Three-component theory of stratification

The three-component theory of stratification, more widely known as Weberian stratification or the three class system, was developed by German sociologist Max Weber with class, status and power as distinct ideal types. Weber developed a multidimensional approach to social stratification that reflects the interplay among wealth, prestige and power.

Weber argued that power can take a variety of forms. A person's power can be shown in the social order through their status, in the economic order through their class, and in the political order through their party. Thus, class, status and party are each aspects of the distribution of power within a community.[1]

Class, status and power have not only a great deal of effect within their individual areas but also a great deal of influence over the other areas.

  • Wealth: includes property such as buildings, lands, farms, houses, factories and as well as other assets – Economic Situation
  • Prestige: the respect with which a person or status position is regarded by others – Status Situation
  • Power: the ability of people or groups to achieve their goals despite opposition from others – Parties

According to Weber, there are two basic dimensions of power: the possession of power and the exercising of power.

This essay was written shortly before World War I and was published posthumously in 1922 as part of Weber's Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.[2] It was translated into English in the 1940s as "Class, Status, Party"[3] and has been re-translated as "The distribution of power within the community: Classes, Stände, Parties".[4]

Possession of power

According to Weber, the ability to possess power derives from the individual's ability to control various "social resources". "The mode of distribution gives to the propertied a monopoly on the possibility of transferring property from the sphere of use as 'wealth' to the sphere of 'capital,' that is, it gives them the entrepreneurial function and all chances to share directly or indirectly in returns on capital" (Lemert 2004:116). These resources can be anything and everything: they might include land, capital, social respect, physical strength, and intellectual knowledge.

Exercising of power

The ability to exercise power takes a number of different forms, but all involve the idea that it means the ability to get your own way with others, regardless of their ability to resist you. "For example, if we think about an individual's chances of realizing their own will against someone else, it is reasonable to believe that the person's social prestige, class position, and membership in a political group will have an effect on these chances" (Hurst 2007:202). In terms of understanding the relationship between power and social stratification, Weber theorized the various ways in which societies are organized in hierarchical systems of domination and subordination using the several major concepts.

Class and power

"Class, at its core, is an economic concept; it is the position of individuals in the market that determines their class position. And it is how one is situated in the marketplace that directly affects one's life chances" (Hurst 2007:203). This was theorized by Weber on the basis of "unequal access to material resources". For example, if someone possesses something that you want or need then this makes him potentially more powerful than you. He is in a dominant position and you are in a subordinate position because he controls access to a desired social resource. A classic illustration here is the relationship between an employer and employee.

Social power (status or Stände)

"The existence of status groups most often shows itself in the form of

  1. endogamy or the restricted pattern of social intercourse,
  2. sharing of food and other benefits within groups,
  3. status conventions or traditions, and
  4. monopolistic acquisition of certain economic opportunities or the avoidance of certain kinds of acquisitions. (Hurst 2007:204)

If you respect someone or view him as your social superior, then he will potentially be able to exercise power over you (since you will respond positively to his instructions / commands). In this respect, social status is a social resource simply because he may have it while you may not. "Not all power, however entails social honor: The Typical American Boss, as well as the typical big speculator, deliberately relinquishes social honor. Quite generally, 'mere economic' power, and especially 'naked' money power, is by no means a recognized basis or social honor" (Lemert 2004:116).

Note: The German word Stand, plural Stände (English, "status" or "status group") is sometimes left untranslated in Weber,[5] in order to keep in view the origins of this concept in medieval guilds, professions, ethnic identities, and feudal classifications.[6]

Political power (party)

Parties are associations that aim at securing "power within an organization [or the state] for its leaders in order to attain ideal or material advantages for its active members" (Hurst 2007:206). This form of power can be related to the way in which the State is organized in modern social systems (involving the ability to make laws, for example). If you can influence this process of law creation then you will be in a potentially powerful position. Thus, by your ability to influence a decision-making process you possess power, even though you may not directly exercise that power personally. Political parties are the organizational means to possess power through the mechanism of the State and they include not just formally organized parties, but any group that is organized to influence the way in which power is exercised legitimately through the machinery of the State. "Since parties aim at such goals as getting their programs developed or accepted and getting positions of influence within organizations, it is clear that they operate only within a rational order within which these goals are possible to attain and only when there is a struggle for power" (Hurst 2007:206).

