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Jean Hannoyer
Seteney Shami

Cinquième partie. Économie, société et distribution des ressources

Class Structure and Inequality in the City of Amman

Structure de classe et inégalités dans la ville de Amman

Musa Shteiwi


Structures et relations de classe à Amman sont importantes pour saisir d’autres dimensions de la vie sociale, espérance de vie, relations de pouvoir, accès à l’éducation, situation de l’emploi et inégalités. Une présentation globale des structures de classe à Amman permet d’identifier trois périodes entre 1921 et 1991 où sont présentées les transformations de la société urbaine en termes de main-d’œuvre, de revenus, d’inégalités et finalement de taille relative des différentes classes.

Texte intégral


1This paper explores the objective contours of class structure and social inequality in the city of Amman, through a descriptive overview of three different periods. In spite of the importance of social classes, there is a paucity of research on Jordan and Amman. With the exception of Doan (1992) on class and the informal structure of four low-income settlements in Amman, no other empirical studies exist. Yet the class structure of any nation or city is of vital importance to almost every aspect of social, economic, and political life. Hence, an understanding of the class structure and class relations of Amman is key to understanding other aspects of the social structure of the city such as social power relations, life chances of individuals and families, educational opportunities, occupational structure and social inequality.

2Although social classes are not merely categories of people differentiated along certain criteria, no attempt will be here made at examining the subjective aspect of class existence, such as interclass relations, class politics, and culture. Rather this paper will try to map out the class structure of Amman at different points in time.


3The conceptualization and measurement of class structure in this paper are guided by the rich sociological heritage of the study of social classes in advanced societies as well as the economic realities of peripheral and dependent societies. Prior to the formation of the Jordanian state and society, the country’s mode of existence was dominated by a pre-capitalist mode of production of nomadic, semi-nomadic, agrarian (small and semi-feudal farming), and very weak and fragmented modern economic activities (mainly trade and crafting). Since its inception, the country has been gradually shifting to a more modern mode of economy and integrating into the modern world capitalist system. This integration into the world capitalist economy is rapidly intensifying with the implementation of the structural adjustment program and the move towards the privatization of the economy. The peripheral and dependent position of the economy is the context within which the class structure of the country is being shaped. Therefore, the class structure of Jordan (and Amman) is similar to other Third World societies that have experienced rapid social transformation with distorted capitalist development.

4Without going into the rich and conflicting sociological debates on the different perspectives of the definition of classes, social classes will be defined as an aggregate of individuals who share a similar structural position in the production process hierarchy (Wright, 1985). That means that classes are identifiable sets of people who have relatively similar amounts of power, privilege, and prestige. Classes are more than just population categories; they are organizational units within society, displaying some amount of social ordering and a shared class culture.

5The above definition implies that the important dimensions of the production process and power structure are the determinant factors of class location. The important aspects of the production process are capital, labour and technology. The important dimensions of the power structure are authority and decision-making ability. Therefore, ownership of and control over capital, labour, technology, and control over the decision-making process, set the parameters and the boundaries of social classes. Based on the above, I suggest a four-class typology for Amman. For convenience, I shall refer to them as the upper, middle, working, and the dispossessed classes, with various degrees of variation within each class.

The Upper Class

6The upper class comprises domestic capital owners (industrial, commercial and trading), senior executives, and top state managers. This class wields and has control over the most important economic and bureaucratic institutions. It is autonomous, and controls resources and other classes, groups and individuals.

The Middle Class

7The middle class includes segments such as professionals, petty bourgeois (or the traditional middle class), and holders of executive or administrative positions in business and government agencies. Members of this class have substantial autonomy over their own work and intermediate authority over others.

The Working Class

8The working class consists of those who do routine jobs typically involving clerical and manual wage labour in public enterprises and private industries and services. This group has no control over either its own work or the work of others.

The Dispossessed Class

9The dispossessed class includes people who cannot find regular jobs or who work irregularly but are frequently unemployed for long periods of time. This includes some divorced women with very low-paying jobs and some retired people. The distinctive characteristic of this class is that it cannot participate effectively in the market place and hence is not regularly employed.


