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A transformational class analysis

dr. Albert Benschop

Preface Go to Dutch version.

1 Why class analysis?
1.1 Reasons for a quest
1.2 Where does the shoe pinch?
1.3 What a class theory should deliver
1.4 What is transformational?
2 Reconstruction and construction of a class theory
2.1 Reconstruction
2.2 Construction of a class theory
3 Mode of operation: method of theorizing
3.1 Deconstruction: explication and interpretation
3.2 Reconstruction: reassamblage
3.3 Construction
4 Limitations of the study
5 Composition
5.1 Preliminary skirmishes
5.2 Structuration of objective class positions
5.3 Structuration of class action
5.4 Transformational class analysis in progress
Notes Literature

© 1993-2012 • University of Amsterdam

1. Why class analysis?

In this study a new type class theory is presented. For sensible people such a statement calls for a healthy dose of suspicion and distrust. Social scientists who are still dealing with classes are soon under suspicion that they try to pull old cows from ditches which were filled long ago. In the current ‘post-socialist era’ it is more unusual than ever to write treatises about exploitation and class relations. since the collapse of the systems that advertised themselves as ‘real socialism’ the dream of a society without classes and exploitation seems to be shattered. Whoever is nevertheless concerned with the class theme or even writes a book about it, must be an inveterate nag or a dogmatist.

Moreover, in social science circles it is common to treat any claim on the ‘newness’ of a theory with great reluctance. I will not in advance hedge myself against such resistance and blame. I only hope that the reader will be able to put his or her ‘a priori resistances’ into perspective and is capable to judge for themselves on the (sometimes very difficult) problems which are dealt with in this study.


1.1 Reasons for a quest
The transformational class analysis that is presented here is the result of a long quest for the assumptions, basic concepts, methodology and internal structure of several class theories and the result of a very large amount of sociological, anthropological and historical studies of class relations.

There are several reasons to undertake such a quest.

  1. There have been some important shifts in the class structures of contemporary capitalist societies. The diagnoses that have been given of these changes in the social class structure are very diverse and incompatible. Yet there are some elements which no serious observer can ignore:

    • the strong expansion of the modern wage-dependant middle class, and especially of the public employees;

    • the contraction of the traditional middle class, especially of the small producers who work with their own means of production;

    • the changes in the composition of the working class, especially of the category of industrial manual workers, and

    • the emergence of new class categories such as professionals, experts and managers who can not be simply classified as part of the working or capitalist class.

    However you want to analyses these changes and whatever names you want to use for these classes and categories, one thing is clear: all these changes entail new conditions and new forms of social and political class action.

    The changes that are taking place in the class structures have confronted the socio-political movements and their organizations with new problems. Emancipatory movements, which in one way or another pursuit drastic reduction or even elimination of exploitation relations are repeatedly forced to reconsider their programs and strategies for action.

    The explanatory models and methods that are used to get grip on the changing socio-economic and politico-cultural class relations, should be re-considered and tested again and again. This regularly faces problems for which the ‘old’, familiar concepts repertoire can provide no good answers. It makes no sense to keep silent about these issues or to push them aside — once they are declared taboo, one jumps from the scientific logic into ‘the logic of the sentiment’ (Theun de Vries), i.e. into socialist mysticism.

  2. Since the end of the sixties of the last century, the rise of the democratic student movement, the new forms of industrial action and the second wave of feminism led to a revival of the class debate. Sacrosanct declared ‘classic’ theoretical positions were subjected to a critical reassessment and there were heated debates on new theoretical approaches and research strategies.

    It soon became clear that there are very different views about substantive and methodological issues — also and especially within the Marxist tradition of research— This is not a problem as long as the defenders of rival approaches resist the tendency to dig themselves so deeply into the ‘own positions’, that they will not be able to look over the edge of their own theoretical trenches. The potential benefits of intellectual rivalry could thus indeed be lost.

    The fortifications that were constructed during the ‘cold’ war of attrition have been affected by cement rot and must be demolished to the ground. Anybody who wants to contribute to this should first concentrate mainly on a theoretically oriented structuring of the problems that are at issue in the analysis of class relations. Without such a problem structuring it is impossible to establish a minimal consensus — not even on the most basic questions on which any rational discussion should be based: on on what do we disagree, which arguments opposite each other, which basic concepts are controversial? Despite all progress is the lack of a sound problem structuring. This is still one of most notable weaknesses of the analytic class debate.

