Life's power stations

Stratification and Power
November 15, 1996

We are recurrently told to forget about class. Some 30 to 40 years ago, the cry was that economic boom, welfare provision and "civilising" forms of business organisation had killed it off. Now it is that postmodern cultivation of private opportunity and consumption has turned most people "classless", never mind repeated recessions, attrition of public welfare and many sharpened economic inequalities.

John Scott will have none of this; and he brings impressive credentials to his aim with this book to put social stratification firmly back into the mainstream of sociological concerns. He has an outstanding record of close inquiry into patterns of business control in industrial countries; and in Who Rules Britain? (1991), for example, he showed a concentration of capital power that made nonsense of talk about dissolution of class structure. In Stratification and Power he takes a broader and essentially conceptual route to critique of class-denying theory.

Theory of that sort, as he notes, commonly reads signs of dwindling class consciousness to mean an erosion of class structure. Yet confusion between the two makes for analytical bankruptcy; and it is matters of structure that come first in Scott's schema for the study of stratification. He derives this schema by "reconstruction" from Max Weber's sketches on the subject, and identifies three conceptually distinct while empirically entangled dimensions to those situations of power which, in some combination, make up the basic structure of stratification in a given society. "Class", involving power through property and market relations, is only one dimension, albeit central in today's western societies. "Status", involving power by way of generally acknowledged prestige, is another; and "command", by virtue of position in key hierarchies of authority, is the third.

Familiar though much of this may sound so far, Scott presents it with admirable lucidity and adds distinctively significant underlinings. He eschews the all-too-common contraposition of Marx versus Weber: while the latter is taken to offer the more comprehensive approach, the former's insights into the dynamics of economic power in capitalist societies figure prominently in the triad of dimensions. The discussion of status, both as a source of power and yet as mainly dependent on other sources in contemporary western societies, is set in cogent contrast to much of American sociology's bland preoccupation with prestige-ranking tout court. And if Scott's first and third dimensions may not be so clearly separable as he implies, even in sheer conceptual terms, this only lends weight to his case for taking "class"-focused analysis of market power, in Marxist manner, and "command"-focused analysis of authoritative power, on lines exemplified here by reference to Mosca and Pareto, as mutually complementary rather than opposed.

Mapping "power situations" along the three axes separately and conjointly is, moreover, just the first stage in this programme of structural analysis. The second concerns the question how far a distinctive demarcation of social "strata" arises around such configurations of unequal power. Answers require exploration of those demographic processes - patterns of social mobility and immobility in the first instance, but also of household formation and other personal relationships - which in terms of typical life experiences and milieux may tend to close off this category of people from that or to make for common ground between them. The ways in which such social-group demarcation may then in turn give rise to distinct and "stratum"-divided modes of outlook on society, and to possible collective mobilisation around conflicting interests is yet another matter: a third stage for empirical inquiry, the outcome of which can be neither simply inferred from the logically preceding structural analysis nor, be it noted, taken to dispense with the need for that.

This book should appeal as a central teaching text, for its wide-ranging review of classical and modern literature in the field, including a finely turned final chapter on research and debate about the "working class". But its strength goes well beyond this, to offer a challenging agenda for work on a subject whose continuing sociological salience Scott persuasively demonstrates. True, he leaves some ends a little loose. He rightly stresses, for example, the scope for comparative analysis around the question how far, in this or that society, "class" or "status" or "command" is the key axis of stratification overall. But beyond brief references to contemporary western countries, traditional Hindu society and Soviet-style economies as respective exemplars, he does rather little to elaborate and illustrate criteria for such assessment. Yet this is a small nit to pick in a fine piece of work.

John Westergaard is emeritus professor of sociology, University of Sheffield.

Stratification and Power: Structures of Class, Status and Command

Author - John Scott
ISBN - 0 7456 10141 2
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00
Pages - 284

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