Morton G. Wenger

Wayne State University

October, 1977




Distributed as part of the
TRANSFORMING SOCIOLOGY SERIES of The Red Feather Institute, 8085 Essex, Weidman, Michigan, 48893.


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A "non-egalitarian" but "classless" paradigm for the study of social inequality emerges and flourishes in post-WWII Western Sociology (Rinehart, 1971). This model is built upon the putatively Weberian concept of "status group." The core concept is presented as reflective of a modern society which is itself "classless," "progressive," and of decreasing social impermeability. "Status group" is seen as best suited for analyses of a burgeoning "middle" stratum perceived as distinctive of advanced capitalist societies; i.e., the proletariat, embourgeoisie and the "new middle classes." It is the contention of this paper that "status group" is in no manner isomorphic with Weber's own concept of Stand, and is not independent of "class." The intellectual genesis and theoretical functions of "status group" are examined critically and Stand is restored to its original meaning of "estate." The paper thus illuminates the political character of a central concept in American sociology.

INTRODUCTION The analyses of the distribution of power in societies which Max Weber presents in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft exhibit prodigious conceptual fertility. With the exception of Weber's provocative methodological stance, the comment they occasion and the subsequent development they engender are unparalleled among the theorist's many contributions. The idea of a "tripartite" model of social inequality, its lineal descendent of status crystallization/inconsistency and the emphasis on "life-style" are only the first among many offshoots of this analytical reconstruction of social inequality. In American sociology, Weber's analysis has formed the cutting edge of a comprehensive attack on Marxist inequality theory. A crucial issue suggested by Cox (1950), Pfautz and Duncan (1950), and finally made specific by Pease, et al (1970) is the misuse of Weber this reading represents. The question exists of whether these of Weber's many arguments represent a ward by which the unlaid ghost of Marx may be banished or whether this use of Weber is an artifact of his interpreters' ideological orientation.

The question of conceptual paternity raised here has contributory as well as critical aspects. Although the disinheritance of myriad theoretical statements claiming Weber's lineage is significant as such, it stands beside a more intriguing and ultimately more productive matter. If Weber's own position does not encompass the mass of its putative deductions, its essential form and significance thus remain undelineated. Furthermore, the isolation of Weber from his self-proclaimed heirs requires metatheoretical explication. If a wide-spread theoretical tendency comes into being, flourishes, and attains conceptual hegemony in a major sociological tradition, then explanation is required, In order to accomplish this, there are several intermediate tasks: i.e., a comparative and critical portrayal of the variant readings of Weber and an estimation of their affinity with the theorist's own positions. The method by which this may be achieved involves a textual and contextual examination of the pivotal concept in Weber's discussions of inequality in society: that of stand. (Henceforward, stand will be used to denote Weber's own usage, as opposed to its subsequent derivatives.)

Stand as "Status Group". The source from which a vast and muddy Nile of theory flows is a brief passage in Economy and society wherein Weber notes (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 186-197):

While this is Weber's central statement on stand, it is preceded and followed by intricate and cautious qualification. These caveats, of subsequent import here, are typical of Weber's subtle intellectual style. The establishment of limiting conditions for the deployment of his ideas comes to adumbrate Weber's concepts as much as does-the definitional statement itself. As will be demonstrated, the misplacement of the context in which the concept of Stand is developed is necessary for its interpretation as "status group"; taken as part of a larger fabric, it cannot be so portrayed. In any case, as "status group," stand has been seen to have several salient and related characteristics which can be summarized as "looseness," "middleness," and "progressiveness." To the.e extent that it is possible, each of these highly intertwined aspects of status group requires individual attention.

