What Is Social Stratification? | Introduction to Sociology

Social stratification is a sociological term that applies to the ranking or grading of individuals and groups into hierarchical layers such that inequality exists in the allocation of rewards, privileges, and resources.

Social Stratification

Some of the functional necessity of stratification are explained thus:

  1. Social stratification determines individual placement: With the help of social stratification, individuals are placed into various positions or statuses in the social structure. Every position is functionally necessary for societal survival (Davis & Moore, 1945). While some are pleasant, others are not, and while some are more prestigious, others are not. Therefore, since all individuals cannot be found in prestigious positions, for instance, every individual would strive to occupy the positions they desire while considering the rewards the society has to offer for those positions. Hence, encouraging competition and hard work.
  2. Social stratification encourages competition and hard work: Social stratification encourages members of society to aspire for the top position; average human beings do not aspire to be at the bottom (although some may choose to be there). Social stratification therefore induced individuals to live up to societal expectations. Those who best fit these expectations (through competition and hard work) are rewarded immensely for their efforts. It is established that high ranking positions are those that are less pleasant, more important, and with scarce personnel (Davis & Moore, 1945). Those who sacrifice to attain these high ranking positions (since they require prolonged training, for instance) are then rewarded with money, prestige, power, comfort, et cetera.
  3. Social stratification regulates human relationships. Human behaviour in the upper class is different from those in the lower echelon in the stratification system. For instance, while a lower class woman may decide to sit on the floor in a public place where no chair is available, an upper-class woman may choose to remain standing even when required to sit. Role expectations, norms and standards of behaviour are involved in relationships with each stratum. Stratification regulates and controls individual and group behaviours and relationships. Inequality of opportunity gives advantages to those in higher strata and deprives those belonging to the lower strata thus regulating human relationships.
  4. Social stratification performs economic function: According to Davis and Moore (1945), individuals must be motivated to perform the duties required of their positions. This requires motivation to fill certain positions and to perform the duties attached to them. Since these rewards are unique to each category of positions, it is therefore functionally necessary to give different rewards to various positions so as to encourage individuals (for instance, those in the upper classes) to work at maintaining their positions.
  5. Social stratification serves as social control: The existence of social classes is functional to every society. Each social class has its own sub-culture which guides and controls the behaviours of members. A certain amount of mutual antagonism between social classes is, therefore, useful as one social class serves as a reference point to another. Thus, different social classes act as a means of social control.

Systems of Social Stratification

Systems of stratification can also be referred to as types of stratification or forms of stratification. Historical sociology has shown the existence of various stratification systems in human history. The varying of these systems are conditioned by the degree of vertical mobility and the rate at which people are permitted to move in and out of a given strata (Kerbo, 2006).

In other words, a system of stratification in any given society is largely determined by whether such society operates a closed system or an open system. In a closed system, individual members of society find it very difficult, if not impossible, to change their social status and there seems to be virtually no chance of vertical movement on a stratification ladder.

Open system however allows vertical mobility on a stratification ladder and individual members of society can change their social status without much difficulty (Hughes & Kroehler, 2008). These distinctions between closed and open systems are similar to the differences between ascribed statuses and achieved statuses.

Whereas ascribed statuses are given or ‘ascribed’ to people by their group or society, and are typical of a closed stratification system; the achieved statuses are available to people based on individual choice and competition and are common in an open system.
Although there are no entirely closed or open systems in historical societies of the world, there are elements of having characteristics that are closer to one end. Some of these systems of stratification are hereby briefly discussed.

  • Slave system: The oldest and most closed stratification system is slavery. The Slave system refers to the ownership of people, as against the class system’s ownership of people’s labor (Ennals, 2007).

It involves a situation in which one group or individuals (often known as masters) claim ownership of another group or individuals (called slaves), such that the privileged group or individuals take upon themselves the power to use, command, abuse and possess the fruits of the underprivileged group’s or individual’s labour (Livesey & Lawson, 2010). In the slave system, therefore, the slaves are the properties of their masters.

In this system, vertical social mobility is exclusively closed and social statuses are determined absolutely by ascription. Children born to slave parents automatically become slaves by virtue of their parents’ status. The genesis of the slave system was said to have begun about 10,000 years ago, after the development of agricultural societies.

In ancient times, most people acquired the status of slaves either through conquest or inability to pay debts. The need for more people on farmland encouraged slavery to thrive through the Middle Ages. Arguably, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries marked the peak of slavery in human history when people were deliberately hunted, captured and shipped as slaves majorly from the continent of Africa to other parts of the world (Thornton, 1998).

