Class Stratification

This essay will examine class stratification in the social order and whether or not it is a necessary facet in modern society. In a historical context perhaps it was needed. Were it not for stratification the world may be a very different place to what society now perceives it to be. Class is examined and re-examined over and over again by social theorists such as Marx and Weber for example.

It is a subject from which many different theorists have garnered many different opinions. The division of society by creating a clear hierarchy such as lower, middle and higher classes has been the source of much consternation over time. The lower classes, or “useful classes’’ are the work horses of society and the higher, or “privileged classes’’ in society are by that rationale the “useless’’, enjoying the fruits of the lower class’ labour.

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Williams tell us that “In a widely-read translation of Volney’s The Ruins, or A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires(2 parts,1975) there was a dialogue between those who by ‘useful labours contribute to the support and maintenance of society’(the majority of the people, ‘labourers, artisans, tradesmen and every profession useful to society’, hence called People) and a Privileged class(‘priests, courtiers, public accountants, commanders of troops, in short, the civil, military or religious agents of government’). This is a description in French terms of the people against an aristocratic government. Buckley defines stratification as a system of unequally privileged groups, membership in which is determined by the intergenerational transmission of roles, or of opportunities to attain them, through kinship affiliation. What this means essentially is that you inherit your place in society. Class as a word has existed for centuries according to Raymond Williams, “superseded older names for social division’’. In a society such as today’s that people would hope strives for equal rights and opportunities for all, the question of social inequality and stratification seems ever more prevalent.

There are many forms of stratification but social class seems to be the major form of division between individuals and groups. But is this form of social division really necessary? So far throughout history this form of division in society has led only to revolution and revolt such as in France and the fledgling United States of America at the turn of the eighteenth century when the poorer classes, and those being subjugated by an aristocratic form of government, rose up against their societal peers, the aristocracy.

It must be said though that in the case of the United States many of the leaders of that revolution were the “gentry’’ and many owned slaves. But this division elsewhere has given countries the leadership and direction that they so badly needed in times of national strife and turmoil. Imagine if you will a dystopian world where the axis forces, of the German and Imperial Japanese armies, who opposed the allied British, American and Soviet forces, to name but a few, in World War Two had defeated the Allies.

Is it possible that if not for class stratification where peoples positions in society determined there place in the army that the Allies would have lost? This is because only those from the upper echelons of society attained leadership roles as officers through such prestigious institutions as West Point Military Academy and the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Those chosen for officer selection, having come mostly from privileged backgrounds, would thus have had a better standard of education compared to their enlisted counterparts.

Education and the knowledge gained while in an institute of third level learning meant that many of the young junior officers were, for their time, forward thinking young men, forward thinking young men with educations that allowed them to think outside of the box. To paraphrase the author Stephen. E. Ambrose, the sons of democracy proved to be better soldiers than the sons of Nazi Germany. This being said, World War Two allowed for people to transcend their inherent places in society. This was an amazing revelation within the military which for centuries has been a model for class stratification.

Once upon a time it was the “lower’’, or working classes, who were the regular infantrymen, the “cannon fodder in the Somme’’. To obtain a commission as an officer one had to be from the upper echelons of society. Up until the mid-nineteenth century one could even purchase his commission. It was, to quote D. W. Allen, “crudely founded in medieval times and continued until 1871 in Britain”. This changed, but a person in competition for an officer cadetship still had to be from the “higher’’ classes.

Class position also determines military personnel’s posting or station, it’s not what you know or how well you execute you duties in the service of your state but rather it comes down to who you know or who your father is. Perhaps a young man’s uncle or father was, in the case of American servicemen, a State Senator or had some form of political sway allowing them to “dodge the draft’’ or attain a relatively easy posting. “Some men are killed in war and some men are wounded, and some men are stationed in the Antarctic and some are stationed in San Francisco.

It’s very hard in military or personal life to assure complete equality. Life is unfair. ’’(President John F. Kennedy 1962) this comes back to Davis and Moore’s theory of the principles of stratification. “Social inequality is… an unconsciously evolved device by which societies ensure that the most important positions are conscientiously filled by the most qualified persons”(Davis and Moore, 1945)Duties of various positions are not equally pleasant to perform, require various levels of aptitude and skill to perform and vary in their functional importance to society.

Society must have some rewards that act as inducements to fill the positions and ensure the duties are performed and must have a way of distributing these rewards among various positions. The rewards that society offers for the filling these positions vary. There are three types of rewards, the first are economic incentives: sustenance & comfort (money), the second are esthetical incentives: humour and diversion (television and video) and the third type are symbolic incentives: self-respect and ego (Order of the British Empire) (Davis and Moore, 1945) There are two determinants of positional rank (reward) according to Davis and Moore.

Functional importance and scarcity of personnel, functional importance encompasses functional uniqueness: no other position can perform certain duties (e. g. Taoiseach) and dependence: the degree to which other positions are dependent on it (entire country; elected and appointed government positions). Scarcity of Personnel comes down to things such as talent, skill and education. This means that the scarcity in the supply of personnel for a functionally important position, the availability of talent to fill that position, the difficulty of the training for the positions make certain positions more important than others.

What critics of the Davis-Moore theory fundamentally object to is that in their view “the theory implies an assumption that any scheme of stratification is somehow the best that could be had, that the prevailing distribution of rewards comes into being somehow because it is ‘functionally necessary. ’ ” Simpson 1956 (cited in Coser and Rosenberg 1969) Marx argued that there are two main social classes, the ruling class and the subject class. Marx determined these as the “Bourgeoisie and the proletariat or capitalists and the landless wage workers” (Bilton et al, 1996).

