How does sociology treat social classes?

Spinoff from this GD thread. A lot of Americans appear skeptical even of the existence, here, of social classes as entities distinct from income-levels or SES, that’s supposedly an Old-World thing. However, practically every social/political thinker since Aristotle has acknowledged the existence and importance of class divisions in society. But the nearest thing to an actual science in this field is sociology. It occurs to me that by now sociologists should have developed a standard model, or several standard models, for telling how many distinguishable social classes there are in a given society and how they relate, but I’ve never heard that they have. Have they? If so, does anyone know the details?

For a bit of perspective on this from non-sociologist thinkers, see here and here.

Nobody knows?

Wikipedia: Social class

I believe there are quite a few subjects that talk about social classes: economics, anthropology, psychology, history, political science, just to name a few. And in terms of “science”, a social class is merely an operational definition. You can create a social class simply by establishing criteria for its membership.

That’s as much as to say that no social classes exist unless and until defined (not discovered) by a scientist. You don’t really believe that, do you?

Now you’re being philosophical, not scientific. Are you asking about how we use social classes in hypotheses or about the ontology of social classes? These aren’t the same questions.

This isn’t done only by scientists. I’d say that it is done (albeit informally, and perhaps subconsciously) any time a person thinks to himself, “Hmmph! He’s not one of my kind of people!”

If you go to graduate school* as a sociology student and take the required Introduction to Sociological Theory course, practically the first concept introduced will be social class. Major classic sociological theory types make “class” their fundamental explanatory tool for understanding and analyzing society, most centrally Marx himself and Max Weber.

  • probably true of 4-year college as well but I didn’t major in sociology at the undergrad level and didn’t take bachelors’-level Intro to Sociology.

There is no specific set of criteria that all sociologists agree on that can be used to definitively sort the population in to a certain number of classes in the U.S. Social class is a very widely used idea and term, but there are a lot of factors that contribute to social class. The abundance of factors means that most empirical studies use one or more easily assessed variables as proxies for social class. Personally, I prefer to use educational attainment. However, I’ve also seen: income, wealth, occupation, father’s occupation, father’s educational attainment, and mother’s educational attainment. Those are things I can think of off the top of my head.

I prefer to use shoes, because you can tell a lot about a man by his shoes.
Then, lunchboxes.

:confused: How not? I’m taking it as a given that social classes exist – which means that they are there for sociologists to study just like everything else in society. How is class different from anything else they study?

(replying to BrainGlutton despite not being ThisUsernameIsForbidden):

If you’re going to study anything in sociology that doesn’t have an intrinsic & self-explanatory operational definition, you’re going to want to start out by defining your terms.

Example: “For purposes of this study, with regards to the variable SEX, ‘male’ will be attributed as a characteristic of any student who checked ‘M’ on the admissios application form and ‘female’ will be attributed to any student who checked ‘F’. Other proposed and discussed attribution methods, including Stony & Hutchinson’s suggested use of DNA testing for XX vs XY chromosome or Gales & Wright’s schema of extrapolation from absence or presence of draft reg disclaimers on admissions forms were discussed and rejected in favor of this particular implementation”

That’s a midly silly example but you get the idea. You don’t want to put your study out there and have other academics have to puzzle over how the heck you operationalized your variable.

By being overt about it, you don’t make yourself immune from someone else saying “that’s not a very good way of operationalizing CLASS, you’ve effectively collapsed all other considerations into raw income / networth evaluations” or whatever, but they can’t use that to throw sand at your actual methodology. For purposes of your study, CLASS is whatever you openly operationalized it as.

Thanks for the explanation AHunter3

Just saying “a social class exists” says nothing other than “There is an x such that x is a social class”. It doesn’t tell you much of anything. And you certainly can’t form a hypothesis with it. Instead, you need to say, “Let the social class “Upper Class” denote the top 1% of income earners.” Then you can make statements about Upper Class that are hypotheses, like, “All members of Upper Class come from wealthy backgrounds.” We can test this statement against facts. It is falsifiable. This is scientific.

That’s not the same thing as saying, “Hey, let’s take for granted that social classes exist and seek to discover what all the classes are in the world based on their essential properties that make them what they are and distinguish them from other types of things in the world.” Now you’re doing metaphysics.