The commonsense or everyday beliefs about social class that are held by ordinary members of society—particularly in respect of the number, size, and characteristics of the various classes in their society.
Studies of social stratification often distinguish objective and subjective structure, the former pertaining to relationships of power or privilege, the latter being the domain of class imagery. The term itself dates from 1957 and gained British currency through David Lockwood's influential work on working-class images of society (see M. Bulmer (ed.), Working-class Images of Society, 1975).
Two accounts of subjective stratification exist. One is Marxist, in which consciousness or awareness of the class structure is postulated as arising from class conflict and experience of social inequality, and any departure from a conception based on class interest is deemed to be false consciousness. Reputationalist studies, on the other hand, based on community studies of class and occupational prestige, have also detected different perceptions of the class structure, noting that people differ in the extent to which their image is dichotomous (‘us’ versus ‘them’) or multiple and finely graded. Different bases for these images or models (such as power and money) have been described by a number of sociologists—but, in most cases, systematic class images are difficult to identify empirically. The most recent studies of class imagery and connotations suggest that there exists a more fluid, complex, and open stock of such class and occupational images and meanings than is usually assumed, and that individuals use different imagery and conceptions for different purposes and strategies (see, for example, N. Britten, ‘Class Imagery in a National Sample of Women and Men’, British Journal of Sociology, 1984).