Skip to main content
K12 LibreTexts

9.1: Systems of Stratification

  • Page ID
  • Objectives

    • Describe the characteristics of the caste system and class systems.
    • Explain the differences between the major theories of social stratification.

    Universal Generalizations

    • Most societies separate their members on certain characteristics.
    • In today’s societies, sociologists have recognized two specific types of social stratification.
    • A person’s wealth is comprised of his or her assets and income.
    • Some sociologists see stratification as a necessary characteristic of the social structure.

    Guiding Questions

    • What are the characteristics of the stratification systems?
    • Describe what determines the level of social inequality in society?
    • What factors contribute to the growing income gap in the United States?
    • Explain the major theories of social stratification?
    • Contrast the functionalist and conflict theories of stratification.

    Systems of Stratification What is it?

    Sociologists use the term social stratification to describe the system of social standing. Social stratification refers to a society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power.

    Except for the simplest preindustrial societies, every society is stratified to some extent, and some societies are more stratified than others. Another way of saying this is that some societies have more economic inequality, or a greater difference between the best-off and the worst-off, than others. In modern society, stratification is usually determined by income and other forms of wealth, such as stocks and bonds, but resources such as power and prestige matter, too. No matter what determines it, a society’s stratification has significant consequences for its members’ attitudes, behavior, and, perhaps most important of all, life chances—how well people do in such areas as education, income, and health. We will see examples of these consequences in the pages ahead and end with a discussion of some promising policies and programs for reducing inequality and poverty.

    The distinct vertical layers found in rock, called stratification, are a good way to visualize social structure. Society’s layers are made of people, and society’s resources are distributed unevenly throughout the layers. The people who have more resources represent the top layer of the social structure of stratification. Other groups of people, with progressively fewer and fewer resources, represent the lower layers of our society.

    A rock formation showing various layers is shown.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): 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, as well as age, race, gender, and even physical abilities. (Photo courtesy of Just a Prairie Boy/flickr)

    In the United States, people like to believe everyone has an equal chance at success. However, sociologists recognize that social stratification is a society-wide system that makes inequalities apparent. While there are always inequalities between individuals, sociologists are interested in larger social patterns. Stratification is not about individual inequalities, but about systematic inequalities based on group membership, classes, and the like. No individual, rich or poor, can be blamed for social inequalities. A person’s social standing is affected by the structure of society. Although individuals may support or fight inequalities, social stratification is created and supported by society as a whole.

    One side of a block of rowhouses and cars covered in snow is shown.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    The people who live in these houses most likely share similar levels of income and education. Neighborhoods often house people of the same social standing. Wealthy families do not typically live next door to poorer families, though this varies depending on the particular city and country. (Photo courtesy of Orin Zebest/flickr)

    Factors that define stratification vary in different societies. In most societies, stratification is an economic system, based on wealth, the net value of money and assets a person has, and income, a person’s wages or investment dividends. While people are regularly categorized based on how rich or poor they are, other important factors influence social standing. For example, in some cultures, wisdom and charisma are valued, and people who have them are revered more than those who don’t. In some cultures, the elderly are esteemed; in others, the elderly are disparaged or overlooked. Societies’ cultural beliefs often reinforce the inequalities of stratification.

    One key determinant of social standing is the social standing of one’s parents. Parents tend to pass their social position on to their children. People inherit not only social standing but also the cultural norms that accompany a certain lifestyle. They share these with a network of friends and family members. Social standing becomes a comfort zone, a familiar lifestyle, and an identity.

    Other determinants are found in a society’s occupational structure. Teachers, for example, often have high levels of education but receive relatively low pay. Many believe that teaching is a noble profession, so teachers should do their jobs for love of their profession and the good of their students, not for money. Yet no successful executive or entrepreneur would embrace that attitude in the business world, where profits are valued as a driving force. Cultural attitudes and beliefs like these support and perpetuate social inequalities.

    Systems of Stratification

    Sociologists distinguish between two types of systems of stratification. Closed systems accommodate little change in social position. They do not allow people to shift levels and do not permit social relations between levels. Open systems, which are based on achievement, allow movement and interaction between layers and classes. Different systems reflect, emphasize, and foster certain cultural values, and shape individual beliefs. Stratification systems include class systems and caste systems, as well as meritocracy.

    The Caste System

    A woman in India is shown from behind walking down the street.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): 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, demolishing and building 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 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 one’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. 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.

