Social Class and Social Stratification

Elements of Social Stratification

Social Class

Social class is related to income, wealth, social status, cultural capital, and social capital.

Social class is one element in stratification, the hierarchical ranking of groups within a society. A class is a group of people in a society who hold a particular social and economic status. The economic status of an individual can be determined by two different measures: income and wealth. Income consists of money received from wages, payments, and earnings from investments. Wealth is the value of all economic assets, including income, property, investments, and debt. In other words, income is money that an individual brings in from an outside source. Wealth can be acquired from outside sources as well, but wealth also includes what people own, or their assets. Houses and cars are common examples of assets. Retirement accounts, stocks, and savings accounts are also assets that are part of an individual's wealth. Debt impacts a person's wealth as well. Credit card debt, student loan debt, mortgages, and any other instance in which a person owes money for something all reduce that person's wealth. An individual can have a high income but low wealth. For example, a doctor might make a high salary but carry a large student loan debt. The doctor has a high income, but because the majority of that income is needed to pay off loans, the doctor has little wealth. On the other hand, someone who earns the minimum wage may inherit their parents' high-value home. This person has a low income but relatively high wealth.

In addition to income and wealth, social class is linked to social status—the position people occupy in society. This social position is related to the amount of prestige and power that people hold in their society. Social status is closely connected to the kinds of education people have and the occupations they work in. In the United States, some occupations are considered "white-collar" professions, such as lawyers, teachers, engineers, and many types of office workers. Others are considered "blue-collar" professions, such as plumbers, construction workers, factory workers, and house cleaners. White-collar jobs confer higher social status, although some white- and blue-collar workers may earn similar incomes. Some individuals have education or a profession that gives them a perceived social status that does not align with their earnings or wealth. Sociologists term this status inconsistency, the condition of possessing some high-status and some low-status characteristics. A doctor struggling to pay off student loans is an example of status inconsistency. So too is a construction supervisor who does not hold a bachelor's degree but achieves high earnings by acquiring work skills and experience that are in high demand.

Social status is also linked to the amount of cultural and social capital that people possess. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) introduced these terms, distinguishing them from economic capital, or money, wealth, and possessions. Cultural capital includes behaviors, knowledge, education, credentials, and skills. Cultural capital allows people to improve their social position. Children who go to museums or read nonfiction texts and classic works of literature acquire cultural capital that can be valuable in navigating the higher end of the social class spectrum. Social capital consists of social assets acquired through networks of relationships that grant access to power and opportunity. As with cultural capital, social capital is a resource that can be passed down from parents to children. For instance, parents can connect their children to social networks that provide employment opportunities. Both cultural capital and social capital can be acquired independently, as can economic capital. However, all three types of capital are linked. The relationship can be cyclic—for example, possessing economic capital leads to greater social and cultural capital, which in turn lead to even greater economic capital.

Pierre Bourdieu's Three Forms of Capital

Bourdieu wrote that capital and power are essentially the same thing. In his work, he analyzed how the three forms of capital can be changed into one another and how they are mobilized to create further economic, cultural, and social profits for individuals and for social groups. For all three types of capital, relative scarcity increases value.
Economic Capital Anything that can be directly converted into money, including income, wealth, and property. These are material resources.
Cultural Capital Education, credentials, qualifications, knowledge, mindset, and skills. These are symbolic resources.
Social Capital The sum total of all resources or potential resources accessible through membership in a group (i.e., a social network). These are both material and symbolic resources, including relationships, connections, and name recognition.

Social Stratification and Inequality

Social stratification results from structural inequalities among social groups.

People and groups with different levels of income, wealth, and social and cultural capital occupy different positions in a society. Social stratification is the hierarchical ranking of social groups based on unequal levels of wealth, power, and social status. It is a result of structural inequalities among social groups. Structural inequality occurs because of unequal access to material and symbolic rewards, including money, education, prestige, and rights. Access to these rewards is based in part on class standing or social hierarchy. Gender, age, race, ethnicity, and religious affiliation are additional markers of structural inequalities. Membership in more than one low-status group—for example, being homeless and disabled or having low educational attainment and being incarcerated—increases these inequalities in complex ways. Sociologists analyze the systemic inequalities people experience in a given society based on their membership in different social groups and the status of these groups within the society.

All societies have some form of stratification, some more extreme than others. Some societies, such as India, use a caste system, a system in which class is determined at birth and upward mobility is not allowed. People cannot move between castes because the social assumption that people are born into a caste is based on their past lives or the idea that they belong in a certain caste because of their parents' characteristics. Slavery also functions as a form of social stratification, legally defining a certain group as belonging to the lowest rung of the social hierarchy. All societies have some system of organization that results in different classes. Sociologists study the particular ways a given society is stratified and what it means to belong to the different classes of a society.