We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. With these familiar words of the Declaration of Independence, the founders of America established social equality as a guiding principle. Yet for almost a century after the document was signed, slavery was common in much of the United States, and legal infringement of the rights of women and black Americans continued for almost two centuries. Today,the “Inalienable right” to “life,liberty,and pursuit of happiness” is still not equally awarded. For generations now there has been the American Dream of unlimited opportunities for all.
The reality, however, has been closer to the underlying principle of the barnyard society in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’: “All animals are equal,but some animals are more equal than others. ” Therefore the essence of this paper is to critically discuss the extent to which social stratification is useful and inevitable in society. It will start off by providing definitions of technical terms. In order to arrive at a clear understanding of the subject under discussion,the concept of social stratification shall also be explained.
In addition,the main systems involved in social stratification will be highlighted. Afterwards,the main subject matter will be discussed and in line with this,examples and theories that apply shall be given in support. Finally,a conclusion will be given. According to Harris and Scott (1997),social status is the position or positions occupied by individuals or groups of individuals in relationship to other groups or individuals in society. Each person occupies a great number of statuses and at the same time are continually changing.
For example,one person may occupy the status of a husband,father,skilled worker and so on. However,the bottom line is that status can either be ascribed or achieved. Social mobility refers to the movement of individuals or groups from one status in society to another . Since there are several dimensions to social standing or status,people are able to change position by gaining or losing wealth,prestige and power. Upward mobility refers to movement up the social ladder,or a gain in status;downward movement refers to a movement down the social ladder,or a loss of status.
Upward and downward mobility,collectively is what is called vertical mobility,an example of this type of mobility is an individual being promoted from a secretarial position to a management position,hence moves from the lower class to the middle class. Another is the horizontal mobility,this refers to movement within a social class. This happens when an individual moves from one job to another job of same social ranking,for example,an accountant moves from one firm to another. Individuals can also have a higher social status than their parents,this is referred to as intergenerational mobility (Coser 1983).
Social stratification is a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. The word stratification is derived from the word ‘stratum’ which is a geographical word meaning a layer of rocks of which each layer lies between similar layers of different texture. Sociologists use the term to describe a hierarchical ordering of people or groups as though were arranged in horizontal layers,one above the other. It means that people exist in layers of prestige,power and wealth. It is a structural ranking of people that perpetuate unequal economic rewards and power in society.
Social inequality is an inevitable result of social stratification in that certain groups of people stand higher in society,control scarce resources,yield power and receive special treatment. Therefore,a stratified society comprises of members who are either rich, poor, powerful, powerless, high or low (Kerbo and Harold 1991). Social stratification is universal except that it varies from society to society. This means that the hierarchical arrangement takes place in all societies in the world but the criteria used differs from society to society. This is so because every society has its own norms and values hence different culture.
For instance,most African societies value marriage or family life while European or American societies encourage working towards the obtaining of wealth. The differences in values and culture differentiates a society from another. Subsequently,in some societies,age and sex are used as systems of social stratification. Nevertheless,the most commonly used include the caste,the class,the colourbar and the estate systems of social stratification. (Ibid). The caste system is also called the closed system of social stratification. In this system,social stratification is based on ascription.
It is closed on the sense that birth alone determines one’s social destiny with no opportunity for social mobility based on individual effort. People in this system are ranked in a rigid hierarchy and It is more concerned with religious roles and rituals and is practiced in Hinduism and Indian societies. There are five groups of people in this system namely:the Brahmin,comprising of priests;the Kshatrya, comprising of landlords;the Vaisya,made up of farmers;the Saundra,who are the peasants and the least group being that of the Harijans or the untouchables.
In addition,this system is characterized by endogamy. Meaning that marriage outside one’s group is not allowed (Maines and David ,1993). The class system is called the open system. This system is so open that people who gain schooling and skills may experience social mobility. This system was looked at and recognized by Karl Marx and Marx Weber in their Conflict theories. In this system,social mobility drives class distribution. Everyone is believed to be entitled to equal rights and social position,therefore it is based on achievement rather than ascription.
