Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996


Conflicts About Class: Debating Inequality in Late Industrialism

David J. Lee and Bryan S. Turner
London: Longman
ISBN: 0 582 27567 9
£15.99 (pb)
307 pp.

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This book brings together the major contributions to the debate about the relevance of class in late industrial societies and the controversy surrounding class analysis - especially class defined in terms of employment aggregates for the purposes of quantitative research. It also includes a number of specially commissioned pieces written by established writers in the sub-discipline. Despite disagreeing 'about practically everything' (p. vii), Lee and Turner provide a useful introduction. They quickly dismiss the various myths of classlessness turning to the debate on class as an explanatory concept. They distinguish between 'strong' class theories such as Marxism which identifies class as a causal factor in historical change and 'weak' class theories associated with Weberianism where classes are 'empirically identifiable groupings of individuals who have certain analytically significant situations in common' (p. 10). They argue, however, that strong class theories develop weak explanations as seen, for example, in the empirical research of Wright while weak class explanations, as embodied in Goldthorpe's work, have employed strong explanations to account for the coherence of class positions. Either way, practitioners are poor at specifying why historical change is as it is or why patterns of social mobility are as they are.

The book is divided into three parts. Part One opens with a chapter from Holton which argues that strong class theories have been undermined which makes 'class an increasingly redundant issue' (p. 41). The remaining contributions come from American sociologists (Clarke and Lipset and Hout et al.) and Australian sociologists (Pakulski and Waters) who participated in the debate on class originally found in International Sociology. The reproduction of these international contributions is important since, I suspect, most students will not be familiar with the debate on class being conducted in other nations. Part Two reprints the early contributions (Pahl, Goldthorpe and Marshall and Scott) to the debate on British class analysis found in Sociology. It also includes a new piece from Crompton reminding us of the importance of including issues of gender in class analysis. Although she has long been critical of class analysis which has defined class in terms of employment aggregates she concludes that 'access to employment ... is central to any explanation of material inequalities between men and women' (p. 125). In turn, the inclusion of gender issues reminds us that the occupational structure is 'an object of investigation rather than a taken for granted standing point' (p. 126).

Part Three includes examples of different types of research on class with new contributions from established scholars. Although much of the research is familiar, a number of points are re-stated with force. Westergaard, for example, exposes the naivety of theories of classlessness which assume that 'new complexities of political group formation' herald the demise of classes as economic categories. Scott, Myles and Turegun and Morris argue that groups frequently excluded from contemporary class analysis - the capitalist class, the petit bourgeoisie, and the unemployed working class - should be included in research especially in the context of growing polarization. Goldthorpe surveys the familiar territory of class politics in advanced industrial societies casting a critical eye over the development theories which underpin international theories of class dealignment. Heath and Clifford provide a broad overview of class inequalities and educational reform in twentieth-century Britain highlighting the need to examine why social policies failed to reduce differentials. Finally, using pooled data (with which I have my reservations), Evans argues that class divisions have begun to emerge in post-communist societies. It is a pity that, with one exception, all of these new contributions are from British sociologists, and the inclusion of some American commentary alongside the Australian contributions would have given the book a genuinely international flavour.

The editors offer individual conclusions. Lee defends a 'strong' conception of class and calls for greater attention on the integrative role of money in late industrialism. Turner is bored by social class and thinks that issues of scarcity and solidarity are paramount. The editors do not really engage with each other here which is a shame. Nevertheless, the collection will be extremely useful for staff and students addressing recent conflicts about class.

Fiona Devine
University of Manchester

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1996