Systems of Stratification

Stratification

Global stratification refers to the hierarchical arrangement of individuals and groups in societies around the world.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the three dominant theories that attempt to explain global stratification

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Society is stratified into social classes based on individuals’ socioeconomic status, gender, and race.
  • Stratification results in inequality when resources, opportunities, and privileges are distributed based on individuals’ positions in the social hierarchy.
  • Stratification and inequality can be analyzed as micro-, meso-, and macro-level phenomena, as they are produced in small group interactions, through organizations and institutions, and through global economic structures.
  • There are three dominant theories that consider why inequality exists on a global scale. First, some sociologists use a theory of development and modernization to argue that poor nations remain poor because they hold onto traditional attitudes and beliefs, technologies and institutions.
  • Second, dependency theory blames colonialism and neocolonialism (continuing economic dependence on former colonial countries) for global stratification.
  • Lastly, world systems theory suggests that all countries are divided into a three-tier hierarchy based on their relationship to the global economy, and that a country’s position in this hierarchy determines its own economic development.

Key Terms

  • Global Stratification: The hierarchical arrangement of individuals and groups in societies around the world.
  • socioeconomic status: One’s social position as determined by income, wealth, occupational prestige, and educational attainment.
  • inequality: An unfair, not equal, state.

Global stratification refers to the hierarchical arrangement of individuals and groups in societies around the world. Sociologists speak of stratification in terms of socioeconomic status (SES). Socioeconomic status is a measure of a person’s position in a class structure. For example, a person may be designated as “lower class” or “upper class” based on their SES. A person’s SES is usually determined by their income, occupational prestige, wealth, and educational attainment, though other variables are sometimes considered.

Inequality occurs when a person’s position in the social hierarchy is tied to different access to resources. Inequality largely depends on differences in wealth. For example, a homeowner will have access to consistent shelter, while a person who cannot afford to own a home may have substandard shelter or be homeless. Because of their different levels of wealth, they have different access to shelter. Likewise, a wealthy person may receive higher quality medical care than a poor person, have greater access to nutritional foods, and be able to attend higher caliber schools. Material resources are not distributed equally to people of all economic statuses.

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Global Stratification Indicators – Inequality and Income: Globally, the poorest 20% of the population, or lowest tier of the stratified economic order, makes a disproportionately small percentage of global income and lives off of a meager amount.

While stratification is most commonly associated with socioeconomic status, society is also stratified by statuses such as race and gender. Together with SES, race and gender shape the unequal distribution of resources, opportunities, and privileges among individuals. For example, within a given social class, women are less likely to receive job promotions than men. Similarly, within American cities with heavily racially segregated neighborhoods, racial minorities are less likely to have access to high quality schools than white people.

Perspectives on Stratification

Stratification is generally analyzed from three different perspectives: micro-level, meso-level, and macro-level.

Micro-level analysis focuses on how prestige and personal influence create inequality through face-to-face and small group interactions. For example, the more physically attractive a person is, the more likely they are to achieve status in small groups. This effect happens on a small-scale and is difficult to analyze as a uniform, widespread occurrence. Thus, stratification based on levels of physical attractiveness is analyzed as a micro-level process.

Meso-level analysis of stratification focuses on how connections to organizations and institutions produce inequality. For example, parents, teachers, and friends convey expectations about one’s class position that teach different skills and values based on status. These educational disparities occur in the small setting of a classroom, but are consistent across a wide range of schools. Thus, they are analyzed as meso-level phenomena that reinforce systems of inequality.

Macro-level analysis of stratification considers the role of international economic systems in shaping individuals’ resources and opportunities. For example, the small African nation of Cape Verde is significantly indebted to European nations and the U.S., and the majority of the nation’s industry is controlled by foreign investors. As the nation’s economy has ceded control of once public services, such as electricity, its citizen have lost jobs and the price of electricity has increased. Thus, the nation’s position in the world economy has resulted in poverty for many of its citizens. A global structure, or a macro-level phenomenon, produces unequal distribution of resources for people living in various nations.

