Social Inequality In History Research Paper

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As a universal fact of all human civilization, social inequality has been shaping advanced societies in a most fundamental way for many thousands of years, especially since the rise of more complex cultures and political systems in the wake of the ‘Neolithic Revolution.’ The concept of social inequality refers to an unequal distribution of positions in society, a distribution which is determined by structures of power (e.g., the modern state and its administrative elites), of technology and economy (e.g., industrial technology and capitalism), and of cultural expression and perception (e.g., Christian religion and its attempt to define and explain a ‘holy’ order of worldly society).

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In modern societies, social inequality is often framed as a differentiation of society in distinct groups of similar positions conceivable as ‘layers’ of the social order on a vertical scale. A general term for this type of social inequality structure is ‘stratification.’ In the Western tradition, the concept of stratification often—in a more or less explicit way—refers to a ranking of social positions according to the distribution of economic resources; the conflicting groups resulting from this are frequently called ‘classes’ (in a broad sense). The notion of a society divided into classes, which through their collective action fundamentally shape the dynamic processes of society, has been most widely applied to the specific historical case of Western industrial societies with their market economy, but has also been transferred from here to the description of agrarian societies in ancient or medieval times.

Since around 1970, concepts of stratification and class have been criticized for their neglect of other dimensions of social differentiation and inequality such as gender, race, or ethnicity. Important as this recent restructuring of the debate on historical (and contemporary) modes of inequality is, stratification and class have been essential concepts for social history in the past (and appear to remain so in the future, if in a modified way). Indeed, it may be said that the development of social history as a field of historical research is hardly conceivable without the analytical concepts of stratification and class. In considering social inequality, stratification, and class in history, two perspectives may be taken. First, stratification is an empirical problem, a problem of historical subject matter. In this regard, one can follow the development of systems of social inequality throughout history, from antiquity to the twenty-first century. Second, stratification refers to an analytical and theoretical problem in (social) history; it appears as a problem of conceptualizing historical processes and structures. In this vein, one can look at concepts, approaches, and methods in research on stratification and class, and consider their development, especially since the nineteenth century, and their usage in different historiographical traditions.

This research paper will concentrate on the second, the conceptual level. However, both perspectives are intimately linked, since there is no empirical description of inequality without an acute awareness of concepts and language. However, for historians (as opposed to social theorists), all methodological discussion eventually points to empirical research in order to better understand systems of social inequality in the past, and therefore, in the present.

1. Theories Of Social Stratification And Class Formation: Historical Development Through The 1960s

Even before the rise of the modern social sciences with their more elaborate theories of social structure, the explanation (and justification) of inequality was an important part of intellectual thought in advanced, literate societies, often within a general philosophical or theological context. In ancient Athens, Aristotle regarded society as consisting of three hierarchically ordered groups, among which he favored the middle, or ‘mesor,’ as being most important for the stability of the polis. Aristotle’s scheme of ‘stratification’ remains influential in attempts at defining society in terms of ‘upper,’ ‘middle,’ and ‘lower’ classes or strata, among which the middle class is held in highest regard (e.g., in political culture and public discourse in the USA.

In feudalist Western Europe during the Middle Ages, a different kind of tripartite scheme of inequality gained prominence: the idea of a functional differentiation of society into the three orders of Christian clergymen, noblemen, and peasants. With the rise of cities and the emergence of town burghers as an influential group, the functionalist scheme was adapted to new social realities, but it remained a central concept for the interpretation of inequality.

While these theories are themselves a subject of historical inquiry because they tell a lot about the framing and self-understanding of pre-modern societies (Duby 1978), a major shift toward modern concepts of stratification and class only occurred in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the historical and philosophical works of the Scottish enlightenment (e.g., Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and John Millar), principal stages of civilizational development were associated with particular systems of social inequality and stratified class structure. The language of social inequality that is still in use, with its typical metaphors of ‘class’ and ‘strata,’ is heavily indebted to scientific discourses of the eighteenth century, and especially to the enlightenment’s quest for ‘classification’ (Karl v. Linne) and order in the realms of both nature and culture. In the following decades, with Adam Smith and David Ricardo providing important linkages, attention in the theory of stratification increasingly shifted towards a search for the origins of inequality in economic systems of production.

