Story: Class

Page 1. Understanding class

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Classes are major social groupings where the members of a group share similar levels of economic resources, property, status and prestige. Usually this extends over several generations. Most societies have hierarchies of such groupings, and New Zealand is no exception.

Myth of classlessness

For over a century, from the mid-19th century until the later 20th century, many commentators suggested that New Zealand was a classless society. Immigrants from Great Britain frequently praised the lack of inherited classes and the relatively high standard of living. In 1959 New Zealand’s leading historian, Keith Sinclair, concluded that while New Zealand was not classless, ‘[i]t must be more nearly classless, however, than any other society in the world. Some people are richer than others, but wealth carries no great prestige and no prerogative of leadership.’1

The Statue of Equality

In 1948 an American political scientist, Leslie Lipson, suggested that in place of a Statue of Liberty, ‘if any sculptured allegory were to be placed at the approaches of Auckland or Wellington harbour, it would assuredly be a Statue of Equality’.2

In popular culture many observers noted a cult of egalitarian mateship which rejected those who ‘gave themselves airs’. There was a widespread belief that equality was a key New Zealand value, implying both equality of opportunity and some relative equality of condition.

Classes do exist

Yet in a 1977 book, Social class in New Zealand, all contributors, who spanned a range of ideologies, agreed that New Zealand did have ‘some kind of social differentiation that resembles some form of class.’3

What is a class?

The classic definition of class was by Karl Marx, who observed the development of industrial–capitalist society in 19th-century Britain. He based his classes on their relationship with the means of production, such as factories. Those who owned the means of production were the bourgeoisie; those who had only their labour to sell were the proletariat or working class. However, this analysis is not very useful in understanding New Zealand classes.

For a long time New Zealand had little industry or specialisation, and rural social hierarchies were different from the urban ones that Marx studied. There also developed several categories of worker who sat uncomfortably between Marx's bourgeoisie and working class:

  • managers of joint stock companies who were salaried officials, not owners of the means of production
  • self-employed workers, who have always been prevalent in New Zealand
  • salaried workers providing social services for the state, whose status was based on education.

Since Marx, others have offered definitions of class. Most take a pluralist view that class position includes, in addition to occupational role: income, prestige, ownership of property, education, culture and lifestyle, and political power.

Objective and subjective views of class

Marx drew a distinction between:

  • a class in itself – the objective analysis of economic positions
  • a class for itself – the subjective consciousness of class.

Even if we reject Marx’s crude definitions of class, class consciousness is a valuable indication of classes.

Colonial situation

In New Zealand class consciousness was confused. Many immigrants brought European understandings of class to the new world and there was sometimes a clash between colonial realities and old-world cultural values. Some rich settlers had expectations based on British aristocratic culture; some poor immigrants brought working-class beliefs from the industrial areas of Britain which sometimes did not fit in New Zealand.

Ethnicity and gender

In New Zealand, class distinctions are only one aspect of social hierarchies. Distinctions between Māori and Pākehā, and more recently between different immigrant groups, have been major markers of social difference and confuse class analysis. Māori have also had their own social systems.

Many studies of class assume that the social position of a family follows from that of the male worker. But on many occasions, especially since the 1960s, a high proportion of adult women have been in paid employment, and their occupational role and income may be quite different from their spouse’s. The role of both women and men needs to be considered. Class identity often belongs to families, not individuals.

  1. Keith Sinclair, A history of New Zealand. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969, p. 276. Back
  2. Leslie Lipson, The politics of equality: New Zealand’s adventures in democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948, p. 8. Back
  3. David Pitt, ed. Social class in New Zealand. Auckland: Longman Paul, 1977, p. 5. Back
How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Class - Understanding class', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 June 2024)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 22 May 2018