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Soc 101

Theories on Stratification


The Functionalist View

Recall from Chapter 1 that functionalist theory assumes that the various structures and processes in society exist because they serve important functions for society’s stability and continuity. In line with this view, functionalist theorists in sociology assume that stratification exists because it also serves important functions for society. This explanation was developed more than 60 years ago by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (Davis & Moore, 1945) in the form of several logical assumptions that imply stratification is both necessary and inevitable. When applied to American society, their assumptions would be as follows:

  1. Some jobs are more important than other jobs. For example, the job of a brain surgeon is more important than the job of shoe-shining.
  2. Some jobs require more skills and knowledge than other jobs. To stay with our example, it takes more skills and knowledge to do brain surgery than to shine shoes.
  3. Relatively few people have the ability to acquire the skills and knowledge that are needed to do these important, highly skilled jobs. Most of us would be able to do a decent job of shining shoes, but very few of us would be able to become brain surgeons.
  4. To induce the people with the skills and knowledge to do the important, highly skilled jobs, society must promise them higher incomes or other rewards. If this is true, some people automatically end up higher in society’s ranking system than others, and stratification is thus necessary and inevitable. To illustrate this, say we have a society where shining shoes and doing brain surgery both give us incomes of $150,000 per year. (This example is very hypothetical, but please keep reading.) If you decide to shine shoes, you can begin making this money at age 16, but if you decide to become a brain surgeon, you will not start making this same amount until about age 35, as you first must go to college and medical school and then acquire several more years of medical training. While you have spent 19 additional years beyond age 16 getting this education and training and taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, you could have spent these 19 years shining shoes and making $150,000 a year, or $2.85 million overall. Which job would you choose?

Functional theory argues that the promise of very high incomes is necessary to induce talented people to pursue important careers such as surgery. If physicians and shoe shiners made the same high income, would enough people decide to become physicians?

As this example suggests, many people might not choose to become brain surgeons unless considerable financial and other rewards awaited them. By extension, we might not have enough people filling society’s important jobs unless they know they will be similarly rewarded. If this is true, we must have stratification. This all sounds very logical, but a few years after Davis and Moore published their functionalist theory of stratification, other sociologists pointed out some serious problems in their argument (Tumin, 1953; Wrong, 1959).

First, it is difficult to compare the importance of many types of jobs. For example, which is more important, doing brain surgery or mining coal? Although you might be tempted to answer “brain surgery,” if no coal were mined, much of our society could not function. In another example, which job is more important, attorney or professor? (Be careful how you answer this one!)

Second, the functionalist explanation implies that the most important jobs have the highest incomes and the least important jobs the lowest incomes, but many examples, including the ones just mentioned, counter this view. Coal miners make much less money than physicians, and professors, for better or worse, earn much less on the average than lawyers. A professional athlete making millions of dollars a year earns many times the income of the president of the United States, but who is more important to the nation? Elementary school teachers do a very important job in our society, but their salaries are much lower than those of sports agents, advertising executives, and many other people whose jobs are far less essential.

Third, the functionalist view also implies that people move up the economic ladder based on their abilities, skills, knowledge, and, more generally, their merit. If this is true, another implication is that if they do not move up the ladder, they lack the necessary merit. This view ignores the fact that much of our stratification stems from lack of equal opportunity, as our Monopoly example at the beginning of the chapter made clear. Because of their race, ethnicity, gender, and class standing at birth, some people have less opportunity than others to acquire the skills and training they need to fill the types of jobs addressed by the functionalist approach.

Finally, the functionalist explanation might make sense up to a point, but it does not justify the extremes of wealth and poverty found in the United States and other nations. Even if we do have to promise higher incomes to get enough people to become physicians, does that mean we also need the amount of poverty we have? Do CEOs of corporations really need to make millions of dollars per year to get enough qualified people to become CEOs? Don’t people take on a CEO job or other high-paying job at least partly because of the challenge, working conditions, and other positive aspects they offer? The functionalist view does not answer these questions adequately.


