Social Organization

Social Differentiation and Social Stratification

Structured Inequalities

Social divisions often result in structured inequalities between groups in society in terms of their access to material or symbolic rewards.

Social divisions have several functions in a society. Division of labor is a principal driver of social division. Modern societies need groups of people to attend to the different types of labor required to run the society. Types of labor include basic social requirements such as procuring food, providing protection, and raising children, as well as more complex requirements such as contributing to the growth of the economy and providing a legal and governmental structure for society. This division of labor is necessary for a society to function. However, division of labor also contributes to different roles, expectations, and opportunities for members of different social divisions. Thus, while social division contributes to a society being able to function effectively and efficiently, it also creates the potential for structured inequalities—inequalities built into the larger social system giving unequal access and opportunities to different groups. For instance, in the United States structured inequalities impact people who are not fluent in English. Many of these individuals provide socially and economically valuable labor in fields such as agriculture, construction, food service, child care, and household services. They provide this labor at a low cost, benefitting society. However, these individuals often do not have access to education and employment opportunities that other groups have.

Members of different social divisions do not have the same access to material rewards, such as wealth and property, or symbolic rewards, such as status and respect. One potential result is that social divisions are repeated over generations, with the children of people who hold low status jobs having limited pathways to achieve higher status. Structured inequalities relating to racial divisions result in some racial groups having greater access to good education, good jobs, health care, more social and cultural prestige, and better treatment by the justice system. Other racial groups without this same access face barriers to achieving material and symbolic rewards. This may serve a social function—providing society with groups of people who are available to perform low-status jobs. In this way, structured inequality can be seen as an efficient way to organize a society. However, structured inequality also can lead to conflict and social problems, including poverty.

Social Stratification

Stratification refers to the hierarchical organization of a society, with different social groups occupying different positions within the broad structure of a society.

Social stratification is the hierarchical ranking of social groups based on unequal levels of wealth, power, and social status. Stratification means there are layers, or strata, of people in society. Every society has some form of social stratification. There are four major forms of stratification: estate systems, caste systems, class systems, and status hierarchy systems. Estate systems were found throughout Europe and Asia from the Middle Ages through the Industrial Revolution. In an estate system, a wealthy class of aristocrats owned large tracts of land and held power in these societies. Serfs, or workers, provided labor. They usually were tied to a particular aristocrat or noble family by legal ties and by tradition and a sense of loyalty or duty. While estate systems were common in the past, other systems of social stratification exist in the modern world. A caste system is a system of social division in which people are born into a certain class that determines their life trajectory. The caste system in India is a well-known example of this form of stratification. In a class system, individuals are born into a certain social position, but some people are able to move up or down in the social structure over the course of their lives. Some class systems are more open, allowing for more social mobility, while others are more closed. In the United States, the class system is considered open and includes the potential for upward or downward mobility. A status hierarchy system is based on degrees of social prestige, tied to factors including wealth, occupation, lifestyle, and membership in respected groups. This type of system also exists in the United States. For example, a working class individual with a low income who becomes famous or a respected leader might hold a fairly high status position. César Chávez (1927–93) was a farmworker who became a leader in the labor rights and civil rights movements of the mid-20th century. By the late-20th century, he held a very high status because of the respect and recognition many people had for his work. In addition to these four types of stratification, slavery is also considered a system of stratification. It is a completely closed system; those who are enslaved have no social power and virtually no possibility of moving out of their social position.

Social stratification exists in many forms. The concept of social stratification provides a framework to understand the ways that people are divided into social categories, primarily by levels of wealth, income, power, and other forms of social capital—resources that allow individuals to acquire wealth, power, and other forms of social standing. All socially stratified systems have certain characteristics:

  • People belong to social categories, based on a shared characteristic such as race, ethnicity, or gender.
  • These social categories are ranked.
  • Stratification exists and is imposed by social institutions.
  • The opportunities and experiences available to individuals are tied to their social category.
  • The ranking of social categories is relatively stable; change only occurs very slowly.
  • Effects of stratification carry over from generation to generation.

Stratification is not related to differences among individuals. It is tied to socially constructed understandings of the identities of particular social groups. Justification for the particular stratification of a society is provided by the belief system of the society. In other words, most members of the society essentially buy into the system of stratification.