The global dimension of slavery eroded cultural authenticity; increased inequality; as well as brought about the underdevelopment of Third World countries at the expense of the development of First World countries; among others disadvantages (Oyekola, 2018).

Today, slavery still reflect in some parts of Africa, Asia, and South America where people are taken as prisoners of war in ethnic conflicts; where women and girls are captured in wartime or kidnapped from their neighbourhoods for prostitutes and sex slaves; where children are sold by their parents to become child labourers; and where workers are abused, tortured and too terrified to leave because of debts; among others (Bales, 2007; Batstone, 2007).

  • Estate systems: Estate systems, also known as feudal systems, are characteristics of pre-modern, pre-industrial, agrarian (agricultural) societies, which were common in the continents of Europe and Asia in the Medieval Era through the 1800s.

This system was based on land ownership because farming was the predominant occupation and there were no machines to produce goods. At the upper echelon were the landed gentry or nobilities (those who owned a large expanse of land on which serfs laboured) and the lower cadre comprised the serfs (those who typically represent the poor under the arbitrary control of the nobles (Kerbo, 1996).

Under feudal systems, to own land was to control power. The land was considered the property of God under the trust of the Monarch, being God earthly representative. This was in turn consolidated in the hands of chief tenants or nobles. Estate systems were based on a very strong social structure, as rooted in the belief systems that recognised the supremacy of God, the Almighty.

It was believed that God had already established social order and it was not for any mortal man to question such ordering; instead, every man was expected to simply follow divine ordering whether favourable or unfavourable. In the divine ordering, there were different levels with respective different rights and privileges.

For example, the serf, although not slaves, were subject to their feudal lords, who had the power to control their behaviours. Since the serf had very little opportunity to change her or his social status, there was restricted social mobility in this system of social stratification. Not until the 1789 French Revolution which violently overturned the long-existing social order, estate systems thrived in Europe.

The Revolution inspired other nations to cry for freedom and equality. As time went on, European estate systems slowly gave way to class systems of stratification. The total abolition of feudal estates however could not be achieved until the Communists took over China in 1949 after decades of socio-political and economic strife (DeFronzo, 2018).

  • Caste systems: The Hindu caste arrangement, particularly as it operated in India prior to 1900, serves as an example of a caste system.

Caste consists of family members who bear the common name, who share common descent especially from a mystical ancestor, who profess to follow the same hereditary calling and who are regarded by those that are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogenous community (Cooley, 1956; Risley, 1892). Simply put, a strictly hereditary class is referred to as caste. The caste system has majorly existed in India for about 3000 years, where the Hindu religion had a very strong influence (Kerbo, 2006; Livesey & Lawson, 2010).

Under the traditional Hindu system, castes determined social order as people were ascribed their social status at birth (according to parental caste position) and the possibility of changing such social status in the course of their lives was not there.

Consequently, the caste system is described as a closed stratification system because no individual is allowed to move up or down the class structure, with a rare exception. Such a rare exception involves breaking caste laws such as marrying outside one’s caste and such can result in losing one’s caste position.

A term called ‘outcaste is used to describe anyone who breaks caste laws and consequently, such is relegated in the caste hierarchy to the lowest position (called harijan or untouchable). Because no one was lawfully allowed to marry outside one’s caste, marriage in the caste system was therefore considered to be endogamous. The caste system, as operated in India, was further underpinned by two key important religious beliefs: reincarnation and caste mobility.

  • Class systems: The class system is a common feature of industrial society because industrialization itself is a product of individual efforts in a free market resulting in differing individual wealth. By definition, a class system is a system of stratification whereby people are classified according to their economic possession.

Generally, sociologists use income, wealth, type of occupation, level of education, lifestyle and material possession to categorise people into social classes. The class system was said to begin when individuals started amassing wealth to themselves at the detriment of others thereby creating social inequality.

The class system is more flexible and open than other systems of stratification (such as slave, estate and caste systems) because it allows social mobility. This is because the class system is based more on achievement than ascription; that is, the status is achieved and not ascribed.

Although an individual is born into a given social ranking in a class system of stratification, such an individual has a relatively equal opportunity to move either upward or downward base on her/his personal efforts, knowledge, and skills. While these qualities do not aid any movement in caste or slave societies, they often determine social mobility in class societies.

