Upper class
In social science, the "upper class" is the group of people at the top of a social hierarchy. Members of an upper class may have great power over the allocation of resources and governmental policy in their area.

Historical meaning

Historically in some cultures, members of an upper class often did not have to work for a living, as they were supported by earned or inherited investments (often real estate), 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. Much of the population that composed the upper class consisted of aristocrats, ruling families, titled people, and religious hierarchs. These people were usually born into their status and historically there was not much movement across class boundaries. This is to say that it was much harder for an individual to move up in class simply because of the structure of society.

In many countries the term "upper class" was intimately associated with hereditary land ownership. Political power was often in the hands of the landowners in many pre-industrial societies
Pre-industrial society
Pre-industrial society refers to specific social attributes and forms of political and cultural organization that were prevalent before the advent of the Industrial Revolution. It is followed by the industrial society....

 (which was one of the causes of the French Revolution
French Revolution
The French Revolution , sometimes distinguished as the 'Great French Revolution' , was a period of radical social and political upheaval in France and Europe. The absolute monarchy that had ruled France for centuries collapsed in three years...

), despite there being no legal barriers to land ownership for other social classes.Upper-class landowners in Europe were often also members of the titled nobility
Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

, though not necessarily: the prevalence of titles of nobility varied widely from country to country. Some upper classes were almost entirely untitled, for example, the Szlachta
The szlachta was a legally privileged noble class with origins in the Kingdom of Poland. It gained considerable institutional privileges during the 1333-1370 reign of Casimir the Great. In 1413, following a series of tentative personal unions between the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of...

 of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth
The Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was a dualistic state of Poland and Lithuania ruled by a common monarch. It was the largest and one of the most populous countries of 16th- and 17th‑century Europe with some and a multi-ethnic population of 11 million at its peak in the early 17th century...


United Kingdom

In the United Kingdom, the "upper class" traditionally comprised the aristocracy
Aristocracy , is a form of government in which a few elite citizens rule. The term derives from the Greek aristokratia, meaning "rule of the best". In origin in Ancient Greece, it was conceived of as rule by the best qualified citizens, and contrasted with monarchy...

 of "noble" families with hereditary titles. The vast majority of aristocratic families originated in the merchant class, and were ennobled between the 14th and 19th century. Since World War II, the term has come to encompass rich and powerful members of the managerial and professional classes as well.

United States

In the United States the upper class, also referred to simply as the rich, is often considered to consist of those with great influence and wealth. In this respect the US differs from countries such as the UK where membership of the 'upper class' is also dependent on other factors. The American upper class is estimated to constitute less than 1% of the population, while the remaining 99% of the population lies either within middle
American middle class
The American middle class is a social class in the United States. While the concept is typically ambiguous in popular opinion and common language use, contemporary social scientists have put forward several, more or less congruent, theories on the American middle class...

 or working class
Working class
Working class is a term used in the social sciences and in ordinary conversation to describe those employed in lower tier jobs , often extending to those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes...

. The main distinguishing feature of upper class is its ability to derive enormous incomes
Income in the United States
Income in the United States is measured by the United States Department of Commerce either by household or individual. The differences between household and personal income is considerable since 42% of households, the majority of those in the top two quintiles with incomes exceeding $57,658, now...

 from wealth
Wealth in the United States
Wealth in the United States is commonly measured in terms of net worth, which is the sum of all assets, including home equity, minus all liabilities....

 through techniques such as investment and money management, rather than simply engaging in wage-labor or salaried employment. Successful entrepreneur
An entrepreneur is an owner or manager of a business enterprise who makes money through risk and initiative.The term was originally a loanword from French and was first defined by the Irish-French economist Richard Cantillon. Entrepreneur in English is a term applied to a person who is willing to...

s, CEOs, politician
A politician, political leader, or political figure is an individual who is involved in influencing public policy and decision making...

s, investment bankers, some lawyer
A lawyer, according to Black's Law Dictionary, is "a person learned in the law; as an attorney, counsel or solicitor; a person who is practicing law." Law is the system of rules of conduct established by the sovereign government of a society to correct wrongs, maintain the stability of political...

s and top flight physicians, heirs to fortunes, successful venture capitalists, stockbrokers as well as celebrities are considered members of this class by contemporary sociologists, such as James Henslin or Dennis Gilbert
Dennis Gilbert
Dennis Gilbert is professor and chair of sociology at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He holds a Ph.D. from Cornell University and has taught at the Universidad Catlica in Lima, Peru, Cornell University and joined Hamilton college in 1976. He has published a variety of sociology books,...

