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Comparisons and contrasts between the theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber on social class.

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Comparisons and contrasts between the theories of Karl Marx and Max Weber on social class Inequality between people is the basis of the democratic system. Those who have the skills and abilities to perform and produce will succeed. But this belief is with the assumption that all people are given equal advantages and opportunities. During the nineteenth century, Karl Marx and Max Weber were two of the most influential sociologists who developed their own theories about why inequality is maintained. This essay, using sociological explanations, compares the differences and similarities between Marx and Weber's theories of class. It examines their theories of class, which are based on economic inequality. Finally, this essay reveals that Weber emerges as the better theorist as he can explain more of the complexities of modern stratification thereby providing a better explanation for class in contemporary society. As Giddens (1997:240) writes "inequalities exist in all types of human society". Sociologists have given the term 'social stratification' to describe inequalities. "It is necessary to make a distinction between social inequality, which is the existence of socially created inequalities and social stratification, which is a particular form of social inequality" (Haralambos and Holborn, 1995:21). Social stratification includes all forms of inequalities such as gender, ethnicity, age and political power, not only that of class inequality. (Bilton, Bonnett, Jones, Skinner, Stanworth and Webster, 1996:138). "Some dimensions of stratification may include the amount of property one owns, the honour one receives, the ethnic group into which one is born or the income one receives" (Waters and Crook, 1993:174).


Weber, unlike Marx, explains other dimensions of stratification besides class. One based on 'life styles' (or status), that may be quite different from class systems (e.g. particular occupations might have traditional status regardless of their levels of income or wealth). Status groups for Weber, may have sources outside class: people who work in the same place feel that they have much in common, for example, even if they belong to different classes. (Haralambos and Holborn, 1995:37). What members of status groups have in common is a style of life. Stratification therefore occurs along lines of lifestyles. Finally, there are independent systems of political power too, where groups known generally as 'parties' (which might include pressure groups or informal lobbying outfits like consumer protest movements) struggle for power to influence legislation or to control and limit markets etc. (Haralambos and Holborn, 1995:38). Just as status groups can both divide classes and cut across boundaries, so parties can divide and cut across both classes and status groups. Weber's arguments about bureaucracy must be added to this picture. The development of modern bureaucracy makes the picture of class more complex again. Weber notes, however, that bureaucracy is often bound up with class structure: bureaucracy is fully developed only in modern times and especially in the 'advanced institutions of capitalism' (Gerth and Mills, 1947:196). Bureaucrats form a status group, and one, which cultivates and reinforces its position. Marx believed that certain factors, such as capitalism 'alienating' workers from their job, would hasten the downfall of capitalism and that these factors will result in the polarisation of the two main classes.


In conclusion, this essay has shown that both theorists agree that ownership of property and the value of labour are key causes of class stratification. But Marx puts his emphasis on property ownership, while Weber focuses on labour value. The result is that Marx sees the role of a capitalist government as protecting the bourgeoisie property rights and Weber sees it as introducing bureaucracy to stand between the bourgeoisie and their exploitation of the workers. Weber, unlike Marx, takes a multi causal approach when explaining social phenomena. We can see this multi causal approach at work in Weber's treatment of class. For here Weber is arguing that non-economic factors such as 'family background', 'educational attainment' and 'culture/beliefs' are important causal factors in the determination of class. Weber refuses to tie 'status' or 'party' too closely or necessarily to class. Weber emerges as the better theorist, because he can explain more of the complexities of modern stratification, while Marx is seen to reduce everything down to one fundamental model based on his own analysis of capitalism as exploitation. Weber's theories on class and stratification show that other dimensions of stratification, besides class, strongly influence people's lives. Marx's attempt at a formal definition usefully indicates the social bases of class; this approach fails to take adequate account of all the other classes that exist in society. The Weberian perspective gives credence to the importance of ideas in social life and in my view provides a better explanation for class in contemporary society.

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