“White collar” workers in the social structure and their function in society

Taking post-1980s Shanghai as an example[1]

Li Youmei

Research approaches and rethinking of “White Collar”

The "white-collar” group has received increasing attention in recent years from research in China on social structure and stratification. It is a common view to link "white-collar workers” to career, education, income, and consumption levels. However, researchers view white-collar workers as a group that has its own particular social needs and whose members share certain values. They tend to study this group from the perspectives of shared values, behaviors and roles in society. Some researchers believe that the white-collar class has certain utility in promoting the transformation of Chinese society, and therefore search for methods and paths to expand the scale of this class (see Li, 2001; Zhao and Zhang, 2003). The theoretical presupposition of this research approach is that China's white-collar workers can play an important role in the future, and may become the “stabilizer” of social development, the "buffer layer” between social conflicts, and the "indicator” of social behavior. Proponents of this theoretical presupposition hold that the extent of the role of the white-collar group in society depends on its scale, and the income, cultural literacy and occupational safety among its members.1

It can thus be inferred that these researchers regard white-collar workers in the West, and their various roles in social development, as an important reference for analyzing white-collar workers in China. In other words, they have, to a large extent, adopted certain Western judgments on the social functions of white- collar workers. There is certainly some meaning in saying that Western scholars’ research on white-collar workers is in the same vein as the evolution of middle- class theory, as the “middle class” concept is commonly used by Western social structure researchers to analyze social stratification. The emergence and growth of the Western middle class, which is closely tied to the Western industrial revolution, has attracted the attention of many sociologists, especially for its impact on the overall structure of society.

As early as the 19th century, Marx divided the entire social structure into two major classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, based on the ownership of the means of production. Based on a historical perspective of capitalism and the state of development of European civilization at that time, he also proposed the term

"middle class”. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx suggested that during the disintegration of the middle class the majority of its members would fall into the ranks of the proletariat. This would create social polarization, one of the prerequisites for large-scale social strife, social unrest and social revolution in capitalism (Marx, 1972). Employing terminology from another major theoretical tradition of sociology, Weber used a multidimensional perspective to propose a different social stratification theory from that of Marx. In his article “Class, Status, and Party”, Weber identifies three dimensions to social stratification: class as measured by economic inequality, status measured by differences in social prestige, and power differences between political parties. According to his analysis of the contemporary history of capitalism, the "market status”2 is the main basis for class division. Workers and managers with professional skills, therefore, have an advantageous market status, able to obtain higher income and occupy a higher position in the consumer market. This group corresponds to the growing middle class in Western society (Weber, 1946: 180-186). In Weber's view, the middle class and the working class differ in terms of survival opportunity, commodity possession, wealth and income; the economic status of the middle class is relatively stable, and carries the possibility of improvement. The middle class is characterized by an independent and stable lifestyle but not necessarily a common organizational behavior (see Li, 1993).

After the 1940s, with the completion of industrialization in the major Western developed countries, the capitalist society began transformation into a "management society”, marked by the separation of industrial ownership and control. This shift gave rise to a management group that did not have capital ownership but maintained management rights, and a technical profession group consisting of skilled employees, office workers, general administrators, public relations experts and other salaried employees. These professionals are distinct from traditional small farmers, shopkeepers and small business owners. American sociologist Wright Mills, in his 1951 book " White Collar: The American Middle Classes”, named this group the “new middle class” or "white-collar workers”. In his book, Mills. (1986) systematically expounded on the characteristics of the '4vhite-collar” social class: (1) Attachment to a large institution, specializing in uon-direct productive administrative work and technical services; (2) No fixed private property and no property distribution rights over service agency, rendering the group difficult to describe in terms of asset ownership; (3) Earning a living by knowledge and technology, thereby receiving a relatively stable and generous annual or monthly salary; (4) Conservative thinking, monotonous mechanized living, lack of revolutionary enthusiasm, yet rejecting vulgarities popular among the masses in order to maintain an image commensurate with its status.

Goldthorpe (1972, 1982) holds that the middle class differs fundamentally from the working class in that the former identifies with the mainstream values of society. Although conflict exists between the middle class and their employers, the relationship between the two is largely based on trust and loyalty, and existing social structures provide a place for the existence of the middle class. Therefore, the middle class often supports stability in social attitudes and emotions and opposes radical political behavior. To reflect the state of the new middle class in the USA, Mills portrayed white-collar workers as politically indifferent, unsteady and not occupying any clear division of political consciousness. Mills holds that “the middle class consists of different social forms, contradictory material interests, and varying ideologies. There is no realistic basis for a common political movement”. “In the entire power strucnire, they are dependent variables” (Mills, 1986). They would never launch strong political movements of their own volition. For this reason, Mills regarded white-collar workers as "political guards”, and this notion has subsequently become an important basis for establishing the role of the middle class in social stability. In his book. The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, futurist Bell, (1997) presents a strong and revolutionary view of professional and technical workers, and refuted scholars such as Marais and Geertz: ‘"Educated laborers’3 lie between the extremes of bureaucracy and populism. If they are to resist the ‘alienation’ that threatens their achievements, they are more likely to maintain traditional professionalism and lean to neither side over the other”. In this sense, the middle class is an important force that balances both bureaucracy and populism, and exhibits the function of stabilizing society. Many other Western scholars such as Emile Lederer. H. Speer, L. Corey, and David Lockwood also support the idea that the middle class has the function of social stability.

