A social stratum to which are attached specific rights and duties sustained by the force of legal sanction. The most obvious examples are the peasants, serfs, burghers, clergy, and nobility of the post-feudal states of continental Europe. For example, early-modern France distinguished the nobles, clergy, and the ‘Third Estate’ until the late 18th century. The term is often (though controversially) applied to the system of stratification in feudal Europe, though feudal strata were characterized more by personal bonds of vassalage, rather than shared political rights and obligations. It should be noted, for example, that the distinguished historian of feudalism Marc Bloch refers to the strata of the feudal order simply as ‘classes’.
Estate systems of stratification are rigid in their prescription of economic duties, political rights, and social convention, although typically they are not closed to social mobility. Unlike in caste systems, the estate does not necessarily renew itself from within: the clergy in pre-revolutionary France, for example, was an ‘open estate’.
Sociological usage of the term dates back to Ferdinand Tönnies's distinction between estates and classes (or ‘communal’ and ‘societal’ collectivities). In Economy and Society (1922) Max Weber cites the estates of medieval Europe as paradigmatic examples of status groups. In the same vein, T. H. Marshall defined an estate as ‘a group of people having the same status, in the sense in which that word is used by lawyers. A status in this sense is a position to which is attached a bundle of rights and duties, privileges and obligations, legal capacities or incapacities, which are publicly recognized and which can be defined and enforced by public authority and in many cases by courts of law’ (‘The Nature and Determinants of Social Status’, in Class, Citizenship, and Social Development, 1964). However, like most of the other main sociological concepts for studying systems of stratification, that of estate is a matter of some dispute.
Subjects: Early Modern History (1500 to 1700) — Sociology.