How does class influence identity in contemporary society?

Essay by 724082 January 2008

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How does class influence identity in contemporary society?The class structure involves some degree of shaping our identities. Income and paid work are important sources of individual and collective identity. Social class is a means of classifying the economic and social divisions of a society, which involve some degree of inequality. For example classifying some people as ‘poor’, ‘working class’ or ‘middle class’. We may adopt or contest these representations.

People define their economic position through ideas about the incomes and opportunities of others, therefore identities are influenced by income, whether we imagine people’s incomes to be in the middle or if we see it as between the rich and poor.

There are two main traditions within the concept of social class and its effect on identity. These traditions are in the works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Max Weber (1864-1920). While they differ in the understanding of class and society, they share views on classes structured out of economic relationships.

The Marxist theory of class shows that the class a person belongs to is a fundamental part of their identity. For Marx, society generated two main classes, a capital-owning class and a property less class. They called these the ruling class and the working class or the ‘bourgeoisie’ and the ‘proletariat’. Class is rooted in the economic organization of production i.e. those groups who own factories, farms, coal mines or raw materials. These groups look after their own interests, live in similar surroundings and send their children to similar schools. Marx believed that ‘class consciousness’ is particularly important to our understanding of identity. This is an awareness of a shared class interest and the existence of classes with opposing interests. Class consciousness would emerge through solidarity and collective action. For Marx, the key factor is private ownership of economic...