Stratification and Systems of Stratification

What you’ll do: describe social stratification and social inequality, and identify systems of stratification

A black and white photo of a crowd of people standing together with large cloth banners. One banner says" Ladies Waist and Dressmakers Union Local 25, We mourn our loss" and the other reads "We mourn our loss, United Hebrew trades of New York".

Figure 1. A demonstration of protest and mourning for the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. (Photo courtesy of The U.S. National Archives/flickr)

Companies like Amazon, Louis Vuitton, Zara, Walmart, Microsoft, Facebook, and Apple (to name a few) help us to understand inequality because the CEOs of these companies are worth billions and many of their workers are living at or below the poverty line, even with safeguards like minimum wage laws and laws restricting the number of hours employees can work. These laws protecting worker rights have historically been won largely as a result of workplace disasters, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911, which killed 146 workers at a garment factory in New York City. There have been other types of workplace disasters in the United States, particularly in the extractive mining, oil, and coal industries, and these have resulted in laws put in place to protect American workers. However, most workers in other countries that manufacture apparel, electronics, and other items for export are not afforded similar protections. Consider the working conditions and lack of protections given workers involved in the 2013 collapse of the garment factory inside of the Rana Plaza in Bangladesh.

While you read this section, think about the global system that allows U.S. companies to outsource their manufacturing to peripheral nations, where many women and children work in conditions that some characterize as slave labor. Do consumers in the United States have a responsibility to foreign workers? Should U.S. corporations be held accountable for what happens to garment factory workers who make their clothing? What can you do as a consumer and a voting citizen to help such workers? In this section, we’ll learn about systemic social stratification and social inequality in the U.S. and around the world.

Learning outcomes

  • Describe social stratification and social inequality
  • Explain global stratification
  • Differentiate between and describe systems of global classification
  • Explain how global stratification and inequality are measured
  • Differentiate between social stratification systems
  • Describe social classes in the United States

Social Stratification, Social Inequality, and Global Stratification

Social Stratification

A rock formation showing various layers is shown.

Figure 2. 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

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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 3. (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 the chart below illustrates, people’s life expectancy depends heavily on where they happen to be born.

Statistics such as infant mortality rates and life expectancy vary greatly by country of origin. (Central Intelligence Agency 2011)
Country Infant Mortality Rate Life Expectancy
Norway 2.48 deaths per 1000 live births 81 years
The United States 6.17 deaths per 1000 live births 79 years
North Korea 24.50 deaths per 1000 live births 70 years
Afghanistan 117.3 deaths per 1000 live births 50 years

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?

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Systems of Global Classification

A major concern when discussing global inequality is how to avoid an ethnocentric bias implying that less-developed nations want to be like those who’ve attained post-industrial global power. Terms such as developing (nonindustrialized) and developed (industrialized) imply that unindustrialized countries are somehow inferior, and must improve to participate successfully in the “global economy,” a label indicating that all aspects of the economy cross national borders. We must be mindful of how we describe and delineate different countries. Over time, terminology has shifted to enable a more inclusive view of the world.

Cold War Terminology

Cold War terminology was developed during the Cold War era (1945–1991), a period of geopolitical conflict between the democratic, capitalist nations of the world and the more authoritarian communist nations that were primarily controlled by the former U.S.S.R (now, in part, present-day Russia). Familiar and still used by many, it classifies countries into first world, second world, and third world nations based on their respective economic development and standards of living. When this nomenclature was developed, capitalist democracies such as the United States and Japan were considered part of the first world. The poorest, most undeveloped countries were referred to as the third world and included most of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Control of these developing countries was often contested between capitalist and communist powers, sometimes with politically and economically destabilizing results. The second world was the economically in-between category: nations not as limited in development as the third world, but not as well off as the first world, having moderate economies and living standards, and typically being aligned with the communist powers. Much of Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba are key examples. In addition to these earlier categories, sociologist Manual Castells (1998) added the term fourth world to refer to stigmatized minority groups that were denied a political voice all over the globe (indigenous minority populations, prisoners, and the homeless, for example).

Also during the Cold War, global inequality was described in terms of economic development. Along with developing and developed nations, the terms less-developed nation and underdeveloped nation were used. This was the era when the idea of noblesse oblige (first-world responsibility to help the less fortunate) took root, suggesting that the so-termed developed nations should provide foreign aid to the less-developed and underdeveloped nations in order to raise their standard of living.