10We face three problems in studying the class structure of Amman. The first is the problem of data. The measurement of class requires specific kinds of data that allow for the operationalization of concepts. No data was gathered at any time for the purpose of measuring classes in Jordan. The data that is largely available are surveys conducted by the Department of Statistics for other purposes, but which contain information that allow the use of some variables for class analysis. There are also no reliable data for the early part of the city’s history which makes an accurate depiction of the class structure of Amman in the earlier period rather difficult. These two problems limit the ability of fully and accurately examining the class structure of the city. Second, we face the problem of the level of formation: classes go through processes of formation; they are created, developed, and consolidated. The problem is that different classes have a higher level and degree of formation than others. Therefore, describing the class structure of the city at one point in time might not capture the most salient features of the level of formation of a particular class. The third problem is of class boundaries, which mainly deals with identifying and drawing the class boundaries and the demarcation points. This problem becomes more acute when classes are continuously changing or subject to change. These problems present major difficulties for class analysis of the city of Amman, especially when using survey data that was gathered by others and for other purposes.

11The history of social class formation in Amman is the history of societal and state formation in the country as a whole. In Amman, class formation can be characterized as having gone through three distinct but highly related phases of formation.

The First Phase

12The first phase covers the British colonial era until the end of the mandate period. The establishment of Trans-Jordan marked the political and economic transformation of a largely marginal village under Ottoman rule into the capital of the newly founded state of Trans-Jordan (Hacker, 1950). The formation of the state and the city was taking place at the same time and consolidated towards the end of the 1940’s. The pivotal institution shaping the class structure of Amman and serving as its instrument in the development process was the state, because of its reliance on external support and because of the lack of any strong local social groups or classes. The state maintained high independence and autonomy from any single group and was instrumental in the emergence of certain classes.

13It is difficult to speak of social classes in Amman at the turn of the century. However, discernible social groups were being shaped by the end of the 1940’s. The most important class to emerge at the end of the mandate period is the upper class which was composed of top governmental officials, bureaucrats, and top army officers (Hamarneh, 1985). It is clear that this segment of the upper class was growing in importance because of the building of the state institutions that was taking place in the previous two decades. This class also includes the mercantile bourgeoisie (the merchants, landed aristocracy, and industrialists). The emergence of this segment did not emanate from local market needs but rather from the increasing importance of external trade. Additionally, this group was also, for the most part, made up of immigrants and their descendants (Hacker, 1960; Hamarneh, 1985; Hourani, 1978).

14The middle class was also growing in importance as well. It was mainly composed of small local merchants, shop owners, craftsmen and civil servants who were the middle level state employees (Hacker, 1960). The existence of the local merchants, shop owners, and craftsmen had probably preceded the formation of the state but was certainly strengthened by it. This group emerged in response to the internal local market needs (Hourani, 1978).

15The working class included people who worked in the few industries, as well as at military bases, transportation, construction activities, farm workers, and low level government employees (Hourani, 1970).

16The most important classes to emerge in this period were the upper class (merchants and top level state managers) and the working class (wage labourers). Both represent the transformation of the Jordanian economy into the capitalist mode of production, The classes that emerged during the mandate period left their marks on the later development of the class structure of Amman, but new forces were also to shape the class structure in the second phase.

The Second Phase

17The second phase spans the period between the 1948 and the 1967 Arab-Israeli wars. Several factors affected class formation in Amman in this period. In 1948, and as a result of the war, tens of thousands of displaced Palestinians found their way into Amman and settled in different parts of the city. They were composed of different backgrounds, including, farmers, wool workers, and merchants. The majority of them settled in refugee camps, thus exerting great pressure on the city’s infrastructure. They were to change the social fabric of the city. Secondly, Jordan’s independence and the annexation of the West Bank created a need for further expansion in the state apparatus: administration, army, health, education, and other services. Therefore, the state and its expansion continued to play an important and prominent role in the shaping of the class structure of the city. Finally, both Jordan and Amman witnessed a significant economic growth in the mid 1950’s, which integrated more people into the economy and professions (Mazur, 1979).

