From Proletariat to Precariat: The working class in a Global World

Course content

The working class is a central social actor tied to industrialization and the rise of capitalism. It has played a crucial role in challenging the power of capitalists and countering the tendencies of capitalism to intensify economic and social inequality. In this seminar, we explore the emergence of the proletariat and working class, the different ways social class is conceptualized, how it has varied across place and time.


In the first half of the seminar, we will cover how Marx and classical Marxists understand and theorize the working class, its origins and role in society. This will be compared to competing conceptualizations of the working class (Weberian, Durkheimian, and even Tocquevillian). Finally, we will trace how the classical Marxist conceptualization of the working class has been reformulated in ways that blur distinctions between the approaches. In the second half of the seminar we delve into current debates about the working class. Once important debate raises the question of whether social and political articulation of the working class is declining or if it is undergoing a significant transformation. We will be a survey how contemporary scholars are working to update and extend our current theoretical understanding of the working class, and the related heated debates around the move from proletariat to precariat.


Throughout the seminar, we will be implicitly and explicitly test the validity of competing conceptualizations of the working class by 1) examining what degree of empirical confirmation exists on national and global levels, 2) how well they capture salient features of the working class and 3) how well they elucidate the role of the working class and the issues they face.


MA Theory and Themes (MSc Curriculum 2015)

Course package:

Welfare, inequality and mobility

BA-Undergraduates from foreign countries (exchange students) can sign up for this course

Learning outcome


  • This course will provide students with an understanding of why social class and specifically, the working class, is a central and core concept in sociology. They will have a historical overview of how the concept of social class emerged in sociology and the competing theoretical approaches that have since developed.

  • Students will explore the current debates among scholars about changes in the working class, especially in the context of globalization.

  • Students will also gain a sense of the current issues facing the working class in today’s global world, including a clear mapping of what issues are shared across national boundaries versus those which are unique to nation and/or place.


  • Students will develop a mastery understanding of this core social concept in sociology through demonstrating their understanding of how it has evolved across time, identifying theoretical variations and discussing current debates.

  • Students develop their ability to connect theoretical constructs to empirical cases and identify their relevancy.

  • Students will sharpen skills in adjudicating among competing theoretical frameworks.

  • Students will develop their critical thinking through engaging current debates and developing their own critiques.



  • Students should be able to identify and discuss key current theoretical debates about changes in size, structure and articulation of the working class, especially in the context of globalization.

  • Students should be able to test the validity of competing conceptualizations of the working class and assess the how globalization is impacting the working class in different nations and regions of the world.

  • Students should be able to articulate why social class, and specifically the working class, is a key concept in sociology. They should also be able to discuss how the concept has evolved across time and identify what are the competing theoretical approaches to understanding the working class and its role in society.

This seminar will focus on lectures accompanied by classroom discussions which are facilitated by short written exercises prepared by students. These written exercises will engage the readings by highlighting main points, raising questions and connecting the piece(s) covered in that specific class to the larger body of literature that has been assigned.

The classroom discussion will require that students are engaged and contribute by working with others to reconstitute the debates, raising questions, bringing empirical examples into the classroom to test the theories and constructs. There will be a final exam, long essay format, in which students bring together the historical development of our understanding of the working class and then either look at how it varies across place or delve into one of the current debates playing out in the field.

From Proletariat:

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. "The communist manifesto (1848)." Trans. Samuel Moore. London: Penguin (1967).


Marx, Karl. The marx-engels reader. Vol. 4. New York: Norton, 1972.


Thompson, E.P. 1964. The making of the English working class. New York: Pantheon Books.


Wright, Erik Olin. Approaches to class analysis. Cambridge University Press, 2005.


Katznelson, Ira. "Working-class formation: Constructing cases and comparisons." Working-class formation: Nineteenth-century patterns in Western Europe and the United States (1986): 3-41.


Sewell, William H. How classes are made: Critical reflections on EP Thompson's theory of working-class formation. Centre for Research on Social Organization, 1986.


Kocka, J. 1986. Problems of Working-Class Formation in Germany: The Early Years, 1800-1875. I. Katznelson et A. Zolberg, Working class formation: nineteenth-century patterns in Western Europe and the United States, Princeton: 327


Engels, Friedrich. The condition of the working class in England. Oxford University Press, USA, 1993.

Mann, Michael. "Sources of variation in working-class movements in twentieth-century Europe." New Left Review 212 (1995): 14.


Giddens, Anthony, Franciszek Ociepka, and Wiktor Zujewicz. The class structure of the advanced societies. London: Hutchinson, 1973.


To Precariat:

Standing, G. 2011. The precariat: The new dangerous class. A&C Black.


Arnold, D. and J.R. Bongiovi. 2012. Precarious, informalizing, and flexible work: Transforming concepts and understandings. American Behavioral Scientist:0002764212466239.


Breman, J. and M. van der Linden. 2014. Informalizing the Economy: The Return of the Social Question at a Global Level. Development and Change 45:920-940.


Kalleberg, A.L. 2009. Precarious work, insecure workers: Employment relations in transition. American sociological review 74:1-22.


Milkman, R. 2011. Immigrant workers, precarious work, and the US labor movement. Globalizations 8:361-372.


Mosoetsa, S.; J. Stillerman; and C. Tilly. 2016. Precarious Labor, South and North: An Introduction. International Labor and Working-Class History 89:5-19.


Munck, R. 2013. The Precariat: a view from the South. Third World Quarterly 34:747-762.


Neilson, B. and N. Rossiter. 2008. Precarity as a political concept, or, Fordism as exception. Theory, Culture & Society 25:51-72.

Schierup, C.-U. and M.B. Jørgensen. 2016. An Introduction to the Special Issue. Politics of Precarity: Migrant Conditions, Struggles and Experiences. Critical Sociology:0896920516640065.

Students should have completed basic social theory course(s).

Peer feedback (Students give each other feedback)

Classroom discussion will be structured so that students are not only engaging the instructor but also other students.  They will work to answer questions put forth by both the instructor and their peers and use the theories and ideas presented in class to debate among each other.

7,5 ECTS
Type of assessment
Individual or group.
A portfolio assignment is defined as a series of short assignments during the course that address one or more set questions and feedback is offered during the course. All of the assignments are submitted together for assessment at the end of the course.
The portfolio assignments must be no longer than 10 pages. For group assignments, an extra 5 pages is added per additional student. Further details for this exam form can be found in the Curriculum and in the General Guide to Examinations at KUnet.
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
Criteria for exam assessment

Please see the learning outcome.

  • Category
  • Hours
  • Lectures
  • 28
  • Course Preparation
  • 91
  • Project work
  • 50
  • Exam Preparation
  • 37
  • English
  • 206