From the playbill: The attributes of class

One difficulty in talking about class is that the word means different things to different people. Class is rank, it is tribe, it is culture and taste. It is attitudes and assumptions, a source of identity, a system of exclusion. To some, it is just money. It is an accident of birth that can influence the outcome of a life. Some Americans barely notice it; others feel its weight in powerful ways.

At its most basic, class is one way societies sort themselves out. Even societies built on the idea of eliminating class have had stark differences in rank. Classes are groups of people of similar economic and social position; people who, for that reason, may share political attitudes, lifestyles, consumption patterns, cultural interests and opportunities to get ahead. Put ten people in a room and a pecking order soon emerges.

When societies were simpler, the class landscape was easier to read. Marx divided 19th-century societies into just two classes; Max Weber added a few more. As societies grew increasingly complex, the old classes became more heterogeneous. As some sociologists and marketing consultants see it, the commonly accepted big three – the upper, middle and working classes – have broken down into dozens of microclasses, defined by occupation or lifestyles.

One way to think of a person’s position in society is to imagine a handful of cards. Everyone is dealt four cards, one from each suit: education, income, occupation and wealth, the four commonly used criteria for gauging class. Face cards in a few categories may land a player in the upper middle class. At first, a person’s class is his parents’ class. Later he may pick up a new hand of his own; it is likely to resemble that of his parents, but not always.

Excerpt from “From Shadowy Lines That Still Divide,” by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, part of the series “Class Matters,” The New York Times, May 15, 2005.