    For many years, the best-known caste system was in India, where, supported by Hindu beliefs emphasizing the acceptance of one’s fate in life, several major castes dictated one’s life chances from the moment of birth, especially in rural areas (Kerbo, 2009). Kerbo, H. R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. People born in the lower castes lived in abject poverty throughout their lives. Another caste, the harijan, or untouchables, was considered so low that technically it was not thought to be a caste at all. People in this caste were called the untouchables because they were considered unclean and were prohibited from coming near to people in the higher castes. Traditionally, caste membership in India almost totally determined an individual’s life, including what job you had and whom you married; for example, it was almost impossible to marry someone in another caste. After India won its independence from Britain in 1949, its new constitution granted equal rights to the untouchables. Modern communication and migration into cities further weakened the caste system, as members of different castes now had more contact with each other. Still, caste prejudice remains a problem in India and illustrates the continuing influence of its traditional system of social stratification.

    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. As a global center of employment, corporations have introduced merit-based hiring and employment to the nation.

    Class Systems

    Many societies, including all industrial ones, have class systems. In this system of stratification, a person is born into a social ranking but can move up or down from it much more easily than in caste systems or slave societies. This movement in either direction is primarily the result of a person’s own effort, knowledge, and skills, or lack of them. Although these qualities do not aid upward movement in caste or slave societies, they often do enable upward movement in class societies. Of the three systems of stratification discussed so far, class systems are by far the most open, meaning they have the most vertical mobility. We will look later at social class in the United States and discuss the extent of vertical mobility in American society.

    Sociologist Max Weber, had much to say about class systems of stratification. Such systems, he wrote, are based on three dimensions of stratification: class (which we will call wealth), power, and prestige. Wealth is the total value of an individual or family, including income, stocks, bonds, real estate, and other assets; power is the ability to influence others to do your bidding, even if they do not want to; and prestige refers to the status and esteem people hold in the eyes of others.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    In discussing these three dimensions, Weber disagreed somewhat with Karl Marx, who said our ranking in society depends on whether we own the means of production. Marx thus felt that the primary dimension of stratification in class systems was economic. Weber readily acknowledged the importance of this economic dimension but thought power and prestige also matter. He further said that although wealth, power, and prestige usually go hand-in-hand, they do not always overlap. For example, although the head of a major corporation has a good deal of wealth, power, and prestige, we can think of many other people who are high on one dimension but not on the other two. A professional athlete who makes millions of dollars a year has little power in the political sense that Weber meant it. An organized crime leader might also be very wealthy but have little prestige outside the criminal underworld. Conversely, a scientist or professor may enjoy much prestige but not be very wealthy.

    In class systems, people have the option to form exogamous marriages, unions of spouses from different social categories. Marriage in these circumstances is based on values such as love and compatibility rather than on social standing or economics. Though social conformities still exist that encourage people to choose partners within their own class, people are not as pressured to choose marriage partners based solely on those elements. For example, although Michael formed an endogamous union, marrying a partner from his same social background, Lisa formed an exogamous union, marrying someone outside her social categories.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Graph Distribution of Wealth and Income in the U.S. by Race

    The Dimensions of Social Stratification

    Max Weber formed a three-component theory of stratification in which social difference is determined by class, status, and power. Weber derived many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. Weber analyzed how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth, yet had strong political power. He noted that, contrary to Marx's theories, stratification was based on more than ownership of capital. 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. He treated these as separate but related sources of power, each with different effects on social action.

    Class is a person's economic position in a society, based on birth and individual achievement. Weber differs from Marx in that he did not see this as the supreme factor in stratification. Weber noted that managers of corporations or industries control firms they do not own; Marx would have placed such a person in the proletariat.

    Status refers to a person's prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society. Weber noted that political power was not rooted solely in capital value, but also in one's individual status. Poets or saints, for example, can possess immense influence on society, often with little economic worth.

    Power refers to a person's ability to get their way despite the resistance of others. For example, individuals in state jobs, such as an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or a member of the United States Congress, may hold little property or status, but they still hold immense power.

    U.S. Congress in Present Times

    Using Weber's theory of stratification, members of the U.S. Congress are at the top of the social hierarchy because they have high power and status, despite having relatively little wealth on average.

    When ranking people, sociologists use an individual's wealth, power, and prestige to calculate a person's socioeconomic status (SES). Socioeconomic status combines social factors such as income, educational attainment, occupational prestige, and wealth. The SES is utilized to categorize a person's position in the stratification system.

    Rating Prestige

    These occupational prestige ratings were gathered from the General Social Survey(GSS) and are based on a scale ranging from a low of 1 to a high of 100.

