Social Class: WTF? Introduction to Bourdieu and Marx on class

Social Class: WTF? Introduction to Bourdieu and Marx on class


Hello, my name’s Tom and welcome back to my channel where I talk a little bit about theatre, a little bit about being a
PhD student, and a little bit about those two things kind of crushed together in a
vice. Today, I wanted to add to my series What the Theory? in which I do
some introductory videos on some critical concepts within the humanities. And today, we are going to look at class. Broadly speaking class, or social class,
is a way of breaking down society hierarchically so we can compare how
much power an individual or group of people has in comparison to another
group or individual within the same society. Colloquially and in political
discourse we often hear terms like middle class or working-class thrown
around. But what I wanted to do today was foreground two particular theories which
provide a theoretical underpinning for that notion. Now, it’s worth saying that class has taken many different forms across time
and across geography so today I’m primarily speaking about class as it
relates to contemporary capitalist societies. Feudal systems, caste systems
and those involving slavery all have a deep intersection with class but they sit slightly outside my field of knowledge so I will leave it to
someone else to create a wonderful YouTube video about those. A useful place
to start with class in contemporary society then, is with Karl Marx. Marx saw
class not just as a theoretical concept or social construct but as the defining
tension of the capitalist system. History, as he had it, was the long struggle
between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. The distinction between
where one sits within Marx’s framing is in what one’s relationship is to the
means of production. The proletariat, then, are the working classes, those who earn a
living by performing a task–whatever type of task that might be–in return for
a wage. The bourgeoisie are those who, under a capitalist system, own the means
of production which might be a factory, it might be a patent for a particular
technology, or it might be land. Their money is made through speculation, profit, rent and interest. For example, a member of the bourgeoisie might own all or part
of a company through which they employ a number of proletarians or workers to
create, design and then market and deliver an object. The company then sells
that object for more than the cost of the materials used to make it and the
cost of paying the workers to do all that previously mentioned work to
provide a nice tidy profit for our capitalists. So, while the worker must
spend quite a lot of what they earn on food and housing and the necessities, our
capitalist has quite a lot of money left over after fulfilling those desires. As
such, they are able to go away and invest in further projects therefore increasing
the amount of profit they will make in the future. Thus the bourgeoisie have a significant power advantage over the working class.
When profits start to fall at a particular company, we quite often see that it’s
those jobs at the very bottom of the ladder that start to go first. Our
capitalist, with their abundance of capital, might just decide to diversify
their interests slightly. Familial inheritance is really important here too,
with the bourgeoisie leaving quite a lot of their wealth to the next generation
and therefore giving their next of kin a head start which is not available to
those further down the class system. In Capital in the 21st Century,
Thomas Piketty gives a really insightful (if slightly dense) rundown of how capital
has accumulated into fewer and fewer hands over the last 200 years or so. The
crux of Marx’s argument, then, is that the bourgeoisie continue to grow their
wealth through interest, profit, rent and inheritance so their power within
society grows and they are able to influence political policies and parties.
To Marx, then, class, social power and social standing are very much rooted in
the amount of financial capital an individual or a group has. Notably, this
is a very binary system and although Marx does mention the existence of the so
called petty bourgeoisie, or middle class, he doesn’t flash this idea out fully
beyond suggesting that they might be small business owners or those very
highly paid professionals. To find a more granular system of analyzing class,
then, we might turn to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu suggests that social class
is made up of three contributing factors: economic capital, social capital and
cultural capital. This is a slightly more complex system but allows us for a
slightly more specific analysis than the orthodox Marxist approach. Economic
capital works much the same as it does in Marx’s system, recognizing how much
economic power an individual or group has within society. Social capital, then, acknowledges the social and familial relationships that
an individual or group might have that might give them a certain advantage in
life. For example, having a friend of the family work at a particular firm who can
introduce you or perhaps get you a job might count as being an aspect of social
capital. Cultural capital is perhaps the most complex notion within Bourdieu’s
theory and refers to how the aesthetic tastes that we are taught by the
society around us as we are young subconsciously guide us towards a certain position in life. Certain activities are related to certain social classes, for
example, in the UK going to live football might be deemed to be a working class
activity whereas going to the Opera might seem like quite a bourgeois
activity. There’s a similar distinction between hip-hop and classical music but
we can also extend this notion beyond to potentially the clothes that people wear,
the way they talk, their accent, or the food that they choose to eat. All of
these things count as class markers on a person. For example when someone might describe something as being a little bit middle class or a little bit common.
Bourdieu’s argument is that by learning these behaviors and learning to
preference these particular activities we learn what class we’re meant to be in
and therefore we decide which social groups to exist within and therefore
what jobs who might be available to us in the future.
Broadly speaking, then, when Marx emphasizes economic capital and suggests
that that grows to have an influence on culture, Bourdieu suggests that our
individual cultural capital has an impact on how much economic capital we
might earn. Bourdieu is less interested in our relationship to the means of
production than with class as a social phenomenon. Both Marx and Bourdieu,
however, are very clear that socio-cultural capital and economic
capital have an impact on one another. And, if you’d like to unpack that notion
a little bit more, I did a video on the concept of hegemony a little while
ago which you can go and find. However much it’s argued that class is
potentially a thing of the past, I think, by using some of the methods that I’ve
brought through in this video, we can see that it’s actually at the very heart of contemporary society. Financial inequality is indeed growing
across the globe and, with it, the distinction between classes. Therefore in
any critical approach to the humanities, to culture or the social sciences,
I think class has to be in there somewhere and it’s really key to
unlocking the empowerment or otherwise of an individual or group within society.
Thank you very much for watching this video, I hope this has given you a few tasters of some concepts of class and maybe some ideas of where to go off
and look for some slightly more deeper reading somewhere else.Thank you
very much for watching, if you’ve enjoyed this video please do give it a thumbs up
or let me know down below if there’s any subjects you’d like me to cover in the
future as that’s always super, super handy. Thank you very much for watching
and have a great week!