Social Stratification Theories

The answer is determined by the type of society you live in and is related to both:

individual outcome --* your position in life

structure and character of society --* how work is organized

The study of social stratification is the study of class, caste, privilege, status that is characteristic of a particular society. It varies according to how society is organized especially in terms of production and work. We will emphasize class.

What is the connection between the question: what do you want to be when you grow up and social stratification (especially the class character of the society you live in)? Your position in society and the rewards that will be associated with it. It has an impact on your possibility of realistically meeting your opportunities for mobility. Mobility refers to the likelihood that you can achieve a class, caste different from where you come from, your roots. Mobility and stratification are related.

What image does strata invoke as a model of the social world? Strata comes the natural sciences. Dr. Brush argues that it is interesting that sociologists use a natural phenomena to talk about social phenomena. It seems to contradict the main message of the course: our world is socially constructed phenomena and not a natural process. Thus, stratification is not equal to natural accretion.

Hypothesis posed by a classmate: society needs stratification to be healthy and keep the peace. Which of the three main sociological perspectives supports this statement? The functionalist perspective. Most stratification arguments come out of this perspective. The second part of the hypothesis (to keep the peace) relates more to the conflict perspective.

Stratification and egalitarianism are related. In a sociological sense strata is a category that's associated with social hierarchy. That is, people are ranked according to their rank, class, authority. If a society has ranks then it is a stratified society. If it does not, then it is an egalitarian society. Keep in mind, that these are relative terms.

Last week we drew a picture that tells the story of how societies are organized around work. As societies move from simple to complex organization, they start to get levels of inequality that would need stratification to keep the peace. The differences are not natural, neutral nor random. They are ranked and constitute a hierarchy along the lines of race, gender, age, income among others.

Class is about how society organizes production and the outcomes that it creates for people; this a combination of a Marxian (stratification) and Weberian (organization) understanding.

Empirical question: What does the class system look in the U.S.?

Your position in the social world determines what you can see. The project of 19th century thought was to find a point from where to look at the world and see its social relations unaffected by the observer's position (the objectivist perspective). Subjectivist epistemology, on the other hand, holds that where you are leads to what you see.

Gardner and Gardner conducted a study in 1941 to investigate how people perceive social class. They used six categories to desegregate the concept.

Visions of class structure held by the upper upper class

Upper upper class: old aristocracy

Lower upper class: aristocracy but not old(new rich)

Upper middle class: nice respectable people

Lower middle class: good but nobody

Upper lower class: po' whites (white trash)

Lower lower class: po' whites (white trash)

Visions of class structure held by the lower lower class

Upper upper class: society folks with money

Lower upper class: society folks with money

Upper middle class: society folks with money

Lower middle class: way high ups

Upper lower class: snobs trying to pushup

Lower lower class: people just as good as anybody

These are two different pictures of the class structure. There is great variation in the perception according to where they are. The terms used are loaded ones.

This is a classic set of stratification; one of gradations of prestige. It fits nicely with a functionalist perspective. Wealth, power, prestige are components of gradational class model. A relational example of stratification follows from how people relate to the modes of production.

There is a difference between a model of class and how the class structure actually works. Whose model is empirically correct? Having other kind of data will help us understand the class structure in the U.S. Measures of wealth, power, prestige enable us to map the social structures independent of people's perspectives.

Wealth as a measure in class analysis has two forms:

property: what are you worth? The U.S. is worth approx. $15 trillion.


Ownership of property is a key measure of inequality and stratification in the U.S. 1993 data, 10% of U.S. families owns:

68% of property

50% of real estate

90% of stocks and business assets

95% of bonds

0.5% of Americans own 27% of the nation's wealth. 325, 000 families own 40% of all corporate stocks and business assets. This matters because it determines the organization of work and who benefits from it.

Inequality of ownership indicates:

class structure

inequality of outcomes

Income as a measure in class analysis:

The annual average income of families is $35,000. Economist Samuelson explains that if were to pile children's blocks, each worth $500, the highest block would be higher than Mt. Everest. The typical American would be close to the ground.

Another gradation picture, 1993 data:

Social class Education Occupation Income % of Population

Capitalists prestige investors $750K 1%

Universities heirs


Upper Middle College/U professionals $75K 14%

upper level managers

Lower middle @ least H.S semi-professionals $40K 30%

some college lower level managers

apprentiship crafts people

shopfloor foremen

Working class High School factory workers $25K 30%

clerical workers

lower paid crafts people

retail sales

Working poor some H.S. laborers * $20K 22%

service workers

low paid sales

Underclass some H.S. welfare recipients * $13K 3%


part time employed

Use some of these categories in your paper to locate your and your family's mobility patterns. As students, there might be some inconsistency of where you are coming from and where you are likely to end up.


