middle class


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Bourgeois, Léon

Bourgeois, Léon (lāôNˈ bo͞orzhwäˈ), 1851–1925, French statesman and social philosopher. He held cabinet posts, notably the premiership (1895–96) and was a delegate to the first and second Hague peace conferences and a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. One of the earliest proponents of the League of Nations, he headed the French delegation in the League. In 1920 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His influential book, Solidarité (1896), advocated the use of public authority to achieve the solidarity increasingly necessary within and among nations.

bourgeoisie

bourgeoisie (bo͝orzhwäzēˈ), originally the name for the inhabitants of walled towns in medieval France; as artisans and craftsmen, the bourgeoisie occupied a socioeconomic position between the peasants and the landlords in the countryside. The term was extended to include the middle class of France and subsequently of other nations. The word bourgeois has also long been used to imply an outlook associated with materialism, narrowness, and lack of culture—these characteristics were early satirized by Molière and have continued to be a subject of literary analysis.

Origins and Rise

The bourgeoisie as a historical phenomenon did not begin to emerge until the development of medieval cities as centers for trade and commerce in Central and Western Europe, beginning in the 11th cent. The bourgeoisie, or merchants and artisans, began to organize themselves into corporations as a result of their conflict with the landed proprietors. At the end of the Middle Ages, under the early national monarchies in Western Europe, the bourgeoisie found it in their interests to support the throne against the feudal disorder of competing local authorities. In England and the Netherlands, the bourgeoisie was the driving force in uprooting feudalism in the late 16th and early 17th cent.

In the 17th and 18th cent., the bourgeoisie supported principles of constitutionality and natural right, against the claims of divine right and against the privileges held by nobles and prelates. The English, American, and French revolutions derived partly from the desire of the bourgeoisie to rid itself of feudal trammels and royal encroachments on personal liberty and on the rights of trade and property. In the 19th cent., the bourgeoisie, triumphantly propounding liberalism, gained political rights as well as religious and civil liberties. Thus modern Western society, in its political and also in its cultural aspects, owes much to bourgeois activities and philosophy.

Subsequent to the Industrial Revolution, the class greatly expanded, and differences within it became more distinct, notably between the high bourgeois (industrialists and bankers) and the petty bourgeois (tradesmen and white-collar workers). By the end of the 19th cent., the capitalists (the original bourgeois) tended to be associated with a widened upper class, while the spread of technology and technical occupations was opening the bourgeoisie to entry from below.

In Marxism

Within Karl Marx's theory of class struggle, the bourgeoisie plays a significant role. By overthrowing the feudal system it is seen as an originally progressive force that later becomes a reactionary force as it tries to prevent the ascendency of the proletariat (wage earners) in order to maintain its own position of predominance. Some writers argue that Marx's theory fails because he did not foresee the rise of a new, expanded middle class of professionals and managers, which, although they are wage earners, do not fit easily into his definition of the proletariat.

Bibliography

See H. Pirenne, Medieval Cities (1952) and Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (1956); D. Johnson, ed., Class and Social Development (1982); P. Gay, The Bourgeois Experience (Vol. I–V, 1984–98).

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Middle classclick for a larger image
Fig. 19 Middle class. The figure indicates the increasing middle-class proportion of the gainfully employed population of the UK in the period 1911-71 (percentages). (Adapted from Routh, 1980.)

middle class(es)

the non-manual occupational groups(s) which are located between the UPPER and the WORKING CLASSES.

The term ‘middle’ itself reflects a widely perceived common-sense conception of a status hierarchy in which non-manual work is accorded greater prestige than manual work, but is recognized as socially inferior to groups with major property or political interests. The presence of a large middle class in capitalist societies has been a subject of interest for a number of reasons. Important changes in occupational structure, involving a large increase in non-manual occupations, have forced a re-examination of the concept of social CLASS, particularly with reference to the social and political role of the ‘middle class(es)’.

Until the 19th century, there existed few relatively specialized occupational roles of the kind that now exist, e.g. accountancy teaching, nursing. This is not to say that ‘middle class’ roles in banking and government, and in the traditional PROFESSIONS did not exist. However, in both industry and government, especially over the last 100 years, there has occurred an enormous expansion of non-manual occupations, while the number of manual workers has shrunk (see Fig. 19).

The growth of non-manual occupations, and also the persistence of small businesses and the professions, poses theoretical problems for some traditional approaches to CLASS and SOCIAL STRATIFICATION. Until recently, Marxist theory especially had no well-developed analysis of the nature and significance of the ‘middle classes’. The problems are compounded by the great diversity of non-manual work which ranges from routine clerical work to relatively powerful managerial and professional roles, with the owners of independent small businesses in between. This has led to radically different ideas of where to locate the middle classes within the class structure. It has been argued, for instance, that a process of PROLETARIANIZATION has reduced the status, pay and working conditions of clerical workers to those of the manual working class. Others (e.g. Ehrenreich and Ehrenreich, 1979) have argued that the ‘professional-managerial class’ is a new and distinct class in its own right, while still others (e.g. Poulantzas, 1975) see the development of a NEW PETTY BOURGEOISIE (see also INTELLECTUAL LABOUR, CONTRADICTORY CLASS LOCATIONS).

Such differences in theoretical perspective reflect the diverse and ambiguous character of the middle class(es). It has often been argued, for instance, that non-manual occupations are distinguished by relatively higher pay, better working conditions, more opportunities for promotion, etc., than manual occupations. This argument cannot be sustained for women working in routine clerical jobs or behind shop counters; their WORK and MARKET SITUATION is quite different from that of higher middle-class occupations. On the other hand, routine white-collar workers do, on average, often work fewer hours per week than manual workers, and commonly enjoy great security of income, better sick pay and pension arrangements and greater job security. The further one moves up the status hierarchy the greater become the advantages of higher pay, career prospects and various ‘perks’ (e.g. company cars, low-interest loans or health insurance). The marked differences that exist within the middle class(es) mean that debates about their class situation and the implication of this for CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS, will continue to be held in sociology. See also MULTIDIMENSIONAL ANALYSIS OF SOCIAL STRATIFICATION, CLASS IMAGERY, SOCIAL MOBILITY.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000

Middle Class

Babbitt
self-satisfied conformer to middle-class ideas and ideals. [Am. Lit: Babbitt]
Forsyte
representative of property-owning class in early 20th century. [Br. Lit.: The Forsyte Saga]
Podsnap, John
smugly complacent in his Britishness. [Br. Lit.: Our Mutual Friend]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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