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Two classic approaches to social stratification provide interesting insights into this
phenemonon, structural-functionalism and social-conflict theories. A third approach,
dependency theory, has roots in and extends Marxist thought and conflict theory by applying
that approach to the world at a global/international level.
The structural-functional approach to social stratification asks the same question of social
stratification that it does of the other components of society: What function or purpose does
stratification serve? Underlying this question is the assumption that stratification serves some
purpose because it exists in virtually every society (though it is almost non-existent in hunter-
gatherer societies). The resulting answer is often that it must exist in society in order to
facilitate stability and equilibrium; some level of hierarchical organization must be necessary in
order for complex societies to function. Additionally, the structural-functional approach argues
that positions higher in the social hierarchy must be of more functional importance to the
society, which is why they result in greater rewards. In other words, according to this
perspective, it makes sense for the CEO of a company whose position is more important
functioanlly for a company to make more than a janitor working for the company.
There are several obvious problems with this approach to social stratification. First, the answer
to the function of stratification of society results in an answer that is guilty of begging the
question. The answer only exists because the question is asked the way that it is; it is assumed
from the asking of the question that there must be a function, thus, a function is found. The
second major problem with this approach is that it assumes social stratification is necessary for
the functioning of society. While it may be the case that only hunter-gatherer societies have
existed with minimal stratification and no complex societies have developed a purely
egalitarian system, it should not be assumed that such a system is impossible. The third
significant problem with this approach is that it supports the status quo of existing systems,
regardless of how the power of the ruling group is derived (e.g., totalitarianism, dictatorship,
oligarchy, etc.). While it may be the case that social stratification facilitates the stability of
societies, the structural-functional approach falls short in developing lucid arguments to that
Social-Conflict Theory and Marxism
The social-conflict approach to stratification sees social hierarchies, like most other elements of
society, as embodying inequality (which is virtually by definition in this instance). The conflict
theory approach argues that individuals at the top of social hierarchies are there at the expense
of people in lower positions. Additionally, people higher up in the hierarchy will use their
power to strengthen both the hierarchy and their standing in it.
A particularly clear example of the social-conflict perspective is Marx's early analysis of
capitalism. Marx argued that positions in the social hierarchy were directly related to an
individuals' relationship to the means of production. Individuals in the upper-class are the
owners of the means of production or bourgeoisie. Those who use the means of production to
produce goods (or services) and own only their labor power, the proletariat, are members of the
lower or working classes.
Because capitalists rise to the top of the social hierarchy on the backs of the proletariat through
exploiting their labor power, Marx believed the proletariat would eventually rise up in protest
to their exploitation. Marx hoped that the workers of the world would develop a collective
conscience or universal sense of injustice that would lead them to overthrow the ruling class of
capitalists and institute a new socio-economic system, communism.
The astute student may be asking why such a revolution did not occur in every capitalist
society. Of course, some communist revolutions did occur: the U.S.S.R., China, Cuba, and
Vietnam are all examples of countries where communist revolutions took place. But there are a
number of non-communist countries that have not experienced revolutions in their economic
systems, the U.S. being a prime example. If, as Marx proposed, the exploitation of the
proletariat would ultimately lead to the overthrowing of the capitalists at the top of the social
hierarchy, one is left asking why this has not happened in the U.S. The answer lies in the
concessions made by capitalists to proletariats who joined together as labor unions to fight for
In a truly capitalist society, the only restrictions placed upon capitalists would be the
restrictions they place upon themselves. In other words, if a capitalist wanted to have her
laborers work 20-hour shifts, in a true capitalist society, there would be no restrictions
preventing such practices. The U.S. is not a true capitalist society in this sense. The federal and
state governments have instituted legislation limiting the labor practices of corporations and
• regulated working hours
• minimum wage requirements
• laws against child labor
• mandated working conditions
Many of these concessions have resulted from the efforts of organized labor unions.
To return, then, to the question posed above, revolution has been averted through the gradual
transformation of capitalist societies into more socialistic societies. By improving the working
conditions and wages of the proletariat, capitalists have been able to prevent the over-throwing
of the capitalist system.
Dependency Theory of Global Stratification
Dependency theory is the body of theories that propound a worldview suggesting the wealthy
countries of the world need a peripheral group of poorer countries to remain wealthy.
As depicted in the diagram, wealthy nations are seen as the core countries; poorer nations are
seen as the peripheral countries (with some countries falling in between). Core countries extract
resources from the periphery countries and eventually return those resources as manufactured
goods. This works to maintain the superiority of the core countries by stripping the periphery
countries of their natural resources and forcing them to buy manufactured goods at high prices -
the proceeds going to the people and corporations of the core countries. Thus, poor nations
provide natural resources, cheap labour, a destination for obsolete technology, and markets to
the wealthy nations. Without the poorer, peripheral nations, the wealthy, core countries could
not have the standard of living they enjoy.
The theory contends that core countries actively, but not necessarily consciously, perpetuate a
state of dependency through various policies and initiatives. This state of dependency is
multifaceted, involving economics, media control, politics, banking and finance, education,
sports, and all aspects of human resource development. Any attempt by the dependent nations
to resist the influences of dependency will result in economic sanctions and/or military invasion
and control. While military invasion is somewhat rare, dependency of the periphery countries
on the core countries is strongly enforced by the wealthy nations setting the rules of
international trade and commerce.
Another example of the
extreme poverty experienced in some parts of the world. Dependency Theory would attribute
this poverty to the exploitation of periphery countries by core countries.
The system of dependency was likely created with the industrial revolution and the expansion
of European empires around the world due to their superior power and wealth. Some argue that
before this expansion exploitation and dependency was internal to countries, with the major
economic centres dominating the rest of the country (for example southeast England
dominating the British Isles, or the Northeast United States dominating the south and east).
Establishing global trade patterns in the nineteenth century allowed this system to spread to a
global level. This resulted in the isolation of the wealthy from both the dangers of peasant
revolts and rebellions by the poor. Rather than turn on their oppressors as in the American Civil
War or in communist revolutions, the poor could no longer reach the wealthy and thus the less
developed nations became engulfed in regular civil wars. With the superiority of rich nations
established, it is difficult, if not impossible, for poorer countries to move away from this
system. This control ensures that all profits in less developed countries are taken by the better
developed nations, preventing reinvestment and growth.
Dependency theory first emerged in the 1950s, advocated by Raul Prebisch, whose research
found that the wealth of poor nations tended to decrease when the wealth of rich nations
increased. Dependency theory became increasingly popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a
criticism of standard development theory that seemed to be failing due to the continued
widespread poverty of large parts of the world.
The antonym of inequality is, of course, equality, but there is debate as to what equality should
mean. Different definitions include:
• Legal equality
• Equality of opportunity
• Equality of outcome
This page also draws heavily on the following Wikipedia articles:
• social stratification
• economic inequality
• poverty line
• Inequality topic at Worldrevolution.org
• An introduction to dependency theory
• Positive freedom
• Negative freedom
• Millennium Development Goals from the United Nations
• Caste system
• Social inequality
• Theodor Geiger
• Three-component theory of stratification
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