Social action

Social action is in direct relation to "political or party power" in combination with the class situation. The influence of laws is based on the social action of members of the classes. "The direction of interests may vary according to whether or not social action of a larger or smaller portion of those commonly affected by the class situation, or even an association among them, e.g., a trade union, has grown out of the class situation, from which the individual may expect promising results for himself" (Lemert 2004:117). "The degree in which "social action" and possibly associations emerge from the mass behavior of the members of a class is linked to general cultural conditions, especially to those of an intellectual sort. It is also likened to the extent of the contrasts that have already evolved" (Lemert 2004:118). "Class-conscious action is most likely if, first, [Weber says] 'the connection between the causes and consequences of the "class situation"' are transparent, or clear. If individuals can plainly see that there is a connection between the structure of the economic system and what happens to them in terms of life chances, class action is more likely" (Hurst 2007:204). The greater the numbers within these class positions, will increase the chance that they will rise up in action.


"It is noncontroversial that the class situation in which each individual finds himself represents a limitation on his scope, tends to keep him within the class. It acts as an obstacle to any rise into a higher class, and as a pair of water wings with respect to the classes below…Class type, relations with class fellows, power over outward resources adapted to the class situation, and so on" (Schumpeter 1951:163-164). In capitalist society movement between classes is a possibility. Hence the use of the term "The American Dream" to show the ability of people to ascend to a higher class through hard work and ingenuity. "Class composition is forever changing, to the point where there may be a completely new set of families" (Schumpeter 1951:165).

Weber saw four classes: the propertied class, the non-propertied class, the petit bourgeoisie and the manual labourer class.


  1. ^ Hurst 2007:202.
  2. ^ Weber 1922/1980:531-540.
  3. ^ Weber 1946:180-195; reproduced with modifications in Weber 1978:926-939.
  4. ^ Weber 2010. See also Waters and Waters 2015.[1]
  5. ^ E.g. Weber 2010:142-148.
  6. ^ Waters and Waters 2015:37-40.[2]


  • Hurst, Charles E. (2007). Social Inequality: Forms, Causes, and Consequences. Boston MA, Allyn and Bacon, 6th edn ISBN 0-205-48436-0.
  • Lemert, Charles (2004). Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. Boulder CO, Westview P., 3rd edn ISBN 0-8133-4217-1 and 978-0-8133-4217-7.
  • Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1951). Imperialism and Social Classes. Fairfield NJ, Kelley. ISBN 0-678-00020-4
  • Waters, Tony, and Dagmar Waters (2010). "The New Zeppelin University Translation of Weber's 'Classes, Stände, Parties'" (2010) 10 Journal of Classical Sociology 153.
  • Waters, Tony, and Dagmar Waters (2015), editors and translators. Weber's Rationalism and Modern Society: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy and Social Stratification. New York: Palsgrave MacMillan.
  • Weber, Max (1922/1980). Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss der verstehenden Soziologie. Tübingen, Mohr, 1922 ed. Marianne Weber, 5th edn 1980 ed. Johannes Winckelmann.
  • Weber, Max (1946). From Max Weber, trans. and ed. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York, Free P.
  • Weber, Max (1964). The Theory of Social and Economic Organization, ed. Talcott Parsons. New York, NY: Free P.
  • Weber, Max (1978). Economy and Society: an Outline of Interpretive Sociology [trans. of 1964 edn of Weber 1922], ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: U. California P.
  • Weber, Max (2010) "The distribution of power within the community: Classes, Stände, Parties", trans. Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters and others (2010) 10 Journal of Classical Sociology 137.
  • Weber, Max (2015). "The Distribution of Power with the Gemeinschaft: Classes, Stände, Parties", trans. Dagmar Waters, Tony Waters editors and translators, in Weber's Rationalism and Modern Society: New Translations on Politics, Bureaucracy and Social Stratification." New York: Palgrave MacMillan. Text of 2015 translation of Classes, Staende, Parties by Max Weber.
Class analysis

Class analysis is research in sociology, politics and economics from the point of view of the stratification of the society into dynamic classes. It implies that there is no universal or uniform social outlook, rather that there are fundamental conflicts that exist inherent to how society is currently organized.

