Stratification, Social

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Stratification, Social

I. IntroductionBernard Barber


II. Social ClassSeymour M. Lipset


III. The Measurement of Social ClassRobert W. Hodge and Paul M. Siegel


IV. The Structure of Stratification SystemsArthur L. Stinchcombe


V. Class CultureHyman Rodman



Social stratification, in its most general sense, is a sociological concept that refers to the fact that both individuals and groups of individuals are conceived of as constituting higher and lower differentiated strata, or classes, in terms of some specific or generalized characteristic or set of characteristics. Borrowed by analogy from the earth sciences, the term “social stratification” has come into general sociological use only since about 1940, although the matters to which it refers have been discussed under the heading “social class” for a very long time. However, in contrast to its earth-science usage the sociological usage of the concept of stratification often includes, implicitly or explicitly, some evaluation of the higher and lower layers, which are judged to be better or worse according to a scale of values. Such matters as relative moral worth, relative equality and inequality, and degrees of justice and injustice are often involved in the concept of social stratification. The concept is therefore widely used in political, ideological, and moral debate and controversy, as well as in social science analysis. But despite the difficulty of separating the context of moral and ideological controversy, on the one hand, from that of social science analysis, on the other, considerable progress, both theoretical and empirical, has been made in the study of social stratification during the last one hundred years. A brief history of this progress provides some necessary background for assessing where social stratification theory stands today and for laying out a conceptual model of what that theory might be in the future.

Origins of social stratification theory

As a relatively undifferentiated notion, the idea of social stratification is found in the Judaeo-Christian Bible, the social thought of the Greeks, and the basic social and religious texts of the Indians and the Chinese. The idea has persisted, in relatively crude form, right up to the present day.

Marxian theory . In the history of the evolution of social stratification theory, Marx is the Copernican hero because his concept of social stratification, in contrast with all previous, common-sense notions in this area, emphasizes the basic importance, as a criterion of stratification, of the individual‘s or group‘s location in the economic structure. This emphasis contributed one of the essential foundations for all subsequent stratification theory and, indeed, for all other kinds of sociological analysis. In terms of their structural location in the social system, which is centered on the means of production, men in society are divided by Marx into two strata, or “classes,” as he called them (following the generally preferred practice of his time). These two classes are the owners of the means of production and the workers whom they employ.

In the light of present sociological analysis and knowledge, this is too crude a concept of social stratification to cope with empirical social reality. First, it does not provide an adequate account of actual structural differentiation in what has been variously labeled the economic, the productive, and the occupational aspect of society. Modern students of the sociology of work and of social stratification have demonstrated not only that this aspect of society is structurally much more differentiated than Marx said but that actual behavior cannot be understood without taking this greater differentiation into account. For example, the analysis of social stratification needs to take into account such differences as those between owning and managing business roles, between business and professional occupational roles, and between skilled and unskilled labor roles. A second way in which the Marxian concept of social stratification is relatively crude is that it tends to minimize, and therefore has no systematic theoretical place for, a variety of other social-structural factors that are of the greatest importance in society, such as lineage and kinship affiliations in all societies or ethnic affiliations in societies that are ethnically differentiated. Modern theorists and researchers treat ethnic-group stratification, for example, as an important type of stratification in its own right—as indeed it is and has been throughout much of history in many parts of the world (see, for instance, Shibutani & Kwan 1965). Third, Marxian theory tends to minimize, and therefore has no satisfactory theoretical place for, a variety of cultural factors that are as important in the determination of behavior as is the single factor of social stratification. These cultural factors include values, religious ideas, scientific ideas, and legal norms. It is not correct, as Marxian theory holds in the explanation of social stability and change, that social stratification is always the independent variable and cultural factors always dependent variables. Both stability and change are as much determined by cultural factors as by the factor of social stratification. For example, science is probably as much a maker of the modern world as is social stratification.

Marxist analysis has also, of course, been vehemently ideological, in addition to claiming to be scientific. It has always sought to make moral judgments of the world and to change it. Some of the resulting ideological distortion has hindered the progress of social stratification theory. For example, social science has taken a long time to shake off the conceptual confusion resulting from the Marxian moral disapproval of the entrepreneurial and managing roles in society. (For an analysis of the positive functions of entrepreneurs and managers and also for much good appreciation and criticism of Marx, see Schumpeter 1942.) Similarly, the excessively simplified dichotomization of the social stratification structure in the Marxian picture of modern society has exaggerated the amount of class conflict that has occurred and that is inevitable in such a society. To be sure, some conflict is endemic in the structure of every society; and the productive, or occupational, aspect of modern society is certainly one structural source of conflict. But there are other sources, such as religious and ethnic differences, and it may be that these differences have actually engendered more conflict in the modern world than has the occupational difference. In any case, this is a matter for empirical analysis, not for ideological preconception, while Marxian theory has tended to take its stand on the latter.

Max Weber . After Marx, the next great figure in the history of social stratification theory is Max Weber. He made progress in several ways, probably in part because of his desire to correct Marx, who was one of the dominant intellectual figures when Weber‘s thought was taking shape. Weber‘s trinitarian model of social stratification—based on the concepts of class, status, and party—introduced a systematic, explicit, and necessary differentiation into stratification theory. Although Marx knew about such “status groups” as the aristocracy and the peasantry, he chose to neglect status as an explicit and independent dimension of stratification. Weber improved stratification theory by making both status and party (or power, as he also called this factor) as independent in principle as class, which for Marx was the sole independent factor. With this trinitarian view, Weber was able to show that any one of these three factors could independently affect the other two and that any one of them could often be translated into, or exchanged for, either of the other two. Even Weber, however, as we now see, did not go far enough in differentiating his conceptual model of social stratification. There are more than three important and independent dimensions of social stratification. We have already referred to two of these other dimensions : kinship and ethnic stratification. Educational stratification is still another dimension that independently affects behavior in society.

