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Chapter 7: Social Stratification

7.1 Systems of Stratification

Social Issues in the News

“More Wichita Kids Go Hungry,” the headline said. As the United States was in a deep recession, poverty-stricken parents in Wichita, Kansas, increasingly worried about how they would be able to feed their children. As a state official explained, “We see a lot of children who regularly wonder where their next meal is coming from. Churches that used to do food drives once every two to three months are now doing them once a month.” The number of children eating at one of Wichita’s major food pantries had climbed by one-third from a year earlier, and the number of children classified as homeless had increased by 90% from 1,000 to 1,900. A sixth-grade girl gave life to these numbers when she wrote of her own family’s situation. “My mom works very hard to support our family,” she said, “[but] some days we would eat only once a day. Then Mom got her paycheck and we were really happy but then the bills started coming and we couldn’t buy food because a house was more important. We would rather have a house to live in and we needed a car.” (Wenzl, 2009)

This story of hunger in America’s heartland reminds us that poverty is far from unknown in the richest nation in the world, especially during the severe economic recession which began in 2008. The United States has long been considered a land of opportunity, but research by sociologists and other social scientists shows again and again that people differ dramatically in their opportunity to realize the American dream.

To illustrate this, imagine that you and four other people are about to begin playing the popular board game Monopoly. Following the rules, each player begins with $1,500. You start the game, go around the board, buy properties or land on someone else’s properties, and sometimes end up in Jail or Free Parking. Like life itself, whether you eventually win or lose the game is a matter of both luck and skill.

But if Monopoly were more like real life, each player would not begin with $1,500. Instead, they would begin with very different amounts, because in real life some people are richer than others, and some are much poorer. In fact, reflecting the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, one player, the richest, would begin with $6,352 of the $7,500 distributed to the five players combined. The next richest player would have $848. The third player would start with $285, while the next would have $52. The fifth and poorest player would actually begin $38 in debt! Figure 7.1 “Distribution of Starting Cash If Monopoly Were More Like Real Life” depicts this huge disparity in money at the beginning of the game.

Now suppose you are the player starting $38 in debt. How would you feel? You can hardly afford to buy Park Place or Boardwalk. Even landing on a couple of “pay” spaces like a utility the first round would virtually force you out of the game. If you landed in jail, you could not afford to get out. What are your chances of winning the game? Yes, you have a chance to win, but how likely is this? The second, third, and fourth players have a slightly better chance of winning than you do, but in the long run they certainly will not win nearly as often as the richest player, who, after all, starts out with about 85% of all the money distributed at the beginning.

Figure 7.1 Distribution of Starting Cash if Monopoly Were More Like Real Life


Source: Based on distribution of wealth data from Mishel, L., Bernstein, J., & Shierholz, H. (2009). The state of working America 2008/2009. Ithaca, NY: ILR Press [An imprint of Cornell University Press].

Unlike most games, real life is filled with differences in wealth and other resources a society values. Sociologists refer to rankings based on these differences as . Except for pre-agrarian societies, every society is stratified to some extent, and some societies are more stratified than others. In industrial and post-industrial societies, stratification is usually determined by income and other forms of wealth, such as stocks and bonds, but resources such as power and prestige also matter. No matter what determines it, a society’s stratification has significant consequences for its members’ attitudes, behavior, and, most important of all, —how well people do in such areas as education, income and health.

In the United States, people like to believe everyone has an equal chance at success, which perpetuates the belief that people control their own social standing. However, sociologists recognize that social stratification is a society-wide system. 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. We will see examples of the consequences of social stratification in the pages ahead. (OpenStax, Sociology 2e, Attribution International (CCBY4.0); download for free at http://cnx.org/contents/02040312-72c8-441e-a685-20e9333f3e1d@10.1).

Types of Social Stratification

When we look around the world and through history, we see different types of stratification systems. As agrarian societies emerged historically, accompanied by population increases, higher levels of contact between formerly separated groups and growing surpluses, systems of social stratification began to solidify. These systems vary by their degree of , or the chances of rising up or falling down the stratification ladder. In , an individual has virtually no chance of moving up or down, therefore in such systems, placement into strata (or layers) of the system is ascribed (assigned at birth). have more vertical mobility, as some people, and perhaps many people, can move up or even down the stratification ladder. If a system of stratification is truly open, one’s position in such a system would be an achieved status. That said, a key question is how much vertical mobility really exists in these societies. Even in systems that are considered to be open, placement in the system is typically influenced by both achievement and ascription. Table 7.1 “Systems of Social Stratification Overview” lays out these traits and more.

Table 7.1 “Systems of Social Stratification Overview”

System of Social Stratification

Form of Society

Level of Vertical Mobility

Placement into Strata

Level of Inequality




typically low



typically high












Industrial &



Ascription &



Let’s look at the various systems of stratification, moving from the most closed to the most open.


