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Social Stratification and Inequality

Theories of Stratification

Modern Stratification Systems

The Stratification System of the United States

For centuries, sociologists have analyzed social stratification, its root causes, and its effects on society. Theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber disagreed about the nature of class, in particular. Other sociologists applied traditional frameworks to stratification.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx based his conflict theory on the idea that modern society has only two classes of people: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are the owners of the means of production: the factories, businesses, and equipment needed to produce wealth. The proletariat are the workers.

According to Marx, the bourgeoisie in capitalist societies exploit workers. The owners pay them enough to afford food and a place to live, and the workers, who do not realize they are being exploited, have a false consciousness, or a mistaken sense, that they are well off. They think they can count on their capitalist bosses to do what was best for them.

Marx foresaw a workers’ revolution. As the rich grew richer, Marx hypothesized that workers would develop a true class consciousness, or a sense of shared identity based on their common experience of exploitation by the bourgeoisie. The workers would unite and rise up in a global revolution. Once the dust settled after the revolution, the workers would then own the means of production, and the world would become communist. No one stratum would control the access to wealth. Everything would be owned equally by everyone.

Marx’s vision did not come true. As societies modernized and grew larger, the working classes became more educated, acquiring specific job skills and achieving the kind of financial well-being that Marx never thought possible. Instead of increased exploitation, they came under the protection of unions and labor laws. Skilled factory workers and tradespeople eventually began to earn salaries that were similar to, or in some instances greater than, their middle-class counterparts.

Max Weber

Max Weber took issue with Marx’s seemingly simplistic view of stratification. Weber argued that owning property, such as factories or equipment, is only part of what determines a person’s social class. Social class for Weber included power and prestige, in addition to property or wealth. People who run corporations without owning them still benefit from increased production and greater profits.

Prestige and Property

Weber argued that property can bring prestige, since people tend to hold rich people in high regard. Prestige can also come from other sources, such as athletic or intellectual ability. In those instances, prestige can lead to property, if people are willing to pay for access to prestige. For Weber, wealth and prestige are intertwined.

Power and Wealth

Weber believed that social class is also a result of power, which is merely the ability of an individual to get his or her way, despite opposition. Wealthy people tend to be more powerful than poor people, and power can come from an individual’s prestige.

Example: Arnold Schwarzenegger enjoyed prestige as a bodybuilder and as an actor, and he was also enormously wealthy. When he was elected governor of California in 2004, he became powerful as well.

Sociologists still consider social class to be a grouping of people with similar levels of wealth, prestige, and power.

Davis and Moore: The Functionalist Perspective

Sociologists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore believed that stratification serves an important function in society. In any society, a number of tasks must be accomplished. Some tasks, such as cleaning streets or serving coffee in a restaurant, are relatively simple. Other tasks, such as performing brain surgery or designing skyscrapers, are complicated and require more intelligence and training than the simple tasks. Those who perform the difficult tasks are therefore entitled to more power, prestige, and money. Davis and Moore believed that an unequal distribution of society’s rewards is necessary to encourage people to take on the more complicated and important work that required many years of training. They believed that the rewards attached to a particular job reflect its importance to society.

Melvin Tumin

Sociologist Melvin Tumin took issue with Davis and Moore’s theory. He disagreed with their assumption that the relative importance of a particular job can always be measured by how much money or prestige is given to the people who performed those jobs. That assumption made identifying important jobs difficult. Were the jobs inherently important, or were they important because people received great rewards to perform them?

If society worked the way Davis and Moore had envisioned, Tumin argued, all societies would be meritocracies, systems of stratification in which positions are given according to individual merit. Ability would determine who goes to college and what jobs someone holds. Instead, Tumin found that gender and the income of an individual’s family were more important predictors than ability or what type of work an individual would do. Men are typically placed in a higher social stratification than women, regardless of ability. A family with more money can afford to send its children to college. As college graduates, these children are more likely to assume high-paying, prestigious jobs. Conversely, people born into poverty are more likely to drop out of school and work low-paying jobs in order to survive, thereby shutting them off from the kinds of positions that are associated with wealth, power, and prestige.

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