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In sociology, social stratification is a concept involving the "classification of people into groups based on shared socio-economic conditions ... a relational set of inequalities with economic, social, political and ideological dimensions." When differences lead to greater status, power or privilege for some groups over the other it is called social stratification. It is a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. Social stratification is based on four basic principles:
In modern Western societies, stratification is broadly organized into three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class. Each of these classes can be further subdivided into smaller classes (e.g. occupational).
These categories are not particular to state-based societies as distinguished from feudal societies composed of nobility-to-peasant relations. Stratification may also be defined by kinship ties or castes. For Max Weber, social class pertaining broadly to material wealth is distinguished from status class which is based on such variables as honor, prestige and religious affiliation. Talcott Parsons argued that the forces of societal differentiation and the following pattern of institutionalized individualization would strongly diminish the role of class (as a major stratification factor) as social evolution went along. It is debatable whether the earliest hunter-gatherer groups may be defined as 'stratified', or if such differentials began with agriculture and broad acts of exchange between groups. One of the ongoing issues in determining social stratification arises from the point that status inequalities between individuals are common, so it becomes a quantitative issue to determine how much inequality qualifies as stratification.
The concept of social stratification is interpreted differently by the various theoretical perspectives of sociology. Proponents of action theory have suggested that since social stratification is commonly found in developed societies, hierarchy may be necessary in order to stabilize social structure. Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, asserted that stability and social order are regulated, in part, by universal value although universal values were not identical with "consensus" but could as well be the impetus for ardent conflict as it had been multiple times through history. Parsons never claimed that universal values in and by themselves "satisfied" the functional prerequisites of a society, indeed, the constitution of society was a much more complicated codification of emerging historical factors. The so-called conflict theories, such as Marxism, point to the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility found in stratified societies. Many sociological theorists have criticized the extent to which the working classes are unlikely to advance socioeconomically; the wealthy tend to hold political power which they use to exploit the proletariat intergenerationally. Theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf, however, have noted the tendency toward an enlarged middle-class in modern Western societies due to the necessity of an educated workforce in technological and service economies. Various social and political perspectives concerning globalization, such as dependency theory, suggest that these effects are due to the change of workers to the third world.
In Marxist theory, the capitalist mode of production consists of two main economic parts: the substructure and the superstructure. Marx saw classes as defined by people's relationship to the means of productions in two basic ways: either they own productive property or labour for others. The base comprehends the relations of production—employer–employee work conditions, the technical division of labour, and property relations—into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. In the capitalist system, the ruling classes own the means of production, which essentially includes the working class itself as they only have their own labor power ('wage labor') to offer in order to survive. These relations fundamentally determine the ideas and philosophies of a society, constituting the superstructure. A temporary status quo is achieved by various methods of social control employed, consciously or unconsciously, by the bourgeoisie in the course of various aspects of social life. Through the ideology of the ruling class, false consciousness is promoted both through ostensibly political and non-political institutions, but also through the arts and other elements of culture. Marx believed the capitalist mode would eventually give way, through its own internal conflict, to revolutionary consciousness and the development of egalitarian communist society.
Marx also described two other classes, the petite bourgeoisie and the lumpenproletariat. The petite bourgeoisie is like a small business class that never really accumulates enough profit to become part of the bourgeoisie, or even challenge their absolute power. The lumpenproletariat is the low life part of the proletariat class. This includes prostitutes, beggars, swindlers, etc. Neither of these subclasses has much influence in Marx's two class system, but it is helpful to know that Marx did recognize differences within the classes.
According to Marvin Harris and Tim Ingold, Lewis Henry Morgan's accounts of egalitarian hunter-gatherers formed part of Karl Marx and Engels's inspiration for communism. Morgan spoke of a situation in which people living in the same community pooled their efforts and shared the rewards of those efforts fairly equally. He called this "communism in living." But when Marx expanded on these ideas, he still emphasized an economically oriented culture, with property defining the fundamental relationships between people. Yet, issues of ownership and property are arguably less emphasized in hunter-gatherer societies. This, combined with the very different social and economic situations of hunter-gatherers may account for many of the difficulties encountered when implementing communism in industrialized states. As Ingold points out: "The notion of communism, removed from the context of domesticity and harnessed to support a project of social engineering for large-scale, industrialized states with populations of millions, eventually came to mean something quite different from what Morgan had intended: namely, a principle of redistribution that would override all ties of a personal or familial nature, and cancel out their effects."
Max Weber was strongly influenced by Marx's ideas, but rejected the possibility of effective communism, arguing that it would require an even greater level of detrimental social control and bureaucratization than capitalist society. Moreover, Weber criticized the dialectical presumption of proletariat revolt, believing it to be unlikely. Instead, he developed the three-component theory of stratification and the concept of life chances. Weber supposed there were more class divisions than Marx suggested, taking different concepts from both functionalist and Marxist theories to create his own system. He emphasized the difference between class, status, and power, and treated these as separate but related sources of power, each with different effects on social action. Working at half a century later than Marx, Weber claimed there to be in fact four main classes: the upper class, the white collar workers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the manual working class. Weber's theory more-closely resembles contemporary Western class structures, although economic status does not currently seem to depend strictly on earnings in the way Weber envisioned.
