The term stratification refers to the system of inequalities within and between societies, the processes of assignment to positions within a social hierarchy, and the means by which resources are allocated. Various theories have tried to explain how and why stratification systems emerged. The most prominent of these were developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries following industrialization, which altered the social structures of traditional feudal and agrarian societies and gave rise to more complex urban societies. Before industrialization, societies were more stable and had much less economic inequality, and clear, fixed boundaries separated groups like the nobility from their subjects (see Lenski 1966).
In his pioneering account, Karl Marx explained stratification as a product of the mode of production—the principal system of market organization (e.g., capitalism). He outlined a progressive transition from feudalism to capitalism and finally to socialism. Marx claimed that the organization and development of modern, industrial capitalist societies were driven by class relations. He argued that capitalist societies would grow increasingly divided between a capitalist class that owns the capital and therefore controls the means of production and a growing labor class (proletariat) that sells its labor to capitalists in order to survive. Marx predicted a struggle between capitalists and workers leading to the destruction of the capitalist system and the formation of a socialist society free of classes. Moving beyond his historical prediction, modern Marxists have reconceptualized his class schema to focus on authority, the inherently antagonistic relations between workers and owners/managers, and the exploitative nature of capitalism (see, for example, Wright 1997).
In the early twentieth century, Max Weber added a focus on social status and political power to Marx’s more purely economic perspective. He proposed class, status, and party as the three dimensions of stratification in modern societies, though he also discussed the role of castes and professions. Though Weber’s writings conceptualizing class were not very developed or novel, he has been deployed widely in class schemas focused on prestige, occupations, status, and skill. Weber’s present-day influence can most be seen in the use of his concept of closure —that is, the process by which organizations define boundaries that establish which members receive certain benefits and which do not.
Structural functionalism, which traces its roots to the work of Émile Durkheim, perceived stratification systems as universal to every society, from simple hunter-gatherer tribes to complex, modern industrial societies. Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore (1945) offered a particularly influential account of the “functional necessity of stratification.” Structural functionalist theories were criticized for neglecting conflict and for failing to address the possible lack of stratification in small egalitarian tribes or the reduction of stratification in modern social democracies. Today, structural functionalism has few followers in the social sciences.
A common characteristic of these early attempts was the effort to develop general laws. During the post–World War II (1939–1945) period, however, social scientists have moved away from grand, all-encompassing theories of stratification toward more flexible perspectives, which perceive stratification as a result of the interplay between multiple actors and multiple dimensions of inequality. One of the main new issues gaining attention was that of gender. Scholars argued that gender played a central role in the formation and functioning of stratification systems. They showed that women’s exclusion from social life placed them in an inferior position, resulting in lessened life chances and status. While women’s standing in social and economic life has improved over the past half-century, women are still restricted by gender roles and patriarchy. Rich literatures examine the impact of family structure, occupational segregation, devaluation of women’s work, and sex-based pay gaps.
Other issues that came under greater scrutiny were race and ethnicity. Scholars demonstrated that one’s racial and ethnic background greatly influences one’s life chances. U.S. sociologists have devoted a great deal of attention to black-white differences in residence, educational achievement, and employment status. Many focused on residentially segregated ghetto communities where unemployment, poverty, and single parenthood were highly concentrated. Though many sociologists have demonstrated that some racial and ethnic differences can be explained by class-based factors like income level, there is an emerging literature on how race, gender, and class intersect to shape disadvantage.
There also has been great interest in the actors and processes that reproduce and maintain social inequalities. Many sociologists focused on the role of elites in the reproduction and maintenance of social inequalities. American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1956) argued that a “power elite” controls the economy, state, and military. Some scholars have described elites as a conscious, homogenous social class, which actively reproduces itself and guards the privileges it possesses. Perhaps the most productive line of inquiry has concentrated on the linkages between social origins and levels of attainment. Peter M. Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan (1967) famously analyzed the relationship between paternal occupation, education, and attained occupation. Debates about modeling techniques and historical and crossnational patterns of mobility and attainment dominated analyses of stratification from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Some scholars took the study of reproduction, mobility, and attainment in new directions and emphasized the role of social ties and culture. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that access to high culture and learned practices, which he referred to as cultural capital, enable the children of the privileged to get ahead and facilitate the reproduction of social inequalities. Bourdieu also offered the concept of habitus to account for the embodied disposition that dominant classes exercise instinctively to reproduce their higher status. The concept social capital emerged to refer to the resources that flow through social networks.
In recent years, with the rise of globalization and the expansion of neoliberalism across the globe, debates about the global stratification system gained a great deal of attention. World systems theorists, led by Immanuel Wallerstein, contend that industrial core countries have an exploitative relationship with the less-developed periphery. The perseverance of poverty in the Third World, the weakening position of traditional labor classes in industrialized countries, and rising income inequalities within nearly every country lead many to believe that we are now facing a global system benefiting a small minority while hurting the rest. While many note the massive levels of inequality between countries, there has been a lively debate about whether global inequality is increasing or decreasing. Glenn Firebaugh (2003), for example, claims that inequality between countries has decreased, while Branko Milanovic (2005) contends it has increased. Regardless, global inequality in income, health, and well-being remains enormous and in the future stratification scholars are likely to focus more on the plight of the dis-advantaged in less-developed countries, where the majority of the world’s population resides.
