Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Class consciousness

core definition

Class consciousness is the political world view or Weltanschauung of a social class.

explanatory context

Class consciousness usually refers to the consciousness of the oppressed class(es).


For Marx(ists), class consciousness is the collective consciousness of the class based upon praxis.


Class consciousness is seen by some analysts as the basis for historical change. Social class consciousness (and consequent action) are directed to the organization of the sum of interhuman relationships (and relationships between people and nature) with a view to either keeping them as they are or of transforming them in a more or less radical manner. This view of class consciousness sets social classes as the central subject of history.


analytical review

Lukacs (1920) raised these questions about class consciousness:

In Marxism the division of society into classes is determined by position within the process of production. But what, then, is the meaning of class consciousness? The question at once branches out into a series of closely interrelated problems. First of all, how are we to understand class consciousness (in theory)? Second, what is the (practical) function of class consciousness, so understood, in the context of the class struggle? This leads to the further question: is the problem of class consciousness a ‘general’ sociological problem or does it mean one thing for the proletariat and another for every other class to have emerged hitherto? And lastly, is class consciousness homogeneous in nature and function or can we discern different gradations and levels in it? And if so, what are their practical implications for the class struggle of the proletariat?

Macionis and Plummer (1995–2005) wrote under the heading :'class consciousness'

Karl Marx argued that the workers (the proletariat), would eventually become aware of their shared experience with other workers of exploitation by the capitalists (the bourgeoisie), and rise up and overthrow their oppressors. The nature of this understanding was termed by Marx as 'class consciousness'. The proletariat becomes aware of its class position in relation to the bourgeoisie and its historic role in the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism. This term thus refers to the subjective dimension of class. The proletariat would develop from a class 'in itself', which refers to no common collective awareness of class positioning, into a class 'for itself', an awareness of the common nature of exploitation by the bourgeoisie.

Marx believed that workers would collectively develop class consciousness from their experience of the contradiction inherent within capitalist relations of production, i.e. the division of labour which is organised around production. The division of labour refers to the private ownership of property by the bourgeoisie and use by the capitalists of the labour power of the proletariat.

Related to class consciousness is the concept of alienation. In capitalist societies the capitalists appropriate the products created by the proletariat. This leads to feelings of estrangement from creative human activity, since the workers do not see the results of their labour. This results in:

the worker becoming alienated from the product of labour
alienation from the act of production
the worker becomes alienated from his 'species being', which refers to the 'nature' of humanity
most importantly in the context of class consciousness, the worker becomes alienated from other workers so that the construction of a shared class consciousness becomes problematic.

An example of a shared class consciousness is the construction of trades unions which were set up to defend workers from exploitation by the capitalists. A fairly recent example of trade union activity is the coal miners' strike in the North of England and in Wales between 1984-5. Threatened with the closure of twenty working coal mines and the loss of twenty thousand jobs, miners in various coal mines began strike action. The failure of the President of the National Union of Mineworkers to call for a national strike allowed the Thatcher Government to introduce new legislation which ruled the strike illegal. The striking workers were then denied access to state benefits and wages, with the strike ending nearly a year after it had begun. The NUM voted by a tiny majority to return to work nearly a year after it had begun, without any new agreement with management.
Marx had this to say about class consciousness:

'It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being determines their consciousness'.
(Marx, Karl, [1859] Preface to A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy; trans. T.B. Bottomore and M. Rubel, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1963:67).

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines class consciousness as:

An objective awareness of the class system, including the common interests of people within your class.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated):

Class consciousness: The most articulate spokesperson on the subject of class consciousness in American sociology has been C. Wright Mills. Mills specifies three components of class consciousness: (1) a rational awareness and identification with one's own class interest; (2) an awareness of and rejection of other class interests; and (3) an awareness of and readiness to use collective political means to the collective political end of realizing one's interests. Mills agrees with the Marxist interpretation of the importance of class consciousness to social change and revolution. The first lesson of modern sociology is that the individual cannot understand his own experience or gauge his own fate without locating himself within the trends of his epoch and the life chances of all the individuals of his social layer. - From Charles A. Anderson, The Political Economy of Social Class (Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1974), p. 36


The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines class consciousness as:

The ability of a class, in particular the proletariat, to overcome false consciousness and attain an accurate understanding of the capitalist system.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Class consciousness: In Karl Marx's view, a subjective awareness held by members of a class regarding their common vested interests and need for collective political action to bring about social change.

associated issues


related areas

See also




Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Lukacs, G., [1920] 1967, History & Class Consciousness, London, Merlin Press. A chapter available at accessed 1 February 2013, still available 26 November 2019.

Macionis, J.J and Plummer, K., 1995–2005, 'Class consciousness' in Student Resource, Chapter 4 Societies, website companion to Sociology: A Global Introduction, third edition, Pearson Eduation, available at, accessed 1 January 2013, page not available 14 December 2016.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 14 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017. Not found 1 June 2019.

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