Theories of Macro-Level Inequality

There are three dominant theories that sociologists use to consider why inequality exists on a global scale. First, some sociologists use a theory of development and modernization to argue that poor nations remain poor because they hold onto traditional attitudes and beliefs, technologies and institutions. According to this theory, in the modern world, the rise of capitalism brought modern attitudes, modern technologies, and modern institutions which helped countries progress and have a higher standard of living. Modernists believe economic growth is the key to reducing poverty in poor countries.

Second, dependency theory blames colonialism and neocolonialism (continuing economic dependence on former colonial countries) for global stratification. Countries have developed at an uneven rate because wealthy countries have exploited poor countries in the past and today through foreign debt and transnational corporations (TNCs). According to dependency theory, the key to reversing inequality is to relieve former colonies of their debts so that they can benefit from their own industry and resources.

Lastly, world systems theory suggests that all countries are divided into a three-tier hierarchy based on their relationship to the global economy, and that a country’s position in this hierarchy determines its own economic development. In this model nations are divided into core, semiperipheral, and peripheral countries. Core nations (e.g. the United States, France, Germany, and Japan) are dominant capitalist countries characterized by high levels of industrialization and urbanization. Semiperipheral countries (e.g. South Korea, Taiwan, Mexico, Brazil, India, Nigeria, and South Africa) are less developed than core nations but are more developed than peripheral nations. Peripheral countries (e.g. Cape Verde, Haiti, and Honduras) are dependent on core countries for capital, and have very little industrialization and urbanization.

Slavery

Slavery is a system in which people are bought and sold as property, forced to work, or held in captivity against their will.

Learning Objectives

Describe different types of slavery

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Slavery is a system of social stratification that has been institutionally supported in many societies around the world throughout history.
  • The Atlantic slave trade brought African slaves to the Americas from the 1600’s to the 1900’s, spurring the growth of slave use on plantations in the U.S., where the slave population reached 4 million before slavery was made illegal in 1863.
  • Human trafficking, or the illegal trade of humans, is primarily used for forcing women and children into sex industries.

Key Terms

  • Atlantic Slave Trade: The enterprise through which African slaves were brought to work on plantations in the Caribbean Islands, Latin America, and the southern United States primarily.
  • bonded labor: A form of indenture in which a loan is repaid by work, the worker being unable to leave until the debt is repaid
  • slavery: an institution or social practice of owning human beings as property, especially for use as forced laborers
  • debt bondage: A condition similar to slavery where human beings are unable to control their lives or their work due to unpaid debts.

Slavery is a system under which people are treated as property to be bought and sold, and are forced to work. Slaves can be held against their will from the time of their capture, purchase, or birth; and can also be deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work, or to demand compensation. Historically, slavery was institutionally recognized by many societies. In more recent times slavery has been outlawed in most societies, but continues through the practices of debt bondage, indentured servitude, serfdom, domestic servants kept in captivity, certain adoptions in which children are forced to work as slaves, child soldiers, and forced marriage.

Slavery predates written records and has existed in many cultures. The number of slaves today is higher than at any point in history, remaining as high as 12 million to 27 million. Most are debt slaves, largely in South Asia, who are under debt bondage incurred by lenders, sometimes even for generations. Human trafficking, or the illegal trade of humans, is primarily used for forcing women and children into sex industries.

Types of Slavery

Chattel slavery, so named because people are treated as the personal property, chattels, of an owner and are bought and sold as commodities, is the original form of slavery. When taking these chattels across national borders, it is referred to as human trafficking, especially when these slaves provide sexual services.

Debt bondage or bonded labor occurs when a person pledges himself or herself against a loan. The services required to repay the debt and their duration may be undefined. Debt bondage can be passed on from generation to generation, with children required to pay off their parents’ debt. It is the most widespread form of slavery today.

Forced labor is when an individual is forced to work against his or her will, under threat of violence or other punishment, with restrictions on their freedom. It is also used as a general term to describe all types of slavery and may also include institutions not commonly classified as slavery, such as serfdom, conscription and penal labor.

