Systems of Social Stratification

The caste, the class and the colour-bar are among the systems of social stratification. The main aim of this essay is to compare and contrast these systems as well as indicating their advantages and disadvantages to development. The essay begins with defining the key terms which include comparing, contrasting and development. It further goes on to define as well as explain social stratification itself, the caste, the class and the colour-bar systems respectively. The essay further talks about the advantages and disadvantages of these systems of social stratification and how they affect development.

Lastly but not the least comes the conclusion of the essay. The term “comparing” can be defined as the way of coming up or finding out the similarities between two or more items. On the other hand, the term “contrasting” means finding out some differences between two or more items. However, the term development refers to the act or process of bringing positive change or improvement. It also referred as a multi-dimensional improvement in people’s well-being at all levels.

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Social stratification on the other hand is defined as a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy.

The caste is the system in which people are categorised in a fixed arrangement of strata from the most to the least privileged, with a person's position determined unalterably at birth. However, class system is a system of categorising people which is based on individual achievement depending on their social and economic statuses. The colour-bar system on the other hand is the system in which involve inequalities between people and they are categorised on account of their skin colour or race (Giddens 2006).

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According to Joan Ferranti (1982), there are four fundamental principles of stratification: firstly, Social stratification is a characteristic of society and not just due to individual differences. Secondly, Social stratification persists over generations yet most societies allow some sort of social mobility or changes in people's position. Social mobility may be upward, downward, or horizontal. This means that social mobility may increase, decrease or remain constant.

Thirdly, Social stratification is universal but variable (it changes), and lastly Social stratification involves both inequality and beliefs. Furthermore, social stratification is a trait of society and not simply reflection of individual and it is universal, though it varies from society to society. Ferranti further indicated that Stratification is usually based on three major premises: Power which he described as the ability to impose one’s will on others, Prestige and described it as Horner given to someone by others and Property which he described as forms of wealth.

If a person’s or group’s respect is given to know whether that person or group possess or does not possess certain traits, then it will be able to predictable with reasonable accuracy how this person or group is likely to fare in the social hierarchy. He also defined Social Hierarchy as a set of ranked statuses and Social Inequality as some types of people systematically experience advantages in society while other types of people are systematically disadvantaged in the society.

This determination is based on who is socially advantaged and who is included among the ranks of the socially disadvantaged and it is on certain characteristics that these individuals possess and how society values or devalues these characteristics. Social stratification affects people’s lives and can be manifested in various ways in society (Ferranti 1982). As articulated in the above statements, social stratification is the system of classifying people in terms of gender, race, social-economic conditions, and many other conditions that affect their lives.

Social stratification is divided into six major systems, but this assay concentrate much on explaining three of them as listed above. According to Hindson, D (1987), the caste is a system in which groups are separated from each other on account of religious rules of ritual purity. He indicated that this system has recently been practiced much in India and reflect on the Hindu religious belief where the caste system is more than two thousand years old.

According to the Hindu belief, there are four major types of castes: The “Brahmans” mostly priests and scholars, the “Kshatriyas” warriors, rulers, and large landholders, the “Vaishyas” merchants, farmers, and skilled artisans, the “Shudras” labourers and unskilled artisans, However, there is an additional group called the “Harijans” Sometimes called "untouchables,” they are ranked so low that technically, they are outside the caste system itself. According to Krishnamurti Badriraju (2001), the caste system has many advantages: It helped in the preservation of culture because it was passed on from one generation to another.

Preservation of purity; because of its endogamous nature, it permitted marriage within the caste thus preserved purity for each caste. Division of labour; caste system required each individual to do work prescribed for each caste. It promoted co-operation within caste to preserve their culture and protect it from degradation from other caste. Caste system was also responsible for protecting the society from alien cultures. Furthermore, the caste system promoted permanency and continuity such that each caste had a permanent constitution to guide its behaviour and action.

