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Introduction to Sociology 2e

9.1 What Is Social Stratification?

Introduction to Sociology 2e9.1 What Is Social Stratification?
  1. Preface
  2. 1 An Introduction to Sociology
    1. Introduction to Sociology
    2. 1.1 What Is Sociology?
    3. 1.2 The History of Sociology
    4. 1.3 Theoretical Perspectives
    5. 1.4 Why Study Sociology?
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  3. 2 Sociological Research
    1. Introduction to Sociological Research
    2. 2.1 Approaches to Sociological Research
    3. 2.2 Research Methods
    4. 2.3 Ethical Concerns
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  4. 3 Culture
    1. Introduction to Culture
    2. 3.1 What Is Culture?
    3. 3.2 Elements of Culture
    4. 3.3 Pop Culture, Subculture, and Cultural Change
    5. 3.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Culture
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  5. 4 Society and Social Interaction
    1. Introduction to Society and Social Interaction
    2. 4.1 Types of Societies
    3. 4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society
    4. 4.3 Social Constructions of Reality
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  6. 5 Socialization
    1. Introduction to Socialization
    2. 5.1 Theories of Self-Development
    3. 5.2 Why Socialization Matters
    4. 5.3 Agents of Socialization
    5. 5.4 Socialization Across the Life Course
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  7. 6 Groups and Organization
    1. Introduction to Groups and Organizations
    2. 6.1 Types of Groups
    3. 6.2 Group Size and Structure
    4. 6.3 Formal Organizations
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  8. 7 Deviance, Crime, and Social Control
    1. Introduction to Deviance, Crime, and Social Control
    2. 7.1 Deviance and Control
    3. 7.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance
    4. 7.3 Crime and the Law
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  9. 8 Media and Technology
    1. Introduction to Media and Technology
    2. 8.1 Technology Today
    3. 8.2 Media and Technology in Society
    4. 8.3 Global Implications of Media and Technology
    5. 8.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Media and Technology
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  10. 9 Social Stratification in the United States
    1. Introduction to Social Stratification in the United States
    2. 9.1 What Is Social Stratification?
    3. 9.2 Social Stratification and Mobility in the United States
    4. 9.3 Global Stratification and Inequality
    5. 9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Stratification
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  11. 10 Global Inequality
    1. Introduction to Global Inequality
    2. 10.1 Global Stratification and Classification
    3. 10.2 Global Wealth and Poverty
    4. 10.3 Theoretical Perspectives on Global Stratification
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  12. 11 Race and Ethnicity
    1. Introduction to Race and Ethnicity
    2. 11.1 Racial, Ethnic, and Minority Groups
    3. 11.2 Stereotypes, Prejudice, and Discrimination
    4. 11.3 Theories of Race and Ethnicity
    5. 11.4 Intergroup Relationships
    6. 11.5 Race and Ethnicity in the United States
    7. Key Terms
    8. Section Summary
    9. Section Quiz
    10. Short Answer
    11. Further Research
    12. References
  13. 12 Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
    1. Introduction to Gender, Sex, and Sexuality
    2. 12.1 Sex and Gender
    3. 12.2 Gender
    4. 12.3 Sex and Sexuality
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  14. 13 Aging and the Elderly
    1. Introduction to Aging and the Elderly
    2. 13.1 Who Are the Elderly? Aging in Society
    3. 13.2 The Process of Aging
    4. 13.3 Challenges Facing the Elderly
    5. 13.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Aging
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  15. 14 Marriage and Family
    1. Introduction to Marriage and Family
    2. 14.1 What Is Marriage? What Is a Family?
    3. 14.2 Variations in Family Life
    4. 14.3 Challenges Families Face
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  16. 15 Religion
    1. Introduction to Religion
    2. 15.1 The Sociological Approach to Religion
    3. 15.2 World Religions
    4. 15.3 Religion in the United States
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  17. 16 Education
    1. Introduction to Education
    2. 16.1 Education around the World
    3. 16.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Education
    4. 16.3 Issues in Education
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  18. 17 Government and Politics
    1. Introduction to Government and Politics
    2. 17.1 Power and Authority
    3. 17.2 Forms of Government
    4. 17.3 Politics in the United States
    5. 17.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Government and Power
    6. Key Terms
    7. Section Summary
    8. Section Quiz
    9. Short Answer
    10. Further Research
    11. References
  19. 18 Work and the Economy
    1. Introduction to Work and the Economy
    2. 18.1 Economic Systems
    3. 18.2 Globalization and the Economy
    4. 18.3 Work in the United States
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  20. 19 Health and Medicine
    1. Introduction to Health and Medicine
    2. 19.1 The Social Construction of Health
    3. 19.2 Global Health
    4. 19.3 Health in the United States
    5. 19.4 Comparative Health and Medicine
    6. 19.5 Theoretical Perspectives on Health and Medicine
    7. Key Terms
    8. Section Summary
    9. Section Quiz
    10. Short Answer
    11. Further Research
    12. References
  21. 20 Population, Urbanization, and the Environment
    1. Introduction to Population, Urbanization, and the Environment
    2. 20.1 Demography and Population
    3. 20.2 Urbanization
    4. 20.3 The Environment and Society
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. Further Research
    10. References
  22. 21 Social Movements and Social Change
    1. Introduction to Social Movements and Social Change
    2. 21.1 Collective Behavior
    3. 21.2 Social Movements
    4. 21.3 Social Change
    5. Key Terms
    6. Section Summary
    7. Section Quiz
    8. Short Answer
    9. References
  23. Index
A man and a woman, both wearing business suits, are shown from behind at the top of an escalator
Figure 9.2 In the upper echelons of the working world, people with the most power reach the top. These people make the decisions and earn the most money. The majority of Americans will never see the view from the top. (Photo courtesy of Alex Proimos/flickr)