  3. According to many authors the attempts to reconstruct a class theory are still at the beginning.[1] After all the energy that is spend in thinking and talking about class theories, this seems excessive. But it cannot be coincidence that there are so few accurate and comprehensive empirical analysis of the current class formations. There is no class theory whose concepts are so systematically and methodically elaborated that it can be operationalized for and fruitful applied in empirical historical research.


1.2 Where does the shoe pinch?
In anticipation of what in this study will be discussed extensively, I will indicate where the class-analytical shoe pinches.

  1. Beyond structuralism and actionism
    We have to develop a frame of reference that allows us to break through the misleading dichotomy between ‘structuralist’ and ‘actionist’ class theories.

    • Structuralist approaches focus exclusively on the analysis of the basic structures of class relations and are not able —unlike associative— to establish a systematic connection with political class act of social actors. They analyze ‘structures without actors’.

    • Actionist approaches on the other hand focus entirely on the political action of class actors and their organizations, but are not able to analyse the social structuration of this class action. They analyze ‘unstructured actors’.

    The transformational class analysis starts from a position beyond the old controversy between structure and action focused approaches: class actions are structured by class relations and class structures are generated, reproduced and transformed by class action. The object of knowledge of the transformational approach is not ‘class structure’ nor ‘class action’, but class-specific action structuration.

  2. Levels of action structuration
    We have to develop an heuristic model that focuses on the multi-structured nature of class action. I will argue that class action is primarily structured by inequalities and differences of objective class positions and social classes, by differences of class-specific habitus and lifestyles, and by the different types and degrees of class consciousness. It is also affected by a series of specific conditions of political class action. Any non-reductionist theory class should include these five levels of action structuration and analytically distinguish them clearly.

  3. Leves of action integration
    We have to develop a heuristic model in which a clear distinction is made between the different levels at which class actions are integrated or aggregated. The transformational class analysis assumes that the structuring of class actions can be analyzed not only the societal level of action integration, but also at the organizational and interactional level of action integration.

With such a theory of structuration of class action it is possible to escape the traditional dichotomies of objectivism versus subjectivism, economism versus politicism, collectivist sociologism versus individualistic psychologism, determinism versus voluntarism.

On the one hand my approach is critical vis-a-vis common reductions the structuration of action to lifestyles, value systems, traditions and affective internalizations (culturalist, normativist and psychologist approaches).

On the other hand this approach remains at critical distance from approaches that reduce the structuration of action to material resources and rewards (vulgar materialistic, economistic or objectivist reductions).[2]


1.3 What a class theory should deliver
Any general and non-reductionist theory of classes should involve all levels of structuration of action and make clear not only how these various levels should be analytically distinguished, but also how they are intertwined and influence each other in empirical practice.

Unfortunately there are no class theories with such a range and degree of differentiation. Most theories focus on one level of action structuration letting all the others underexposed.

A non-reductionist class theory should also include all levels of societal, organizational and interactional action integration and distinguish them clearly from each other within a heuristic model. Also on this point there are no class theories available with such a range and degree of differentiation.


1.4 What is transformational?
In order to delineate my approach from rival approaches I deliberately chose the term transformational class analysis. This term reflects that I analyse class relationships as dynamic relationships which are constantly generated and transformed by human activities.

The transformational model of action structuration ties especially with the contributions of Roy Bhaskar, Pierre Bourdieu, Anthony Giddens and Erik Olin Wright. Although their theory programs diverge in many ways, I will use them as an important fulcrums for my project.

It is inevitable that the choice of the adjective also call forth associations with the transformational grammar of Noam Chomsky. He took language as a set of grammatical sentences. The purpose of his generative or transformational grammar was to be able to generate all the grammatical sentences of a language (and only those sentences). With his transformational grammar, he tried to grasp language generation as a dynamic process: it is a collection of rules by which each time new sentences can be generated that belong to the corpus of that language.

The family resemblance with Chomsky’s transformational grammar is that a transformational class analysis focuses on theory construction as a dynamic process. A transformational class analysis is essentially nothing more than a collection of theoretical statements (related concepts, hypotheses and methodologies) that allows to generate new statements (and above all: ask questions!) which belong to the corpus of this theory.

Index2. Reconstruction and construction of a class of theory

This study contributes to the development of a social scientific class theory in which the limitations mentioned above are broken up. The elements which are brought forward for this are the result of two adventures.

