Social hierarchies exist in all societies and cultures. In this lesson, we define social stratification and its characteristics. We also discuss the difference between open and closed systems, including what differentiates a caste from a class.
Social Stratification and Inequality
When you hear the word 'inequality,' what do you think of? Do you picture the rich versus the poor? Do you imagine protests for equal pay between men and women? Do you think of those currently fighting for gay marriage? Throughout history, inequality has existed in our society. It seems like some people have just always had more wealth, power, and prestige than others.
Unsurprisingly, this has resulted in a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy - what sociologists call social stratification. Think of nobility and commoners in medieval times as an example. Those of noble blood who lived a life of leisure were ranked far above peasants who worked off the land. Even today, some view manual laborers as the least respected members of society, while those who are part of 'high society' are the most respected.
Of course, our society is much more diverse than that. America is sometimes described as a kaleidoscope made up of a tremendous variety of people from all backgrounds. Diversity in race, religion, education, and so on can certainly be a good thing. However, it can also lead to differences in the way people are treated and the opportunities available to them.
For example, although we like to think that anyone can live the 'American dream' and accomplish anything, that's not really the way it works in the real world. Those born to privilege have more opportunities to succeed and continue being privileged, while those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds don't typically have access to the education and types of jobs that would help to improve their situation drastically.
Social Stratification: Four Principles
Again, though, social stratification involves more than just the amount of money someone has today. Sociologists have identified four basic principles of social stratification. First, it is a trait of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences. Social stratification exists throughout the world - all societies have had it since before the Dark Ages. Second, it carries over from generation to generation. Status is long-term, and children are born with the same status as their parents. Third, it is universal but variable. Although it exists in all societies, its structure is different based on culture and history. Fourth, it involves not just inequality but beliefs as well. The differences between the strata layers are often based not just on individual differences but also on the attitudes that members of each layer have.
To illustrate these principles, imagine a town where every resident was identical in every way - they looked the same, they had the same job, the same amount of money, and so on. The only difference was that some residents had blue eyes instead of brown eyes (like everyone else). The blue-eyed residents considered themselves better than the brown-eyed residents and were also treated as such. For decades, the blue-eyed residents befriended and married only those who also had blue eyes. One day, the brown-eyed residents purchased colored contacts so they could have blue eyes too. Horrified that they were no longer unique, the original blue-eyed residents purchased brown contacts so they would still be different and special.
Now, let's apply the four principles of social stratification. Like all societies, this town created a social hierarchy. Status was determined by physical differences; if you had blue eyes, you were considered special. Since the physical characteristic was determined through genetics, your status was ascribed at birth and was the same as your parents. And not only were blue-eyed residents different physically, they actually believed that they were better than the brown-eyed residents.
Open vs. Closed Systems
With what we've discussed so far, it may seem like social status never changes - that you are stuck with one status forever. This is mostly true of a closed system of social stratification in which status is ascribed from birth. In a closed system, there is little to no social mobility, which is a change in position within the social hierarchy.
However, in an open system of social stratification, status is achieved through merit or effort. In this meritocracy, as it is sometimes called, social mobility is more likely. Some people move downward in social status because of failure, disgrace, or illness. Others move horizontally, maybe switching jobs at the same level of the social hierarchy. And the fortunate few can move upward. We love stories of individuals who rise to fame from humble beginnings, such as Oprah Winfrey and J.K. Rowling.
The United States and the United Kingdom both use a class system, an open system of social stratification that divides the population into separate classes whose members have different access to society's resources. There are typically economical and cultural differences between classes. The rich, who are part of a higher class, are sometimes described as the 'haves' and the poor as the 'have-nots.'
As an open system, social mobility between classes is possible through education and certain opportunities. At times, even blood relatives may have different social standings. However, there are disadvantaged groups that have much more difficulty changing status than others. The U.S. class system, which we'll discuss in depth in another lesson, is broadly divided into three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class. Again, those in the lower class that have come from disadvantaged backgrounds have much more difficulty moving up in society.
In contrast with the class system, there are many societies that use the caste system, a closed system of social stratification in which the population is divided between hereditary groups. In these cultures, birth alone determines a person's entire future, with little to no allowance for social mobility based on individual achievement. If you are born into a low caste, it wouldn't matter if you cured all disease - you would still be looked down upon by those born into a higher caste.
India is an example of a country that uses the caste system.
Typically, the societies that use the caste system are agrarian - rural and dependent on agriculture. For example, India is almost always mentioned when discussing the caste system because it is prevalent in their traditional villages. There, people are dedicated to a lifelong routine of working the land and performing the same jobs as their parents. The caste system dictates not only the type of job one can have but also the social interactions that are allowed. Marriage is only allowed between members of the same caste and moving somewhere else to 'start fresh' is not an option.
In summary, social stratification is a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. Sociologists have identified four basic principles of social stratification:
- It is a trait of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences.
- It carries over from generation to generation.
- It is universal but variable.
- It involves not just inequality but beliefs as well.
It may seem like social status never changes - that you are stuck with one status forever. This is mostly true of a closed system, in which status is ascribed from birth. In a closed system, there is little to no social mobility. However, in an open system, status is achieved through merit or effort. In this meritocracy, as it is sometimes called, social mobility is more likely.
For example, the United States and the United Kingdom both use a class system, an open system of social stratification that divides the population into separate classes whose members have different access to society's resources. Social mobility between classes is possible through education and certain opportunities.
On the other hand, rural areas of India and other agrarian societies use the caste system, a closed system of social stratification in which the population is divided between hereditary groups. In these cultures, birth alone determines a person's entire future, with little to no allowance for social mobility based on individual achievement.
Completing this lesson should teach you to:
- Define social stratification and list its four basic principles
- Differentiate between open and closed systems as well as between class and caste systems