. There may be prestige differences between different upper-class households. An A-list actor, for example, might not be accorded as much prestige as a former U.S. President, yet all members of this class are so influential and wealthy as to be considered members of the upper class.
While most sociologists define the upper class as the wealthiest 1%, sociologist Leonard Beeghley
Leonard Beeghley
Leonard Beeghley is Professor Emeritus of sociology at the University of Florida since 1975. He received his Ph.D. from the University of California at Riverside in 1975 and has since published seven books over the course of his career...

 classifies all households with a net worth of $1 million
A millionaire is an individual whose net worth or wealth is equal to or exceeds one million units of currency. It can also be a person who owns one million units of currency in a bank account or savings account...

 or more as "rich", while classifying the wealthiest 0.9% as the "super-rich". Since the 1970s income inequality in the United States
Income inequality in the United States
Income inequality in the United States of America refers to the extent to which income is distributed in an uneven manner in the US. Data from the United States Department of Commerce, CBO, and Internal Revenue Service indicate that income inequality among households has been increasing...

 has been increasing, with the top 1% experiencing significantly larger gains in income than the rest of society. Social scientists (such as Alan Greenspan
Alan Greenspan
Alan Greenspan is an American economist who served as Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006. He currently works as a private advisor and provides consulting for firms through his company, Greenspan Associates LLC...

) see it as a problem for society, with Greenspan calling it a "very disturbing trend."

According to the book Who Rules America?
Who Rules America?
Who Rules America? is a 1967 book by psychologist and sociologist G. William Domhoff, which argues against the concentration of power and wealth in the American upper class....

, by Domhoff, the distribution of wealth in America is the primary highlight of the influence of the upper class. The top 1% of Americans own around 34% of the wealth in the U.S. while the bottom 80% own only approximately 16% of the wealth. This large disparity displays the unequal distribution of wealth in America in absolute terms.

Rest of the world

In Australia and the United Kingdom, the term "upper class" is now sometimes used pejoratively by the middle and lower classes (as in the stereotypical
A stereotype is a popular belief about specific social groups or types of individuals. The concepts of "stereotype" and "prejudice" are often confused with many other different meanings...

 term, "upper-class twit, RAH or Toff
Upper Class Twit of the Year
The Upper Class Twit of the Year is a classic comedy sketch that was seen on the TV show Monty Python's Flying Circus, and also in a modified format as the finale of the movie And Now For Something Completely Different...

"), and Australians and Britons may be more anxious to avoid being labelled "upper class" (or even "upper-middle class") than their American or Canadian counterparts (though the overall validity of such a comparison may be questioned). For more on this phenomenon, see reverse snobbery, Australian mateship
Mateship is an Australian cultural idiom that embodies equality, loyalty and friendship. There are two types of mateship, the inclusive and the exclusive; the inclusive is in relation to a shared situation , whereas the exclusive type is toward a third party...

, and class consciousness
Class consciousness
Class consciousness is consciousness of one's social class or economic rank in society. From the perspective of Marxist theory, it refers to the self-awareness, or lack thereof, of a particular class; its capacity to act in its own rational interests; or its awareness of the historical tasks...


Social class in Canada, as an observable phenomenon (though possibly more subtle than in the United States), is not as entrenched as in Europe nor as taboo
A taboo is a strong social prohibition relating to any area of human activity or social custom that is sacred and or forbidden based on moral judgment, religious beliefs and or scientific consensus. Breaking the taboo is usually considered objectionable or abhorrent by society...

 a topic of conversation as it is in Britain and Australia. The subject of social class nevertheless remains a matter of controversy in Canada (see for example, the debate over the granting of a life peerage to former Canadian citizen, Conrad Black
Conrad Black
Conrad Moffat Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, OC, KCSG, PC is a Canadian-born member of the British House of Lords, and a historian, columnist and publisher, who was for a time the third largest newspaper magnate in the world. Lord Black controlled Hollinger International, Inc...

