Not only is each society stratified, but in a global perspective, societies are stratified in relation to one another. Sociologists employ three broad categories to denote global stratification: most industrialized nations, industrializing nations, and least industrialized nations. In each category, countries differ on a variety of factors, but they also have differing amounts of the three basic components of the American stratification system: wealth (as defined by land and money), power, and prestige.
The countries that could be considered the most industrialized include the United States, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, France, and the other industrialized countries of Western Europe, all of which are capitalistic. Industrializing nations include most of the countries of the former Soviet Union. The least industrialized nations account for about half of the land on Earth and include almost 70 percent of the world’s people. These countries are primarily agricultural and tend to be characterized by extreme poverty. The majority of the residents of the least industrialized nations do not own the land they farm, and many lack running water, indoor plumbing, and access to medical care. Their life expectancy is low when compared to residents of richer countries, and their rates of illness are higher.
Several theories purport to explain how the world became so highly stratified.
Colonialism exists when a powerful country invades a weaker country in order to exploit its resources, thereby making it a colony. Those countries that were among the first to industrialize, such as Great Britain, were able to make colonies out of a number of foreign countries. At one time, the British Empire included India, Australia, South Africa, and countries in the Caribbean, among others. France likewise colonized many countries in Africa, which is why in countries such as Algeria, Morocco, and Mali French is spoken in addition to the countries’ indigenous languages.
Immanuel Wallerstein’s world system theory posited that as societies industrialized, capitalism became the dominant economic system, leading to the globalization of capitalism. The globalization of capitalism refers to the adoption of capitalism by countries around the world. Wallerstein said that as capitalism spread, countries around the world became closely interconnected. For example, seemingly remote events that occur on the other side of the world can have a profound impact on daily life in the United States. If a terrorist attack on a Middle Eastern oil pipeline interrupts production, American drivers wind up paying more for fuel because the cost of oil has risen.
Sociologist Michael Harrington used the term neocolonialism to describe the tendency of the most industrialized nations to exploit less-developed countries politically and economically. Powerful countries sell goods to less-developed countries, allowing them to run up enormous debts that take years to pay off. In so doing, the most developed nations gain a political and economic advantage over the countries that owe them money.