The caste system also improved living standards because each caste struggled hard to prosper. Badriraju did not only look at the positive side of the caste system but also looked at its negative side and came up with some disadvantages. The caste system was found to undemocratic. This means that it denied equal opportunity for advancement of people belonging to different castes. There was no mobility among the caste because each individual adopted the occupation prescribed for his/her caste. The caste system also prohibited physical contacts or communication between the Brahmin and the Sudra.

Furthermore, the caste system is a class of idlers where Brahmins were well entrenched at the top of the social hierarchy and stopped devoting themselves to study, teaching and started living on alms provided by other castes. This made the low caste people to be oppressed regarding their place of living, movements and other activities and this was against the integrity of the nation. The caste system promoted discrimination by the false sense of superiority and inferiority between the Brahmin and the Sudra.

Class system is a form of social stratification in which society tends to divide into classes whose members have different access to resources and power. An economic and cultural rift usually exists between different classes. In the early stages of class stratification, the majority of members in a given society have similar access to wealth and power, with only noticeable members displaying more or less wealth than the rest. As time goes on, the large share of wealth and status can begin to concentrate around a small number of populations.

As the members of the community begin to spread out from one another economically, classes are created (Hawley, John Charles 2008). Karl Max saw classes as defined by people's relationship to the means of production. According to him, the Capitalists (bourgeoisie) are people who own factories and other productive business and the proletariat are people who sell their productive labour to the capitalists. Marx's theory has been enormously influential and his work has been criticized for failing to recognize that a system of unequal ewards may be necessary to motivate people to perform their social roles effectively.

According to Marxist theory in a class system, social stratification benefits the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor. Karl Marx also described two other classes, the petite bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. The petite bourgeoisie is a small business class that does not accumulate enough profit as compared to the bourgeoisie, while the lumpenproletariat is a low life part of the proletariat class which include beggars, prostitutes and many others (Gimbutas, Marija 1992).

Unlike Karl Marx who defined social classes in terms of ownership of the means of production, Max Weber identified three distinct dimensions of stratification. He argued that social standing consists of three parts or dimensions: class, which he regarded as determined mainly by economic standing or wealth; party, which was equivalent to political power; and status, or social prestige and honour. Following Weber's lead, contemporary sociologists often use the broader concept of social-economic status to refer to a person's ranking along several social dimensions, particularly education, occupational prestige, and income.

He added on by saying that people had different qualifications and skills on the basis of which they can be differentiated. Wright, E. O. (1997), found the class system to have both advantages and disadvantage: It promoted group solidarity and co-operation between people belonging to the same class, it promoted hard work among the lower class as they strived to be as those the higher class, it also promoted pride on one’s success or achievement through hard working.

For example, if a lawyer would be seen to the same as a garbage man and get the same salary, he would feel inferior and think that his hard work was in vein as has the same income with someone who did not spend 18 years in school. On a negative part, wright found the class system to be undemocratic as it denied equal opportunities for advancement of people’s belonging to different groups. Another system of social stratification is the colour-bar system (also known as the race system).

Jeremy Seekings (2003) described it as a system which involves inequalities between groups of people by the colour or race of its people. Mainly these inequalities deal with the antagonistic action between the whites and black racial groups. The colour-bar is associated with the apartheid in South Africa where people were categorised in four groups: on top of the hierarchy being the whites (Caucasians) followed by the coloureds, then the Asians (mongoroids) and lastly, the black (negroids). This system is also associated with discrimination and prejudice.

Furthermore, the system is characterised by racial segregation where racial or ethnic groups inhabit the same territory but do activities separately also termed as “mix but not combine”. Similarly to other systems, the colour-bar also promotes solidarity among groups of the same race by the preservation of culture because it passed on from one generation to another. However, the colour-bar system was found to have more disadvantages than advantages because promoted racism, discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, and ethnocentrism because people in the lowest category could feel to be more inferior.

In comparing the three systems of social stratification, it would be found that they have some features in common; at the same time they would be found to have some differences depending on how they occur or practiced. According to how scholars have been describing each of these systems, they all come to a common conclusion of classifying people into different categories, they share the same principles as well as dimension which are: wealth, power and prestige.

