Sociology of: childhood · culture
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In sociology an upper class is the group of people at the top of a social hierarchy. Members of an upper class may have great power over the allocation of resources and governmental policy in their area, but only to the extent that the power of the state can intervene in free exchange or distort investment. This expression of class refers to access to power through the state or marketplace. A market exchange is one expression of society (society being understood as spontaneous unfettered exchange between or among individuals of leisure, goods, ideas and the artifacts of culture). Under the market, the consumer has decided the apportionment of the success to any upper class, a status that is fluid and as vulnerable to failure as to success. Without special access to the political means of acquiring or allocating wealth ( the political means requires force or the threat of force), and useful only if the state has exceeded its proper role, the upper classes have no especial power except maybe as mere swindlers. They are, in the marketplace, constrained to offer value to the consumer, and are just as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of consumer whim or other qualifications, as any other "group." The consumer as always controls to what extent and for how long an unscrupulous operator endures in the marketplace. Consumers are especially empowered with the advent of modern communications to expose fraud. Under systems that allocate the power of decision to the state, the upper class takes on a sinister role as it seeks to allocate rewards and failures, and status, based on special interests and the access to the use of coercion the state).
In the market economy, a fluid upper class develops parallel to its success in serving the needs/wants of consumers. In primitive societies, upper classes seek status through the facilities of the state to secure security, status and wealth.
The phrase "upper class" has had a complex range of meanings and usages. In many traditional societies, membership of the upper class was hard or even impossible to acquire by any means other than being born into it.
Historically in some culture, members of an upper class often did not have to work for a living, as they were supported by earned or inherited investments (often real estate), although members of the upper class may have had less actual money than merchants. Upper-class status commonly derived from the social position of one's family and not from one's own achievements or wealth. Much of the population that comprised the upper class consisted of aristocrats, ruling families, titled people, and religious hierarchs. These people were usually born into their status and historically there was not much movement across class boundaries. This is to say that it was much harder for an individual to move up in class simply because of the structure of society.
In many countries the term "upper class" was intimately associated with hereditary land ownership and titles. Political power was often in the hands of the landowners in many pre-industrial societies (which was one of the causes of the French Revolution), despite there being no legal barriers to land ownership for other social classes. Power began to shift from upper-class landed families to the general population in the early modern age, leading to marital alliances between the two groups, providing the foundation for the modern upper classes in the West. Upper-class landowners in Europe were often also members of the titled nobility, though not necessarily: the prevalence of titles of nobility varied widely from country to country. Some upper classes were almost entirely untitled, for example, the Szlachta of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
In the United States the upper class, also referred to simply as the rich, is often considered to consist of those with great influence and wealth. In this respect the US differs from countries such as the UK where membership of the 'upper class' is also dependent on other factors. The American upper class is estimated to constitute less than 1% of the population, while the remaining 99% of the population is either middle class, working class or "steerage/under class." The main distinguishing feature of the class is its ability to derive enormous incomes from wealth rather than work. CEOs, politicians, investment bankers, some lawyers, heirs to fortunes, successful venture capitalists, stockbrokers as well as celebrities are considered members of this class by contemporary sociologists, such as James Henslin or Dennis Gilbert. There may be prestige differences between different upper-class households. The actor Bruce Willis, for example, might not be accorded as much prestige as former U.S. President Bill Clinton. Yet, all members of this class are so influential and wealthy as to be considered members of the upper class.
"Upper-class families... dominate corporate America and have a disproportionate influence over the nation's political, educational, religious, and other institutions. Of all social classes, members of the upper class also have a strong sense of solidarity and 'consciousness of kind' that stretches across the nation and even the globe." -William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus, 2005.
While most sociologists define the upper class as the wealthiest 1%, sociologist Leonard Beeghley classifies all households with a net worth of $1 million or more as "rich", while classifying the wealthiest 0.9% as the "super-rich". Since the 1970s income inequality in the United States has been increasing, with the top 1% experiencing significantly larger gains in income than the rest of society. Social scientists (such as Alan Greenspan) see it as a problem for society, with Greenspan calling it a "very disturbing trend."
According to the book Who Rules America?, by Domhoff, the distribution of wealth in America is the primary highlight of the influence of the upper class. The top 1% of Americans own around 34% of the wealth in the U.S. while the bottom 80% own only approximately 16% of the wealth. This large disparity displays the unequal distribution of wealth in America in absolute terms.