Sociologists use the term social stratification to describe the system of social standing. Social stratification refers to a society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power.

You may remember the word “stratification” from geology class. The distinct vertical layers found in rock, called stratification, are a good way to visualize social structure. Society’s layers are made of people, and society’s resources are distributed unevenly throughout the layers. The people who have more resources represent the top layer of the social structure of stratification. Other groups of people, with progressively fewer and fewer resources, represent the lower layers of our society.

A rock formation showing various layers is shown.
Figure 9.3 Strata in rock illustrate social stratification. People are sorted, or layered, into social categories. Many factors determine a person’s social standing, such as income, education, occupation, as well as age, race, gender, and even physical abilities. (Photo courtesy of Just a Prairie Boy/flickr)

In the United States, people like to believe everyone has an equal chance at success. To a certain extent, Aaron illustrates the belief that hard work and talent—not prejudicial treatment or societal values—determine social rank. This emphasis on self-effort perpetuates the belief that people control their own social standing.

However, sociologists recognize that social stratification is a society-wide system that makes inequalities apparent. While there are always inequalities between individuals, sociologists are interested in larger social patterns. Stratification is not about individual inequalities, but about systematic inequalities based on group membership, classes, and the like. No individual, rich or poor, can be blamed for social inequalities. The structure of society affects a person's social standing. Although individuals may support or fight inequalities, social stratification is created and supported by society as a whole.

One side of a block of rowhouses and cars covered in snow is shown.
Figure 9.4 The people who live in these houses most likely share similar levels of income and education. Neighborhoods often house people of the same social standing. Wealthy families do not typically live next door to poorer families, though this varies depending on the particular city and country. (Photo courtesy of Orin Zebest/flickr)

Factors that define stratification vary in different societies. In most societies, stratification is an economic system, based on wealth, the net value of money and assets a person has, and income, a person’s wages or investment dividends. While people are regularly categorized based on how rich or poor they are, other important factors influence social standing. For example, in some cultures, wisdom and charisma are valued, and people who have them are revered more than those who don’t. In some cultures, the elderly are esteemed; in others, the elderly are disparaged or overlooked. Societies’ cultural beliefs often reinforce the inequalities of stratification.

One key determinant of social standing is the social standing of our parents. Parents tend to pass their social position on to their children. People inherit not only social standing but also the cultural norms that accompany a certain lifestyle. They share these with a network of friends and family members. Social standing becomes a comfort zone, a familiar lifestyle, and an identity. This is one of the reasons first-generation college students do not fare as well as other students.

