Social Stratification, Social Inequality, and Global Stratification

Learning ObjectiveS

  • Describe social stratification and social inequality
  • Explain global stratification

Social Stratification

A rock formation showing various layers is shown.

Figure 1. Strata in rock illustrate social stratification. People are sorted, or layered, into social categories. Many factors determine a person’s social standing, such as income, education, occupation, geography, as well as age, race, gender, and even physical abilities. (Photo courtesy of Just a Prairie Boy/flickr)

Social stratification is a system of ranking individuals and groups within societies. It refers to a society’s ranking of its people into socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power. You may remember the word “stratification” from geology class. The distinct horizontal layers found in rock, called “strata,” are an illustrative way to visualize social structure. Society’s layers are made of people, and society’s resources are distributed unevenly throughout the layers. Social stratification has been a part of all societies dating from the agricultural revolution, which took place in various parts of the world between 7,000-10,000 BCE. Unlike relatively even strata in rock, though, there are not equal numbers of people in each layer of society. There are typically very few at the top and a great many at the bottom, with some variously populated layers in the middle.

Social Inequality

Social inequality is the state of unequal distribution of valued goods and opportunities. All societies today have social inequality. Examining social stratification requires a macrosociological perspective in order to view societal systems that make inequalities visible. Although individuals may support or fight inequalities, social stratification is created and supported by society as a whole through values and norms and consistently durable systems of stratification.

Most of us are accustomed to thinking of stratification as economic inequality. For example, we can compare wages in the United States to wages in Mexico. Social inequality, however, is just as harmful as economic discrepancy. Prejudice and discrimination—whether against a certain race, ethnicity, religion, or the like—can become a causal factor by creating and aggravating conditions of economic inequality, both within and between nations.

Gender inequality is another global concern. Consider the controversy surrounding female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation or FGM). Nations favoring this practice, often through systems of patriarchal authority, defend it as a longstanding cultural tradition among certain tribes and argue that the West shouldn’t interfere. Western nations, however, decry the practice and are working to expose and stop it.

Inequalities based on sexual orientation and gender identity exist around the globe. According to Amnesty International, a range of crimes are commonly committed against individuals who do not conform to traditional gender roles or sexual orientations (however those are culturally defined). From culturally sanctioned rape to state-sanctioned executions, the abuses are serious. These legalized and culturally accepted forms of prejudice, discrimination, and punishment exist everywhere—from the United States to Somalia to Tibet—restricting the freedom of individuals and often putting their lives at risk (Amnesty International 2012).

Watch It

Watch the selected first few minutes of this video to learn about stratification in general terms. You’ll learn some key principles regarding social stratification, namely that:

  • Stratification is universal, but varies between societies;
  • It is a characteristic of society and not a matter of individual differences; in other words, we need to use the sociological imagination to understand social stratification and see it as a social issue and not just an individual problem;
  • It persists across generations, although it often allows for some degree of social mobility;
  • Stratification continues because of beliefs and attitudes about social stratification

Try It

Thinking Deeply about Inequality

How do you think wealth should best be distributed in the United States? Check out this interactive animation on economic inequality from the Economic Policy Institute.

Link to Learning

Imagine that the United States is divided into quintiles (bottom 20%, second 20%, middle 20%, fourth 20%, and top 20%).

  • How do you think wealth is distributed in the United States? What percentage would you attribute to each quintile?
  • What do you think is the ideal distribution?

Now watch the video “Wealth Inequality in America” and compare your responses to the actual distribution of wealth. Keep in mind that these numbers are from 2012, but the rates of inequality have not improved since then.

Global Stratification

Figure (a) shows a grass hut. Figure (b) is of a mobile home park.

Figure 2. (a) A family lives in this grass hut in Ethiopia. (b) Another family lives in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park in the United States. Both families are considered poor, or lower class. With such differences in global stratification, what constitutes poverty? (Photo (a) courtesy of Canned Muffins/flickr; Photo (b) courtesy of Herb Neufeld/flickr)

While stratification in the United States refers to the unequal distribution of resources among individuals, global stratification refers to this unequal distribution among nations. There are two dimensions to this stratification: gaps between nations and gaps within nations. When it comes to global inequality, both economic inequality and social inequality may concentrate the burden of poverty among certain segments of the earth’s population (Myrdal 1970).