Immanuel Wallerstein: World Systems Approach

Immanuel Wallerstein’s (1979) world systems approach uses an economic basis to understand global inequality. Wallerstein conceived of the global economy as a complex system that supports an economic hierarchy placing some nations in positions of power with considerable resources while placing other nations in a state of economic subordination. Those that were in a state of subordination faced significant obstacles to development and self-determination.

Wallerstein proposed the following categories:

Core nations are dominant capitalist countries, highly industrialized, technological, and urbanized. For example, Wallerstein contends that the United States is an economic powerhouse that can support or deny support to important economic legislation with far-reaching implications, thus exerting control over every aspect of the global economy and exploiting both semi-peripheral and peripheral nations. We can look at free trade agreements such as the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as an example of how a core nation is able to leverage its power to gain the most advantageous position within the system of global trade.

Peripheral nations have very little industrialization; what they do have often represents the outdated castoffs of core nations or the factories and means of production owned by core nations. They typically have unstable governments, inadequate social programs, and are economically dependent on core nations for jobs and aid. There are abundant examples of countries in this category, such as Vietnam and Cuba. We can be sure the workers in Cuban cigar factories, for example, which are owned or leased by global core nation companies, are not enjoying the same privileges and rights as U.S. workers.

Semi-peripheral nations are in-between nations, not powerful enough to dictate policy but nevertheless acting as a major source for raw material and an expanding middle-class marketplace for core nations, while also exploiting peripheral nations. Mexico is an example, providing abundant cheap agricultural labor to the U.S., and supplying goods to the United States market at a rate dictated by the U.S. without the legal protections offered to United States workers.

World Bank Economic Classification by Income

While the World Bank is often criticized, both for its policies and its method of calculating data, it is still a common source for global economic data.

Along with tracking the economy, the World Bank tracks demographics and environmental health to provide a complete picture of whether a nation is high income, middle income, or low income.

This world map shows advanced, transitioning, less, and least developed countries. Countries on the map with advanced economies are Canada, the US, Australia, Japan, and several countries on the Western side of Europe. Countries in transition are Mexico, Chile, Argentina, and countries in the upper half of Asia and the Eastern side of Europe. The countries that are less or least developed include most of South America, Africa, and the lower half of Asia.

Figure 4. This world map shows advanced, transitioning, less, and least developed countries. (Map courtesy of Sbw01f, data obtained from the CIA World Factbook/Wikimedia Commons).

High-Income Nations

The World Bank defines high-income nations as having a gross national income of at least $12,746 per capita. The OECD (Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development) countries make up a group of thirty-four nations whose governments work together to promote economic growth and sustainability. According to the World Bank (2014b), in 2013 the average gross national income (GNI) per capita, or the mean income of the people in a nation, found by dividing total GNI by the total population, of a high-income nation belonging to the OECD was $43,903 per capita and the total population was over one billion (1.045 billion). On average, 81 percent of the population in these nations was urban. Some of these countries include the United States, Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom (World Bank 2014b).

High-income countries face two major issues: capital flight and deindustrialization. Capital flight refers to the movement (flight) of capital from one nation to another, as when General Motors automotive company closed U.S. factories in Michigan and opened factories in Mexico. Deindustrialization, a related issue, occurs as a consequence of capital flight, as no new companies open to replace jobs lost to foreign nations. As expected, global companies move their industrial processes to the places where they can get the most production with the least cost, including the building of infrastructure, training of workers, shipping of goods, and, of course, paying employee wages. This means that as emerging economies create their own industrial zones, global companies see the opportunity for utilizing existing infrastructure and for producing goods at lower costs. Those opportunities lead to businesses closing the factories that provide jobs to the middle class within core nations and moving their industrial production to peripheral and semi-peripheral nations.

Middle-Income Nations

The World Bank defines middle-income economies areas those with a GNI per capita of more than $1,045 but less than $12,746. According to the World Bank (2014), in 2013 the average GNI per capita of an upper middle income nation was $7,594, with a total population of 2.049 billion, of which 62 percent was urban. Thailand, China, and Namibia are examples of middle-income nations (World Bank 2014a).