18The analysis of the class structure in this period will be based on a social survey of Amman that was conducted by the Ministry of Social Affairs in 1960. The survey contained information on 2,947 households containing 19,019 individuals. Of these, 2,432 households (15,936 individuals) were in city dwellings and 515 households comprising 3,083 individuals were living in refugee camps. According to Table 1, the upper class constituted 8.2 % of the sample and comprised two main groups: those who occupied top governmental and private sector administrative positions and those who owned their own enterprises, whether in commerce or industry. The middle class made up 20.9 % of the class structure of the city and was mainly composed of professionals (5.5 %, including physicians, engineers, chemists, etc.), technicians (8.09 %, including teachers, nurses, jurists, writers, etc.), and sales workers (7.4 %, including those in insurance, salesmen, etc.). The working class included production workers, labourers, service workers, workers in transport and communication, miners, quarrymen, and members of the armed forces, making up 67 %. In addition, 2 % were farmers seeking employment. Lastly over 2,000 adults were unemployed but not included in the unemployed category because they said that they were not seeking employment.

Table 1
Class Structure of Amman in 1960

Table 1Class Structure of Amman in 1960

19The survey of the class and occupational structure of Amman in 1960 reveals some interesting results. First, while the size of the overall upper class is not small, the number of the administrative class is not large for the amount of capital in the country. Within the upper class, the merchants and manufacturing agents (but mainly merchants) remain significant. This is not surprising given the fact that this group was also prominent towards the end of the mandate period.

20Second, although it is evident that the middle class was expanding in size, its professional segment was comparatively small, while those engaged in commercially-related activities in this class were the largest. This is normal given the relatively large size of the commercial class. Within the middle class, it also seems that those who were engaged in clerical work were relatively large mainly due to the expansion of the state apparatus and institutions.

21Third, in a growing and expanding city such as Amman, it is expected that craftsmen and production labourers would head the list of the working class. The number of sales and service workers was high but seems to be related to the continuing expansion of the commercial and service sector as well as that of the government.

22Fourth, the class structure of the city that is depicted here may be related to the inordinately rapid growth of the town and the political and economic conditions of the country in general. The mushrooming of small retail enterprises appears to be a symptom of a depressed economic situation where there is not enough large-scale industry to absorb unskilled and semi-skilled labour. The fact that Amman is the capital and the industrial sector is weak contributed to the development of a large number of service-related occupations.

The Third Phase

23This period beginning in the early 1970’s and continuing until the present was characterized by the acceleration of Jordan’s integration into the world and regional economies. Movement of labour from Jordan to oil rich countries is estimated to have exceeded 300,000 workers by the early 1980’s with a counterflow of capital through remittances of individuals reaching over U.S.$ 1.3 billions in 1980 and direct Arab aid amounting to over U.S.$ one billion (Rivier, 1986). In addition, the 1970’s witnessed a great deal of governmental expansion in its state apparatus and services (such as education and health). This period was also characterized by significant geographical and social mobility.

24However, by the mid-1980’s Jordan entered into a major economic crisis which coincided with a world and regional economic recession and the decline of oil revenues that meant, for Jordan, a dwindling flow of Arab aid as well as a shrinking Gulf labour market. This was followed by the Gulf War of 1991 and the return of over 200,000 Jordanians and Palestinians, the majority of whom took up residence in the Amman region. These were the major forces that have shaped and reshaped the class structure of Amman in this period.

Table 2
Class and Occupational Structure of Amman in 1991

Table 2Class and Occupational Structure of Amman in 1991


  • 1 Employment status refers to whether one is paid worker, has own business, or is self-employed.
  • 2 Relation to labour force refers to whether one is employed in the government, the private sector, o (...)

25The data used to describe the current class structure of Amman are derived from the Survey of Employment, Unemployment, and Poverty carried out by the Department of Statistics towards the end of 1991. The part of the survey dealing with Amman includes 16,972 working people. Although the survey does not contain all the variables needed to map out the class structure of the city, there are several variables which will be used to approximate the class structure. They are occupation, employment status1, and relation to labour force2. This data set contained 16,972 adults (13-years old and over) who are gainfully employed.

26Table 2 shows that the upper class is mainly composed of top governmental officials (legislators, senior officials, managers) both in the public and private sector (6.3 %) and those who own businesses (both industrial and commercial) and employ others (8.4 %).

