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Social Stratification and Inequality

Modern Stratification Systems

Historical Stratification Systems

Theories of Stratification

In today’s world, three main systems of stratification remain: slavery, a caste system, and a class system.


Slavery still exists today. As many as 400 million people live under conditions that qualify as slavery, despite laws prohibiting it. In Mauritania, the Sudan, Ghana, and Benin, slavery exists much as it did 800 years ago. In other parts of the world, including Bangladesh, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, debt slavery is common. Sex slavery, the forcing of girls into prostitution, is prevalent in Asia.

Caste System

A caste system is a social system based on ascribed statuses, which are traits or characteristics that people possess as a result of their birth. Ascribed statuses can include race, gender, nationality, body type, and age. A caste system ranks people rigidly. No matter what a person does, he or she cannot change castes.

People often try to compensate for ascribed statuses by changing their nationality, lying about their age, or undergoing plastic surgery to alter their body type. In some societies, this strategy works; in others, it does not.

Example: Religion is an ascribed status in some societies. Americans may convert to other religions, but in other countries, people may not change out of the particular religion into which they were born.

India’s Caste System

The Indian government officially outlawed the caste system in 1949, but vestiges of it remain today. The system originated with the Hindu religion, which subscribes to the concept of reincarnation, the belief that while the physical body dies, the soul of a person is immortal and goes on to be reborn into another body. People who are good in their current life will come back to improved circumstances in the next life, but if they are evil, they will be punished in the next one. Therefore, those who are poor or ill are suffering punishment for having done something wrong in a past life. One should not interfere in the life of another person because that individual’s circumstances are the result of what he or she has done in a previous incarnation.

Some might view reincarnation as religious tradition. Others might view it as ideology, a set of values that people devise to rationalize a particular social custom. In the case of the caste system, the custom being rationalized is inequality. If an individual is poor, for example, blaming his or her circumstances on what he or she did in a past life absolves others in the society of the responsibility for providing any assistance. Ideology also attempts to explain why some are in positions of wealth and power. Hindu tradition would say that the wealthy and powerful are being rewarded for what they did in a past life, and therefore they deserve every privilege they have.

The Five Castes

The Indian caste system has existed for about 3,000 years. There were four original castes, and one caste so low that it was not even considered to be part of the caste system:

  1. The Brahman caste usually consisted of priests or scholars and enjoyed a great deal of prestige and wealth.
  2. The Kshatriya caste, or warrior caste, was composed of those who distinguished themselves in military service.
  3. The Vaishva caste comprised two sets of people—business-people and skilled craftspeople.
  4. The Shudra caste consisted of those who made their living doing manual labor.
  5. The Harijan, Dalit, or Untouchable caste was thought to comprise only inferior people who were so repulsive that an individual who accidentally touched one would have to engage in extensive ritual ablutions to rid himself or herself of the contamination.

There is no social movement in a caste system. An individual born into the Harijan caste cannot change his or her fate. Nor can someone be demoted to a lower caste; the caste into which a person is born is the caste he or she will have for life.

Castes and Work

Caste dictates the type of work an individual is allowed to do. Members of the Shudra caste, for example, are relegated to performing hard physical work regardless of their skill, intelligence, or ambition. Those born into the Brahman caste must attend university or become a member of the clergy, even though they may show no interest or aptitude toward that end.

Castes and Marriage

In a true caste system, societies practice endogamy, or marriage within one’s own group or caste, with marriage between castes strictly forbidden. Traditionally, love is not used as a basis for marriage in a caste system. Rather, parents arrange marriages, sometimes when the future bride and groom are still children. The Indian concept of marriage is that while love is wonderful, it is neither a necessary nor desirable condition of marriage. If the couple is considered compatible in terms of major demographic variables, then the marriage is considered appropriate. Caste is one of the important variables, along with religion and educational level.

Modern India’s caste system has many more than the original five castes. Because the distinctions between these numerous castes have blurred over time, some people marry outside their caste. In general, however, caste is still considered an important determinant of whom one will marry. When people do marry outside of their caste, they are likely to marry someone whose caste is only a few levels away from their own.

Castes and Socializing

One’s caste also determines social contact. Friendships, and relationships in general, are rare among members of different castes. They neither live nor work near each other and rarely have any contact with one another.

Class System

In a class system, an individual’s place in the social system is based on achieved statuses, which are statuses that we either earn or choose and that are not subject to where or to whom we were born. Those born within a class system can choose their educational level, careers, and spouses. Social mobility, or movement up or down the social hierarchy, is a major characteristic of the class system.

The American Dream

The value referred to as the American Dream is indicative of the American social class system. The American Dream reflects what we see as the kind of equality of opportunity that can exist only in a class system. Americans believe that all people, regardless of the conditions into which they were born, have an equal chance to achieve success.

Part of the American Dream is the belief that every child can grow up to be president of the United States. Former president Bill Clinton, for example, came from a relatively poor background and grew up in a small town in Arkansas. His father died before he was born, and he was raised by his mother and abusive stepfather. Clinton rose above his humble beginnings to attend prestigious universities, receive a Rhodes Scholarship, and enjoy a successful career in politics that began with his election as governor of Arkansas.

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