Social class and education in a capitalist world

social class

In the globalising world of today, the competition of the knowledge economy has shifted from a national to a global stage. New upcoming world powers invest enormous amounts of money in their educational systems to compete for a leading position in the world economy.[1] In order to stay competitive, the economically dominant western world is under pressure to optimise the educational system to the same, if not higher extent.

Securing the quality and accessibility of the educational system is of high importance to do so, since a highly educated population is important for innovation which is a key element for economic competitiveness.[2]     

The American educational system

Within the western world and far beyond, the United States of America have a dominant economic role. The adaption of the American educational system to the competitive global knowledge economy is therefore particularly interesting, since it is quite likely to influence the global competitiveness of the entire western world.

Whether the current American educational system is well enough equipped for that, remains an interesting question since its output consists of enormous economic inequality;

‘The founders of the modern U.S. school system understood that the capitalist economy produces great extremes of wealth and poverty, of social elevation and degradation.’[3] 

While the capitalist system on a national level can lead to a balanced centre-periphery relation, the system might be challenged once it faces global competition.

To maintain a central position as a nation in the global economy and not fall back in a peripherical role, knowledge and thereby optimising the educational system is of vital importance. How well the capitalist American educational system is able to do so, is a very interesting field of study. 

Since the price of education in a highly capitalised society can lead to significant tuition fees, the accessibility of education for the lower socio-economic class might be threatened. Maintaining a strong position in the global knowledge economy could therefore be at risk. 

The Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat

In the publication ‘Capital’ of the German intellectual Karl Marx (1818-1883) two dominant social classes are distinguished; the capitalist class or ‘Bourgeoisie’ and the ‘Proletariat’.[4] Within this theory, the Bourgeoisie owns the means of production such as machines and companies while the Proletariat does not own any of these and is forced to sell their time in the form of labor.[5]According to Marx’s theory, these class-differences could lead to a ‘parallel society’ of the poor and rich, separated by an ever-growing gap.

For a successful educational training, both money and time are necessary. It is therefore a logical conclusion to assume that education would predominantly be accessible for the Bourgeoisie, since the Proletariat does not have the financial means or time to focus on educational training.

The fact that many well-known philosophers from the past did come from wealthy families seems to support this theory, but since the work Capital was written over a hundred years ago, the prediction of Marx can be compared to modern-day reality. 

Educational attainment in the USA

According to the National Centre for Education Statistics, the educational attainment of the population of the United States has increased on all levels in the timeframe of the year 2000 until 2017.[6]In addition to that, the American middle class has been relatively stable over the last forty years and made up 52% of the American population in 2016.[7]

More than a hundred years after the publication of ‘Capital’, we can therefore conclude that the prediction of a two-class society of Bourgeoisie and Proletariat is not completely in line with modern day reality.  

Max Weber

The explanation for this more complex reality can be found within the philosophy of the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920).

Between the extremes of the Bourgeoisie and Proletariat as Marx described, Weber adds two additional social classes; the ‘petty bourgeoisie’, which consists of small business owners and ‘workers with formal credentials’ such as educated managers.[8]The petty bourgeoisie and workers with formal credentials are dependent on the educational system in particular, since skills and knowledge are vital for their economic success. The bourgeoisie is less dependent on knowledge since they benefit from an extensive amount of acquired means of production through heritage or former economic successes. The unskilled workers are less dependent on knowledge as well, since knowledge is not vital for the labor they sell.

According to the theory of Weber, the growth of the educated population in the United States could be responsible for the growth of the petty bourgeoisie and workers with formal credentials leading to a dominant middle class in the country. 

Pierre Bourdieu

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) had a broader perspective on social class and capital than Weber.

Apart from economic capital as Marx and Weber were primarily focused on, Bourdieu introduced other forms of capital such as cultural- and social capital, habitus and lifestyle.[9]According to Bourdieu, the social class we are part of, cannot be simplified to our economic means alone. Educational training for example, gives us valuable knowledge that can be seen as ‘cultural capital’.

Since knowledge can only partially be ‘purchased’, for example by being able to afford a tuition fee, study materials and time off from work, the actual studying and gaining knowledge is not for sale. In addition to that, the social network of a person can be seen as ‘social capital’ since a strong social network can be valuable for the purpose of influencing political decisions or something simple as getting a job. 

Apart from the different forms of capital, the ‘Habitus’ is just as important for the determination of a person’s social class. It can be seen as the person’s world view; a composition of a person’s values and convictions.[10]

In addition to the habitus, the ‘lifestyle’ of a person determines what social class the individual belongs to.[11]Our upbringing, social network, intellect, education and much more, should therefore all be taken in consideration when we speak of the capital we own, since all of these are responsible for our economic success and positioning within the social class system.  

Social classes in a globalising world

In a globalising world, the existence of social classes seems to expand to a bigger scale. While on a micro-level social classes are visible within families, they are from a global perspective between countries.

The United States and other developed countries could in that way be seen as the ‘Bourgeoisie of the world’, relying on economic-, social- and cultural capital. A leading position in the world economy is therefore not only dependent on economic domination and a highly educated population. Cultural capital in the form of western languages and the Americanisation of the world together with social capital in the form of ties to former colonies, make up a more complete spectrum of capital the western world possesses on the global stage.  

The rise of economic powers such as China and India do not have to threaten the dominant position of the western world since economic capital is only one form of capital to climb the ladder of social class from a global perspective. Moreover, the middle class has remained to exist in the United States making up the biggest part of the population which might be the ultimate proof that the ‘winner takes it all’ theory of Marx, was indeed nothing but a theory. Though, at what price that comes regarding financial stress about loans and the general well-being of the population is another, but vital, discussion.

[1]Brooks R. and Waters J. Student mobilities, migration and the internationalization of higher education. (1stedn Palgrave macmillan 2011) p. 121.

[2]Sajitha B, Trends in International Trade in Higher Education (Washington d.c.: The world bank 2007) p.76, in E-Book Library, accessed 18 september 2019.

[3]Bowles S and Gintis H Schooling in capitalist america. (1st edn Haymarket books 2011) p.27

[4]Bidet J Exploring Marx’s Capital. (1st edn Brill 2006) p.98.

[5]Bidet J Exploring Marx’s Capital. (1st edn Brill 2006) p.98.

[6]National Centre for Education Statistics, Educational attainment of Young Adults[Web document] (2019), < >, accessed 18 september 2019.

[7]Kochhar R, ‘ The American middle class is stable in size, but losing ground financially to upper-income families, ‘ Pew Research Center [Web document] (2018), < >, accessed 18 september 2019.

[8]Breen R, ‘ Foundations of a Neo-Weberian class analysis’, Social Science Computing Cooperative [Web document], <–%20Breen%20Jan%202004.pdf>, accessed 18 september 2019.

[9]Bourdieu, P, The forms of capital”, in Richardson, J., Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1986) p. 243

[10]Bourdieu P, Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. (8 edn Harvard university press 1996) p. 223

[11]Bourdieu P, Distinction: a social critique of the judgement of taste. (8 edn Harvard university press 1996) p. 263

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