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Dynamics of Social Stratification and Institutions

Changes in social relations appear as society develops technologically. Complexity in social relations
is the increasing differentiation of members based on sex, physical strength, and skills among others.

The result of this differentiation is inequality.

Social inequality exists when peoples access to social rewards (e.g. money influence, or respect) is
determined by their personal or group characteristics (Robertson, 1981)

Studying social stratification is important because historically, social stratification has been a source
of tension, revolutions, and social change.

Social Stratification
- is a system in which groups of people are divided into layers according to their relative
property, power, and prestige.
- Sociological term for the hierarchical arrangement of social classes, castes and strata within a
- a system by which a society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy

Four main principles related to Social Stratification:

1. Stratification is a trait of society, not the individual.
2. Social stratification persists through generations.
3. Stratification is extremely variable in how it orders people.
4. Stratification is instrumental in the belief-forming process.

Slavery is a form of social stratification in which some people own other people.
- Based on debt, punishment for violation of the law, or defeat in a battle.
Women were the first people enslaved through warfare (sexual purposes, reproduction and their labor)
- Could be temporary or permanent and was not necessarily passed on to ones children.
- Typically, owned no property; had no power

Caste System is a form of social stratification determined by birth and is lifelong. (closed system)
- From birth, caste system determines the direction of a persons life.
- permit little or no social mobility
- shape a persons entire life, including occupation and marriage
Caste system demands the people marry others of the same ranking (endogamous marriage)
Caste guides everyday life by keeping people in the company of their kind.
Caste systems rest on powerful cultural beliefs
- common in traditional, agrarian societies
- E.g. India
Although the caste system is formally outlawed in India, it is still observed in rural areas, where
agriculture demands a lifetime of hard work and discipline.
o In traditional villages, peoples caste determines the type of work they perform.
o People must interact with and marry others of the same ranking.
o Powerful cultural beliefs make observing caste rules a moral duty

Class System form of social stratification based on both birth (ascription) and individual achievement
(meritocracy); possession of money or material possession (opened system)
- Initial social class position is based on that of ones parents (ascribed status).
- This form of social stratification allows for social mobility, a change in position within the social
hierarchy; hence decreasing social inconsistency
- Class systems advance meritocracy to promote specialization, productivity and efficiency
- Class systems keep caste elements such as family, to maintain social order and unity.

What determines social class?

1. According to Karl Marx:
Social class is determined by ones relationship to the means of production (tools,
factories, land, and investment capital used to produce wealth)

a) Bourgeoisie (capitalists)-dominant class; own and control the means of
production-shareholders, feudal, landowners, or the owners of property such as
factories and capital
b) Proletariat (workers)-subordinate class; work for those who own the means of
production-slaves, peasants, industrial laborers
The relationship between the classes is characterized by exploitation. As capital
becomes more concentrated, the two classes will become increasingly hostile to one

To revolt against the capitalists, workers must take control the means of production.

Class consciousness, or an awareness of a common identity based on position in the

means of production, will develop; it is the essential basis of the unity of workers.

However, the workers unity and revolution are held back by false class
consciousnessthe mistaken identification of workers with the interests of capitalists.

2. According to Max Weber:

Social class is not only determined by persons position in the stratification system, but rather that
poverty, prestige and power.

1. Property (wealth) is an essential element, however some powerful do not own or

control the means of production (e.g. corporate managers, etc.)
2. Power is the ability to control others
3. Prestige may be derived from ownership of property; but can also be based on skills

Application of Theories in Understanding Social Stratification

Structural-Functional Symbolic Interaction
Social-conflict Approach
Approach Approach
What is the level of
Macro-level Macro-level Micro-level
Stratification is a division
Stratification is a system of Stratification is a factor that
What is social of a societys resources that
unequal rewards that guides peoples interactions
stratification? benefits some people and
benefits society as a whole in everyday life.
harms others
Social position reflects
Social position reflects the The products we consume
What is the reason for our personal talents and
way society divides all say something about
social position? abilities in a competitive
resources. social position.
Yes. Unequal rewards boost No. Unequal rewards only Maybe. People may or may
Are unequal rewards fair? economic production by serve to divide society, not define inequality as fair.
encouraging people to work creating haves and have People may view their
harder and try new ideas. nots. There is widespread social position as a measure
Linking greater rewards to opposition to social of self-worth, justifying
more important work is inequality inequality in terms of
widely accepted. personal differences

Structural-Functional Approach

The structural-functional approach points to ways social stratification helps society operate.
The Davis-Moore thesis states that social stratification is universal because of its functional
consequences. (Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore).

1. Society must make certain that its important positions are filled
2. Some positions are more important than others
3. More important positions need to be filled by the more qualified people
4. These people who filled the more important positions must be offered greater rewards.

- In caste systems, people are rewarded for performing the duties of their position at birth.
- In class systems, unequal rewards attract the ablest people to the most important jobs and
encourage effort.

Social-Conflict Approach

The social-conflict approach claims that stratification divides societies in classes, benefiting some
categories of people at the expense of others and causing social conflict.
Karl Marx claimed that capitalism places economic production under the ownership of capitalists,
who exploit the proletarians who sell their labor for wages.
Max Weber identified three distinct dimensions of social stratification: economic class, social status
or prestige, and power. Conflict exists between people at various positions on a multidimensional
hierarchy of socioeconomic status (SES).

Modern conflict theorists stress that conflict between capitalists and workers is not the only important
conflict but rather, groups within the same class compete for scarce resources, resulting in conflict
between many groups (e.g young vs. old; women vs. men).

Symbolic-Interaction Approach

The symbolic-interaction approach, a micro-level analysis, explains that we size up people by looking
for clues to their social standing.
E.g. Conspicuous consumption refers to buying and displaying products that make a statement about
social class. Most people tend to socialize with others whose social standing is similar to their own.
Gerhard Lenski offered a synthesis between functionalist and conflict theories:
Functionalist: Societies that have only basic resources and do not accumulate wealth, such as hunting
and gathering societies.
Conflict theorist: In societies with a surplus, humans pursue pursue self-interests and struggle to control
those surpluses. This leads to the emergence of a small elite who then builds inequality into the society,
resulting in a full-blown system of social stratification.

Henslin, J. M. (2012). Essentials of sociology: A down-to-earth approach. Boston: Pearson.
Macionis, J. J. (2012). Sociology: Pearson