  1. The first adventures was an investigation into the assumptions, basic concepts, methodology and internal structure of class theories that were formulated in the Marxist research tradition. I searched for the analytical power and problemematic spots —lacunae, ambiguities and contradictions— within this theoretical tradition.

    The relatively large variety of theoretical approaches within the Marxist research tradition made it necessary to draw comparisons, carefully weigh pros and cons of rival approaches, and to make substantiated choices.

    To clarify such a —highly complex— assessment, I pay much attention to the analytical structure of the entire problem area. A differentiated problem structuring not only makes it easier to weigh the strength and weaknesses of various approaches, but can also reveal the challenges and opportunities of a ‘theoretical integration’.

  2. The explanatory power and relevance of the class of theories in the Marxist research tradition have always been controversial. There is no lack of criticisms on Marx’s class theory or on Marxist class theories. All these substantive, methodological and socio-historical criticisms are discussed in detail in: Benschop [1990].

    And there is also no lack of attempts to formulate alternative class theories. Usually this was done in affiliation with the contributions of Max Weber. But there are also more original attempts to develop class theories with higher explanatory power and relevance, for instance in the tradition of conflict and power theories.

      In other publications [Benschop 1987a, 1987b] I extensively analyzed the significance of Weber’s contribution to the theory of social inequality and classes. The following series of questions is crucial.

      • Has Max Weber formulated a general theory of social inequality in which class relations are thematized? Does his treatise on Class, Status and Party assume or imply a general theory of social inequality? Can Weber be regarded as the founder of a multi- or at least three-dimensional approach to social inequality?

      • Did Weber develop a general or specific class theory ? To what extend may Weber’s approach or subsequent neo-Weberian contributions be seen as an alternative to Marx’s theory of class?

      The results of this critical reconstruction of Weber’ theory of inequality and class are incorporated in various places in this study.

    The second adventure was to involve both the critique of ‘the’ Marxist class theory as alternative class theories in the exposition of the transformational approach. In this study all these theories and critiques are discussed in various stages of the development of the transformational class analysis.

How much can a class theory still contribute to understand the existing social structures and dynamic processes? How much can a class theory still contribute to grasp collective political action and modern social movements? The answers to these questions are highly dependent on the type of class theory that one uses — they therefore vary with the specific approaches that are circulating of ‘the problem of class ’.

The explanatory power of a class theory can ultimately only be demonstrated by empirical and historical research. Although a large number of empirical-sociological, historical and anthropological themes are discussed, this study is no record of empirical research. It is a report of an attempt to construct a transformational theory of classes that facilitates and guides empirical historical research.

Today class analysis should primarily be approached as a scientific and political problem.


2.1 Reconstruction
For the design of a transformational theory of classes we can choose different reference points. For anyone interested in the structure and evolution of class relations in capitalist societies the texts of Marx are a fundamental resource to start with.

For a reconstruction of class theory one has to gain insight into Marx’s class theory. Unfortunately this is not so simple because. Marx has not written a separate, let alone systematic treatment of the problem class. His class theory is interwoven with his whole work — and not always in a clear, stringent and unambiguous manner. In many texts of Marx the concepts of class, class relations and class struggle are playing a central role.

An exposition of Marx’s class theory thus includes a reconstruction of practically his entire oeuvre. A systematic review of the Marx’s contribution to class theory is tricky because all these texts have a different setting, thematic objective and theoretical status. The various texts of Marx are coloured by the problematics which he worked on and wrote about at that moment.

The interpretation and reconstruction of Marx’s contribution cannot be limited to the collection a number of striking phrases from his work. With each quote one should take into account the specific socio-historical and theoretical context of his statements, and the varying theoretical status and socio-historical scope of his concepts and statements. One should also take into account a rather difficult methodical-theoretical problem: Marx’s theses and hypotheses are formulated on different levels of abstraction and only valid for specific units of analysis.

If you don’t take all this into account, you’ll soon get the impression that the works of Marx (and Engels) contain merely contradictory, ambiguous phrases of which only ‘the true believers’ are able to bake theoretically bread. There have been various attempts to identify the inconsistencies and contradictions in Marx’s work by a compiler method. So far they have yielded little of substance. They are merely a useful preliminary work for a systematic reconstruction.

Fortunately there are a number of serious attempts to reconstruct Marx’s theory of class in a more systematic way. In the design of the transformational class theory I shall gratefully use them. However, this study is not a systematic reconstruction of Marxist class theory. For this I refer to my preliminary study: De klassentheorie van Marx.


