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 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.
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 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.
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.
By the middle of the 1900s, workers had begun to secure rights for themselves, and the workplace became safer. Wages rose, and workers had something they had never had before: buying power. They could purchase homes, automobiles, and a vast array of consumer goods. Though their financial success was nothing compared to that of their bosses, the gap between the two was narrowing, and the middle class grew stronger.
At the same time, new forms of inequality took hold. The increasing sophistication and efficiency of factory machines led to the need for a different kind of worker—one who could not only operate certain kinds of equipment but could also read and write. The classification of the skilled worker was born. A skilled worker is literate and has experience and expertise in specific areas of production, or on specific kinds of machines. In contrast, many unskilled workers could neither read nor write English and had no specific training or expertise. The division arose between skilled and unskilled workers, with the former receiving higher wages and, as some would say, greater job security.
The rise of postindustrial societies, in which technology supports an information-based economy, has created further social stratification. Fewer people work in factories, while more work in service industries. Education has become a more significant determinant of social position. The Information Revolution has also increased global stratification. Even though new technology allows for a more global economy, it also separates more clearly those nations who have access to the new technology from those who don’t.