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Social Stratification

Most societies are organized so that their institutions systematically distribute benefits and burdens unequally among different categories of people. Sociologists call the structured ranking of individuals and groups— their grading into horizontal layers or strata—social stratification.

Patterns of Social Stratification Social stratification depends upon, but is not the same thing as, social differentiation—the process by which a society becomes increasingly specialized over time.

  • Open and Closed Systems Where people can change their status with relative ease, sociologists refer to the arrangement as an opensystem. A closed system is one in which people have great difficulty in changing their status.

  • Dimensions of Stratification Sociologists typically take a multidimensional view of stratification, identifying three components: economic standing (wealth andincome), prestige, and power.

  • The American Class System

    Inequality follows relatively consistent and stable patterns that persist through time. We often refer to advantaged and disadvantaged groups in the United States as the upper class, middle class, and lower class.

  • Is There Inequality in AmericanSociety? Since the early 1970s income inequality in the United States has been increasing and is now at its highest level in 50 years. In 2001, the top 20 percent of the population received half of the income. Inequality in wealth is even greater.

  • Identifying Social Classes Three primary methods are employed by sociologists for identifying social classes: the objectivemethod, the self-placement method, and the reputational method.

  • The Significance of SocialClasses Social class largely determines people’s life chances and style of life and influences patterns of behavior, including voting and sexual behavior.

  • Poverty in the United States Children and the elderly account for nearly half of all Americans living in poverty. Three theories predominate regarding poverty: the culture ofpoverty theory, poverty as situational, and poverty as a structural feature of capitalist societies.

  • Social Mobility

    In many societies individuals or groups can move from one level (stratum) to another in the stratification system, a process called socialmobility.

  • Forms of Social Mobility Social mobility takes a number of forms. It may be vertical or horizontal and intergenerational or intragenerational. When sociologists talk about social mobility, they usually mean intergenerational occupational mobility.

  • Social Mobility and StatusAttainment More Americans are upwardly mobile than downwardly mobile across generations. Sociologists study the course of an individual’s occupational status over the life cycle by looking at the socioeconomic lifecycle. Education has the greatest influence on occupational attainment for white men. The processes of status attainment are different for women and blacks than for white males. Critics of status attainment research contend that it has a functionalist bias and that the dual labormarket operates to sort people into core or periphery sector jobs.

  • What Is Happening to the AmericanDream? Controversy surrounds the issue of whether the American middle class is an endangered species. Although “equal opportunity” does not apply to all Americans, depending on race, gender, and ethnicity, in real dollars most Americans are better off than their parents.

  • Explanations of Social Stratification

    The question of why social inequality and division should characterize the human condition has provided a central focus of sociology.

  • The Functionalist Theory ofStratification The functionalist theory of social inequality holds that stratification exists because it is beneficial for society. Society must concern itself with human motivation because the duties associated with the various statuses are not all equally pleasant to the human organism, important to social survival, and in need of the same abilities and talents.

  • The Conflict Theoryof Stratification The conflict theory of social inequality holds that stratification exists because it benefits individuals and groups who have the power to dominate and exploit others. Marx contended that the capitalist drive to realize surplus value is the foundation of modern class struggle.

  • A Synthesis of Perspectives Both functionalist and conflict theories have merit, but each is better than the other in answering different questions. A number of sociologists, including Gerhard E. Lenski, have looked for ways of integrating the two perspectives.

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