In the United Kingdom, entry to the upper class is still considered difficult, if not impossible, to attain unless one is born into it. Marriage into upper-class families rarely results in complete integration, since many factors (to be outlined below) raise a challenging barrier between the upper, upper middle, and middle classes.
Titles, while often considered central to the upper class, are not always strictly so. Both Captain Mark Phillips and Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence, the respective first and second husbands of HRH The Princess Anne lacked any rank of peerage, yet could scarcely be considered to be anything other than upper class. The same is true of Francis Fulford, who memorably featured in Channel 4's documentary The F***ing Fulfords and whose family has owned estates in Devon for over 800 years. In fact the Fulfords represent the group that makes up the largest component of the upper class: the landed gentry.
That being said, those in possession of an hereditary (as opposed, importantly, to a conferred) peerage – for example a Dukedom, a Marquessate, an Earldom, a Viscounty or a Barony (though any of these may be conferred) – will, almost invariably, be members of the upper class.
Where one was educated is often considered to be more important than the level of education attained. Traditionally, upper class children will be brought up — at home — by a Nanny for the first few years of life, until old enough to attend a well-established prep school or pre-preparatory school. Moving into secondary education, it is still commonplace for upper-class children to attend one of Britain's prestigious public schools, typically Westminster School, Eton College, Harrow School, and Ampleforth College, although it is not unheard of for certain families to send their children to Grammar schools.
Insofar as continuing education goes, this can vary from family to family; it may, in part, be based on the educational history of the family. In the past, both the British Army and Clergy have been the institutions of choice, but the same can equally apply to the Royal Navy, or work in the Diplomatic Corps. HRH Prince Harry of Wales, for instance, has recently completed his training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in preparation for entry into the Army. Otherwise, Oxbridge, Imperial College and other 'traditional' universities (such as Durham University, the University of Edinburgh, and St Andrews University) are the most popular sources of higher education for the upper class, although a high academic standard is required and social class does not as readily secure entry as it once did.
Sports — particularly those involving the outdoors — are a popular pastime, and are usually taken up from a school age or before, and improved upon throughout the educational years. Traditionally, at school, Rugby union is much more popular than Association Football: indeed, the two sports are often taken to represent the two extremes of social classes 'at play'. Other frequented sports include lawn tennis (which has a broad appeal and could hardly be considered to be dominated by any one class), croquet (quite the opposite), cricket and golf.
Equestrian activities are also popular — with both sexes. There is a long-standing tradition of the upper class having close links to horses; indeed, one of the foremost example of three-day eventing prowess is Zara Philips, daughter of Princess Anne and recently-crowned Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year. Men who ride will more often participate in Polo, as is the case with both HRH Prince Charles and his sons, Their Royal Highnesses Prince William and Prince Harry.
Hunting and shooting, too, are favoured pastimes. Some upper class families with large estates will run their own shoots (typically they would need 1,000 acres (4 km2), or more, though some shoots do operate on about half that), but many will know someone who keeps pheasants, or other game, and may instead shoot with them. Much as with horses, there is a particular affinity for dogs (especially Labradors and Spaniels) amongst the upper class — and, equally, sporting pursuits that involve them. It should, however, be noted that none of the aforementioned sports are, of course, exclusively upper-class.
Language, pronunciation and writing style have been, consistently, one of the most reliable indicators of class. (Upper and otherwise.) The variations between the language employed by the upper classes and those not of the upper classes has, perhaps, been best documented by linguistic Professor Alan Ross's 1954 article on U and non-U English usage. The discussion was perhaps most famously furthered in Noblesse Oblige - and featured contributions from, among others, Nancy Mitford. Interestingly, the debate was revisited in the mid-seventies, in a publication by Debrett's called 'U and Non-U revisited'. Ross contributed to this volume too, and it is remarkable to notice how little the language (amongst other factors) changed in the passing of a quarter of a century.
The choice of house ('home', to a non-U-speaker), too, is an important feature of the upper class. While it is true that there are fewer upper class families nowadays that are able to maintain both the well-staffed town house and country house than in the past, there are still many families which have an hereditary 'seat' somewhere in the country that they have managed to retain: Woburn Abbey, for example, has been in the family of the Duke of Bedford for centuries. Many upper class country houses are now open to the public, or have been placed in the care of the National Trust to aid with the funding of much-needed repairs. (In some cases, both are true).