2.2 Construction of a class theory
For the construction of a transformational class analysis I’ve chosen a different approach and a different reference point. The reference point of this project is the pro-theory of social inequality and collective action as elaborated by Bader/Benschop (Ongelijk-heden) and by Bader (Collectief handelen).

This pro-theoretical frame of reference provides a useful starting point for the construction of a transformational class theory. The pro-theory of social inequality and collective action does not impose a specific class theory. But it does offer a number of criteria to assess the complexity and scope of class theories, it puts theories under pressure to explicit implicit assumptions, to strengthen or overhaul rudimentary theoretical elements, to give explicit justifications of concepts and to limit or specify the validity claims of theories. In short, it provides clues for the construction of a ‘better’ class theory.

Theory class is part of a much broader conceptual framework. As part of a social theory it is a regional theory of class relations in social formations. Class theory is part of the political sociology of social inequality. The central thesis is : ‘Class’ is a crucial concept for the development of a systematic theory of social structure, especially of a more comprehensive theory of social inequality.

A substantiated and elaborated general theory of social inequalities does not exist. There are a number of partial theories, but these are so burdened by their general pretensions and substantial reductions that they can’t be used as a reference for class theory.[4] The most fruitful point of reference is a pro-theoretical framework in which basic concepts are substantiated and where the whole problem complex of social inequalities has been disaggregated in a profound way.

The object of the class theory is the structure and dynamics of class inequalities and conflicts. As a ‘sociological’ theory it depends and relies on many other regional or disciplinary theories. Class Theory must not be reduced to a narrowly regional —‘economic’ or ‘political’— theory. A theory of structure and dynamics of class relations in capitalist societies depends on the results of various social sciences, including social and economic history and anthropology.

My transformational class model is based on a critical assessment of some older and recent debates and relevant research from several social science disciplines. Former theoretical questions are redefined, new themes are added to empirical historical research agendas, and methods of empirical class analysis are refined.

Index3. Werkwijze: procedure van theorievorming

Theoretical texts are not so much a confrontation of ‘word’ and ‘reality’, but rather have the character of a conversation in the midst of other conversations. To some extent this study is also a compilation of various conversations and confrontations with other theoretical and empirical-historical texts.

This conversation basically goes along two lines: deconstruction and reconstruction. The design of a systematic theory is rather ‘complicated’ because there’s so little to hold on when we try to figure out how we should proceed. It implies a whole series analytic and synthetic operations that are not always clearly distinguished. In the process of theory development we can generally distinguish three analytical operations: deconstruction, reconstruction and construction.


3.1 Deconstruction: explication and interpretation
Deconstruction involves two analytical operations: explication and interpretation. First we have to explicit the problem definitions and analytical strategies relevant class theorists. Explication means identifying and clarifying the central problem definitions and basic concepts, without counting the full theory or approach into the consideration process. [5] The objective is to improve the problem definition, without abandoning the basis of the original problematic.

Explication particularly happens by situating texts in contexts. I will make a distinction between three contextual regimes.

  1. theory-historical context: explication of the meaning of texts in the history of a particular theory or theoretical tradition;

  2. theory-systematical context: explication of the position of statements —hypotheses, propositions, concepts— in the systematics or structure of a theory, and

  3. socio-historical context: explication of the connection of texts with the actual, ‘external’ history of society.

After these explicatory operations we have to interpret theoretical texts. Interpretation is done by demonstrating the relationship between problem definitions and analytical effects (problem solving). This allows us to detect conceptual ambiguities, inconsistencies and substantive theoretical shifts, and to identify the main and subsidiary tendencies in the structure of a theoretical approach.

The ‘scandal of deconstruction’ (Norris) is indeed the habit of exposing disjoint relationships between the logic of a theoretical explanation and the language in which it is formulated, between the order of the immanent coherence of the concepts and the order of significance, i.e. the relationships between the signs of meaning (signifier), including the vagueness, ambiguities and metaphors of the written language.


3.2 Reconstruction: reassemblage
Explication and interpretation result in a rating of theoretical consistency, scope and explanatory power of a specific approach. In combination with a comparison with other theoretical approaches we are then able to separate concepts with a ‘past actuality’ (bygone concepts) from concepts with an ‘actual past’ (actual concepts).

