Chapter 10: Social Stratification
Chapter Overview


  1. What is Social Stratification?
  2. Caste and Class Systems
    1. The Caste System
      1. Two Illustrations: India and South Africa
      2. Caste and Agrarian Life
    2. The Class System
      1. Status Consistency
    3. Caste and Class Together: The United Kingdom
      1. The Estate System
      2. The United Kingdom Today
    4. Another Example: Japan
      1. Feudal Japan
      2. Japan Today
    5. The Former Soviet Union
      1. A Classless Society?
      2. The Second Russian Revolution
    6. Ideology: Stratification's "Staying Power"
      1. Plato and Marx on Ideology
      2. Historical Patterns of Ideology
  3. The Functions of Social Stratification
    1. The Davis-Moore Thesis
    2. Meritocracy
  4. Stratification and Conflict
    1. Karl Marx: Class and Conflict
    2. Why No Marxist Revolution?
      1. A Counterpoint
    3. Max Weber: Class, Status, and Power
      1. The Socioeconomic Status Hierarchy
      2. Inequality in History
  5. Stratification and Technology in Global Perspective
    1. Hunting and Gathering Societies
    2. Horticultural, Pastoral, and Agrarian Societies
    3. Industrial Societies
    4. The Kuznets Curve
  6. Social Stratification: Facts and Values
  7. Summary
  8. Key Concepts
  9. Critical-Thinking Questions
  10. Applications and Exercises
  11. Sites to See


  • To understand the four basic principles of social stratification
  • To be able to differentiate between the caste and class system of stratification
  • To begin to understand the relationship between ideology and stratification
  • To be able to differentiate between the structural-functional and social-conflict perspectives of stratification
  • To be able to describe the views of Max Weber concerning the dimensions of social class
  • To be able to describe the approach to understanding social stratification as presented by the Lenskis



This chapter opens with the story of the sinking of the Titanic to illustrate the consequences of social inequality as evidenced by those who survived the disaster and those who did not. Social inequality, the unequal distribution of valued resources, is found in every society. Social stratification refers to a system by which a society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. Four fundamental principles explain why social stratification exists:

  1. Social stratification is a characteristic of society, not simply a function of individual differences;
  2. Social stratification persists over generations;
  3. Social stratification is universal but variable;
  4. Social stratification involves not just inequality, but also beliefs.

The Caste System A caste system is social stratification based on ascription. Pure caste systems are "closed" with no social mobility. The Hindu social system of rural India is an example. In such systems four factors underlie social life: birth determines one's occupation, the hierarchy is kept intact through endogamous marriages, powerful cultural beliefs support the system, and members of different categories are kept apart.

Caste and Agrarian Life Caste systems are typical of agrarian societies. A rigid sense of duty and discipline are critically important in such societies. Industrialization increases personal choice and individual rights, but does not end social stratification.

The Class System Representative of industrial societies, class systems are defined as social stratification based on individual achievement. Open social mobility is critical to this type of system. Other factors of such a system include migration to cities, democratic principles, and high immigration rates.

Status Consistency Status consistency, refers to the degree of consistency in a person's social standing across various dimensions of inequality. In caste systems there is high status consistency. Greater social mobility in class societies generates lower status consistency.


The Estate System The United Kingdom represents a society where past agrarian caste qualities are still interwoven within the modern-day industrial class system. Their agrarian castelike estate system consisted of three estates: the first were nobles, the second were primarily clergy, and the third were commoners. The law of primogeniture, by which property of parents could only be inherited by the eldest son, helped maintain this system.

The United Kingdom Today Today social stratification in the United Kingdom is more a class system, but aspects of their feudal past persist (the monarchy). However, power in the government resides in the House of Commons, composed of people who have achieved their status. Today, about 25 percent of Great Britain's population falls into the middle class, and 50 percent fall into the working class. Almost 25 percent are poor. Opportunities for social mobility are not as great as in the United States.

Feudal Japan For many centuries of agrarian feudalism, Japan was one of the most rigidly stratified cultures in the world. An imperial family maintained a network of regional nobility, or shoguns. A warrior caste, called samurai, fell just below the nobility. The majority of people were commoners, like surfs in feudal Europe. However, there was an additional ranking called burakumin, or outcasts, who were below the commoners.

Japan Today Like Great Britain, Japan today mixes both the traditional and contemporary in their social stratification system. Traditional ideas about gender continue to shape Japanese society.

The Former Soviet Union The former Soviet Union was a military superpower for most of this century, coming into existence in the revolution of 1917. The Russian Revolution ended the feudal estate system ruled by a hereditary nobility.