Perhaps the most pressing issue for middle-income nations is the problem of debt accumulation. As the name suggests, debt accumulation is the buildup of external debt, wherein countries borrow money from other nations to fund their expansion or growth goals. As the uncertainties of the global economy make repaying these debts, or even paying the interest on them, more challenging, nations can find themselves in trouble. Once global markets have reduced the value of a country’s goods, it can be very difficult to ever manage the debt burden. Such issues have plagued middle-income countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as East Asian and Pacific nations (Dogruel and Dogruel 2007). For example, even in the European Union, which is composed of more core nations than semi-peripheral nations, the semi-peripheral nations of Italy and Greece face increasing debt burdens. The economic downturns in both Greece and Italy still threaten the economy of the entire European Union.

Low-Income Nations

The World Bank defines low-income countries as nations whose per capita GNI was $1,045 per capita or less in 2013. According to the World Bank (2014a), in 2013 the average per capita GNI of a low-income nation was $528 per capita and the total population was 796,261,360, with 28 percent located in urban areas. For example, Myanmar, Ethiopia, and Somalia are considered low-income countries. Low-income economies are primarily found in Asia and Africa (World Bank 2014a), where most of the world’s population lives. There are two major challenges that these countries face: women are disproportionately affected by poverty and much of the population lives in absolute poverty.

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How is global stratification measured?

Just as the United States’ wealth is increasingly concentrated among its richest citizens while the middle class slowly disappears, global inequality is concentrating resources in certain nations and is significantly affecting the opportunities of individuals in poorer and less powerful countries. In fact, a recent Oxfam (2014) report suggested that the richest eighty-five people in the world are worth more than the poorest 3.5 billion combined.

Various models of global stratification all have one thing in common: they rank countries according to their relative economic status, or gross national product (GNP).

There are three primary ways to measure global stratification:

  • The GINI coefficient measures income inequality between countries using a 100-point scale on which 1 represents complete equality and 100 represents the highest possible inequality. In 2007, the global GINI coefficient that measured the wealth gap between the core nations in the northern part of the world and the mostly peripheral nations in the southern part of the world was 75.5 percent (Korseniewicz and Moran 2009).
The map shows the Gini Index (in %) of income worldwide ranging from 25-66%, according to latest published data by World Bank in July 2014. Many nations in South America, sub-Saharan Africa, and China show high inequality data, the U.S. and Russia in the middle, and Canada, much of northern Africa, the Middle East, and Australia showing lower GINI inequality.

Figure 5. Countries’ income inequality (2014) according to their Gini coefficients measured in percentages. Nations shown in red have higher than average income inequality, and those shown in green have lower than average income inequality.

  • Another model separates countries into two groups: more developed and less developed. More-developed nations have higher wealth, such as Canada, Japan, and Australia. Less-developed nations have less wealth to distribute among higher populations, including many countries in central Africa, South America, and some island nations.
  • Yet another system of global classification defines countries based on the per capita gross domestic product (GDP), a country’s average national wealth per person. The GDP is calculated (usually annually) one of two ways: by totaling either the income of all citizens or the value of all goods and services produced in the country during the year. It also includes government spending. Because the GDP indicates a country’s productivity and performance, comparing GDP rates helps establish a country’s economic health in relation to other countries. The figures also establish a country’s standard of living. You can see country ratings of GDP per capita here.

The Big Picture: COMPARING Global Stratification

A few organizations take on the job of comparing the wealth of nations. The Population Reference Bureau (PRB) is one of them. Besides a focus on population data, the PRB publishes an annual report that measures the relative economic well-being of all the world’s countries. It’s called the Gross National Income (GNI) and Purchasing Power Parity (PPP).

The GNI measures the current value of goods and services produced by a country. The PPP measures the relative power a country has to purchase those same goods and services. So, GNI refers to productive output and PPP refers to buying power. The total figure is divided by the number of residents living in a country to establish the average income of a resident of that country.

Because costs of goods and services vary from one country to the next, the GNI PPP converts figures into a relative international unit. Calculating GNI PPP figures helps researchers accurately compare countries’ standard of living. They allow the United Nations and Population Reference Bureau to compare and rank the wealth of all countries and consider international stratification issues.

