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Compare Marx’ theory of class with Goldthorpe’s approach. Which is more useful for understanding international development, and why?

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Compare Marx’ theory of class with Goldthorpe s approach. Which is more useful for understanding international development, and why?

Marx’ theory of class and Goldthorpe’s class schema both address the important issue of social class (Crompton, 2008). An individual is said to belong to a certain social class if he or she possesses the socio-economic characteristics that are similar to those of the social class in question. Karl Marx’ theory of class emphasizes the importance of mode of production in distinguishing between different types of societies (Wright, 2005). The mode of production encompasses the division of labour and technology. In each mode of production, there is a class system in which the production process remains under one class while the other classes act as direct producers who only provide services to the dominant social class.


On the other hand, Goldthorpe’s approach, which appears more applicable to international development, is based on a class scheme comprising of seven classes (Jackson, Goldthorpe & Mills, 2005). These classes are differentiated based on work and market conditions, and more specifically, ‘asset-specificity’ and monitoring. The aim of this paper is to compare and contrast these two theories. The paper also seeks to determine which one between Marx’ theory and Goldthorpe’s approach provides a better understanding of international development. The paper is based on the view that Goldthorpe’s approach is more useful for understanding international development than Karl Marx’ theory of class.

            Marx’ theory differs from Goldthorpe’s schema in the sense that the former focuses primarily on the antagonism between the classes culminating in the appropriation of both the products of the production process and even the mode of production itself. Conflict over the mode of production arises because it keeps changes in response to technological developments as well as the way labour is utilized. According to Marx (2005), such conflicts can become extreme as subordinate classes seek to challenge the dominance of the ruling class.

Marx (2005) argues that the dominant class controls both material production and the way ideas are produced. This leads to the establishment of a unique cultural style as well as a dominant political system that facilitates control over all aspects of society. Whenever rising classes gain significant strength to the point of influencing the outcomes of changes in the production process, they come up with political movements and doctrines that are in opposition to those of the ruling class.

Marx’ theory proposes to distinctive social classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat (Althusser, 2005). The bourgeoisie comprises of the dominant propertied groups while the proletariat comprises of workers, who must rely on labour-power as their only asset. These workers are also known as the working class. Marx argues that class is a major framework through power is distributed in society (Callinicos, 2012).

            In his theory of class, Marx (2005) spends a lot of time highlighting the exploitative nature of the capitalistic system of production. He argues that capitalists blatantly exploit the working class with a view to maximize profits. This creates a situation where members of the working class fail to experience self-fulfilment even after many years of working. On the contrary, the more they work, the more they become alienated from the products of that work (Sayers, 2005).

            Marx (2005) argues that in a capitalistic system, capitalists are interested in profits as opposed to the fulfilment of the real human needs of the workers. They do this by deciding which goods will be produced and the prices that will be attached to them. Members of the proletariat are forced to accept this situation instead of making these crucial production-related decisions themselves. Although many of the goods produced meet the real needs of the people, others simply create false needs via advertising in the quest for profitability. Marx’ main point in the theory of class is that the working class tends to be left out in control over the entire production process (Jeannot, 2010). For these reasons, Marx predicts a future situation in which a revolution led by workers will topple the dominant class and replace it with a classless society in which there is equitability in terms of control over the modes of production (Jeannot, 2010).

            Marx’ (2005) view of the production process and the role of different classes differ considerably from that of Goldthorpe. Goldthorpe is not interested in the extent to which certain classes are denied access to the modes of production. If anything, some of the workers, especially the skilled ones, are portrayed as empowered individuals who can make a decision on whether to serve the interest of the employer. Goldthorpe argues that employees tend to be empowered whenever their level of asset specificity is high and it is difficult for the employer to monitor them. In the absence of monitoring, the employees can freely place their interest before that of the employer whenever a conflict of interest occurs.

Goldthorpe’s theory initially proposed a class schema in which occupations were distinguished based on work and market conditions (Clark, 2013). The work situation is the location of occupation within the existing systems of control and authority in the process of production (Oesch, 2003). On the other hand, the market situation is the source and level of income as well as level of economic security, conditions of employment, and chances of economic development on the part of the occupation holder. In this approach, occupations that share common work and market situations are said to constitute classes while occupants who belong to different classes are said to enjoy different chances in life.


