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What Do Sociologists Mean by Social Stratification?

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What do sociologists mean by social stratification? Discuss its consequences for society and for individuals living within it. Illustrate and support your response with sociological argument and evidence. Sociologists have varying views on social stratification, therefore their approach to how it can impact society and individuals results in very different concepts. This piece of work will identify and discuss the key points which are significant to the sociological debate. Social Stratification is ‘a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy’ (Macionis & Plummer: 2006:190).

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Stratification involves the layering of society into strata where a hierarchy emerges. Social stratification involves the classification of people into groups based on shared socio-economic conditions, which results in inequalities within society with individual and social, political, economic and ideological consequences. All stratification systems will have five common features. Social stratification will continue throughout generations and individuals within each society must believe in the system for it to function.

It can be found in societies all over the world but levels of inequality will differ from one society to another.

Stratification is a characteristic of society, not just a reflection of inequality between individuals yet it produces shared characteristics within each strata; each member of society will identify with the group they subjectively or objectively belong. There are two types of social stratification, open and closed. Within open systems, an individual’s social position will be ascribed at birth; however some degree of social mobility is possible.

Within a closed system, the social position of an individual is again ascribed at birth but there will be little or no opportunity to change that social position. The functionality of social stratification is interpreted differently by the various theoretical perspectives of sociology. Consensus theorists suggest that since social stratification is found in all societies, hierarchy may be necessary in order to structure society and that each individual within society is different so cannot be treated equally.

They support the idea that social institutions such as education are used to categorise individuals according to their talents and attributes. Individuals with better attributes should have greater rewards within society. This difference between individuals naturally produces inequalities within the stratification system; however functionalists regard this as a positive outcome. The unequal distribution of rewards and resources motivates people to better themselves and work harder, to obtain higher social strata and therefore receive superior rewards. As a functioning mechanism a society must somehow distribute its members in social positions and induce them to perform the duties of these positions’ (Davis and Moore: 1945:242). This idea of role distribution also links with Davis and Moore’s theory of meritocracy; ‘a system of social stratification based on personal merit’ (Macionis & Plummer: 2005:202). Meritocratic principles are crucial to a productive society and distribute rewards according to individual ability and efforts by promoting equality of opportunity while delegating inequality of rewards.

Conflict theorists argue that rather than benefit each member of society, social stratification provides social rewards to the individuals in the higher strata, at the disadvantage of the people in the lower strata’s. They do not agree that meritocracy exists; suggesting instead there is inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility found in stratified societies. Marxists believe that inequality is systematically created and maintained though social institutions by powerful social groups interested only in maintaining their position.

In Marx’s view ‘[i]t is the workers who create wealth by their sweat and toil but most of the economic rewards are seized by employers and property owners’ (Taylor et al: 2002:33). He believed that within the stratification system many workers experience false consciousness, a flawed view of society and their position within it. This is imposed upon them by the powerful social groups who wish to remain in their higher strata. Social class is one of many stratification systems found in modern industrialised societies.

Social class is a concept in which people are grouped into a set of hierarchical social categories who share similar economic positions in society determined by occupation and wealth. They are also likely to have similar levels of education and status and these can be known as the upper, middle and lower classes. Functionalists trust that the social class system makes a positive contribution to the whole of society; it ensures that the most important positions within society are filled by the individuals with the attributes most suited for that position. Davis and Moore (1945) support this idea hat each individual’s class position is a true reflection of their talents and that the meritocratic principles on which society are based succeed in finding the right people for the right jobs. They believe that social class stratification encourages all members of society to work to the best of their ability in order to receive high rewards of wealth and status within society. Melvin Tumin (1967) argues with this theory, that the social stratification system can demotivate those in the lower strata, and does not provide equality of opportunity for everyone.

This can prevent those in lower strata from achieving their potential. He also makes the argument that many unskilled jobs are also vital for the smooth running of society and that these jobs are not highly rewarded. Another criticism of the social class stratification system is that people born into privileged backgrounds have better access to education or may already hold power and status. These opportunities can be used to better or hold that individuals position within society so it is therefore not a meritocratic society.

In Marxist theory, the class structure is characterised by the conflict of the two main classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie being the upper classes who own the means of production: and the proletariat who sell their labour, the working class. ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’ (Karl Marx: 1848:1). Marx believed that within all societies there is a conflict between the rich and powerful who control society and the poor and powerless who sell their labour to the rich and powerful to survive.

He would reject the idea that modern western societies are meritocratic and considers there to be little social mobility between the strata. The ruling class achieve this by exploiting the working class and making them believe that capitalism is fair. This keeps the working class in their position and prevents them from revolting. Marx’s theories are only associated to economic divisions within society and do not relate to other divisions which can be found within society such as race and gender. Within the social class stratification system there are many different forms of social inequalities.

Education opportunities within both systems will be unequal to different levels of strata. Individuals in higher strata would be considered to have better life chances as they would have access to better education. ‘In 2006 a study published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that social mobility in Britain has been steadily declining over the past decade and that, currently, children from middle-class homes are 50% more likely to stay in education after the age of 16 than their working-class counterparts’ (Reay: 2007:2).

This gap in education between the classes reflects the growing gap between the rich and the poor in UK society today. Social class is a problem within the education system which leads to educational inequality. Despite Britain being a meritocratic society, education is still merely reproducing the classes and reinforcing the status quo, therefore making social mobility more unobtainable for individuals in the lower strata. Researchers have found that children born into the poorest families in 2000 are by now being overtaken in cognitive test scores by less intelligent children from wealthier backgrounds. Those from the poorest fifth of households but in the brightest group at age three drop from the 88th percentile on cognitive tests at three to the 65th percentile at age five’ (Cited on news website). Social stratification is established in all societies and is considered essential by functionalists for the smooth running of society. Although it may encourage some individuals to work harder and to aspire to climb the social stratification ladder; it also leaves the majority of members of society at a disadvantage such as individuals who were born into a lower class.

Social mobility can be achieved for these people; however it is difficult to accomplish this as the individuals within the bottom strata have an unequal share of resources within society such as education. To achieve a meritocracy, social institutions such as education would need to be revised and be found to be impartial to social class in order to provide the same opportunities to each member of society. Bibliography Macionis & Plummer): Sociology: A Global Introduction: 2006 (Davis & Moore): American Sociological Review: 1945 (Macionis & Plummer): Sociology: A Global Introduction: 2005 (Taylor et al): Sociology in Focus: 2002 (Tumin, Melvin): American Sociological Review: 1953 (Karl Marx): The Communist Manifesto: 1848 (Reay): Sociology Review: 2007 http://www. inthenews. co. uk/news/politics/class-divides-remain-%241178568. htm: 29:12:12

Cite this What Do Sociologists Mean by Social Stratification?

What Do Sociologists Mean by Social Stratification?. (2016, Oct 02). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/what-do-sociologists-mean-by-social-stratification/

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