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Upper class is a concept in sociology that refers to the group of people at the top of a social hierarchy. Members of an upper class often have great power over the allocation of resources and governmental policy in their area.

The phrase "upper class" has had a complex range of meanings and usages. In many traditional societies, membership of the upper class was hard or even impossible to acquire by any means other than being born into it. Despite this chance of upward mobility, the upper class is, according to many sociologists, unattainable to those not born into upper-class families.

Historical meaning[edit | edit source]

Historically, members of an upper class often did not have to work for a living as they were supported by earned or inherited investments, although members of the upper class may have had less actual money than merchants. Upper class status commonly derived from the social position of one's family and not from one's own achievements or wealth.

In many countries the term "upper class" was intimately associated with hereditary land ownership and titles. Political power was often in the hands of the landowners in many pre-Industrial societies (which was one of the causes of the French Revolution), despite there being no legal barriers to land ownership for other social classes. Power began to shift from upper class landed families to the general population in the early modern age, leading to marital alliances amongst the two groups providing the foundation for the modern upper classes in the West. Upper class landowners in Europe were often also members of the titled nobility, though not necessarily: the prevalence of titles of nobility varied widely from country to country. Some upper classes (or noble classes) were almost entirely untitled, for example, the Szlachta of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

United States[edit | edit source]

Bill Clinton grew up as a member of the working class and rose into the American upper class.

Main article: American upper class

In the United States the upper class is estimated to constitute far less than 1% of the population. It consists of those with great influence over society and its institution who derive their income from wealth rather than salaries.[1][2][3] CEOs, heirs to fortunes, successful venture capitalists as well as celebrities are considered members of this class by contemporary sociologists such as James Henslin or Dennis Gilbert.[1] There tends to be strong sense of kin among the members of this class who are often connected to a global elite of the powerful and rich. There may be prestige differences between different upper class households such as those between Bruce Willis and Bill Clinton with the latter having greater social standing than the former.[2] Yet, all members of this class are so influential and wealthy as to be considered members of the upper class.[1]

"Upper-class families... dominate corporate America and have a disproportionate influence over the nation's political, educational, religious, and other institutions. Of all social classes, members of the upper class also have a strong sense of solidarity and 'consciousness of kind' that stretches across the nation and even the globe." -William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus, 2005.[2]

United Kingdom[edit | edit source]

Historically the key to upper class status in the UK was membership of the landowning class, either as a landowner oneself, or as a member of a landowning family. Before the Industrial Revolution a man could not join the upper class merely by becoming wealthy; he had to sell his business and buy a country estate to do so. Since the Industrial Revolution, the relative wealth of landowning families has declined drastically, and collectively the landowning families have lost their political power. "Upper class" status is now hard to define, and many people in Britain are uncomfortable with the concept of an upper class. Those members of society who are most clearly upper class - members of surviving landowning families - are not necessarily the richest or most influential members of society. On the other hand people who are rich are powerful not only might not be considered upper class, but would often resist the label vigorously. In modern Britain wealth does not confer upper class status, but on the other hand, the very concept of an upper class is widely scorned.

In the United Kingdom, entry to the upper class is still considered difficult, if not impossible to attain unless one is born into it. Marriage into upper-class families rarely results in complete integration, since many factors (to be outlined below) raise a challenging barrier between the upper, upper middle, and middle classes.

Titles, while often considered central to the upper class, are not always strictly so. Both Captain Mark Phillips and Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence, the respective first and second husbands of HRH The Princess Anne lacked any rank of peerage, yet could scarcely be considered to be anything other than upper class. The same is true of Francis Fulford, who memorably featured in Channel 4's documentary The F***ing Fulfords and whose family has owned estates in Devon for over 800 years. That being said, those in possession of an hereditary (as opposed, importantly, to a conferred) peerage - for example a Dukedom, an Earldom, or a Barony - will, almost invariably be members of the upper class.

Where one was educated is often considered to be more important than the level of education attained. Traditionally, upper class children will be raised - at home - by a Nanny for the first few years of life, until old enough to attend a well-established prep school or pre-preparatory school. Moving into secondary education, it is still commonplace for upper-class children to attend one of Britain's prestigious public schools (such as those in the Eton Group or Rugby Group) although it is not unheard of for certain families to send their children to Grammar schools.[4]

Insofar as continuing education goes, this can vary from family to family; it may, in part, be based on the educational history of the family. In the past, both the British Army and Clergy have been the institutions of choice, but the same can equally apply to the Royal Navy, or work in the Diplomatic Corps. HRH Prince Harry of Wales, for instance, has recently completed his training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in preparation for entry into the Army. Otherwise, Oxbridge and other 'traditional' universities (such as Durham University and St Andrews University) are the most popular sources of higher education for the upper class, although a high academic standard is required and social class does not as readily secure entry as it once did.

Sports - particularly those involving the outdoors - are a popular pastime, and are usually taken up from a school age or before, and improved upon throughout the educational years. Traditionally, at school, Rugby is much more popular than Association Football: indeed, the two sports are often taken to represent the two extremes of social classes 'at play'. Other frequented sports include lawn tennis (which has a broad appeal, and could hardly be considered to be dominated by any one class) and croquet (quite the opposite).

Equestrian activities are also popular - and with both sexes. There is a long-standing tradition of the upper class having close links to horses and ponies; indeed, one of the foremost example of show jumping prowess is Zara Philips, daughter of Princess Anne and recently-crowned Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year. Men who ride will more often participate in Polo, as is the case with both H.R.H. Prince Charles, and his son, Prince Harry.