History of Slavery

Evidence of slavery predates written records, and has existed in many cultures. Prehistoric graves from about 8000 BCE in Lower Egypt suggest that a Libyan people enslaved a San-like tribe. Slavery is rare among hunter-gatherer populations, as slavery is a system of social stratification. Mass slavery also requires economic surpluses and a high population density to be viable. Due to these factors, the practice of slavery would have only proliferated after the invention of agriculture during the Neolithic Revolution about 11,000 years ago.

In the United States, the most notorious instance of slavery is the Atlantic slave trade, through which African slaves were brought to work on plantations in the Caribbean Islands, Latin America, and the southern United States primarily. An estimated 12 million Africans arrived in the Americas from the 1600’s to the 1900’s. Of these, an estimated 645,000 were brought to what is now the United States. The usual estimate is that about 15 percent of slaves died during the voyage, with mortality rates considerably higher in Africa itself as the process of capturing and transporting indigenous peoples to the ships often proved fatal. Although the trans-Atlantic slave trade ended shortly after the American Revolution, slavery remained a central economic institution in the southern states of the United States, from where slavery expanded with the westward movement of population. By 1860, 500,000 American slaves had grown to 4 million. Slavery was officially abolished in 1863; but, even after the Civil War, many former slaves were essentially enslaved as tenant farmers.

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African American Slaves: Depiction of Slaves on a Virginian Plantation

Caste Systems

Caste systems are closed social stratification systems in which people inherit their position and experience little mobility.

Learning Objectives

Compare the caste system in ancient India with the estate system in feudal Europe

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Castes are most often stratified by race or ethnicity, economic status, or religious status.
  • Castes have been noted in societies all over the world throughout history, though they are mistakenly often assumed to be a tradition specific to India.
  • Historically, the caste system in India consisted of four well known categories: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (commerce), Shudras (workmen). Some people left out of these four caste classifications were called “outcasts” or “untouchables” and were shunned and ostracized.

Key Terms

  • endogamy: The practice of marrying or being required to marry within one’s own ethnic, religious, or social group.
  • estate: A major social class or order of persons regarded collectively as part of the body politic of the country and formerly possessing distinct political rights (w:Estates of the realm)
  • social stratification: The hierarchical arrangement of social classes, or castes, within a society.

Caste is an elaborate and complex social system that combines some or all elements of endogamy, hereditary transmission of occupation, social class, social identity, hierarchy, exclusion, and power. Caste as a closed social stratification system in which membership is determined by birth and remains fixed for life; castes are also endogamous, meaning marriage is proscribed outside one’s caste, and offspring are automatically members of their parents’ caste.

Although Indian society is often associated with the word “caste,” the system is common in many non-Indian societies. Caste systems have been found across the globe, in widely different cultural settings, including predominantly Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and other societies. UNICEF estimates that identification and sometimes discrimination based on caste affects 250 million people worldwide.

In colonial Spain, throughout South America and Central America, castas referred to a method of stratifying people based on race, ethnicity, and social status and was in common usage since the 16th century. The term caste was applied to Indian society in the 17th century, via the Portuguese. The Dutch also used the word caste in their 19th century ethnographic studies of Bali and other parts of southeast Asia. In Latin American sociological studies, the word caste often includes multiple factors such as race, ethnicity, and economic status. Multiple factors were used to determine caste in part because of numerous mixed births during the colonial times between natives, Europeans, and people brought in as slaves or indentured laborers.

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Colonial Mexican Caste System: After the Spanish colonized Mexico, one’s position in a caste system depended on how European or indigenous one seemed. Both biological and sociocultural indicators were used to measure ethnicity.

Some literature suggests that the term caste should not be confused with race or social class. Members of different castes in one society may belong to the same race or class, as in India, Japan, Korea, Nigeria, Yemen, or Europe. Usually, but not always, members of the same caste are of the same social rank, have a similar group of occupations, and typically have social mores which distinguish them from other groups. Some sociologists suggest that caste systems come in two forms: racial caste systems and non-racial caste systems.