Weber derived many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. He noted that contrary to Marx's theories, stratification was based on more than simply ownership of capital. Weber examined how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth yet had strong political power. Many wealthy families lacked prestige and power, for example, because they were Jewish. Weber introduced three independent factors that form his theory of stratification hierarchy, which are; class, status, and power:
C. Wright Mills contended that the imbalance of power in society derives from the complete absence of countervailing powers against corporate leaders of the power elite.  "... Mills both incorporated and revised Marxist ideas. While he shared Marx's recognition of a dominant wealthy and powerful class, Mills believed that the source for that power lay not only in the economic realm but also in the political and military arenas. During the 1950s, Mills stated that hardly anyone knew about the power elite's existence, some individuals (including the elite themselves) denied the idea of such a group, and other people vaguely believed that a small formation of a powerful elite existed. "Some prominent individuals knew that Congress had permitted a handful of political leaders to make critical decisions about peace and war; and that two atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan in the name of the United States, but neither they nor anyone they knew had been consulted." Mills sought to inform people about the existence of the power elite through his book The Power Elite.
Mills explained that the power elite embodied a privileged class whose members were able to recognize their high position within society. In order to maintain their highly exalted position within society, members of the power elite tend to marry one another, understand and accept one another, and they also work together. The most crucial aspect of the power elite's existence lays within the core of education. "Youthful upper-class members attend prominent preparatory schools, which not only open doors to such elite universities as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton but also to the universities' highly exclusive clubs. These memberships in turn pave the way to the prominent social clubs located in all major cities and serving as sites for important business contacts." Examples of elite members who attended prestigious universities and were members of highly exclusive clubs can be seen in George W. Bush and John Kerry. Both Bush and Kerry were members of the Skull and Bones club while attending Yale University. This club includes members of some of the most powerful men of the twentieth century, all of which are forbidden to tell others about the secrets of their exclusive club. Throughout the years, the Skull and Bones club has included presidents, cabinet officers, Supreme Court justices, spies, captains of industry, and often their sons and daughters join the exclusive club, creating a social and political network like none ever seen before.
The upper class individuals who receive elite educations typically have the essential background and contacts to enter into the three branches of the power elite: The political leadership, the military circle, and the corporate elite.
Mills believed that the power elite has an "inner-core" that was made up of individuals who were able to move from one position of institutional power to another; a prominent military officer who becomes a political adviser or a powerful politician who becomes a corporate executive. "These people have more knowledge and a greater breadth of interests than their colleagues. Prominent bankers and financiers, who Mills considered 'almost professional go-betweens of economic, political, and military affairs,' are also members of the elite's inner core.
Anthropologists have found that social stratification is not the standard among all societies. John Gowdy writes, "Assumptions about human behaviour that members of market societies believe to be universal, that humans are naturally competitive and acquisitive, and that social stratification is natural, do not apply to many hunter-gatherer peoples." Non-stratified egalitarian or acephalous ("headless") societies exist which have little or no concept of social hierarchy, political or economic status, class, or even permanent leadership.
Anthropologists identify egalitarian cultures as "kinship-oriented," because they appear to value social harmony more than wealth or status. These cultures are contrasted with economically oriented cultures (including states) in which status and material wealth are prized, and stratification, competition, and conflict are common. Kinship-oriented cultures actively work to prevent social hierarchies from developing because they believe that such stratification could lead to conflict and instability. Reciprocal altruism is one process by which this is accomplished.
A good example is given by Richard Borshay Lee in his account of the Khoisan, who practice "insulting the meat." Whenever a hunter makes a kill, he is ceaselessly teased and ridiculed (in a friendly, joking fashion) to prevent him from becoming too proud or egotistical. The meat itself is then distributed evenly among the entire social group, rather than kept by the hunter. The level of teasing is proportional to the size of the kill. Lee found this out when he purchased an entire cow as a gift for the group he was living with, and was teased for weeks afterward about it (since obtaining that much meat could be interpreted as showing off).
Another example is the Indigenous Australians of Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, who have arranged their entire society, spirituality, and economy around a kind of gift economy called renunciation. According to David H. Turner, in this arrangement, every person is expected to give everything of any resource they have to any other person who needs or lacks it at the time. This has the benefit of largely eliminating social problems like theft and relative poverty. However, misunderstandings obviously arise when attempting to reconcile Aboriginal renunciative economics with the competition/scarcity-oriented economics introduced to Australia by Anglo-European colonists. See also the Original affluent society.
Research suggests that social stratification can cause many social problems. A comprehensive study of major world economies revealed that homicide, prison population, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression, teen suicide, and overall health inequity all correlate with higher social inequality.
1. The rankings apply to social categories of people who share a common characteristic without necessarily interacting or identifying with each other. The process of being ranked can be changed by the person being ranked.
2. People's life experiences and opportunities depend on their social category. This characteristic can be changed by the amount of work a person can put into their interests.
3. The ranks of different social categories change slowly over time. This has occurred frequently in the United States ever since the American revolution. The U.S. constitution has been altered several times to specify rights for everyone.
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