Bilton (1996) explains that Marx believed that the bourgeoisie use a mode of production in the form of capitalism to oppress the proletariat, the owners of production (bourgeoisie) use the workers (proletariat) labour to produce their surplus value. In turn, they pay their workers the smallest amount possible to make the highest possible surplus vale or profit, thus exploiting the working class. Therefore, Marx’s theory is that it is a person’s relationship to the means of production that determines their class both inside the workplace and in the wider society.

Haralambos & Holborn (2002) both agree with Belton’s ideas but they also introduce the contradictory concept called ‘Mutual dependence and conflicts’. Basically, in a society ruled by capitalists, bourgeoisie and the proletariat are as dependant on one another as they are different the bourgeoisie depend on the proletariat to provide labour to increase their surplus value and the proletariats depend on the bourgeoisie for financial survival, however, the mutual dependency does not mean they are at all equal in status.

This may be exemplified by Marx’s theory of the nature of ownership and production in a capitalist society. Marx saw class structure broken down in to three groups, the proletariat (or working class), the bourgeoisie (or capitalist class) and the landlord class. In Capitalism the bourgeoisie gains more power and control over the proletariat which results in a more developed and more defined and stratified class system. Such a system is necessary for any society to function but a perfect system will probably never exist.

Humans, the machines they build the systems of health, education, housing and social welfare they develop will forever be flawed. Any system of social stratification will also be flawed and so society must accept things the way they are or rise up against the higher classes that subjugate them. Vladimir Lenin did this; he led a revolution that changed Russia entirely. Lenin liberated the proletariats, did away with the aristocracy and started to transform the economy of the country he had essentially liberated.

He had been inspired by the writings of the German born social theorist Karl Marx. Unlike Marx, Weber’s analysis of social stratification was not rooted in, or linked to, any attempt to formulate a general “historical analysis” of social development. While, in common with Marx, Weber argued that “class stratification” had a clear and important economic dimension, he believed that two other related dimensions of tratification, namely: Status and Party (or political power)needed to be included if a full analysis and understanding of the rich social variety of different forms of social stratification was to be found. Thus, as has been suggested above, in order to understand the relative significance of Weber’s “three dimensions of stratification”: class, status and party, we need initially to know how they are both defined and inter-related and, in order to do this we need to further understand that all three dimensions are, for Weber, rooted in the concept of power.

While Weber agrees with Marx’s theory of class distinction between bourgeoisie and proletariat he argued that “social inequality needed to be understood in terms of a number of distinct categories which are not reducible merely to economic property relations: the ownership of land, factories and so on is accepted as an important determinant of social position but is only one factor shaping social stratification” (Bilton et al 1996). ‘It is evident that Weber seemed to be more interested in an individual’s ‘market value’, meaning their level of education, skills and gained knowledge etc.

With these skills the individual is open to numerous life chances and opportunities to further their career and increase their standard of living’. However, Weber established a fundamental difference to Marx’s theory instead, he believed in status groups, “he defined class as an ‘unequal distribution of economic rewards’ where as a status group is an ‘unequal distribution of social honour’ (Giddens, 1991). Haralambos (2002) describes a status group as a ‘group made up of individuals who are awarded a similar amount of social honour and therefore share the same status stratification. Haralambos and Holborn, 2002). Wealth is a key determinant of the lifestyle differences upon which status depends. Weber notes that “material monopolies are the most effective motives for the exclusiveness of a status group. ” Social restrictions, such as marriage patterns, residence, and so forth, follow from differences in wealth are reflected in prestige. No theory on social stratification or a system of stratification which these theories try to explain can ever really be truly flawless.

Weber and Marx, in the opinion of some, were by far the most prolific theorists of their times, this is evident given the fact that their theories still earn so much respect so long after they have passed on from this world. In closing, this essay has defined social stratification, offered numerous theories on the subject and has shown that while any system of stratification is flawed it is necessary for the functioning of every society. A hierarchy of social order allows for people to have well defined stations in society.

However, when such social orders are abused and manipulated by tyrants and despots it can mean the veritable ruin of a nation. With the promise of freedom and unity such people have risen to positions of supreme power over societies “…by the promise of these things brutes have risen to power…dictators free themselves, but they enslave the people” (Charlie Chaplin, 1941) Bibliography: Allen, D. W. (1998) ‘Compatible incentives and the purchase of commissions’, Journal of Legal Studies, January, available: http://www. sfu. ca/~allen/army. pdf [accessed 23 Nov 2012] Ambrose, S. E (1998) Citizen Soldiers, Sydney: Simon & Schuster.

Chaplin, C. (1941) The Great Dictator [film], New York City: United Artists. Coser, L. and Rosenberg, B. (1969) Sociological Theory, New York: Macmillan. Davis, K. , Moore, W. E. (1945) ‘Some Principles of Stratification’, American Sociological Review, 10(2), available: http://www. brynmawr. edu/socialwork/GSSW/schram/davis&moore. pdf [accessed Nov 20 2012] Livesey, C. (n. d) Sociology Central [online] available at: http://www. sociology. org. uk/siweber. pdf [accessed 19 Nov 2012] Saunders, P. (1990) Social Class and Stratification, London: Routledge. Williams, R. (1983) Keywords, Glasgow: Fontana Press.

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Class Stratification. (2016, Sep 13). Retrieved from