Weber‘s view inevitably had ideological implications; many took this view as a counterideology to the Marxian view of society. At least implicitly, Weber was justifying the functions of the high-ranking status groups, especially those that performed political, military, and civil-service functions. According to Marxian ideology, these groups are viewed as useless, at least for positive tasks; it is their negative function—that is, their “exploitation” of the lower classes—that is of importance. The classic Marxist proposition that in a socialist society the state will wither away is a result of the view that the high-ranking military, political, and civil service roles (and, in some societies, their associated status groups) are essentially useless.

As a product of his times, Weber was not very much concerned with how to make a more precise ordering of social behavior along the three dimensions of social stratification that he analyzed. For example, he defined “class” as “chances on the market,” but he said little about the measurable indicators of this concept or about problems of measurement in general. We now feel it necessary to ask Weber a series of questions: how does one measure “chances on the market”? just by current income? by earned or inherited capital as well? by some application of social power, as through influence of the government or of trade unions? Similarly, Weber defined “status” in terms of “honor” and “style of life,” but he did not tell us how either is to be reliably and precisely measured. Indeed, it is obvious that he was thinking only of the higher ranges of the “honor,” or “status,” dimension of stratification, not of the middle and lower ones. Present analysis is interested in the whole continuum of “honor,” or “prestige,” as it is now usually called. And prestige measurement scales range from the least to the most highly ranked points on this continuum. Finally, Weber said little about how to measure “power,” and we have had to wait until the recent studies of local-community influence structure to see some improvement in this area [see Community, article onthe study of community power].

The multidimensional approach

In the contemporary period, conceptual developments in stratification theory have come most notably from Parsons (1949a; 1949b; 1953) and from Davis and Moore (1945). Influenced in part by the general interest in the study of values in modern social science, these theorists have stressed the prestige dimension of social stratification and have treated what Weber called status as a generalized social phenomenon applying to all positions in the occupational structure of society. Prestige is the resultant of two factors: a system of values, and the functional significance of roles as embodied in the occupational structure. Functional significance is determined by the relative capacity of a role for “producing” some service or good in society—services and goods being construed in the most comprehensive way possible, not in the limited economic way intended by Marx when he spoke of production. For example, governmental, religious, artistic, and ideological roles are as functionally significant, as subject to evaluation, and as “productive” in some measure as are the roles of owning capital, managing a business, or tending a machine in a factory.

Parsons, in addition to his interest in the dimension of prestige, has also been interested in the power aspect of social stratification (see especially 1957; 1963). In this area he has stressed two general propositions, neither of which has been universally accepted in social science theory. One is that power is a positive social phenomenon—the capacity for achieving goals in social systems— and not just a negative phenomenon—the capacity to prevent others from acting as they wish. The second proposition is that power is not a zero-sum phenomenon, in which if A has more, then B necessarily has less. Rather, power is a phenomenon that allows increments and their social consequences to be shared by both A and B, although not always in complete equality, of course.

Parsons, Davis, and Moore have sought to be scientific about social stratification theory or at least to reduce its ideological bias when presenting it as scientific theory. But they have had many critics who have charged them with a number of ideological commitments nonetheless—for example, with favoring inequality in social systems, underemphasizing the conflict and power aspects of social stratification, and favoring social stability rather than social change (see the series of critiques of Davis and Moore collected in Bendix & Lipset 1966).


Parsons, Davis, and Moore have not been concerned with the problem of improving measurement techniques in social stratification analysis. Fortunately, considerable progress in this respect has come from other contemporary sources. First, there has been a great development of occupational-prestige scales as instruments for measuring this dimension of social stratification. After the pioneering but simple work of George S. Counts in the 1920s, the occupational scale was very much improved by North and Hatt (1949) in the United States and by similar studies in England, France, West Germany, Poland, the Philippines, Northern Rhodesia, Indonesia, and elsewhere. (For an analysis of the comparative study of occupational prestige, with data from studies in 24 different countries, see Hodge et al. 1966.) The results of these studies show a very large degree of consensus across societies in the relative evaluation of a great many of the different occupational positions included in these scales. This suggests that it is indeed the actual functional significance of an occupational role that determines its relative evaluation, regardless of the society in which it occurs. However, there is enough variability of evaluation to suggest that values differ somewhat across societies and that these value differences result in somewhat different evaluations of the same job in different societies. A business executive, for example, may be somewhat less highly evaluated in socialist Poland than in a society like the United States, which is more favorable to business activities in general. In 1966 a new set of studies on a national sample of the population was being carried out under the auspices of the National Opinion Research Center of the University of Chicago. One of the results obtained was that during the preceding forty years there was considerable stability in the pattern of differential evaluation of occupations in American society (Hodge et al. 1964). The new scale and findings resulting from this project may be as great a benefit to social stratification studies in the next twenty years as the study by North and Hatt has been in the past twenty. Cumulative progress in measurement techniques for the occupational-prestige dimension of social stratification is clearly present and seems likely to continue, perhaps at an even faster pace now that the base of achievement has been made so solid. [For a description of these techniques, see Stratification, social, article onthe measurement of social class.]

Moreover, there has been considerable progress during the last 15 years in evolving techniques for the measurement of the power dimension of social stratification, at least at the local-community level. Studies of this kind have been undertaken chiefly in the United States but also in England, Mexico, and Canada. Sociometric, reputational, and decision-making techniques have all been used, sometimes in combination, and are slowly resulting in improved theory and knowledge. Both sociologists and political scientists have participated in this development. Eventually it will be possible to apply these techniques at the national and societal levels.

A conceptual model

A conceptual model for contemporary social stratification theory should be highly differentiated —that is, it should be multidimensional. It should also have good measurement techniques for each of its differentiated dimensions and be as free as possible of ideological bias. There seem to be at least two sources of resistance to the adoption of such a model. One source is ideological. There are still sociologists who resist a highly differentiated social stratification model because, for ideological reasons, they want the term “class” to refer to some single, simple, and all-explanatory notion. Such a simplistic approach would be more difficult to sustain in the face of a social stratification model that captured the full complexity of social-stratificational reality. Another source of resistance is connected with methodology and with resources for research. The more differentiated the conceptual model for stratification analysis, the greater the resources needed for research studies and the more difficult such studies are likely to be. Up to now, studies using oversimple stratification models and poor measurement techniques have been made by a number of poorly trained sociologists. Such researchers are now conceptually and technologically obsolete, and, like all workers who see their skills being reduced in value or discarded, they resist new ideas and methods.

