’. This model can present the role of social struggles in shaping the trajectory of relations.

Figure 5 - The dynamic macro-model
Figure 5 – The dynamic macro-model



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