Exerpted with some substantial changes and additions, made by Ivan Kalmar in 2016, from: http://thunder1.cudenver.edu//sociology/introsoc/topics/UnitNotes/week06.html#Classes, accessed May 14, 2002

© Richard H. Anderson, by permission


Please note that the terms used here are ones that are commonly used by social scientists in North America. The public's use of class terms is somewhat different. For example, the public may include the uppper middle class under "upper class," and the upper working class under "middle class." Yet the difference in wealth and power between the upper and the upper middle class is vast.

What politicians and others mean by "middle class" is usually "middle-income people," which ignores the role of "cultural capital" (see below) and focuses only on money.

a. The upper class: the corporate rich

Represents the very wealthy, those in the very top level of corporate America. In the United States, these families constitute about 0.1% of all families. Every April Fortune Magazine publishes a list of the wealthiest families in America. Some are quite old (the DuPonts, the Rockefellers, the Hunts), others are very new (Bill Gates). If you do not know who these families are, go to the library and find a copy of Fortune and read up on them. You can visit the Forbes Magazine web site and see a comparative list of the world's all-time wealthiest people.

Great wealth does not automatically qualify one to be a member of the upper class.  Michael Jackson would not belong here, Tiger Woods might (at least before the scandals he got involved in).  The former and his activities do not have the cultural capital of golf.  Cultural as well as economic capital is required for membership in the upper class.

Through membership in exclusive social clubs and charities, the families maintain links among one another. According to E. Digby Baltzell, they can discuss their business and social interests in these contexts without fear of it getting into the hands of the public.

Many of these families do not become directly involved in politics (although some do, the Rockefeller family is notable in this respect -- they provided governors of New York, Virginia and Arkansas). This does not mean that they are not involved in the politics at the local or national level. It was Avirell Harriman's widow that decided Bill Clinton would make a good president of the United States. She held a number of social gatherings to which the Clinton's were invited so they could meet the people with the money needed to support a run for the presidency. She also convinced these fellow members of the elite that Bill Clinton would be the kind of president that would do the things they felt necessary to save the country. Ronald Reagan was the product of similar activites as was Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Donald Trump's relationship to the upper class is more complicated. He qualifies by income and heritage to be a member of the upper class, but his cultural capital is controversial, and it is often said that he does not have the typical upper class social networks.*

In summary, the upper class is an exclusive group that tends to marry and socialize within its own ranks. They occupy positions of power in the board rooms of global corporations and business and may be actively involved directly or indirectly in politics. Their wealth is vastly superior, per capita, to that of the rest of the population. In recent decades, the gap between them and others has continued to grow.*

b. The upper middle class: professional / managerial

This upper middle class consists of lawyers, physicians, other top management of large and medium corporations, top level engineers, some university professors and others whose careers depend on advanced education.

The class is characterized by 'doing.' Many have attended public schools. Others have constituted the majority in private secondary schools and selective prestigious universities (where members of the upper middle class may also go). In these settings they met the children of the upper class.  Together they  learn how to 'govern,' to run large economic enterprises and how to represent the interests of the upper class in the board and governing rooms of America.  In general the upper middle class carries out the mandates of the upper class or supports them in a variety of ways.  It may provide it with cultural capital, which is often associated with education.  However, the interests of the upper class may also clash with those of the upper middle class at times.

c. The (lower) middle class: Most White Collar Workers

These are the 'white collar' lower middle management type people, the solid middle class. Occupations tend to be those of teacher, lower level management and so forth.

The members of this class, the largest in contemporary western societies, do most of the work of the society, manage much of the low level sectors of the organizations. They are often quite conservative and very active in their religious communities. Today this group is a mixed bag, often including the small business owner and family farmer. Individuals in these last two groupings often feel threatened by the changes in the society and by large international corporations, government and business. In feeling threatened by such changes, which include globalization and migration, they resemble the upper working class, which is itself increasingly becoming culturally similar to the middle class.*

d. The upper working class: Skilled Labor and Trades

This class consists of people who build the goods that we all consume (if they are indeed made in America!). These are the truck drivers who deliver the goods to us, the policeman who maintain order, firefighters who keep it cool. Their income is not inferior to and may be superior to that of members of the middle class.* The upper working class in rich western countries is becoming very similar to the lower middle class in culture (speech, dress, food habits, leisure time), but still carries less cultural capital than the middle class.*

It used to be that one could make a good living as a member of this class, often with very little formal education (in the 1940s and 1950s some high school was all that was needed). The cities of the upper Ohio Valley in Ohio, the manufacturing communities of Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana are filled with these families. The towns of Virginia and Pennsylvania also have their share of these families (steel workers and coal miners). As more and more manufacturing is leaving the United States this class is under severe pressure. It is increasingly difficult for their children to follow in their parents footsteps. It is increasingly difficult for individuals with less than a high school education to find well-paying jobs and to be able to support the life styles that their parents found very familiar and comfortable.

E. The Lower Working Class: Unskilled Laborers*

These are unskilled workers. Men typically higher themselves out by the hour to do physical labor such as moving or roofing, and women may do the less prestigious work in offices or restaurants, or clean homes: the labor patterns of this class, and of the working class as a whole, are the most gender-differentiated. Lower working class people normally do not belong to labor unions and do not have post-secondary education. They lack job security, and may sometimes depend temporarily on unemployment insurance.

F. The underclass

This is a group that is perpetually underprivileged, often not even managing to get by. There is a very fine line between this group of people and the ones in the three 'classes' above. Any kind of financial downturn, unemployment or major medical crisis will put many people in the above groups into this one.

The members of this class are characterized as having little formal education and few if any marketable skills. Their existence is from hand to mouth, day-to-day. For many there are also health problems (mental and physical). Marriage comes early and with it parenthood. Poverty or near poverty is a standard condition of life for the members of this class (however, do keep in mind that poverty is relative to the wealth of the society).

The difficulties faced by this class is such that attempts to deal with any single feature of their lives is doomed to failure. For example, it is often argued that all that is needed for this class to join the main stream is a steady job. However, that is predicated on more cultural capital, e.g. a better education. Achievement of either is often hindered by severe health problems that keep them from focusing on study or from working steadily as is expected by the middle and upper classes.

* Text added by Ivan Kalmar