In both the cast and class systems people remain unequal but the class system rests on talent,opportunity and effort unlike the caste system which is by birth. In the class system, careers are an issue of individual choice and not moral duty. Consequently,individual freedom is allowed in the selection of marriage partners. (Ibid). The colourbar is another system of social stratification,this system is based on skin colour or race. People in this system are arranged hierarchically on the basis of their skin colour.
An example of a colourbar society is South Africa before its independence. There were four main categories of people in South Africa,they were hierarchically categorized as follows;at the top were the Whites,the Colourds,Asians and at the bottom,the Blacks. In addition,colourbar societies are characterized by high levels of segregation,slavery and racism (Goode ,1994). The last system of social stratification is the Estate system. This was a system created by law. Henceforth,laws provided clear distinctions between people.
This system acknowledged only three categories of people in society. These were; the Nobles or landlords who owned land and means of production,the Clergy who were men of God and the Commons who worked on the farms of the Nobles in exchange for wages. (Ibid). Ordinarily,social stratification is inevitable in society because it is a characteristic of each and every society and not simply a mere reflection of individual differences. In all societies,people rarely control destinies but rather people’s lives are shaped by the prevailing system of social stratification.
For example, children born in wealthy families enjoy better health, food, shelter, clothing, education and succeed in life and live well into old age than those born into poverty. Therefore, social stratification being part of society and not a reflection of personal talents and effort,is inevitable (Shapiro and Thomas, 1998). From the functional perspective,social inequality is both inevitable and necessary for allocating individuals to important social roles. The most persuasive argument for the functional theory of stratification was made nearly forty years ago by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E.
Moore. They contended that people are motivated to perform demanding or difficult roles through the unequal distribution of rewards. If surgeons did not have such high occupational prestige and incomes,Davis and Moore argued,not enough people would put up with the long years of training,life-and-death responsibilities or personal sacrifices that the surgeon’s role requires. On the other hand,Plumbers fulfill a social role that demands less effort and training,make less money and enjoy less prestige.
Social inequality according to Davis and Moore is thus an unconsciously evolved device by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons. Hence every society,no matter how simple or complex must posses a certain amount of institutionalized inequality (Coser ,1983). Further,the unequal distribution of power,prestige and wealth in society motivates individuals to aspire for significant jobs and to work hard and longer,leading to productivity in society. Because the significant jobs are limited,meritocracy is promoted in society.
Meritocracy is simply the leadership by people based on quality abilities to do so,the term is derived from the word ‘merit’ which in this case is the quality of being particularly good at something and worth a social reward in terms of wealth ,power or,and prestige. Meritocracy implies excellence in the execution of services. The pursuit for meritocracy promotes equality in terms of opportunities and at the same time encourages inequality in rewards. For example,the zambian Ministry of Education only allows teachers with degrees to teach in high schools.
As a result,teachers are compelled to advance their academic qualifications in order to be given a chance to work in such schools and for them to enjoy higher salaries. Because of this,pupils benefit quality education from highly qualified teachers. Societies that use meritocracy hold out rewards to develop the talents and encourage the efforts of everyone. In other words,a pure class system would be a meritocracy,rewarding everyone based on ability and efforts. Such societies would have extensive social mobility and varying social categories as individuals move up or down on the social ladder depending on their performance, (Ibid).
Social stratification is necessary because it promotes a culture of corporation between people of the the same category. People tend to want to work together with those in the same position as them. For example,those who are underprivileged tend to work together in coming up with community initiatives for the betterment of their conditions (De Beer ,2000). While the functionalist perspective succeeds in explaining the importance of social stratification,several flaws are pointed out. Melvin (1953),argues that functional importance does not explain the high rewards certain people enjoy.
