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Social Stratification: Types, Characteristics, and Examples

Social Stratification: Types, Characteristics, and Examples
Social stratification is the arrangement of individuals or groups into a hierarchy. Here is an insight about the types, characteristics, and examples of social stratification.
Rujuta Patil
Last Updated: Mar 5, 2018
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What is Social Mobility?
Movement of people or categories of people through the hierarchical system of stratification; for example, from lower class to middle class. Horizontal mobility is when there is change of occupation or position of an individual, but not an accompanied change of class.
It is said that man is a social animal. This refers to the interdependent behavior of human beings. Although living in groups, mankind has a tendency of still forming further sub-divisions in a given group. This inclination of further categorizing within a group is seen across cultures. Whatever may be the basis; division of labor, peculiar skills of a group, role of exercising authority, prestige, or any other criterion, social stratification exists as a very foundational principle in the working of a society. Let us understand its meaning first and then look at its types, characteristics, and examples.
Definition and Meaning
Social stratification can be referred to as division of society into strata or layers that are superimposed one above the other.
Social stratification is the arrangement of the members of a society into different categories of class, caste or a hierarchy based on factors like income, wealth, status, occupation, or even ethnicity. Sociology has borrowed the concept of stratification from the science of geology (of the Earth into different layers). Unlike in geology though, where all layers of the Earth are the same, in sociology, there is an unequal distribution of rights and privileges through the social strata.
Types of Social Stratification
Social stratification is classified into four basic forms, which are slavery, estate, caste, and class. In tribal systems too, there existed hierarchy. Described as a form of primitive communism, generally the resources were equally divided among all the tribals. The society was divided into chiefs, shamans, and other tribe members. Based on the proficiency of some tribals in certain tasks, they were entitled to be heads of the clan due to their skills. Apart from the ancient human lifestyle, social stratification can be seen from the following social systems.

According to Karl Marx, stratification separated a society into two mutually opposing categories, where one exploits the other (the bourgeoisie gains at the cost of the proletariat). The term "class" thus originated in the context of ownership of the means of production. Max Weber further added two aspects of stratification, which were "status" and "power". Status refers to the social position of an individual.

Social stratification defines the hierarchical structures of class and status in a society. It forms the larger power structure that influences all the social activities within that particular community.

1. Slavery: The relation of a master and slave was the peak of inequality in human history. A slave was defined by L.T. Hobhouse as a man whom law and custom regard as the property of another. Slaves faced inhuman violence, relentless working conditions, with no identity as a human, far from rights of any kind. The lives of slaves naturally were at extreme contrast with the lives of their masters or the land owners.

2. Feudal systems: It began around the 8th century in Middle Europe and lasted till the 15th century. Estates were legally defined, along with the rights, duties, and privileges. The hierarchy that revolved around the estate ownership had three levels.

Feudal lords or nobility were owners of estates and gave military service to the Crown. They also legally owned the serfs.
Knights or vassals protected the lands as tenants.
Serfs or the peasants constituted the lowest stratum. They had to give a part of their produce to the upper strata.

3. Caste system: The concept of caste is linked with ethnicity or race and is believed to have religious sanction. Existing originally on the basis of occupational division as given by the varna system during the Ancient Indian Vedic period, it has been associated with the birth of an individual in the particular caste. It is associated with the principle of endogamy and heredity that define the lifestyle of the people within the same caste or sub-caste.

Caste: There are four main castes: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra.
Sub-caste: These refer to further divisions or communities existing in each caste.

4. Class system: The division most common across the world is the class system. It is based on economic factors and is related to the concept of status. Marxist theory explains the opposing classes of the society as the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Marxist concept with reference to capitalism consists of two classes:

Capitalist: were the owners of the capital or the Capitalist class.
Workers: constituted the workers or the labor class.

Class, however, still is defined based on the ownership of crucial resources (economic, or political) and decides the status of an individual or a group.
Characteristics of Social Stratification
1. Universal: Stratification is applicable to nearly all human civilizations of the past and present. Organization of a community brings along an ordered structure that does not come without a hierarchy. The division of society is thus, a feature typical to the nature or behavior of humans as a combined group. It is a consequence of the structural differences that define each individual as a part of the whole.