, Baron Black of Crossharbour, and the remarks of then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
Jean Chrétien
Joseph Jacques Jean Chrétien , known commonly as Jean Chrétien is a former Canadian politician who was the 20th Prime Minister of Canada. He served in the position for over ten years, from November 4, 1993 to December 12, 2003....

 about creating an aristocracy in Canada, and his insistence on upholding the Nickle Resolution).

Social classes in Mexico have remained relatively unchanged over the years. A system of social classes still exists, and it is commonly understood that the different classes, especially the first (or upper) and third (or lower), do not mix. As with much of Latin America
Latin America
Latin America is a region of the Americas where Romance languages  – particularly Spanish and Portuguese, and variably French – are primarily spoken. Latin America has an area of approximately 21,069,500 km² , almost 3.9% of the Earth's surface or 14.1% of its land surface area...

, the "first" class comprises the rich, powerful, and celebrated, who have greatly disproportionate control over the country. The most common route for a family to join the upper class is through politics and business, but those born into the upper class tend to disregard any who try to enter the established upper class. "New rich" or "naco" is applied to nouveaux riches
Nouveau riche
The nouveau riche , or new money, comprise those who have acquired considerable wealth within their own generation...

 who still lack the customs and manners of the educated upper class.

In Japan, the term "Haiso", or in katakana
is a Japanese syllabary, one component of the Japanese writing system along with hiragana, kanji, and in some cases the Latin alphabet . The word katakana means "fragmentary kana", as the katakana scripts are derived from components of more complex kanji. Each kana represents one mora...

 as "ハイソ", is used as a reference to "High Society" and is commonly applied to luxury products, such as cars and fashion houses.

In Thailand
Thailand , officially the Kingdom of Thailand , formerly known as Siam , is a country located at the centre of the Indochina peninsula and Southeast Asia. It is bordered to the north by Burma and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the...

, although in the 1980s the hierarchy of social status or prestige and the hierarchy of political and economic power in the rural community overlapped, a disjunction of sorts existed between them at the national level. A rich villager—other things being equal—wielded political and economic power and had prestige. In the national system, the hierarchy of status began with the hereditary nobility—the royal family and the holders of royal titles. None of these people were poor; the royal family owned much land and some of its members had political influence. The royal family was not part of the ruling class, however, nor did it control the economy. The ruling class consisted of several levels, the uppermost of which comprised the military and, to a lesser extent, the bureaucratic elite.

See also

  • Aristocracy (class)
    Aristocracy (class)
    The aristocracy are people considered to be in the highest social class in a society which has or once had a political system of Aristocracy. Aristocrats possess hereditary titles granted by a monarch, which once granted them feudal or legal privileges, or deriving, as in Ancient Greece and India,...

  • Nobility
    Nobility is a social class which possesses more acknowledged privileges or eminence than members of most other classes in a society, membership therein typically being hereditary. The privileges associated with nobility may constitute substantial advantages over or relative to non-nobles, or may be...

  • Gentry
    Gentry denotes "well-born and well-bred people" of high social class, especially in the past....

  • Landed gentry
    Landed gentry
    Landed gentry is a traditional British social class, consisting of land owners who could live entirely off rental income. Often they worked only in an administrative capacity looking after the management of their own lands....

  • Patrician (post-Roman Europe)
  • Great Burgher
    Great burgher
    Great Burgher is a specific title and legally defined "order of citizenship", a higher ranking type of citizen and social order, a formally defined social class of wealthy high status individuals and families in medieval German-speaking cities and towns under the Holy...

  • Bildungsbürgertum
    Bildungsbürgertum, a social class that initially emerged in mid 18th century Germany as an educated class of the bourgeoisie with an educational ideal based on idealistic values ​​and classical antiquity...

