Social stratification and social inequality

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Essay на тему Social stratification and social inequality

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Language: english
Author: zubarevich
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Belarus State Economic University



Minsk 2008

Understanding of social stratification and social inequality

The grouping of people together is as old as the society itself. Racial grouping is one way that societies have done this, the example is the American South before the US civil war. Religion is another way if parts of Northern Ireland until the 1960s are meant. One common way is through the caste system to be found in India. Here, social differentiation is stressed by the caste that each individual is born into, for instance, the Brahmin caste is the top caste and the untouchables are the bottom caste. Caste membership in this life is the result of good or bad conduct in the previous life. In any medieval country, the feudal system of land ownership meant that the nobility of land owners, with its sense of family tradition, privilege and knightly conduct became the dominant ruling group.

Social stratification is the dividing of a society into levels or strata based on wealth or power. It is regarded quite differently by the principal perspectives of sociology. Proponents of structural functionalism suggest that since social stratification exists in all societies, a hierarchy must be beneficial in helping to stabilize their existence. Conflict theorists emphasize the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in many stratified societies. Anyway, all theorists share the opinion that social stratification has to do with inequality.

Social inequality refers to the distribution of material wealth in a society. For instance, the current level of inequality is as follows: the richest 1% of people (with an average income of US $24,000) earns more than the poorest 60% of households in the world combined. Another illustration of this difference is the fact that the world’s three richest people alone possess more assets than 600 million least wealthy people combined.

Although there appears to be a consensus of what constitutes social inequality, there is far less agreement over the causes of it. Many theorists accept inequality as a given, but some of them see inequality as the natural consequence of Social Darwinism, proved by gender, age, IQ or the wealth of nations. Others argue that inequality is in large part the negative consequence of destructive state policies (such as capitalism) and wars.

Some modern economic theories, such as the neoclassical school, have suggested that functioning of economy requires a certain level of unemployment; other theories, such as Keynesianism and socialism, dispute this alleged positive role of unemployment.

However, sociologists share the opinion that as soon as the society was reaching a higher economic and cultural level, social inequality between people was getting more and more obvious. Historically, inequality in a group might have been caused by division of labour: the more skilled the person was, the more and better products he could produce and exchange for more wealth. If the person was wealthy, he could impose his will on others and acquire more wealth that entailed professional, territorial, religious and other differentiations.

More important is the fact that wealth always entails power in the political sphere. In his famous work, On the Origins of Inequality among Men, R. Dahrendorf asserts that “the system of inequality which we call social stratification is only a secondary consequence of the social structure of power” and modern Russia is a good example to prove of.

A person is viewed to show that he belongs to a certain stratum by using both objective and subjective criteria. The objective criteria are those to describe the level of education, income, property, power or occupation, the subjective ones are those to describe the level of somebody’s honour, reputation or prestige in the eyes of other people. Theories differ in numbers of criteria but they agree in understanding that each stratum includes only those people who have approximately equal income, power, education, prestige etc. seeing them as the basic criteria of social stratification.

In other words, social stratification has to do with ranking of people as individuals or groups in the society. All societies everywhere show some degree of stratification. Some societies are egalitarian, some are highly stratified. For instance, in the primitive communal society inequality was insignificant, and social stratification did not exist, so the society was egalitarian. All complex societies are stratified societies with a high level of inequality.

Inequality gave birth to castes, then to classes. But the principal sociological perspectives interpret this concept differently. M. Weber spoke of a class as an entity comprising people who are cohered by economic interests in acquiring goods or getting income and who interact in the labour or goods market. In the society, classes as well as strata have a certain social status which is determined by a corresponding way of life. That’s why some theorists define social stratification as the hierarchical arrangement of social classes, castes, and strata within a society.