It has long been an aspect of mainstream doctrine in the study of social stratification that the succession of the social organizational forms which institutionalize inequality show progressive development. In other words, things are getting better all the time. A trans-social and trans-historical evolutionary process is posited wherein movement takes place from systems of social impermeability to systems of social mobility. K. Davis (1949), in an early and classic work, identifies this epochal process as moving from caste, to estate, to class. (This will be of further interest in later discussion.) While gingerly noting the violence his reading does to Weber, sharing it with unnamed "recent sociologists," and assigning its necessity to the lagged nature of historical development, Bottomore (1966:26) proceeds to tack "status group" on to this succession of inequality structures. Thus, "status groups" are simultaneously imbued with the mission of progress, they replace class, and they come to symbolize the attainment of a previously unparalleled human freedom. Furthermore, not only is class transcended, it is relegated to the dustbin of History. If this view of "status group" were confined to Bottomore alone, it would scarcely justify the attention already paid to it. Bottomore's view, however, is only a lucid summarization of a cohesive and ubiquitous theoretical tendency the manifestations of which are numerous.

It cannot be overemphasized that if permeability is the definitive structural aspect of status groups, the replacement of class as a theoretical touchstone is its raison d'etre. Intimately tied with concepts of "new middle classes" and the proletariat embourgeoisee, status groups come to play the role of the material carriers of "inequality without social stratification," as Wrong (1964) styles it. Rinehart (1971:149) has noted the emergence of a perspective he labels, after Ossowski (1963, 1969), "non-egalitarian classlessness," the three definitive parts of which he perceives as:

"Non-egalitarian classlessness" represents a distillation of the massive assault on class as an analytical tool which perhaps is summarized best in Nisbet's (1959) "The decline and fall of social class." However, "non-egalitarian classlessness" as a perspective on social inequality is not isomorphic with the idea of "status group." As is evident in Riesman (1955), Birnbaum (1969), Shostak (1969), Coleman and Neugarten (1971), and others, the "middle" is occasionally seen as an undifferentiated or homogeneous mass. This viewpoint denies the adequacy of class analysis, but it provides no constructive alternative. It also runs up against another form of social (dis)organization with which American sociology has been uneasy; i.e., "mass society." The model of a vast and atomized middle with tastes, values, and politics gleaned from the mass media was unlikely to have intrinsic appeal for a sociology which still paid (and pays) homage to de Tocqueville, Simmel, and Durkheim. The replacement of "class" by "mass" is a trade-off of minor consolation. The 'ability, of "status group" to negate both mass and class virtually guarantees its eventual discovery. It is a final solution to the problems of Western Sociology and its adherents' hopeful extension, Western Satiety itself.

The statements aligning the "middle" of advanced capitalist societies with the Weberian concept of status group are not of uniform clarity. Mayer (1963), B. Berger (1960), and Wilensky (1960) represent marginal cases wherein a middle mass is perceived, but one wherein significant variation exists as to life-style cum consumption style. Mayer (1963) refers to these differences as "symbolic minutiae," but along with Wilensky subsequently asserts the heightening significance of such differences in the face of "class" or economic/occupational homogeneity. It is a very small step from these transitional cases to positions like that of Bensman (1972), wherein it is argued that there exist vast numbers of "status communities" based upon relatively narrow sets of values. Similar arguments are to be found in Dobriner (1963) and, to a lesser extent, Martindale (1960), while Stone and Form (1953) represent an unusual variation on this theme, arguing that "communal" status groups exist at the "top" and "bottom" of society, but that status aggregates exhaust the "middle." This is more faithful to Weber's own conception of stand, and it emphasizes the role of self-consciousness in the structure and function of status group; i.e., a replacement of class as an operative concept in advanced capitalist societies, due to the putative lack of proletarian consciousness therein. The distinctive role status group plays in resolving the problems of non-Marxist theory will receive more detailed analysis at a later point.