    Figure 9.1.5: Prestige Rating for Selected Occupations
    Occupation Rating Occupation Rating
    Physicians 86 Firefighter 53
    Lawyers 75 Electrician 51
    Registered Nurse 66 Mail Carrier 47
    High School Teacher 66 Musician/Composer 47
    Accountant 65 Farmer 40
    Airline Pilot 61 Child- Care Provider 36
    Computer Programmer 61 Retail Apparel Salesperson 30
    Sociologist 61 Garbage Collector 28
    Police Officer 60 Waiter/Waitress 28
    Actor 60 Janitor 22

    Explaining Stratification

    Sociologists want to determine not only what social stratification is but are also interested in its causes and effects. Functionalists and conflict theorists have emerged with their own findings. Other sociologists have become aware of the functionalists and conflict theorists weaknesses and have attempted to combined elements of both theories.

    Theory Snapshot

    Theoretical perspective Major assumptions
    Functionalism Stratification is necessary to induce people with special intelligence, knowledge, and skills to enter the most important occupations. For this reason, stratification is necessary and inevitable.
    Conflict Stratification results from lack of opportunity and from discrimination and prejudice against the poor, women, and people of color. It is neither necessary nor inevitable.
    Symbolic Interactionism Stratification affects people’s beliefs, lifestyles, daily interactions, and conceptions of themselves.

    The Functionalist View

    Functionalist theory assumes that the various structures and processes in society exist because they serve important functions for society’s stability and continuity. In line with this view, functionalist theorists in sociology assume that stratification exists because it also serves important functions for society. This explanation was developed more than 60 years ago by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (Davis & Moore, 1945) Davis, K., & Moore, W. (1945). Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review, 10, 242–249. in the form of several logical assumptions that imply stratification is both necessary and inevitable. When applied to American society, their assumptions would be as follows:

    1. Some jobs are more important than other jobs. For example, the job of a brain surgeon is more important than the job of shoe-shining.
    2. Some jobs require more skills and knowledge than other jobs. To stay with our example, it takes more skills and knowledge to do brain surgery than to shine shoes.
    3. Relatively few people have the ability to acquire the skills and knowledge that are needed to do these important, highly skilled jobs. Most of us would be able to do a decent job of shining shoes, but very few of us would be able to become brain surgeons.
    4. To induce the people with the skills and knowledge to do the important, highly skilled jobs, society must promise them higher incomes or other rewards. If this is true, some people automatically end up higher in society’s ranking system than others, and stratification is thus necessary and inevitable. To illustrate this, say we have a society where shining shoes and doing brain surgery both give us incomes of $150,000 per year. (This example is very hypothetical, but please keep reading.) If you decide to shine shoes, you can begin making this money at age 16, but if you decide to become a brain surgeon, you will not start making this same amount until about age 35, as you first must go to college and medical school and then acquire several more years of medical training. While you have spent 19 additional years beyond age 16 getting this education and training and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, you could have spent these 19 years shining shoes and making $150,000 a year, or $2.85 million overall. Which job would you choose?

    As this example suggests, many people might not choose to become brain surgeons unless considerable financial and other rewards awaited them. By extension, we might not have enough people filling society’s important jobs unless they know they will be similarly rewarded. If this is true, we must have stratification. This all sounds very logical, but a few years after Davis and Moore published their functionalist theory of stratification, other sociologists pointed out some serious problems in their argument (Tumin, 1953; Wrong, 1959). Tumin, M. M. (1953). Some principles of stratification: A critical analysis. American Sociological Review, 18, 387–393; Wrong, D. H. (1959). The functional theory of stratification: Some neglected considerations. American Sociological Review, 24, 772–782.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Functional theory argues that the promise of very high incomes is necessary to induce talented people to pursue important careers such as surgery. If physicians and shoe shiners made the same high income, would enough people decide to become physicians?

    First, it is difficult to compare the importance of many types of jobs. For example, which is more important, doing brain surgery or mining coal? Although you might be tempted to answer “brain surgery,” if no coal were mined, much of our society could not function. In another example, which job is more important, attorney or professor? (Be careful how you answer this one!)

    Second, the functionalist explanation implies that the most important jobs have the highest incomes and the least important jobs the lowest incomes, but many examples, including the ones just mentioned, counter this view. Coal miners make much less money than physicians, and professors, for better or worse, earn much less on the average than lawyers. A professional athlete making millions of dollars a year earns many times the income of the president of the United States, but who is more important to the nation? Elementary school teachers do a very important job in our society, but their salaries are much lower than those of sports agents, advertising executives, and many other people whose jobs are far less essential.

    Third, the functionalist view also implies that people move up the economic ladder based on their abilities, skills, knowledge, and, more generally, their merit. If this is true, another implication is that if they do not move up the ladder, they lack the necessary merit. This view ignores the fact that much of our stratification stems from lack of equal opportunity, as our Monopoly example at the beginning of the chapter made clear. Because of their race, ethnicity, gender, and class standing at birth, some people have less opportunity than others to acquire the skills and training they need to fill the types of jobs addressed by the functionalist approach.

