Section 4.4: Social Stratification

Fundamentals of Sociology - Adam McKee and Scott Bransford

Social stratification is like a ladder in society. Imagine society is a big game where people are ranked based on things like how much money they have, their job, education, and even their family background. It’s like how in video games, players are ranked from top to bottom based on their scores. In real life, people with more resources, like money and education, are higher up on this ladder.

Layers of Society

Think about a chocolate cake with different layers. Each layer is a group of people in society. People at the top layer have the most money, power, and education. As you move down the layers, people have less of these resources. Just like a cake, the layers in society are not equal. Some people have a lot, while others have very little.

The American Dream: Reality or Myth?

In the U.S., many people believe in the “American Dream.” This idea says that anyone can be successful if they work hard enough. Think of Aaron, who started from the bottom and worked his way up. He represents this dream. But, it’s not that simple. Sometimes, where you start in life can really affect where you end up. It’s like being in a race where some people get a huge head start.

Why Some People are Ahead: It’s Not Just About Hard Work

It’s not always about working hard. Some people are born into families with lots of money and opportunities. Others might be born into families that have less. This can affect things like the kind of school you go to, the people you know, and the opportunities you get. For example, being born into a family of doctors might make it easier for you to become a doctor too.

Jobs and Money

In society, some jobs pay more than others. Teachers, for example, do important work but might not make as much money as someone running a big company. This is because society values different jobs in different ways. Some people think making a lot of money is the most important thing, while others value helping people more.

Tough Times: The Great Recession

A few years ago, there was a big economic crisis called the Great Recession. It was a tough time for many people. Some lost their jobs, their homes, and had a hard time making ends meet. This showed how quickly someone’s place in society can change. Even people who were doing well suddenly found themselves struggling.

Changing Attitudes: Saving is Cool

After the recession, how people think about money started to change. Instead of showing off by spending a lot of money, people started to think that saving money was smarter. You might see people bragging about a good deal they got or how they found something cool at a thrift store. It’s like a game where the goal is to see how much you can save, not spend.

Reflect 🔍

How does your family, school, or community affect where you stand in society’s layers? Do you think it’s fair that some people start higher up than others?

Systems of Social Stratification

What are Closed and Open Systems?

Imagine society is like a game. In some versions of the game, your starting point and path are already chosen for you (closed systems). In others, you can move around and change your path based on your choices and achievements (open systems). Closed systems don’t let you change your social position easily and keep groups separate, while open systems are like a game where you can level up and interact with everyone.

The Caste System: Life’s Assigned Roles

In a caste system, it’s like being born into a role in a play, and you have to stick to it for your whole life. Your job, who you hang out with, and even who you marry are all decided for you. It’s based on the idea that this is your fate, and you should accept it. Even though countries like India have officially ended caste systems, they still affect people’s lives, especially in rural areas.

Climbing the Ladder: The Class System

Class systems are like a game where you can move up or down the ladder based on things like how much money you make, your job, or how much school you’ve been to. It’s more open, and you have the freedom to make different choices from your parents. You can even marry someone from a different level of society. But, your family and the people around you can still influence your choices a lot.

The Dream of Meritocracy: Effort Equals Reward

Meritocracy is the idea that the harder you work, the higher you’ll climb the social ladder. It’s like a game where points are given for effort and talent. But in reality, it’s not that simple. Things like your family, where you come from, and other societal rules play a big part in where you end up.

Status Consistency: Keeping Score

Status consistency is about how your rank in society lines up across different areas like income, job, and education. In a caste system, your rank is pretty much the same in all areas, but in a class system, it can vary. Take Susan, for instance. She didn’t go to college and started in a manual job, but then she built her own successful business. Her story shows how in a class system, you can change your social status with hard work and good ideas.

Understanding Social Class

Social class is about grouping people with similar social ranks together. It’s not just about money; it’s also about your family background, race, skills, and even things like your IQ and looks. Having more money usually means more power and chances to do things, but your social standing is also shaped by what’s valued in your culture and the rules of society.

Reflect 🔍

Think about the world around you. Can you see examples of these social systems in action? Do you think it’s easy or hard for people to move up the social ladder? Why?

Standard of Living in the United States

What’s the Standard of Living?

The standard of living is like your lifestyle score. It’s about the level of comfort and goods you can enjoy, like owning a house, a car, and going on vacations. It’s influenced by how much money you make, the kind of job you have, and where you stand in society. Over the past 100 years, the average lifestyle score in the U.S. has gone up, meaning people generally have more stuff and better lives than before.

