Rhonda F. Levine, ed. Social Class and Stratification: Classical Statements and Theoretical Debates. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998. x + 269 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8476-8543-1; $96.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8476-8542-4.
Reviewed by Cliff Brown (Department of Sociology, University of New Hampshire)
Published on H-Urban (August, 1999)
Inequality in Sociological Theory
Rhonda Levine's Social Class and Stratification presents sixteen essential readings that explore inequality from a variety of sociological perspectives. Although the selections will be familiar to scholars in the field, Levine deftly combines vital statements from one hundred fifty years of social science theory with useful introductory essays, concise definitions, insightful summaries, and helpful supplementary reading lists. The work provides a solid, accessible, and analytically rigorous foundation upon which to build a comprehensive undergraduate course in either social stratification or sociological theory. In addition to its content, the book's organization and brevity help to make Social Class and Stratification a valuable teaching resource.
Levine begins with an introductory chapter that defines social stratification, makes an argument for the continuing relevance of classical sociological theory, and traces major sociological debates concerning the study of inequality. The introduction also defines basic concepts from Marx and Weber and provides an overview of the social conflict and functionalist traditions in sociological theory. Although brief, this chapter makes a good case for the utility of stratification research. The chapter's examples and provocative questions help readers begin to think sociologically about social and economic inequality.
The remainder of the book is divided into four major sections and a conclusion. The editor prefaces each with a statement that situates the readings in historical and intellectual context and concludes with a list of readings for additional study. Parts I, II, and III consider social class and Part IV explores more recent perspectives on racial and gender inequality.
The ideas presented in Part I offer indispensable analytical reference points for Parts II, II and IV and for the study of stratification generally. Here, key readings from Marx ("The Communist Manifesto" and "On Classes") and Weber ("Class, Status, and Party") ground sociological analyses of inequality in the concepts of social class, exploitation, surplus value, markets, status, and power. This section clearly contrasts Marx's historical materialism and emphasis on class conflict with Weber's exploration of the overlapping sources of inequality in economic, social, and political spheres.
Part II considers postwar American responses to Marxian stratification theory. Levine includes a selection by Lloyd Warner, Marchia Meeker, and Kenneth Eells ("What Social Class Is in America") and presents the debate between Kingsley Davis, Wilbert Moore, and Melvin Tumin over the functionalist view of social inequality. Drawing comparatively on studies of class structure in the United States, Warner et al. probe the contradiction between America's promise of equal opportunity and the reality of social inequality. The authors argue that inequality results from a structural imperative: in complex societies, stratification is inevitable because it facilitates a rational division of labor. Warner et al. also explore the role of education in the interrelated processes of social and economic mobility. Davis and Moore elaborate on the functionalist model through their discussion of personnel scarcity and the differential functional importance of social positions. Echoing the views of Warner et al., Davis and Moore identify stratification as a functional necessity that induces the talented and motivated members of society to pursue the training necessary to attain the most important positions. In his critique of Davis and Moore, Tumin attacks the familiar argument that social inequality benefits society as a whole by providing disproportionate rewards to individuals with valued skills. Tumin not only challenges the assumptions of the Davis and Moore model, but suggests that social stratification has a number of dysfunctional consequences for society as a whole.
In Part III, readings by Anthony Giddens, Frank Parkin, and Eric Olin Wright present alternate definitions of social class and invite readers to consider competing models of class structure. This section of the book, although potentially challenging for some undergraduates, exposes readers to important currents in neo-Marxian and neo-Weberian theory and adds depth to the material covered in Parts I and II. In "Marx and Weber: Problems of Class Structure," Giddens contrasts the importance of production relations in Marxian theory with Weber's emphasis on market relations. The author suggests that both property and market dynamics are important by relating each to his concept of class structuration. Parkin's "Marxism and Class Theory: A Bourgeois Critique" incorporates Weber's emphasis on social closure to more clearly differentiate social classes. Finally, Wright's "Class Analysis" develops a model of class structure, usefully differentiates relational and gradational conceptualizations of social class, and re-visits some key differences between Marxian and Weberian theory.