Tumin, M. M. (1953). Some principles of stratification: A critical analysis. American Sociological Review, 18, 387–393.


The Conflict View

Conflict theory’s explanation of stratification draws on Karl Marx’s view of class societies and incorporates the critique of the functionalist view just discussed. Many different explanations grounded in conflict theory exist, but they all assume that stratification stems from a fundamental conflict between the needs and interests of the powerful, or “haves,” in society and those of the weak, or “have-nots” (Kerbo, 2009). The former take advantage of their position at the top of society to stay at the top, even if it means oppressing those at the bottom. At a minimum, they can heavily influence the law, the media, and other institutions in a way that maintains society’s class structure.

Ideology and Stratification

In explaining stratification, conflict theory emphasizes ideology, or a set of ideas that justifies the status quo. This emphasis goes back to the work of Marx, who said the ruling class shapes and even controls the ruling ideas of a society. It tries to shape these ideas so that they justify the existing order and decrease the chances that the poor will challenge it. The key goal of the ruling class here is to prevent the poor from achieving class consciousness, or an awareness of their oppression and the true reasons for it (Marx & Engels, 1947). If the poor instead do not recognize their interests as a class that does not control the means of production, they suffer from false consciousness.

As an example, Marx called religion the “opiate of the masses.” By this he meant that religious beliefs influence the poor to feel that their fate in life is God’s will or a test of their belief in God. If they hold such beliefs, they will neither blame their poverty on the rich nor rebel against them. Religious beliefs help create false consciousness.

Ideological beliefs bolster every system of stratification and domination. In slave societies, the dominant ideology, and one that at least some slaves accepted, was that slaves are inferior to their masters and deserve no better fate in life. When U.S. slavery existed in the South, it was commonly thought that blacks were biologically inferior and suited only to be slaves. Caste societies, as we noted earlier, have similar beliefs that justify the existence and impact of the caste system. Hitler’s “final solution” likewise rested on the belief that Jews and other groups he targeted were biologically inferior and deserving of extermination.

Because he was born in a log cabin and later became president, Abraham Lincoln’s life epitomizes the American Dream, the belief that people born into poverty can become successful through hard work. The popularity of this belief leads many Americans to blame poor people for their poverty.

U.S. Library of Congress – public domain.

Ideological beliefs in class societies are more subtle and complex but nonetheless influential. One of the most important beliefs in the United States is the American Dream, epitomized by the story of Abraham Lincoln. According to this belief, people born into poverty can lift themselves up by the bootstraps and become successful if they work hard enough. By implication, if people remain poor, they are not trying hard enough or have other personal deficiencies keeping them in poverty. This ideology prompts many Americans to take a blaming-the-victim approach (see Chapter 1 “Sociology and the Sociological Perspective”) by blaming poverty on laziness and other problems in the poor rather than on discrimination and the lack of opportunity in society. To the extent that people accept such ideological beliefs, they are less likely to criticize the existing system of stratification. Marx did not foresee the extent to which these beliefs would impede the development of class consciousness in the United States.

International data underline this American ideology. We saw in Chapter 3 “Culture” that about 60% of Americans attribute poverty to laziness and lack of willpower, compared to less than half that in Mexico, Russia, Spain, and Sweden. Belief in the American Dream evidently helps lead to a blaming-the-victim ideology that blames the poor for their own fate.

Conflict theory assumes that class position influences our perceptions of social and political life, even if not to the degree envisioned by Marx. Some national survey data support this assumption. A General Social Survey question asks whether it is the government’s responsibility to “reduce income differences between the rich and poor.” As Figure 8.2 “Annual Family Income and Belief That Government “Should Reduce Income Differences Between the Rich and Poor”” shows, low-income people are much more likely than high-income people to think the government has this responsibility.

Figure 8.2 Annual Family Income and Belief That Government “Should Reduce Income Differences Between the Rich and Poor”

Source: Data from General Social Survey, 2006.