It is fundamental that social stratification is multidimensional. Contrary to a view held by some, this is the case not only for contemporary industrial societies but for other types of societies and in other historical periods as well. For example, studies of stratification in Hindu caste society (B. Barber 1968) and in seventeenth-century England (Stone 1965) demonstrate the necessity of a multidimensional model. But it is not only on empirical grounds that the several dimensions of a multidimensional stratification model are justified. On theoretical grounds, each of the dimensions has to be, and can be, justified in terms of the special and independent functions that the specified dimension plays in society. It is desirable, of course, that the analysis of these special and independent functions be derived from, and integrated in, some systematic general theory about behavior and social systems, rather than constructed ad hoc. But this is not always possible. Where it is possible, general theory and social stratification theory are the more fruitful for one another.

To say that the several dimensions of stratification are independent of one another, both theoretically and empirically, does not mean that they are not also interdependent—that is, that they affect one another to some extent and yet retain a measure of autonomy. For example, the dimensions of occupational prestige, power, income, and education are to some extent independent. That is to say, in some measure occupational prestige is respected regardless of the amount of power or income. Contrariwise, power or income may achieve goals despite low occupational prestige. But the different dimensions also affect or limit one another because of their interdependence. A certain level of educational attainment may not be able to express itself without a certain level of income. And a certain level of occupational prestige may find itself ineffective because it does not have a certain amount of power. One of the important tasks for a multidimensional theory is to conduct research that leads to more and more precise statements, probably in quantified form, of the various measures of independence and interdependence that the several dimensions of stratification have in regard to one another.

Both theoretical analysis and empirical research have already made quite clear what some of these multiple dimensions, or independently functional variables, of social stratification are. Though the list below includes the most important of these dimensions, it is not necessarily complete. Nor is the order in which they are listed meant to imply any order of relative importance. In principle, each dimension is as important as every other. In any concrete social situation, of course, one may be more important in the determination of behavior than another, but this greater importance holds only for those specific circumstances.

Some dimensions of social stratification

Power . One way of defining “power” is as the capacity for achieving goals in social systems. Power in this sense is obviously functional for all social systems, large and small, and for all types of societies. In all social systems, some roles have more power, others less, and the result of this differential distribution is a stratified structure of power. Sometimes an individual‘s or group‘s differential capacity for power extends over a broad range of social situations, sometimes over quite a narrow one. The degree of specialization, or division of labor, in a society will affect the typical distribution of these ranges that exists in that society. When power is exercised against the moral feelings of the relevant other actors in a social system, it is perceived by these others as illegitimate; when exercised in accord with such feelings, it is perceived as legitimate, or, as it is usually called, authoritative. Power, legitimate and illegitimate, has a number of different social sources in all societies. Therefore it does not stand in any simple one-to-one relation with any of the other dimensions of social stratification (B. Barber 1957, chapter 4 ).

Occupational prestige . The different more or less full-time “productive” roles in a society are of differential functional significance for the society and therefore obtain a higher or a lower evaluation, or amount of prestige. In different societies and in different historical periods, the relative amount of prestige obtained by a specific “productive” role may vary somewhat, though not nearly so much as some ideological views of society have held. This variability is a result of the fact that the same necessary function in a social system—for example, the military function and roles—may be somewhat differently valued according to the different sets of values that prevail in different social systems and at different times. However, since the differences among these sets of values are often much exaggerated for ideological purposes and since even such relatively small differences as do exist have to accommodate themselves in some measure to the necessary functional significance of particular roles, it follows that the same specific “productive” role in different societies usually has much the same prestige everywhere. We have already seen that the results of occupational-prestige studies in 24 societies (all contemporary but representing quite different types) show considerable consensus in the relative evaluation of the same role in societies of different types. We have also seen that research shows the stability over time, at least for the United States, of occupational-prestige ratings for specific occupational roles. Prestige, too, of course, to some extent varies independently of the other dimensions of stratification.

Income or wealth . Different roles in society offer different possibilities for earning income and accumulating capital wealth; so too, different roles have different chances of inheriting wealth. Sometimes, highly prestigious and also powerful roles— for example, religious leaders such as “medicine men” in primitive societies or the Catholic pope in modern society—can earn or accumulate little money in their own right or for their own use. Conversely, sometimes roles of low prestige—for example, bandits or thieves—can accumulate large amounts of capital wealth. In the modern type of society, an example of differential chances for earned income can be seen in a comparison of business with professional “productive” roles. On the whole, and partly because of the differential symbolic significance of money as an indicator of achievement in the two areas, professional roles earn less than business roles of equal relative prestige.

The stratification of income and wealth, whether earned or inherited, has considerable social and economic consequences in partial independence of the other dimensions of social stratification. For example, chances for education may be much influenced by relative income and wealth, so that individuals who occupy roles of the same relative prestige but of differential income may find themselves at an advantage or disadvantage vis-a-vis one another in affording educational opportunities to their children. Differential amounts of disposable income are also important in determining differential access to those “style of life” items that are taken as symbolic, sometimes accurately, sometimes inaccurately, of a given amount of occupational prestige or power or education. This is what Veblen (1899) was concerned with in his discussion of patterns of “conspicuous consumption.” Both economists and sociologists have studied the independent significance of disposable income as a dimension of social stratification, but much more study, preferably by the two disciplines jointly, would be valuable.

