Class-Based System: Definition & Explanation

Instructor: Robert Turner
Are you upper class, middle class, or lower class? To think about this sort of question, we will begin by introducing you to the general concept of social stratification. We will then explore an overview of social stratification in the United States.

What is Social Stratification?

During the time of the Roman Republic, patrician nobles were differentiated from low-born plebeians. Free-born citizens had basic rights under Roman law. But some citizens, like those who lived in Rome, had political rights that were denied to citizens who lived in the provinces. Meanwhile, while women could be free citizens, they could not vote or govern. Finally, slaves had no rights whatsoever and were treated as property. In the Roman class system, patrician nobles were at the top of the social hierarchy, and slaves were at the very bottom.

In general, any society with a complex division of labor will sort people into different categories within some kind of power hierarchy. A society has a complex division of labor when it relies on many kinds of task specialists, such as farmers, factory workers, teachers, artisans, priests, monarchs, bankers, and merchants. It will be hierarchical in that some social roles will be ranked above others. For example, in our society, college professors are ranked above high school teachers, who, in turn, tend to be ranked above elementary school teachers.

Interestingly, simple societies, like hunting and gathering bands, were not normally stratified. Goods were shared equally among all the members of the group. Leaders, when they were needed, were selected by the group for particular purposes like forming a war party, organizing a hunt, or conducting a sacred ritual.

Systems of Stratification

All systems of stratification are based on the mode of production. From the rise of the earliest civilizations to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the foundation of economic activity was agriculture. To be sure, trade and the production of fabricated goods have long been an important part of day-to-day life in all societies. But, for thousands of years, land and food production were the fundamental wealth of medieval feudal estates, sovereign monarchies, or empires like those established by the Romans, the Macedonian Greeks under Alexander the Great, and Mongol rulers like Genghis Kahn.

The Industrial Revolution produced a radically new mode of production. It began in England in the late 1700s and rapidly spread to Western Europe and the United States. Basic wealth still included land, but the uses of the land were transformed as applied science birthed the steam engine, large scale industrial manufacturing, efficient steel production, railroads, and more efficient agricultural production (which freed up labor for factories and coal mines) as well as inventions like the telegraph and electric power generators. The resulting changes in the distribution of capital and power influenced today's societal stratification.

Sociologists generally recognize four basic kinds of stratification systems:

Slavery Systems

Under a slavery system of stratification, there is a basic division between those who own land and wealth and those who own nothing because they are themselves property. It has been argued by some that the fundamental flaw that eventually brought down the mighty Roman Empire was the reliance on slaves for labor. But, in fact, slavery was a fact of life right up to and beyond the middle of the 19th century. Slavery was a major factor in the advent of the American Civil War (1861-1865). In Russia, agricultural slaves, called 'serfs,' were fundamental to agricultural production until they were freed in 1861.

Caste Systems

Under a caste system, one is born into the social status of their parents. The classic model of a caste system is Hindu India. So, for example, wealth and privilege will be yours if you are born into the Brahmin caste. A hard life tilling the ground will be your lot if you are born into the Sudra (peasant) caste. You will spend your life in the grim basement of social life if your parents are 'outcastes' referred to as 'untouchables.'

Estate Systems

In medieval Europe, between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, the estate system, also called the feudal system, was the norm. The nobility owned the land. Peasant farmers worked the land and paid hefty taxes to their local lords in exchange for protection, mostly from other nobles. The nobles in turn, pledged fealty and armed might to their liege lords (more powerful nobles) in exchange for maintaining rights to their estate.

Class Systems

Class systems are found in all modern developed states characterized by mass production, high levels of technology, and a complex division of labor. There have been two major variants among industrialized modern states. Countries like the United States, Canada, and Great Britain are capitalist states. Capitalism is based on free trade and open markets. From 1918 to 1990, the former Soviet Union featured a Communist economic system under which production goals were set by the state even as trade and markets were strictly regulated.

In any case, keep in mind that in the actual world, systems of stratification do not fall into neat categories. For example, British society, even unto this day, mixes caste and social class systems. As a sort of a left-over effect of centuries of feudal order, titles of nobility are still inherited and the formal head of state is Queen Elizabeth II.

Social Class in the United States

Within the United States sociologists have generally agreed that social class can be assessed using measures of education, income, and occupation.

Based in these measures, the American social class system can be broken down into five levels:

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