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Chapter 7: Social Stratification

7.2 Explaining Stratification

Why is stratification so common? Is it possible to have a contemporary society without stratification? Sociologists trying to answer these questions have developed two very different macro explanations of stratification, while symbolic interactionists have examined the differences that stratification produces for everyday interaction. Table 7.2 “Theory Snapshot” summarizes these three approaches.

Table 7.2 Theory Snapshot

Theoretical Perspective

Major Assumption


Stratification is necessary to induce people with special intelligence, knowledge and skills to enter the most important occupations. For this reason, stratification is necessary and inevitable.


Stratification results from lack of opportunity and from discrimination and prejudice against the poor, women and people of color. It is neither necessary nor inevitable.

Symbolic Interactionism

Stratification affects people’s beliefs, lifestyles, daily interactions and conceptions of themselves.

The Functionalist View

Recall from Chapter 1 that the functionalist perspective assumes that the various structures and processes in society exist because they serve important functions for society’s stability and continuity. In line with this view, the promotes the belief that stratification exists because it also serves important functions for society. This explanation was developed more than 60 years ago by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (Davis & Moore, 1945) in the form of several logical assumptions that imply stratification is both necessary and inevitable. When applied to American society, their assumptions would be as follows:

  1. Some jobs are more important than other jobs. For example, the job of a brain surgeon is more important than the job of shoe-shining.
  2. Some jobs require more skills and knowledge than other jobs. To stay with our example, it takes more skills and knowledge to do brain surgery than to shine shoes.
  3. Relatively few people have the ability to acquire the skills and knowledge that are needed to do these important, highly skilled jobs. Most of us would be able to do a decent job of shining shoes, but very few of us would be able to become brain surgeons.
  4. To induce the people with the skills and knowledge to do the important, highly skilled jobs, society must promise them higher incomes or other rewards. If this is true, some people automatically end up higher in society’s ranking system than others, and stratification is thus necessary and inevitable. To illustrate this, say we have a society where shining shoes and doing brain surgery both give us incomes of $150,000 per year. (This example is very hypothetical, but please keep reading.) If you decide to shine shoes, you can begin making this money at age 16, but if you decide to become a brain surgeon, you will not start making this same amount until about age 35, as you first must go to college and medical school and then acquire several more years of medical training. While you have spent 19 additional years beyond age 16 getting this education and training and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, you could have spent these 19 years shining shoes and making $150,000 a year, or $2.85 million overall. Which job would you choose?

As this example suggests, many people might not choose to become brain surgeons unless considerable financial and other rewards awaited them. By extension, we might not have enough people filling society’s important jobs unless they know they will be similarly rewarded. If this is true, we must have stratification. This all sounds very logical, but a few years after Davis and Moore published their functionalist theory of stratification, other sociologists pointed out some serious problems in their argument (Tumin, 1953; Wrong, 1959).

First, it is difficult to compare the importance of many types of jobs. For example, which is more important, doing brain surgery or mining coal? Although you might be tempted to answer “brain surgery,” if no coal were mined, much of our society could not function.

Second, the functionalist explanation implies that the most important jobs have the highest incomes and the least important jobs the lowest incomes, but many examples, including the ones just mentioned, counter this view. Coal miners make much less money than physicians, and professors, for better or worse, earn much less on the average than lawyers. A professional athlete making millions of dollars a year earns many times the income of the president of the United States, but who is more important to the nation? Elementary school teachers do a very important job in our society, but their salaries are much lower than those of sports agents, advertising executives, and many other people whose jobs are far less essential.

Third, the functionalist view also implies that people move up the economic ladder based on their abilities, skills, knowledge, and, more generally, their merit. If this is true, another implication is that if they do not move up the ladder, they lack the necessary merit. This view ignores the fact that much of our stratification stems from lack of equal opportunity, as our Monopoly example at the beginning of the chapter made clear. Because of their race, ethnicity, gender, and class standing at birth, some people have less opportunity than others to acquire the skills and training they need to fill the types of jobs addressed by the functionalist approach.


One critique of functional theory is that it’s difficult to determine the relative importance of each job . Jobs in coal mining are lower-wage, but does this mean that they are less valuable than athletes or surgeons? Image by hangela from Pixabay.