As mentioned earlier, one way to evaluate stratification is to consider how many people are living in poverty, and particularly extreme poverty, which is often defined as needing to survive on less than $1.90 per day. Fortunately, until the COVID-19 pandemic impacted economies in 2020, the extreme poverty rate had been on a 20-year decline. In 2015, 10.1 percent of the world’s population was living in extreme poverty; in 2017, that number had dropped an entire percentage point to 9.2 percent. While a positive, that 9.2 percent is equivalent to 689 million people living on less than $1.90 a day. The same year, 24.1 percent of the world lived on less than $3.20 per day and 43.6 percent on less than $5.50 per day in 2017 (World Bank 2020). The table below makes the differences in poverty very clear.

The differences among countries is clear when considering their extreme poverty rates. For the most part, the selected countries show disparities even within countries from the same regions. All data is from 2018. (World Bank 2020)
Country Percentage of people living on less than $1.90 Percentage of people living on less than $3.90 Percentage of people living on less than $5.50
Colombia 4.1 10.9 27.8
Costa Rica 1.4 3.6 10.9
Georgia 4.5 15.7 42.9
Kyrgyzstan 0.9 15.5 61.3
Sierra Leone 40.1 74.4 92.1
Angola 51.8 73.2 89.3
Lithuania 0.7 1.0 3.8
Ukraine 0.0 0.4 4.0
Vietnam 1.9 7.0 23.6
Indonesia 3.6 9.6 53.2

Global stratification compares the wealth, economic stability, status, and power of countries across the world, and also highlights worldwide patterns of social inequality within nations.

In the early years of civilization, hunter-gatherer and agrarian societies lived off the earth and rarely interacted with other societies (except during times of war). As civilizations began to grow and emerging cities developed political and economic systems, trade increased, as did military conquest. Explorers went out in search of new land and resources as well as to trade goods, ideas, and customs. They eventually took land, people, and resources from all over the world, building empires and establishing networks of colonies with imperialist policies, foundational religious ideologies, and incredible economic and military power.

In the nineteenth century, the Industrial Revolution created unprecedented wealth in Western Europe and North America. Due to mechanical inventions and new means of production, people began working in factories—not only men, but women and children as well. The Industrial Revolution also saw the rise of vast inequalities between countries that were industrialized and those that were not. As some nations embraced technology and saw increased wealth and goods, others maintained their ways; as the gap widened, the non-industrialized nations fell further behind. Some social researchers, such as Walt Rostow, suggest that the disparity also resulted from power differences. Applying a conflict theory perspective, he asserts that industrializing nations appropriated and took advantage of the resources of traditional nations. As industrialized nations became rich, other nations became poor (Rostow 1960).

Sociologists studying global stratification analyze economic comparisons between nations. Income, purchasing power, and investment and ownership-based wealth are used to calculate global stratification. Global stratification also compares the quality of life that individual citizens and groups within a country’s population can have.

Poverty levels have been shown to vary greatly. The poor in wealthy countries like the United States or Europe are much better off than the poor in less-industrialized countries such as Mali or India. In 2002, the UN implemented the Millennium Project, an attempt to cut poverty worldwide by the year 2015. To reach the project’s goal, planners in 2006 estimated that industrialized nations must set aside 0.7 percent of their gross national income—the total value of the nation’s good and service, plus or minus income received from and sent to other nations—to aid in developing countries (Landler and Sanger, 2009; Millennium Project 2006).

Although some successes have been realized from the Millennium Project, such as cutting the extreme global poverty rate in half, the United Nations has now moved ahead with their program of economic growth and sustainable development in their new project, Sustainable Development Goals, adopted in September of 2015.

Watch It

Watch this video to get a good understanding of how inequality looks around the world.

Think It Over

  • The wealthiest 300 individuals in the world have more wealth than the poorest 3 billion individuals. Does this surprise you? Why or why not?
  • Why has the wealth gap between the wealthiest countries and the poorest countries grown larger? How is this different from dominant narratives in the media?
  • What changes could be made to reduce global stratification and inequality?

Try It


global stratification:
compares the unequal wealth, economic stability, status, and power of countries across the world
social inequality:
is the state of unequal distribution of valued goods and opportunities
social stratification:
a system of ranking individuals and groups within societies