Is a concept in sociology that refers to the group of people at the top of a social hierarchy. Members of an upper class often have great power over the allocation of resources and governmental policy in their area.
The phrase "upper class" has had a complex range of meanings and usages. In many traditional societies, membership of the upper class was hard or even impossible to acquire by any means other than being born into it. Despite this chance of upward mobility, the upper class is, according to many sociologists, unattainable to those not born into upper-class families.
In many countries the term "upper class" was intimately associated with hereditary land ownership and titles. Political power was often in the hands of the landowners in many pre-industrial societies (which was one of the causes of the French Revolution), despite there being no legal barriers to land ownership for other social classes. Power began to shift from upper-class landed families to the general population in the early modern age, leading to marital alliances between the two groups, providing the foundation for the modern upper classes in the West. Upper-class landowners in Europe were often also members of the titled nobility, though not necessarily: the prevalence of titles of nobility varied widely from country to country. Some upper classes (or noble classes) were almost entirely untitled, for example, the Szlachta of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
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 is "Steerage/Under class." The main distinguishing feature of the class is its ability to derive enormous incomes from wealth rather than work. CEOs, heirs to fortunes, successful venture capitalists, as well as celebrities, are considered members of this class by contemporary sociologists, such as James Henslin or Dennis Gilbert. There may be prestige differences between different upper-class households. Bruce Willis, for example, might not be accorded as much prestige as Bill Clinton. Yet, all members of this class are so influential and wealthy as to be considered members of the upper class.
"Upper-class families... dominate corporate America and have a disproportionate influence over the nation's political, educational, religious, and other institutions. Of all social classes, members of the upper class also have a strong sense of solidarity and 'consciousness of kind' that stretches across the nation and even the globe." -William Thompson & Joseph Hickey, Society in Focus, 2005.
While most sociologists define the upper class as the wealthiest 1%, sociologist Leonard Beeghley classifies all households with a net worth of $1 million or more as "rich," while classifying the wealthiest 0.9% as the "super-rich." Since the 1970s income inequality in the United States has been increasing, with the top 1% experiencing significantly larger gains in income than the rest of society. Social scientists (such as Alan Greenspan) see it as a problem for society, with Greenspan calling it a "very disturbing trend."
According to the book Who Rules America?, 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.
Titles, while often considered central to the upper class, are not always strictly so. Both Captain Mark Phillips and Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence, the respective first and second husbands of HRH The Princess Anne lacked any rank of peerage, yet could scarcely be considered to be anything other than upper class. The same is true of Francis Fulford, who memorably featured in Channel 4's documentary The F***ing Fulfords and whose family has owned estates in Devon for over 800 years.
That being said, those in possession of an hereditary (as opposed, importantly, to a conferred) peerage - for example a Dukedom, an Earldom, or a Barony (though any of these may be conferred) - will, almost invariably be members of the upper class.
Where one was educated is often considered to be more important than the level of education attained. Traditionally, upper class children will be brought up - at home - by a Nanny for the first few years of life, until old enough to attend a well-established prep school or pre-preparatory school. Moving into secondary education, it is still commonplace for upper-class children to attend one of Britain's prestigious public schools (such as those in the Eton Group or Rugby Group) although it is not unheard of for certain families to send their children to Grammar schools.
Insofar as continuing education goes, this can vary from family to family; it may, in part, be based on the educational history of the family. In the past, both the British Army and Clergy have been the institutions of choice, but the same can equally apply to the Royal Navy, or work in the Diplomatic Corps. HRH Prince Harry of Wales, for instance, has recently completed his training at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in preparation for entry into the Army. Otherwise, Oxbridge and other 'traditional' universities (such as Durham University, the University of Edinburgh, and St Andrews University) are the most popular sources of higher education for the upper class, although a high academic standard is required and social class does not as readily secure entry as it once did.
Sports - particularly those involving the outdoors - are a popular pastime, and are usually taken up from a school age or before, and improved upon throughout the educational years. Traditionally, at school, Rugby union is much more popular than Association Football: indeed, the two sports are often taken to represent the two extremes of social classes 'at play'. Other frequented sports include lawn tennis (which has a broad appeal and could hardly be considered to be dominated by any one class), croquet (quite the opposite),cricket and golf.
Equestrian activities are also popular - with both sexes. There is a long-standing tradition of the upper class having close links to horses; indeed, one of the foremost example of three-day eventing prowess is Zara Philips, daughter of Princess Anne and recently-crowned Sunday Times Sportswoman of the Year. Men who ride will more often participate in Polo, as is the case with both HRH Prince Charles and his sons, Their Royal Highnesses Prince William and Prince Harry.