The most powerful, and historically most influential, theory of class as a product of basic economic forces was for a long time Karl Marx’ (and Friedrich Engels’) concept of Historical Materialism, a theory according to which at each stage of society, an oppressed lower class rises against the economic and political dominance of a ruling class, and eventually overturns the old system through class struggle and revolution. Whatever critical may be said of Marx’ theories and its political consequences, it nevertheless became the major reference point for most theories of inequality and stratification until the middle of the twentieth century, and possibly also thereafter. For social history in particular, it provided an extremely suggestive framework for understanding historical change in terms of economic progress, class formation, and societal conflict, instead of referring to diplomacy, politics, and the ‘great men’ as driving forces of history, as was the case in much traditional nineteenth and early twentieth century history. After Marx, theories of inequality based on functional differentiation and the division of labor played an important role for a while (e.g., with Herbert Spencer in the UK, Gustav Schmoller in Germany, and Emile Durkheim in France), but they too were primarily grounded in the idea of economic foundations of particular class systems.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, German sociologist Max Weber in some ways moved class analysis back to Marxian scope and intentions, while on the other hand he developed, if in a fragmentary manner not easy to grasp for later scholars, a broader, historically more flexible, and less dogmatic, framework for the interpretation of social inequality and class structures. Although Weber, like most of his contemporaries, under the impression of industrial capitalism’s triumphant advance, acknowledged the enormous impact of economic forces on the molding of society, he was also prepared to systematically consider other dimensions of stratification. Political power, in Weber’s view, often played a crucial role in determining positions in a class system; and also inequality for him appeared as fundamentally shaped by ‘culture’: by general interpretations of the world and the social order as, for example, provided by religion (Weltbilder), as well as by the honor, prestige, or status attributed to an individual (or to members of a larger group, such as a specific profession) within the normative setting of a society (see Weber 1978).

After a brief period of neglect, Weber’s concepts of social inequality and social class exerted a strong influence on both American and European social science after 1945. In postwar American sociology and political science in particular, stratification became one of the dominant topics in the field, a topic that all major ‘schools’ and theoretical currents had to reckon with (see Barber et al. 1968). Despite an enormous variety of approaches and methods, some common features of stratification research in the 1950s and early 1960s stand out, making them attractive for historians. Often, they were not just present-minded, but embedded in a macro-sociological and historical framework of thought. Typically, they were interested in linkages between class and political power structures, and in the cultural dimensions of inequality as expressed in neo-Weberian concepts like ‘status’ or ‘prestige’ (Bendix and Lipset 1953, Lenski 1966).

Since the late 1950s, Weberian and functionalist research in stratification began to overlap with a renaissance of critical theories of society and inequality that were attempting to benefit from the Marxian tradition in an undogmatic manner. Authors like Ralf Dahrendorf or Anthony Giddens were widely read for their innovative intellectual combinations of Marxism and liberalism, or Marxian and Weberian traditions (see Dahrendorf 1959, Giddens 1973). In Western social science, the revival of the Marxian tradition proved short-lived and mostly faded away in the late 1970s, leaving some strands of cultural Marxism as survivors into the then emerging new age of culturalism in the social sciences. However, Weber’s influence, because of the historical depth of his work and a rare combination of flexibility and analytical precision in his categories, never quite vanished, and his work continuously remained inspiring for historians doing research on stratification and class. At the same time, Weber proved remarkably resistant against changing intellectual moods since the late 1970s and 1980s, when classical concepts of stratification and class came under attack. He thus continued to be a startingpoint in some of the most important recent approaches in the sociology and social history of inequality and class.

2. Stratification And Social Classes In Historiography: Trends And Examples

With the rise of social history to intellectual dominance in the 1960s and 1970s in most Western countries, research on the history of stratification and class, mostly in modern societies since the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century, became a central historiographical theme, and even a topic defining what the ‘New Social History’ was all about. In the general political and academic climate of the 1960s, with its social-democratic air and its resurgence of Neo-Marxian theories, interest for the less privileged groups of industrial society—and especially for the working class—spilled over into history and not only generated a host of special studies on stratification, mobility, and class formation, but also influenced synthetic approaches in social history and the general discourse of historians in that field. While this was a pervasive international tendency, it rendered different results within the national traditions of social history. Therefore, Germany and the US will be considered as two important examples.

2.1 Germany

With its strong methodological roots in nineteenth century historicism and its political conservatism in the historical profession, Germany was a late-comer in the development of postwar social history, and in many respects remained dependent on the reception of theoretical innovation from other countries such as France, the UK, and the USA. However, due to its strong traditions in social theory, and the theory of class in particular (Marx, Weber), and also because of the great historical significance of class structures in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany, topics like stratification and class formation quickly took center stage in West German social history during the late 1960s and 1970s. To a larger degree than in other countries, stratification and class emerged as the paradigmatic categories of research in social history (see, e.g., Kocka 1975), a tendency that came under attack in the 1990s as competing concepts such as gender and ethnicity by many historians were regarded as at least equally important.