Image is of a world map color coded to show the countries by GNI (PPP) per capita ranging from less than 1,000 to over 50,000 in 2016. Nations in dark green (almost black), are shown to have high GNI PPP per capita. These include the U.S., must of Europe, Saudi Arabia, and Australia. Countries in light green fall in the middle, such as Russia and China, Brazil, South Africa, Argentina, Algeria, Indonesia. Countries in yellow have low scores--India, much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Figure 6. Countries by GNI (PPP) per capita in 2016.

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Watch It

Watch the selected first few minutes of this video (around the 4 minute and thirty second mark) to learn about social classification, and how and why these categories developed. We’ll finish the video when we learn more about poverty in a later section.

Further Research

Watch this Ted talk by Richard Wilkinson to see examples of how economic inequality harms societies.

To learn more about the existence and impact of global poverty, peruse the data at The World Bank Povery & Equity Data.

Think It Over

  • Why is it important to understand and be aware of global stratification? Make a list of specific issues that are related to global stratification. For inspiration, turn on a news channel or read the newspaper. Next, choose a topic from your list, and look at it more closely. Who is affected by this issue? How is the issue specifically related to global stratification?
  • Why do you think some scholars find Cold War terminology (“first world” and so on) objectionable?

Systems of Social Stratification

Systems of Stratification

Sociologists distinguish between two systems of stratification. Closed systems accommodate little change in social position and are typically based on ascribed status or some trait from birth. They do not allow people to shift levels and do not permit social relationships between levels. Open systems, which are based on achievement, allow movement and interaction between layers and classes. These different systems reflect, emphasize, and foster certain cultural values and shape individual beliefs. Some stratification systems include slavery, caste systems, feudal/estate systems, and class systems.


In examining social stratification, we can begin by looking at slavery in the U.S., which was based on race and resulted in a social stratification system—people were not enslaved because of crimes they committed, debts they owed, or lost wars. Chattel slavery occurs when one person owns another as property. Slaves were taken from West Africa beginning in the 17th century and brought to U.S. colonies, mostly to work as laborers in the growing agricultural economy. The system was maintained by birth, so children born to slaves were automatically slaves and considered property–or “chattel”–of the slaveowner.

While the slave trade was discontinued in 1808, slavery was not abolished until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865 (the same year the Civil War ended), and vestiges of slavery persisted through the Reconstruction era and beyond[1]. The racial stratification of Americans continued through Jim Crow segregation laws, which faded in the 1950s and 1960s as the Civil Rights Movement emerged, and through the convict lease system, which was also gradually phased out in the 20th century. The South African apartheid system is another example of social stratification based on race, or skin color. Apartheid officially began in 1948, and gave the minority white population political and cultural power, while oppressing Blacks, “Coloured” (i.e., people of mixed race), Indian, and Asian peoples. It did not end until 1994. Both of these systems used race to justify closed systems of stratification.

The global watchdog group Anti-Slavery International recognizes other forms of slavery: human trafficking (in which people are moved away from their communities and forced to work against their will), child domestic work and child labor, and certain forms of servile marriage, in which women are effectively property, or chattel slaves (Anti-Slavery International 2012).

Another type of slavery is debt bondage, or bonded labor, in which the poor pledge themselves as servants in exchange for the cost of basic necessities like transportation, room, and board. In this scenario, people are paid less than they are charged for room and board. When travel is required, they can arrive in debt for their travel expenses and be unable to work their way free, since their wages do not allow them to ever get ahead.

Further REsearch

People often think that the United States is immune to the atrocity of human trafficking. Learn more about trafficking in the United States.

Learn more information about ongoing practices of slavery in the modern world.

The Estate System

The ninth century gave rise to feudal societies. These societies contained a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership and protection. The nobility, known as lords, placed vassals in charge of pieces of land called fiefdoms. In return for the resources that the land provided and a guaranteed place to live, vassals promised to fight for their lords. Feudalism was a closed system where land ownership was inherited. The peasants who worked the land served lords for generations and generations as the estate system hierarchy was automatically reproduced at birth.

Like slavery in the U.S., a person’s birth determined his or her social standing. In the estate system, this meant a person could be born a peasant, a commoner, or with access to more property and opportunity, such as a member of the clergy or nobility might have. The justification for this rigid hierarchy was often based on certain religious beliefs, especially that of “divine right,” or the idea that some men rule by God’s will. Ultimately, the social and economic system of feudalism failed and was replaced by capitalism and the technological advances of the industrial era.

