Principles of Sociology
Department of Sociology
University of Nevada, Reno
• Social Stratification refers to the unequal manner in which scarce resources and social rewards are distributed among different social categories and groups.
• Life Chances refer to the likelihood of realizing a certain standard of living or quality of life, including health and well-being.
• The unequal distribution of income and wealth has been remarkably stable. Large differences of income and wealth have existed as long as these data have been collected.
• Also, there have been persistent differences in income and wealth between men and women, the young and old, and white and non-white Americans.
Social Stratification is a Social Process
• Social stratification is a characteristic of society, not simply a function of individual differences
• Social stratification is universal, but variable
• Social stratification persists over generations
• Social stratification involves not just inequality but beliefs about inequality
Major Stratification Systems
1) Caste System – a closed system based on ascribed status (birth)
- Nothing can be done to affect mobility and there are no chances of changing one’s social position
- Such societies also recognize “ritual pollution” (i.e., certain types of interaction between people of different castes are prohibited because they tend to contaminate members of the higher caste)
- Such a system promotes endogamy (i.e., marriage within one’s own caste)
• There are five castes in India:
1) priests, scholars, and their descendents
2) nobility, warriors, and their descendents
3) merchants and skilled artisans (or their descendents)
4) unskilled laborers
5) outcasts or “untouchables”
2) Slavery System – the ownership of some people by others
- Contrary to popular assumption, slavery was not usually based on racism, but on one of three other factors:
c) War and conquest
- The conditions of slavery have varied widely around the world:
a) In some cases, slavery was temporary
b) Slavery was not necessarily inheritable
c) Slaves were not necessarily powerless and poor
3) Estate System – the stratification system of medieval Europe, consisting of three groups or estates:
a) Nobility – the wealthy and powerful families that ruled the country and owned the land; the nobility did no farming or any other work—having an occupation was considered beneath their dignity
b) Clergy – the Roman Catholic Church was a political power at this time, owning vast tracts of land and collecting taxes from commoners; the church sold offices, and the wealthy could buy positions
c) Serfs – the commoners, including farmers, carpenters, harnessmakers, and servants. It was extremely rare for a person to move out of this estate.
4) Class System – an open system of stratification based primarily on economic and occupational roles
- Boundaries between classes are not clear-cut
- It is possible for individuals to rise above or fall below the position of their parents, and to marry someone of another class
- Individuals tend to have some control over their class position
• The American Class Structure:
– Upper or Capitalist Class
– Upper Middle Class
– Middle Class
– Working Class
– Working Poor
– Underclass (e.g., the Homeless)
Measuring Social Class
• Karl Marx defined class as all people who share a common relationship to the means of production (e.g., land, factories, machines, tools, raw materials, labor)
• Marx argued that there are two fundamental social classes:
1) the bourgeoisie – those who own the means of production (the capitalist class)
2) the proletariat – those who do not own the means of production and are thus compelled to work for the capitalists
- These classes have opposite interests and thus their relationship is characterized by inequality, exploitation, and conflict
• Max Weber held that class consisted of three interrelated components:
1) Wealth, or economic status
2) Power, or political status
3) Prestige, or social status
- An individual may rank highly on one dimension of class membership, but lower on the other two; however, these dimensions tend to be tightly correlated (positively)
1) Wealth – consists of property and income. Property comes in many forms, such as buildings, land, animals, machinery, cars, stocks, bonds, businesses, and bank accounts. Income is money received as wages, rents, interest, royalties, or the proceeds from a business.
- Large differences of income and wealth have existed as long as these data have been collected. Wealth is highly concentrated. The majority of wealth, 68 percent, is owned by only 10 percent of the nation’s families. The super-rich, the richest 1 percent of U.S. families, are worth more than the entire bottom 90 percent of Americans. This unequal distribution of income and wealth has been remarkably stable; the changes that do occur indicate growing inequality.
- Also, there have been persistent differences in income and wealth between men and women, the young and old, and white and non-white Americans.
