Modernity & Class Society Research Paper Starter

Modernity & Class Society

(Research Starters)

The relationship between modernization and the formation of class society has been explained differently by conflict theorists and functionalists. In conflict theory, Karl Marx believed that class society arose as feudalism was brought down by internal contradictions. Similar contradictions would cause capitalism to give way to communism and usher in the end of class society. Max Weber believed that capitalism and the rise of the modern class system were encouraged by the values of Protestantism. He thought the class system is efficient but that capitalism creates an "iron cage" of bureaucracy. A more recent functionalist theory, modernization theory, suggests that the Western form of class society is an inevitable result of industrial development, and that all countries that modernize will eventually look like the United States. It has been challenged by world systems theory, a conflict perspective that sees the world as having one capitalist global economy.

Keywords Calvinism; Capitalism; Citizenship; Class Consciousness; Convergence Theory; Corporatism; Dialectical Materialism; "End of Ideology"; False Consciousness; Fascism; Industrialization; Mode of Production; Predestination; Urbanization; World Systems Theory

Social Change: Modernity


The phenomenon of modernization encompasses the processes of industrialization, specialization, secularization, the development of a class-based society, and the international division of labor. While some form of stratification has been a feature of all societies, the urbanization and industrialization that have accompanied the spread of capitalism have created new dynamics and a system of class stratification; that is, a system in which people are ranked hierarchically based on their wealth, source of income, and relationship to the means of production. Sociologists have offered competing theories about the origins of the class system, the nature of its system of stratification, the implications of its emergence as a global dynamic, and its impact on the life chances of humans who live in class societies. Many theories have explained the movement from traditional societies to modern societies, focusing on changes in culture, political structure, economic systems, and social norms. Understanding the development of class society and the relationship of class to capitalism, urbanization, and other sweeping historical changes will help sociologists better understand the changes that the global spread of capitalism and class culture are bringing to societies today.

Conflict versus Functionalist Theories

Sociologists who study macro-level data can be divided into two schools of thought. Conflict theorists believe that society is best understood as a place where groups and individuals compete for scarce resources, which can be material resources or forms of prestige and power. Functionalists think society should be understood as a well-oiled machine working toward equilibrium. Whereas conflict theorists see competition, functionalists see cooperation and adaptation. Conflict theorists believe classes have arisen in modern capitalist societies because capitalism is an economic system based on exploitation and competition. Functionalists see the class system as a system matching rewards to those who have the most merit; the class divisions of capitalism are functional for the system.



Karl Marx, one of the originators of conflict theory, believed that the history of humankind is the history of class struggle. He was a materialist, which means he thought that to understand a society, it was necessary to understand its material base — in other words, how it makes the goods it needs to survive. The mode of production is his term for describing the entirety of the creation of goods. He divided it into the forces of production (for example, whether people make things by hand or use machinery) and the relations of production (that is, whether people work alone or cooperate, whether people own the fruits of their labor or sell their labor to others). The material base of a society determines its superstructure — the cultural and political forms that are rooted in the mode of production (Marx, 1964).

Throughout history, as societies change, one mode of production will dominate for a time and then be replaced by another. Ancient systems gave way to the feudalism of the Middle Ages, which fell to capitalism. Marx believed that these changes occurred because each new form had an inherent flaw or internal contradictions that eventually led to its downfall and replacement by a new economic system. For example, feudalism allowed concentrations of wealth, which prepared the way for the creation of a merchant class, trade, and cooperative production, which in turn paved the way for the ascendance of the middle class and capitalism, which weakened the social stability of the feudal system and eventually destroyed its viability. Similarly, Marx thought that contradictions in capitalism based in class conflict would eventually bring capitalism down and replace it with communism. He called this process of tension, collapse, and replacement of the dialectic.

The tensions in capitalism come from the exploitation of workers for profit. Since capitalism is driven by profit motives, capitalists try to increase their profits in several ways: they compete for a share of the market by lowering the price of their goods, which would be a viable strategy if they replace labor with machines or pay lower wages. This competition drives some capitalists out of business, leading to monopolies and a concentration of wealth. The competition also makes the entire system unstable, as periods of falling profits, concentrations of wealth, and then booms alternate, with each crisis becoming worse than the previous one until the misery of the working class and the over-concentration of wealth among the few remaining capitalists leads to revolution (Marx, 1954).

Marx believed the capitalist system is primarily a relationship between two classes: workers (also called the proletariat) and owners of capital (also called the bourgeoisie or capitalists). Because workers have interests in common with other workers, and capitalists share interests with other capitalists, each group develops a class consciousness — a similar way of interpreting its interests in the world. Marx believed that in every era, the ruling class used its power to spread its ideas among lower classes; the ideas would legitimate the system of stratification and justify the capitalists' dominance. Capitalists hold power partially by convincing workers that the system of capitalism is fair, that it is in the workers' best interests to embrace the system. This identification of their interests with the interests of capitalists creates a false consciousness in the workers.

Marx thought the changes in the process of labor under modern capitalism have negative consequences for workers (exploitation and alienation from the products of their labor) and positive consequences for capitalists (higher quantities of commodities produced for the same amount of labor, leading to higher surplus values and the growth of capital). Marx thought that workers would become alienated because people realize themselves through their labor; as people create things through their labor, they also create themselves. By dividing people from the products they labored to create, the modern class system alienates people from their own creativity and essentially alienates them from themselves (Marx, 1964).

Criticisms of Marx

The most obvious criticism of Marx's theory of classes is that his predictions about the fall of capitalism and the rise of communism have not come to pass. There are many reasons why his analysis has not proven accurate, but a major one is that Marx's theories were developed in the early days of industrialization. There are many complex features of developing capitalism. For example, unionization led to improved workers' rights that control the excesses that were so evident in his day. Other important features that developed after his death include the spread of bureaucracy that Weber later analyzed. Some of Marx's ideas are dated and no longer describe the system of capitalism...

(The entire section is 3690 words.)