Saturday, December 20, 2008

A diagram of class structure

Consider this schematic representation of several variables defined by circumstances of work, income, and occupation. The diagram proposes a classification of income earners according to a series of distinctions about their economic situation.

The diagram captures a handful of separate dimensions of a person's economic location -- one's class. These include:

  • source of income (profits, wages, partner's shares)
  • level of skill and education
  • function as manager or staff
  • income level (high, medium, low)
  • sector of economy (manufacturing, service, agriculture)
These are important economic characteristics that serve to define a person's status, quality of life, and opportunities in American society. (All but income are designated in the dashed boxes on the diagram.)

We might hypothesize that the large groups that are defined by this diagram have the makings of a class: unskilled farm laborers; unskilled industrial workers; skilled salaried industrial professionals; skilled salaried professors, teachers, and librarians; professionals in firms with partner status and income; and owners of property. Moreover, we are led to ask whether there are likely to be linkages across sectors: are unskilled farm workers and factory workers likely to see themselves as members of a large class? Are salaried professionals in the industrial sector and the service sector likely to have affinity with each other? What about salaried accountants and their counterparts in partner-governed firms? What about salaried professors and temporary instructors?

Each of these categories of classification makes a difference in one's life circumstances. The source of income defines a basic set of interests for the members of each group; for example, owners of industrial firms have an economic interest in reducing labor costs, whereas wage and salaried workers have an interest in increasing salaries and benefits. The criterion of skill and education influences one's productivity and value to the employer; and it highlights an abstract social resource that one owns (specialized knowledge). The category of "manager/staff" defines the individual's power and influence within the workplace -- whether he/she is a "boss" or a "worker". The sector one works in makes a difference because it establishes a set of distinctive characteristics of the workplace (a factory is different from a factory farm), and it locates the individual's fortunes within a part of the economy that itself has specific interests and advantages. (More free trade is good for farmers because it boosts grain exports, but bad for industrial workers because it creates more competition around labor costs.)

It is also worth pointing out that the diagram provides a crude theory of income distribution: incomes are higher for more skilled workers, for executives, managers, and supervisors, and in more productive industries.

What the diagram leaves out are social characteristics like race, ethnicity, or gender, that substantially influence where one will end up within this structure. And it is intriguing to consider whether there might be a similar diagram that plots out the workings of race, immigration status, gender, or ethnicity in life outcomes.

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