Social Stratification: Definition, Theories & Examples

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  • 0:01 Definition of Social…
  • 1:20 The Functions of…
  • 2:33 Stratification and Conflict
  • 4:35 Stratification and Interaction
  • 5:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

Social stratification refers to a system by which a society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. Let's examine some of the theories surrounding this concept.

Definition of Social Stratification

Social stratification refers to a system by which a society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. In the United States, it is perfectly clear that some groups have greater status, power, and wealth than other groups. These differences are what led to social stratification. Social stratification is based on four major principles:

  1. Social stratification is a trait of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences.
  2. Social stratification persists over generations.
  3. Social stratification is universal (it happens everywhere) but variable (it takes different forms across different societies).
  4. Social stratification involves not just inequality but beliefs as well (inequality is rooted in a society's philosophy).

Why does social stratification exist, and why are some countries more stratified than others? To analyze this question, we can look at social stratification through three major perspectives: structural functionalism, social conflict, and symbolic interaction.

The Functions of Social Stratification

Structural functionalists argue that social inequality plays a vital role in the smooth operation of a society. The Davis-Moore thesis states that social stratification has beneficial consequences for the operation of society. Davis and Moore argue that the most difficult jobs in any society are the most necessary and require the highest rewards and compensation to sufficiently motivate individuals to fill them. Certain jobs, like mowing grass or cleaning toilets, can be performed by almost anyone, while other jobs, such as performing brain surgery, are difficult and require the most talented people to perform them.

In order to lure the most talented people away from less important work, a society must offer those people rewards and incentives. Davis and Moore further claim that any society can be equal, but only to the extent that people are willing to let anyone perform any job. This would also require that even those who do their job poorly are rewarded equally. What would be the incentive for people to do their best if everyone was rewarded equally?

Stratification and Conflict

Social conflict theorists disagree that social stratification is functional for a society. Instead, they argue that social stratification benefits some at the expense of others. Two theorists, Karl Marx and Max Weber, are the primary contributors to this perspective.

Karl Marx was a German philosopher, sociologist, economist, and revolutionary socialist. He based his theory on the idea that society has two classes of people: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are the owners of the means of production, such as factories and other businesses, while the proletariat are the workers. Marx argued that the bourgeoisie (owners) give proletariats (workers) just enough to survive, but ultimately the workers are exploited.

As a result of this exploitation, Marx foresaw a workers' revolution. He believed that oppression and misery would eventually drive the working majority to come together and overthrow capitalism. The result would be a socialist utopia where such extreme class differences would cease to exist. Despite Marx's prediction, capitalism is still thriving.

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