  • Hanseaten (class)
    Hanseaten (class)
    The Hanseaten is a collective term for the heirachy group consisting of elite individuals and families of prestigious rank who constituted the ruling class of the free imperial city of Hamburg, conjointly with the equal First Families of the free imperial cities Bremen and Lübeck...

  • Celebutante
  • Debutante
    A débutante is a young lady from an aristocratic or upper class family who has reached the age of maturity, and as a new adult, is introduced to society at a formal "début" presentation. It should not be confused with a Debs...

  • Fat cat (term)
    Fat cat (term)
    Fat cat is a political term originally describing a rich political donor, also called an angel or big money man.The New York Times has described fat cats as symbols of "a deeply corrupt campaign finance system riddled with loopholes", with Americans seeing them as recipients of the "perks of...

  • Nouveau riche
    Nouveau riche
    The nouveau riche , or new money, comprise those who have acquired considerable wealth within their own generation...

  • Old Money
    Old Money
    Old money is "the inherited wealth of established upper-class families " or "a person, family, or lineage possessing inherited wealth." The term typically describes a class of the super-rich, who have been able to maintain their wealth across multiple generations.- United States :American locations...

  • High culture
    High culture
    High culture is a term, now used in a number of different ways in academic discourse, whose most common meaning is the set of cultural products, mainly in the arts, held in the highest esteem by a culture...

  • Social environment
    Social environment
    The social environment of an individual, also called social context or milieu, is the culture that s/he was educated or lives in, and the people and institutions with whom the person interacts....

  • Social status
    Social status
    In sociology or anthropology, social status is the honor or prestige attached to one's position in society . It may also refer to a rank or position that one holds in a group, for example son or daughter, playmate, pupil, etc....

  • Symbolic capital
    Symbolic capital
    In sociology and anthropology, symbolic capital can be referred to as the resources available to an individual on the basis of honor, prestige or recognition, and functions as an authoritative embodiment of cultural value...

  • Honour
    Honour or honor is an abstract concept entailing a perceived quality of worthiness and respectability that affects both the social standing and the self-evaluation of an individual or corporate body such as a family, school, regiment or nation...

  • Mentifact
    Mentifact is a term coined by Sir Julian Sorell Huxley, used together with the related terms "sociofact" and "artifact" to describe how cultural traits, such as "beliefs, values, ideas," take on a life of their own spanning over generations, and are conceivable as objects in themselves...

  • Habitus (sociology)
  • La Distinction
    La Distinction
    La Distinction is a book by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu , based on Bourdieu's empirical research on French culture. Taken from studies conducted by Bourdieu in 1963 and concluded in 1967-68, the book was originally published in France in 1979...

External links

  • Number of households with net-worths over one million dollars
  • Relationship between income and education
  • "The Aristocracy – how the ruling class survives" on BBC Radio 4
    BBC Radio 4
    BBC Radio 4 is a British domestic radio station, operated and owned by the BBC, that broadcasts a wide variety of spoken-word programmes, including news, drama, comedy, science and history. It replaced the BBC Home Service in 1967. The station controller is currently Gwyneth Williams, and the...

    ’s In Our Time
    In Our Time (BBC Radio 4)
    In Our Time is a live BBC radio discussion series exploring the history of ideas, presented by Melvyn Bragg since 15 October 1998.. It is one of BBC radio's most successful discussion programmes, acknowledged to have "transformed the landscape for serious ideas at peak listening time"...

     featuring David Cannadine
    David Cannadine
    Sir David Nicholas Cannadine, FBA is a British historian, known for a number of books, including The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy and Ornamentalism. He is also notable as a commentator and broadcaster on British public life, especially the monarchy. He serves as the generaleditor...

    , Rosemary Sweet and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto
    Felipe Fernández-Armesto
    Felipe Fernández-Armesto is a British historian and author of several popular works of history.He was born in London, his father was the Spanish journalist Felipe Fernández Armesto and his mother was Betty Millan de Fernandez-Armesto, a British-born journalist and co-founder and editor of The...

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