Income and rewards seem to have little to do with functional contribution to society by the individual. For example,Hollywood actors earn millions more of dollars compared to Doctors and military personnel. Another critic is that it is impossible to say which social positions are more important than others. Which society would function better,the critics ask,one with no surgeons or one with no plumbers? Furthermore,it is quite possible that some unrewarded positions such as garbage collectors and ousewives contribute more to society than some highly rewarded positions like professional athletes and movie stars (Coser ,1983). Another critic is that,although societies reward individual achievements,it also allows families to transfer wealth and power from generation to generation. For example,the royal family in Swaziland ensures that its line of leadership is maintained by appointing only members of the royal family as supreme rulers of the nation. (Ibid) While functional theorists argue that inequality benefits the society as a whole,conflict theorists point out that it benefits some people more than others.
According to this perspective, stratification exists because certain groups are able to exploit and dominate others through force or through traditional inherited privileges. Modern Marxists see classes as conflicting groups;rulers against ruled, haves against have nots. The conflict ideas depend heavily on the ideas of Marx and Weber. The dual contributed greatly to the study of social stratification. The scholars however had different views on social class and inequality. Karl Marx saw class as related to the means of production.
Primarily,Marx viewed the structure of society in relation to major classes and the struggle between classes as the engine of change . According to Becker and Howard (1973:278),Marx defined class in terms of ownership of property, “ ownership vests on a person with the power to exclude others from the property and use it for personal purposes. ” In relation to property,there are two classes in society that Marx identified; the Bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production and the Proletariat who own labour and sell it to the bourgeoisie for a wage.
According to Marx class is thus determined by property and not by income or status. Further,Marx saw the development of class conflict as confined to individual factories. Therefore,the maturing of capitalism,the growing disparity between life conditions of bourgeoisie and the proletariate as well as homogenization within each class, struggles become generalized across factories. Increasingly,class conflicts manifest at societal level. Hence, class consciousness is increased, common interests and policies are organized and the use of struggle for political power occurs.
Classes become political forces. The distribution of political power is determined by power over production. Capital confers political power which the bourgeoisie use to legitimize and protect their acquired property and consequent social positions. The State business is that of the bourgeoisie. In other words, the state rule, power and its distribution are all in favor of the ruling class (Garfinkel and Harold,1967). Meanwhile, Marx Weber agreed with Karl Marx but added that social stratification is more complex and based on three factors that are inter-linked.
These factors are;class which is a person’s economic position in society, based on birth and individual achievement. Weber differs from Marx in that he does not see this as the supreme factor in stratification. Weber noted how managers of corporations or industries control firms they do not own; Marx would have placed such a person in the proletariat. The other factor is status, this is a person’s prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society. Weber noted that political power was not rooted in capital value solely, but also in one’s individual status.
Poets or saints, for example, can possess immense influence on society with often little economic worth. And lastly is the factor of power, which is 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 Office of the President (O. P) or a Member of Parliament (M. P) may hold little property or status but they still hold immense power. Unlike Marx,Weber claimed there to be in fact four main classes: the upper class, the white collar workers, the petite bourgeoisie and the manual working class.
Weber’s theory more-closely resembles modern western class structures. The conflict theory also takes a one-sided approach to stratification. One of its major shortcomings is that it fails to recognize that unequal rewards are based partially on differences in talent, skill and desire. Not everyone is suited for every social position in the social structure. Consequently,society must have some way to argue the proper individuals into positions that are vital to the smooth operation of society. In conclusion, this paper has critically discussed the extent to which social stratification is useful and inevitable in society.
As is alluded by the functionalist theory and the Davis Moore thesis,it plays a vital part in the operation of society and as such has beneficial consequences as discussed. And as alluded by the conflict theory that it is not entirely beneficial to the society as a whole but provides advantages to some people at the expense of others,hence brings about exploitation and increase in inequality. Therefore,it can clearly be concluded that firstly social stratification is inevitable as it exists in every society and secondly that it is to some extent useful as well as not to another because it has its advantages and disadvantages.
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