Social class

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As a social class , a viewed as similar is the population of a company or a state referred to based social features a hierarchically structured layering model is assigned. Distinguishing features can be economic , educational , occupational or other factors that are determined depending on the theoretical approach to delimiting the individual classes. In common parlance, for example, the upper class of a society is spoken of, in industrial societies the middle class is seen as important for the market economy , while the lower classes are generally considered to be disadvantaged. With regard to education and social inequality , the population is divided into educational strata , and in political terms into social strata with fewer or more opportunities to influence decision-making processes.

There is no general definition of layer ; some sociologists also use layer as a collective term for class, caste, status and other systems of social inequality (see key concepts of social structure analysis ). In principle, the association of a person is considered a social layer as open and changeable ( social advancement , social mobility ), while belonging to a caste or status determined by birth and thus closed. In contrast to a class , a social class is not determined by a mutual relationship of dependency or a feeling of we .

Layer models

The idea that the social structure of a society could be represented in the form of a stratification of superimposed social levels (technical language: stratification) was elaborated by the sociologist Theodor Geiger in 1932 in his work Soziale Strichtung des Deutschen Volkes . He took the name from the miner's language , where it describes rock layers , and transferred it to the population structure within the state borders of the Weimar Republic at that time. Geiger's layered model placed the description of social differences in the foreground and wanted to clearly distinguish itself from the explanation of social inequality in the concept of class conflict by Karl Marx (see also class and layer theories ). At Geiger, however, economic factors such as income and property remained fundamental .

The assumption that societies are fundamentally or in their current forms structured in stages, i.e. hierarchically , assumes that in each social class there are many social actors ( actors ) who can be examined in the same way , and that the classes themselves are clearly structured according to certain social characteristics can be divided (see also sham explanation of the stratification theory ). Stratification models divide society into an indefinite number of social strata or groups, which are determined according to characteristics such as occupation , education , standard of living , power , religion , type of clothing, political opinion or organization. A distinction is made between objective and subjective criteria ( see below ). Stratification concepts are closely linked to the criteria of industrial society , but fundamentally do not question the legitimacy or justice of the social order and stratification.

Schematic representation of the Dahrendorf house (West German social class around 1965)

Important sociological layer models for the analysis of the West German population structure were or are:

In the 1950s, Harriett B. Moore and Gerhard Kleining placed the “socially despised” ( social fringe groups ) below the lower class .

Contrasting stratification features

The individual stratification characteristics often depict contrasting but graded social conditions, for example income , educational levels , social standing as well as standard of living , risks and opportunities or satisfaction - parts of the population have more or less of them in quantitative terms . For example, if the limit values specified by the DIW for the middle class (at least 70% or less than 150% of the median income) are applied to the annual net equivalent income of € 21,920 in Germany in 2017, the result is that a member of the lower class has a monthly income of less than 1,279 € has. Accordingly, one belongs to the upper class with a monthly income of € 2,740 or more.

Other characteristics are seen as opposing but divided into two parts , especially property and rule - parts of the population either have them or not. Modern class models take greater account of social mobility and social differences within social milieus . The respective weighting of these individual characteristics raises difficult methodological questions if a model with a few layers is desired. Milieu studies provide a way out here.

Prehistoric and early historical stratification characteristics such as beauty , fertility , body size , strength, endurance or courage are usually not recorded to determine the social structure, but currently appear as increasingly important and influential determinants of celebrities , for example in show business or sport , especially in the western world . However, such features are included in some other stratification features, not infrequently in a way that has not yet been deciphered, as the Swiss sociologist Thomas Gautschi demonstrated in 2006 on the basis of height.

Objective versus subjective stratification

Many stratification models create the impression that the social stratification exists objectively in a society. However, with his conceptual concept of class consciousness and the separation of “class in itself ” and “class for itself ”, Karl Marx already pointed to the subjective aspect of social stratification.

Regardless of whether hierarchies exist objectively or not, individuals always have the need to order and structure their social environment ( categorization ). A sub-area of ​​sociological research therefore deals with the social representations of social classes. Myths and religious texts represent a focus of the analysis. The Polish sociologist Stanisław Ossowski has pointed out that myths are in most cases a simplified representation of our view of social space and surprisingly often have simple opposing dichotomies .

The American sociologist William Lloyd Warner has pointed out the difficulties of investigating the objective social stratification of a society . Warner's goal was to create a typology of social space in American cities. Instead, however, he presented an overview of the subjective ideas of Americans about their social space. Warner concluded from this that class / stratum can only exist if the individuals feel they belong to it and identify with other members of the same class / stratum. This identification is based on the idea that the individual has of the existing social structure. There every social actor classifies himself and others and assigns social positions .