These latter elements are the building blocks of a systematic reconstruction, i.e. the reassembly of a theoretical construct using the insights acquired by explanation and interpretation. By filling the lacunae in a theoretical program and by detailing its global concepts (disaggregation) we can finally try to improve class theory. In this process we often ‘borrow’ elements from theories which have been developed in divergent research traditions.


3.3 Construction
The construction of a new class theory is a distinctive and complex affair. The concepts from which this theory is built should be defined as sharp as possible (demarcation of concepts); the levels of abstraction on which concepts and their interrelationships are formulated should clearly be distinguished; the interdependencies between the structuration levels of class action should be specified; causal explanation models must be developed; rules should be established for operationalization of concepts; and methods should be proposed for the empirical study of class relations.

The core of the construction of any scientific theory it is dual process of specification of concepts and using these concepts in the construction of a theory. Both in the revision of existing concepts as in the introduction of new concepts the assumptions underlying them must be exposed. Moreover, the interrelationships between these concepts must be made explicit so they can merge into one theory.

New concepts do not arise in a theoretical vacuum , and there is no theoretical zero point. Concept formation is always also —and perhaps primarily— a process of concept transformation: raw materials of existing concepts are processed in the construction of a new concept.

For the (trans)formation of concepts we can use different practical strategies [Wright 1985:292 ff].

  1. We can decompose an existing concept by pulling new demarcation lines. This happens especially when in an existing concept heterogeneous elements are brought together under one hat (‘breaking down concepts’).

  2. We can specify an existing concept by redefining existing demarcation lines. When the boundaries of a concept defined by redundant, insufficient or inaccurate criteria than those criteria should be modified.

  3. We can broaden an existing concept by reaggregating categories under more general criteria. In this case existing concepts are subsumed under a more comprehensive concept, i.e. a concept that identifies a fundamental border criterion for the concepts which it aggregates.

  4. Finally we can decode the conceptual dimensions of a descriptive taxonomy. Descriptive taxonomies are transformed into conceptual typologies. A taxonomy is a set of categories which are identified on the basis of immediately evident empirical criteria. [6] A typology is a theoretically constructed series of concepts that are differentiated on the basis of theoretically specified dimensions. In a decoding strategy of conceptual (trans)formation the implicit, non-theorized logic of the applied taxonomy is made explicit.

In the design of the transformational theory of classes the four analytical operations (explication, interpretation, reconstruction, construction) nor the four practical strategies of conceptual (trans)formation (decomposition, specification, broadening, decoding) are not dealt with in a separate-chronologically order. All these operations and strategies are interwoven and therefore often difficult to recognize — they are passing simultaneously (‘arm in arm’) in review.

Index4. Limitations of the study

The design of the transformational theory of classes is ambitious and massive, but not without some limitations.

  1. This study does not provide detailed reconstruction of a specific class theory or a particular research tradition. The history of the class concept is cursorily handled. I will not give a comprehensive theory-historical or chronological overview of various denominations, theoretical positions or authors. The different currents and authors are always treated problem-oriented. They are discussed in the order of the points where they are important for the construction of the transformational explanatory model.

    In this way a picture will be outlined of the pros and cons of the various class analytical research traditions. All relevant theories and research approaches are assessed both on their explanatory power and their internal obstacles, aporias, think blockages and lacunae. Incidentally, the transformational class model does provide an analytical and methodical framework that enable critical reconstructions of alternative class theories.

  2. The transformational model is a starting point for a systematic class theory and it therefore has further pretensions than a pro-theory. Concepts are defined and related to each other, distinct levels of analysis are compared with each other and regularly (tentative) causal explanations are given. The end result is not a ‘system of class theory’. The individual chapters are best read as ‘systematic essays in class theory’.

  3. This study is not an empirical-sociological analysis of class relations in modern capitalism. It refers extensively to empirical-sociological, antropological, historical and political-economic studies. They are used to analyse the emergence and transformations of class systems, to draw attention to theoretical gaps, and to illustrate current developments in class relationships. The emphasis is on formulating research questions and specification of research strategies. Problems in operationalising concepts are discussed when necessary.

  4. No normative theory of exploitation and class relations is presented in this studie. I have confined myself to the profiling my own normative assumptions and political references (‘knowledge interest’) that are associated with this kind of research. And I will give a few critical comments on the normative presuppositions or implications of competing class approaches.

  5. What is the social relevance of the whole enterprise? Can the transformational class analysis contribute to emancipatory movements?

