Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.
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:
- Social stratification is a trait of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences.
- Social stratification persists over generations.
- Social stratification is universal (it happens everywhere) but variable (it takes different forms across different societies).
- 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.
Max Weber, also a conflict theorist, agreed with Marx that social stratification causes social conflict. Unlike Marx, he portrays social stratification as a multidimensional ranking rather than a hierarchy of two clearly-defined classes. Weber saw three dimensions of social stratification in terms of a continuum. Social class for Weber included power and prestige in addition to property or wealth. Today, sociologists use the term socioeconomic status (SES) to refer to this ranking based on various dimensions of social inequality.
Stratification and Interaction
Social stratification is typically analyzed from a macro-level perspective, such as conflict theory and functionalism. That being said, we cannot deny the fact that our social standing does affect our everyday interactions. For the most part, we tend to 'hang out' with people who are very much like ourselves. A homeless person will most likely not be invited to a wine-tasting party with a group of wealthy CEOs.
Interactionists would also be interested in the reasons why we spend money the way we do. What we wear, the gadgets we use, and what we drive say something about our financial status. Conspicuous consumption is a term that sociologists use to describe that we buy and use products because of the statement they make about our social position. Why spend $150.00 on a pair of jeans when a $25.00 pair will work just as well?
Social stratification refers to a system by which a society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. Theoretically, we can analyze social stratification from three major perspectives. Structural functionalists argue that social stratification is beneficial for a society, while a conflict theorist would argue that, rather than benefiting society as a whole, stratification provides some people with advantages over others. Finally, a symbolic interactionist would analyze how social stratification helps us see patterns of social inequality in our everyday lives.
Studying this lesson on social stratification can prepare you to:
- Define social stratification and note the four principles upon which it is based
- Detail each of the three major perspectives of social statification
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