SEE ALSO Education, Unequal; Inequality, Income; Inequality, Political; Race Relations; Sociology, Political
Blau, Peter M., and Otis Dudley Duncan. 1967. The American Occupational Structure. New York: Wiley.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron.  1990. Reproduction in Education, Society, and Culture. 2nd ed. Trans. Richard Nice. London: Sage.
Davis, Kingsley, and Wilbert E. Moore. 1945. “Some Principles of Stratification.” American Sociological Review 10 (2):242–249.
Firebaugh, Glenn. 2003. The New Geography of Global Income Inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lenski, Gerhard E.  1984. Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Milanovic, Branko. 2005. Worlds Apart: Measuring International and Global Inequality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Wallerstein, Immanuel. 1974. Capitalist Agriculture and the Origin of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century. Vol. 1 of The Modern World-System. New York: Academic Press.
Wright, Erik Olin. 1997. Class Counts: Comparative Studies in Class Analysis. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Social stratification is thus at the heart of macrosociology—the study of whole societies, in comparative perspective, in an attempt to understand processes of social stability and change. Social stratification begins from Weber's limiting cases of the more traditional status-based society (for example, societies based on ascriptive categories such as estates and castes, or where there is slavery so that inequalities are legally sanctioned), and the polarized but more fluid class-based society (typical of the modern West), where there is a greater element of achievement, where economic differences are paramount, and inequality is more impersonal. Status formation and class formation thus represent the two extreme poles of social integration—the ways people in a society relate one to another.
Studies of social stratification have three objectives. The first is to establish the extent to which class or status systems predominate at the societal level such that they are constitutive of modes of social action. Hence, to make the claim that Britain is a class society one would need to show that class relationships underlie predominant modes of social action, and represent the fundamentals of social integration. The second is the analysis of class and status structures and the determinants of class and status formation: for example, to pose questions such as why there is no socialism in the United States, or why the British working class did not produce a communist revolution, is to pose questions about the degree of class formation in society. Many sociological and historical studies have attempted to explain variability in the degree of such class formation. Finally, social stratification documents inequalities of condition, opportunities and outcome, and the ways in which groups maintain class or status boundaries. In other words, it addresses the question of social closure, and investigates those exclusionary strategies by which groups maintain their privileges and other groups seek to gain access to them. Often class and status interact in interesting ways. For example, advantaged classes may attempt to develop the characteristics of status groups in order to routinize, justify, and thereby maintain their privileges: the nouveaux riches the world over are notorious proponents of this strategy. Similarly, the complex articulation of class, race, age, and gender differences have come increasingly to interest researchers investigating the multifarious processes of social stratification in modern societies: the work of Joan Huber is a good illustration of this development (see, for example, Sex Stratification, 1983
At the most general level, therefore, social stratification is concerned in different ways with the issues of class and status-group formation as the key to understanding social integration; that is, the extent to which social relationships are cohesive or divisive, and the consequences of this for social order. It is for this reason that we can claim that class and status are pre-eminently sociological concepts. As David Lockwood has observed, ‘since class and status formations are modes of social interaction which are not only empirically identifiable as variable configurations of total societies, but analytically distinguishable from the “economy” and the “polity”, it is understandable why, within the division of labour in the social sciences…“social stratification” should have come to be regarded as the distinctive subject matter of macrosociology. Furthermore, since status group consolidation and class polarization can be taken as limiting cases of social order and conflict, it is once again not hard to understand why the study of social stratification should be regarded as the specific sociological contribution to the analysis of social (as opposed to system) integration’ (see his ‘Class, Status and Gender’, in R. Crompton and and M. Mann ( eds.) , Gender and Stratification, 1986
1. The arrangement of the components of an entity in layers (strata). Stratification is a feature of sedimentary rocks and soils. It is also seen in stratified epithelium, and thermal stratification can occur in some lakes (see thermocline).
2. The practice of placing certain seeds between layers of peat or sand and then exposing them to low temperatures for a period, which is required before they will germinate. See vernalization.
1. The arrangement of sediments, sedimentary rocks, soils, etc. in layers (strata).
2. The placing of seeds between layers of moist peat or sand and exposing them to low temperatures (e.g. by leaving them outdoors through the winter) in order to encourage germination. Compare vernalization.
The process by which a region is divided into relatively distinct, nearly horizontal, layers. Sedimentary rock often consists of various strata because the rock was laid at different times when different materials were being deposited. Lakes and oceans also consist of strata where plant and animal life may be very different depending on the temperature and amount of light available. The atmosphere is divided into strata that differ in density, temperature, chemical composition, and other factors. In the lower atmosphere, temporary stratification, such as temperature inversions, may occur, often resulting in severe pollution conditions.
1. The arrangement of sediments, sedimentary rocks, soils, etc., in layers (strata)
2. The placing of seeds between layers of moist peat or sand and exposing them to low temperatures (e.g. by leaving them outdoors through the winter) in order to encourage germination. Compare VERNALIZATION.