    The intention is clear. The transformational class approach can increase the awareness and cognitive autonomy of collective actors who challenge exploitation and class relations (and therefore facilitates their action autonomy).

    The pretension however is very modest. The transformational class analysis provides good foundations for the design or assessment of practical action strategies of emancipatory movements and their conflict organizations, but it does not provide ready-made or ‘realistic’ political strategies.

Index5. Composition of the study

5.1 Preliminary skirmishes
The study is divided into four parts. The first part contains a number of Preliminary skirmishes.

Chapter I outlines class analysis as a scientific problem. It discusses how class relations appear in everyday consciousness and in the attitudes of people. After a first attempt to demarcate a social scientific concept of class, the antecedents of the concept of class are analysed. This results in a basic typology of class definitions. After discussing some theoretical reference points which are relevant for the study of class relations, I give a provisional definition of the knowledge object of class theory and delimitate the structural and socio-historical scope of class analysis.

In Chapter II class analysis is treated as a political problem. First I make my own political and normative assumptions explicit. Then I give a critical discussion of the political claims that class analysis has usually been saddled with. I discuss three closely entangled political problems: (i) the utopian perspective of a classless society, (ii) the social actors or carriers of such an utopian project, and (iii) the connection between class theory and political action strategies aimed at breaking the existing exploitation and class relations. One thing seems clear: the analysis of social classes and their mutual struggle itself is at stake in political struggle.

In Chapter III an analytical structure is applied that encompasses all the problems that have to be processed in a theory of classes. It aims at two objectives. First, I design an fine analytical network which helps us to develop class analytical research programs. Secondly, this problem structuring is used to give a systematic overview of the existing range of class theories. It clarifies which choices are made by researchers and which other choices could have been made. I also explain which choices I made and why, and which analytical trajectories and methodological routes are rejected

Most researchers agree that class relations can be understood as a specific structural form of social inequality. Therefore Chapter IV starts with a compact exposition of the concept and forms of social inequality. The usual basic distinctions are examined: natural and social inequality, social differentiation and social inequality, positional and allocative inequality, incidental and structural inequality. From this perspective six general propositions are formulated that constitute the ‘hard core’ of a class analytical research program. Taken together these six propositions are the platform on which the rest of the book builds. These basic propositions will be specified, developed and concretized in the following chapters. Each chapter begins with an additional proposition which is first demarcated from other approaches and then substantiated and elaborated.


5.2 Structuration of objective class positions
The second part focuses on the question how the structuring of objective class positions can be analyzed.

Chapter V plays a key role because it outlines the principles of the transformational class approach. As already noted, the centre of this approach is the analysis of the structuration of class action. For the analysis of this structuration process I will introduce five types of distinction.

These substantial-methodological distinctions are moulding the scaffolds for the construction of the transformational class theory. The order of the remaining chapters parallels the levels of action structuration that are distinguished. Those who already wants to get an idea of this construction I refer to the summary review in Figure 15 [see part XV of English summary]

In Chapter VI the proposition is elaborated that class relations are primarily rooted in exploitative labour relations. Therefore, first the concepts of labour, labour relations and mode of labour are defined. Mode of labour is defined by a combination of (i) the specific distribution of direct controle over resources, (ii) the dominant goal of labour, and (iii) a certain type of authority relations in and related to labour organizations. In order to specify the capitalist mode of labour we must find an answer to the question: what is ‘productive labour’ in capitalist societies?

Then I concentrate on two of the most contentious modes of labour: the domestic mode of labour and the mode of labour of the small commodity production. The choice of these two examples are guided by the thought: if one wants to gain clarity about something, one has to concentrate on the most difficult problems. The advantage of this approach is that one gets the chance to bite down into the most intricate puzzles.

The first of these puzzles is the earliest —Paleolithic and Neolithic— domestic mode of labour: how can we explain that out of this segmentary and non-exploitative societies without state eventually class societies could evolve? The second puzzle is the small commodity production: should it be analysed as an independent or dependent mode of labour, or merely as a historical, pre-capitalist relic? The result of these excercises is a guideline for historical research on egalitarian societies without classes (pre- and proto class societies) and on the genesis and historical development of class societies. The theoretical specification of the different modes of labour will also provide a lead for scientific analysis of industrial and informational capitalism.