One predominantly closed system of stratification is , or the ownership of people, which has been quite common in human history (Ennals, 2007). Slavery is thought to have begun some 10,000 years ago, after agricultural societies developed, as people in these societies made prisoners of war work on their farms. Many of the ancient societies of the Middle East, including Babylonia, Egypt and Persia, had systems of slavery, as did ancient China and India. Slavery especially flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, which used thousands of slaves for their trade economies. Most slaves in ancient times were prisoners of war or debtors. As trade died down during the Middle Ages, so did slavery.

But once Europeans began exploring the Western Hemisphere in the 1500s, slavery arose again. Portuguese and Spanish colonists who settled in Brazil and Caribbean islands made slaves of Indians already living there. After most of them died from disease and abuse, the Portuguese and Spaniards began bringing slaves from Africa. In the next century, the English, the French and other Europeans also began bringing African slaves into the Western Hemisphere, and by the 1800s they had captured and shipped to the New World some 10–12 million Africans, with almost 2 million dying en route (Thornton, 1998). The United States, of course, is all too familiar with slavery, which one of the most deplorable experiences in American history and continues to have repercussions for African Americans and the rest of American society. It increasingly divided the new nation after it won its independence from Britain, led to the rise of the abolitionist social movement and helped spark the Civil War eight decades later.

Slavery still exists in parts of Africa, Asia and South America, with some estimates putting the number of slaves in the tens of millions. Today’s slaves include (a) men taken as prisoners of war in ethnic conflicts; (b) girls and women captured in wartime or kidnapped from their neighborhoods and used as prostitutes or sex slaves; (c) children sold by their parents to become child laborers; and (d) workers paying off debts who are abused and even tortured and too terrified to leave (Bales, 2007; Batstone, 2007).

Estate Systems

are characterized by control of land and were common in Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages and into the 1800s. In these systems, two major estates existed: the landed gentry or nobility and the peasants or serfs. The landed gentry owned huge expanses of land on which serfs toiled. The serfs had more freedom than slaves but typically lived in poverty and were subject to arbitrary control by the nobility (Kerbo, 2009).

Estate systems thrived in Europe until the French Revolution in 1789 violently overturned the existing order and inspired people in other nations with its cries for freedom and equality. As time went on and societies industrialized, European estate systems slowly gave way to class systems of stratification (discussed a little later). After the American colonies won their independence from Britain, the South had at least one characteristic of an estate system, the control of large plots of land by relatively few wealthy individuals and their families, but it used slaves rather than serfs to work the land.

Much of Asia, especially China and Japan, also had estate systems. For centuries, China’s large population lived as peasants in abject conditions and frequently engaged in peasant uprisings. These escalated starting in the 1850s after the Chinese government raised taxes and charged peasants higher rents for the land on which they worked. After many more decades of political and economic strife, Communists took control of China in 1949 (DeFronzo, 2007).

Caste Systems

In a , people are born into unequal groups based on their parents’ status and remain in these groups for the rest of their lives. For many years, the best-known caste system was in India, where, supported by Hindu beliefs emphasizing the acceptance of one’s fate in life, several major castes dictated one’s life chances from the moment of birth, especially in rural areas (Kerbo, 2009). People born in the lower castes lived in abject poverty throughout their lives. Another caste, the untouchables, or Dalit, was considered so low that technically it was not thought to be a caste at all. People in this caste were called the untouchables because they were considered unclean and were prohibited from coming near to people in the higher castes. Traditionally, caste membership in India almost totally determined an individual’s life, including what job you had and whom you married; for example, it was almost impossible to marry someone in another caste. After India won its independence from Britain in 1949, its new constitution granted equal rights to the Dalit. Modern communication, mounting industrialization and migration into cities further weakened the caste system, as members of different castes now had more contact with each other. Still, caste prejudice remains a problem in India, particularly in rural communities, and illustrates the continuing influence of its traditional system of social stratification.


Dalit women march in solidarity in the Dalit Mahila Swabhiman Yatra, or Dalit Women’s Self-Respect March, organized to bring awareness to and protest against caste-based sexual violence. Thenmozhi Soundararajan — Dalit Women – CC BY-SA 4.0

A country that used to have a caste system is South Africa. In the days of apartheid, from 1950 to 1990, a small group of white Afrikaners (South Africans of Dutch descent) ruled the country. Black South Africans constituted more than three-quarters of the nation’s population and thus greatly outnumbered Afrikaners, but they were assigned the worst jobs, could not vote and lived in poor, segregated neighborhoods. Afrikaners bolstered their rule with the aid of South African police, which used terror tactics to intimidate blacks (Berger, 2009). This form of caste is referred to as a , since race determines position in the stratification system.