Kerbo, H. R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Symbolic Interactionism

Consistent with its micro orientation, symbolic interactionism tries to understand stratification by looking at people’s interaction and understandings in their daily lives. Unlike the functionalist and conflict views, it does not try to explain why we have stratification in the first place. Rather, it examines the differences that stratification makes for people’s lifestyles and their interaction with other people.

One of the most insightful analyses of stratification that fits into a symbolic interactionist framework was Thorstein Veblin’s (1899/1953) famous discussion of conspicuous consumption, or the acquisition and display by the wealthy of lavish products that show off their wealth. The very rich do not need mansions or other very opulent homes, and neither do they need a motor vehicle costing upward of $100,000 or more or jewelry costing thousands and thousands of dollars. Yet they purchase these products to show off their wealth and to feel better about themselves. The lifestyles of the rich are featured in classic novels by writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and in classic films such as The Philadelphia Story, starring the formidable trio of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. Although one message of many of these cultural works is that money does not always bring happiness, it remains true, as Fitzgerald once wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

Examples of the symbolic interactionist framework are also seen in the many literary works and films that portray the difficulties that the rich and poor have in interacting on the relatively few occasions when they do interact. For example, in the film Pretty Woman, Richard Gere plays a rich businessman who hires a prostitute, played by Julia Roberts, to accompany him to swank parties and other affairs. Roberts has to buy a new wardrobe and learn how to dine and behave in rich social settings, and much of the film’s humor and poignancy come from her awkwardness in learning the lifestyle of the rich.

If there are many dramatic and humorous accounts of the “lifestyles of the rich and famous,” there are also many sociological and other accounts of lives of the poor. Poverty is discussed later in this chapter, but for now it is sufficient to say that the poor often lead lives of quiet desperation and must find many ways of coping with the fact of being poor. Studies of the poor, too, reflect the symbolic interactionist perspective.

Veblen, T. (1953). The theory of the leisure class: An economic study of institutions. New York, NY: New American Library. (Original work published 1899).

that technically it was not thought to be a caste at all. People in this caste were called the untouchables because they were considered unclean and were prohibited from coming near to people in the higher castes. Traditionally, caste membership in India almost totally determined an individual’s life, including what job you had and whom you married; for example, it was almost impossible to marry someone in another caste. After India won its independence from Britain in 1949, its new constitution granted equal rights to the untouchables. Modern communication and migration into cities further weakened the caste system, as members of different castes now had more contact with each other. Still, caste prejudice remains a problem in India and illustrates the continuing influence of its traditional system of social stratification.

A country that used to have a caste system is South Africa. In the days of apartheid, from 1950 to 1990, a small group of white Afrikaners ruled the country. Black people constituted more than three-quarters of the nation’s population and thus greatly outnumbered Afrikaners, but they had the worst jobs, could not vote, and lived in poor, segregated neighborhoods. Afrikaners bolstered their rule with the aid of the South African police, which used terror tactics to intimidate blacks (I. Berger, 2009).



Class and Systems of Stratification



The most closed system is slavery, or the ownership of people, which has been quite common in human history (Ennals, 2007). Slavery is thought to have begun 10,000 years ago, after agricultural societies developed, as people in these societies made prisoners of war work on their farms. Many of the ancient lands of the Middle East, including Babylonia, Egypt, and Persia, also owned slaves, as did ancient China and India. Slavery especially flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, which used thousands of slaves for their trade economies. Most slaves in ancient times were prisoners of war or debtors. As trade died down during the Middle Ages, so did slavery.

Class Systems

Many societies, including all industrial ones, have class systems. In this system of stratification, a person is born into a social ranking but can move up or down from it much more easily than in caste systems or slave societies. This movement in either direction is primarily the result of a person’s own effort, knowledge, and skills or lack of them. Although these qualities do not aid upward movement in caste or slave societies, they often do enable upward movement in class societies. Of the three systems of stratification discussed so far, class systems are by far the most open, meaning they have the most vertical mobility. We will look later at social class in the United States and discuss the extent of vertical mobility in American society.