Table 3
Economically Active Population by Employment Status in Amman 1991

Table 3Economically Active Population by Employment Status in Amman 1991

27We can approximate the size of this class to be between 6 % to 9 %. As for the middle class, it includes professionals of all kinds (15.3 %), the semi-professionals (9.3 %), clerks (6.7 %), and those who own their business but do not employ others 12.2 % (Table 3). This segment of the middle class can be referred to as the petty bourgeoisie or the traditional middle class whereas the other parts of this class are referred to as the new middle class. We approximate this class to be between 25-32 %. The working class is composed of workers in the service sector (commercial and public) ( 11.4 %), craft and related activities being the largest occupational group in the working class, the plant and machine operators and assemblers (9.9 %), and the elementary occupations which is mainly unskilled labour that makes about 14 % of the working class. The rest are skilled agricultural workers and unspecified occupations. We estimate the size of this class to be between 60-65 % since there is 75.2 % who are paid workers

Table 4
Employment Status by Occupation for the City of Amman, 1991

Table 4Employment Status by Occupation for the City of Amman, 1991

28The problem with relying on tables 2 and 3 separately is that they do not allow us to examine, for instance, how many of the professionals have their own enterprises or how many top officials work in the public or private sector. Table 4 examines this issue in more detail.

29The top managerial group of the upper class is comprised of 37.5 % paid employees and 45 % employers, and 15.5 % with own business. It constitutes only 3.2 % of all paid workers and 2.4 % of the entire sample. The employers of this class, however, make up 34 % of all employers but 2.9 % of the entire sample. So the largest segment of the upper class is that of those who own enterprises, and the second largest is senior officials and other managers.

30If we look at the segments making up the middle class, we find that 90 % of the professionals are salaried employees with 4.3 % employers and 3.3 % who have small businesses with no one working for them. This group makes up 18.5 % of all paid workers and about 14 % of the total sample.

31The majority of the semi-professionals (68.9 %) are paid workers, with 5.8 % who are employers, but there is a significant portion of them (22.1 %) who work for their own account. The third segment of the middle class (the clerks) is 96.1 % paid workers and the rest are either employers or work for themselves. And of the groups which comprise the working class, for those in the service sector, 68.4 % are salaried employees, 10.5 % are employers (who belong to the upper class). The smallest segment of the working class is the skilled agricultural workers out of which 48.5 % are paid workers, 23.5 % are agricultural employers, and 21.2 % work for themselves.

32By far the largest segment of the working class (72.4 %) is salaried employees with 9.4 % employers (upper class) and 12 % who work for themselves (middle class). The majority of the plant and machinery segment are paid workers (70.5 %), about 3.4 % employers (upper class), and 23.9 % who work for themselves (middle class). Finally, 92.6 % of those who work in elementary occupations are paid workers and 5.2 % work for themselves (middle class).

33The data also indicate that 23.0 % of paid workers work for the government and 32.1 % are in the private sector. This means that only 55.1 % of the salaried employees are in the formal sector and the rest (44.9 %) are in the informal sector.

34Those paid workers in the informal sector are distributed between those who work for themselves, in family owned business, or work in irregular employment. But if we consider the percentage of those in the formal sector as percent of the total sample, we find that they constitute only 43.8 % with 17.7 % who work in the government and 26.1 % in the private sector. The rest (56.2 %) are in the informal sector whether they are paid workers, own their business, or work for themselves.

35The class structure of Amman 1991 reveals the following points: first, the largest segment of the upper class is composed of employers (commercial and industrial) and the segment of this class that is in the administration is rather small considering that Amman is the capital city where most governmental institutions are located.

36Second, the middle class is relatively large and becoming more differentiated. The segments of this class that expanded the most are the professionals, accounting for 15.3 % of the entire labour force in Amman followed by those who own their enterprises but do not employ others, or the petty bourgeoisie (traditional middle class) which accounts for 12.2 % of the entire labour force. The growth of the size of the professionals and traditional middle class might have been on the account of the bureaucratic middle class that characterized the class structure of Amman in the 1970’s. It might not, therefore, be true that the entire middle class is shrinking, rather just its bureaucratic segment.

37Third, the working class is becoming more differentiated and fragmented. The workers in the craft, trade, services, market sales workers, and plant and machine operators and assemblers are the dominant groups. But since 44.9 % of all paid workers are in the informal sector, with many in irregular or low paying jobs with financial insecurity, it is safe to say that the working class remains relatively weak in Amman.

