Social stratification

Social stratification

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In sociology and other social sciences, social stratification refers to the hierarchical arrangement of individuals into divisions of power and wealth within a society. The term most commonly relates to the socio-economic concept of class, involving the "classification of persons into groups based on shared socio-economic conditions ... a relational set of inequalities with economic, social, political and ideological dimensions."[1]

The term stratification derives from the geological concept of strata - rock layers created by natural processes. In modern Western societies, stratification is typically described as a composition of three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class. Each class may be further subdivided into smaller classes (e.g. occupational).[2] These categories are particular to state-level societies as distinguished from, for instance, feudal societies composed of nobility-to-peasant relations. It is debatable whether the earliest hunter-gatherer groups may be defined as 'stratified', or if such differentials began with agriculture and broad acts of exchange between groups. To this extent society may begin with stratification itself, and vice versa. One of the ongoing issues in determining social stratification arises from the point that status inequalities between individuals are common, so it becomes a quantitative issue to determine how much inequality qualifies as stratification.[3]



[edit] Sociological overview

Social stratification is interpreted in radically different ways according to the major theoretical perspectives of sociology. Proponents of structural-functionalism have suggested that since social stratification is commonly believed to exist in almost all developed societies, hierarchy may be necessary in order to stabilize social structure. Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, asserted that stability and social order are achieved by means of a universal value consensus, satisfying the functional prerequisites of a society. By contrast, conflict theories, such as Marxism, have scrutinized the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in stratified societies. Many sociological theorists have criticised the extent to which the working classes are unlikely to advance socioeconomically; the wealthy tend to hold political power which they use to exploit the proletariat generation after generation. Theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf, however, have noted the tendency toward an enlarged middle-class in modern Western societies due to the necessity of an educated workforce in technological and service economies. Various social and political perspectives concerning globalization, such as dependency theory, suggest that these effects are due to the shift of workers to the third world.

[edit] Karl Marx

In Marxist theory, the capitalist mode of production consists of two main economic parts: the Base and the Superstructure. The base comprehends the relations of production — employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations — into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. In the capitalist system, the ruling classes own the means of production, which essentially includes the working class itself as they only have their own labour power ('wage labour') to offer in order to survive. These relations fundamentally determine the ideas and philosophies of a society, constituting the superstructure. A temporary status quo is achieved by various methods of social control employed, consciously or unconsciously, by the bourgeoisie in the course of various aspects of social life. Through the ideology of the ruling class, false consciousness is promoted both through ostensibly political and non-political institutions, but also through the arts and other elements of culture. Marx believed the capitalist mode would eventually give way, through its own internal conflict, to revolutionary consciousness and the development of egalitarian communist society.

According to Marvin Harris[4] and Tim Ingold [5], Lewis Henry Morgan's accounts of egalitarian hunter-gatherers formed part of Karl 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.[6] Yet, issues of ownership and property are arguably less emphasized in hunter-gatherer societies.[7] 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: "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."[5]

[edit] Max Weber

Max Weber was strongly influenced by Marx's ideas, but rejected the possibility of effective communism, arguing that it would require an even greater level of detrimental social control and bureaucratization than capitalist society. Moreover, Weber criticized the dialectical presumption of proletariat revolt, believing it to be unlikely.[8] Instead, he developed the three-component theory of stratification and the concept of life chances. Weber supposed there were more class divisions than Marx suggested, taking different concepts from both functionalist and Marxist theories to create his own system. He emphasized the difference between class, status, and party, and treated these as separate but related sources of power, each with different effects on social action. Working around half a century later than Marx, Weber claimed there to be in fact four main classes: the upper class, the white collar workers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the manual working class. Weber's theory more-closely resembles modern Western class structures, although economic status does not seem to depend strictly on earnings in the way Weber envisioned.

Weber derived many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. He noted that contrary to Marx's theories, stratification was based on more than simply ownership of capital. Weber examined how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth yet had strong political power. Many wealthy families lacked prestige and power, for example, because they were Jewish. Weber introduced three independent factors that form his theory of stratification hierarchy; class, status, and power:

  • Class: A person's economic position in a society. Weber differs from Marx in that he does not see this as the supreme factor in stratification. Weber noted 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 noted that political power was not rooted in capital value solely, but also in one's individual status. Poets or saints, for example, can possess immense influence on society with often 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.[9]

[edit] Anthropological overview

Anthropologists have found 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."[10] Non-stratified egalitarian or acephalous ("headless") societies exist which have little or no concept of social hierarchy, political or economic status, class, or even permanent leadership.

[edit] Kinship-orientation

Anthropologists identify egalitarian cultures as "kinship-oriented," because they appear to value social harmony more than wealth or status. These cultures 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 because they believe that such stratification could lead to conflict and instability. Reciprocal altruism is one process by which this is accomplished.

A good example is given by Richard Borshay Lee in his account of the Khoisan, 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 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).[11]

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.[12] See also the Original affluent society.