Although these systems share the same principles and dimensions, it is clear from their descriptions that they vary in the way they are practiced. The caste system is a system in which groups are separated from each other on account of religious rules of ritual purity, and the class system as articulated by Karl Marx is a system where people are classified on account of ownership and non-ownership of the means of production. Furthermore, it is a system where people are classified depending on their social and economic statuses.

On the other hand, the colour-bar system as shown by Jeremy Seekings (2003), it is a system which involves inequalities between groups of people by the colour or race of its people. However, this clearly shows that although these systems of social stratification have some similarities, they are different in the actual way they occur. During the Conference on Race in Durban in 2001, Dalit participants made out a strong case that caste discrimination was not different from race discrimination and casteism was no different from racism [United Nations 2001].

The Indian Government rejected this equation, just as it rejected calling Indian forest dwelling communities as ‘indigenous peoples,’ though its own terminology of ‘adivasi’ means exactly that. It has maintained that such classifications are not rigorous enough. The Indian government apparently has forgotten that it was the intervention of the Indian delegation in 1965 that forced the International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination [CERD] to include the term ‘descent’ as a factor.

It has also been pointed out that in practice racial and caste discrimination coalesce “be it exclusion, inequality, institutionalised prejudices or discrimination” (Khan 2010). On the other hand, the colour-bar system is different from the class system in many ways: the colour- bar is a closed system of social stratification whereas the class is open. This means that in the colour-bar system there is little or no interaction between people of different colour/race, but people of different classes are free to interact in the class system.

Social mobility is restricted in the colour-bar system, and open in the class system. Inequality is based on one’s skin colour in the colour-bar system whereas in the class system, it is based on one’s social and economic status. In the colour-bar system, the lowest race (blacks mostly) are denied development opportunities, whereas in the class system everyone is not hindered but eligible of developing his status. The colour-bar system does not allow marrying outside the race (it is endogamous), and this is what makes it similar to the caste system (John S 1983).

John did not only look at the differences between these systems, but he also talked about their similarities by outlining that they both have elements of slavery because in the colour-bar system, the whites exercise absolute control over blacks and in the class system, the owners of the bourgeoisie exercise absolute control over the proletariats. Little do these systems of social stratification contribute to development, Davis and Moore argued that the most difficult jobs in any society are the most necessary and require the highest reward and compensation to sufficiently motivate individuals to fill them.

This promotes development as it makes people work hard (mostly academically) in order to acquire those positions. However, this argument has been criticised by many scholar as it only apply to the class system and not the caste and the colour-bar where one cannot change his race (the new york times 2005). Since development comes through hard work, these systems play a vital role in promoting development because those in lower class work hard in order to become like those in higher class.

However, this development is limited to the class system because it does not occur at a broader level in the caste and the colour-bar systems but occurs within the particular caste or race. The reason is that no matter how much one succeeds in these two systems, he will remain a black, coloured or Sudra. This can hinder development because a Blackman will feel it is better to remain poor and being looked down by a Whiteman than to succeed while still being laughed at. However, this same applies to the caste system where a Harijan thinks that even if works hard; he will not be as pure as the Brahmin.

In summary, it would be concluded that these three systems of social stratification hinder development because they all involve inequalities between groups of people. For as long as these systems promote racism, discrimination, prejudice, stereotyping, and ethnocentrism, development cannot occur because people in the lowest category (such as the blacks, Sudra, harijan, the proletariats and lumpens) would feel to be more inferior and think that they cannot do anything where development is concerned.

This analysis can be interpreted in a range of ways as regards the positions in society concerning the classification of people. Looked at one way, almost the whole of society can be considered as ‘a society of classes’. For this reason, Karl Marx advocated the attainment of classless society after the workers overthrow the owners of the means of production from power of which it has not been attained even today.

Updated: Feb 22, 2021
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Systems of Social Stratification. (2016, Nov 02). Retrieved from

Systems of Social Stratification essay
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