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Social Stratification Factors: Wealth, Power, & Prestige

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Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Social status and elements such as wealth, power, and prestige can dictate where a person sits on a cultural hierarchy in society. Learn more about social stratification factors and how they affect life in the U.S. Updated: 11/04/2021

Social Stratification

She's from the wrong side of the tracks. He was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. This degree is my ticket to the world!

What do these phrases mean? They are referencing social standing or social stratification. Social stratification is a method by which societies categorize and rank members in a hierarchy.

Stratification is a key concept in sociology. Early societies didn't rank members. As societies evolved, they began to classify their members. Some categories, like landowners, received promotions. Others, like wage earners, seemed to be demoted.

Today, all societies use social stratification, though some countries are more stratified than others. The systems and the beliefs behind those systems are deep-rooted. Stratification systems impose inequalities that persist for generations.

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Coming up next: American Class System and Structure: Definitions & Types of Social Classes

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  • 0:02 Social Stratification
  • 1:04 Social Stratification…
  • 3:01 Wealth & Power
  • 5:03 Prestige
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Social Stratification in the U.S.

For example, in the United States, it's fairly easy to detect the 'haves' from the 'have-nots.' Today's Rockefellers still enjoy the wealth and status gained by family members in the late 19th century. On the other hand, some families of former slaves still struggle.

The U.S. stratification system is based on socioeconomic status or SES. SES is a categorization formula that considers a person's income, education, and occupation. Our society places a higher value on:

  • Wealth
  • Longer periods of education
  • Occupations that require advanced degrees

The sum of these factors is used to determine a person's general social class. Social class is important because the U.S. uses a class system of stratification. A class system is a stratification system in which a person's social status is based on achievement. For the most part, that means Americans can choose or earn social status. They are not locked into a particular status from birth. Class systems allow social mobility, which is movement up or down the social hierarchy. This is a unique characteristic of the class system. This equality of opportunity is often referred to as the 'American Dream.'

For example, the Rockefeller family owes their fortune to John D. Rockefeller. John was the son of a traveling peddler who'd been run out of town and accused of crimes. He was forced to drop out of high school. He set his mind to business and executed a series of timely oil deals. By age 38, his company controlled 90% of the oil refined in the U.S.

Wealth and Power

Let's take a closer look at the individual stratification factors used to determine socioeconomic status and social class in the U.S. We know that SES looks at income, education, and occupation. Our social stratification is based on wealth, power, and prestige.

Income is the least reliable factor in the SES equation. SES is generally based on income inequality, or the uneven distribution of wealth between the nation's rich and poor. A person's wealth is most often determined by his or her income, and a person's income is usually derived from his or her job. However, many outside influences can affect a person's income. For example, research shows that recent male college graduates earn an average of $20,000 more per year than females with the same education level. Issues like geographic location and prior work experience can also greatly influence income and wealth.

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