In sociology, social stratification is the hierarchical arrangement of social classes, castes and strata within a society. While these hierarchies are not universal to all societies, they are the norm among state-level cultures (as distinguished from hunter-gatherers or other social arrangements). According to Peter Saunders, in modern Western societies, stratification depends on social and economic classes comprising three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class. Each class is further subdivided into smaller classes related to occupation. The term stratification derives from the geological concept of strata, or rock layers created by natural processes.

What is social stratification?

Stratification is a hierarchy of positions with regard to economic production which influences the social rewards to those in the positions.

What is class?

Class is large set of people regarded by themselves or others as sharing similar status with regard to wealth, power and prestige.

What are the major forms of stratification?

Primitive communalism characterized by a high degree of sharing and minimal social inequality. Slavery involving great social inequality and the ownership of some persons by others. Caste in which an individual is permanently assigned to a status based on his or her parents' status. Estate in which peasants are required by law to work land owned by the noble class in exchange for food and protection from outside attacks.

How do stratification systems differ?

Openness is the opportunity for individuals to change their status. Caste stratification systems are closed whereas class stratification systems are more open. The degree of equality is the degree to which the social structure approaches an equal distribution of resources. Hunting and

gathering societies are typically very equal with inequality developing in later stages of agriculture and industrialization.

What are Weber's three dimensions of stratification?

Class or a set of people with similar amounts of income and wealth. Party or a set of people with similar amounts of power. Status group or a set of people with similar social prestige or positive regard from members of a society.

What are the five basic viewpoints on why stratification exists?

Natural inevitability which suggests that inequality exists because of natural differences in people's abilities and is a just system. Structural -functionalist which states that stratification is useful to society because it enhances stability and induces members of the society to work hard. Conflict which suggests that stratification occurs through conflict between different classes, with the upper classes using superior power to take a larger share of the social resources. Evolutionary which states that people will share enough resources to ensure the survival of the group until a surplus exists at which time power determines how the surplus is distributed. Symbolic Interactionist which calls attention to the importance of symbolic displays of wealth and power that influence one's definition of self and the importance of ideas in defining social situations.

In what regard is some stratification inevitable?

Inequality may emanate from natural differences in people's abilities. What are the functionalist and conflict theories as to the reasons for stratification? Structural-functionalists believe that societies tend to be stable and are held together through consensus.Stratifiction provides an important function to society by aiding this process because it lessens conflict and provides structure. Conflict theorists believe that society tends toward conflict and change and that stratification system coerce the lower classes in order to benefit the upper classes.

What are the basic premises of the evolutionary perspective?

In primitive societies the survival of the group is paramount and people will share their resources to ensure that the group survives. As society develops increasingly sophisticated technology, surplus exists and power will determine the distribution of the surplus.

How are the supporting beliefs symbolically important to a stratification system?

Symbolic Interactionists point out that symbols help to define the meaning of all social actions, and a person's self is developed socially through social interaction. Legitimating ideas, expressed symbolically in the form of language provide reasons for inequality for strata for the ways people are placed in the strata and for changes in the stratification system. These supporting ideas also strongly affect how people evaluate themselves within the system, influencing them to accept their position in the structure as good and right.

What is social mobility?

Social mobility is the movement of a person from one status to another, either between generations or within a person's adult career.

What is structural mobility?

Structural mobility is mobility brought about by changes in the stratification hierarchy for instance as society becomes more technologically advanced.

Critical overview
Social stratification is regarded quite differently by the principal perspectives of sociology. Proponents of structural-functional analysis suggest that since social stratification exists in most state societies, a hierarchy must therefore be beneficial in helping to stabilize their existence. Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, asserted that stability and social order are achieved by means of a universal value consensus. Functionalists indicate that stratification exists solely to satisfy the functional prerequisites necessary for functional proficiency in any society. Conflict theorists consider the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in many stratified societies. They conclude, often working from the theories of Karl Marx, that stratification means that working class people are not likely to advance socioeconomically, while the wealthy may continue to exploit the proletariat generation after generation. Marx identified that the social classes are stratified based on their connection to the means of production. Therefore the ruling class, bourgeoisie, and working class, proletariats, maintain their social positions by maintaining their relationship with the means of production. This maintenance of status quo is achieved by various methods of social control employed by the bourgeoisie in the course of many aspects of social life, e.g., through ideologies of submission promoted through the institution of religion. However, some conflict theorists, mainly Max Weber and followers of his perspective, have criticized Marx's view, pointing out that social stratification is not based purely upon economic inequalities, but is also shaped, to an equal degree, by status and power differentials. Weber's analysis indicated the presence of four social classes, which he called the propertied upper class, the propertyless white-collar workers, the petty bourgeoisie, and the working class. Another noteworthy factor is cited in the work of Francois Adle, who stated that, "The advancement of technology has changed the structure of mobility completely." In a nutshell: social stratification refers to the ranking of social groups above and below each other, in terms of how much power, prestige and wealth members have.

