The Origins of Social Stratification
- All modern societies are stratified, arranged hierarchically into layers
due to an unequal distribution of society’s rewards.
- Hunting and gathering societies had no social stratification because all members had
to produce food and share it.
- Stratification arose with job specialization that began in pastoral and
horticulture societies. Not everyone in the society needed to be involved in food production.
- Rise of industrialized societies led to increased stratification as the difference
between the haves and the have-nots grew.
- Some improvement in working conditions created a middle class.
- New technologies created a new social group, skilled workers.
- The new technology used in postindustrial societies contributed to increased
Historical Stratification Categories
- Historical stratification systems include slavery, the estate
system, and indentured servitude.
Slavery is a system of stratification in which one person owns another.
- The estate system, prevalent in the Middle Ages, was a three-tiered
system composed of the nobility, clergy, and commoners.
- Some commoners sought new opportunities in the New World and agreed to
indentured servitude to get there. Unlike slavery, in which the enslaved have no
choice, indentured servants agree to sell their bodies or labor to someone for a specified
period of time.
Modern Stratification Systems
- Slavery still exists as a stratification system.
- The caste system is based on ascribed status, which is a
condition of birth, and allows little or no possibility for mobility.
- India’s caste system is based on a belief in 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 in castes must marry within their own caste. This practice is known as
Social mobility is an important characteristic of the class
system, which is based on achieved status.
- The United States has a class system of stratification.
Theories of Stratification
Karl Marx argued that there were only two classes of people in any
capitalist society: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He believed
that the proletariat would eventually realize they were being exploited by the bourgeoisie and
would rise up in revolution.
Max Weber argued that owning property was only part of determining a
person’s social class. Power and prestige were equally important.
Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore believed that
stratification served an important function for society. It provided greater rewards to people
willing to take more complex jobs.
Melvin Tumin disagreed, arguing that all societies are not
meritocracies, systems of stratification in which positions are given according
to individual merit. Gender and a family’s wealth contribute to
The Stratification System of the United States
- A person’s socioeconomic status (SES) is based on
education, occupation, and income.
- These categories are not always reliable predictors of social class.
Social Classes in the United States
- Sociologists have identified six social classes in the United States.
- The upper class, which makes up about one percent of the U.S.
population, generally consists of those with vast inherited wealth (sometimes called “old
- The category called new money includes rich people whose wealth is
relatively new. This class makes up about 15 percent of the population.
- The middle class, about 34 percent of the population, includes people
who work at professional or white-collar jobs.
- Members of the working class, about 30 percent of the population, often
work at blue-collar jobs.
- The working poor are people who have little to no job security and who,
despite working two or more jobs, barely earn enough money to survive.
- People at the poverty level lack the means to meet their basic needs for
food, clothing, and shelter.
Poverty in America
- A staggering number of Americans currently live below the poverty level.
- Many people living in poverty are women. The feminization of poverty
refers to the increasing number of female-headed households living at or below the poverty
William Julius Wilson found that poverty is concentrated in inner cities
and the rural South.
- Poverty exacts a high emotional and physical toll on individuals.
- According to Oscar Lewis, poor people do not learn the norms and values
that can help them improve their circumstances, hence they get trapped in a culture of
- Societies are stratified in relation to one another.
- The three broad categories of global stratification are most-industrialized
nations, industrializing nations, and least-industrialized
- Each category differs in wealth, power, and prestige.
- Theories of global stratification include colonialism, world
system theory, neocolonialism, and multinational
Colonialism occurs when a powerful country invades a weaker country in
order to exploit its resources.
- According to Wallerstein’s world system theory, as
societies industrialized, capitalism became the dominant economic system, which led to the
globalization of capitalism.
Harrington’s theory of neocolonialism argues that most
industrialized nations tend to politically and economically exploit less developed countries.
Multinational corporations help maintain the global stratification