Most known examples are the theory of Karl Marx and Max Weber's three-component theory of stratification.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Gemeinschaft (German pronunciation: [ɡəˈmaɪnʃaft]) and Gesellschaft ([ɡəˈzɛlʃaft]), generally translated as "community and society", are categories which were used by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies in order to categorize social ties into two dichotomous sociological types which define each other. Max Weber, who is generally recognized as being a founding figure in sociology, also wrote extensively about the relationship between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. Weber wrote in direct response to Tönnies.

Life chances

Life chances (Lebenschancen in German) is a social science theory of the opportunities each individual has to improve their quality of life. The concept was introduced by German sociologist Max Weber. It is a probabilistic concept, describing how likely it is, given certain factors, that an individual's life will turn out a certain way. According to this theory, life chances are positively correlated with one's socioeconomic status.Opportunities in this sense refer to the extent to which one has access to resources, both tangible ones such as food, clothing and shelter, and intangible ones such as education and health care. Life chances comprise the individual's ability to procure goods, have a career and obtain inner satisfaction; in other words, the ability to satisfy one's needs.

Max Weber

Maximilian Karl Emil Weber (; German: [ˈveːbɐ]; 21 April 1864 – 14 June 1920) was a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist. His ideas profoundly influenced social theory and social research. Weber is often cited, with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx, as among the three founders of sociology. Weber was a key proponent of methodological anti-positivism, arguing for the study of social action through interpretive (rather than purely empiricist) means, based on understanding the purpose and meaning that individuals attach to their own actions. Unlike Durkheim, he did not believe in mono-causality and rather proposed that for any outcome there can be multiple causes.Weber's main intellectual concern was understanding the processes of rationalisation, secularisation, and "disenchantment" that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity. He saw these as the result of a new way of thinking about the world. Weber is best known for his thesis combining economic sociology and the sociology of religion, elaborated in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he proposed that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major "elective affinities" associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state. He argued that it was in the basic tenets of Protestantism to boost capitalism. Thus, it can be said that the spirit of capitalism is inherent to Protestant religious values.

Against Marx's historical materialism, Weber emphasised the importance of cultural influences embedded in religion as a means for understanding the genesis of capitalism. The Protestant Ethic formed the earliest part in Weber's broader investigations into world religion; he went on to examine the religions of China, the religions of India and ancient Judaism, with particular regard to their differing economic consequences and conditions of social stratification. In another major work, "Politics as a Vocation", Weber defined the state as an entity that successfully claims a "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory". He was also the first to categorise social authority into distinct forms, which he labelled as charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. His analysis of bureaucracy emphasised that modern state institutions are increasingly based on rational-legal authority.

Weber also made a variety of other contributions in economic history, as well as economic theory and methodology. Weber's analysis of modernity and rationalisation significantly influenced the critical theory associated with the Frankfurt School. After the First World War, Max Weber was among the founders of the liberal German Democratic Party. He also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in parliament and served as advisor to the committee that drafted the ill-fated democratic Weimar Constitution of 1919. After contracting Spanish flu, he died of pneumonia in 1920, aged 56.

Party class

The sociologist Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification in which he defined party class as a group of people (part of a society) that can be differentiated on the basis of their affiliations with other engaged members in the political domain.

Social class

A social class is a set of subjectively defined concepts in the social sciences and political theory centered on models of social stratification in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories, the most common being the upper, middle and lower classes.

"Class" is a subject of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and social historians. However, there is not a consensus on a definition of "class" and the term has a wide range of sometimes conflicting meanings. In common parlance, the term "social class" is usually synonymous with "socio-economic class", defined as "people having the same social, economic, cultural, political or educational status", e.g., "the working class"; "an emerging professional class". However, academics distinguish social class and socioeconomic status, with the former referring to one's relatively stable sociocultural background and the latter referring to one's current social and economic situation and consequently being more changeable over time.The precise measurements of what determines social class in society has varied over time. Karl Marx thought "class" was defined by one's relationship to the means of production (their relations of production). His simple understanding of classes in modern capitalist society are the proletariat, those who work but do not own the means of production; and the bourgeoisie, those who invest and live off the surplus generated by the proletariat's operation of the means of production. This contrasts with the view of the sociologist Max Weber, who argued "class" is determined by economic position, in contrast to "social status" or "Stand" which is determined by social prestige rather than simply just relations of production. The term "class" is etymologically derived from the Latin classis, which was used by census takers to categorize citizens by wealth in order to determine military service obligations.In the late 18th century, the term "class" began to replace classifications such as estates, rank and orders as the primary means of organizing society into hierarchical divisions. This corresponded to a general decrease in significance ascribed to hereditary characteristics and increase in the significance of wealth and income as indicators of position in the social hierarchy.