India

Caste is often associated with India. Historically, the caste system in India consisted of four well known categories (Varnas): Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (commerce), Shudras (workmen). Some people left out of these four caste classifications were called “outcasts” or “untouchables” and were shunned and ostracized. Ancient Indian legal texts, such as Manusmṛti (ca. 200 BCE-200 CE), suggest that caste systems have been part of Indian society for millennia.

Other Indian scriptures suggest ancient Indian law was not rigid about endogamy within castes. For example, Nāradasmṛti, another text on ancient Indian law, written after Manusmṛti and dated to be over 1400 years old, approves of many, but not all marriages across caste lines. The Nāradasmṛti set out categories of approved marriages between castes. Several statutes recognized offsprings of mixed castes, much like caste system of colonial Spain. Ancient Indian texts also suggest that India’s social stratification system was controversial, a topic of profound historical debates within the Indian community, and inspired efforts for reform.

Europe

Social systems identical to caste systems found elsewhere in the world have historically existed in Europe as well. European societies were historically stratified according to closed, endogamous social systems with groups such as the nobility, clergy, bourgeoisie, and peasants. These caste groups had distinctive privileges and unequal rights, which were not a product of informal advantages such as wealth and were not rights enjoyed as citizens of the state. These unequal and distinct privileges were sanctioned by law or social mores, were exclusive to each distinct social subset of society, and were inherited automatically by offspring. In some European countries, these closed social classes or castes were given titles, followed mores and codes of behavior specific to their caste, and even wore distinctive dress. Nobility rarely married commoners, and if they did, they lost certain privileges. Caste endogamy wasn’t limited to royalty; in Finland, for example, it was a crime—until modern times—to seduce and defraud into marriage by declaring a false social class. In parts of Europe, these closed social caste groups were called estates.

Along with the three or four estates recognized in various European countries, an additional group existed below the bottom layer of the hierarchical society. This bottom social strata with limited rights was understood to serve those with recognized social status. Prominent for centuries throughout Europe, and enduring through the mid-19th century in some areas, members of this numerically large caste were called serfs. In some countries such as Russia, the 1857 census found that over 35 percent of the population could be categorized as a serf. Serf mobility was heavily restricted, and in matters of marriage and living arrangements, they were subject to rules dictated by the State, the Church, by landowners, and by often rigid local custom and tradition.

Class

Social class refers to the grouping of individuals in a stratified social hierarchy, usually based on wealth, education, and occupation.

Learning Objectives

Compare and contrast Marx’s understanding of ‘class’ with Weber’s class model

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Sociologists may analyze social class using a simple three-stratum model of stratification, Marxist theory, or a structural-functionalist approach.
  • Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification that saw political power as an interplay between “class”, ” status ” and ” group power. ” Weber theorized that class position was determined by a person’s skills and education, rather than by their relationship to the means of production.
  • The three-stratum model of stratification recognizes three categories: a wealthy and powerful upper class that owns and controls the means of production; a middle class of professional or salaried workers; and a lower class who rely on hourly wages for their livelihood.
  • In Marxist theory, the class structure of the capitalist mode of production is characterized by two main classes: the bourgeoisie, or the capitalists who own the means of production, and the much larger proletariat (or working class ) who must sell their own labor power for wages.
  • Social class often has far reaching effects, influencing one’s educational and professional opportunities and access to resources such as healthcare and housing.

Key Terms

  • class mobility: Movement from one class status to another–either upward or downward.
  • socioeconomic status: One’s social position as determined by income, wealth, occupational prestige, and educational attainment.
  • class consciousness: A term used in social sciences and political theory to refer to the beliefs that a person holds regarding one’s social class or economic rank in society, the structure of their class, and their class interests.