Finally, the functionalist explanation might make sense up to a point, but it does not justify the extremes of wealth and poverty found in the United States and other nations. Even if we do have to promise higher incomes to get enough people to become physicians, does that mean we also need the amount of poverty we have? In order to get enough qualified people to become CEOs, do they really need to make 271 times more than the average worker, as they did at the at the largest 350 companies in the U.S. in 2016 (Donnelly, 2017)? Don’t people take on a CEO job or other high-paying job at least partly because of the challenge, working conditions, and other positive aspects they offer? The functionalist view does not answer these questions adequately.

The Conflict View

The draws on Karl Marx’s view of class societies and incorporates the critique of the functionalist view just discussed. Many different explanations grounded in conflict theory exist, but they all assume that stratification stems from a fundamental conflict between the needs and interests of the powerful, or “haves,” in society pitted against those of the weak, or “have-nots” (Kerbo, 2009). The former take advantage of their position at the top of society to stay at the top, even if it means oppressing those at the bottom. At a minimum, they can heavily influence the law, the media, and other institutions in a way that maintains society’s unequal class structure.

In explaining stratification, conflict theory emphasizes , or a set of ideas that justifies the status quo. This emphasis goes back to the work of Marx, who said the ruling class shapes and even controls the ideas of a society. It tries to shape these ideas so that they justify the existing order and decrease the chances that the poor will challenge it. The key goal of the ruling class is to prevent the poor from achieving class consciousness, or an awareness of their oppression (Marx & Engels, 1947). If the poor instead do not recognize their interests as a class that does not control the means of production, they suffer from .

As an example, Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses.” By this he meant that religious beliefs influence the poor to feel that their fate in life is God’s will or a test of their belief in God. If they hold such beliefs, they will neither blame their poverty on the rich nor rebel against them. Religious beliefs help create false consciousness.

Ideological beliefs bolster every system of stratification and domination. In slave societies, the dominant ideology, and one that at least some slaves accepted, was that slaves are inferior to their masters and deserved no better fate in life. When U.S. slavery existed in the South, it was commonly thought that blacks were biologically inferior and suited only to be slaves. Caste societies, as we noted earlier, have similar beliefs that justify the existence and impact of the caste system. Hitler’s “final solution” likewise rested on the belief that Jews and other groups he targeted were biologically inferior and deserving of extermination.


Because he was born in a log cabin and later became president, Lincoln’s life epitomizes the American Dream. The popularity of this belief leads many Americans to blame the poor for their poverty. U.S. Library of Congress – public domain.

Ideological beliefs in class societies are subtler and more complex but nonetheless influential. One of the most important beliefs in the United States is the American Dream, epitomized by the story of Abraham Lincoln. According to this belief, people born into poverty can lift themselves up by the bootstraps and become successful if they work hard enough. By implication, if people remain poor, they are not trying hard enough or have other personal deficiencies keeping them in poverty. This ideology prompts many Americans to take a blaming-the-victim approach by blaming poverty on laziness and other problems in the poor rather than on discrimination and the lack of opportunity in society. To the extent that people accept such ideological beliefs, they are less likely to criticize the existing system of stratification. Marx did not foresee the extent to which these beliefs would impede the development of class consciousness in the United States.

International data underline this American ideology. About 60% of Americans attribute poverty to laziness and lack of willpower, compared to less than half that in Mexico, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. Belief in the American Dream evidently helps lead to a blaming-the-victim ideology that blames the poor for their own fate.

Conflict theory assumes that class position influences our perceptions of social and political life, even if not to the degree envisioned by Marx. Some national survey data support this assumption. A General Social Survey question asks whether it is the government’s responsibility to “reduce income differences between the rich and poor.” As Figure 7.2 “Annual Family Income and Belief That Government “Should Reduce Income Differences Between the Rich and Poor”” shows, low- and middle-income people are more likely than high-income people to think the government has this responsibility.

Figure 7.2 Annual Family Income and Belief That Government “Should Reduce Income Differences Between the Rich and Poor”


Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2016.

Social Movements

Despite the use of ideology to justify and perpetuate systems of social stratification and the fact that a certain portion of the population will buy into such ideologies, there are also individuals and groups who resist, work to change or organize to overthrow systemic inequality. In addition to outright revolution and warfare which, as discussed earlier in this chapter, helped lead to the eradication of the estate system in Europe and overturned the slave system in the U.S., organized social movements in the U.S. and many other nations have been great forces for social change. are organized efforts by a large number of people to bring about or impede social, political, economic or cultural change.

