Class and Social Structure

Simon Middleton

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online August 2011 | | DOI:
Class and Social Structure

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
  • History
  • Regional and National History


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The study of social structure—meaning the relationships between different social groups and the significance of those relationships and groups in historical processes and change—has deep roots in modern historiography, beginning with 17th-century demographers and political economists. Similarly, as Raymond Williams notes in Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, the first use of the word class to describe an “order or distribution of people according to their several degrees” also dates from the early modern era. Thereafter the term served commentators and social theorists who described the division or ordering of society according to status, rank, or grade. One of these social theorists, Karl Marx (b. 1818–d. 1883), was particularly influential in later historiography. For Marx, class denoted a shared relationship to social and economic processes of production. It also implied distinct and ultimately contradictory class interests. Thus workers have a different relationship to the social and economic processes of production than capitalists, one seeking to maximize wages and the other profits. At some point, according to Marx, these contradictions lead to conflict and historical change. Other commentators have disagreed and stressed variables that characterize class and do not fit with Marx’s model, such as status, life chances, and wealth. In the early 20th century the study of class and social structure became a feature of increasingly materialistic approaches to history. Historians’ focus shifted away from biography and the doings of prominent individuals to considerations of deeper social and economic structures and contexts and how they figured in change over time. In the modern post–World War II era, historians continued to investigate social structure, but the study of class became the subject of a long and complex controversy: first, when scholars set out to explore Marx’s notion of class formation and to connect a shared experience of difficult social and economic conditions to the development of radical political consciousness, and second when a powerful set of critiques under the heading of the linguistic or cultural “turn” challenged this materialist approach to political consciousness, which had expanded to include other, previously marginalized social groups such as women, slaves, and Native Americans. In this respect, the pairing of class and social structure masks significant and continuing historiographical disagreement. This bibliography offers citations to the works of leading social theorists and studies of social structure in the early modern Atlantic world. It also includes citations on different conceptions of class and the historiographical controversy of recent decades.

Article.  8662 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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