Conceptualizations of Social Inequality and Stratification:  Marx, Weber, and Bourdieu

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     Marx (Bendix, 1974), Weber (Bendix, 1974), and Bourdieu (Wacquant, 2004) shared the method of induction, relying on empirical information.  When Marx observed 19th century capitalism, it was a time when the work forces (the proletariat) in countries such as England were growing, as severe economic deprivation by those who controlled the means of production, the capitalists, was increasing (Bendix, 1974).  Marx recognized divisions within the proletariat, and, of course, also recognized the capitalists kept workers under control through religion (“the opium of the people”).  However, he believed that eventually the severity of their shared deprivation would “drive workers to develop common interests and a collective effort” (p. 150).  There was, in fact, precedent for the severely deprived masses to put aside their divisions and unite in revolution, as in France when royalty was so out of touch with reality that when Marie Antoinette was told the people had no bread, she suggested they “eat cake”.

Nonetheless, although until the development of the middle classes in industrial societies and in third world nations today, severe poverty was and is shared by all but a very small percentage of the populations, there probably never was a time when shared impoverishment implied within-group solidarity.  We now know that memory and perception in general are distorted (reviewed in Schacter, 2002), so it isn’t surprising that historical events led Marx to over-estimate the frequency and likelihood of any large segment of a population uniting and acting as one.

Unlike the historical period when uprisings based on unified action of the masses of people seemed to be the direction of the future, early in the 20th century, when Weber was writing, differences other than those based on economic classes were more apparent.  Indeed, World War I provided Weber with a first-hand view of how circumstances could lead to the perception that age was what unified people, as expressed by Baumer, the young German soldier in Remarque’s novel (1929/1992): “Why do they not tell us that you ["enemy” soldiers] are poor devils like us . . . I see how people are set against one another, and unknowingly, foolishly, obediently, innocently slay one another . . . And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things” (pp. 223, 263).  This age distinction also demonstrated that the capitalists understood that wars are better waged with public support, so that at least members of the working classes too old to fight were manipulated into viewing their countries as “us,” while the enemies became “them.”

         Weber believed that during times of severe economic crises, Marx was correct in conceptualizing two classes based on economics, the large worker social class and the small capitalist social class, but he also was able to observe that workers did not engage in unified rebellion (Bendix, 1974).  He also recognized that economies fluctuated, and between economic crises, social class divisions between workers and capitalists gave way to multiple divisions based on social status.  Social-status groups functioned to allow members to hold each other “in high regard” (p. 154) and to exclude those for reasons such as “race, language, religion, local or social origin, descent, residence, etc.” (Weber, 1968, as cited in Bendix, 1974, p. 155).  At the beginning of the 20th century, when the United States became home to waves of Jewish immigrants from Russia, as well as Catholic immigrants from Ireland and other countries, Weber was able to observe their exclusion from other groups.

     (Interestingly, Marx himself, from Prussia, witnessed his father needing to convert from Judaism to Lutheranism to be allowed into the legal profession, but was himself openly anti-Semitic, writing, for example, “What is the worldly religion of the Jew?  Huckstering.  What is his worldly God?  Money,” Marx, 1843, as cited in Maccoby, 2006, p. 64.)

As Weber extended Marx’s division of society into two social classes based on economics to divisions based on social status, Bourdieu extended Weber’s inclusion of social status to a third set of divisions based on culture (Bourdieu, 1984).  Bourdieu observed social groupings in the late 20th century, when television and later technological advances exposed people to public scrutiny of once private behaviors.

An activist for leftist politics (Wacquant, 2004), what he observed suggested that the social changes he supported would be difficult to achieve given the seemingly imperturbable cultural distinctions that were ingrained on an unconscious level in both those who were dominant and those who were dominated (Bourdieu, 1984).  Rather than describing divisions in terms of classes, Bourdieu proposed that there were three fields in which people competed for economic, social, and cultural capital.  Accumulating cultural capital was the most difficult of the three because the distinctions were so firmly engraved, described by Bourdieu as “habitus.”

These engraved distinctions, according to Bourdieu, were between age groups, gender, and circumstances of birth, with adults, males, and descendents of the elite in positions to dominate, not only through overt power, but more importantly through symbolic power which when exercised consisted of symbolic violence.  Through the unconscious use and comprehension of verbal and body language, people accepted their positions both as dominators and dominated.


Both Marx and Weber lived prior to the use of the scientific method in the social sciences, specifically in experimental psychology.  They also lived at a time prior to the accumulation of knowledge based on research guided by the scientific method about human behavior, cognitions, emotion, etc.  However, it was surprising that Bourdieu incorporated none of this knowledge into his own sociological methods and theories.

Most basic, after Bourdieu formulated a theory based on his own observations, the scientific method, as used in both the hard and social sciences, requires replication by an observer unaware of the prior theory.  The evidence could not be more robust that after formulation of a theory, an observer’s perceptions are distorted in the direction of unintentionally finding support for his or her theory regardless of what was actually observed – a phenomenon termed “expectancy” effects (Smith & Macklin, 2000).  These effects are related to the general findings noted above (reviewed in Schacter, 2002) that memory processes do not resemble a camera, but instead memories undergo distortions both in encoding and retrieving information.

Bourdieu also was not aware of findings by bio-geneticists that individuals are born with genetic predispositions for many psychological characteristics that interact with their experiences and cognitions of their experiences in determining whether these characteristics are manifested (Bronfenbrenner & Ceci, 1994).  There is solid evidence that these predispositions are not between racial, ethnic, or other groups, but between individuals, though there actually is evidence that males are slightly more predisposed than females to being physically active, probably attributable to hormonal differences (Maccoby, 1998).  As a sociologist, it is regrettable that Bournieu did not avail himself of research evidence related to his theory.


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Bronfenbrenner, U., & Ceci, S. J. (1994).  Nature-nurture

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     Psychological Review, 101, 568-586.

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Maccoby, H. (2006).  Antisemitism and modernity: Innovation

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Remarque, E. M. (1929/1982). All quiet on the Western front.

     Trans. A.W. Wheen.  New York: Ballantine.

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Wacquaint, L. (2004).  Pointers on Pierre Bourdieu and

     democratic politics.  Constellations, 11, 3-15.

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