What Is Social Inequality in Sociology? - Definition, Effects & Causes

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  • 0:01 What Is Social Inequality?
  • 0:18 Definition
  • 0:54 Causes
  • 2:00 Effects
  • 3:12 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Kimberly Moffitt

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

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Social inequality is the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society. Let's examine some causes and effects of poverty and test our knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Social Inequality

Social inequality is the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society. Although the United States differs from most European nations that have a titled nobility, the U.S. is still highly stratified. Social inequality has several important dimensions. Income is the earnings from work or investments, while wealth is the total value of money and other assets minus debts. Other important dimensions include power, occupational prestige, schooling, ancestry, and race and ethnicity.

Causes of Social Inequality

There is little question that many people in the U.S. are better off than most other people in the world. That being said, poverty also impacts millions of people in the U.S. Why do such social inequalities exist? Let's examine the two prevailing explanations of poverty: blaming the poor and blaming society.

One approach to explain poverty is to blame the poor - that the poor are responsible for their own poverty. There is some evidence to support this theory, because the main reason people are poor is the lack of employment. According to this view, society has plenty of opportunities for people to realize the American dream, and people are poor because they lack the motivation, skills, or schooling to find work.

Another approach to explain poverty is to blame society - that society is responsible for poverty. While it is true that unemployment is a main contributor to poverty, the reasons people don't work are more in line with this approach. Loss of jobs in the inner city is a major contributor to poverty. There simply isn't enough work to support families.

Effects of Social Inequality

Social inequality affects nearly every dimension of our lives. For example, did you know that children from poor families are three times more likely to die from disease, accidents, neglect, or violence during the first year of life than those children born to wealthy families? In addition, on average, wealthy people live five years longer than those less fortunate.

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Additional Activities

What Is Social Inequality in Sociology? Writing Prompts

List Prompt 1:

Make a list that first defines social inequality and then details the factors that exacerbate social inequality.

Example: Income and wealth are two of the most prominent factors, but the lesson also notes factors like education level and power. After you have listed all the factors that can contribute to social inequality, write a brief description next to each one that explains how that factor influences social inequality. For instance, schooling might decide if people can find lucrative jobs.

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay that describes the two main approaches to poverty. Be sure to delineate the pros and cons of each approach. Tip: The key is first defining the blame the poor approach and the blame society approach.

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay that describes the effects of social inequality. Think of how these effects play out on an individual level and on a wider societal level.

Example: One effect presented in the lesson is that teen pregnancy tends be more likely among lower social classes. As you note that this is an impact of societal inequality, describe why this might be (i.e., that it is harder for poorer people to buy birth control, that public schools may not teach teenagers about safe sex practices, etc.). Also explain what you think are the consequences of teen pregnancy (for instance, that teen mothers likely have a harder time pursuing higher education, which could contribute to their being unable to secure higher paying jobs).

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