Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis.
Erik Olin Wright's Class Counts is a superb, useful, searching book. Most readers of this Journal, I believe, would do well to acquire a copy (the paperback is a bargain, especially in view of the large amount of tabular and graphic material), acquaint themselves with its overall ambitions, and plunge ad lib into the empirical analysis.
Wright's approach is explicitly sociological, not social-historical, but the book's implications for social historians - theoretical, empirical, and methodological - are unmistakable. Nor should any historian reject Wright's work out of hand on the grounds that sociologists, Marxists, or quantitative scholars (Wright is all of these) write poorly, for the author's style is precise, forthright, and surprisingly engaging. Although most of the chapters have appeared elsewhere, they make great sense together as a book, for the book qua book argues quite coherently; indeed, my understanding of the chapters I had read earlier elsewhere has been considerably deepened by reading them thus assembled.
Wright addresses Class Counts to the commonplace distaste of Marxian scholars for quantitative analysis, and of quantitative analysts for Marxian scholarship. His response to these mutually-reinforcing prejudices is to produce quantitative, theoretically-explicit, empirical analysis that is designedly pertinent to some fundamental Marxian questions. Specifically, Wright in the United States and associates in six other countries fielded identical survey-research efforts around 1980, loosely organized around the question of the relative utility of Marxian and Weberian analyses for understanding contemporary social relations in capitalist societies. (Wright finds a utility in some aspects of Weberian analysis, without abandoning the central Marxian concept of expropriation.) The data, thus, are pertinent to the micro-level, but involve macro- (and even meso-) level concerns as well (in their relation to individuals) through the national comparisons. Class Counts draws most heavily on comparisons of the United States and Sweden, with Japan "counting" often, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and Norway occasionally. Major substantive issues include the nature of the contemporary middle class, how (if at all) gender and class inequalities relate, the impact of employment in the state sector on class more generally, and the nature of class consciousness.
Here are seven reasons why social historians need to study this work:
(1) It offers an especially clear account of "what's at stake" in contemporary Marxism.
(2) It provides a principled way of backing away from the limitations of an E.P. Thompsonian "class as process" perspective, without tossing it out with the romantic bathwater it has attracted.
(3) It is indispensable as a descriptive account of key aspects of social relations in advanced capitalism.
(4) It is serious about international comparison, and its seriousness pays off theoretically.
(5) Its exposition of how survey research can be turned to questions of social structure is almost as explicit, and almost as enlightening, as its exposition of contemporary Marxism.
(6) It provides an exemplary statement and instance of the standard, non-postmodernist view of how social science proceeds.
(7) Class counts, a lot, in various ways, but (more than Wright imagined when he began the research) no longer - if ever - in the way that Marx described and analyzed a century and a quarter ago. Nothing so well indicates the seriousness of Wright's inquiry than his genuine openness to "surprises" that embarrass his initial theoretical positions. I admire the tone of this book almost as much as its form and content.
John Modell Carnegie Mellon University
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1998|
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