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 worldwide stratification.

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 endogamy.
  • 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 social class.

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 money”).
  • 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 level.
  • 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 poverty.

Global Stratification

  • Societies are stratified in relation to one another.
  • The three broad categories of global stratification are most-industrialized nations, industrializing nations, and least-industrialized nations.
  • Each category differs in wealth, power, and prestige.
  • Theories of global stratification include colonialism, world system theory, neocolonialism, and multinational corporations.
  • 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 system.

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