Education and knowledge . The amount of knowledge that individuals have acquired, either formally, through education, or informally, affects the way in which they behave. As a result of differential amounts and types of education and of other learning experiences, the amount of knowledge is differentially distributed and may be conceived of as forming a stratified structure among the individuals in a society. [See Knowledge, sociology of.] This dimension of stratification produces effects independently of the other dimensions. For example, in studies of the use of psychotherapeutic facilities and of behavior toward relatives who have been released from mental hospitals, it has been shown that amount and type of education and knowledge is the significant determinant of behavior among people of the same level of occupational prestige or income (Freeman & Simmons 1963).

Religious and ritual purity . In terms of the functionally significant religious ideas that prevail in every society, individuals and groups can be regarded as possessing either more or less religious or ritual purity. In a religiously homogeneous society, of course, there is greater consensus about where individuals and groups should be placed with regard to this dimension of stratification; in religiously heterogeneous societies, there is usually more dissensus. Hindu caste society has probably been the society in which religious and ritual purity have been most important in comparison with the other dimensions and structures of stratification. But even in Hindu society the religious dimension has not been all-important (although some religious and literary ideology has held that it has been), nor is it in any one-to-one relationship with other dimensions (B. Barber 1968). Clearly, this has been even truer of other types of society.

Family and ethnic-group position. In all societies, kinship groups and their extensions in the form of ethnic groups perform important functions: procreation, socialization of children, and provision of moral and psychological support between parents and children and between husbands and wives. Families, because of their varying success in performing these functions and because the other services that they perform for the national and local communities also vary, are differentially evaluated. This evaluation results in a stratification of higher-ranked and lower-ranked families, which in turn has an important and independent influence on the way in which members of particular families treat one another and are treated by others. (For a critical summary of some studies providing evidence on this point, see B. Barber 1961.) Moreover, family and ethnic-group position (where there is ethnic heterogeneity in a society) does not stand in a one-to-one relationship with other dimensions of social stratification.

Local-community status . All but the very simplest societies are subdivided into communities that have special problems for which the contributions of local individuals and families are needed. These individuals and families are given a higher or a lower evaluation in the local community in proportion to their contributions to that community‘s welfare and quite independently of their evaluation on the other dimensions of social stratification (B. Barber 1961). Differential evaluation of position in the local community is an important determinant of the behavior of self and others in the local community and sometimes of behavior outside it as well, when local-community position becomes known in other local communities or in the society as a whole.

Correlations among rankings

According to the multidimensional approach to social stratification, each individual or group in society is conceived of as ranked along each of the several dimensions of social stratification discussed above, as well as along others. The study of social stratification should therefore involve investigation of the ways in which these different relative rankings are correlated with one another, whether positively or negatively. The rankings may all be highly correlated with one another (all high, all medium, or all low in rank) or much less highly correlated (some high, some medium, and some low in rank). A series of analyses and researches have been undertaken to investigate social stratification in these terms. The task of explaining why the various rankings of groups and individuals are often not highly correlated has been called the problem of “status inconsistency.” (For useful critical summaries of past discussion and research and for valuable positive statements of their own, see Anderson & Zelditch 1964; Jackson & Burke 1965.) Two general hypotheses, or propositions, underlie the investigation of this phenomenon. The first is that status inconsistency results in types of behavior different from those caused by status consistency, with each specific pattern of inconsistency having its own specific consequences. Thus, it has been said that in the United States the combination of high occupational prestige and low ethnic position results in political liberalism. Unfortunately, this and other empirical generalizations in the study of status inconsistency have not yet been solidly established. For example, it has also been asserted that Catholics, many of whom experience the status inconsistency of having higher occupational prestige than ethnic position, tend to be politically illiberal. Further empirical work is necessary to arrive at more reliable empirical generalizations about the consequences of specific patterns of status inconsistency.

A second general proposition underlying work on status inconsistency is that there is a tendency toward status equilibration, that is, toward highly positive correlation among the individual‘s several rankings. This proposition should, however, still be taken as a working hypothesis and not as an established empirical generalization. In our own and other societies, various kinds of status inconsistency have lasted long enough—not only throughout an individual‘s lifetime but over several generations—to raise a strong doubt: are the social processes that maintain status inconsistency not at least as powerful in principle as, and sometimes more powerful in practice than, the processes that lead to status equilibration? The position of the Jews in most societies, the position of the many high-caste Brahman priests in India with low occupational prestige—these are the kinds of empirical phenomena that raise such a doubt.

In the light of this discussion of the problem of status inconsistency, a number of general points should be made as a basis for further work in this field. First, there is no question that for some individuals in all societies, even relatively simple societies, and for many individuals in some societies, there is considerably less than perfect correlation among their rankings on the several different dimensions of social stratification. Second, apparently there are social processes that are conducive to maintaining this lack of perfect correlation over a long period of time, as well as processes for increasing the degree of status consistency. If hypergamous marriage in caste societies or the marriage of the daughters of the nouveaux riches to men of distinguished lineage in modern societies are examples of the latter, then ethnic and so-called racial prejudice is an equally compelling example of the former. Still very much an open and important question for social stratification research is what the various empirical tendencies toward status consistency or inconsistency are in different societies and at different historical times. Third and last, it should be assumed in this research that there is nothing inherently or completely functional about status consistency. It may have its dysfunctions as well as its functions. For example, status consistency may lead to social stagnation as well as to social harmony. Contrariwise, status inconsistency may have its functions as well as its better-known dysfunctions. Those who experience status inconsistency may be the more socially creative and liberal, although they may also have the unhappiness and sense of social injustice that sometimes, although not always, comes from status inconsistency.

