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Chapter 7: Social Stratification

7.2 Explaining Stratification

What Do You Think?

Read the following statements. Which statement(s) comes closest to accurately representing your beliefs?

1. It is normal to have both wealthy and poor neighborhoods in the same town.

2. Anyone can get ahead if they try.

3. Rich people hoard their wealth, and usually do not get in trouble when they break the rules.

4. Poor people are responsible for their situations.

5. Social connections matter more than ability to succeed.

6. America is the land of opportunity.

7. A person’s ascribed statuses (race, ethnicity, gender, age) have more impact on their rank in society than their achieved statuses.

8. A person’s achieved statuses (education, occupation) have more impact on their rank in society than their ascribed statuses.


The statements in the box above reflect views associated with how social stratification is understood by sociological theorists. As such, theorists give us answers to questions such as, why is stratification so common,and 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 functionalist theory 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, functionalist theorists in sociology assume 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:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 these assumptions are 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.

image of two coal miners

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? hangelaPixabay

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 $24.2 million, on average, or 351 times more than the average worker, as they did at the largest 350 companies in the U.S. in 2020 (Mishel & Kandra, 2021). 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.


Think Like a Sociologist

During the COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic closures, certain occupations were deemed “essential” to the functioning of society. 

List a few of the occupations that were determined to be essential and consider how this reality jibes with the functionalist theory on stratification.  Does it prove or disprove this theory?

Learn more about it: The blog post from 2020 (linked below) looks at the occupational prestige rankings for health care workers deemed essential during the pandemic and notes the disparity in prestige between the doctors (97 points out of 100) and maids and housekeepers (14 points out of 100).

Many essential workers are in “low-prestige” jobs. Time to change our attitudes – and policies?


The Conflict View

Conflict theory’s explanation of stratification 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 .


Think Like a Sociologist

Karl 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. In this, religious beliefs help create false class consciousness.

From a conflict perspective, how does a belief in the American Dream also help create false class 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.

image of Abraham Lincoln

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. Indeed, 7 out of 10 people surveyed in a Gallup poll in 2019 said the American Dream was personally attainable (Younis, 2019). 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.


What Do You Think?

As explained in the section above, the American Dream has been a belief system predicated on the notion that a person has a great deal of control over their ultimate success, with the assumption being that individual effort was sufficient to overcome even great odds. At the same time, people’s assumptions about the success of others is more tempered. A Pew Research survey from 2020 asked which generally has more to do with why a person is rich: they had more advantages in life than other people, or they worked harder than most people. Overall, the consensus was that a person’s advantages in life had more influence over becoming rich and that poverty was mainly due to the obstacles a person faces. This varied by age and political party, with younger and more Democratic leaning participants giving outside factors more weight to what causes wealth or poverty, while older and more Republican leaning participants cited one’s effort or lack of it.

What does the American Dream look like to you? Be specific (house, car, etc.).

How does a person attain this dream? Is it within reach for most Americans today? If so, how, and if not, why not?


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.

Figure 7.2 Percent Saying Reducing Economic Inequality Should be a Top Priority For the Federal Government to Address

Bar chart showing Percent Saying Reducing Economic Inequality Should be a Top Priority For the Federal Government to Addres, with 52% of low income, 39% of middle income and 36% of high income people agreeing.

Source: Data from Pew Research Center, 2020. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/most-americans-say-there-is-too-much-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-but-fewer-than-half-call-it-a-top-priority/

Research conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 61% of people in the U.S. feel that there is too much economic inequality (2020). A further survey question asked whether or not reduction in economic inequality should be a top priority of the U.S. federal government. As Figure 7.2 “Percent Saying Reducing Economic Inequality Should be a Top Priority For the Federal Government to Address” above demonstrates, while the majority of people in the U.S. see economic inequality to be a problem, low-income people are far more likely than middle- and high-income people to think the government should prioritize reducing economic inequality.


Applying the Theoretical Perspectives

Recall the list of statements at the opening of this chapter.

Which statement(s) did you choose?

Which statement(s) reflect the functional perspective? The conflict perspective?

Which theoretical perspective more closely aligns with your views?


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, whatever form it takes. In addition to outright revolution and warfare which 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. All forms of stratification found in the United States, from social class, to race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, have brought about social movements intent on changing inequality in our society.

Sociologists identify several types of social movements according to the nature and extent of the change they seek. 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, many of which addressed both economic and social inequality experienced by different subordinate groups. 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.

image of graffiti during protest on Alcatraz Island, reading "Welcome United Indian Property; Indian Land."

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, symbolic interactionism 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.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

Consider how people view and treat those without homes compared to how we interact with a wealthy person. Symbolic interaction theory examines how a person’s location in their culture’s system of stratification affects both their behavior and how others treat them.

images of homeless man with shopping cart and man stepping off of private jet

aga2rk Pixabay and Vali Greceanu Pixabay

What assumptions might someone make about the two men in the above photos?

How would these men be treated differently by other people due to their status?


One of the most insightful analyses of stratification that fits into a symbolic interactionist framework was Thorstein Veblen’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.


Using Your Sociological Imagination

image of Prada purse

Анастасия from Pexels

Thorstein Veblen said conspicuous consumption was the practice of showing off one’s wealth through spending. Examples might include buying designer handbags and clothes, expensive jewelry or the latest technology.

Have you ever purchased a more expensive item when a cheaper version would work just as well?

Why did you make that choice?


Test Yourself


Section 7.2 References

Davis, K. and W. Moore.  (1945). Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review, 10, 242–249. 

Drie, H. V. and R. V. Reeves. (2020, May 28). Many essential workers are in “low-prestige” jobs. time to change our attitudes – and policies?  Brookings. Retrieved from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/05/28/many-essential-workers-are-in-low-prestige-jobs-time-to-change-our-attitudes-and-policies/.

Kerbo, H. R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. 

Marx, K. and F. Engels. (1947). The German ideology. New York, NY: International Publishers.

Mishel, L. and J. Kandra. (2021, May 27). Preliminary Data Show CEO Pay Jumped Nearly 16% in 2020, While Average Worker Compensation Rose 1.8%. Working Economics Blog (Economic Policy Institute). Retrieved from https://www.epi.org/blog/preliminary-data-show-ceo-pay-jumped-nearly-16-in-2020-while-average-worker-compensation-rose-1-8/#:~:text=and%20Jori%20Kandra-,Preliminary%20data%20show%20CEO%20pay%20jumped%20nearly%2016%25%20in%202020,financial%20impact%20of%20the%20pandemic. 

Pew Research Center. (2020, March). Most Americans Point to Circumstances, Not Work Ethic, for Why People Are Rich or Poor. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2020/03/02/most-americans-point-to-circumstances-not-work-ethic-as-reasons-people-are-rich-or-poor/.

Pew Research Center. (2020, January). Most Americans Say There Is Too Much Economic Inequality in the U.S., but Fewer Than Half Call It a Top Priority.  Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2020/01/09/most-americans-say-there-is-too-much-economic-inequality-in-the-u-s-but-fewer-than-half-call-it-a-top-priority/.

Tumin, M. M. (1953). Some principles of stratification: A critical analysis. American Sociological Review, 18, 387–393. 

Veblen, T. (1953). The theory of the leisure class: An economic study of institutions. New York, NY: New American Library. (Original work published 1899). 

Wrong, D. H. (1959). The functional theory of stratification: Some neglected considerations. American Sociological Review, 24, 772–782.

Younis, M. (2019, July 17). Most Americans See American Dream as Achievable. Gallup. Retrieved from https://news.gallup.com/poll/260741/americans-american-dream-achievable.aspx.

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