Contradictory Class Locations Research Paper Starter

Contradictory Class Locations

The following is a summary of Erik Olin Wright's theory of contradictory class locations. Wright began studying class in the late 1970s, with the intention of demonstrating the continuing relevance of Marxist thought. Scholars had become increasingly critical of Marx's conceptualization of class structure, and its inability to accommodate the growing middle class of the twentieth century. Wright extended Marx's theory by situating the middle class in contradictory class locations — locations which are torn between the basic class relations of capitalist society. The article will further define these positions and introduce three specific types of contradictory locations. Criticisms of the theory will be addressed, as will Wright's response to these criticisms.

Keywords Bourgeoisie; Class Structure; Control; Exploitation; Petty Bourgeoisie; Proletariat; Relational Class Structure

Contradictory Class Locations


The notion of class is a fundamental conceptual tool in the social sciences. And yet, as Beckert and Zafirovsky explain, "there is no general consensus among sociologists about how best to define the concept or about the broader theoretical framework within which it should be studied" (2006, p. 62). Some theorists follow closely in the footsteps of Max Weber, others adhere to the tenets of Marxism. Within these larger theoretical landscapes, more specific topics emerge: class location, class structure, class consciousness, and class struggle to name just a few. What unites those who study class, however, is a firm belief in the significance of class in explaining a wide variety of social phenomena (Wright, 1997a).

In the late 1970s, one young scholar — Erik Olin Wright — began what would become a lifelong commitment to the study of class. His original research was motivated by the desire "to demonstrate to non-Marxist social scientists that Marxist categories mattered" (Wright, 1978, p. xix). And he intended to do so through a quantitative study of income inequality and class. What Wright soon discovered, however, was that class — although a central concept in Marx's work — was "never systematically defined," even by Marx himself (Wright, 1996, p. 6). Furthermore, he realized that Marx's conceptualization of capitalist societies as comprised of two increasingly polarized classes — those who own the means of production, or the bourgeoisie, and the working class, or the proletariat — was inadequate. What was needed was a more nuanced understanding of class structure that would allow theorists to differentiate among the growing "middle class." Wright introduced his theory of 'contradictory class locations' as a way to fill the gap.

The Original Theory of Contradictory Class Locations

In the nearly four decades since Wright first introduced his theory, he has continually attempted to revise it. As he explains, "the process of concept formation is a continual process of concept transformation. New solutions pose new problems, and the efforts at resolving those problems in turn generate new solutions" (Wright, 1996, p. 92). As a result, the theory of contradictory class locations as it exists now differs in significant ways from its original presentation. We'll look at the theory as Wright first introduced it in the 1970s, then explore some of the arguments of his critics, and finally, look at the ways in which he has attempted to revise it.

In his 1978 publication, Class Structure and Income Determination, Wright's initial task was to present the concept of class from a Marxist perspective. Wright begins by recognizing that "Marxists have defined class primarily in terms of common structural positions within social organizations of production" (1978, p. 4). According to this definition, classes do not constitute groups of people, or statistical aggregations, or social organizations. Rather, classes represent common positions within a hierarchy; importantly, it is the positions themselves which are the primary unit of analysis, not the individuals who occupy those positions. For Marx, the primary positions in the class structure were the capitalists or bourgeoisie, and the proletariat or workers, although he did identify others too, such as the petty bourgeoisie.

Further Insights

Before characterizing these positions further, Wright provides a broader context for his discussion of class by further distinguishing Marxist and non-Marxist perspectives. First and foremost, Wright argues, Marxists view class as a relational concept as opposed to a gradational one (1978). In the latter approach, classes are often defined in terms of spatial relationships — for example, upper and lower class — and members of one or another class typically have more or less of something, such as income or status. In relational definitions, on the other hand, classes are defined in terms of qualitative differences rather than quantitative ones — according to functions performed in work, for example, rather than in terms of income accumulated. In addition, relational definitions of class emphasize change over stasis; that is, according to Marxists, class structures provide the basis collective action and class struggle.

Relational definitions of class can be further differentiated from one another along a second dimension — whether relations are situated in the market, or in the production process itself. Those who subscribe to a Weberian conception of class concentrate on market relations, or the exchange that occurs between sellers and buyers. Marxists, on the other hand, place class analysis firmly in the sphere of production, and the relations between the actors who participate in the production process. Definitions of class grounded in the sphere of production branch once again; some theorists characterize production relations in terms of the division of labor, some in terms of authority, and others in terms of exploitation. For Marxists, exploitation is the central organizing concept, and occurs when those in dominant positions appropriate the labor of the people they dominate. Based on these key elements — relations, production, and exploitation — Wright proposes a Marxist definition of class as "common positions within the social relations of production, where production is analyzed above all as a system of exploitation" (1978, p. 17).

Although Wright was able to bring some clarity to Marx's interpretation of class, the outline sketched above proved inadequate, especially for those wishing to investigate class empirically, and not just conceptually. Theoreticians had difficulty categorizing a growing segment of society into any of the class positions Marx identified — that is, they seemed to be neither capitalists nor members of the working class, or they seemed to have characteristics of both at the same time. Although many critics of Marx interpreted this classification difficulty as evidence of the inadequacy of Marx's theory, Wright believed differently. He writes, "Many critics of the Marxist framework have argued that…ambiguities in the class structure negate the value of the Marxist perspective on classes altogether. This is equivalent to saying that because the platypus has webbed feet and a bill, the concept of 'mammal' is useless" (Wright, 1978, p. 41). Instead, Wright decided to reevaluate the assumption that every position within the class structure has to fall into one and only one class. "If we drop this assumption," he writes, "an entirely new kind of solution to the problem of conceptually mapping the 'middle class' becomes possible" (Wright, 1996, p. 43).

As a result of dropping this assumption, Wright stumbled upon the notion of contradictory class locations. The new middle class, he argued, largely occupied such positions. In presenting his argument Wright first had to distinguish contradictory class locations from other classes, which he recognized as inherently contradictory in and of themselves. "In a sense all class positions are contradictory, in that class relations are intrinsically antagonistic social relations" (1996, p. 26). The bourgeoisie and proletariat, for example, are not only defined in relation to one another — that is, the existence of one class presupposes the existence of the other — but also in opposition to one another. The bourgeoisie exist only to the extent they can dominate and exploit the proletariat. "Thus, the class interests defined by this class relation are fundamentally opposed to each other. It is in this sense that there is an intrinsic — as opposed to purely contingent — contradiction between classes" (Wright, 1978, p. 22).

Contradictory class locations, on the other hand, represent certain "'empty places' in the class structure [which] constitute doubly contradictory locations: they represent positions which are torn between the basic contradictory class...

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