The conceptual evolution of status group as an orienting concept in contemporary stratification theory thus involves several steps. It develops against a background of intellectual hostility to Marxism and a quest of "classical" legitimacy for that legitimacy. Further, the concept is the sophisticated carrier of a long tradition arguing the increasing "classlessness" of American society, which is then averred to be typical of the nature of all "developed" or "modern" societies. This trans-historical movement toward more open inequality structures is posited as empirically operative in the vast "middles" to which wide sociological attention has been paid. In an overall ideological atmosphere of "evolutionary liberalism," this phenomenon is de facto progressive. From this viewpoint, inequality may be functionally necessary, but stratification is a social evil and little more than a cultural relic. As a result, the proposed historical movement towards more open inequality structures comes to be identified with the development of status orders and socially manifest in status groups. Bottomore's (1966) historical model formalizes this elision, but it is present in inchoate or assumed form throughout the totality of the works cited here. Whereas the issues of structural permeability and progress may be analytically separate, in the present context, one implies the other. That is, progress itself is announced by the development of status groups; they are a further extension of human freedom. As Bensman (1972) makes explicit and others suggest, membership in status groups contains a volitional element; it is a triumph of human freedom over the constraints of ascribed social position. As in any cohesive intellectual tradition, basic axioms are integrated.

Thus, while "looseness," "progressiveness," and "middleness" are seldom bracketed or treated self-consciously, they nonetheless are the bedrock upon which an alleged "non-egalitarian classlessness" rests.. Rinehart's (1971) reconstruction makes this clear. The unanswered question is one which asks whether the conceptual luminary about which this tradition orbits - status group - is that which it is claimed to be. Are status group and stand congruent concepts? The text of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft can provide an answer, as does a body of previous analysis which is more literal in its usages and which, not coincidentally, has little intellectual capital invested in the larger model of non-egalitarian classlessness. This opposed exegetical tradition emphasizes a major contribution by Weber which is obscured by his forced investiture as the patriarch of the lineage of Ross, Small, and Warner - to wit, an understanding of the internal dynamics of inequality structures.

Stand as Estate. The textual grounds for rejecting the status group interpretation of stand and replacing it by "estate" are immediate and uncomplicated. They include the identity of the social "strata" or sectors which are used as exemplary and evidentiary; the mechanisms by which staende, develop; the social closure which said development indicates; and the place Of staende within the broad sweep of History. On each of these grounds, Weber's own view is diametrically opposed to the status group scholarship in American Sociology. Rather than being "middle," stand is a creation of elites; instead of representing a movement towards greater permeability of inequality structures, it represents a higher degree of stratification. Further, it is sub-epochal, not trans-epochal; i.e., it does not represent the trans-historical unfolding of an evolutionary or developmental structure but instead adumbrates tendencies implicit in any given social order stand is the outcome of social, and not historical imperatives. As an obvious consequence of this, within the value system of liberalism, stand is a regressive, and not a progressive social outcome.

In the several discussions of stand which Weber presents, a span of social types are used as illustrative. In speaking of the supra-market nature of staende, Weber (1968:928) asserts that "...slaves are not... a 'class' in the technical sense of the term. They are ... a Stand." At another point, Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946:192) refers to a stand rejecting of "'parvenus"' and consisting of members who "...have never besmirched its (the group's) honor by their own economic labor." Speaking of the development of staende in America, Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946:188) lists the "First Families of Virginia," and the descendants of the Pilgrims and/or the Knickerbockers as the most likely candidates to coalesce a stand. Similarly, when describing social tendencies at work in the then-contemporary United States, Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946) alludes to the increasingly "precarious camaraderie" of ':American gentlemen" towards their clerks. Weber, as unlike Mayer (1963) as is possible, sees an increase in social distance over time, with egalitarianism a vanishing relic of the American past. The discussions of emerging American "high society" and "'the street"' in the context of Prussian dueling circles is yet another instance of the social strata to which Weber applies the concept of stand. Similarly, when speaking of the social antipodes of these elite social sectors, Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946:192) refers to Calderon's peasantry and the aforementioned slaves. It requires the.e lofty outlook of a Hohenzollern to amalgamate these historical strata into a "middle," old or new. It is more difficult yet to present these staende as equivalent to a middle class largely composed of affluent proletarians, whether of blue or white collar - those most frequently subsumed under the category of "status group."