The idea of stratification had primarily a distinct ideological shade because it appeared as a counterbalance to the idea of a class society suggested by K. Marx. Social strata showing objective distinctions of various groups of the population within a certain class were differentiated with regards to social mobility that lead to the erosion of class boundaries. For instance, a worker after he has got a higher education can work as a manager, a citizen can move to the countryside to start up agro-business etc. In other words, the previous, clear-cut boundaries existing, for instance, between peasants and landlords to differentiate their class distinctions for many generations ahead, do not exist in a modern society. It means that class boundaries have lost their sense keeping only their theoretical character while the concept of a social stratum has a definite meaning. It shows that social strata or layers do fix various groups of people differentiating from each other by their income, role, status and other social qualities.

Social strata can be as large as to be close in meaning to social classes, for example, the bourgeoisie in its division to very wealthy and petty ones, or the working class including the working aristocracy and the proletariat, or the peasantry etc. Other strata may represent intra-class or inter-class layers, for example, representatives of intelligensia, service workers etc. At the same time within a certain stratum some substrata can exist, so the intelligentsia can be differentiated according to the area of activities as industrial, managerial, scientific etc. Some castes, marginal layers such as the homeless, criminals or lumpens can also be viewed as social strata.

Scientific conceptions of stratification of the society

One of the known conceptions of the division of the society is the conception of classes of K. Marx who emphasized the leading role of economy in development of social phenomena. The Marxist idea of a class society is centered on relations of individuals or social groups to the means of production while other class characteristics are considered derived or secondary. K. Marx marked that in any economic system there is a dominant class which owns the means of production, and a suppressed class which works for the owners; a part of the society is lumpens or people who are completely discarded by the society. It gave K. Marx and F. Engels the right to consider inequality as a consequence of unfair socio-economic relations between those who exploit and those who are exploited.

Works by K. Marx and his supporters were put into the grounds of the conflict approach to the society. Conflict theorists consider the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in many stratified societies. They conclude that stratification means that working class people are not likely to advance socio-economically, while the wealthy can continue to exploit the proletariat generation after generation.

M. Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, with social class, status class and party class (or politics) as conceptually distinct elements.

  • social class is based on economically determined relationship to the market (owner, renter, employee etc.);

  • status class is based on non-economic qualities like honour, prestige and religion;

  • party class refers to the factors having to do with affiliations in the political domain.

Other views to emerging inequality are expressed in the conception of Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore who defined stratification as the unequal rights and perquisites of different positions in a society. They are interested in the system of positions in the society and not in the individuals occupying those positions. In their Some Principles of Stratification, K. Davis and W. Moore consider stratification as the consequence of normal development of the society. Their approach is strictly functionalist as they argue that a society is to survive; then a functionally efficient means of fitting talented individuals to the occupations must develop. Stratification supplies this mechanism. Thus, social prestige is considered not as a quality derived from the individual’s economic position in the society but as a quality which has its own status. Their ideas seriously shook Marxist ideas that linked stratification with social inequality.

In the study of social stratification and social mobility P.A. Sorokin holds a unique place. We owe to him the creation or definition of many of the terms that have become standard in this field. His work Social stratification and Social Mobility, published in 1927 and stimulated further elaborations in the given area, still remains a veritable storehouse of ideas on stratification.

P.A. Sorokin defined social stratification as differentiation of the population into hierarchically overlapped classes. To him, stratification may be based on economic criterion, for instance, when the focus is on the wealthy and the poor. But societies or groups are also politically stratified when their social ranks are hierarchically structured with respect to authority and power. If, however, members of the society are differentiated into various occupational groups and some of these occupations are deemed more honourable than others, or if occupations are internally divided between those who give orders and those who receive orders, then occupational stratification is dealt with. Although there may be other forms of stratification, of central sociological importance are economic, political, and occupational stratification.

P.A. Sorokin held that people move in the social space. Methods appropriate to find their position in the social space are somewhat reminiscent of the system of coordinates used for locating an object in the geometrical space. So, to find one’s position in the social space means to define his relations to other individuals and to other groups, the relation of these groups to each other within the population, and the relation of this population to other populations constituting the mankind. That’s why the social space is defined as the population of the globe, and a social position – as the integrity of its relations with the other groups of the population. These relations – between groups and within a specific group – make up the system of coordinates enabling to locate a social position of any person in the social space. This approach helps to consider people holding different social positions.

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