Pierre Bourdieu combined the concept of objective social classification with that of subjective classification. Using an extensive empirical study with newly developed theoretical tools, he examined how this classification should be carried out. He found that the power relations between individuals and classes or strata are subject to constant change and have to be readjusted each time. This process makes it possible for the " hierarchized social order to get an objective existence within a social formation ". This in turn is internalized by the individuals and the “social order burns itself into the brain over time. Social differences thus become the basis of the social distinction that organizes the perception of the social world ”.

Criticism of the stratification model

In 1968, the German sociologist Erhard Wiehn referred to a circular argument in the stratification theories : They explain higher incomes of members of the upper class by saying that they fulfill a more important function for society - but, conversely, determine the social importance of a function through the income of the service providers.

Above all, the fixation on economic circumstances and the different standards are criticized. The basis is usually the equivalent income . The part of the population that has a net equivalent income in a narrower or wider range around a mean value ( median ) is called the average earner or middle class ; the upper class has more income, the lower class less.

The upper and lower limits are set differently by different institutions. Germany, Austria and Switzerland, for example, use the range from 70 to 150 percent, the OECD uses 20 to 80 percent (2nd to 4th quintile), and the Luxembourg Income Study  (LIS) uses 75 to 125 percent of the mean net equivalent income .

Methodically, every stratification model has to struggle with the problem of status inconsistency , because the classification characteristics can contradict each other: A person examined may belong to an upper stratum with regard to one characteristic, but a lower stratum with regard to another (see also social status in stratification theory ). An extreme example is the long-term unemployed as a lottery millionaire . The chairman of the DIW Gert G. Wagner cited another example : It was "totally implausible in the world of life " to assume that "with one and a half times the average income - for example as a double-earning student couple - you already belong to the upper social class, which has power and influence " . In principle, the actors involved can switch between social classes as a social rise or fall ( social mobility ).



  • Rainer Geißler : Social classes and strata - social situations - social milieus: models and controversies. In: The same: The social structure of Germany. For social development with a balance sheet for unification. 4th, revised and updated edition. Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2006, ISBN 3-531-42923-X , pp. 93–120 ( PDF file; 1.3 MB, 31 pages ).
  • Rainer Geißler (ed.): Social stratification and life chances in Germany. 2nd, completely revised edition. Enke, Stuttgart 1994, ISBN 3-432-95982-6 .
  • Stefan Hradil : Groupings in the structure of social inequality: Models and findings on social classes, strata and positions. In: The same: Social inequality in Germany. 8th edition. Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2001, ISBN 3-8100-3000-7 , pp. 353–376 ( page views in the Google book search).
  • Heinz-Herbert Noll , Stefan Weick: Social class is not only determined by income. Analyzes of the subjective class classification in Germany. In: Information Service Social Indicators. Edition 45, GESIS - Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences , February 2011, pp. 1–7 ( PDF file; 757 kB, 16 pages )

International studies:

  • OECD: Being “Middle-Class” in Latin America. Development Center Working Paper No. 305, DEV DOC (2011) 13, doi : 10.1787 / 5kg3jcdx4jlx-en ( eReader ,
  • OECD: All On Board. Making Inclusive Growth Happen. 2014. Chapter What about the middle-class? , P. 22 ff ( pdf ,, accessed on February 27, 2015; there p. 26 ff).

Web links

Wiktionary: Layer  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: lower class  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: upper class  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Jan Goebel, Martin Gornig, Hartmut Häußermann: Polarization of incomes: The middle class is losing. (PDF; 469 kB) In: Weekly Report No. 24/2010. German Institute for Economic Research , Berlin, June 6, 2010, p. 3 , accessed on October 23, 2019 (8 pages).
  2. Average and median income by age and gender ., accessed October 13, 2017 (the more recent PPS data are often corrected, so they differ after a few days); for an interpretation of the data (for 2009) see Europe: Income . Federal Agency for Civic Education : → Figures and facts ; Retrieved February 8, 2014 (some slightly different figures there).
  3. Compare Thomas Gautschi , Dominik Hangartner: Size Does Matter. Height, human capital and income. (PDF file; 270 kB) In: Social World. Institute for Sociology, University of Bern, January 11, 2007, pp. 273–294 , archived from the original on February 26, 2014 ; Retrieved June 25, 2014 (31 pages).
  4. Pierre Bourdieu : The subtle differences. Critique of social judgment . Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 1987, ISBN 3-518-28258-1 , p. 549 (French first edition 1979).
  5. Erhard Roy Wiehn : Theories of social stratification. A critical discussion (= studies on sociology. Volume 9). Piper, Munich 1968, ISSN  0585-6205 , p. 92 (1982: ISBN 3-492-01652-9 ).
  6. OECD: Making Inclusive Growth Happen. P. 22
  7. Luxembourg Income Study (
  8. OECD Working Paper No. 305, p. 11
  9. ^ Gert G. Wagner: The inflation of the middle class. DIW Berlin, December 10, 2012, accessed on September 19, 2015 .