The Caste System

A woman in India is shown from behind walking down a residential street.

Figure 7. India used to have a rigid caste system. The people in the lowest caste suffered from extreme poverty and were shunned by society. Some aspects of India’s defunct caste system remain socially relevant. In this photo, an Indian woman of a specific Hindu caste works in construction, and she demolishes and builds houses. (Photo courtesy of Elessar/flickr)

Caste systems are closed stratification systems in which people can do little or nothing to change their social standing. A caste system is one in which people are born into their social standing category, or “caste,” and will remain in it their whole lives. People are assigned occupations regardless of their talents, interests, or potential. There are virtually no opportunities to improve a person’s social position.

In the Hindu caste tradition, people were expected to work in the occupation of their caste and to enter into marriage according to their caste. Endogamy refers to the practice of marrying within one’s own caste category. Accepting this social standing was considered a moral duty. Cultural values reinforced the system. Caste systems promote beliefs in fate, destiny, and the will of a higher power, rather than promoting individual freedom as a value. A person who lived in a caste society was socialized to accept his or her social standing.

Although the caste system in India has been officially dismantled, its residual presence in Indian society is deeply embedded. In rural areas, aspects of the tradition are more likely to remain, while urban centers show less evidence of this past. In India’s larger cities, people now have more opportunities to choose their own career paths and marriage partners. With India’s emergence as an economic power, corporations have introduced merit-based hiring and employment standards to the nation.

Watch It

Finish watching the selected clip from this video to learn more about types of stratification systems.

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The Class System

A class system is an open system based on both social factors and individual achievement. Individuals within a class system are free to gain a different level of education or employment from that of their parents, and can socialize with and marry members of other classes. The class system has fluid boundaries–think of “rags to riches” stories, or stories of wealthy and powerful people being brought low through criminal conviction for crimes such as fraud, insider trading, murder, or extortion.

Class is determined by wealth and income and is considered an achieved status, or one which is earned. Wealth refers to the total value of money and assets such as property and stocks, whereas income refers to the money a person earns from work and/or investments. A person can have a lot of wealth but little income (i.e., someone with a trust fund or inheritance), and conversely, someone can have a large income but very little wealth (i.e., someone who spends as much as they make, but does not purchase property or invest). 

Max Weber identified the following three components in class systems of stratification: class, status, and power (1922). Class, as stated above, includes wealth and income. Status is the prestige or honor accorded to one’s position and/or to one’s name. Power is the ability to exert one’s will over others. One can examine President Donald Trump as an individual who has reached some of the highest levels of class, status, and power. The President of the United States (POTUS) is often described as the most powerful politician in the world, and one of the main duties of POTUS is to oversee the U.S. armed forces, which itself entails an extraordinary amount of power.

Weber’s views on class differed with those held by Marx, who viewed society as composed of the two classes of bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (workers). Weber thought economic position was important, but also emphasized status and power as important components for understanding the class system. An Olympic Gold Medalist for example, might enjoy a high status, and may also increase her income and wealth through endorsements with big brands like Nike or Adidas, but this does not necessarily make them powerful.

Another sociological perspective distinguishes the classes, in part, according to the relative power and control they have over their own lives. In this view, the upper classes not only have power and control over their own lives but their social status also gives them power and control over the lives of others. Consider the 1% and the disproportionate political power that billionaires hold in making decisions that affect other peoples’ lives. 

The Weberian framework is particularly helpful in examining the interconnectedness of class, status, and power, and how these components influence class stratification. Consider decisions regarding health care. Most middle class jobs include health and dental insurance, which allow individuals and families to have a greater degree of control over health-related decisions. In contrast, the working class and the working poor have less control over their work or health care decisions, and often struggle to acquire and maintain access to health insurance. The lowest classes are made up of people in society who have the least amount of control over their lives. 


Meritocracy is an ideal system based on the belief that social stratification is the result of personal effort—or demonstrated merit—that determines social standing. High levels of effort will lead to a high socio-economic position, and vice versa. The concept of meritocracy is an ideal—because a society has never existed where social rank was based purely on merit. Because of the complex structure of societies, processes like socialization, and the realities of economic systems, social standing is influenced by multiple factors—not merit alone. Inheritance and pressure to conform to norms, for instance, disrupt the notion of a pure meritocracy. While an entirely untroubled meritocracy has never existed, sociologists see traces of meritocracy throughout modern societies when they study the role of academic and job performance rating, as well as the systems used for evaluating and rewarding achievement in these areas.

