Social Stratification

Social Stratification refers to the unequal manner in which scarce resources and social rewards are distributed among different social categories and groups.

Life Chances refer to the likelihood of realizing a certain standard of living or quality of life, including health and well-being.

The unequal distribution of income and wealth has been remarkably stable. Large differences of income and wealth have existed as long as these data have been collected.

Also, there have been persistent differences in income and wealth between men and women, the young and old, and white and non-white Americans.

Social Stratification is a Social Process

Major Stratification Systems

  1. Caste System - a closed system based on ascribed status (birth)
    • Nothing can be done to affect mobility and there are no chances of changing one's social position
    • Such societies also recognize "ritual pollution" (i.e., certain types of interaction between people of different castes are prohibited because they tend to contaminate members of the higher caste)
    • Such a system promotes endogamy (i.e., marriage within one's own caste)

    • There are five castes in India:
      1. priests, scholars, and their descendents
      2. nobility, warriors, and their descendents
      3. merchants and skilled artisans (or their descendents)
      4. unskilled laborers
      5. outcasts or "untouchables"
  2. Slavery System - the ownership of some people by others
    1. Contrary to popular assumption, slavery was not usually based on racism, but on one of three other factors:
      1. Debt
      2. Crime
      3. War and conquest
    2. The conditions of slavery have varied widely around the world:
      • In some cases, slavery was temporary
      • Slavery was not necessarily inheritable
      • Slaves were not necessarily powerless and poor
  3. Estate System - the stratification system of medieval Europe, consisting of three groups or estates:
    1. Nobility - the wealthy and powerful families that ruled the country and owned the land; the nobility did no farming or any other work-having an occupation was considered beneath their dignity
    2. Clergy - the Roman Catholic Church was a political power at this time, owning vast tracts of land and collecting taxes from commoners; the church sold offices, and the wealthy could buy positions
    3. Serfs - the commoners, including farmers, carpenters, harnessmakers, and servants. It was extremely rare for a person to move out of this estate.
  4. Class System - an open system of stratification based primarily on economic and occupational roles
    • Boundaries between classes are not clear-cut
    • It is possible for individuals to rise above or fall below the position of their parents, and to marry someone of another class
    • Individuals tend to have some control over their class position
    • The American Class Structure:
      • Upper or Capitalist Class
      • Upper Middle Class
      • Middle Class
      • Working Class
      • Working Poor
      • Underclass (e.g., the Homeless)

Measuring Social Class

  1. Wealth - consists of property and income. Property comes in many forms, such as buildings, land, animals, machinery, cars, stocks, bonds, businesses, and bank accounts. Income is money received as wages, rents, interest, royalties, or the proceeds from a business.
    • Large differences of income and wealth have existed as long as these data have been collected. Wealth is highly concentrated. The majority of wealth, 68 percent, is owned by only 10 percent of the nation's families. The super-rich, the richest 1 percent of U.S. families, are worth more than the entire bottom 90 percent of Americans. This unequal distribution of income and wealth has been remarkably stable; the changes that do occur indicate growing inequality.
    • Also, there have been persistent differences in income and wealth between men and women, the young and old, and white and non-white Americans.
  2. Power - the ability to carry out one's will despite resistance
    • Power is also concentrated in the hands of the few. It has been observed that a "democratic fašade" serves as an powerful ideology for the elites, concealing the real source of power in the United States.
    • C. Wright Mills coined the term power elite to refer to those top people in U.S. corporations, military, and politics who make the nation's major decisions. This elite group wields extraordinary power; they are like-minded individuals who belong to the same private clubs, vacation at the same exclusive resorts, and attend the same prestigious schools.
  3. Prestige - respect or social honor
    • People give certain occupations more prestige than others. Positions with more prestige share four elements:
      1. They pay more.
      2. They require more education.
      3. They entail more abstract thought.
      4. They offer greater autonomy (freedom, or self-direction)

White collar occupations are disproportionately more prestigious than blue collar occupations. Also, positions at the top are disproportionately occupied by men and whites, while those toward the bottom are occupied disproportionately by women and minorities.

How do Elites Maintain Stratification?

While elites may use coercion and force to maintain privilege, these are not effective tactics because they breed hostility and nourish rebellion; instead, elites use other techniques:

  1. Controlling Ideas - Ideologies are used to get people to want to do what the ruling elite desires, even though it is not necessarily in their best interest (e.g., scientific racism, the divine right of kings, a fair day's pay for a fair day's work)
  2. Controlling Information - Elites control information in dictatorships through the use of force and imprisoning editors and reporters for printing critical reports. In democracies, elites accomplish the same purpose by manipulating the media though the selective release of information.
  3. Technology - Various monitoring devices help the elite monitor citizens' activities without their knowledge that they are being shadowed.
  4. Social Networks - Members of the elite move in a circle of power that multiplies their opportunities. Contacts with people of similar backgrounds, interests, and goals all the elite to pass privileges from one generation to the next.

Functionalist Perspective of Stratification

Conflict Theory of Stratification

Concepts in Social Stratification

The Consequences of Social Class

Global Stratification

Global Stratification and the Status of Females