    Finally, the functionalist explanation might make sense up to a point, but it does not justify the extremes of wealth and poverty found in the United States and other nations. Even if we do have to promise higher incomes to get enough people to become physicians, does that mean we also need the amount of poverty we have? Do CEOs of corporations really need to make millions of dollars per year to get enough qualified people to become CEOs? Don’t people take on a CEO job or other high-paying job at least partly because of the challenge, working conditions, and other positive aspects they offer? The functionalist view does not answer these questions adequately.

    The Conflict View

    Conflict theory’s explanation of stratification draws on Karl Marx’s view of class societies and incorporates the critique of the functionalist view just discussed. Many different explanations grounded in conflict theory exist, but they all assume that stratification stems from a fundamental conflict between the needs and interests of the powerful, or “haves,” in society and those of the weak, or “have-nots” (Kerbo, 2009). Kerbo, H. R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. The former takes advantage of their position at the top of society to stay at the top, even if it means oppressing those at the bottom. At a minimum, they can heavily influence the law, the media, and other institutions in a way that maintains society’s class structure.

    Ideology and Stratification

    In explaining stratification, conflict theory emphasizes ideology, or a set of ideas that justifies the status quo. This emphasis goes back to the work of Marx, who said the ruling class shapes and even controls the ruling ideas of a society. It tries to shape these ideas so that they justify the existing order and decrease the chances that the poor will challenge it. The key goal of the ruling class here is to prevent the poor from achieving class consciousness, or an awareness of their oppression and the true reasons for it (Marx & Engels, 1947). Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1947). The German ideology. New York, NY: International Publishers. If the poor instead do not recognize their interests as a class that does not control the means of production, they suffer from false consciousness.

    As an example, Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses.” By this he meant that religious beliefs influence the poor to feel that their fate in life is God’s will or a test of their belief in God. If they hold such beliefs, they will neither blame their poverty on the rich nor rebel against them. Religious beliefs help create false consciousness.

    Ideological beliefs bolster every system of stratification and domination. In slave societies, the dominant ideology, and one that at least some slaves accepted, was that slaves are inferior to their masters and deserve no better fate in life. When U.S. slavery existed in the South, it was commonly thought that blacks were biologically inferior and suited only to be slaves. Caste societies, as we noted earlier, have similar beliefs that justify the existence and impact of the caste system. Hitler’s “final solution” likewise rested on the belief that Jews and other groups he targeted were biologically inferior and deserving of extermination.

    Conflict theory assumes that class position influences our perceptions of social and political life, even if not to the degree envisioned by Marx. Some national survey data support this assumption. A General Social Survey question asks whether it is the government’s responsibility to “reduce income differences between the rich and poor.” As Figure 9.1.7 shows, low-income people are much more likely than high-income people to think the government has this responsibility.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Annual Family Income and Belief That Government “Should Reduce Income Differences Between the Rich and Poor” (Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2006.)

    Symbolic Interactionism

    Symbolic interactionism tries to understand stratification by looking at people’s interaction and understandings in their daily lives. Unlike the functionalist and conflict views, it does not try to explain why we have stratification in the first place. Rather, it examines the differences that stratification makes for people’s lifestyles and their interaction with other people.

    One of the most insightful analyses of stratification that fits into a symbolic interactionist framework was Thorstein Veblin’s (1899/1953)Veblen, T. (1953). The theory of the leisure class: An economic study of institutions. New York, NY: New American Library. (Original work published 1899) famous discussion of conspicuous consumption, or the acquisition and display by the wealthy of lavish products that show off their wealth. The very rich do not need mansions or other very opulent homes, and neither do they need a motor vehicle costing upward of $100,000 or more or jewelry costing thousands and thousands of dollars. Yet they purchase these products to show off their wealth and to feel better about themselves. Examples of the symbolic interactionist framework are also seen in the many literary works and films that portray the difficulties that the rich and poor have in interacting on the relatively few occasions when they do interact.

    Key Takeaways

    • According to the functionalist view, stratification is a necessary and inevitable consequence of the need to use the promise of financial reward to induce talented people to pursue important jobs and careers.
    • According to conflict theory, stratification results from lack of opportunity and discrimination against the poor and people of color.
    • According to symbolic interactionism, social class affects how people interact in everyday life and how they view certain aspects of the social world.

    For Your Review

    1. In explaining stratification in the United States, which view, functionalist or conflict, makes more sense to you? Why?
    2. Suppose you could wave a magic wand and invent a society where everyone had about the same income no matter which job he or she performed. Do you think it would be difficult to persuade enough people to become physicians or to pursue other important careers? Explain your answer.