2) Power – the ability to carry out one’s will despite resistance
- Power is also concentrated in the hands of the few. It has been observed that a “democratic façade” serves as an powerful ideology for the elites, concealing the real source of power in the United States.
- C. Wright Mills coined the term power elite to refer to those top people in U.S. corporations, military, and politics who make the nation’s major decisions. This elite group wields extraordinary power; they are like-minded individuals who belong to the same private clubs, vacation at the same exclusive resorts, and attend the same prestigious schools.
3) Prestige – respect or social honor
- People give certain occupations more prestige than others. Positions with more prestige share four elements:
a) They pay more.
b) They require more education.
c) They entail more abstract thought.
d) They offer greater autonomy (freedom, or self-direction)
- White collar occupations are disproportionately more prestigious than blue collar occupations. Also, positions at the top are disproportionately occupied by men and whites, while those toward the bottom are occupied disproportionately by women and minorities.
How do Elites Maintain Stratification?
- While elites may use coercion and force to maintain privilege, these are not effective tactics because they breed hostility and nourish rebellion; instead, elites use other techniques:
1) Controlling Ideas – Ideologies are used to get people to want to do what the ruling elite desires, even though it is not necessarily in their best interest (e.g., scientific racism, the divine right of kings, a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work)
2) Controlling Information – Elites control information in dictatorships through the use of force and imprisoning editors and reporters for printing critical reports. In democracies, elites accomplish the same purpose by manipulating the media though the selective release of information.
3) Technology – Various monitoring devices help the elite monitor citizens’ activities without their knowledge that they are being shadowed.
4) Social Networks – Members of the elite move in a circle of power that multiplies their opportunities. Contacts with people of similar backgrounds, interests, and goals all the elite to pass privileges from one generation to the next.
Functionalist Perspective of Stratification
• Social stratification is universal, thus necessary for the smooth, orderly functioning of society (particularly, industrial societies with a complex division of labor).
• Social stratification (specifically, unequal rewards) functions to motivate people to fill functionally important positions and perform functionally necessary roles in society.
• Criticism of the Functionalist Theories:
– How do you measure the importance of a position?
– Is the relationship between the importance of a position and its rewards as straightforward as the theory suggests?
– Why isn’t society a meritocracy? That is, why are many positions not awarded on the basis of merit?
– Is inequality actually functional for society?
Conflict Theory of Stratification
• Social stratification is universal, yet is avoidable, unnecessary, and not functional for society.
• Stratification is created and maintained by classes and powerful groups in order to protect and enhance their interests; focuses on competition over scarce societal resources (e.g., power, wealth, and prestige).
• Stratification is useful to only some people and groups; inequality is not inevitable, nor does it promote the optimal functioning of society.
Concepts in Social Stratification
• Status Consistency is the degree of consistency of a person’s social standing across various dimensions of social inequality.
• Status Inconsistency refers to an inconsistent social standing or mismatch across various dimensions of social inequality.
• Social Mobility refers to changes in people’s position in a system of stratification, especially occupational change (and corresponding changes in income).
--Intergenerational Mobility and Intragenerational/Career Mobility
The Consequences of Social Class
• Life Chances
• Physical and Mental Health
• Family Life
• Political Participation and Affiliation
• Treatment by the Criminal Justice System
• The Hidden Injuries of Class
• High Income Countries (Most industrialized nations)
• Middle Income Countries (Industrializing nations)
• Low Income Countries (The least industrialized nations)
• Modernization Theory
• Dependency Theory
Global Stratification and the Status of Females
- In every society in the world, gender is a basis for social stratification. While it is not the sole basis for stratifying people, it cuts across all systems of stratification. Further, these distinctions always favor males. Consider, for example:
- In every society in the world, men’s earnings and higher than women’s. Most sweatshop workers are women and girls.
- Women are vastly underrepresented in positions of political and economic power.
- Of the 885 million adults who are illiterate, two-thirds are women.
- Two-thirds of the 13 million school-age children who receive no education are girls.
- Between 100-200 million females have undergone painful female genital mutilation.
- Hundreds of thousands of female children across the world are forced into prostitution.