What is the relationship between social class and inequality?

What is proletarianisation?


  • Proletarianisation is a Marxist concept that sees the middle-class identifying increasingly with working-class identity.
  • Autonomy is the ability to control one's work and make active choices about task setting and time management
  • Neo-Marxists see proletarianisation linked to deskilling and loss of autonomy of non-manual workers.
  • Others, especially the neo-Weberians, found little evidence to support the concept of proletarianisation amongst routine non-manual workers.
  • There is some evidence that the proletarianisation thesis applies more to women than men.


Proletarianisation is a Marxist concept that sees the middle-class as identifying increasingly with working-class identity. Applied research has focused upon using case studies to examine whether non-manual work is becoming increasingly similar to manual work. Neo-Marxists like Erik Wright or Harry Braverman claim that proletarianisation is progressing at a reasonable pace. In contrast, neo-Weberians like David Lockwood and John Goldthorpe have always vigorously argued against it. One reason for this conflict of views is that different meanings of proletarianisation are adopted in order to measure it.

Neo-Marxists such as Wright and Braverman argue that routine white-collar workers are no longer middle class. They consequently see such jobs and even some 'professions', such as nursing and teaching, as particularly prone to proletarianisation. Braverman argues that deskilling in the workplace affects both manual and non-manual work, causing him to argue that routine white-collar workers have joined the mass of unskilled employees. As such they are part of the working class, they are 'proletarianised'. Braverman argues that deskilling and the loss of the social and economic advantages non-manual jobs enjoyed over manual work, are the key factors behind the growth of proletarianisation. In addition, many workers have lost the control and autonomy they enjoyed 20 years or so in the workplace. A good example is the university lecturers Wright cited as example of 'semi-autonomous workers' in a contradictory class location. Many university lecturers are very poorly paid and on short term contracts. Many earn less than primary school teachers. In addition they are subject to performance scrutiny and time monitoring. Many professionals in education are now subject to clocking in and out like factory workers.
In the 1950s David Lockwood using a framework based on Weber's distinction between class and status sought to investigate whether clerks were subject to proletarianisation. He looked at three aspects of their employment: 'work situation' (physical conditions of the workplace, hours worked, holiday entitlement, responsibility and authority); market situation' (income, sick pay, security, pension, perks, and career structure) and 'status situation' (prestige and position clerical work occupies in society's hierarchy of symbolic reward). Lockwood found no evidence of proletarianisation, arguing that even though tasks may have been subject to deskilling, clerks who occupy reception desks, control appointment diaries (such as doctor's receptionists) or have access to confidential information have a sense of self-importance which is visibly conveyed to the public. This research is very dated, but Lockwood revisited it again in 1989 and came to very similar conclusions.

Lockwood's observations about the class situation of clerks was supported by Goldthorpe et al., he investigated this area in the 1980s. They noted how post-industrial society had led to a large increase in routine non-manual work; this is often very poorly paid with wages well below those paid to people in manual work. However, like Lockwood, they found factors like greater job security, higher status, and their proximity to the service classes acted to prevent the development of proletarianisation. Another factor acting against the development of class consciousness was the opportunity for upward occupational mobility.

It has been argued by some feminists, such as Rosemary Crompton, that women are more prone to proletarianisation than men, in the sense that they experience poorer promotional opportunities. In examining the work of clerks (Crompton and Jones) they found that only a low level of skill was required and that computerisation seemed to accentuate proletarianisation. However, Marshall et al have challenged the idea of proletarianisation. They found both male and female routine white collar workers reported greater levels of autonomy than those in the working class. They found that it was mainly manual workers who felt their work had been deskilled. In contrast, the perceptions of over 90 per cent of male and female non-manual workers were that neither skill levels nor autonomy had significantly diminished. However, they did find that personal service workers such as receptionists, check-out operators and shop assistants lacked a sense of autonomy in a manner similar to the working class. Since this group is composed primarily of female workers, this supports the idea that women are more prone to proletarianisation.
Recent research by Clark and Hoffman-Martinot (1998) has highlighted a growing number of casual or routine workers who spend their working day in front of a VDU and/or on the telephone. Marxists would see such workers, especially those is call centres as working class despite the 'white-collar' working environment. They would see the low morale and general worker discontent as evidence of class consciousness and a sense of collective work-place identity. A Weberian analysis would identify class in terms of a group sharing a weak market position in the labour force. Weberians might identify any internal competition between workers and factors such as performance-related pay as designed to fragment the workforce. Any attempts at unionisation, they might argue, could reflect the pursuit of sectional interests (party) rather than evidence of class consciousness.


  • 1. What is the basis of neo-Marxists like Braverman and Wright in support of proletarianisation?
  • 2. What is the basis of neo-Weberians like Lockwood and Goldthorpe against the proletarianisation thesis?
  • 3. Why are women seen as more prone to proletarianisation than men?


Last modified: Saturday, 6 October 2012, 5:56 PM