The structure of stratification systems

When all the individuals in a society or all their associated solidary kinship groups are ranked along any one of the several dimensions of social stratification, there results a distribution of differential rankings that can be conceived of as having a certain structured shape. Because of the differential distribution of capacities among the members of any society and because of society‘s need for some measure of hierarchy in the patterning of its authority systems, the rankings tend to show some, and often a considerable, degree of hierarchy, which manifests itself in a tapering toward the top of the various stratification structures. If some tapering is universal, the shape of the rest of the structure is more variable. There seem to be two basic shapes, the pyramid and the diamond. The latter is the typical pattern for modernized societies, where there are strong pressures toward social equality as well as a need for increasing numbers of middle-ranking functionaries. In other types of societies, where the opposite forces prevail, the standard shape of the stratification structures has been more pyramidal, the majority of roles (and therefore the individuals who occupy them) ranking very low. In the modern world, a number, of fundamental social and cultural changes are resulting in what seems to be a general trend in all societies toward an increasingly diamond-shaped distribution of roles along many of the dimensions of their social stratification systems. In some cases, aspirations toward this type of stratification structure outrun actual achievement. This leads to much social unrest as well as to great efforts to make social fact conform to social aspiration.

Stratification and social mobility

Social mobility consists in the movements of individuals up and down along any one or several of the dimensions of social stratification [see Social mobility; see also Lipset & Bendix 1959]. Because there are several different dimensions of social stratification in any society, the relative importance of different processes of mobility and also the relative amounts and degrees of mobility will vary in different types of social stratification systems (see B. Barber 1957, chapters 14-16). Any discussion of the processes and amounts of social mobility should always make very clear whether they are occurring within an over-all stratification system that is relatively stable in type or in one that is changing (whether slowly or rapidly) from one basic type to another. Otherwise, the phenomena of individual mobility may be confused with those of basic social structure. For example, in both seventeenth-century England and eighteenth-century France only certain individuals were rising from lower strata into the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy. Contrary to what has sometimes been said, the aristocratic stratum itself was not disappearing, nor was the bourgeois stratum becoming more highly evaluated or more politically powerful than the aristocratic stratum. It was a case of individual mobility in both places, not of basic change in the system of social stratification (on England, see Hexter 1950; on France, see E. G. Barber 1955). With regard to social mobility—as is also true of other dynamic social processes—it is necessary to see that individual processes and basic structural processes are different matters, though not, of course, unrelated.

Bernard Barber

[Directly related are the entriesCaste; Ethnic Groups; Kinship; Social Mobility; Status, Social, Other relevant material may be found inMinorities; Power; Prejudice; Professions; Systems Analysis, article on Social Systems; and in the biographies ofHalbwachs; Marx; Veblen; Weber, Max.]


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Concern with social class and social stratification is as old as social thought. The ancient Greek philosophers were extremely conscious of the effects of stratification, and propositions about stratification may be found throughout many of the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Thus Aristotle, in discussing the conditions for different types of political organization, suggested in essence that constitutional government—limitation on the powers of the political elite—is most likely to be found in societies with large middle classes, while city-states characterized by large lower classes and small middle and upper classes would be more likely to be governed as dictatorships based on mass support, or as oligarchies. This general approach has been elaborated in contemporary studies of the social requisites of democracy. Plato, in the Republic, discussed the conditions for a genuine equalitarian communist society and suggested that the family is the key support of inequality—that is, of social stratification. His argument, which is still followed by many contemporary sociologists, was that individuals are motivated to secure for other family members, for whom they feel affection, any privileges that they themselves enjoy. Hence, in every society there is a built-in pressure to institutionalize inequality by making it hereditary. Plato argued that the only way to create a communist society would be to take children away from their parents and to have the state raise them, so as to eliminate the tendency toward inherited social privilege.

Most of contemporary sociological theory and research on social class, however, does not stem from the Greeks. The emphasis of the Enlightenment on the possibility of social laws and of their discovery through observation and comparative study must be taken as one of the principal methodological breakthroughs. Institutional regularities, such as those governing class, status, and political relationships, became objects of disinterested inquiry as things in themselves, thus reversing the notion, dominant in the Middle Ages, that the temporal sphere was nothing more than an auxiliary part of a supernatural plan, subject to the principles of natural law.

The Enlightenment served to erase the assumptions about hierarchy, class, and intergroup relationships that stemmed from the medieval model of an organic Christian civilization. Thus, the basis was being laid for a science of society.

But it was Karl Marx, more than anyone else, who carried this scientific perspective into the study of social class, even going so far as to derive his idea of class from what he called the scientific laws of history. He then not only accepted the premise that social phenomena possess their own laws, but also set out to discover the underlying variables and how they are expressed under differing historical conditions. Thus, if one were to award the title of father of the study of social class to any individual, it would have to be to Marx. He made class the central aspect of his analysis of society and of his theory of social change. Though most latter-day sociologists have disagreed with many, if not most, of Marx‘s assumptions about stratification, many of the non-Marxist or anti-Marxist ideas on the subject have come about in reaction to Marx‘s original formulations.

This does not mean, of course, that there were not other important eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century figures who used stratification concepts in a sophisticated manner. Marx obviously was a child of his times; many of his ideas, sometimes in almost identical form, can be found in the writings of others. The Marxist formulation, laid down in the chapter “Social Classes” in Capital, that there are three major economic classes in modern society—landlords receiving rent, capitalists profit, and workers wages—is derived directly from Ricardo‘s Principles, published in 1817, a work that also presented the labor theory of value. Adam Smith‘s great book, The Wealth of Nations, is an important work for the study of stratification, as are other writings of the school of Scottish philosophers of his day. The American founding fathers admitted that all complex societies are stratified and that there is an inherent basis of conflict among groups with diverse economic and class interests. Various American Marxist groups have, in fact, sought to legitimate Marxist doctrine as compatible with classic American thought by pointing to the similarities between the ideas presented in No. 10 of The Federalist and various writings of Marx (see especially De Leon 1889— 1913). However, these precursors of Marxism influenced sociology primarily through their influence on Marx himself. It was he who formulated the theory of class so powerfully that he defined the terms of the argument for later sociological thinkers.