Similarly, a system of racial caste existed in the United States beginning in 1877 at the end of the period of Reconstruction and lasting until the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, which ended . A segregated system called Jim Crow dominated the South, and even though African Americans had some rights, including the right to vote, granted to them by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution, these rights were denied in practice. Terror tactics, such as lynchings, were common practice, and the southern police and court systems bolstered white rule in the South just as the South African system bolstered white rule in that country (Litwack, 2009).


A racial caste system existed in the U.S. South until the civil rights movement ended legal racial segregation. U.S. Library of Congress — public domain

Class Systems

Many societies, including all industrial and post-industrial ones, have . In this system of stratification, a person is born into a social ranking but can move up or down in rank more readily in comparison to closed systems of stratification. This movement in either direction can result from a person’s own effort, knowledge and skills, or lack of them. Although these qualities do not aid upward movement in estate, caste or slave societies, they can enable upward movement in class societies. Of the three systems of stratification discussed so far, class systems are by far the most open, meaning they have the most vertical mobility. We will look later at social class in the United States and discuss the extent of vertical mobility in American society.

Sociologist Max Weber had much to say about class systems of stratification. Such systems, he wrote, are based on three dimensions of stratification: class (which we will call wealth), power, and prestige. is the total value of an individual or family, including income, stocks, bonds, real estate, and other assets; is the ability to influence others to do your bidding, even if they do not want to; and refers to the status and esteem people hold in the eyes of others.

In discussing these three dimensions, Weber disagreed somewhat with Karl Marx, who said our ranking in society depends on whether we own the means of production. Marx thus felt that the primary dimension of stratification in class systems was economic. Weber readily acknowledged the importance of this economic dimension but thought power and prestige also matter. He further said that although wealth, power, and prestige usually go hand-in-hand, they do not always overlap. For example, although the head of a major corporation has a good deal of wealth, power, and prestige, we can think of many other people who are high on one dimension but not on the other two. A professional athlete who makes millions of dollars a year has little power in the political sense that Weber meant it. An organized crime leader might also be very wealthy but have little prestige outside the criminal underworld. Conversely, a scientist or professor may enjoy much prestige but not be very wealthy.

Classless Societies

Although, as noted earlier, all societies except perhaps for the earliest ones are stratified, some large nations have done their best to eliminate stratification by developing . Marx, of course, predicted that one day the proletariat would rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a classless society, by which he meant everyone had roughly the same amount of wealth, power, and prestige. In Russia, China, and Cuba, revolutions inspired by Marx’s vision occurred in the 20th century. These revolutions resulted in societies not only with less economic inequality than in the United States and other class systems but also with little or no political freedom. Moreover, governing elites in these societies enjoyed much more wealth, power, and prestige than the average citizen. Overall, the communist experiments in Russia, China, and Cuba failed to achieve Marx’s vision of an egalitarian society.

Some Western European nations, such as Sweden and Denmark, have developed social democracies, which mix capitalism and socialism together. Although a few have nominal monarchies, these nations have much political freedom and less economic inequality than the United States and other class societies. They also typically rank much higher than the United States on various social and economic indicators. Although these nations are not truly classless, they indicate it is possible to have a society that begins to fulfill Marx’s egalitarian vision but where political freedom still prevails (Sandbrook, Edelman, Heller, & Teichman, 2007).


Key Terms

Caste System of Stratification – a system of social stratification where people are born into unequal groups based on their parents’ status and remain in these groups throughout their lives.

Classless Society – a society where stratification is non-existent.

Class System of Stratification – a system of social stratification associated with industrial and post-industrial societies in which individuals can move up or down in rank.

Closed System of Stratification – a system of social stratification where individuals have no opportunity to change position.

Estate System of Stratification – a system of social stratification characterized by control of land by a small elite group and peasants work the land to the benefit of the landowners.

Life Chances – how well people do in such areas as education, income and health.

Open System of Stratification – a system of social stratification where individuals may change position.

Power – the ability to influence others to do your bidding, despite their resistance.

Prestige – the respect of regard given to an individual.

Racial Caste System – a form of caste system in which an individual’s race determines their position in the stratification system.

Social Stratification – a system of ranking in which groups of people have differential access to wealth, power and prestige.

Slave System of Stratification – A system of social stratification characterized by the ownership of people.

Vertical Mobility – the up or down change in position of an individual or group within a system of social stratification.

Wealth – the total value of an individual or family, including income, stocks and bonds, real estate, and other assets.


Continue to 7.2 Explaining Stratification


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez, Rudy Hernandez, Aliza Robison, Pamela Smith, and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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