Other determinants are found in a society’s occupational structure. Teachers, for example, often have high levels of education but receive relatively low pay. Many believe that teaching is a noble profession, so teachers should do their jobs for love of their profession and the good of their students—not for money. Yet no successful executive or entrepreneur would embrace that attitude in the business world, where profits are valued as a driving force. Cultural attitudes and beliefs like these support and perpetuate social inequalities.

Recent Economic Changes and U.S. Stratification

As a result of the Great Recession that rocked our nation’s economy in the last few years, many families and individuals found themselves struggling like never before. The nation fell into a period of prolonged and exceptionally high unemployment. While no one was completely insulated from the recession, perhaps those in the lower classes felt the impact most profoundly. Before the recession, many were living paycheck to paycheck or even had been living comfortably. As the recession hit, they were often among the first to lose their jobs. Unable to find replacement employment, they faced more than loss of income. Their homes were foreclosed, their cars were repossessed, and their ability to afford healthcare was taken away. This put many in the position of deciding whether to put food on the table or fill a needed prescription.

While we’re not completely out of the woods economically, there are several signs that we’re on the road to recovery. Many of those who suffered during the recession are back to work and are busy rebuilding their lives. The Affordable Health Care Act has provided health insurance to millions who lost or never had it.

But the Great Recession, like the Great Depression, has changed social attitudes. Where once it was important to demonstrate wealth by wearing expensive clothing items like Calvin Klein shirts and Louis Vuitton shoes, now there’s a new, thriftier way of thinking. In many circles, it has become hip to be frugal. It’s no longer about how much we spend, but about how much we don't spend. Think of shows like Extreme Couponing on TLC and songs like Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop.”

Systems of Stratification

Sociologists distinguish between two types of systems of stratification. Closed systems accommodate little change in social position. They do not allow people to shift levels and do not permit social relationships between levels. Open systems, which are based on achievement, allow movement and interaction between layers and classes. Different systems reflect, emphasize, and foster certain cultural values and shape individual beliefs. Stratification systems include class systems and caste systems, as well as meritocracy.

The Caste System

A woman in India is shown from behind walking down the street.
Figure 9.5 India used to have a rigid caste system. The people in the lowest caste suffered from extreme poverty and were shunned by society. Some aspects of India’s defunct caste system remain socially relevant. In this photo, an Indian woman of a specific Hindu caste works in construction, and she demolishes and builds houses. (Photo courtesy of Elessar/flickr)

Caste systems are closed stratification systems in which people can do little or nothing to change their social standing. A caste system is one in which people are born into their social standing and will remain in it their whole lives. People are assigned occupations regardless of their talents, interests, or potential. There are virtually no opportunities to improve a person's social position.

In the Hindu caste tradition, people were expected to work in the occupation of their caste and to enter into marriage according to their caste. Accepting this social standing was considered a moral duty. Cultural values reinforced the system. Caste systems promote beliefs in fate, destiny, and the will of a higher power, rather than promoting individual freedom as a value. A person who lived in a caste society was socialized to accept his or her social standing.

Although the caste system in India has been officially dismantled, its residual presence in Indian society is deeply embedded. In rural areas, aspects of the tradition are more likely to remain, while urban centers show less evidence of this past. In India’s larger cities, people now have more opportunities to choose their own career paths and marriage partners. As a global center of employment, corporations have introduced merit-based hiring and employment to the nation.

The Class System

A class system is based on both social factors and individual achievement. A class consists of a set of people who share similar status with regard to factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. Unlike caste systems, class systems are open. People are free to gain a different level of education or employment than their parents. They can also socialize with and marry members of other classes, which allows people to move from one class to another.

In a class system, occupation is not fixed at birth. Though family and other societal models help guide a person toward a career, personal choice plays a role.

In class systems, people have the option to form exogamous marriages, unions of spouses from different social categories. Marriage in these circumstances is based on values such as love and compatibility rather than on social standing or economics. Though social conformities still exist that encourage people to choose partners within their own class, people are not as pressured to choose marriage partners based solely on those elements. Marriage to a partner from the same social background is an endogamous union.

