Social Stratification

Social stratification is a society’s categorization of people into socioeconomic strata, based upon their occupation and income, wealth and social status, or derived power (social and political). As such, stratification is the relative social position of persons within a social group, category, geographic region, or social unit. In modern Western societies, social stratification typically is distinguished as three social classes: (i) the upper class, (ii) the middle class, and (iii) the lower class; in turn, each class can be subdivided into strata, e.g. the upper-stratum, the middle-stratum, and the lower stratum. Moreover, a social stratum can be formed upon the bases of kinship or caste, or both.

The categorization of people by social strata occurs in all societies, ranging from the complex, state-based societies to tribal and feudal societies, which are based upon socio-economic relations among classes of nobility and classes of peasants. Historically, whether or not hunter-gatherer societies can be defined as socially stratified or if social stratification began with agriculture and common acts of social exchange, remains a debated matter in the social sciences. Determining the structures of social stratification arises from inequalities of status among persons, therefore, the degree of social inequality determines a person’s social stratum. Generally, the greater the social complexity of a society, the more social strata exist, by way of social differentiation.


Definition and usage

Social stratification is a term used in the social sciences to describe the relative social position of persons in a given social group, category, geographical region or other social unit. It derives from the Latin strātum (plural strata; parallel, horizontal layers) referring to a given society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, social status, occupation and power. In modern Western societies, stratification is often broadly classified into three major divisions of social class: upper class, middle class, and lower class. Each of these classes can be further subdivided into smaller classes (e.g. “upper middle”). Social strata may also be delineated on the basis of kinship ties or caste relations.

The concept of social stratification is often used and interpreted differently within specific theories. In sociology, for example, proponents of action theory have suggested that social stratification is commonly found in developed societies, wherein a dominance hierarchy may be necessary in order to maintain social order and provide a stable social structure. So-called conflict theories, such as Marxism, point to the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility found in stratified societies. Many sociological theorists have criticized the extent to which the working classes are unlikely to advance socioeconomically while the wealthy tend to hold political power which they use to exploit the proletariat (laboring class). Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, asserted that stability and social order are regulated, in part, by universal values. Such values are not identical with “consensus” but can as well be an impetus for ardent social conflict as it has been multiple times through history. Parsons never claimed that universal values, in and by themselves, “satisfied” the functional prerequisites of a society. Indeed, the constitution of society is a much more complicated codification of emerging historical factors. Theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf alternately note the tendency toward an enlarged middle-class in modern Western societies due to the necessity of an educated workforce in technological economies. Various social and political perspectives concerning globalization, such as dependency theory, suggest that these effects are due to change in the status of workers to the third world.

Four underlying principles

Four principles are posited to underlie social stratification. First, social stratification is socially defined as a property of a society rather than individuals in that society. Second, social stratification is reproduced from generation to generation. Third, social stratification is universal (found in every society) but variable (differs across time and place). Fourth, social stratification involves not just quantitative inequality but qualitative beliefs and attitudes about social status.


Although stratification is not limited to complex societies, all complex societies exhibit features of stratification. In any complex society, the total stock of valued goods is distributed unequally, wherein the most privileged individuals and families enjoy a disproportionate share of income, power, and other valued resources. The term “stratification system” is sometimes used to refer to the complex social relationships and social structure that generate these observed inequalities. The key components of such systems are: (a) social-institutional processes that define certain types of goods as valuable and desirable, (b) the rules of allocation that distribute goods and resources across various positions in the division of labor (e.g., physician, farmer, ‘housewife’), and (c) the social mobility processes that link individuals to positions and thereby generate unequal control over valued resources.

Social mobility

Social mobility is the movement of individuals, social groups or categories of people between the layers or strata in a stratification system. This movement can be intragenerational (within a generation) or intergenerational (between two or more generations). Such mobility is sometimes used to classify different systems of social stratification. Open stratification systems are those that allow for mobility between strata, typically by placing value on the achieved status characteristics of individuals. Those societies having the highest levels of intragenerational mobility are considered to be the most open and malleable systems of stratification. Those systems in which there is little to no mobility, even on an intergenerational basis, are considered closed stratification systems. For example, in caste systems, all aspects of social status are ascribed, such that one’s social position at birth is the position one holds for a lifetime.

Theories of stratification


Karl Marx

In Marxist theory, the modern mode of production consists of two main economic parts: the substructure and the superstructure. The base encompasses the relations of production: employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations. Social class, according to Marx, is determined by one’s relationship to the means of production. There exist at least two classes in any class-based society: the owners of the means of production and those who sell their labor to the owners of the means of production. At times, Marx almost hints that the ruling classes seem to own the working class itself as they only have their own labor power (‘wage labor’) to offer the more powerful in order to survive. These relations fundamentally determine the ideas and philosophies of a society and additional classes may form as part of the superstructure. Through the ideology of the ruling class—throughout much of history, the land-owning aristocracy— false consciousness is promoted both through political and non-political institutions but also through the arts and other elements of culture. When the aristocracy falls, the bourgeoisie become the owners of the means of production in the capitalist system. Marx predicted the capitalist mode would eventually give way, through its own internal conflict, to revolutionary consciousness and the development of more egalitarian, more communist societies.