Organizational Perspectives on Stratification

Organizations impinge on career outcomes in two important ways:

1) The division of labor among jobs and organizations generates a distribution of opportunities and rewards that often antedates the hiring of people to fill those jobs.

2) Organization procedures for matching workers to jobs affect the distribution of rewards and opportunities within and across firms and thus influence the likelihood of career success

Why Some Firms Pay and Promote More than Others

- ''Older approaches'': human capital, status attainment

-more recent approach: internal labor markets

INTERNAL LABOR MARKET: Competing Interpretations

1) Labor economists emphasize technical determinants: technological progress increases workers' skill monopoly in the firm and that internal advancement opportunities are required so that senior workers will train junior personnel

2) Williamson emphasizes informational constraints that favor internal labor promotion hierarchies over perfectly competitive labor market.

3) Neo-Marxists regarded internal labor markets as an effort by capitalists to control a volatile work force.

Researchers have documented the impact of internal labor markets in two ways:

1) Attempts to infer how internal labor markets operate from data on individual career paths. E.g. attainment researchers have attributed racial and sexual differences in the effects that schooling and first job have on career outcomes to the exclusion of women and minorities from internal labor markets. This research does not illuminate how or why this occurs.

2) Other investigators have analyzed career processes in their organizational setting directly, detailing the criteria that employers use in structuring rewards and opportunities. Unfortunately, this research has often been limited to specific work contexts.


-Wages are higher both in industries made up of large companies and in the larger companies within any given industry.

-Granovetter argues that these relationships only characterize manufacturing industries.

-Effects of schooling on income and status increase monotonically with the size of employee's work location (for white, male, nonagricultural workers) (Stolzenberg 1978).

Possible explanations:

- Large bureaucracies may pay and promote more because scale economies increase worker productivity, structure of demand allows higher wages to be absorbed in product pricing.

-Urban locations, where higher wages are necessary to offset competitors' offers

. -Large organization are more vulnerable to worker unrest and rewards are higher to reduce the chances of labor-management conflict.


-Corporate growth increases promotion rates. (Even among those less likely to be promoted e.g. women).

-Economic contraction disproportionately harms those the growth helps.


-Individuals' careers are not independent (attainment research assumes they are).

-Size of one's organizational cohort and its relation to other cohorts significantly affects career outcomes. E.g. members of small cohorts experience enhances mobility prospects.


-Automation raises the average level of worker skill and increases the variance within firms, giving rise to skill-based career lines that reflect job idiosyncrasies.

-Long-linked technologies (e.g. assembly lines) generate more lateral mobility because workers are interchangeable.

-Mediating and Intensive technologies (e.g. client-oriented banks and research labs, respectively) foster more upward mobility. (In specialized professions knowledge is crucial).


- ''Monopoly power'' perspective: unions push wages higher than productivity warrants, at the same time widening disparities between advantaged and disadvantaged groups.

- ''Collective violence'' perspective: regards union wage premiums as reasonable social reimbursements for the savings that unions generate in terms of proved governance and social control. Also viewed as equalizing agents.

-Unions emphasize seniority-based rewards, and collective bargaining often arises in work settings where it is difficult to discern the relationships between worker characteristics and rewards.



Models of Employer Decision-Making

-Human Capital: workers possess vocational aspirations, which are treated as exogenous, and invest in human capital so as to maximize their utility and earnings, subject to various constraints (e.g. innate ability). Firm's labor needs are determined by its technology (capital-labor ratio) and product demand.

-marxian idea that ''control imperative'' shapes employment relations

-Contemporary models reject the underlying assumptions that both the worker and the firm have perfect information and pursue a maximizing strategy in their personnel decisions.

-Organizations face greatest uncertainty in evaluating employee potential early n their careers.

-How do employers cope with this dilemma?

-Education is one credential representing employee potential under imperfect information.

-Marxists argue that employers are motivated by a need to control the work force and use schooling to determine whether workers' values and traits are appropriate for the organizational control system in place.

-Kanter's idea of ''homosocial reproduction'' - similarities wrt sex, race, social background and family status indicate whether someone can be trusted and whether communication with him/her will be easy.