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Watch It

One good way to examine stratification in the United States is to break down the population in quintiles, or five groups each representing 20% of the population. This CrashCourse video explains general information related to each quintile, then examines ways that class, status, and power all play into stratification in the U.S.

Think It Over

  • In what ways does the class system support the myth of a pure meritocracy? Who is helped and who is hurt by this ideology? 
  • Using your sociological imagination, consider how a history of colonialism and/or imperialism and/or slavery residually affects a country’s system of stratification. Please consider the United States and at least one other country.

Class in the United States

Below, we will explore the major divisions of social class in the United States and their key subcategories.

Upper Class

A luxurious house with a personal golf range

Figure 8. Members of the upper class can afford to live, work, and play in exclusive places designed for luxury and comfort. (Photo courtesy of

The upper class is considered the top, and only the elite get to see the view from there. Money provides not just access to material goods, but also access to power and status, as Max Weber described. As corporate leaders, members of the upper class make decisions that affect the job status and security of millions of people. As media owners, they influence the collective identity of the nation. They run the major network television stations, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, multi-media publishing companies, and sports franchises. As board members of the most prestigious colleges and universities, they influence cultural attitudes and values. As philanthropists, they establish foundations to support social causes. As campaign contributors, they sway politicians, sometimes to protect their own economic interests.

The “Middle” Class

A group of formally dressed women talking and eating at an event

Figure 9. These members of a club likely consider themselves middle class. (Photo courtesy of United Way Canada-Centraide Canada/flickr)

Many people, including a majority of Americans, consider themselves middle class, but there are differing ideas about what that means. People with annual incomes of $150,000 call themselves middle class, as do people who annually earn $30,000. That helps explain why, in the United States, the middle class is broken into upper and lower subcategories.

The Upper Middle Class

Upper-middle-class people tend to hold bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees. They’ve studied subjects such as business, management, law, or medicine.

Comfort is a key concept for this group, as they work hard and live materially secure lives. Upper-middle-class people tend to pursue careers that earn higher incomes. They provide their families with large homes and nice cars. They may go skiing or boating on vacation, and their children receive high-quality education and healthcare (Gilbert 2010).

The Average Middle Class

In the average middle class, people hold jobs supervised by members of the upper middle class. They fill administrative support positions, or work as teachers, as office or bank clerks and assistants, and are often in lower-level “white collar” jobs. Average middle class members generally hold bachelor’s degrees from four-year colleges or associate’s degrees from two-year community or technical colleges.

Compared to lower class work, average middle class jobs carry more prestige and come with slightly higher paychecks. With these incomes, people can afford a decent, mainstream lifestyle, but may struggle to maintain it. They generally don’t have enough income to build significant savings. In addition, their grip on class status is more precarious than in the upper tiers of the class system. They tend to own their own homes but the mortgages are often more cumbersome, leaving less money for travel, investments, and private schools. 

Watch It

Watch this video to learn about how the middle class in America has shrunk in recent years.

The Lower Middle Class or Working Class

Working-class people often hold jobs in manual labor, or so called “blue collar” work. These jobs are often hands-on and might include physically demanding occupations such as factory work, machine maintenance, or construction. These people work jobs that may initially require little prior skill or experience and they often perform routine tasks under close supervision. At the more advanced level, these workers may hold certifications and be qualified as better paid “skilled” workers. These jobs are sensitive to recessions and other economic downturns, as well as to global movement of production overseas and the automation of factory work. When budgets are tight, this group is often the most likely to lose their jobs.

Most often working class people have less formal education and earn less money compared to the average middle class individual.

A man is shown scrubbing floors and walls beneath a group of sinks in a restaurant kitchen.

Figure 10. This man is a custodian at a restaurant. His job, which is crucial to the business, is considered lower class. (Photo courtesy of Frederick Md Publicity/flickr)

The Lower Class

The lower class is comprised of the working poor. Like some members of the working class, they often have unskilled, low-paying employment with hourly wages. However, their jobs rarely offer benefits such as healthcare or retirement planning, and their positions are often seasonal or temporary. They work as sharecroppers, migrant farm workers, housecleaners, entry-level retail and service staff, and day laborers. Some are high school dropouts. Some are illiterate, unable to read job ads.