Meritocracy

Meritocracy is an ideal system based on the belief that social stratification is the result of personal effort—or merit—that determines social standing. High levels of effort will lead to a high social position, and vice versa. The concept of meritocracy is an ideal—because a society has never existed where social rank was based purely on merit. Because of the complex structure of societies, processes like socialization, and the realities of economic systems, social standing is influenced by multiple factors—not merit alone. Inheritance and pressure to conform to norms, for instance, disrupt the notion of a pure meritocracy. While a meritocracy has never existed, sociologists see aspects of meritocracies in modern societies when they study the role of academic and job performance and the systems in place for evaluating and rewarding achievement in these areas.

Status Consistency

Social stratification systems determine social position based on factors like income, education, and occupation. Sociologists use the term status consistency to describe the consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s rank across these factors. Caste systems correlate with high status consistency, whereas the more flexible class system has lower status consistency.

To illustrate, let’s consider Susan. Susan earned her high school degree but did not go to college. That factor is a trait of the lower-middle class. She began doing landscaping work, which, as manual labor, is also a trait of lower-middle class or even lower class. However, over time, Susan started her own company. She hired employees. She won larger contracts. She became a business owner and earned a lot of money. Those traits represent the upper-middle class. There are inconsistencies between Susan’s educational level, her occupation, and her income. In a class system, a person can work hard and have little education and still be in middle or upper class, whereas in a caste system that would not be possible. In a class system, low status consistency correlates with having more choices and opportunities.

Social Policy and Debate

The Commoner Who Could Be Queen

Prince William is shown holding wife Catherine Middleton’s hand.
Figure 9.6 Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, who is in line to be king of England, married Catherine Middleton, a so-called commoner, meaning she does not have royal ancestry. (Photo courtesy of UK_repsome/flickr)

On April 29, 2011, in London, England, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, married Catherine Middleton, a commoner. It is rare, though not unheard of, for a member of the British royal family to marry a commoner. Kate Middleton has an upper-class background, but does not have royal ancestry. Her father was a former flight dispatcher and her mother a former flight attendant and owner of Party Pieces. According to Grace Wong's 2011 article titled, "Kate Middleton: A family business that built a princess," "[t]he business grew to the point where [her father] quit his job . . . and it's evolved from a mom-and-pop outfit run out of a shed . . . into a venture operated out of three converted farm buildings in Berkshire." Kate and William met when they were both students at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland (Köhler 2010).

Britain’s monarchy arose during the Middle Ages. Its social hierarchy placed royalty at the top and commoners on the bottom. This was generally a closed system, with people born into positions of nobility. Wealth was passed from generation to generation through primogeniture, a law stating that all property would be inherited by the firstborn son. If the family had no son, the land went to the next closest male relation. Women could not inherit property, and their social standing was primarily determined through marriage.

The arrival of the Industrial Revolution changed Britain’s social structure. Commoners moved to cities, got jobs, and made better livings. Gradually, people found new opportunities to increase their wealth and power. Today, the government is a constitutional monarchy with the prime minister and other ministers elected to their positions, and with the royal family’s role being largely ceremonial. The long-ago differences between nobility and commoners have blurred, and the modern class system in Britain is similar to that of the United States (McKee 1996).

Today, the royal family still commands wealth, power, and a great deal of attention. When Queen Elizabeth II retires or passes away, Prince Charles will be first in line to ascend the throne. If he abdicates (chooses not to become king) or dies, the position will go to Prince William. If that happens, Kate Middleton will be called Queen Catherine and hold the position of queen consort. She will be one of the few queens in history to have earned a college degree (Marquand 2011).

There is a great deal of social pressure on her not only to behave as a royal but also to bear children. In fact, Kate and Prince William welcomed their first son, Prince George, on July 22, 2013 and are expecting their second child. The royal family recently changed its succession laws to allow daughters, not just sons, to ascend the throne. Kate’s experience—from commoner to potential queen—demonstrates the fluidity of social position in modern society.

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