Types of theoretical approach

Approaches to the fact of social inequality have differed in the extent to which they emphasize change or stability in social systems. These differences in theoretical orientation have to a considerable extent reflected political differences. Reformists or radicals have seen social inequality and social class differences as sources of social change, which they are inclined to favor. Theorists with more conservative political tastes have justified aspects of the existing order by trying to show the functions performed by hierarchy in all social systems. Concern with social change has generally been associated with interest in social classes, that is, groups within stratified collectivities that are said to act politically as agents of change. Those stressing the functional basis of inequality have been interested in social stratification and in the purposes served by differential rewards, particularly in prestige, to various positions in social systems.

Those using the concept of social class to interpret the dynamics of social change have assumed that the creation of new occupational or economic roles has often resulted in the emergence of groups that initially were outside the traditional hierarchical system. As these new groups attempt to stabilize their position within society, they come into conflict with older, privileged strata whose status, economic resources, or power they challenge. The new groups also often develop sets of values, both secular and religious, that enhance their position by undermining the stability of the prior value system and the structure of privilege it justified. Thus historical change is viewed basically as a consequence of the rise of new classes and the downfall of old ones; it is assumed that complex social systems are inherently unstable and that conflicts stemming from inequality cause pressure for changes in the system.

In contrast, functional theorists have assumed that social systems must be treated as if they were in equilibrium. From this point of view, it is necessary to relate the various attributes of the social hierarchy to the conditions for social stability. Class, therefore, has been seen by these theorists not as an intervening variable in the process of social change but, rather, as a set of institutions that provide some of the conditions necessary for the operation of a complex society. These conditions, basically, amount to the need for a system of differentiated rewards as a means of institutionalizing the division of labor: differentiation by status and income is posited as a necessary part of the system of motivation required to place individuals in the various positions that must be filled if society is to operate.

The interest of students of social change in why men rebel, why they want change, has led to an emphasis within the tradition of class analysis on the way in which inequality frustrates men and leads them to reject the status quo. Functional analysts, on the other hand, are much more concerned with how the social system gets men to conform, to seek and remain in various positions in society, including ones that are poorly rewarded or require onerous work. The former, in other words, often ask how systems of stratification are undermined; the latter seek to know how and why they hold together.

It is important to note that while any analysis of social class must necessarily deal with social stratification as well, these two terms are not synonymous. Theories of social class refer to the conditions affecting the existence of strata that have developed or should develop some “consciousness of kind,” that is, some sense of existence as a group attribute of society. Stratification refers to the entire complex of hierarchical differentiation, whether group-related or not. Although this article is about social class, much of the discussion in it will involve stratification, since it is impossible to account for the way in which social classes are formed, change, and affect other aspects of society without referring to stratification systems as such.

I have distinguished two polar traditions of social thought that do not, of course, occur in pure form in real life. Marx, the foremost student of class and social change and the advocate, par excellence, of instability and revolution, was also aware of the functional aspects of social stratification. Many of his writings attempt to show how ideologies, values, and patterns of behavior—all at different class levels—serve to maintain the stability of the social order. In fact, Marxian analysis is replete with functional propositions.

The functionalists, on the other hand, are of course aware that change and conflict occur and that men not only accept but also reject the given stratification system. Thus (as is noted in more detail below) the most influential stimulator of functional thought in sociology, Émile Durkheim, sought to show the way in which strains in value emphases within the same system lead individuals and groups to reject the dominant value system and to deviate from expected forms of behavior. Where Marx saw alienation as inherent in social inequality, Durkheim suggested that anomie, or rulelessness, is endemic in all complex social systems. [See Integration, article onsocial integration.]

To see the way these concerns with stability and change, with alienation, and with the formation of class sentiments have evolved in modern social thought, it is necessary to turn to an examination of the work of some of the key theorists, particularly Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

The Marxist theory of class

Marxist sociology starts from the premise that the primary function of social organization is the satisfaction of basic human needs—food, clothing, and shelter. Hence, the productive system is the nucleus around which other elements of society are organized. Contemporary sociology has reversed this emphasis by stressing the distribution system, the stratification components of which are status and prestige. To Marx, however, distribution is a dependent function of production.

Stemming from the assumption of the primacy of production is the Marxist definition of class: any aggregate of persons who play the same part in the production mechanism. Marx, in Capital, outlined three main classes, differentiated according to relations to the means of production: (1) capitalists, or owners of the means of production; (2) workers, or all those who are employed by others; (3) landowners, who in Marx‘s theory seemingly differ from capitalists and are regarded as survivors of feudalism ([1867-1879] 1925-1926, vol. 3, pp. 862-863). From Marx‘s various historical writings, it is clear that he had a more complex view than this of the hierarchical reality and that he realized, for instance, that there is differentiation within each of these basic categories. Thus, the small businessmen, or petty bourgeoisie, were perceived as a transitional class, a group that will be pressed by economic tendencies inherent in capitalism to bifurcate into those who descend to the working class and those who so improve their circumstances that they become significant capitalists.

Although Marx differentiated classes in objective terms, his primary interest was in understanding and facilitating the emergence of class consciousness among the depressed strata. He wished to see created among them a sense of identical class interests, as a basis for conflict with the dominant class. The fact that a group held a number of objective characteristics in common but did not have the means of reaching organized class consciousness meant for Marx that it could not play the role of a historically significant class. Thus, he noted in “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” that the French peasants of that period possessed many attributes that implied a common class situation:

The small-holding peasants form a vast mass, the members of which live in similar conditions, but without entering into manifold relations with one another. Their mode of production isolates them from one another, instead of bringing them into mutual interbourse. The isolation is increased by France‘s bad means of communication and by the poverty of the peasants. ... In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organization among them, they do not form a class. (Marx [1852] 1962, p. 334)

Nikolai Bukharin, one of the leading theoreticians of the Russian Communist party, who was more concerned with sociological theory and research than any other major Marxist figure, attempted to formalize the differences among the workers, the peasants, and the lumpenproletariat (unattached laborers), making the workers a class and the other two not classes. His analysis, based on the events of the early decades of the twentieth century, was elaborated beyond that of Marx (see Table 1).