Organizational Career Stages

-Early career attainments are likely to reflect individuals' success in exploiting their ascribed and achieved attributes to pass initial ''tests.''

-Organization success is determined largely by one's immediate supervisor.

-Later, familial attachments constrain workers' achievements, particularly among women.

-Family commitments, habituation, and the aging process increase the attractiveness of extrinsic rewards and job security.

-Organization success is now defined more in terms specific to one's organization, profession, community, or other restricted reference group.

Interdependence of Workers' Career Outcomes

-The way specific attributes are evaluated depends on the demographic fit between an individual and the relevant organizational elites.

-Positions are clustered technically and administratively.

-Workplace norms promote social comparison.

-Wages are generally tied to ''key'' jobs, and thus other workers' salaries depend on the individuals serving in the ''key'' jobs.

-Granovetter's ''historical'' and ''structural embeddedness'' - career is constrained by how people have previously evaluated the worker and other relevant workers. Also, an individual's career cannot be predicted or understood apart from his or her relations with co-workers, collaborators, supervisors, and others.


-In abandoning the status attainment and human capital approaches, researchers have acknowledged that not all organizations emphasize the same criteria in selecting and advancing workers.

-Orthodox labor market research assumes a simple ''wage competitive'' model, viewing workers as entrepreneurs who market themselves to the highest bidding employer.

- ''Instead of people looking for jobs, there are jobs looking for ... 'suitable' people'' (Thurow 1972).

Effects of Stratification on Organizations:

-Theorists and researchers disagree about how hierarchy and inequality influence organizational effectiveness and individual well-being.

-Weber and Durkheim - hierarchy is efficient and inevitable

-Others associate hierarchy with alienation and pathological conformity.

-Esp. Marxists regard workplace stratification as a means of controlling labor by reproducing class divisions within the firm.

-Lack of sound empirical research

-Effects relations among organizations, particularly personnel flows.


Distinction --- ''The Sense of Distinction'' (chp 5)

Bordieu begins this chapter with an overview of how he thinks society is stratified. The dominant class is ''an autonomous space whose structure is defined by the distribution of economic and cultural capital among its members.'' There are fractions within each class which correspond to different lifestyles through the habitus. The habitus is a system of choices that are influenced by inherited asset structures. Furthermore, different sets of preferences come from systems of dispositions and the social conditions of production which create relationships between them (the systems of dispositions).

For a good part of the remainder of this chapter, Bordieu discusses taste, particularly why the predilection for cultural practices increases with a decrease in economic means. First , Bordieu establishes that the volume of capital (he doesn't specify which kind here) constitutes the principle division of practices and preferences. Bordieu explains that cultural practices ''increase'' when economic capital decreases because those with fewer economic means try to get the maximum culture for their money. On the other hand, the rich must always have the best, the most classic, and the most widely known. No avant garde theatre for them.

Throughout this chapter, Bordieu uses teachers as representatives of those with an interest in high culture and low economic means, and industrial/commercial employers for those who would go for run-of-the-mill culture that's really expensive. These rich employer types like to appropriate art for the sake of having it. When one appropriates a work of art in this manner, he assets himself as the exclusive owner of the object and the taste for that object. He ''negates all those unworthy of appropriating that object'' (280). The appropriation of art is a symbol of status for the rich because it shows off that they have time to waste on such frivolities, or would go to ''any expense'' to own such a beautiful work or art.

On the other hand, the dominated classes must appropriate symbolically, be it through knowledge of art, a cheap reprint, etc. Often, they recreate what is thought of as art for their community (intellectuals, artists). They turn pop-culture artifacts such as graffiti and cartoons into distinguished works of culture.

For those with low economic capital, gaining educational capital can help them gain cultural capital (teachers). These people's tastes become opposed to the luxury tastes of ''professionals.'' Because teachers don't have the means to materially obtain things which reflect their cultural taste, they develop ''aesthetic asceticism.'' (289) Their ethical choices reflect their aesthetic choices. (ie liking Sartre means being a left winger). They protest the social order that restricts their entry into the bourgeoisie and the world of luxury art. Whereas their art and world views reflect social pessimism, the art and world view of the rich reflect sumptuousness and social optimism. Intellectuals expect art to challenge social reality, and the bourgeois expect it to deny social reality.