In Chapter VII I argue that classes are structurally defined in terms of positions in both labour and distribution processes. First, I give a detailed presentation of the concept of exploitation. This general concept of exploitation will be formulated independent of the Marxist value theory. Based on this general concept of exploitation a typological overview of the various mechanisms and forms of exploitation is developed.

By way of example I discuss a form of exploitation that so far has been hardly systematically studied and therefore poses major problems and heated arguments: credential exploitation. After defining the concept credential exploitation it is used for an analysis of the class positions of professionals and experts in capitalism. Don’t expect a detailed empirical analysis, but rather a demonstration of the possibilities (and difficulties) that the concept of credential exploitation provides for an empirical analysis of these class categories. In excursions and footnotes I pay much critical attention to the work of Erik Olin Wright. I want to clarify where my approach differs from that of Wright. His theoretical and empirical contributions are important and stimulating. It is a critical tribute.

The proposition of Chapter VIII is that exploitative class relations also should be thematized at the level of organizational relationships. Under certain circumstances, exploitative class relations can also occur at the organisational level of action integration. To clarify this proposition we first examine the relationship between exploitation and power relations and the differences between the various types of asymmetric power. Against this background I analyse of another controversial form of exploitation: organizational exploitation. As in the treatment of credential exploitation I discuss the foundations, mechanisms and reproduction of organizational exploitation. This will open the way to discuss the organizational conditions under which exploitation can serve as the basis of class positions. After this delineation of the general concept of organizational exploitation the implications are illustrated on the class position of managers in capitalism.

The basic proposition in Chapter IX is that exclusive positions in interactional networks under certain conditions can also lead to structural exploitation positions and therefore can be analyzed as potential class positions. In affiliation with anthropological and sociological network theories I distinguish two types of exclusive positions in interaction networks: selective associations and patronage. Patronage relationships are the reference point for a discussion of what I shall call clientèle exploitation. I address the general concept of clientèle exploitation (exploitation of clients by their patrons) and the fundamentals, mechanisms and reproduction capabilities of this form of exploitation. I also discuss the likelihood that this may result in particular exploitation and class positions.

This chapter concludes with a brief discussion a third form of exploitation that can occur in all societies in which prestige relationships are institutionalized discriminatory. This form of ascriptive exploitation is illustrated on the mechanism of sexploitation, i.e. the exploitation of women by men on the basis of the dominant positive social prestige of men.

Chapter X begins with a clarification of a distinction that was casually discussed in previous chapters: the distinction between exploitation positions and class positions. In my view the absence of this distinction is the biggest weakness of almost all hitherto developed class theories.

To define the concept class structure and to analyse the complex differentiation of empirical class structures, I introduce five analytic distinctions: main and intermediate class positions, permanent and temporary class positions, primary and secondary class positions, single and multiple class positions, direct and mediated class positions. To illustrate these distinctions I extensively discuss the position of the independent middle classes. And this is where the analysis of objective class positions ends.


5.3 Structuration of class action
The third part, Structuration of class action, focuses on processes by which class positions enable and limit the constitution of political actors. These processes are analysed in a sequence of several steps.

In Chapter XI the emergence of social classes is analyzed from the structural chances to switch from one class position to another (blocked mobility chances). The guiding principle of this analysis is this proposition: the durability of the binding of individuals to a class position determines the emergence of social classes and of elementary forms of social organization which may become manifest in class-specific networks of social relations. The significance of class communities is discussed in detail. After a brief exposition of the structuration levels of objective class situations we finally address the problematic relationship between classes, class fractions and social strata.

Chapter XII contains an analysis of the pivotal function of class habitus between objective class positions on the one hand and social consciousness and political behaviour of individuals on the other hand. In critical affiliation to Bourdieu I first explain the concept of class habitus and the various dimensions of class habitus. This is completed with an exemplary analysis of the general and class specific characteristics of the physical habitus (‘body language’).

Class habitus is the reference point for the analyses of socio-cultural lifestyles. And from the perspective of these lifestyles I will finally thematize class-specific or class-based cultures.

The proposition of Chapter XIII is that class-based collective actors will only arise when the class members not only develop their own class-specific habitus and lifestyle, but also a collective identity, a class consciousness. First we discuss different types of action orientations which are important for the structuring of class consciousness. For an analysis of class consciousness both affective, traditional, normative as strategic action orientations are relevant (and class consciousness must not be reduced to one of these aspects). After a critical discussion of the contributions of Lukács, Thompson and Wright we finally discuss the degrees of class awareness and the types of class consciousness.