Sociologist Max Weber, whose work on organizations and bureaucracies was discussed in Chapter 5 Groups also had much to say about class systems of stratification. Such systems, he wrote, are based on three dimensions of stratification: class (which we will call wealth), power, and prestige. Wealth is the total value of an individual or family, including income, stocks, bonds, real estate, and other assets; power is the ability to influence others to do your bidding, even if they do not want to; and prestige refers to the status and esteem people hold in the eyes of others.

In discussing these three dimensions, Weber disagreed somewhat with Karl Marx, who said our ranking in society depends on whether we own the means of production. Marx thus felt that the primary dimension of stratification in class systems was economic. Weber readily acknowledged the importance of this economic dimension but thought power and prestige also matter. He further said that although wealth, power, and prestige usually go hand-in-hand, they do not always overlap. For example, although the head of a major corporation has a good deal of wealth, power, and prestige, we can think of many other people who are high on one dimension but not on the other two. A professional athlete who makes millions of dollars a year has little power in the political sense that Weber meant it. An organized crime leader might also be very wealthy but have little prestige outside the criminal underworld. Conversely, a scientist or professor may enjoy much prestige but not be very wealthy.

Estate Systems

Estate systems are characterized by control of land and were common in Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages and into the 1800s. In these systems, two major estates existed: the landed gentry or nobility and the peasantry or serfs. The landed gentry owned huge expanses of land on which serfs toiled. The serfs had more freedom than slaves had but typically lived in poverty and were subject to arbitrary control by the nobility (Kerbo, 2009).

Estate systems thrived in Europe until the French Revolution in 1789 violently overturned the existing order and inspired people in other nations with its cries for freedom and equality. As time went on, European estate systems slowly gave way to class systems of stratification (discussed a little later). After the American colonies won their independence from Britain, the South had at least one characteristic of an estate system, the control of large plots of land by a relatively few wealthy individuals and their families, but it used slaves rather than serfs to work the land.

Much of Asia, especially China and Japan, also had estate systems. For centuries, China’s large population lived as peasants in abject conditions and frequently engaged in peasant uprisings. These escalated starting in the 1850s after the Chinese government raised taxes and charged peasants higher rents for the land on which they worked. After many more decades of political and economic strife, Communists took control of China in 1949 (DeFronzo, 2007).

Caste Systems

In a caste system, people are born into unequal groups based on their parents’ status and remain in these groups for the rest of their lives. For many years, the best-known caste system was in India, where, supported by Hindu beliefs emphasizing the acceptance of one’s fate in life, several major castes dictated one’s life chances from the moment of birth, especially in rural areas (Kerbo, 2009). People born in the lower castes lived in abject poverty throughout their lives. Another caste, the harijan, or untouchables, was considered so low


Definition of Terms

Social Stratification – the division of society into groups arranged in a social hierarchy (page 184)

Social Inequality – the unequal distribution of wealth, power, or prestige among members of a society (page 184)

Slavery – the most extreme form of social stratification, based on the legal ownership of people (page 184)

Caste System – a form of social stratification in which status is determined by one’s family history and background and cannot be changed (page 185)

Apartheid – the system of segregation of racial and ethnic groups that was legal in South Africa between 1948 and 1991 (page 185)

Social Class – a system of stratification based on access to such resources as wealth, property, power, and prestige (page 188)

Socio-economic Status – a measure of an individual’s place within a social class system; often used interchangeably with “class” (page 188)

Intersectionality – a concept that identifies how different categories of inequality (race, class, gender, etc.) intersect to shape the lives of individuals and groups (page 188)

Upper class – an elite and largely self-sustaining group who possess most of the country’s wealth; they constitute about 1 percent of the U.S. population (page 188)

Upper-middle class – social class consisting of mostly highly educated professionals and managers who have considerable financial stability; they constitute about 14 percent of the U.S. population (page 189)

