middle class

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middle class:

see bourgeoisiebourgeoisie
, 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.
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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

self-satisfied conformer to middle-class ideas and ideals. [Am. Lit: Babbitt]
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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