Part IV focuses on more recent perspectives in social stratification research that emphasize gender (selections by Friedrich Engels, Juliet Mitchell, and David Lockwood) and race (essays from W. E. B. DuBois, Gunnar Myrdal, and Oliver Cox). Engels' analysis of patriarchy links gender inequality to women's roles in the family under capitalism. In "The Position of Women," Mitchell builds on these ideas: she argues that gender inequality in society derives from women's interconnected roles in economic production, the reproduction of children, sexuality, and the socialization of children. Lockwood's "Class, Status, and Gender" considers the relevance of traditional stratification theory for the study of gender inequality. Readers' appreciation of racial inequality will be greatly enhanced by DuBois' classic selection on "Double-Consciousness and the Veil." Here, DuBois probes the contradictory identities imposed by race and nation upon American blacks. In "Facets of the Negro Problem," Myrdal offers an analysis of blacks' position in society and introduces the concept of the vicious circle. According to this view, persistent racial inequality is one consequence of prejudice; social and economic disadvantage reproduces patterns of inequality that in turn justify the original prejudicial beliefs. Myrdal also challenges Marxian assumptions about the potential unity of working class groups. Instead, the author argues, racial diversity, competition, and the dynamics of the vicious circle militate against the type of psychological affinity that is necessary for solidarity. In a contrasting argument titled "Race and Class," Cox suggests that racial inequality is intimately related to capitalist development. Drawing on Marx, Cox argues that racial subordination flows from the commodification of labor, which requires ideologies that justify exploitation. The section concludes with a multi-dimensional perspective formulated by Patricia Hill Collins ("Toward a New Vision"), which constructively integrates many of the insights offered in Part IV.
Levine's conclusion evaluates and synthesizes the book's main lines of argument. The editor draws connections between many of the selections, summarizes some of the more important themes of the book, and reflects upon the future of social stratification research. Levine's essay demonstrates that the insights of Marx and Weber remain integral to sociological analyses of inequality even as more recent scholarship has promoted more contextual, and some would say more nuanced, models.
The selections in Social Class and Stratification relate to several critical debates in sociology, including structure versus agency arguments, functionalist versus social conflict models, and the debate over the primacy of class (as opposed to race or gender). In addition, the book's organization invites readers to think sociologically about the evolution of sociological theory itself; the connections between scholarly debates and the historical periods in which they are grounded are evident throughout the text. The book is also useful for illuminating some of the differences between American and European intellectual traditions.
If many of the text's strengths derive from a focus on class and status inequality, less explicit are analyses of the processes by which power, politics, legitimation, and ideology maintain patterns of stratification. In this regard, the text would have benefited from the inclusion of work by C. Wright Mills, William Domhoff, Michael Mann, Jay MacLeod, or others. Although it is tempting to criticize this book for what it does not include, it would also be somewhat unfair. Levine has done a remarkable job of representing a massive field of scholarship with sixteen essential readings. As Levine herself notes in the preface, a longer book would have compromised the goal of providing teachers and students with a concise edition that captures the major contours of social stratification theory and presents its core works. Social Class and Stratification succeeds in this regard; there is nothing in this book that is not important reading for students of social inequality. Instructors can easily supplement this text with additional selections and Levine's suggested readings provide avenues for further inquiry. Indeed, the book's brevity combined with its intellectual breadth make it a versatile resource for teachers that lends itself to a variety of applications in college courses.
In sum, Social Class and Stratification provides a solid theoretical foundation in the sociology of inequality. The book is thoughtfully organized and the major contributions are effectively framed by the editor's introductory and concluding essays. The classical selections contained in this volume allow readers to appreciate the evolution of stratification theory over time, while the contemporary selections on race and gender promote the development of a multi-faceted, historically informed, and analytically sophisticated framework for understanding the causes and consequences of inequality.
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