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Group of people within a society who possess the same socioeconomic status. The term was first widely used in the early 19th century, following the industrial and political revolutions of the late 18th century. The most influential early theory of class was that of Karl Marx, who focused on how one class controls and directs the process of production while other classes are the direct producers and the providers of services to the dominant class. The relations between the classes were thus seen as antagonistic. Max Weber emphasized the importance of political power and social status or prestige in maintaining class distinctions. Despite controversies over the theory of class, there is general agreement on the characteristics of the classes in modern capitalist societies. In many cases the upper class has been distinguished by the possession of largely inherited wealth, while the working class has consisted mostly of manual labourers and semiskilled or unskilled workers, often in service industries, who earn moderate or low wages and have little access to inherited wealth. The middle class includes the middle and upper levels of clerical workers, those engaged in technical and professional occupations, supervisors and managers, and such self-employed workers as small-scale shopkeepers, businesspeople, and farmers. There is also often an urban substratum of permanently jobless and underemployed workers termed the underclass. See alsobourgeoisie.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on class, social, visit Britannica.com.
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