Theories of social class in education

Updated April 17, 2017

Sociology is the study of the nature of social classes and interests, as well as the effects on society, economy and social change. There have been many popular theories on the nature of society, and these theories often focus on societal conflict or harmony and its implications on organisations, political structure and change.


The functionalist view of social classes, pioneered by Durkheim, emphasises the role of social players and its importance on society. According to professor Timothy Shortell of the Department of Sociology at Brooklyn College, Durkheim believed that harmony, as opposed to conflict, defined society. Although he recognised social conflict and turmoil as an essential barometer of society, Durkheim's theory of functionalism primarily focused on what holds people together, and how different social classes worked together to form cohesion. Durkheim focused on two types of social integration: mechanic and organic. Organic integration is based on shared cultures and beliefs, while mechanical integration results from specialisation and mutual dependence.


Karl Marx was widely recognised for his conflict theory of social classes. His view of society was based on its opposing social classes and their struggle with one another. Marx defined these social classes according to property ownership: the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production and therefore derive their income from profit; the landowners, who own land and real estate and claim income from rent; and the proletariat, who derives their income from working for the upper classes. Marx theorised that the different classes naturally had different interests, therefore creating conflict and turmoil between them. It is this conflict which Marx theorises is responsible for political power, organisation, and social change.


Max Weber was a contemporary of Karl Marx and held a theory of class that is similar to Marx's conflict theory. However, Weber's general idea is that social conflict not only arises from differences in property ownership, but also from social status. Weber did not believe that different social classes necessarily held uniform interests, or that the proletarian class was necessarily apt to revolutionary actions. Weber's theory of social conflict rested on the idea that it can occur from ideological differences between classes, and not just material differences.


Dahrendorf defines social classes as differing groups naturally in conflict as a result of the authoritative structure of organisations. Conflict between classes is a direct consequence of authoritative domination and dictatorship; this relationship between the powers and the powerless is what generates social change, but not necessarily through revolution. Dahrendorf defines authority as the probability that a command will be obeyed by certain people. It is associated with a societal role, and is different from power, which, according to Dahrendorf, is the individual ability to exercise coercive control over others.

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Based in Atlanta, Theresa Maddox writes for various websites, covering personal care, beauty and health topics. She received a National Merit Finalist package in 2001 and holds a Bachelor of Science in merchandising from the University of Kentucky.