As a concrete, descriptive term in British studies of social stratification, the upper class is a dominant social class that owes a great deal to its close status affinities with the ‘aristocracy’. The latter is the (often hereditary) noble class, comprising peers (in medieval England the dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons) and landed magnates (or ‘gentlemen’). However, while the aristocracy is an important symbolic element of the upper class, it does not completely account for its membership today. As a dominant class, it comprises the bourgeoisie or capitalist class. The upper class is a property-owning class living from earnings made from the ownership, control, and exploitation of property such as land, capital, large businesses, or share holdings, and whose members enjoy superior, traditionally grounded status privileges. Proportionally, therefore, this is much the smallest class, perhaps as little as 1 per cent of the population. The power which the ownership of property confers is out of all proportion to the size of a dominant class. Many members of this class effectively control large companies, either directly via their positions within these organizations, or more subtly through their occupation of key positions in the financial sector. Some of these individuals also have leading positions in politics and other spheres of public and cultural life. Through their involvement in politics, a dominant class may become a ruling class.
In Britain there have been important status distinctions within the upper class, between those who have ‘old money’, and the nouveaux riches. The highest status tends to be conferred on the landed upper classes, the true aristocracy, as represented by individuals such as the Duke of Westminster (the wealthiest individual in the UK after the Queen). Often they operate exclusionary strategies against the nouveaux riches, for example, by restricting the membership of very exclusive aristocratic clubs. ‘New money’ confers less status—though by no means less power. Hence, it is no accident that the nouveaux riches have long sought to acquire a more aristocratic status via inclusionary strategies, such as the purchase of landed estates, intermarriage with the aristocracy for themselves or their children, and the education of their children in elite schools.
Popular conceptions of the upper class correspond more with old money than with new. In their survey of social class in Britain in 1984 (Social Class in Modern Britain), Gordon Marshall and his colleagues discovered that two-thirds of their sample referred to the upper class in terms of status factors, for example rank or title; two-fifths of the sample mentioned income; and one-third referred to occupation. Only one-quarter of the sample mentioned property ownership as the defining characteristic of the upper class—although sociologically this is its key feature.
Similar dominant classes exist in all capitalist societies, though they are not always formed into a status-defined upper class. Important sociological work on the British upper class is to be found in the voluminous writings of John Scott (see, for example, The Upper Class, 1982, and Who Rules Britain, 1991). Comparative work can be found in Tom Bottomore and Robert Brym (eds.), The Capitalist Class (1989). See also closure; elite; ownership and control.