Middle Class – social class composed primarily of white collar workers with a broad range of education and incomes; they constitute about 30 percent of the U.S. population (page 189)

White collar – a description characterizing lower-level professional and management workers and some highly skilled laborers in technical jobs (page 189)

Working class (lower middle class) – social class consisting of mostly blue collar or service industry workers who are less likely to have a college degree; they constitute about 30 percent of the U.S. population (page 190)

Blue collar – a description characterizing skilled and semi-skilled workers who perform manual labor or work in service or clerical jobs (page 190)

Working Poor – poorly educated manual and service workers who may work full-time but remain near or below the poverty line; they constitute about 13 percent of the U.S. population (page 190)

Underclass – the poorest group, comprising the homeless and chronically unemployed who may depend on public or private assistance; they constitute about 12 percent of the U.S. population (page 191)

Status Inconsistency – a situation in which an individual holds differing and contradictory levels of status in terms of wealth, power, prestige, or other elements of socioeconomic status (page 191)

Feudal system – a system of social stratification based on a hereditary nobility who were responsible for and served by a lower stratum of forced laborers called serfs (page 191)

Wealth – a measure of net worth that includes income, property, and other assets (page 191)

Prestige – the social honor people are given because of their membership in well-regarded social groups (page 192)

Social Reproduction – the tendency of social classes to remain relatively stable as class status is passed down from one generation to the next (page 193)

Cultural capital – the tastes, habits, expectations, skills, knowledge, and other cultural assets that help us gain advantages in society (page 193)

Everyday Class Consciousness – awareness of one’s own social status and that of others (page 194)

Homogamy – the tendency to choose romantic partners who are similar to us in terms of class, race, education, religion, and other social group membership (page 196)

Heterogamy – the tendency to choose romantic partners who are dissimilar to us in terms of class, race, education, religion, and other social group membership (page 196)

Hypergamy – marrying “up” in the social class hierarchy (page 197)

Hypogamy – marrying “down” in the social class hierarchy (page 197)

Social Mobility – the movement of individuals or groups within the hierarchical system of social classes (page 200)

Closed system – a social system with very little opportunity to move from one class to another (page 200)

Open System – a social system with ample opportunities to move from one class to another (page 200)

Intergenerational mobility – movement between social classes that occurs from one generation to the next (page 200)

Intragenerational mobility – the movement between social classes that occurs during the course of an individual’s lifetime (page 200)

Horizontal Social mobility – the movement of individuals or groups within a particular social class, most often a result of changing occupations (page 200)

Vertical social mobility – the movement of individuals or groups within a particular social class, most often a result of changing occupations (page 200)

Structural Mobility – the movement of individuals or groups within a particular social class, most often a result of changing occupations (page 200)

Relative Deprivation – a relative measure of poverty based on the standard of living in a particular society (page 201)

Absolute Deprivation – an objective measure of poverty, defined by the inability to meet minimal standards for food, shelter, clothing, or health care (page 201)

Federal Poverty Line – federal index that defines “official” poverty in the United States based on household income; updated annually (page 201)

Culture of Poverty – entrenched attitudes that can develop among poor communities and lead the poor to accept their fate rather than attempt to improve their lot (page 204)

Just-world Hypothesis – argues that people have a deep need to see the world as orderly, predictable, and fair, which creates a tendency to view victims of social injustice as deserving of their fates (page 206)

Residential segregation – the geographical separation of the poor from the rest of an area’s population (page 206)

Disenfranchisement – the removal of the rights of citizenship through economic, political, or legal means (page 207)

Digital divide – the unequal access to computer and Internet technology, both globally and within the United States (page 208)

Meritocracy – a system in which rewards are distributed based on merit (page 210)

Wealth gap – the unequal distribution of assets across a population (page 210)

Oligarchy – political rule by a small group of people, usually members of a wealthy or otherwise dominant class (page 211)

Simplicity Movement – a loosely knit movement that opposes consumerism and encourages people to work less, earn less, and spend less, in accordance with nonmaterialistic values (page 212)



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