2. Gender: Differentiating between men and women is a very intrinsic feature of all kinds of stratification. Women are treated differently from men with respect to their rights and duties in patriarchal societies. The kind of exposure to the world outside home, and the degree of independence they have depends upon the belief systems and culture of a society. Also, women belonging to different strata within the same society follow different norms. So, gender assumes a very dynamic role in shaping the characteristics of a given strata, irrespective of the stratification systems and the cultural differences within.

3. Inequality: The benefits and opportunities that individuals get are not the same for everyone as an equal member of the society. Different rewards and remuneration itself marks differences in who gets what and how easily. Status and prestige are two facets of any stratified society that establish inequality among its members. The rich and wealthy enjoy many perks and privileges. The intellectuals earn reverence due to their talent. Higher social position in the hierarchy (achieved by fair or unfair means) tends unequal treatment to individuals.

4. Poverty and Stratification: Surplus wealth or resources left with individuals become the source of any further economic order or stratification. The lower base of the pyramid is associated with poverty and maximum numbers. Despite several basis to categorize masses, wealth or income of the community is the only criterion that has survived ever since the times of barter exchange to the current times of paper currency. Income, however, is the best way to measure a nation's productivity too. Thus, this forms an objective stratification that generates statistics about the entire population.

5. Mobility: Whether an individual can move across different strata of a society decides the social mobility. Vertical mobility refers to change in a person's social position with respect to the class or status. If a common factory laborer makes his way to the top management of the industry, his status changes, showing an upward mobility. Systems of stratification are classified into open or closed systems depending on their allowance of such mobility. The caste system of India does not permit a person to switch between the vertical strata or caste structure (that is an ascribed status) across the social hierarchy, thus making it a closed system. Class system, on the contrary, is an open system which allows vertical and horizontal mobility.

Status can be either achieved or ascribed. Ascribed status is defined as the social position of a person due to his/her birth (as in the case of caste), sex, race, inherited wealth, etc. Ascriptive process define the social standing or even the lifestyle of the individual. Though traditionally it is not unusual, in modern societies, social status or position is to believed to be acquired by means of achievements and conduct.
Functionalist View or the Davis-Moore Hypothesis
In sociology, the functionalist perspective (structural functionalism) is attributed to Herbert Spencer. It maintains that society is a sum of different parts of the system, working to run the whole system. It draws parallels from the biological concept of human body as a whole and the organs as its parts.

Functionalists believe social stratification is necessary for the functioning and stability of a society. The Davis-Moore Hypothesis put forth by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore in 1945, claims that unequal distribution of rewards serves a purpose in society. In fact, inequality and hierarchy is beneficial. The functionalists believe that there are certain functions like cleaning and maintenance works, which can be carried out by anybody, or many people. However, there are certain jobs that can be done only by a few members of society, and thus are highly paid for, as a motivating factor for those few. Contribution of the talented and best qualified individuals is very essential to society, and thus, they are encouraged by better rewards and higher pay. There are several arguments against this perspective, as inequality or hierarchy is not always observed to be beneficial to society, nor is it rational.
Examples of Social Stratification
1. In developed economies, societies are classified into three broad categories.

Lower class: It refers to people who are uneducated, either unemployed, or with low levels of income. Those below the poverty line struggle even for basic necessities like food and shelter.

Middle class: The majority of the population known as the white collar workers constitute the middle class. They lie between the rich and the poor. This class generally constitutes the majority of a country's population. They have dignified jobs and a standard, honorable lifestyle.

Upper class: The wealthy or high income groups and individuals are known as the upper class of society. Prestige, status, and sometimes even power, all factors coincide with this stratum.

There are also, further sub-divisions of these broad categories like the "upper-middle class" and the "lower-middle class". These occur mainly due to differences in either one of the attributes of prestige, status, income earned, or wealth. A job of a professor in a renowned university is more prestigious than that of a primary school teacher. Both persons being teachers, one employment type results into differences in their class and associated status.

2. The term socio-economic means a blend of social and economic factors. This term itself denotes the stratification in modern societies being intertwined between social and economic conditions of a person. The social strata a person belongs to, thus, is derived from his occupation, wealth, income, assets, residence, lifestyle, prestige, etc. If a rich man has some political affiliation or political background, it adds a different aspect of authoritative power to his status.
Economist Paul Samuelson described income inequality in America in these words: "If we made an income pyramid out of a child's blocks, with each layer portraying $500 of income, the peak would be far higher than Mt. Everest, but most people would be within a few feet of the ground".
These words highlight the most peculiar feature of any form of social stratification, where the base of the pyramid identifies with more or less similar people.
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