Social class in the United Kingdom

The social structure of the United Kingdom has historically been highly influenced by the concept of social class, which continues to affect British society today.British society, like its European neighbours and most societies in world history, was traditionally (before the Industrial Revolution) divided hierarchically within a system that involved the hereditary transmission of occupation, social status and political influence. Since the advent of industrialisation, this system has been in a constant state of revision, and new factors other than birth (for example, education) are now a greater part of creating identity in Britain.

Although definitions of social class in the United Kingdom vary and are highly controversial, most are influenced by factors of wealth, occupation and education. Until the Life Peerages Act 1958, the Parliament of the United Kingdom was organised on a class basis, with the House of Lords representing the hereditary upper-class and the House of Commons representing everybody else. The British monarch is usually viewed as being at the top of the social class structure.

British society has experienced significant change since the Second World War, including an expansion of higher education and home ownership, a shift towards a service-dominated economy, mass immigration, a changing role for women and a more individualistic culture, and these changes have had a considerable impact on the social landscape. However, claims that the UK has become a classless society have frequently been met with scepticism. Research has shown that social status in the United Kingdom is influenced by, although separate from, social class.The biggest current study of social class in the United Kingdom is the Great British Class Survey.

Social stratification

Social stratification is a kind of social differentiation whereby a society groups people into socioeconomic strata, based upon their occupation and income, wealth and social status, or derived power (social and political). As such, stratification is the relative social position of persons within a social group, category, geographic region, or social unit.

In modern Western societies, social stratification typically is distinguished as three social classes: (i) the upper class, (ii) the middle class, and (iii) the lower class; in turn, each class can be subdivided into strata, e.g. the upper-stratum, the middle-stratum, and the lower stratum. Moreover, a social stratum can be formed upon the bases of kinship, clan, tribe or caste, or all four.

The categorization of people by social strata occurs in all societies, ranging from the complex, state-based or polycentric societies to tribal and feudal societies, which are based upon socio-economic relations among classes of nobility and classes of peasants. Historically, whether or not hunter-gatherer societies can be defined as socially stratified or if social stratification began with agriculture and common acts of social exchange, remains a debated matter in the social sciences. Determining the structures of social stratification arises from inequalities of status among persons, therefore, the degree of social inequality determines a person's social stratum. Generally, the greater the social complexity of a society, the more social strata exist, by way of social differentiation.

Socioeconomic mobility in the United Kingdom

Socioeconomic mobility in the United Kingdom refers to the ability or inability of citizens of the UK to move from one socio-economic class to another.

Status group

The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) formulated a three-component theory of stratification that defines a status group (also status class and status estate) as a group of people who, within a society, can be differentiated on the basis of non-economic qualities such as honour, prestige, ethnicity, race and religion. (Weber used the German terms Stand (status group) and Stände (status groups).)

Since Weber's day, sociologists have intensively studied the matter of “status incongruence” - both in post-industrial societies, and in other countries.Weber said that status groups emerge from "the house of honor", and that such status-honor stands in contrast with:

social class, based on economically determined relationship in the house of the marketplace

political party, based on affiliations in the political domain, or the house of powerStatus groups, social classes, and political parties are the constituent concepts of the three-component theory of stratification. Discussion of the relationships among status groups, social class, and political parties occurs in Weber's essay "Class, Status, Party", written before the First World War (1914–18); the first translation into English, by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills, was published in the 1940s. Dagmar Waters and colleagues produced a newer English translation of the essay, titled “The Distribution of Power within the Community: Classes, Stände, Parties” (2010), published in the “Journal of Classical Sociology”; the title of the new English-language translation includes the German word “Stände” (status groups) in place of the English term.According to Weber, status groups feature in a wide variety of social stratifications which both popular discourse and the academic literature commonly refer to. These include categorization by race, ethnicity, caste, professional groups, neighborhood groups, nationalities, and so forth. These contrast with relationships rooted in economic relations, which Weber calls "class".

Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) discusses issues of cultural capital and symbolic capital. Like Weber, he comments on how non-monetary means are used to confer and deny status to individuals and groups. However, Bourdieu developed independently from Weber, even though they probably do reflect the type of "capital" that status groups confer on those who are privileged.

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