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Social Stratification and Inequality

Historical Stratification Systems

Origins of Social Stratification

Historical Stratification Systems, page 2

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All societies are stratified, but the criteria used to categorize people vary widely. Social stratification has taken many forms throughout history, including slavery, the estate system, indentured servitude, the caste system, and the class system.

Slavery

Slavery is a system of stratification in which one person owns another, as he or she would own property, and exploits the slave’s labor for economic gain. Slaves are one of the lowest categories in any stratification system, as they possess virtually no power or wealth of their own.

The Causes of Slavery

A common assumption about slavery is that it is generally based on racism. Though racism was the primary cause of slavery in the United States, it was not the main reason that people in other areas were enslaved. Reasons for slavery include debt, crime, war, and beliefs of inherent superiority.

  • Debt: Individuals who could not pay their way out of debt sometimes had to literally sell themselves. If a slave’s debt was not paid off before his or her death, the debt was often passed down to his or her children, enslaving several generations of the same family.
  • Crime: Families against whom a crime had been committed might enslave members of the perpetrator’s family as compensation.
  • Prisoners of war: Slaves were often taken during wartime, or when a new territory was being invaded. When Rome was colonizing much of the known world approximately 2,000 years ago, it routinely took slaves from the lands it conquered.
  • Beliefs of inherent superiority: Some people believe that they have a right to enslave those who they believe are inherently inferior to them.

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