Table 7 — Bukharin’s analysis of class conditions
Class propertiesPeasantryLumpen-proletariatProletariat
Source: Bukharin (1921) 1965, p. 289.
1. Economic exploitation+-+
2. Political oppression+++
3. Poverty+++
4. Productivity+-+
5. Freedom from private property-+-
6. Condition of union in production, and common labor--+

The working class is exploited by a visible common oppressor, is brought together by conditions of work that encourage the spread of ideas and organization among them, and remains in a structured conflict situation with its employers over wages and working conditions. Consequently, over time it can become a conscious class.

Marx, however, did not really anticipate a high correlation between objective class position and subjective revolutionary class consciousness until the point at which the social system in question broke down: if there was to be total class consciousness in any given society, then by definition it would be in the midst of revolution. In normal times, structural factors press deprived strata to become conscious, but the inherent strength of the ruling class prevents class consciousness. The dominant class possesses social legitimacy, controls the media of communication, is supported by the various mechanisms of socialization and social control, such as the school and the church, and, during its period of stability is able to “buy off” those inclined to lead or participate in opposition movements. The Marxist term that characterizes the attitudes of the lower class in the period of the predominance of the other classes is “false consciousness.”

Marx was not very concerned with analyzing the behavior of the capitalist upper class. Basically, he assumed that the powerful parts of such a class must be self-conscious and that the state as a vehicle of power necessarily serves the interests of the dominant class in the long run. But more important to Marx than the sociology of the privileged class was that of the workers; the important question for research and action concerned the factors that would bring about working-class consciousness.

The dilemma of the Marxist theory of class is also the dilemma of every other single-variable theory. We can locate a class member objectively, but this may tell us little about the subjective correlates (social outlook, attitudes, etc.) of class position. Marx never actually said that at any given point in history or for any individual there would necessarily have to be a relationship between class position and the attitudes of class members. He did believe, however, that common conditions of existence create the necessary base for the development of common class attitudes, but that at any point in time, sharp discrepancies may exist between class position and class attitudes or behavior. Marx attempted to deal with this problem by his theory of transitional stages in the development of class. The first stage, in which a class is a class “in itself” (the German an sich), occurs when the class members do not understand their class position, the controls over them, or their “true class interests.” The proletariat, insofar as it is simply fighting for higher wages without recognizing that this is part of a necessary class struggle between themselves and the bourgeoisie that will end in the victory of one or the other, is a class an sich. In ideal-type terms the opposite of the class in itself is the class “for itself” (für sich). The class für sich is a self-conscious class, a large proportion of whose members consciously identify with it and think in terms of the class‘s struggle with another class. As long as most persons in a lower class think in an sich terms, the behavior of class members will be characterized by intraclass competition in which individual members of the class strive to get ahead of other members. In such a period, class conflict will be weak. Only when für sich attitudes develop does the class struggle really emerge. Members of a lower class who do not yet identify with their class are, according to Marx, thinking in terms of values or concepts that are functional for the stability of the position of the dominant class. Any individual, therefore, though objectively a member of the lower class, may subjectively be identified with or may be acting in ways which correspond to the position of another class. At different periods varying portions of an underprivileged population may be either an sich or für sich. One of the purposes of Marxist analysis is the investigation of this discrepancy. In discussing the rise of the bourgeoisie, Marx suggested that the period during which the bourgeoisie was a class an sich was longer and required greater effort than the period during which it became self-conscious and took political class action to overthrow feudalism and monarchy ([1847] 1963, pp. 146-147). Implicit in this discussion of the development of the bourgeois class is the idea that the emergence of self-consciousness among the workers will also take a long time. Marx in fact suggested “making a precise study of strikes, combinations and other forms of class activity” in order to find out how the proletariat organizes itself as a class (ibid., p. 147).

Alienation . A key element in the Marxist sociology of the exploited is the concept of alienation. Men are distinguished from animals—are, in fact, less animal and more human—insofar as they become increasingly self-conscious about and freely selective of their work and conditions of life. Insofar as men do not freely choose their work but, rather, do whatever tasks are set before them, simply in order to exist, they remain in a less than human state. If work (or leisure) is imposed on man, so far from being free, he is objectively exploited and alienated from the truly human, that is, autonomous, condition (Marx 1844, pp. 120-134 in the 1964 edition).

Alienation, for Marx, is an objective, not a subjective, condition. It signifies lack of autonomy, of self-control. The fact that workers may say that they like their work or social conditions does not mean that they are free actors, even if they think they are. Thus, in a slave society the fact that some slaves may have believed that they preferred to be slaves, and even that they were better off as slaves than as freed men, did not change the fact that objectively they were slaves. Similarly, the fact that a wage worker likes his conditions of work does not affect his position of being alienated and economically exploited or his potential as a free human being. In this sense, class society is akin to slavery. Class society must produce alienated individuals who are distorted, partial people. Marx therefore sought to document the facts about alienation and to understand the conditions under which estrangement, resentment, and, ultimately, political class consciousness would arise. Both class and alienation, he thought, would be eliminated by ending the private ownership of the means of production, for as long as people are working for others, they do not have conscious control over their life space and therefore are not truly human. Fully human society would come about when the production system could produce abundance in an absolute sense, when the machines produced enough food, clothing, and shelter for all men and to have as much as they needed, so that they could then devote themselves not to fighting over the scarce fruits of production but to fostering the activities of the mind. In essence, he was arguing that all class societies were prehuman and that class must disappear. [See Alienation.]

The Weberian approach to stratification

While Marx placed almost exclusive emphasis on economic factors as determinants of social class, Weber suggested that economic interests should be seen as a special case of the larger category of “values,” which included many things that are neither economic nor interests in the ordinary sense of the term. For Weber, the Marxist model, although a source of fruitful hypotheses, was too simple to handle the complexity of stratification. He therefore sought to differentiate among the various sources of hierarchical differentiation and potential cleavage. The two most important sets of hierarchies for Weber were class and status ([1906-1924] 1946, pp. 180-195).

