Categorically Unequal : The American Stratification System

Massey states in the very beginning sentence of his book, Categorically Unequal : The American Stratification System, “All human societies have a social structure that divides people into categories based on a combination of achieved and ascribed traits” (Massey, 1). Though a plethora of these “categories” define each individual person, there are still certain traits, like race, gender, class, and sexuality, that oftentimes people use as a basis of discrimination. One thing that all these previously mentioned traits have in common, is that they are ascribed, rather than earned.

“Ascribed social categories include nominal groupings such as gender, in which people are labeled male or female on the basis of inherited physical traits (ultimately, the possession of one versus two X chromosomes), as well as graduated categories such as age, in which people are classified according to the amount of time elapsed since birth” (Massey, 1). These ascribed traits, as Massey describes, are assigned unwillingly as they are characteristics one is born with. Based on these ascribed categories, categorical inequality could be defined as inherent favoritism toward individuals possessing specific ascribed characteristics deemed superior by members of society.

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With the social categories Massey writes of, there is also inherent stratification. Massy states, “Stratification refers to the unequal distribution of people across social categories that are characterized by differential access to scarce resources” (Massey, 1). There are many basic mechanics behind stratification, the first which Massey describes exploitation. “when people in one social group expropriate a resource produced by members of another social group and prevent them from realizing the full value of their effort in producing it” (Massey, 6).

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Secondly, there is opportunity hoarding. “Opportunity hoarding occurs when one social group restricts access to a scarce resource, either through outright denial or by exercising monopoly control that requires out-group members to pay rent in return for access” (Massey, 6). Massey then goes on to describe to social processes that institutionalize these mechanisms, “Emulation, whereby one group of people copies a set of social distinctions and interrelationships from another group or transfers the distinctions and interrelationships from one social setting to another” (Massey, 6-7) and “adaptation: social relations and day-to-day behaviors at the micro social level becomes oriented toward ranked categories, so that decisions about who to befriend, who to help, who to share with, who to live near, who to court, and who to marry are made in ways that assume the existence and importance of asymmetric social categories” (Massey 7)

Social placement of groups can be perceived within two intersecting categories: warmth and competence. These are the categorical axis that make up the “Stereotype Content Model” (Massey, 11). The Stereotype Content Model consists of four groups or “quadrants” that are based on the amount of both warmth and competence given to individuals based on their ascribed characteristics. The top right quadrant, consisting of both high warmth and confidence, is that of the esteemed ingroup. “The top-right quadrant contains people within the person’s own group, along with members of groups perceived to be similar to one’s own. Naturally, we think of members of our own social group as warm and competent and, hence, approachable and worthy of respect” (Massey, 11). An example of the esteemed ingroup would be one’s peers, as they posses similarities in social space in relation to who ever is comparing them as a peer. “The bottom-right quadrant contains those groups that are viewed socially as competent but not warm. They Are respected but not liked, and the relevant emotion that people feel toward them is envy. This quadrant embraces the classic middleman minorities, such as Jews in medieval Europe, Chinese in Malaysia, Tutsi in Rwanda, and Indians in East Africa” (Massey, 11-12). The top-left quadrant is the “Pitied Outgroup” these individuals are perceived as warm but not competent. “Those falling into this category include people who have experienced some misfortune but are otherwise perceived as “people like me,”” (Massey, 12). An example of this would be racial ingroup members who differ in terms of class or disability, such as the mentally ill or disabled. The final quadrant, the bottom-left, consists of the despised outgroup. “People within these out-groups are socially despised, and the dominant emotion is disgust” (Massey, 13). An example of these individuals would be criminals.

Group boundaries are formed through an identification and classification of ingroups and outgroups. Massey further explains this maintenance of boundaries with the following quote: “[individuals] translate these representations into social categories through boundary work; and then establish institutional structures for exploitation and opportunity hoarding that correspond to categorical boundaries, thereby generating unequal access to resources such as financial capital, human capital, social capital, and cultural capital” (Massey, 18). These boundaries are maintained, finally, through social exploitation, which I believe Massey explains with the quote, “If out-group members are spatially segregated from ingroup members, then the latter are put in a good position to use their social power to create institutions and practices that channel resources away from the places where out-group members live” (Massey, 19).

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Categorically Unequal : The American Stratification System. (2021, Sep 21). Retrieved from

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