Others have noted this contradiction in the Warnerized Weber, including those adhering to or sympathetic toward the reading. Bottomore (1966:25) speaks of the "...nobility, the scholarly professions, and the high officials..." of "precapitalist" society as corresponding to Weber's Staende. He then goes on to qualify his damaging statement by restating the applicability of stand to the "new middle class." However, Bottomore (1966) provides neither empirical nor textual justification for this assertion. Bendix (1960:85) is also sensitive to this question:

It can be argued that the self-conscious replacement of "estate" with "status group" is necessary to many of Bendix's previous and subsequent interpretations of Weber. He presents no substantiation of his assertion, which appears in a footnote. In a later footnote to a discussion of patrimonialism, this is again an issue (Bendix, 1960:361):

The balance of the present discussion should serve to evaluate this burial of Weber's stand in history. In any case, Weber himself is mute on such a distinction. His references to the America of his day in terms of stand seem to mitigate against the view espoused by Bendix.

There are two subtly distinguishable conceptual trends woven throughout the above. The first and more straightforward embodies the issue of the applicability of stand to the middle sector of modern societies. This is handled in the above discussion. The second devolves to the more intricate matter of the development of staende. This, in turn, requires the identification of the "class range it of the phenomenon and the social activity by which it is created. As a further involution, an understanding of the preceding is a precondition for the evaluation of the "progressiveness" which the development of staende represents. By so proceeding, the final piece of the puzzle is put in place - the implication of Weber's analysis of stand for a model of the historical
development of inequality structures.

Heberle (1959) attempts to reconcile the relationship between Staende and classes by establishing the two social phenomena as independent but historically overlapping. This is a partial, but not a complete step to the unravelling of the Gordian knot anti-class analysis has tied. Although it correctly identifies the validity of the two concepts as socio-historically bound, it does not reveal the relationship between class and stand to be anything more than one of temporal coincidence. Pfautz and Duncan (1950:212) go a good deal beyond this in their astute examination of Weber on Stand. In passing, they construct arguments closely paralleling in content, if not form, those presented here;

This refers back to the issue of stand as supplanting of class in that it posits the importance of social closure for "inequality group" formation. It should be recalled that one of the defects commonly assigned to class as an analytic concept by non- and anti-Marxist analysts has been its perceived failure to come into being as a sociopolitical reality in advanced capitalist societies. In other words, classes have not shown class consciousness. How then do estates originate? Around what mutuality does their closure coalesce? While Weber was seen to aver that staende are of necessity groups, as Cox (1950) informs us, Weber did not assert that classes could not become groups. Indeed, a substantial portion of Weber's discussions of "class" deal with the conditions under which class ma become the basis for "communal action." This retroactively illuminates the relationship between stand and "class," while simultaneously revealing the.e origin of staende; i.e. Staende grow out of classes. They are not "merely" classes, they are classes which have undergone a further state of closure and thus represent classes "at a higher level." They are based in the economic order, but they transcend it. This complex relationship between class and stand is the source of Weber's many warnings about the intertwined relationships between the two "modes of the distribution of power.,"

The power of the "marketplace," which Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 186-187) styles as "purely economic," is only one technique/system of super- and subordination. When power comes to rest on deference, esteem, prestige, respect, and/or honor - as it does in an estate system - by definition it resorts to symbolic displays ("style of life") to actualize itself. There is tangential and direct reference to this in statements by Weber that have already been cited; e.g., the allusions to "the street," lineage, behavioral "conventions," and so on. Weber goes beyond this description to trace the conditions which allow for the development of Staende, and thence to a description of the means by which they are constructed. The "class" origin of staende is confirmed when Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946:193-194) suggests that it is the economic conditions of a society that determine the possibilities of estate formation. More precisely monopoly, technological stagnation, the decline of the entrepreneurial ethic are all harbingers of the emergence of estates. Weber sees this as a potentiality present in any economic order ("epochs and countries") given its persistence and stability. This is of extraordinary consequences for the refutation of the view of status group as the acme, ultimate or penultimate, of historical development. That is, for Weber himself, estate tendencies are at least potential in any society.