Sociologists identify several types of social movements according to the nature and extent of the change they seek, however the form of social movement significant to those seeking to change systems of social stratification is the . Reform movements seek limited, though still significant changes in some aspect of a nation’s political, economic or social systems. They do not try to overthrow the existing government but rather work to improve conditions within the existing regime. Some of the more important social movements in U.S. history have been reform movements. These include, but are not limited to the abolitionist movement preceding the Civil War; the women’s suffrage movement and the labor movement which were significant in the late-1800’s and early 1900’s; the post-WWII civil rights movement; the antiwar movement associated with the Vietnam War in the 1970’s; the American Indian, Black Power and Chicano Movements, which gained traction in the 1960’s and 1970’s; the contemporary feminist movements; the gay rights movement following the Stonewall Riots of 1969, and so on.

Social movements sometimes work within the system to effect change, such as pushing court cases through to the Supreme Court of the United States, where decisions can bring about dramatic change. Two well-known examples from the civil rights era were the 1954 Brown V. Board of Education, Topeka, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia cases. These landmark cases declared public school segregation to be unconstitutional and invalidated state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, respectively. These major victories of the civil rights movement helped to eliminate the system of de jure (legal) segregation and brought about cascading change regarding the rights and interests of the African American population. More recently, in the Obergefell v. Hodges case, decided in 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the fundamental right to marry is guaranteed to same-sex couples by the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a cause that had been long fought for by the gay rights movement. More often though, social movements work outside the system by engaging in various kinds of protest, including demonstrations, picket lines, sit-ins, non-violent resistance and sometimes outright violence.


Alcatraz Island was occupied for 19 months in 1969-1971 by 89 American Indians and their supporters in an attempt to force the U.S. government to return this land to American Indians based upon the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. This occupation helped the American Indian movement to gain traction. National Park ServicePublic Domain

Regardless of the strategies, social movements arise when certain political, economic or other problems exist to such a degree that people are prompted to act due to their dissatisfaction with society. These problems might include a faltering economy, a lack of political freedom or discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Rather than blindly accepting the dominant ideology which serves to justify the inequalities associated with social stratification, those involved in social movements seek to change the system in order to bring about greater freedom and equality.

Symbolic Interactionism

Consistent with its micro-orientation, the tries to understand stratification by looking at people’s interaction and understanding in their daily lives. Unlike the functionalist and conflict views, it does not try to explain why we have stratification in the first place. Rather, it examines the differences that stratification makes for people’s lifestyles and their interaction with other people.

One of the most insightful analyses of stratification that fits into a symbolic interactionist framework was Thorstein Veblin’s (1899/1953) famous discussion of conspicuous consumption, or the acquisition and display by the wealthy of lavish products that show off their wealth. The very rich do not need mansions or other very opulent homes, and neither do they need a motor vehicle costing upward of $100,000 or more or jewelry costing thousands and thousands of dollars. Yet they purchase these products to demonstrate their status. At the other end of the spectrum, people in poverty within class systems struggle to meet their basic needs. Poverty is discussed later in this chapter, but for now it is sufficient to say that the poor often lead lives of quiet desperation and must find many ways of coping with the fact of being poor. Studies of the poor, too, reflect the symbolic interactionist perspective.


Key Terms

Conflict Theory of Stratification – the theory that states stratification is neither necessary nor inevitable and that it results from the lack of opportunity and/or from discrimination associated with the exploitation of the masses by the elite.

False Class Consciousness – occurs when workers have adopted the ideology of the elite and are not aware of their true position in society.

Functionalist Theory of Stratification – the theory that states stratification is necessary and inevitable in order to induce people with special knowledge and abilities to enter into the most vital occupations.

Ideology – A systematic body of ideas and beliefs.

Reform Social Movement – a type of social movement that seeks limited, though still significant changes in some aspect of a nation’s political, economic or social systems.

Social Movement – an organized effort by a large number of people to bring about or impede social, political, economic or cultural change.

Symbolic Interaction Theory of Stratification – the theory that states stratification affect’s people’s beliefs, lifestyles, daily interactions and conceptions of themselves.


Continue to 7.3 Social Class in the United States


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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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