Not Everyone’s Score is the Same

But here’s the catch: not everyone’s score is the same. A small group of people has a really high score with lots of money and fancy things. At the same time, many people struggle just to pay for basic needs like rent and food. This difference in lifestyle scores is a big deal and shows how society is divided into different levels.

Women and Single Parents: A Closer Look

Did you know that single moms and women who run their own households often have lower lifestyle scores than others? This is called the “feminization of poverty,” and it’s a worldwide issue. It shows that women, especially those taking care of families on their own, face more financial challenges.

Jobs and Your Lifestyle Score

What you do for a living plays a big part in your lifestyle score. High-status jobs like doctors and lawyers usually mean a higher score because they pay more. But jobs like waiting tables or cleaning, which are super important, tend to have lower pay and status. This affects people’s ability to enjoy a higher standard of living.

The Shrinking Middle-Class

Here’s something worrying: the middle class, which used to be the heart of the American lifestyle, is shrinking. Since the 1970s, more of the country’s wealth has gone to the top 1%, while the middle and lower classes haven’t seen much of a change. This means fewer people are enjoying the benefits of a high standard of living.

Relative vs. Absolute Poverty

Even though there’s a big gap in lifestyle scores, the type of poverty in the U.S. is usually ‘relative’ rather than ‘absolute.’ This means that while some people can’t afford a lifestyle that’s considered ‘normal’ in the U.S., they’re not usually struggling to survive like in some other countries. And, there are programs like SNAP (food stamps) that help people afford basic needs.

Reflect 🔍

Think about your community and the different lifestyles people have. What factors do you see influencing their standard of living? How do you think we can help make sure everyone has a fair chance at a good life?


Layers in Society: Understanding Social Stratification

Social stratification is like a tower, with people ranked from top to bottom based on things like how much money they have, their education, and where they come from. It’s like layers in a rock, with each layer representing a different group of people. This system shows how resources and opportunities aren’t the same for everyone. Big events like the Great Recession show how quickly someone’s place in this tower can change and how important it is to understand these layers to make society fairer.

Closed vs. Open Systems: Caste and Class

In some societies, the layer you’re born into is where you stay – that’s a closed system, like a caste system. It’s all about fate and destiny. But in open systems, like class systems, you can move up or down based on what you do and how hard you work. Although the idea of a meritocracy, where effort equals reward, sounds great, it’s more complicated in real life because of many other factors that play a part.

The American Lifestyle: Not Equal for Everyone

In the U.S., the general standard of living – or the lifestyle score – has gone up. But not everyone enjoys the same level. Some people have lots of wealth and comfort, while others struggle just for the basics. Women, especially single moms, often face more challenges, and your job can hugely influence your lifestyle. The middle class, once the backbone of the American dream, is shrinking, and a tiny part of the population holds most of the wealth.

Relative Poverty: It’s All About Perspective

In the U.S., most poverty is relative, not absolute. This means some people can’t afford the same lifestyle as the average American, but they’re usually not struggling to survive. Programs like SNAP help ensure people can afford basic needs, showing that while there’s a big gap in living standards, there’s also support available.

Understanding social stratification and the standard of living is crucial for grasping the complexities of society. While there’s been progress in living standards, the journey toward a fair and equitable society continues, with a need to address the disparities that keep some people on the lower layers of the social tower.

Word Count: 2015

Key Terms

social stratification, socioeconomic class, wealth, income, race, education, power, caste system, class system, meritocracy, closed system, open system, social standing, inequality, poverty, occupation, social mobility, status consistency, cultural values, social structure, social change, relative poverty, absolute poverty, social welfare programs, standard of living

References and Further Reading 

  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction.
  • Domhoff, G. W. (2010). Wealth, income, and power. In Who Rules America?
  • Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2017). The future of employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization? Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 114, 254-280.
  • Gini, A., & Green, M. (2014). The ethical challenge of corporate citizenship. In M. Crane, A. McWilliams, D. Matten, J. Moon, & D. S. Siegel (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of corporate social responsibility (pp. 47-66). Oxford University Press.
  • Kalleberg, A. L. (2000). Nonstandard employment relations: Part-time, temporary, and contract work. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 341-365.
  • Merton, R. K. (1940). Bureaucratic structure and personality. Social Forces, 18(4), 560-568.
  • Ritzer, G. (1993). The McDonaldization of Society. Pine Forge Press.
  • Turner, J. H. (2017). The structure of sociological theory (9th ed.). Cengage Learning.
  • USDA. (n.d.). Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Modification History

File Created:  05/07/2023

Last Modified:  01/03/2024

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