Article

Middle Classes

Scott T. Fitzgerald

in Sociology

ISBN: 9780199756384
Published online November 2012 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0093
Middle Classes

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Despite copious studies on the middle classes, there is no single, widely held definition of the middle class. Some scholars define the middle class in terms of the relation to the means of production, others in terms of relative incomes, and still others in terms of consumption patterns. A common working definition might include those with incomes in the middle third of the income distribution; who work as upper- or lower-level managers, professionals, or small-business owners; who graduated from a four-year college or university; and whose primary source of wealth is home ownership. The sociological study of the middle classes has a long and varied past and has been driven by both theoretical and empirical concerns. Theoretically, much attention has been given to conceptualizing the historical middle classes in relation to other social classes and also accounting for the emergence of the new middle class in the latter part of the 20th century. Neo-Weberian and neo-Marxist theories of class represent two influential perspectives on the middle class. Both perspectives emphasize the importance of market capacities in shaping life chances and how the middle classes differ from the working class and the upper class on this dimension. Neo-Marxist arguments differ primarily in their additional focus on the relationship to the means of production as a key dimension of the class structure. A third influential approach to studying class structure focuses on the role of tastes, consumption patterns, and cultural boundaries in defining class relations and identifying the middle classes. Empirically, the literature on the middle class addresses the structural forces shaping the emergence of the middle class in different national contexts and how the political, economic, and social trends of the time shape the experiences of the middle class. Since the late 20th century there has been considerable attention given to analyzing the “new middle class” and uncovering in what ways members of this class differ from other classes in terms of political orientations and activities. Other work has focused on how the changing economic landscape of the postindustrial economy has led to economic uncertainty for many members of the middle class, causing an increase in consumer debt, bankruptcies, and downward mobility. The notion of social reproduction and middle-class advantage (vis-à-vis the working class) is a theme running throughout work examining the education system and studies examining religion. Additional topics of research on the middle class include the intersectionality of gender, race, and ethnicity; the importance of geospatial dimensions of space and place; and cross-national comparative work and case studies of various subpopulations and nations.

Article.  8731 words. 

Subjects: Sociology ; Comparative and Historical Sociology ; Economic Sociology ; Gender and Sexuality ; Health, Illness, and Medicine ; Population and Demography ; Race and Ethnicity ; Social Movements and Social Change ; Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility ; Social Theory

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