In Chapter XIV separate attention is given to the strategic dimension of class-specific action orientations. First we delineate the concepts of interest and class interest. Against this background the question is raised whether it is possible to speak on a rational and non-paternalistic way of ‘objective class interests’ (the answer will be affirmative). Finally a typology of class interests is constructed and explained.

Chapter XV analyses the connections between social class and political class action. It specifies the conditions under which political action and social movements can occur based on social classes. This is partly focused on processes of articulation, organization and mobilization. But it will also be based on external conditions of political class action, on strategic interactions between class-related political actors and on the dynamics of class conflict. I will dwell extensively on the role that utopian ideas and attitudes (can) play in class movements.

This chapter is the final step on the previously announced long way to unravel the structuration levels class actions (a road that began with exploitation and ends with class-based political actors). The impressions that were gained during this journey and the lessons learned, are summarized at the end of this chapter in a synthetic scheme.

The proposition that is developed in Chapter XVI is that class structures are not only constituted by social action, but also reproduced and transformed. I will discuss six mechanisms that contribute to social and temporal stabilization and/or guarantor of class relations and that under certain conditions can also lead to their destabilization and/or transformation.


5.4 Transformational class analysis in progress
The fourth and final part Transformational class analysis in progress deals with a number of topics which are important for the further development of the transformational class analysis. Despite the scope of this study, I consider the transformational class analysis as an unfinished project.

In Chapter XVII I discuss a few problems that are decisive for the future of this project. A crucial part of my heuristic model is the analysis of the different levels of structuration and integration of class action. These levels of explanation are first analytically distinguished as sharp as possible, but are also examined in their mutual connectedness. A discussion of different structuring modes (ways in which complex relations of structural causality are thought) shows that in this area there is still some working/thinking to be done.

A second problem concerns the relationship between class theory and empirical sociological and historical research. This particularly applies to how we can navigate between the Scylla of the (structural) theoreticism and Charibdis of the (historical or sociological) empiricism.

Finally we return to the basic and fundamentally contested question: what might be the political implications of class analysis? I discuss the problematic relationship between class analysis and political strategy. The central questions will be: how to avoid both instrumentalist and scientistic approaches and what are the conditions and characteristics of a self-reflexive class analysis?


1. Instead of many I only mention Jeaggi [1973:20], Giddens/Held [1982: ix], Pahl/Wallace [1988:149], Goldthorpe/Marshall [1992], Wright [1979,1985,1989,2009].

2. For a more general discussion of these issues: Bader/Benschop [1988:297 — Ongelijk-heden].

3. Analyses of objective class positions and class-specific habitus and lifestyles are rarely related to each other on a programmatic and intrinsic clear manner. At this point Bourdieu had been a refreshing exception.

4. For example, I incorporate the debates on new classes. All variants of these so called ‘new classes’ are addressed. This includes authors who tried to define new class formations from the perspective of the control of scientific knowledge [Bell 1976] or culture [Gouldner 1979], from delegated authority and exertion of autonomy and discretion [Goldthorpe 1982], from control of qualifications and organizational sources [Wright 1985]. It also includes authors who depart from the interactional network perspective and the feminist critique of the status of the family as the unit of class analysis.

5. For Rudolf Carnap explication is the improvement or clarification of a concept that already exists in everyday language, respectively concepts in a more or less unreflected, spontaneous, pre-scientific stage. “The task of making more exact a vague or not quite exact concept used in everyday life or in an earlier stage of scientific or logical development, or rather of replacing it by a newly constructed, more exact concept, belongs among the most important tasks of logical analysis and logical construction. We call this the task of explicating, or of giving an explication for, the earlier concept, this earlier concept, or sometimes the term used for it, is called the explicandum; and the new concept, or its term, is called an explicatum of the old one” [Carnap 1947:8-9 — Meaning and Necessity]. See also: Michael Beaney [2002] Carnap’s Conception of Explication.

6. This does not imply that descriptive distinctions in a taxonomy are based on pure facts in the empiricist sense. Taxonomic distinctions have not been substantiated theoretically (they are not theorized) and are usually based on pragmatic common sense. Taxonomies are constructed by ‘quasi analysis’.


Home Sociologists Subject Areas Resources on Class Contact

dr. Albert Benschop
Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences
Sociology & Anthropology University of Amsterdam
Published: March, 2010
Last modified: 13 September, 2013