For the history of stratification and class in the 1970s and 1980s, two approaches deserve special mention. First, as was the case elsewhere, the history of classes in the beginning concentrated on the less privileged groups and lower strata of society. Here, a particular focus was on the formation of a modern, industrial working class in the nineteenth century, and on the problem of the homogenization of that class from the origins of a multitude of pre-industrial, agrarian, and artisanal occupations and interests. In what he termed the ‘Weberian application of a Marxian model,’ historian Jurgen Kocka studied the formation of a German proletariat, which he conceived as a Marxian class in its basic socio-economic determination, and at the same time as a Weberian ideal type with which reality can never fully correspond (see Kocka 1980, 1987). Class formation in this approach was considered an historical process progressing through different levels. It proceeded— ideally, though not necessarily in historical reality— from economic homogenization in the workplace towards increasing social and cultural coherence and might end with class consciousness and the political organization of the working class. Since the 1980s, class formation models have also been applied to the upper strata of German society, particularly the bourgeoisie and the professional middle classes, but it appeared that in this case, ‘culture’ seemed to operate as a much more influential determinant of class than a common economic position.

Second, German traditions in social theory fostered an unusually strong interest in the historical conceptualization of the overall class structure and stratification system, again with an emphasis on the period of German modernization and industrialization from the late eighteenth century onwards. In conceiving social history as the ‘history of society,’ and the history of society as grounded in structures and processes of social inequality, stratification, and class, German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler in a very influential project attempted a synthesis of modern German history in terms of a history of inequality and class. His Gesellschaftsgeschichte in a systematic way asks for the transformation of the estate system of preindustrial society into an industrial society comprised of social classes, with the bourgeoisie and proletariat in the center, but also giving attention to the nobility and to agrarian classes such as farmers or farmworkers (Wehler 1987–95). Typical for much German social history in the 1970s and 1980s, Wehler’s approach is methodologically under the heavy influence of Max Weber’s categories; and it politically adheres to a vision of an increasingly equal, less class-rifted (if not classless) society.

While most other German authors are not as ambitious and comprehensive as Wehler in their concern with social structures, they have, however, been more inclined to expand the explanatory framework of social inequality into the realm of culture. A new focus of research is on the complicated relationship between social structure on the one hand, and cultural perceptions and practices on the other hand.

2.2 United States

In its self-image, the US has been born as a country of equality, defined by a lack of class and stratification in the European sense, and by the predominance of a broad middle class. The fact that the US has never known an estate system of social order has indeed, in combination with the country’s more pragmatist tradition in social thought, exerted a deep influence on social scientific and historical approaches toward class structure and socio-economic inequality in America. On the other hand, critical strands in social theory and historiography, which were able to identify and discuss inequality of class, appeared earlier than in Germany and remained stronger in the first half of the twentieth century—with the ‘Progressive historians’ such as Charles Beard being the most important example.

During the 1960s, the blossoming of the ‘New Social History,’ together with a more self-critical mood in American society in general, prompted a new interest in the history of social class and inequality in America, much in the same way as in other Western countries at about the same time. With regard to approach and method, historians often concentrated on less privileged groups, such as workers and immigrants, and they often did so in case studies of particular cities and through the study of social mobility among the lower strata of urban society (Thernstrom 1964; see also Social Mobility, History of). For some time around 1970, Neo-Marxist approaches to the study of class and ‘class struggle’ in American society drew some attention, but on the whole, even leftist historians of class and inequality undertook much less theoretical effort in conceptualizing their topics than in Germany.

Similar to trends in European social history, however, quantitative methods (as in the study of social mobility) since the late 1970s lost much of their earlier appeal. Instead, the problem of class was more often approached through qualitative, even hermeneutical methods, and through the lenses of class culture and class experience. Also, outside the somewhat narrowing field of working class and labor history, the study of social classes shifted its main focus from the lower classes to the middle classes and their origins in nineteenth-century social change (e.g., Blumin 1989, Zunz 1990). This shift may be understood as an attempt to deconstruct the pervasive myth of the American middle class, and at the same time to historically explain the middle class orientation of twentieth-century America.