Hunting and shooting, too, are favoured pastimes. Some upper class families with large estates will run their own shoots (typically they would need 1000 acres, or more, though some shoots do operate on about half that), but many will know someone who keeps pheasants, or other game, and may instead shoot with them. Much as with horses, there is a particular affinity for dogs (especially Labradors and Spaniels) amongst the upper class - and, equally, sporting pursuits that involve them. It should, however, be noted that none of the aforementioned sports are, of course, exclusively upper-class.

Language, pronunciation and writing style have been, consistently, one of the most reliable indicators of class. (Upper and otherwise.) The variations between the language employed by the upper classes and those not of the upper classes has, perhaps, been best documented by linguistic Professor Alan Ross's 1954 article on U and non-U English usage. The discussion was perhaps most famously furthered in Noblesse Oblige - and featured contributions from, among others, Nancy Mitford. Interestingly, the debate was revisited in the mid-seventies, in a publication by Debrett's called 'U and Non-U revisited'. Ross contributed to this volume too, and it is remarkable to notice how little the language (amongst other factors) changed in the passing of a quarter of a century.

With specific regard to pronunciation, much is made of the lower-class (albeit slightly regional) tendency towards dropped consonants - for instance, ‘li’lle’ for ‘little’ or ‘’ow are you?’ for ‘how are you?’. The upper class are also distinguishable, though from the absence of vowels in their speech - thus, ‘handkerchief’ becomes ‘hnkrchf‘, ‘venison’ becomes ‘vnsn‘ and 'Shropshire' becomes 'Shrpshr'.

Woburn Abbey, family seat of the Duke of Bedford

The choice of house ('home', to a non-U-speaker), too, is an important feature of the upper classes. While it is true that there are fewer upper class families nowadays that are able to maintain both the well-staffed town house and country house than in the past, there are still many families which have an hereditary 'seat' somewhere in the country that they have managed to retain: Woburn Abbey, for example, has been in the family of the Duke of Bedford for centuries. Many upper class country homes are now open to the public, or have been placed in the care of the National Trust to aid with the funding of much-needed repairs. (In some cases, both are true).

The inside of a house, however grand the façade, is equally indicative of class. Upper class homes (if privately owned, and not staffed) tend to be comparatively untidy composites of grand furniture - having been inherited - which may have become frayed and threadbare over time and vast piles of ancient books, papers and other old reading material for which there is now no home. Wooden floors will be covered with antique rugs, and the hair of the family ‘black Lab’ all-pervasive.

Many upper class families will be in possession of works of art by old masters, valuable sculpture or period furniture, having had said pieces handed down through several generations. Indeed, inheriting the vast majority of one's possessions is the traditional form in upper class families. On that point, there is a well-known derisory quotation from Conservative politician Michael Jopling, who referred to cabinet colleague Michael Heseltine as the kind of person who 'bought his own furniture'. (The former was then put down himself by a Baron as "the kind of person who bought his own castle".)

So too is the organisation (or lack thereof) of the garden an important upper class trait. Bedding plants, rockeries, hanging baskets and goldfish ponds will all have been banished in favour of box hedges, shrub roses, herbaceous borders and stone pathways. Upper class gardens will look more natural and unconstructed than artificially preened (although as with houses, this is not always true where staff are employed).[5]

Money and material possessions are often thought of as a less important factor as regards the United Kingdom's upper class than those upper classes of other countries, but, although this allows for an upper class family to be impoverished, an upper class family is likely to have had wealth at some point in its history.

Vast financial prosperity (only slightly dependent on how it is earned) is the subject of derision and contempt - the nickname “fat cat”, encompassing more than just one's wages, is not one often levelled at members of the upper class. According to Kate Fox, the present-day anthropologist, the main difference between the English and American social system is that in the latter, the rich and powerful believe they deserve their wealth and power, and are more complacent. In the former, they tend to have a greater sense of social responsibility and compassion for those less privileged than themselves.[6]

Rest of the World[edit | edit source]

In Australia (and, occasionally, the United Kingdom), the term "upper class" is now sometimes used pejoratively by the middle and lower classes, as in the stereotypical term, "upper-class twit", and Australian and British people may be more anxious to avoid being labelled "upper class" (or even "upper middle class") than their American or Canadian counterparts. For more on this phenomenon, see reverse snobbery, Australian mateship, and class consciousness.

Social class in Canada, as an observable phenomenon, though more subtle perhaps than in the U.S., is also not as entrenched as in Europe nor as taboo a topic as it is in Britain and Australia, though it remains a matter of controversy (see for example, the debate over the granting of a life peerage to former Canadian citizen, Conrad Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, and the remarks of then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien about creating an aristocracy in Canada, and his insistence on upholding the Nickle Resolution).

Social class in the Dominican Republic has remained relatively unchanged over the years. A social class system still exists, and it is popularly understood that the different classes do not mix, especially the first and third classes. The "first" class are the rich, powerful, and celebrated. They also have most control over the country.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Gilbert, Dennis (1998). The American Class Structure, New York: Wadsworth Publishing. 0-534-50520-1.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Thompson, William; Joseph Hickey (2005). Society in Focus, Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-41365-X.
  3. Williams, Brian; Stacey C. Sawyer, Carl M. Wahlstrom (2005). Marriages, Families & Intimate Relationships, Boston, MA: Pearson. 0-205-36674-0.
  4. Douglas Sutherland, "The English Gentleman"
  5. Charles Quest-Ritson, "The English Garden"
  6. Kate Fox, "Watching the English"

^  (2005). The Sunday Times University Guide. The Times. URL accessed on 2006-09-09.

Social stratification: Social class
Bourgeoisie Upper class Ruling class Nobility White-collar
Petite bourgeoisie Upper middle class Creative class Gentry Blue-collar
Proletariat Middle class Working class Nouveau riche Pink-collar
Lumpenproletariat Lower middle class Lower class Old Money Gold-collar
Slave class Underclass Classlessness
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