The implications of the view of estate-formation as a process latent within any socioeconomic order are destructive of the view of Staende as representing a more permeable inequality structure; this is obvious in the above. In addition, however, this model of the dynamics of social inequality rather neatly defenestrates the notion of trans-historical Progress itself at the same time that it denudes it of its putative carrier, stand. Cox (1950:226), albeit critically, indicates this when he encapsulates Weber's conception of social orders "...not as moving from a condition of stratification to that of atomized social status but vice versa." In passing, this serves to clarify the defect in Heberle's view of the relationship between class and stand. The picture of ]9th and 20th century European society as a melange of the two forms of inequality structure is descriptively correct, but analytically lacking. Heberle's implied acceptance of the trans-Historical/ Progressive assumption leads him to see the societies in question as caught on the cusp of transition from one all-encompassing macro-social form to the next. A deduction from this would be that given time, only "classes" would remain. This is, of course, precisely contrary to Weber's developmental but non-teleological model. In Weber's view, the nineteenth century represents a period of overlap between the remaining estates of land-based "feudalism" (which itself becomes a shaky concept) and the emerging classes of commercial/industrial capitalism. To this point, there is no disjuncture between the two models. However, Weber's analyses of 19th century America suggest quite different conclusions than those Heberle proposes. An extension of Heberle's position would seem to portend an increasingly ascendant class order replacing a concomitantly declining estate order with the ultimate result of the class order standing alone. This view of estates as historically unilinear rather than multi-linear repetitive phenomena diverges from the outcome discernable in Weber's stance. In such a model, a particular estate order disappears while another comes into being even though for an indefinite period a "class" order exists. This sophisticated cyclism is consistent with that present in Weber's analyses of charisma and institutionalization as well as harmonious with the fashion among German historiographers of the time. It also does no violence to Weber's anti-evolutionism; in fact, it affirms it.

A number of the loose ends present in stand have been tidied up--a number still remain. Primarily, stand has been restored to its proper status as a non-progressive, nonpermeable, and trans-social but not trans-historical phenomenon. In the process, the separation of "status group" from stand is effected, and "non-egalitarian classlessness" is denied its self-proclaimed paternity. This is an accomplishment, but largely a negative/critical one. It still leaves unexamined the process by which staende come into being. Associated with this are the grounds for identifying staende, not with amorphous middles, but with already self-conscious elites. While observable in Weber's choice of illustrations, this aspect of the dynamics of stand Still demands explication.

At their roots, staende are autogenetic phenomena; they are self-creating. Weber sees classes in their primitive forms as developing organically out of the interactions of a vast and abstract "market." Staende, emerging as they do from already communal class situations, are volitional creations. This has significance in and of itself, but it also refers to the implications of closure for impermeability. The "status group" formulation, especially in more developed works (cf Bensman, 1972), on occasion acknowledges the volitional circumscription implicit in the concept of stand, but only in a limited manner. That is, individual membership choice is seen as the functional means of entry into the "status community" and it is seen as an intra-generational rather than intergenerational phenomenon. This deviates from Weber's own position in detail.

In speaking of the life-style expectations of estates, Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946:187-188) links these to "restrictions on social intercourse." This is consistent with both the status group and estate uses of stand. A parting of the ways occurs when reference is made to the endogamous nature of staende. Indeed, Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946:188) confines the term stand to social strata exhibiting facets such as in marriage:

The central concept which identifies stand as the creation of an already self-aware elite is that of "usurpation." Weber (Gerth and Mills, 1946: 188) brings it to bear in the context of his discussion of the F. F. V. Knickerbockers, and other such symbolic displays:

