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What Is a Social Class? - Definition & Concept

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  • 0:01 What Is Social Class?
  • 0:33 Dimensions of Social Class
  • 2:32 Social Classes in the U.S.
  • 4:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

The United States has what is known as a class system, and it is composed of various social classes based on a variety of dimensions. Let's learn more about the class system of the United States, and test our knowledge with a quiz.

What is Social Class?

A social class is a large group of people who occupy a similar position in an economic system. There are several different dimensions of social class, including:

  1. Income
  2. Wealth
  3. Power
  4. Occupation
  5. Education
  6. Race
  7. Ethnicity

While defining social classes in the U.S. is difficult, most sociologists recognize four main categories: upper class, middle class, working class, and the lower class. Let's examine these concepts further.

Dimensions of Social Class

Income refers to earnings from work or investments, while wealth refers to all of those assets an individual owns, such as cash, savings and checking accounts, stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. minus outstanding debts. Most people make money from work, but for the wealthy, much of theirs is inherited. As a result, wealth is distributed much more unevenly than income, because wealth is typically passed down from generation to generation. In the United States, wealth is an important source of power. The small number of people who control most of the wealth can more easily shape the agenda of society. Here is a picture of the distribution of wealth by class in the United States, according to the Economic Policy Institute:

Income Inequality

Work is considered an important dimension of social class as well. People commonly give greater respect to those who have more prestigious occupations. In any society, those with high-prestige occupations often belong to more privileged categories of people. When it comes to occupational prestige, the highest-ranked occupations, such as physicians, dentists, and engineers, are typically held by men. Women and people of color often dominate the less prestigious occupations.

Likewise, education is an important dimension of social class. In fact, education is one of the strongest predictors of occupation, income, and wealth later in life. Most better-paying white collar jobs require a college degree, while most blue collar jobs require less schooling, and bring less income and prestige).

Finally, it is argued that nothing affects social standing as much as being born into a particular family. The family we are born into has a strong bearing on schooling, occupation, and income. Likewise, race and ethnicity are links to social class in the United States as well. For example, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2009, the average income of an African American family is $32,584, while the average white family makes $51,861.

Social Classes in the U.S.

Defining social classes in the United States is difficult and subject to debate. Some sociologists divide the population into more classes than others. With this in mind, let's examine the four most common social classes: upper, middle, working, and lower. Sociologist John Macionis would define the various social classes in the following way:

The upper class makes up about 5% of the population and earns about $200,000 a year (some earn much more than that). In general, the more a family's income comes from inherited wealth, the more likely a person is to belong to the upper class.

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