The inside of a house, however grand the façade, is equally indicative of class. An upper class house (if privately owned, and not staffed) tends to be a comparatively untidy composite of grand furniture — having been inherited — which may have become frayed and threadbare over time and vast piles of ancient books, papers and other old reading material for which there is now no home.
Many upper class families will be in possession of works of art by old masters, valuable sculpture or period furniture, having had said pieces handed down through several generations. Indeed, inheriting the vast majority of one's possessions is the traditional form in upper class families. On that point, there is a well-known derisory quotation from Conservative politician Michael Jopling, who referred to cabinet colleague Michael Heseltine as the kind of person who 'bought his own furniture' (in the Alan Clark Diaries). (The former was then put down himself by a Baron as "the kind of person who bought his own castle").
So too is the organisation (or lack thereof) of the garden an important upper class trait. Bedding plants, rockeries, hanging baskets and goldfish ponds will all have been banished in favour of box hedges, shrub roses, herbaceous borders and stone pathways. Upper class gardens will look more natural and unconstructed than artificially preened (although as with houses, this is not always true where staff are employed).
Money and material possessions are often thought of as a less important factor as regards the United Kingdom's upper class than those upper classes of other countries, but, although this allows for an upper class family to be impoverished, an upper class family is likely to have had wealth at some point in its history.
Vast financial prosperity (only slightly dependent on how it is earned) is the subject of derision and contempt — the nickname “fat cat”, encompassing more than just one's wages, is not one often levelled at members of the upper class. According to Kate Fox, the present-day anthropologist, the main difference between the English and American social system is that in the latter, the rich and powerful believe they deserve their wealth and power and are more complacent. In the former, they tend to have a greater sense of social responsibility and compassion for those less privileged than themselves.
In Australia and the United Kingdom, the term "upper class" is now sometimes used pejoratively by the middle and lower classes (as in the stereotypical term, "upper-class twit, RAH or Toff"), and Australians and Britons may be more anxious to avoid being labelled "upper class" (or even "upper-middle class") than their American or Canadian counterparts (though the overall validity of such a comparison may be questioned). For more on this phenomenon, see reverse snobbery, Australian mateship, and class consciousness.
Social class in Canada, as an observable phenomenon (though possibly more subtle than in the United States), is not as entrenched as in Europe nor as taboo a topic of conversation as it is in Britain and Australia. The subject of social class nevertheless remains a matter of controversy in Canada (see for example, the debate over the granting of a life peerage to former Canadian citizen, Conrad Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, and the remarks of then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien about creating an aristocracy in Canada, and his insistence on upholding the Nickle Resolution).
Social classes in Mexico have remained relatively unchanged over the years. A system of social classes still exists, and it is commonly understood that the different classes, especially the first (or upper) and third (or lower), do not mix. As with much of Latin America, Mexico is divided by race. Descendants of pre-Hispanic inhabitants constitute the lower classes while descendants of Europeans tend to form the upper classes. The middle class is composed of admixtures of the two races, and it is rare to find descendants of indigenous peoples or persons of mixed blood in the upper class. The "first" class comprises the rich, powerful, and celebrated, who have greatly disproportionate control over the country. The most common route for a family to join the upper class is through politics and business, but those born into the upper class tend to disregard any who try to enter the established upper class. "New rich" or "naco" is applied to nouveaux riches who still lack the customs and manners of the educated upper class.
In Japan, the term "Haiso", or in katakana as "ハイソ", is used as a reference to "High Society" and is commonly applied to luxury products, such as cars and fashion houses.
In Thailand, Although in the 1980s the hierarchy of social status or prestige and the hierarchy of political and economic power in the rural community overlapped, a disjunction of sorts existed between them at the national level. A rich villager—other things being equal—wielded political and economic power and had prestige. In the national system, the hierarchy of status began with the hereditary nobility—the royal family and the holders of royal titles. None of these people were poor; the royal family owned much land and some of its members had political influence. The royal family was not part of the ruling class, however, nor did it control the economy. The ruling class consisted of several levels, the uppermost of which comprised the military and, to a lesser extent, the bureaucratic elite.