Non-stratified societies

Anthropologists tell us that social stratification is not the standard among all societies. John Gowdy writes: "Assumptions about human behaviour that members of market societies believe to be universal, that humans are naturally competitive and acquisitive, and that social stratification is natural, do not apply to many hunter-gatherer peoples."[2] Nonstratified egalitarian or acephalous ("headless") societies exist which have little or no concept of social hierarchy, political or economic status, class, or even permanent leadership.


Anthropologists identify egalitarian cultures as "Kinship-oriented," because they value social harmony more than wealth or status. These are contrasted with Economically-oriented cultures (including States) in which status and material wealth are prized, and stratification, competition, and conflict are common. Kinship-oriented cultures actively work to prevent social hierarchies from developing which could lead to conflict and instability. They do this typically through a process of reciprocal altruism. A good example is given by Richard Borshay Lee's account of the !Kung San, who practice "insulting the meat." Whenever a hunter makes a kill, he is ceaselessly teased and ridiculed (in a friendly, joking fashion) to prevent him from becoming too proud or egotistical. The meat itself is then distributed evenly among the entire social group, rather than kept by the hunter. The level of teasing is proportional to the size of the kill--Lee found this out the hard way when he purchased an entire cow as a gift for the group he was living with, and was teased for weeks afterward about it (since obtaining that much meat could be interpreted as showing off).[3] Another example is the Indigenous Australians of Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, who have arranged their entire society, spirituality, and economy around a kind of gift economy called renunciation. According to David H. Turner, in this arrangement, every person is expected to give everything of any resource they have to any other person who needs or lacks it at the time. This has the benefit of largely eliminating social problems like theft and relative poverty. However, misunderstandings obviously arise when attempting to reconcile Aboriginal renunciative economics with the competition/scarcity-oriented economics

introduced to Australia by Anglo-European colonists.[4] See also the Original affluent society.

Marx's inspiration

According to Marvin Harris and Tim Ingold, Lewis Henry Morgan's accounts of egalitarian hunter-gatherers formed part of Marx and Engels's inspiration for communism. Morgan spoke of a situation in which people living in the same community pooled their efforts and shared the rewards of those efforts fairly equally. He called this "communism in living." But when Marx expanded on these ideas, he still emphasized an economically oriented culture, with property defining the fundamental relationships between people. Yet, issues of ownership and property are arguably less emphasized in hunter-gatherer societies. This, combined with the very different social and economic situations of hunter-gatherers may account for many of the difficulties encountered when implementing communism in industrialized states. As Ingold points out: Yet the notion of communism, removed from the context of domesticity and harnessed to support a project of social engineering for large-scale, industrialized states with populations of millions, eventually came to mean something quite different from what Morgan had intended: namely, a principle of redistribution that would override all ties of a personal or familial nature, and cancel out their effects.

Weber's inspiration

Weber built on Marx's ideas, arriving at the three-component theory of stratification and the concept of life chances. Weber believed there were more class divisions than Marx suggested, taking different concepts from both functionalist and Marxist theories to create his own system. Weber believed in the difference between class, status, and party, and treated these as separate but related sources of power, each with different effects on people’s lives. He claimed there should be four main classes: the upper class (like the bourgeoisie of Marx’s theory), the white collar workers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the manual working class (like Marx’s proletariat). Weber's theory resembles modern Western class structures, although economic status does not seem to depend strictly on earnings in the way Weber envisioned. Weber criticized Marx's theory of the proletariat revolt, believing it to be unlikely. Weber derived many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. He noticed that contrary to Marx's theories, not everything is based simply on ownership of capital. Weber examined how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth yet they had strong political power. Many wealthy families lacked prestige and power because they were Jewish. Weber introduced three independent factors that form the stratification hierarchy; class, status, and power, as follows:

Class: A person's economic position in a society. Weber differs form

Marx in that he does not see this as a supreme factor in stratification. Weber noticed how managers of corporations or industries control firms they do not own; Marx would have placed such a person in the proletariat.

Status: A person's prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society.
Weber saw how political power was not just welded from capital value, but also their status. Such as how poets or saints can have immense influence on society but have relatively little economic worth.

Power: A person's ability to get their way despite the resistance of
others. For example, individuals in state jobs, such as an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or a member of the United States Congress, may hold little property or status but they still hold immense power

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