Not only does the reference to "legal privilege" attest to the estate nature of Staende, it also serves to present Stand as a ploy or stratagem of a group which already dominates by more instrumental means. This is also discernable in Weber's (Gerth and Mills, 1946:193) brief statement subsuming professions (sometimes translated as "occupational groups") under the heading of stand. In this aside, Weber identifies the symbolic displays/style of life of this social sector as the key to their existence. That is, the monopolization of knowledge, skill, and technique which is the basis of professions rests upon the same type of moral, conventional, and legal order upon which rest staende as a whole. The negatively evaluated social antitheses of the precipitating staende are excluded by the actions of an already puissant elite, not by their own activities, as in a class/market situation. The advantages to ruling classes of the transition from precarious economic/instrumental domination to partially self-enforcing systems of mental domination are obvious. The implications of this for the study of contemporary societies and the activities of current ruling elites are too numerous to be enumerated here. It is sufficient to note that this serves to shed new theoretical light on the much-studied phenomena (cf. Domhoff's many works) of ruling class closure in the United States. The social situations which bring this situation forth are merely sketched by Weber and have not been systematically examined since. To do so here, however, goes beyond the scope of the current paper. That which does remain is a brief delineation of the socio-theoretical motivations which convert stand into the conceptually contorted form of "status group.

The socio-Theoretical Origins of "Status Group". The development of "status group" and its distortion of the work of Max Weber is a response to both theoretical and social imperatives. Whether these are empirically separable or not, they are at least metatheoretically divisible. There is no mystery to the immediate theoretical constraints which bring "status group" forth, subsume it under a broader perspective of "non-egalitarian classlessness," and attribute it to Weber. Taken as a whole, this theoretical construction represents an internally consistent alternative to the Marxist and/or Marxian class analysis which was treated with hostility and dismissed almost from the inception of American sociology. As was already noted, status group has the added virtue of negating the unattractive alternative of the atomized or "mass" society consisting of anomic social actors unaffiliated with classes, or any other social collectivity. Its (questionable) claim to a European/classical heritage completes its irresistible intellectual charms. These intellectual matters are rooted in turn in the material conditions of American society and the nature of American academia and academics. Dahrendorf (1959: 6-7), who categorically states that Weber's staende are estates, disdains the whole concept of status group, which he equates with the bastard construction of "Mittelstand." Dahrendorf (1959:7) wryly observes that the interpretation of stand as "status" is:

Neither Reinhard Bendix, Guenther Roth, nor Hans Gerth are unfamiliar with the German language. To assign this weighty an "error" to mis-translation or "creative" translation avoids the question of the sources of creativity. Serendipitously, the concept of mittelstand, which corresponds in origin and form to "status group," has drawn comment outside of sociology.

In Schorske's (1970:20) critique of Herman Lebovic's incisive work, there is the following:

Schorske (1970:20) goes on to deliver a slashing analysis of the social sources of "Mittelstand":

Little need be added to this other than to draw the parallel between the 11 conservative theorists" of nineteenth-century Germany and the early Mills (1946, 1951) lamenting the decline of the "old middle class" in the face of an advancing capitalism. For another cognate, there is the doubly suggestive picture of the ideal-typical intellectual struggling against the crass pressures of the "economic" order to be seen in Bendix and Roth's (1971) portrait of Weber. This is significant in that it suggests a "nested" intellectual and a social base for the construction of status group; an image of Weber, an image of the scholarly "estate," and a translation which reverberates in several tones with both. Warner's (1949a, 1949b) concern for the nature of small town America and his generalization of its structure to a rapidly changing urban/ industrial society completes the genealogy of "status group." It grows out of an academic sociology rooted in and reflecting the interest of a social stratum threatened by the emergence of 20th century America; it attaches itself to a bogus concept emerging from an historical Germany of similar social form, falsely claims Weberian paternity on tile basis of "creative" translation, and is promulgated as an alternative to an historically bound class analysis. In the end, however, its own social roots and conceptual structure reveal it - not class analysis to be the "psychological refuge" of a sociology unable and unwilling to deal with the self-same class nature of modern capitalist society.


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