In a broader perspective, the study of stratification and class as such after the 1970s retreated from the center of concern for social historians much more quickly, and more pervasively, than in Europe. Obviously, the most important reason for this is the existence of other, competing dimensions of inequality in American society, especially the inequality of race and ethnicity. Class formation in the US rarely occurred in ethnically homogeneous milieus, and often racial and ethnic identity turned out to be more important, and certainly of a much more durable character, than class identity and economic position. For the same reason, synthetic efforts with generalized views on American society from the perspective of stratification and class were hardly undertaken by American historians. The one large project that probably comes closest to such a synthesis is the two-volume textbook ‘Who Built America?,’ collectively conceived and written by the American Social History Project under the intellectual guidance of labor historian Herbert Gutman. The book attempts a synthesis of American history from colonial times to the present by centering its narrative around the development of social classes—particularly the industrial working class—and the struggle of less privileged groups for participation in the economic and political resources of ‘mainstream’ America. At the same time, the authors’ efforts demonstrate that a narrative of American social history from the viewpoint of stratification and class alone cannot make sense; it needs to be expanded by, and connected with, additional categories of inequality such as race, ethnicity, and gender.

3. The Challenge Of Culture In The History Of Stratification And Class

The discussion of the two national examples, especially the case of the US, has already hinted at important new trends in historical research which have begun to change the field in fundamental ways since the 1980s and will probably continue to do so in the future. Although many of the recent tendencies stem from similar motives—e.g., the increasing dissatisfaction with interpretations of class based on the structures of male industrial work—and therefore often overlap in historiographical practice, it is useful to distinguish two horizons of criticism and expansion of the classical stratification and inequality paradigms. Some scholars, for different reasons, fundamentally question the relevance of concepts such as ‘class’ and ‘stratification’ and try to develop alternative concepts, or alternative theoretical and methodological viewpoints on the problem of inequality in history (see Sect. 4). Others consider ‘class’ and ‘stratification’ as still important, or even indispensable notions for social history, yet argue that they have to be redefined in order to meet the challenges of social reality and social science at the turn of the twenty-first century. This ongoing redefinition of class is in most cases centered around the idea of ‘culture.’ Culture, especially in the forms of ‘language’ and ‘experience,’ is now widely believed to be the prime factor in determining stratification systems and class structures. However, at a closer look, the challenge of culture differentiates into a number of theoretical and empirical approaches.

3.1 Class As Social Action, Experience, And Culture

In 1963, the English Marxist historian E. P. Thompson published his two-volume ‘Making of the English Working Class,’ which is arguably among the dozen most influential works in twentieth-century social history (Thompson 1963). At that time, classical approaches to class formation grounded in systematic sociology or political science were still widely in use, and in some countries just beginning to influence the expanding field of social history. Thompson’s massive study was rather conventional in the sense of its practical empiricism and its Marxian notion of a working-class winning identity and togetherness in the struggle against its bourgeois class enemy. What was new, however, was Thompson’s insistence that ‘class’ was not a quasi-objective structure determined by certain economic forces, but a very fluid result of practical action and social experience on the part of the lower classes in the decades around 1800. As Thompson largely focused on pre-industrial work and living experience, he discovered the roots of class in traditions and re-inventions of popular culture. In many respects, Thompson’s book was ahead of his time. Reception and debate in Germany, for example, only took off in the 1980s and turned his pioneering work into a major stimulant for the then emerging culturalist turn in social history.

3.2 Class Experience: From Production To Consumption

Classical approaches to the history of stratification, from the enlightenment theories of a division of labor to Marx and beyond, have based their identification of certain classes, and their description of the overall inequality structure of society, on the sphere of production, and on the relative position an individual (mostly seen as a male adult and family head) acquired in that society’s system of work and employment. As the nineteenth-century fascination with factory work and industrial production faded and the twentieth century increasingly developed the self-image of a consumer economy and society, it seemed appropriate to search for social spheres of class formation outside the workplace experience: at home, in leisure activities, and especially in consumption. In American and in British historiography in particular, the history of consumption has been one of the most significant discoveries for the field of social and cultural history in the 1990s, and several attempts have been made to conceptually link consumption and class, some of which build on much earlier efforts such as Thorstein Veblen’s ‘Theory of the Leisure Class’ with its ideas about the role of ‘conspicuous consumption’ for the life of the upper classes.

The notion of consumption can play a key role because of its ability to connect the perspective of economy—the appropriation of goods by groups with different economic resources—with the perspective of culture—insofar goods serve as symbols and as expressions of (individual or collective) identity and lifestyle. It also allows for a more adequate consideration of female and private-life contributions to the formation of social inequality and class. In an important empirical study on Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, historian Lizabeth Cohen investigated the formation of class identity among ethnic workers and their families through their shared experience of consumption and modern mass culture institutions like radio (Cohen 1990). As the history of consumption still flourishes at the turn of the twenty-first century, it is likely that its impact on the history of inequality and class will grow even larger in the near future.