A Classless Society? The former Soviet Union claimed itself to be a classless society because of the elimination of private ownership of the productive components of society. Yet, it remained socially stratified as occupations generally fell into four major categories--high government officials or the apparatchiks, the intelligentsia, manual laborers, and rural peasantry. Elite standing was based on power not wealth.

The Second Russian Revolution The reforms spurred by Mikhail Gorbachev's economic program known as perestroika have been significant. The extremes of wealth and poverty, evident in the West, did not occur in the Soviet Union. Further, research suggested that there was more upward social mobility in the Soviet Union than in Japan, Great Britain, or the United States over the last century. A major reason for this is what sociologists call structural social mobility, or a shift in the social position of large numbers of people due less to individual efforts than to changes in society itself.

Ideology: Stratification's "Staying Power" Ideology, cultural beliefs that serve to justify social stratification, is the link between culture and stratification. Inevitably people begin to question cultural "truths."

Plato and Marx on Ideology For the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, a peoples' sense of stratification formed the basis of justice. For Karl Marx, it created social injustice. The role of culture in promoting values that support the stratification system is critical in ensuring acceptance.

Historical Patterns of Ideology Over time people inevitably begin to question cultural "truths." Often changes in a society's economy and technology influence changes in ideas. For example, the notion of a "women's place" in society now seems far from natural.


Structural-functionalists argue that social stratification is universal and has basic functional consequences for society.

The Davis-Moore Thesis The Davis-Moore thesis is the assertion that social stratification has beneficial consequences for the operation of society. Certain tasks are understood as being of more value than others, and in order to ensure the most qualified people fill these positions they must receive greater rewards than others.

Meritocracy As society approaches a meritocracy--a system of social stratification based on personal merit--it becomes more productive. Melvin Tumin, a critic of the Davis-Moore thesis, argues that certain highly rewarded occupations seem no more intrinsically important than other less-valued jobs. Also, functionalists seem to exaggerate the consequences of social stratification for the development of individual talents. Finally, social stratification creates conflict as well, so it is not merely functional.


Social-conflict analysis holds that social stratification ensures some people gain advantages at the expense of others.

Karl Marx: Class and Conflict Karl Marx's view of social stratification is based on his observations of industrialization in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. His theory is discussed in greater detail in chapter 4. He identified two major social classes corresponding to two basic relationships to the means of production--the capitalists and the proletariat. He believed that capitalist society reproduces the class structure in each new generation.

As influential as Marx's thinking has been for the sociological understanding of social stratification, it does overlook a central tenet of the Davis-Moore thesis: that motivating people requires some system of unequal rewards. This insight perhaps explains, in part, the low productivity characteristic of Eastern Europe under socialism.

Why No Marxist Revolution? The overthrow of the capitalist system has not occurred for at least four central reasons:

  1. the fragmentation of the capitalist class,
  2. a higher standard of living,
  3. more extensive worker organization, and
  4. more extensive legal protections.
For example, referring to (2) above, a century ago most U.S. workers were in blue-collar occupations, or lower-prestige work that involves mostly manual labor. Today, most workers hold white-collar occupations, or higher-prestige work that involves mostly mental activity.

A Counterpoint Advocates of social-conflict analysis believe that Marx's view of capitalism is still largely valid. Their counterarguments to functionalists include the following observations: (1) wealth remains highly concentrated, (2) white-collar work offers little to workers, (3) progress requires struggle, and (4) the law still favors the rich.

Max Weber: Class, Status, and Power Max Weber viewed Marx's ideas of social class as too simplistic. Weber theorized that there were three dimensions of social inequality--class, status, and power.

The Socioeconomic Status Hierarchy These variables create a socioeconomic status hierarchy. Thus, social stratification in industrial societies is a multidimensional ranking rather than a simple hierarchy of social classes. Weber also theorized that a single individual's rankings on the three dimensions might be quite different. The term used today to reflect Weber's model is socioeconomic status (SES) referring to a composite social ranking based on various dimensions of inequality.

Inequality In History Marx focused on economics and believed social stratification could largely be eliminated. Weber analyzed social stratification throughout the evolution of human societies. Based on his hostorical analysis, Weber doubted that the overthrow of capitalism would significantly diminish stratification, believing instead it might even increase social inequality. Recent polarization within our social stratification system may indicate Marx's model is closer to the mark.


Gerhard and Jean Lenski's sociocultural evolutionary model of historical change concerning social stratification combines both structural-functional and social-conflict perspectives. In technologically simple societies age and sex tend to be the only basis of social stratification. As technology advances and surpluses in valued resources occur, social inequality increases. They further propose that as technology continues to develop in industrial societies social inequality tends to diminish.



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