Stratification results in power differences between different social groups. This means that inequalities are embedded in the structure of society. Several theories of stratification inform how sociologists think about structured inequalities. Arguments developed by Karl Marx and Max Weber, developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, continue to be influential. Other sociologists have since expanded upon their work, proposing theoretical frameworks for understanding and analyzing social stratification.

Major Theories of Social Stratification
Karl Marx
  • Two primary classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat
  • Stratification is a result of oppression
Max Weber
  • Wealth, power, and prestige are key factors in stratification.
  • Prestige can lead to wealth and power
Davis and Moore
  • Functionalist perspective, understanding society as a system of parts that work together
  • Stratification helps society function as a whole

Karl Marx

German philosopher and economist Karl Marx (1818–83) criticized capitalism for its effect on society. Marx and collaborator Friedrich Engels (1820–95) argued that every society is divided into two groups: the bourgeoisie, or capitalist ruling class, who owns the means of production, and the proletariat, or the working class, whose labor is exploited by the bourgeoisie. The two groups are marked by conflict and competition. The bourgeoisie is determined to keep its position in the 1 percent at the top of society, while the proletariat is working for survival. Marx and Engels argued that capitalism, by its very nature, created inequality. The main goal of capitalism is to create profit, and the bourgeoisie has an interest in increasing its profit. In order to do this, the bourgeoisie keeps wages for its workers, the proletariat, as low as possible. Because wages are minimal and working conditions are strained, Marx argued that members of the proletariat would band together in class consciousness, or awareness of their exploitation, and lead a revolution in which they overthrow the bourgeoisie. In this future revolution, capitalism would be replaced with socialism.

Max Weber

Whereas Marx thought stratification was principally the result of one class owning property and the means of production, German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920) argued that other aspects were also critical. Weber agreed with Marx that class and property are important, but he also stressed that the consequences of class are important in one's life chances and opportunities. For instance, access to housing, food, education, and health care gives an individual more chances to climb the social and economic ladder. The type of resources, as well as the abundance or scarcity of those resources, affects life chances and opportunities. Weber also argued that wealth (economic assets, including income and property), power, and prestige played an important role in social stratification. Power is the ability to make one's own concerns count, including the ability to impose one's will on others (to get someone to do something they do not want to do). People in positions of power can use it to their own advantage. Political leaders can use their power to advance their business interests. Supervisors with power can make employees work during certain hours, even when the employees do not want to work. However, not all people in positions of power have wealth or prestige. Police officers have a good deal of power in society, but often they are not wealthy. Being a police officer is not necessarily prestigious. Prestige indicates respect and admiration for a social status. It is based on values and norms and is defined by society. Teachers have prestige in some societies but lack prestige in other societies. In some societies, royalty or titles confer prestige. Often, fame or talent bestows prestige. Higher rankings of prestige often go alongside positions with wealth and power. Weber noted that gaining prestige often leads to the acquisition of wealth and power. For example, a sports figure who gains prestige through performance and accomplishment often becomes wealthy as a result and may gain power within the world of sports and in other areas, such as business and culture.

Davis and Moore

The functionalist perspective of stratification was popularized by American theorists Kingsley Davis (1908–97) and Wilbert Moore (1914–87). They developed a hypothesis, based on functionalism, that all societies are stratified because stratification is necessary for a society to function. According to the Davis-Moore hypothesis, in every society certain jobs must be carried out for the society to run smoothly. All jobs are important in some way. Parents, farmers, fast food workers, teachers, janitors, nurses, government employees, and any other type of worker all have a role to play in society. To explain stratification, Davis and Moore asked how a society distributes jobs and roles in ways that are beneficial to society. They argue that some jobs are more important than others, to society as a whole. Just as some organs are more essential to the functioning of the human body, some jobs are more important to the functioning of society. The more important jobs require more schooling and training, as well as more money and time. These jobs have a higher status and more rewards, including wealth. This explains why surgeons, for example, have high status and earn high salaries. Not every individual in a society has the talent, money, or time to devote to acquire the skills for high status positions. The ones who do can earn more money, power, and prestige. These higher social rewards incentivize some members of society to work hard and take on the most important positions: those that most benefit society.