Goldthorpe’s later work provides a slightly different framework for establishing the same class schema (Evans & Mills, 2000).  In the new framework, the objective is to different positions that workers hold in production units and labour markets. More specifically, the positions are differentiated in terms of the different employment relations they present. Like in Marx’s theory, Goldthorpe’s classes capture the distinction between owners of the means of production and those who do not own such means. Goldthorpe goes further in his analysis of the latter class of people in terms of their relationship with employers.

Meanwhile, Goldthorpe puts most emphasis on the dichotomy between occupations that are regulated through a labour contract and those that are only regulated through a ‘service’ relationship with employers (Evans & Mills, 2000). A labour-contract relationship provides a specific exchange, whereby workers receive wages for work done, in most cases under relatively closed supervision. In contrast, a service relationship is a long-term engagement between the employee and employer, and it is facilitated through the more widespread exchange. According to Goldthorpe (2000), this distinction forms the most pressing problem that employers face in efforts to ensure that their employees are always acting in the best interest of the organization. The two criteria used to draw the schema are ‘asset-specificity’ and monitoring. Asset specificity is the extent to which job-specific skills are required in an occupation while monitoring is the extent to which the employer must follow up on what the employee is doing to ensure that the employee is acting in the best interest of the organization (Clark & Lipset, 2010).

On this basis, Goldthorpe (2000) identifies seven classes of workers, which he names using Roman numerals. Class I and II comprises of lower grade jobs with a service relationship, with the only difference between them being that class II has a higher grade, with typical examples being managerial and administrative workers. Class III comprises of routine manual and non-manual occupations while class IV encompasses small proprietors who have hired employees, small proprietors without any employees, and farmers engaging in primary production. Class V is for people with a career structure but is somewhat closely monitored and their wages vary depending on the number of hours they spend working. Lastly, Classes VI and VII are for skilled manual workers and unskilled manual workers respectively.

            In conclusion, Goldthorpe’s approach is more useful for understanding international development than Karl Marx’ theory of class. This is because it addresses the issue of efficiency, which is a major determinant of success in the production processes in the world. Organizations that are unable to operate efficiently tend to operate in a disadvantaged position compared to the efficient ones, which succeed in building competitive advantage. Moreover, Goldthorpe’s theory builds on the idea of mutual benefits for both employees and employers during the production process. Indeed, it is possible for both parties to benefit from this process. In fact, this is the notion on which the dream of international development is anchored. In contrast, Marx’ theory provides a pessimistic view of the world where class antagonism will ultimately lead to a violent revolution and the entrenchment of a classless society. It is increasingly unlikely that such a situation will occur because many societies across the world are increasingly embracing capitalism.


Althusser, L 2005, For Marx, Verso, Paris.

Callinicos, 2012, The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx, Bookmark Publications, London.

Clark, J 2013, John Goldthorpe: Consensus and controversy, Routledge, New York.

Clark, T & Lipset, S (Eds.), 2010, The Breakdown of Class Politics: A Debate on Post-Industrial Stratification, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Crompton, R, 2008, Class and Stratification, Third Edition, Polity Press, Cambridge.

Evans, G & Mills, C 2000, ‘In search of the wage-labour/service contract: New evidence on the validity of the Goldthorpe class schema’, The British Journal of Sociology, vol. 51, no. 4, pp. 641–661.

Goldthorpe, J 2000, ‘Rent, Class Conflict, and Class Structure: A Commentary on Sorenson’, American Journal of Sociology, vol. 105, no. 6, pp. 1572-1582.

Jackson, M, Goldthorpe, J & Mills, C 2005, ‘Education, Employers and Class Mobility’, Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, vol. 23, pp. 3–33.

Jeannot, T 2010, ‘The enduring significance of the thought of Karl Marx’, International Journal of Social Economics, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 214 – 238.

Marx, K 2005, Early writings, Penguin, London.

Oesch, D. 2003, ‘Labour market trends and the Goldthorpe class schema: A conceptual reassessment. Swiss Journal of Sociology, vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 241-262.

Sayers, S 2005, ‘Why Work? Marx and Human Nature’, Science & Society, vol. 69, no. 4, pp. 606-616.

Wright, E 2005, Approaches to class analysis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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