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contradictory class location


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During the 1970s class analysis (particularly of a Marxist kind) was preoccupied with the problem of assigning class situations to those ‘intermediate’ roles (such as manager, supervisor, or salaried professional) which seemed to be neither unambiguously of the bourgeoisie nor of the proletariat, and so generated a series of ‘boundary problems’ in the generation of class taxonomies. The resulting literature (the so-called boundary debate), which featured extensive contributions from Nicos Poulantzas, Guglielmo Carchedi, and John and Barbara Ehrenreich, is cogently summarized in Nicholas Abercrombie and John Urry's Capital, Labour, and the Middle Classes (1983). By far the most sustained attempt to solve these boundary issues was Erik Olin Wright's theory of ‘contradictory class locations’.

Wright, an American Marxist, argued that in each mode of production certain basic social classes are defined by being completely polarized within the relevant social relations of production. Under capitalism, for example, the working class is wholly dispossessed of the means of production, must sell its labour-power to the bourgeoisie, and so is both exploited and dominated by it. However, in the absence of wholesale polarization, contradictory situations or locations within a mode of production also arise. Managers have contradictory interests as a class: like workers, they are exploited by capitalists (who make a profit from managerial work), yet like capitalists themselves they dominate and control workers. Moreover, concrete social formations rarely comprise a single mode of production, so that capitalist societies, for example, typically contain certain non-capitalist forms of production relations. Most obviously, they inherit the legacy of simple commodity production, in which direct producers own and control their own productive means—the petite bourgeoisie or own-account workers more common to feudal societies. Certain class relations interpenetrate both modes of production and so constitute contradictory relations between them. Small employers, for example, are simultaneously petit bourgeois and capitalist, in that they are self-employed direct producers, but also employers and therefore exploiters of labour-power. Similarly, an extensive group of so-called ‘semi-autonomous employees’ (such as salaried professionals) do not own productive means, but still exercise considerable control over their activities within production: they are, therefore, in a contradictory class location defined by elements of both proletarian and petit bourgeois existence.

As a Marxist, Wright's principal aim was to identify which among these contradictory class locations offered the most likely allies for the working class, in its struggle against capitalist exploitation and domination. His theory has been refined during the course both of several lengthy theoretical exegeses, and a major empirical programme of class analysis, involving research teams in countries throughout the world (see Wright's Class, Crisis and the State, 1978; Class Structure and Income Determination, 1979; and Classes, 1985).

Wright's reformulation of the concept of class has been controversial, both within Marxism and without, and has been criticized as static, mechanical, deterministic, and (in common with the arguments of most other structuralists) devoid of human agency. However, it has also generated enthusiastic support, notably among those who see in it a corrective to the excessive individualism of the alternative status attainment tradition of class analysis in the United States. Wright's The Debate on Classes (1989) gives a good overview of the arguments and the enormous secondary literature generated by his project. See also middle class.

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Subjects: Sociology.


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