38Fourth, the question arises about the impact of the returnees on the class structure of Amman, which is rather difficult to assess with any certainty. In this sample, there are less than a thousand returnees, 19 % of whom are business owners who employ others, about 18 % are self-employed (own business but do not employ others), and about 27 % are wage earners. Information about the job classification of the salaried workers is not available, but it is believed they are stratified along all occupations. So, one possible impact is on affecting the size and composition of the middle and upper classes. Another impact is that they might increase the size of the dispossessed because large numbers of them are unemployed.


39A very concise comparison of the class structure of the city is not possible because of data incompatibility between the two data sets, but there are some interesting, yet tentative conclusions that can be drawn: First, the relative sizes of the three classes did not change dramatically between 1960 and 1991. The change is more in the composition than in the size. Second, there is an evident change in the composition of the upper class. Although its relative size increased, the administrative segment declined from 3.1 % in 1960 to 2.4 % in 1991 and a significant increase of the size of the employers segment of the upper class from 5.1 % in 1960 to 8.4 % in 1991. This might be due to the growth of the private sector and the slow growth of the government. Third, the middle class has expanded in size and changed in composition. While the size of the middle class was about one fifth of the sample in 1960, it became about one third in 1991. Professionals more than tripled between 1960 and 1990. Semi-professionals also came to constitute a major part of the middle class in 1991, whereas clerks shrank slightly in size. Fourth, craftsmen, production, and trade related workers shrank from about 39 % in 1960 to about 25 % in 1991, but at both times remained the largest group within the working class. The service and related workers size remained relatively the same in 1960 and 1991. Two groups became prominent in the 1991 working class: plant and machine operators and assemblers (9.9 %) and those in elementary occupations (14.0 %). This may be due to the relative growth of the industrial and construction sectors.


40Social inequality is highly correlated with class structure and membership. Inequality is mainly reflected in wealth and income distribution and the material outcome of such differences. Wealth refers to all assets individuals own: cash, savings and checking accounts, investments in stocks, bonds, and estate properties, and so on. Income refers to wages and salaries coming from paid occupations, plus “unearned” money deriving from investments and financial help from family members and other sources. Even physical differences are correlated with class membership. People of the lower level of the class system experience lower birth weight, higher rates of infant mortality, are less healthy, and die at a younger age, than those in higher class categories.

41Unfortunately, data on wealth for Amman is not available and data on income is not available for the various points of time used on the study. Even when it is available, relying on income data alone is problematic for at least two reasons: first, there is a problem of reliability since most people tend to either under-report or over-report their income; second, many people tend to spend more than they earn or consume items that are not counted with income.

42Therefore, expenditure data will be used because it is available for several points in time and might be more telling. In addition to expenditure, data on poverty will be used since it reflects the actual material outcome of class inequality.

Table 5
Household Monthly Expenditure in Amman City, 1960

Table 5Household Monthly Expenditure in Amman City, 1960

Source: Social Survey of Amman, Ministry of Social Affairs, 1960.

43It is obvious that the overall level of expenditure in the city in 1960 is very low. The overall distribution of expenditure reveals high level of disparities in people’s ability to satisfy their basic needs since more than half of the families’ expenditure is 5.00 J.D’s. or less. Furthermore, it was established by UNRWA that 4.00 J.D’s is the amount necessary to cover the cost of food alone which we can call the “abject or absolute poverty line.” On this assumption 41.5 % fall below this line or cannot afford to buy sufficient food. UNRWA also established that 4.99 J.D’s is the minimum monthly expenditure per household needed to cover the cost of food and other necessary items which can be called the “relative poverty line”. According to Table 5, 6.85 % are below the “relative poverty” line.

44Table 6 contains data on the distribution of expenditure for 1980 and 1987. Data for both years reveal highly unequal distributions of expenditure. The lowest 5 % of the sample gets only .25 % and 1.33 % in 1980 and 1987 respectively while the highest 5 % gets 24.23 % in 1980 and 14.25 % in 1987. The loss of the highest 5 % in 1987 goes mainly to the second highest group. The highest 25 % share of the expenditure is more than half of the expenditure in both years with insignificant decline in 1987. The highest 50 % gets 80.88 % in 1980 and 76.45 % in 1987. The apparent loss of the share seems to go to the highest groups rather to the lowest groups.

