Most social scientists agree that society is stratified into a hierarchical arrangement of social classes. Social classes are groupings of individuals in a hierarchy, usually based on wealth, educational attainment, occupation, income, and membership in a subculture or social network. Social class in the United States is a controversial issue, having many competing definitions, models, and even disagreements over its very existence. Many Americans believe in a simple three-class model that includes upper class, the middle class, and the lower class or working class. More complex models that have been proposed by social scientists describe as many as a dozen class levels.
United States Social Classes
While social scientists offer competing models of class structure, most agree that society is stratified by occupation, income, and educational attainment.
Meanwhile, some scholars deny the very existence of discrete social classes in American society. In spite of debate, most social scientists agree that in the U.S. there is a social class structure in which people are hierarchically ranked. Elsewhere in the world, one's social class may depend more upon race/ethnicity, position at birth, or religious affiliation. For example, in Mexico, society is stratified into classes determined by European or indigenous lineage as well as wealth. In the U.K. class position depends somewhat on family lineage, with members of the nobility traditionally belonging to the aristocracy.
Social class is sometimes presented as a description of how members of society have sorted themselves along a continuum of positions varying in importance, influence, prestige, and compensation. Thought of this way, once individuals identify as being within a class group they begin to adhere to the behaviors they expect of that class. Thus, a person who considers him or herself to be upper class will dress differently from a person who considers him or herself to be working class — one may wear a business suit on a daily basis, while the other wears jeans, for example. By adhering to class expectations, individuals create sharper distinctions between classes than may otherwise exist.
Sociologists studying class distinctions since the 1970s have found that social classes each have unique cultural traits. The phenomenon, referred to as class culture, has been shown to have a strong influence on the mundane lives of people, affecting everything from the manner in which they raise their children, to how they initiate and maintain romantic relationships, to the color in which they paint their houses. The overall tendency of individuals to associate mostly with those of equal standing as themselves has strengthened class differences. Because individuals' social networks tend to be within their own class, they acculturate to, or learn the values and behaviors of, their own class. Due to class mobility, in some cases individuals may also acculturate to the culture of another class when ascending or descending in the social order. Nonetheless, the impact of class culture on delineating a social hierarchy is significant.