Social class refers to the grouping of individuals into positions on a stratified social hierarchy. Class is an object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and social historians. However, there is not a consensus on the best definition of the term “class,” and the term has different contextual meanings. In common parlance, the term “social class” is usually synonymous with socioeconomic status, which is one’s social position as determined by income, wealth, occupational prestige, and educational attainment.

Common models used to think about social class come from Marxist theory: common stratum theory, which divides society into the upper, middle, and working class; and structural-functionalism.

Class in Marxist Theory

According to the class social theorist Karl Marx, class is a combination of objective and subjective factors. Objectively, a class shares a common relationship to the means of production. Subjectively, the members will necessarily have some perception of their similarity and common interests, called class consciousness. Class consciousness is not simply an awareness of one’s own class interest but is also a set of shared views regarding how society should be organized legally, culturally, socially and politically.

In Marxist theory, the class structure of the capitalist mode of production is characterized by two main classes: the bourgeoisie, or the capitalists who own the means of production, and the much larger proletariat (or working class) who must sell their own labor power for wages. For Marxists, class antagonism is rooted in the situation that control over social production necessarily entails control over the class which produces goods—in capitalism this is the domination and exploitation of workers by owners of capital.

Weberian Class

The class sociologist Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification that saw political power as an interplay between “class”, “status” and “group power. ” Weber theorized that class position was determined by a person’s skills and education, rather than by their relationship to the means of production.

Weber derived many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. He noted that contrary to Marx’s theories, stratification was based on more than simply ownership of capital. Weber examined how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth yet had strong political power. Many wealthy families lacked prestige and power, for example, because they were Jewish. Weber introduced three independent factors that form his theory of stratification hierarchy: class, status, and power: class is person’s economic position in a society; status is a person’s prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society; power is a person’s ability to get his way despite the resistance of others. While these three factors are often connected, someone can have high status without immense wealth, or wealth without power.

The Common Three-Stratum Model

Contemporary sociological concepts of social class often assume three general categories: a very wealthy and powerful upper class that owns and controls the means of production; a middle class of professional or salaried workers, small business owners, and low-level managers; and a lower class, who rely on hourly wages for their livelihood.

The upper class is the social class composed of those who are wealthy, well-born, or both. They usually wield the greatest political power.

The middle class is the most contested of the three categories, consisting of the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socioeconomically between the lower class and upper class. One example of the contestation of this term is that In the United States middle class is applied very broadly and includes people who would elsewhere be considered lower class. Middle class workers are sometimes called white-collar workers.

The lower or working class is sometimes separated into those who are employed as wage or hourly workers, and an underclass—those who are long-term unemployed and/or homeless, especially those receiving welfare from the state. Members of the working class are sometimes called blue-collar workers.

Consequences of Social Class

A person’s socioeconomic class has wide-ranging effects. It may determine the schools he is able to attend, the jobs open to him, who he may marry, and his treatment by police and the courts. A person’s social class has a significant impact on his physical health, his ability to receive adequate medical care and nutrition, and his life expectancy.

Class mobility refers to movement from one class status to another–either upward or downward. Sociologists who measure class in terms of socioeconomic status use statistical data measuring income, education, wealth and other indexes to locate people on a continuum, typically divided into “quintiles” or segments of 20% each. This approach facilitates tracking people over time to measure relative class mobility. For example, the income and education level of parents can be compared to that of their children to show inter-generational class mobility.

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Social Class and Living Conditions: In the United States, neighborhoods are stratified by class such that the lower class is often made to live in crime-ridden, decaying areas.

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French Estates: In France before the French Revolution, society was divided into three estates: the clergy, nobility, and commoners. In this political cartoon, the Third Estate (commoners) is carrying the other two on its back.

Gender

Along with economic class and race, society is stratified by gender, with women often holding a lower social position than men.

Learning Objectives

Describe the effects of gender discrimination on women’s employment and wealth

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the labor force, women are often relegated to lower status jobs, lower wages, and fewer promotions and raises than their male counterparts.
  • Sexism is discrimination against a person on the basis of their sex, and tends to result in disadvantages for women who do not embrace their traditional gender role as mother and household overseer.
  • Women’s participation in the labor force also varies depending on marital status and social class.