Just as the dominated and dominant classes oppose each other, fractions within the dominant classes oppose each other as well. Each competing group tries to impose the legitimate principle of domination. The dominant class can only ensure its perpetuation if it can overcome crises that arise from factions competing to impose the dominant principle. Each fraction within the dominant class has itsown world views and mode of living. The fractions have different interests, careers, and even habitus. (These are all issues of taste). Their conflicts represent attempts to impose the dominant principle of domination, as well as secure the ''conversion rate'' for the type of capital with which each group is best provided.

Currently, there is tension between the new bourgeoisie and the old bourgeoisie. Today's credit economy best accommodates the new bourgeoisie, who consume greatly and are the vendors of symbolic goods and services such as cinema and fashion. Whereas the old bourgeoisie represents formality and conservatism, the new bourgeoisie is relaxed, highly educated, and active.

The different forms of capital, the possession of which defines class membership and power, also determine the strategies available for use in intra (and inter I assume) class struggles. Once, 'birth, future, and talent' were stakes in the struggle for power, but they have been replaced by economic, educational, and cultural capital. They are not equally powerful, however. (I think Bordieu is implying here that economic capital is most powerful here). Intellectuals and artists sit in a precarious position on society, between ''disinterestedness'' (typical of poor artists and grad students) and ''high values'' (typical of elites). Artists especially have to cater to the interests of the rich in order to be patronized and make money to live on.

Pierre Bourdieu --- Distinction

Conclusion: Classes and Classifications

Taste is an acquired disposition to differentiate and appreciate. It marks differences by a process of distinction which is not a distinct knowledge. It functions as a sort of social orientation, implying a practical anticipation of what the social meaning or values of the chose practice or thing will probably be.

All knowledge of the social world is an act of construction implementing schemes of thought and expression. Between the conditions of existence, there intervenes the structuring activity of the agents who respond to the invitations or threats of a world whose meaning they have helped to produce (habitus). The principle of this structuring activity is not a system of universal categories but a system of internalized schemes which having been constituted collectively and historically are acquired in the course of individuals' practical lives.

Embodied Social Structures;

Social science in constructing the social world takes note of the fact that agents are the subject of acts of construction of the social world. But social science also aims to describe the social genesis of the principles of construction. All agents in a given social formation share a set of basic perceptual schemes which receive the beginnings of objectification in pairs of antagonistic adjectives. The ultimate source of this network is the opposition between the dominating elite and the dominated mass. The same classificatory schemes can function in whole fields organized in polar oppositions. These schemes are particularly applicable to one field, but are transferable to others because of all the homologies between fields.

Knowledge without Concepts:

Social divisions become principles of division organizing the image of the social world. Objective limits become a sense of limits. The sense of limits implies forgetting the limits. The primary experience of the social world is the doxa: an adherence to relations of order which because they structure inseparably both the real work and the thought world are accepted as self-evident. The dominated adjust their expectations to their chances (Durkheim's logical conformity).

The sense of the social structure (taste) is far removed from an act of cognition. Everything takes place as if the social conditionings linked to a social condition tended to inscribe the relation to the social world in relation to the bodily hexus. The ultimate values are never anything other than the primary dispositions of the body, visceral tastes in which the groups' most vital interests are embedded. The sense of distinction which demands that certain things be brought together and others kept apart responds with horror to everything which passes understanding and flouts common sense.

Advantageous Attributions:

The classificatory scheme which fixes limits is not so much a means of knowledge as a means of power. It is harnessed to social functions and aimed at satisfying the interests of a group. The interest which individuals and groups invest in classificatory systems encompasses their whole social being and defines ''us'' as opposed to ''them.'' This scheme is the basis of the exclusion and inclusion individuals perform among the characteristics produced by the common classificatory system.

Social identity lies in difference.

The Classification Struggle:

What is at stake in the struggles about the meaning of the social world is power over the classificatory schemes and systems which are the basis of the representations of groups and therefore of their mobilization. Only in struggle do the internalized limits become boundaries and barriers that have to be moved. And the system of classification is only institutionalized when it has ceased to function as a sense of limits so the guardians of order must constitute the doxa as orthodoxy.

The fate of groups is bound up with the words that designate them. The power to impose recognition depends on the capacity to mobilize around a name (''proletariat'').

The Reality of Representation and the Representation of Reality:

Symbolic property is a property perceived in relation to other properties of the same class by agents equipped with socially constituted schemes of perception.