How can people work full-time and still be poor? Even working full-time, millions of the working poor earn incomes too meager to support a family. While the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, the actual minimum wage varies from state to state, with a 2018 maximum, for example, of $11.50 in Washington. However, in many states the average is about $8.00 per hour (Department of Labor 2014). At that rate, working 40 hours a week earns $320. That comes to $16,640 a year, before tax and deductions. Even for a single person, the pay is low. A married couple with children would have a very hard time covering expenses.

The underclass is the United States’ lowest tier. Members of the underclass live mainly in inner cities and many are unemployed or underemployed. Those who do hold jobs typically perform menial tasks (i.e., picking up plastic bottles) for little pay. Some of the underclass are homeless. For many, welfare systems provide a much-needed support through food assistance, medical care, housing, and the like.

Watch It

Watch the selected clip from this CrashCourse video to review the social classes in the United States: upper class, upper middle class, average middle class, working class, and lower class.

Status Consistency

Social stratification systems determine social position based on factors like income, education, and occupation. Sociologists use the term status consistency to describe the consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s rank across these factors. Caste systems correlate with high status consistency, whereas the more flexible meritocracy class system has lower status consistency.

To illustrate, let’s consider Susan. Susan earned her high school degree but did not go to college. That factor is a trait of the lower-middle class. She began doing landscaping work, which as manual labor is also a trait of the lower-middle class or even of the lower class. However, over time, Susan started her own company. She hired employees. She won larger contracts. She became a business owner and earned a lot of money. Those traits represent the upper-middle class. There are inconsistencies between Susan’s educational level, her occupation, and her income. In a class system, a person can work hard and have little education and still be middle or upper class, whereas in a caste system that mobility would not be possible. In a class system, low status consistency correlates with having more choices and opportunities.

Try It

Think It Over

  • Why do you think so many Americans describe themselves “middle class”? 
  • What could be problematic with the way middle class status is calculated? In the documentary, the range for middle class inclusion for a single person is $24,000-$73,000. What factors are not being taken into account? 


capital flight:
the movement (flight) of capital from one nation to another, via jobs and resources
caste system:
a system in which people are born into a social standing that they will retain their entire lives
chattel slavery:
a form of slavery in which one person owns another (“chattel” means “property”)
a group that shares a common social status based on factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation
class system:
social standing based on social factors and individual accomplishments
core nations:
dominant capitalist countries
debt accumulation:
the buildup of external debt, wherein countries borrow money from other nations to fund their expansion or growth goals
debt bondage:
the act of people pledging themselves as servants in exchange for money for passage, and are subsequently paid too little to regain their freedom
the loss of industrial production, usually to peripheral and semi-peripheral nations where the costs are lower
refers to the practice of marrying within one’s own caste category
first world:
a term from the Cold War era (1945-1991) that is used to describe industrialized capitalist nations
fourth world:
a term that describes stigmatized minority groups who have no voice or representation on the world stage
global stratification:
a comparison of the wealth, economic stability, status, and power of countries as a whole
gross national income (GNI):
the income of a nation calculated based on goods and services produced, plus income earned by citizens and corporations headquartered in that country
the money a person earns from work or from dividend-paying investments
an ideal system in which demonstrated personal effort and ability—or merit—determines social standing
peripheral nations:
nations on the fringes of the global economy, dominated by core nations, with very little industrialization
second world:
a term from the Cold War era (1945-1991) that describes nations with moderate economies and standards of living which were aligned with communist state power during that period
semi-peripheral nations:
in-between nations, not powerful enough to dictate policy but acting as a major source of raw materials and an expanding middle class marketplace
social inequality:
is the state of unequal distribution of valued goods and opportunities
social stratification:
a system of ranking individuals and groups within societies
standard of living:
the level of wealth available to acquire material goods and comforts to maintain a particular socioeconomic lifestyle
status consistency:
the consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s rank across social categories like income, education, and occupation
third world:
a term from the Cold War era (1945-1991) that refers to poor, unindustrialized countries that were often not aligned with either capitalist or communist state power during that period
the value of money and assets a person has, perhaps due to inheritance