Social stratification is the division of large numbers of people into layers according to their relative power, property, and prestige. It applies to both nations and to people within a nation, society, or other group. Social stratification affects all of one’s life chances from the access to material processions to their position in society to their life expectancy. Although they may differ as to which system of social stratification they employ, all societies stratify their members.
The four major systems of social stratification are slavery, caste, estate, and class.
Slavery is defined as a form of social stratification in which some people own other people. It has been common in world history with reference to slavery being made in the Old Testament, the Koran, and Roman and Greek history. Slavery was usually based on debt, as a punishment for a crime, or a matter of conquest. Racism was not associated with slavery until southern plantation owners developed a new ideology to justify their enslavement of Africans in the 17th century.
Today, slavery is known to be practiced in the Sudan, Mauritania, and the Ivory Coast. The caste system is a form of social stratification based on ascribed status that follows an individual throughout their life. India provides the best example of a caste system. Based on religion, India’s caste system has existed for almost three thousand years. Although the Indian government formally abolished the caste system in 1949, it still remains a respected aspect of Indian tradition and is strictly followed by a significant portion of the population. During the middle ages, Europe developed the estate stratification system.
In the estate system there were three groups, or estates. These were the nobility, clergy, and commoners. In the last system, social stratification is based on the possession of money or material possessions. A major characteristic of the class system is that it allows social mobility, movement up and down the class ladder. Another method by which all societies stratify their members is by gender. Cutting across all systems of stratification, these gender divisions universally favor males over females. Karl Marx and Max Weber disagreed on the meaning of social class in industrialized societies.
According to Marx, people’s relationship to the means of production is the sole factor in determining their social class. They either belong to the bourgeoisie (those who owned the means of production) or the proletariat (those who work for the owners). According to Weber, Marx’s typology is too limiting since, in actuality, social class, as well as people’s social class standing, consists of three interrelated components: property, prestige, and power. Although all sociologists agree that social stratification is universal, they disagree as to why it is universal.
The functionalist view of social stratification, developed by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, concludes that stratification is inevitable because society must make certain that its positions are filled; ensure that the most qualified people end up in the most important positions; and finally, reward people for the time and energy it takes to develop strong qualifications.
Melvin Tumin identified three problems with the functionalist view: first, how does one determine which positions are more important than others; second, to what degree are societies really meritocracies, promoting people on the basis of their achievements, rather than on their income, assets, and connections; and third, how functional is stratification for the people on the lower ends of the stratification continuum who, denied opportunities to advance or achieve, often never get to realize their fullest potential? Conflict theorists contend that conflict, not function, is the basis of social stratification. Italian sociologist Gaetano Mosca argued that in every society groups compete for power.
Those groups that gain power use that power to manipulate, control, and exploit the groups “beneath them.” Members of the ruling elite in every society develop ideologies that justify their society’s social stratification system. By dominating their society’s major social institutions and, thereby, controlling information and ideas, members of the ruling elite are able to socialize other group members into accepting their “proper places” in the social order. Marx believed the elite maintained their position at the top of the stratification system by seducing the oppressed into believing that their welfare depend on keeping society stable.
Gerhard Lenski suggested the key to understanding stratification is based on the accumulation of surplus. Depending on the political climate and resources available to those in power and those who are ruled, the stratification system is maintained by various means. This means include controlling ideas, controlling information, controlling technology, and the use of force. Of all methods, the use of force is the least efficient. Stratification is universal, although the methods for stratification vary from culture to culture. Two examples of how stratification differs are illustrated by social stratification in Great Britain and the former Soviet Union.
In Britain, the most striking features of the class system are differences in speech (including accents) and education. In the former Soviet Union, communism resulted in one set of social classes being replaced by another. The nations of the world can be divided into three categories, using the extent of industrialization as a basis for stratification. This results in a triadic division of the Most Industrialized Nations, Industrializing Nations, and Least Industrialized Nations. Just as every society stratifies its member, the nations of the world are also stratified with the Most Industrialized Nations controlling most of the world’s wealth and resources.
Three theories explain the origins of global stratification: colonialism, world system theory, and the culture of poverty. Global stratification is currently maintained through neocolonialism (the economic and political dominance of the Least Industrialized Nations by the Most Industrialized Nations) and multinational corporations (companies that operate across many national boundaries). Working closely with the elite of the Least Industrialized Nations, multinational corporations are able to gain access to those countries’ raw materials, labor power, and markets.