We have to move beyond the opposition between objectivist theories, which identify social classes as discrete groups, and subjectivist theories, which reduce the social order to a sort of collective classification obtained by aggregating the individual strategies (classified and classifying) through which agents categorize themselves and others. A class is defined as much by its being-perceived as by its being, by its consumption as much as by its position in the relations of production. Lastly, individuals' positions in the classification struggles depend on their positions in the class structure.


''Some Principles of Stratification''

Davis and Moore are interested in the relationship between stratification and the rest of the social order. Stratification is defined as the unequal rights and perquisites of different positions in a society. They are interested in the system of positions in society and not the individuals occupying those positions. Their approach is strictly functionalist in that they argue that is a society is to survive, then a functionally efficient means of fitting talented individuals to occupations must develop. Stratification supplies this mechanism.

The Functional Necessity of Stratification:

In order to function, society must:

1.) Motivate the proper members for proper positions

2.) Motivate the persons filling these positions to do the required duties

Motivation is often based on rewards. Types of rewards include:

1.) things that contribute to sustenance and comfort

2.) things that contribute to humor and diversion

3.) things that contribute to self-respect and ego expansion

The rewards used to motivate people and the differential distribution of those awards according to position are part of the social order and give rise to stratification.

The Two Determinants of Positional Rank:

In general, those positions with the best rewards and the highest rank are those which:

1.) have the greatest functional importance - this is a matter of relative significance and is a necessary but not a sufficient determinant of rank

2.) require the greatest training or talent - this is a matter of scarcity and is a sufficient determinant of rank

Major Societal Functions and Stratification:

Religion is important because it ensures unity through the perpetuation of common values and needs among members of a community. In medieval society, the priest was awarded the highest position in society because there was enough economic production to afford a surplus for a numerous and highly organized priesthood, but the populace was illiterate and highly credulous. In advanced society, the priesthood loses status because sacred tradition and supernaturalism lose significance as secular scientific knowledge becomes more important.

Government is important because it organizes society in terms of law and authority. It orients society to the actual rather than the unseen world. Its internal functions include: 1.) ultimate enforcement of norms, 2.) final arbitration of conflicting interests, 3.) overall planning and direction of society. Its external function is the handling of war and diplomacy. Despite its importance, there are many factors (e.g., few government officials, rules and mores, the power of position vs. power of knowledge, etc.) which limit the power of government.

Wealth, Property, and Labor: One of the main indices of social status is the economic return of a position. A position draws a high income because it is functionally important and the available personnel is scarce. The economic source of power and prestige is not income is not income primarily but the ownership of capital goods and the ownership of productive goods (including rights over the labor of others).

Technical Knowledge fulfills the function of finding means to goals without any part in determining goals. From a societal point of view, this can never be as important as the actual integration of goals, so technical positions take a subordinate seat to integrative functions. The methods of recruitment to technical positions (education) and the degree of specialization determine the amount of prestige given to technicians.

Variation in Stratified Systems:

Systems of stratification are not easily categorized. Any stratification system is a composite of its status with reference to the following internal and external conditions.


1.) The degree of specialization determines the fineness between and multiplicity of ranks in power and prestige.

2.) The nature of functional emphasis (e.g., familistic, authoritarian, theocratic, totalitarian, capitalistic, etc.), determine who has rank over whom.

3.) The amount of social distance between positions reflects whether a society emphasizes egalitarian principles or not.

4.) The amount of mobility in a system is determined by its degree of opportunity.

5.) The degree of class solidarity is determined by the presence and strength of specific organizations to promote class interests.


1.) A society's stage of cultural development will determine its degree of specialization, its degree of opportunity, and its functional emphasis.

2.) A society's situation with respect to other societies, such as constant warfare, free trade, isolation, etc., will affect is functional emphasis.

3.) The size of a society will affect its degree of specialization and its degree of class solidarity.


Social stratification lies at the core of society and of the discipline of sociology. Social inequality is a fundamental aspect of virtually all social processes, and a person's position in the stratification system is the most consistent predictor of his or her behavior, attitudes, and life chances. Social stratification links almost all aspects of society together, and therefore understanding what is happening to social stratification helps us understand a wide range of other changes in society.

This course focuses on one type of stratification in particular: social class. It does so in the belief that in American society we have become conditioned to see other forms of inequality (race, gender, age) much more readily than class stratification, even when apparent differences between racial, gender or age groups may in fact be explained by their link to social class. Social class is by no means the only determinant of social life and life chances, but it is a goal of this course to "see" class and its significance where before it may have been invisible.

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