Global Class Systems, Social Mobility & Poverty

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  • 0:01 Social Classes
  • 0:37 Class Systems
  • 2:56 Poverty and Mobility
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the concept of class and discover how it has been used to separate people in society into groups with different rights and expectations. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Social Classes

Today we are talking about class. Not that kind of class. Not that kind of class, either. No, we're talking about social classes, the division of people within a society. Social scientists, the people who study humans and our societies across time, use the term social stratification to refer to this social system of hierarchies in which some people are elevated above others. Class plays an important role in the ways that people interact with each other within a society. Not that kind of class. There you go.

Class Systems

Throughout history, there have been several ways for people to organize societies into different levels, or classes. These range from societies with dozens of classes to those with no classes and absolute equality. Traditionally, class was connected to a person's wealth and position in society as a leader or worker. In fact, the word 'class' actually derives from a Latin word used by Roman census takers as a category for a person of wealth.

In the ancient world, your status and wealth were almost always inherited from your parents, meaning that class was also hereditary. If your grandparents were in the lower class, then so were your parents, and so are you. Your kids will be in the lower class, too. In this system, class was used to assign rights and privileges. Only those in the upper classes, or the nobility, had certain rights, like the ability to own land. This was taken seriously, and throughout different cultures people could be arrested or even executed for doing things outside of their class.

In the 18th century, the association between class and family started to change. A little. There was less focus on your family and more directly on your wealth and position in society. The people of your class were the people with the same social, economic, or education status. This is when we see the rise of a middle class, a group of people who have more wealth and education than the lower class, but do not have control over the government like the upper class. This would change again in the 19th and 20th centuries as the middle class had more options and the upper class was less often the only group to work in the government. Today, common classes include groupings of people by education, wealth, and potential, such as young professionals, blue collar workers, or management.

Still, class is most often tied to money. The philosopher Karl Marx stated that the idea of class reflects a relationship between a person and the means of production. In other words, do you make things, or do you own the business that makes things? In this system, the people who work but do not control production are called the proletariat. The people who own the production and live off the labor of the workers are the bourgeoisie. Marx's analysis was especially important throughout the 20th century when workers and managers clashed in dramatic class wars across the world.

Poverty and Mobility

Since class is most often associated with wealth in some way, the people at the bottom of the class system are those with nothing. Poverty, or the lack of material resources, is seen in most class-based societies as hitting rock bottom. Social scientists often look towards poverty as a way to determine the level of equality in a society. High levels of poverty can indicate a very unequal society, where a few people control most of the wealth. On the other hand, low poverty can suggest that a society is more equal and wealth is shared by more people.

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