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Social Stratification and Inequality

Origins of Social Stratification


Origins of Social Stratification, page 2

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In early societies, people shared a common social standing. As societies evolved and became more complex, they began to elevate some members. Today, stratification, a system by which society ranks its members in a hierarchy, is the norm throughout the world. All societies stratify their members. A stratified society is one in which there is an unequal distribution of society’s rewards and in which people are arranged hierarchically into layers according to how much of society’s rewards they possess. To understand stratification, we must first understand its origins.

Hunting and Gathering Societies

Hunting and gathering societies had little stratification. Men hunted for meat while women gathered edible plants, and the general welfare of the society depended on all its members sharing what it had. The society as a whole undertook the rearing and socialization of children and shared food and other acquisitions more or less equally. Therefore, no group emerged as better off than the others.

Horticultural, Pastoral, and Agricultural Societies

The emergence of horticultural and pastoral societies led to social inequality. For the first time, groups had reliable sources of food: horticultural societies cultivated plants, while pastoral societies domesticated and bred animals. Societies grew larger, and not all members needed to be involved in the production of food. Pastoral societies began to produce more food than was needed for mere survival, which meant that people could choose to do things other than hunt for or grow food.

Division of Labor and Job Specialization

Division of labor in agricultural societies led to job specialization and stratification. People began to value certain jobs more highly than others. The further someone was from actual agriculture work, the more highly he or she was respected. Manual laborers became the least respected members of society, while those engaged in “high culture,” such as art or music, became the most respected.

As basic survival needs were met, people began trading goods and services they could not provide for themselves and began accumulating possessions. Some accumulated more than others and gained prestige in society as a result. For some people, accumulating possessions became their primary goal. These individuals passed on what they had to future generations, concentrating wealth into the hands of a few groups.

Industrialized Societies

The Industrial Revolution began in Great Britain in the mid-1700s, when the steam engine came into use as a means of running other machines. The rise of industrialization led to increased social stratification. Factory owners hired workers who had migrated from rural areas in search of jobs and a better life. The owners exploited the workers to become wealthy, making them work long hours in unsafe conditions for very low wages. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” widened.