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Global Stratification

Global Stratification and Classification

Social Inequality among Nations

Global stratification refers to the inequalities of countries around the world.

Social stratification, or hierarchical arrangement of groups based on wealth or social status, occurs within societies. Stratification is linked to inequality between and among groups, arising from different access to material and symbolic rewards. These rewards include wealth, status, education, and ability to wield influence in the public sphere. Global stratification is the hierarchical arrangement of nations based on economic status. The relative positions of nations in this hierarchy are based on differences in wealth and resources.

Global stratification can have dire consequences for individuals and for countries. Unequal access to wealth, resources, education, and power can affect people's health, life span, and social and economic attainment. For example, life expectancy in the poorest countries is approximately 30 years shorter than in the richest countries. Children in poor countries are much more likely to die than those in wealthy countries. In developing countries, around 25 percent of children are malnourished.

Poverty and lack of social and economic attainment have much harsher consequences for people in poor nations than for those in wealthier nations. While the poor in high-income nations may be quite disadvantaged relative to their peers, they are often much better off than poor people in low-income countries. For example, the poorest members of a wealthy society such as the United States are disadvantaged relative to other Americans. However, they still live a relatively advantaged life—most have access to running water and electricity, for example—compared to people in low-income nations. Globally, the world's poor tend to be rural, poorly educated, and young—44 percent are 14 years of age or younger. Around the world, more women than men are poor.

Sociologists study the causes of global stratification, as well as possible solutions. They look at different social forces, including economic and political policies, international relations, war, historical patterns, and cultural practices to try to understand what keeps some nations poor and others wealthy. Various theories of global stratification exist, including market-oriented, dependency, world-systems, and state-centered theories.

Challenges of Classifying Nations

The terms first world, second world, and third world were proposed in the context of the Cold War (1945–91).

In order to study global stratification, researchers need to adopt some type of framework that allows for meaningful comparisons of different countries. One challenge of understanding and analyzing global stratification is that it can be difficult to define the strata, or layers, that different nations fall into and how to measure stratification. Classification systems based on income, cost of living, standard of living, infrastructure, political systems, or internal levels of inequality might categorize countries differently. However, it is useful to start with a basic framework of classification when studying global poverty and stratification.

There have been various scholarly attempts to create classification systems to use in comparing countries. One of the first attempts to describe global stratification occurred right after World War II. This is when the terms first world, second world, and third world came into use. Over time, first world became shorthand for wealthy nations and third world for poor nations. This shorthand usage of these terms is inadequate, however, because the terms originally arose in the context of the Cold War to categorize countries based on politics and alliances. First world nations were not really defined by wealth, but by alignment with the United States and Western Europe. Second world referred to nations aligned with the Soviet Union. Third world nations were not politically aligned with either the Soviets or the West. Sociologists have moved away from using these terms, seeking more precise ways to describe and understand global stratification.