Class Analysis and the U.S. Census Public Use Samples

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Uses the most important primary source of the past century for economic and social historians, the public use samples of the manuscript census, to devise empirical measurements of the Marxist idea of class. Marxist definitions of class have two elements. Class is relational, that is, the patterns of life and social relations take place among people, not against an abstract index of stratification. In addition, class is understood to take place within the sphere of production and includes how people relate to the ownership of the means of production. Although class and its understanding is central to the Marxist analysis of capitalism, there have been very few efforts by Marxist social scientists to attempt precise measurement of their organizing idea. The author analyzed the public use samples from 1910 and 1940 through 1980 with these Marxist definitions in mind. The results show that it is possible to specify with accuracy the changing fortunes of the American bourgeoisie, petite bourgeoisie, and proletariat. Three findings stand out for 20th-century American class relations. First, the percentage of the that is proletarian has been quite consistent, averaging about 70% from 1910 through 1970, and dropping to 61% in 1980. Second, the major change in class membership has been the rise of a professional managerial class, which as of 1980 constituted 28% of the population. Third, the income gap between the proletarians and bourgeoisie increased considerably after World War II and up through 1980, indeed well before the more recent additional changes in income inequality.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)171-181
Number of pages11
JournalHistorical Methods
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1991


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