3.3 Pierre Bourdieu: Class And Cultural Distinction

The first two examples for the cultural expansion of the history of class represent developments within the historical profession, yet trends and new concepts in other social scientific disciplines have also had their impact on the topic. While national traditions of thought remain influential—with Max Weber, for example, still being of prime importance in Germany, and anthropologist Clifford Geertz stimulating American debates—in international perspective one scholar’s work in particular has received near unanimous attention and acclaim by social historians during the 1980s and 1990s, namely French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of class and cultural distinction as developed in his major work La distinction (Bourdieu 1979).

Arguing from his research on contemporary French society, Bourdieu secures a central place in social research for the problem of inequality and even sticks to the concept of class. Yet in a brilliant way he enlarges that concept by understanding class as the result of a complex ensemble of not just economic, but also social and cultural resources or types of ‘capital.’ Similar to the category of ‘prestige’ in 1950s American sociology, Bourdieu defines an individual’s position in society in terms of his or her ‘distinction’ and ‘habitus,’ a concept referring to socio-cultural outlook and self-stylization. Though obviously fitting the self-oriented consumer and leisure society of the later twentieth century especially well, the appeal of Bourdieu’s approach also extends to the analysis of more traditional societies in the early modern era, and even to non-Western societies, not least because of Bourdieu’s own intellectual origins as a social anthropologist. As Bourdieu at the same time draws on ‘classical’ authors of stratification research such as Weber and Marx, his work is extremely important in providing a bridge between the classical theoretical tradition and the more recent approaches that center around language, experience, culture, and consumption.

4. Beyond Class, Beyond Stratification?

While the ‘culturalist turn’ in the humanities has substantially expanded and reframed perspectives on stratification and class in history since around 1980 other scholars have gone a step further in arguing that the conceptual framework of stratification and class might better be abandoned altogether and replaced by alternative concepts of social order. However, that does not mean that they would deny the existence, and empirical relevance, of stratification systems and class formation under certain historical circumstances. Rather, the argument is that the category of class itself is a historical product of the nineteenth century, and that therefore the continuing conceptual primacy of class endangers the ability of scholars to recognize different lines of social division and inequality.

4.1 Gender, Race, And Ethnicity

This point has been most persuasively made by feminist social scientists and historians who have argued that the predominance of class in social history has in fact only been able to describe the male half of the social world—and even that in an inadequate manner, because class formation among male individuals (or, household heads) cannot be conceived of independent from the family and gender systems out of which the sphere of production and patriarchy grows (see Canning 1992). In a similar way, historians of race and ethnicity have maintained that the stratification of a society in terms of individuals’ economic positions never functions as an independent variable in multiracial societies such as the US, Brazil, or South Africa—nor even in European societies which are increasingly being shaped by their immigrant populations. It has hence become almost a standard method in American, and now also in British social history, to frame the problem of social inequality in the trias of ‘race, class, and gender.’ In the view of many feminist historians, however, this solution is a dissatisfactory compromise, because it implicitly affirms a conceptual primacy of class by molding the two other concepts after the example of class, or as mere expansions of it (see Scott 1986).

Therefore, the history of gender is in need of developing specific theoretical foundations out of twentieth-century social theory in order to establish itself as an independent approach in social studies, and not just a part of the ‘litany of class, race, and gender’ (Scott 1986, p. 1055). In the near future, we will perhaps see more theoretical efforts, and empirical historical studies, going in that direction, not just in gender history, but also in the history of ethnicity.

4.2 From Classes To Life-Styles, ‘Milieus,’ And Radical Individualism

A completely different line of thought, which also calls traditional concepts of stratification and class into question, has emerged in recent sociological work on contemporary western societies in their ‘postindustrial’ stage. As industrial work, and the labor and class relations so intimately connected with it, loses its central status for the definition of modern societies, these societies may no longer be adequately described as stratified class societies. The large, socially coherent and even politically self-conscious groups such as the ‘working-class’ are considered to be rapidly dissolving, without new, equally coherent group structures building up. Instead, social relations in modern society may be described as based on radical individualization, and a similarity of social status at best finds expression in rather diffuse social ‘milieus’ (see Beck 1986, Hradil 1987). Western societies, in this perspective, are not becoming completely leveled societies with citizens of equal material resources, but the absence of material wants, and a re-definition of the value system towards post-material orientations, dramatically diminish the relevance of occupational situation, income, and even class-specific consumption patterns.