However, many scholars have found that in the modernization process of some developing countries, the role played by the middle class is far more complex than the theorized "stabilizer” function. Helper's research in the Middle East has made people see that the rapid revolutionary movement of the emerging middle class is an unstoppable force (see Huntington, 1988). In Huntington, (1988) view, this discovery can be seen in most other rapidly modernizing regions, and he continues to point out that "the formation of the middle class, such as economic growth, is often a highly unstable factor. The emergence and development of the middle class may go through several stages. Generally speaking, the middle-class members who first enter the social stage are intellectuals with both traditional heritage and modern values. Since then, the middle class has gradually developed into an array of civilian officers, military officers, teachers and lawyers, engineers and technicians, entrepreneurs and managers. The earliest middle-class elements were the most revolutionary, but as the middle class grew, it gradually became conservative”. The part of Huntington's theoretical thinking that can serve as a particular point of enlightenment lies in the notion that the middle class serves different social functions throughout its different stages of development. When people set out to observe the social functions of the middle class in a certain country or region, they should be sure to include in their analysis the development stage of this class, its characteristics, its relationship with other groups, and the process of change it is undergoing.

Some scholars also realize that the social sentiment and political inclination of the middle class in a particular era is also a very important dependent variable in research forjudging the social function of the middle class. Luigi Salvatorelli found that the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1930s was essentially a middle-class movement (See Zhou. 2005a). Samuel Pratt's study of urban elections preceding the German Nazi victory, found that Nazi supporters and middle-class groups correlated highly in different cities and regions of Germany. Charles Loomis and Allen Beegle found that as economic and social crises befell Germany, the middle class dominated the region, giving the Nazis growing support (Lipset, 1997). In "Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics”, Lipset discussed a critical reason as to why the middle class supported the Nazis: "As the relative position of the middle class declined and its resentments against on-going social and economic trends continued, its 'liberal' ideology—the support of individual rights against large-scale power changed from that of a revolutionary class to that of a reactionary class.” Behind fascism is actually the double fear of both the middle class against the bourgeoisie as well as the socialist movement. From these studies, it can be found that the social function of the middle class is also related to the social mentality and social sentiment of its members during a specific period. Without any analysis of the social mentality of the class, it is difficult to say with certainty whether the middle class will assume the roles of “stabilizer” and "buffer layer”.

Through the above-mentioned combing of the theory of middle-class social function, people may be aware that Chinese scholars of the current day tend to regard the middle class as the “stabilizer” of social development, the "buffer layer” for social conflicts, and an "indicator” of social behavior. Theoretical presuppositions have more or less followed the generalization theory of Western scholars on the function of the middle-class society. This line of thought ignores, to some extent, the specific historical stage of the Western middle class and the influence of social sentiment on its social function. In this respect, research on the social functions of Chinese white-collar workers tends to deviate from the actual situation.

William Parish and E. Michelson, while smdying the transformation of Chinese society, have reminded other Western scholars that China's social transformation is a process of dual transformation of politics and market, and it is necessary to describe "differences between different social groups and focus should be placed on the political market as much as on the economic market” (Parish and Michelson, 2002). What this emphasizes is that China's political system and social management system will have an important impact on market operation, social development and the relationships between the social groups. Since the 1980s, China has emerged as a powerhouse both for macro-strategic choices in economic system transition and for exploration brimming with originality at the grassroots level. These two forces have promoted the rapid development of the economy. In the face of such rapid economic development, the reform process and arrangements of the political system have always adopted a cautious attitude. In the eyes of some scholars, this kind of discoimect has caused a series of institutional tensions which emerged in the field of social management after the late mid-1990s. An important consequence of this is that the influence exerted by country’s social management system over new social groups created by the new economic operation (such as Shanghai’s "new white-collar” group) has been weakened. At the same time, the country’s social management system has not left an institutional space for this group to enter the field of social public management.

In contrast, white-collar workers in developed countries of the West constimte an important part of the middle class that votes and represents public opinion. They form the cornerstone of modern Western democratic politics and exert significant influence on the government management system through election politics and their values, views and standards of behavior. This means that there is a communication mechanism between them and the management system of the national political society, and this communication mechanism has certain institutional guarantees. For this reason, the conditions under which white-collar workers in Western countries can take on social functions are not fully available in China.

According to Western standards of what counts as a white-collar occupation, there are already quite a few professionals in Shanghai who could be classified as white-collar workers. This article will take the current development stage of Shanghai white-collar workers, their social mentality and their relationship with the system as a starting point for discussion. The analysis presented in this article will allow people to realize that although Shanghai's social stratum structure has approached a level of similarity with the Western social stranun structure in terms of occupational distribution, the institutional background of Shanghai's white-collar workers' formation, the related social foundation and the social functions they are able to serve all differ markedly from those of white-collar workers as the main body of the middle class in Western societies.

  • [1] We want to thank professors Sun Liping and Qiu Liping. whose input was formativeto the writing of this article.
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