[edit] Social impact

Social stratification has been shown to cause many social problems. A comprehensive study of major world economies revealed that homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression and prison population all correlate with higher social inequality.[13]

[edit] Power distribution

  • Autocracy: One individual retains complete and absolute power over others. This is also known as despotism.
  • Monarchism: A king or queen has ultimate control over the power, but does share it with other individuals. Power is usually transmitted by heredity— in the primogeniture system, for example, the eldest son of a king will ascend to that position when the current king dies or resigns.
  • Oligarchy: Political power is vested in a few individuals, who usually pass power by a hereditary[citation needed] system.
  • Republic: Voting citizens elect representatives who propose, make, and enforce laws instead of citizens directly affecting the government. Also known as representative democracy.
  • Democracy: Citizens directly vote in lawmaking. In contrast to representative democracy, this is sometimes known as a direct democracy.
  • Anarchism: An absence of hierarchy in economic and political relations—a decentralized participatory system of councils, assemblies and federations.
  • Ochlocracy: What some argue to be the end product of an unstable lawless system, is absolute power and a system known as "rule by organized crime". Such a system emerges when powerful gang-like organizations arrogate power and develop a semi-legitimate status.
  • Plutocracy: A society in which power is distributed according to wealth or the ability abstain from relations for exchange of cash or property.

[edit] Three characteristics of stratified systems

  • The rankings apply to social categories of people who share a common characteristic without necessarily interacting or identifying with each other. The process of being ranked can be changed by the person being ranked.[14]
    • Example: The way we rank people differently by race, gender, and social class
  • People's life experiences and opportunities depend on their social category. This characteristic can be changed by the amount of work a person can put into their interests.[14]
    • Example: The greater advantage had by the son or daughter of a king to have a successful life than the son or daughter of a minimum-wage factory worker, because the king has a greater amount of resources than the factory worker — The use of resources can influence others.
  • The ranks of different social categories change slowly over time. This has occurred frequently in the United States ever since the American revolution. The U.S. Constitution has been altered several times to contain rights for everyone.[14]
    • Examples:
      • Thirteenth Amendment: Ended slavery in the United States
      • Fourteenth Amendment: Gives African-Americans citizenship in the United States
      • Fifteenth Amendment: Ended the denial of suffrage based on race
      • Nineteenth Amendment: The United States government's recognition of women's suffrage
      • The Civil Rights Act of 1964: Ended racial segregation in public places in the United States — Also extended the right to vote

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ Barker, Chris. 2005. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-4156-8 p 436
  2. ^ Saunders, Peter (1990). Social Class and Stratification. Routledge. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ Harris, Harris (1968). The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Routledge. ISBN 0-7591-0133-7. 
  5. ^ a b Ingold, Tim (2006) "On the social relations of the hunter-gatherer band," in Richard B. Lee and Richard H. Daly (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 400. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60919-4
  6. ^ Barnard, Alan (2006) "Images of hunters and gatherers in European social thought," in Richard B. Lee and Richard H. Daly (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 379. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60919-4
  7. ^ Gowdy, John (2006) "Hunter-gatherers and the mythology of the market," in Richard B. Lee and Richard H. Daly (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 393. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60919-4
  8. ^ Holborn, M. & Langley, P. (2004) AS & A level Student Handbook, accompanies the Sixth Edition: Haralambos & Holborn, Sociology: Themes and perspectives, London: Collins Educational
  9. ^ Stark, Rodney (2007). Sociology, Tenth Edition. Thompson Wadsworth. 
  10. ^ Gowdy, John (2006) "Hunter-gatherers and the mythology of the market," in Richard B. Lee and Richard H. Daly (eds.), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers, p. 391. New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-60919-4
  11. ^ Lee, Richard B. (1976), Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors, Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  12. ^ Turner, David H. (1999), Genesis Regained: Aboriginal Forms of Renunciation in Judeo-Christian Scriptures and Other Major Traditions, pp. 1-9, Peter Lang.
  13. ^ "Inequality: The Mother of All Evils?". The Guardian. Retrieved 2010-01-16. 
  14. ^ a b c Giddens, Anthony; Duneier, Mitchell; Appelbaum, Richard P.; Carr, Deborah (1999). Introduction to Sociology (Seventh ed.). New York, London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.. pp. 206–207. ISBN 0393971880. Retrieved 29 March 2010. 

[edit] External links


Social stratification: Social class
Bourgeoisie Upper class Ruling class Nobility White-collar
Petite bourgeoisie Upper middle class Creative class Gentry Blue-collar
Proletariat Middle class Working class Nouveau riche/Parvenu Pink-collar
Lumpenproletariat Lower middle class Lower class Old Money Gold-collar
  Slave class Underclass   Classlessness
Social class in the United States
Middle classes Upper classes Social structure Income Educational attainment

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