Since its inception, sociology has concerned itself with social order and social dynamics. This reflects in the works of its founding fathers such as Auguste Comte, who sought to find a solution to the social disorder of his time.
More importantly, the system of social stratification that existed in his time accounted for the social revolution experienced in the very late 18th century and early 19th century. As sociology developed, the question of why social stratification and division should feature in the human condition provided a central focus of the new science.

Through the years, two strikingly divergent perspectives have emerged. The two theories explain why social stratification is universal. On the one hand is a functional theory that supports the existing social arrangement, emphasising that differential distribution of rewards are necessary to instrument for societal continuity.

Conversely, conflict theory has been highly critical of existing social arrangements, contending that social stratification is not a necessary condition for societal survival, rather, an exploitative relationship arising from the continuous struggle between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-not’.

Functionalism Theory of Social Stratification

The functional theory of social stratification establishes that social division exists in society because of its benefits to society. All societies have various parts or structures and these parts function harmoniously and interdependently.

A best-known and very popular single piece of work that can easily be identified with the functional theory of social stratification is the work of Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945). Davis and Moore (1945), posit that social stratification performs functions that are both universal and necessary.

According to them, the need for social stratification in all societies brought it into existence as no society is ever un-stratified (universality); neither as any society found social stratification unimportant (necessity).
Specifically, their explanations centres on the system of positions, especially how certain positions carry different degrees of prestige; and not to the individuals occupying those positions or how they get into those positions.

It is now the function of every society to devise means by which individuals come to fill different positions in the stratification system and once that has been achieved, society has another responsibility to instil in the individuals they need to achieve the demand of those positions. Every society must therefore concern itself with human motivation.

This is important because the duties associated with different positions are not all equally pleasant to individual members of society (some positions are more desired to occupy than others), are not all equally important to societal survival (some positions are more significant to societal survival than others), and are not equally in need of the same abilities and talents (some positions require more abilities and talents than others). Davis and Moore (1945), further illustrate their theory using more important social positions.

According to them, the high ranking positions are less pleasant or desired to occupy, but more important for the survival of society and requires more special abilities and talents. Consequently, society must devise a certain reward system that it can use to induce members to occupy certain positions and some ways which it can use to distribute rewards among various positions.

For examples, more motivations should be attached to high ranking positions to attract more individuals, and less motivation should be provided for low ranking statuses so as to discourage members from filling such positions (since such positions are already pleasant to fill, less important for societal survival and require no great abilities and talents).

Inequality is therefore the motivational incentives that society has evolved to meet the problems of filling all the positions and of getting the position holders to carry out the associated roles to the best of their capacity. Since these rewards are built into the social system, stratification, therefore, is an ‘unconsciously evolved device’ by which societies insure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons (Davis & Moore, 1945; Shankar-Rao, 2006).

Functionalist theory of social stratification, therefore, posits that high ranking positions (such as doctors because it is burdensome and expensive to receive medical training) must be rewarded with high salary, great prestige and enormous power to be certain that people occupy those positions. Otherwise, the positions would remain unfilled, and society would disintegrate.

Since its first publication (Davis & Moore, 1945), the functional theory of stratification has received many criticisms (see Huaco, 1966; McLaughlin, 2000; Ritzer, 2011; Tumin, 1953).

Economic Determinism Or Conflict Theory of Social Stratification

The notion that social stratification is both functional universal and functional necessary; and that high ranking positions are less pleasant to occupy, more important for social survival and requires great abilities and talents are often difficult to support. This calls for alternative explanations.

Conflict theory of social stratification, as an alternative explanation, posits that stratification exists, not because it benefits all individual members of society but because it benefits some individuals and groups who have the privilege and power to dominate, oppress and exploit others. Conflict theory rests heavily on the ideas of Karl Marx, especially his historical economic determinism (Marx, 1983). Marx believes that the capitalist’s drive to amass wealth is the foundation of modern class struggle (the continuous struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariats); hence, the origin of social stratification.

By surplus value, Marx means the difference between the value that proletariats create as measured by the labour time put into the commodity they produce and the value they received from capitalists as determined by their meagre wages. Social stratification is maintained as long as there are greedy capitalists who can employ their economic intelligence to exploit marginalised workers who only have their labours to sell. Also, social stratification will be abolished when the working class overthrows the capitalist class and establishes a new classless society called socialism (Dahrendorf, 1959; Marx, 1976; Marx & Engels, 1967).

In short, both functionalist and conflict theories provide part of the answer, but neither contains the whole truth about the theory of social stratification (see Kerbo, 2006; Lenski, 1966; Milner Jr, 1987; Sorokin, 1959; Van den Berghe, 1963 for the synthesis of the theories).