Hunting and shooting, too, are favoured pastimes. Some upper class families with large estates will run their own shoots (typically they would need , or more, though some shoots do operate on about half that), but many will know someone who keeps pheasants, or other game, and may instead shoot with them. Much as with horses, there is a particular affinity for dogs (especially Labradors and Spaniels) amongst the upper class - and, equally, sporting pursuits that involve them. It should, however, be noted that none of the aforementioned sports are, of course, exclusively upper-class.
Language, pronunciation and writing style have been, consistently, one of the most reliable indicators of class. (Upper and otherwise.) The variations between the language employed by the upper classes and those not of the upper classes has, perhaps, been best documented by linguistic Professor Alan Ross's 1954 article on U and non-U English usage. The discussion was perhaps most famously furthered in Noblesse Oblige - and featured contributions from, among others, Nancy Mitford. Interestingly, the debate was revisited in the mid-seventies, in a publication by Debrett's called 'U and Non-U revisited'. Ross contributed to this volume too, and it is remarkable to notice how little the language (amongst other factors) changed in the passing of a quarter of a century.
With specific regard to pronunciation, much is made of the lower-class (albeit slightly regional) tendency towards dropped consonants - for instance, ‘li’lle’ for ‘little’ or ‘’ow are you?’ for ‘how are you?’. The upper class are also distinguishable, though from the absence of vowels in their speech - thus, ‘handkerchief’ becomes ‘hnkrchf‘, ‘venison’ becomes ‘vnsn‘ and 'Shropshire' becomes 'Shrpshr'.
The choice of house ('home', to a non-U-speaker), too, is an important feature of the upper classes. While it is true that there are fewer upper class families nowadays that are able to maintain both the well-staffed town house and country house than in the past, there are still many families which have an hereditary 'seat' somewhere in the country that they have managed to retain: Woburn Abbey, for example, has been in the family of the Duke of Bedford for centuries. Many upper class country homes are now open to the public, or have been placed in the care of the National Trust to aid with the funding of much-needed repairs. (In some cases, both are true).
The inside of a house, however grand the façade, is equally indicative of class. Upper class homes (if privately owned, and not staffed) tend to be comparatively untidy composites of grand furniture - having been inherited - which may have become frayed and threadbare over time and vast piles of ancient books, papers and other old reading material for which there is now no home.
Many upper class families will be in possession of works of art by old masters, valuable sculpture or period furniture, having had said pieces handed down through several generations. Indeed, inheriting the vast majority of one's possessions is the traditional form in upper class families. On that point, there is a well-known derisory quotation from Conservative politician Michael Jopling, who referred to cabinet colleague Michael Heseltine as the kind of person who 'bought his own furniture' (in the [Alan Clark] Diaries). (The former was then put down himself by a Baron as "the kind of person who bought his own castle").
So too is the organisation (or lack thereof) of the garden an important upper class trait. Bedding plants, rockeries, hanging baskets and goldfish ponds will all have been banished in favour of box hedges, shrub roses, herbaceous borders and stone pathways. Upper class gardens will look more natural and unconstructed than artificially preened (although as with houses, this is not always true where staff are employed). Money and material possessions are often thought of as a less important factor as regards the United Kingdom's upper class than those upper classes of other countries, but, although this allows for an upper class family to be impoverished, an upper class family is likely to have had wealth at some point in its history.
Vast financial prosperity (only slightly dependent on how it is earned) is the subject of derision and contempt - the nickname “fat cat”, encompassing more than just one's wages, is not one often levelled at members of the upper class. According to Kate Fox, the present-day anthropologist, the main difference between the English and American social system is that in the latter, the rich and powerful believe they deserve their wealth and power and are more complacent. In the former, they tend to have a greater sense of social responsibility and compassion for those less privileged than themselves.
Social class in Canada, as an observable phenomenon, though more subtle perhaps than in the U.S., is also not as entrenched as in Europe nor as taboo a topic as it is in Britain and Australia, though it remains a matter of controversy (see for example, the debate over the granting of a life peerage to former Canadian citizen, Conrad Black, Baron Black of Crossharbour, and the remarks of then Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien about creating an aristocracy in Canada, and his insistence on upholding the Nickle Resolution).
Social class in the Dominican Republic has remained relatively unchanged over the years. A social class system still exists, and it is popularly understood that the different classes do not mix, especially the first and third classes. The "first" class are the rich, powerful, and celebrated. They also have most control over the country.