Key Terms

  • sexism: The belief that people of one sex or gender are inherently superior to people of the other sex or gender.
  • Motherhood Penalty: The loss of pay and promotions among women due to the perceived association between women and the demands of childrearing.
  • Informal Economies: Employment domains that are not regulated by governments and law enforcement.

Economic class, race, and gender shape the opportunities, the privileges, and the inequalities experienced by individuals and groups. The United States continues to be greatly stratified along these three lines.

Capitalism also takes advantage of gender inequality. Women workers are often used as a source of cheap labor in informal economies, or employment domains that are not regulated by governments and law enforcement. For example, women work for low wages without health benefits as nannies and maids in New York, in clothing sweatshops in Los Angeles, and on rose farms in Ethiopia. In formal economies, women often receive less pay and have less chances for promotion than men. This phenomenon is referred to as the gender gap in employment.

Current U.S. labor force statistics illustrate women’s changing role in the labor force. For instance, since 1971, women’s participation in the labor force has grown from 32 million (43.4% of the female population 16 and over) to 68 million (59.2% of the female population 16 and over). Women also make, on average, $17,000 less than men do. Women tend to be concentrated in less prestigious and lower paying occupations than men, particularly those that are traditionally considered women’s jobs or pink-collar jobs. Women’s participation in the labor force also varies depending on marital status and social class.

Sociological research shows that women are not paid the same wages as men for similar work. Women tend to make between 75% and 91% of what men make for comparable work, with the highest inequality between men and women found among those with college and graduate degrees. The fact that women earn less than men with equal qualifications helps explain why women are enrolling in college at higher rates than men — they require a college education to make the same amount as men with a high school diploma. The income gap between genders used to be similar between middle-class and affluent workers, but it is now widest among the most highly paid. A woman earning in the 95th percentile in 2006 would earn about $95,000 per year; a man in the 95th earning percentile would make about $115,000, a 28% difference.

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Average Earnings of Full-Time, Year-Round Workers by Educational Attainment in 2006, Constant Dollars: Wages based upon gender and education point to a distinctive glass ceiling as it pertains to women in the workplace.

The most common explanation for the wage gap between men and women is the finding that women pay a motherhood penalty, regardless of whether or not they are actually mothers. This can be explained from the perspective of a potential employer: assuming you have two equally qualified candidates for a position, both are in their mid-twenties, married, and straight out of college, but one is a male and the other is female, which would you choose? Many employers choose men over women because women are “at risk” of having a child, even though they may not want to have children. The employer considers women who have children to be cumbersome, based on the expectation that women will take maternity leave and will be primarily responsible for childrearing. If women do actually take time off to bear and raise children, this further reduces the likelihood that they will be considered for raises or promotions.

Sexism

Sexism is discrimination against people based on their sex or gender, and can result in lower social status for women. Sexism can refer to three subtly different beliefs or attitudes: the belief that one sex is superior to the other; the belief that men and women are very different and that this should be strongly reflected in society, language, and the law; the simple hatred of men (misandry) or women (misogyny). Many peoples’ beliefs about sex equality range along a continuum. Some people believe that women should have equal access with men to all jobs, while others believe that while women are superior to men in a few aspects, in most aspects men are superior to women.

Sexist beliefs are an example of essentialist thought, which holds that individuals can be understood (and often discriminated against) based on the characteristics of the group to which they belong–in this case, their gender.

Sexism has been linked to widespread gender discrimination. One example is the disparity in wealth between men and women in the U.S. Sociological research has shown that there are fewer wealthy women than there are wealthy men and that they are less likely to control the management of their own wealth. Up until the 19th Century most women could not own property and women’s participation in the paid labor force outside the home was limited. It is possible that wealth among the elite may be redistributed toward a more equal balance between the sexes with increasing numbers of women entering the workforce and moving toward more financially lucrative positions in major corporations.