Marx also described two other classes, the petite bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. The petite bourgeoisie is like a small business class that never really accumulates enough profit to become part of the bourgeoisie, or even challenge their status. The lumpenproletariat is the underclass, those with little to no social status. This includes prostitutes, beggars, the homeless or other untouchables in a given society. Neither of these subclasses has much influence in Marx’s two major classes, but it is helpful to know that Marx did recognize differences within the classes.

According to Marvin Harris and Tim Ingold, Lewis Henry Morgan’s accounts of egalitarian hunter-gatherers formed part of Karl Marx’ and Friedrich Engels’ inspiration for communism. Morgan spoke of a situation in which people living in the same community pooled their efforts and shared the rewards of those efforts fairly equally. He called this “communism in living.” But when Marx expanded on these ideas, he still emphasized an economically oriented culture, with property defining the fundamental relationships between people. Yet, issues of ownership and property are arguably less emphasized in hunter-gatherer societies. This, combined with the very different social and economic situations of hunter-gatherers may account for many of the difficulties encountered when implementing communism in industrialized states. As Ingold points out: “The notion of communism, removed from the context of domesticity and harnessed to support a project of social engineering for large-scale, industrialized states with populations of millions, eventually came to mean something quite different from what Morgan had intended: namely, a principle of redistribution that would override all ties of a personal or familial nature, and cancel out their effects.”

Max Weber

Max Weber was strongly influenced by Marx’s ideas but rejected the possibility of effective communism, arguing that it would require an even greater level of detrimental social control and bureaucratization than capitalist society. Moreover, Weber criticized the dialectical presumption of a proletariat revolt, maintaining it to be unlikely. Instead, he develops a three-component theory of stratification and the concept of life chances. Weber held there are more class divisions than Marx suggested, taking different concepts from both functionalist and Marxist theories to create his own system. He emphasizes the difference between class, status, and power, and treats these as separate but related sources of power, each with different effects on social action. Working at half a century later than Marx, Weber claims there to be in four main social classes: the upper class, the white collar workers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the manual working class. Weber’s theory more-closely resembles contemporary Western class structures, although economic status does not currently seem to depend strictly on earnings in the way Weber envisioned.

Weber derives many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. He notes that, contrary to Marx’s theories, stratification is based on more than simple ownership of capital. Weber examines how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth yet had strong political power. Many wealthy families lacked prestige and power, for example, because they were Jewish. Weber introduced three independent factors that form his theory of stratification hierarchy, which are; class, status, and power:

Class: A person’s economic position in a society, based on birth and individual achievement. Weber differs from Marx in that he does not see this as the supreme factor in stratification. Weber notes how corporate executives control firms they typically do not own; Marx would have placed these people in the proletariat despite their high incomes by virtue of the fact they sell their labor instead of owning capital.

Status: A person’s prestige, social honor, or popularity in a society. Weber notes that political power is not rooted in capital value solely, but also in one’s individual status. Poets or saints, for example, can have extensive influence on society despite few material resources.

Power: A person’s ability to get their way despite the resistance of others, particularly in their ability to engage social change. For example, individuals in government jobs, such as an employee of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or a member of the United States Congress, may hold little property or status but still wield considerable social power.

  1. Wright Mills
  2. Wright Mills, drawing from the theories of Vilfredo Pareto and Gaetano Mosca, contends that the imbalance of power in society derives from the complete absence of countervailing powers against corporate leaders of the Power elite. Mills both incorporated and revised Marxist ideas. While he shared Marx’s recognition of a dominant wealthy and powerful class, Mills believed that the source for that power lay not only in the economic realm but also in the political and military arenas. During the 1950s, Mills stated that hardly anyone knew about the power elite’s existence, some individuals (including the elite themselves) denied the idea of such a group, and other people vaguely believed that a small formation of a powerful elite existed. “Some prominent individuals knew that Congress had permitted a handful of political leaders to make critical decisions about peace and war; and that two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan in the name of the United States, but neither they nor anyone they knew had been consulted.”

Mills explains that the power elite embody a privileged class whose members are able to recognize their high position within society. In order to maintain their highly exalted position within society, members of the power elite tend to marry one another, understand and accept one another, and also work together. The most crucial aspect of the power elite’s existence lays within the core of education. “Youthful upper-class members attend prominent preparatory schools, which not only open doors to such elite universities as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton but also to the universities’ highly exclusive clubs. These memberships in turn pave the way to the prominent social clubs located in all major cities and serving as sites for important business contacts.” Examples of elite members who attended prestigious universities and were members of highly exclusive clubs can be seen in George W. Bush and John Kerry. Both Bush and Kerry were members of the Skull and Bones club while attending Yale University. This club includes members of some of the most powerful men of the twentieth century, all of which are forbidden to tell others about the secrets of their exclusive club. Throughout the years, the Skull and Bones club has included presidents, cabinet officers, Supreme Court justices, spies, captains of industry, and often their sons and daughters join the exclusive club, creating a social and political network like none ever seen before.

Download PDF File