As ‘social inequality’ (in the form of social strata and classes) was the defining element of nineteenth and early twentieth century societies, these authors hold, categories like ‘risk’ or ‘information’ are defining societies on the verge of the twenty-first century. Although not yet widely received in social history, these new developments in theoretical and empirical sociology will probably have a considerable impact on historical views on inequality and social structure in the future. They offer important insights into the now rapidly expanding field of twentieth century social history, but it may also be asked whether societies before the industrial age can be interpreted beyond the classical thought system of social estate, class, and stratification.

4.3 Constructing Class, Constructing Inequality: From Economic Realism To Cultural Relativism

With the class structure of industrial societies appearing more as an historical exception rather than historical normalcy, and with the interest in the socioeconomic foundations of inequality and class diminishing, historians have become more sensitive to the relativist or constructivist character of social structure in general and of ‘class’ in particular. Especially in British social history, questions have been asked about the ‘language of class,’ that is, about the use of concepts such as class by the historical actors themselves, who were trying to express collective self-identities by communicating new notions of social bonding. With regard to the working classes, the main thrust of this research was on political organization and political action (e.g., in English Chartism), and the objective nature of class was hardly fundamentally doubted (see Stedman Jones 1983).

Especially in the 1990s, however, and with empirical interest somewhat shifting to the middle classes, the language approach was radicalized under the double influence of cultural and linguistic theory on the one hand, and of ‘radical constructivism’ in epistemology and the sociology of knowledge on the other hand. Stratification and class were now analysed as ‘imaginary’ realms of communication and culture; they figured as notions that expressed ‘visions’ of the social order as perceived by the contemporaries, rather than realities of economic and power structure as described by social scientists and historians (see Corfield 1991, Joyce 1991, Nolte 2000, Wahrman 1995). Some of these approaches fundamentally undermine any ‘realistic’ concept of social inequality and class, and therefore sound like a triumphant signal for the final abandonment of any social scientific or historical study in stratification and class structures. Yet at the same time it can be argued that the language-oriented and constructivist approaches have introduced important expansions to the more traditional methods of social history. They have provided bridges between social and intellectual history and have induced historians to a more careful usage of language and concepts. Also, ironically, in devoting so much energy to the problem of class in historical language and self-consciousness, this work has also underscored the importance of inequality and class in past societies.

5. Conclusion

After a long period of undisputed reign as a kind of master concept in the study of present and past social structures, theories of stratification and class are now undergoing a period of substantial challenge and criticism, redefinition, and even rejection. The question may thus arise whether theoretical and empirical interest in social inequality will persist in the future, especially in the discipline of history, which is now characterized by a very pronounced shift away from problems of socio-economic structure in favor of a history of culture, symbolism, and subjectivity.

It is almost certain that inequality, stratification, and class, will lose (and already have lost) some of their original relevance as defining ground for social history as such, when compared with the 1950s to 1970s boom of those topics in the social sciences. In addition, the emerging intercultural debates on the history of non-Western societies may prove that concepts such as ‘class’ and ‘social strata,’ which are obviously deeply rooted in the Western tradition of thought and culture since classical antiquity, are not suitable instruments for analyzing Indian, or Central African, societies, be it past or present. As ‘postcolonial theories’ in the social and cultural sciences describe the ‘hybrid’ character of such societies, the hybridity of class and competing principles of social relations may also be a distinctive mark of their inequality structures.

On the other hand, three points may be made which serve as a reminder for the continuing importance, not only of the general notion of social inequality, but also of more specific concepts like stratification and class. First, social inequality—whatever it is grounded on, and in whatever way it is communicated—is an anthropological feature of all human civilization, not only in the West. Second, inequality has often taken the form of a hierarchical order, or ‘stratification,’ of distinct groups according to their access to power, their rights, and material well-being. Moreover, the hierarchical mode of social differentiation is a widespread mark of the less advanced, less technologically and culturally complex societies in which historians are often especially interested. Third, it is hard not to acknowledge the success, and the astonishing flexibility, of the concept of ‘class’ for describing systems of inequality. As new and intellectually promising approaches have been developed since around 1980 that link ‘culture’ with ‘class,’ and as these approaches are now applied in empirical research, there can be little doubt about the fact that the history of inequality, stratification, and class will retain a prominent place in the field of social and cultural history.


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