Table 6
Distribution of Household Share of Monthly Expenditure in Amman Governorate for 1980,1987

Table 6Distribution of Household Share of Monthly Expenditure in Amman Governorate for 1980,1987

(1) Household Expenditure Study, Department of Statistics, 1980.
(2) Household Expenditure and Income Study, Department of Statistics, 1987.

Table 7
Distribution of Household Share of Monthly Expenditure in Amman 1991

Table 7Distribution of Household Share of Monthly Expenditure in Amman 1991

Source: Employment, Unemployment, Returnees, and Poverty Survey. Department of Statistics, 1991.

45The average monthly expenditure is approximately 265 J.D. More than half of the households fall below the average (52.36 %) while (20.59 %) fall in the category that contains the average and about fifth (24.66 %) are above the average. This indicates that a polarization in expenditure might be taking place when the majority of the sample is either at or below the average monthly expenditure with about a third of the sample spending less than 150 J.D’s.

46Poverty can be considered one of the striking features of class and social inequality. Two studies in poverty that were carried out in 1987 and 1993 by the Ministry of Social Development suggest that inequality and disparities are on the rise since mid-1980’s. For instance, 1.1 % of the families were below the absolute poverty line (J.D. 40.5) while 14.5 % of families were below the relative poverty line (61 J.D’s) in 1987.

47The percentage of families falling below both types of poverty lines has increased in 1992 to reach 4.7 % of families below the absolute poverty line and 16.2 % of families below relative poverty. That means that the percentage of poor families has risen from 15.6 % in 1987 to 20.9 % in 1992.


48This paper has largely focused on elaborating the basic descriptive map of class structure and change and social inequality in the city historically and in the present. Several general features of this structure stand out:

  1. The class structure of the city was under continuous pressure and change which made the formation of classes and consolidation of boundaries very difficult and unstable.

  2. In all classes, the proportion of those who are in the informal sector of the economy is high, but it is the highest in the working and middle class.

  3. The working class is the largest class within this structure of class relations in terms of proportion of workers as such in the labour force.

  4. While the working class is disproportionately composed of relatively unskilled manual occupations, lower status white-collar occupations are also heavily represented.

  5. The professional and the petty bourgeoisie segments of the middle class continued to expand and remained the largest groups within the middle class.

  6. The bureaucratic segment of the middle and upper classes seems to be shrinking in size in the 1990’s compared to earlier times.

  7. Inequality as reflected in expenditure and poverty data is wide and disparities are growing between the different groups in the city.



DEPARTMENT OF STATISTICS, Employment, Unemployment and Poverty Survey, 1991. Amman. Jordan .

DEPARTMENT OF STATISTICS, Household Expenditure and Income, 1987, Amman, Jordan

DEPARTMENT OF STATISTICS, Household Expenditure and Income, 1987, Amman, Jordan

DOAN, Rebecca Miles 1992: “Class differentiation and the informal sector in Amman, Jordan”. International Journal of Middle East Studies 24: 27-38

HACKER, Jane, Modern Amman: A Social Study, Durham University, 1955.

HAMARNEH, Mustafa, Social and Economic Transformation of Trans-Jordan: 1921-1946, Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, 1985.

HOURANI, Hani, “The Socio-economic Structure of Trans-Jordan (1921-1950)”, Palestine Books, No.73, Beirut, Lebanon, 1978

MAZUR, Michael, Economic Growth and Development in Jordan, Croom Helm, London, 1979.

MINISTRY OF SOCIAL AFFAIRS, Social Survey of Amman, Amman, Jordan, 1960.

RIVIER, Francois, “Jordan: A Disturbing Dependence on Deteriorating Regional Situation”, In Economic Development of Jordan, (ed.) Kahder and Badran, 1987.

WRIGHT, Erik Olin, Classes, Verso, 1985.


1 Employment status refers to whether one is paid worker, has own business, or is self-employed.

2 Relation to labour force refers to whether one is employed in the government, the private sector, or is self-employed


Department of Sociology University of Jordan

© Presses de l’Ifpo, 1996

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