Class . Weber reserved the concept of class for economically determined stratification. He defined a class as being composed of people who have life chances in common, as determined by their power to dispose of goods and skills for the sake of income. Property is a class asset, but it is not the only criterion of class. For Weber, the crucial aspect of a class situation is, ultimately, the market situation.

The existence of large groups of people who can be located in a common class situation need not produce communal or societal action—that is, conscious, interest-determined activity—although it should produce similar reactions in the sense that those in the same class situation should exhibit similar behavior and attitudes without having a sense of class consciousness. These similarities, such as patterns of voting behavior or of drinking habits, reflect the effect of variations in life chances among the classes.

Weber, like Marx, was concerned with the conditions under which class consciousness arises. For him, however, there was no single form of class consciousness. Rather, which groups develop a consciousness of common interests opposed to those of another group is a specific empirical question; different groups acquire historical significance at different times and in different places. The extent of consciousness of kind depends to a considerable degree on the general culture of a society, particularly the sets of intellectual ideas current within it. Concepts or values that might foster or inhibit the emergence of class-conscious groups cannot be derived solely from knowledge about the objective economic structure of a society. The existence of different strata subjected to variations in life chances does not necessarily lead to class action. The causal relationship posited by Marx between the fact of group inferiority and other aspects of the structure that might be changed by action had to be demonstrated to people; consciousness of it need not develop spontaneously. The presence or absence of such consciousness is not, of course, a fortuitous matter. The extent to which ideas emerge pointing to a causal relationship between class position and other social conditions is linked to the transparency of the relationship—that is, to how obvious it is that one class will benefit by action directed against another.

An examination of the history of class struggles suggested to Weber that conflicts between creditors and debtors are perhaps the most visible form of conflict flowing from economic differentiation. The conflict between employers and workers is also highly visible under capitalism, but it is essentially a special case of the economic struggle between buyers and sellers, a form of interest tension normal within a capitalist market economy. It involves an act of creative imagination and perception to develop the idea that the tension between employer and worker requires an attack on the entire system of private ownership through the common action of all workers against the capitalist class. Such an act is much more likely to come from the intellectuals, who thereby present the workers with an ideological formula, than from the workers themselves. In this respect, Weber came to conclusions similar to those drawn by Lenin, who also argued that workers by themselves could only reach the stage of economism, of trade union consciousness—that is, of conflict with their employers over wages and working conditions. For Lenin, as for Weber, the emergence of revolutionary class consciousness requires leadership, much of which would be drawn from other strata—in Lenin‘s case, the elite or vanguard party (Lenin 1902). Weber explicitly formalized the conditions that facilitate the emergence of class consciousness in terms that incorporated the principal elements of the Marxist scheme almost intact, although he made the significant and important addition of common status:

Organized activity of class groups is favoured by the following circumstances: (a) the possibility of concentrating on opponents where the immediate conflict of interests is vital. Thus workers organize against management and not against security holders who are the ones who really draw income without working. . . . (b) The existence of a class status which is typically similar for large masses of people, (c) The technical possibility of being easily brought together. This is particularly true where large numbers work together in a small area, as in the modern factory, (d) Leadership directed to readily understandable goals. Such goals are very generally imposed or at least are interpreted by persons, such as intelligentsia, who do not belong to the class in question. (1922, pp. 427-428 in the 1947 edition)

Weber‘s condition (a) is essentially a rephrasing of Marx‘s antagonism factor, though Weber made a distinction, not made by Marx, concerning the direction of the antagonism—in this case, toward the visible overseer. Condition (b) was never explicitly discussed by Marx. Condition (c) is borrowed directly from Marx. As for condition (d), in Marx‘s works it appears as the role of the party, although Marx never faced up to the problems that arise when a workers‘ party has a middle-class leadership.

Status . The second major dimension of stratification, status, refers to the quality of perceived interaction. Status was defined by Weber as the positive or negative estimation of honor, or prestige, received by individuals or positions. Thus it involves the felt perceptions of people. Those in a similar status position tend to see themselves as located in a comparable position on the social hierarchy. Since status involves perception of how much one is valued by others, men value it more than economic gain.

Weber argued that since status is manifest, consciousness of kind is more likely to be linked to status differentiation than to class. In other words, those who are in a higher or lower status group are prone to support status-enhancing activities, whether or not these activities can be classed as political. Those groups with high status will be motivated to support values and institutions that seemingly serve to perpetuate their status. Weber regarded economic class as important primarily because it is perceived as a cause of status. Since it is usually easier to make or lose money than it is to gain or lose status, those in privileged status positions seek to dissociate status from class, that is, to urge that status reflects factors such as family origin, manners, education, and the like—attributes that are more difficult to attain or lose than economic wealth.

There is, of course, as Weber pointed out, a strong correlation between status and class positions. However, once a group has attained high status through given achievements, its members try to limit the chances that others will replace them. And this is often done by seeking to deny the original source of individual or family status. The economic and class orders are essentially universalistic and achievement-oriented. Those who get, are. He who secures more money is more important than he who has less. The status order, on the other hand, tends to be particularistic and ascriptive. It involves the assumption that high status reflects aspects of the system that are unachievable. Thus it operates to inhibit social mobility, up or down. Weber, in his writings on status, echoed the functional analysis of the role of style presented by Veblen (1899). For Weber, as for Veblen, the function of conspicuous consumption—that is, of emphasis on pragmatically useless styles of consumption that take many years to learn—was to prevent mobility and to institutionalize the privileges of those who had risen to the top in previous years or epochs. Status groups are therefore identifiable by specific styles of life. Even though the original source of status was economic achievement, a status system, once in existence, operates independently of the class system and even seeks to negate its values. This, as Weber and Veblen both suggested, explains the seemingly surprising phenomenon that even in an industrial capitalist society, money-making is considered vulgar by many in privileged positions, and the children of those who have made money are frequently to be found in noncommercial activities.

Class relations and status relations . The distinction between class and status is also reflected in the different nature of the key set of interactions that characterizes each. Class relations are defined by interaction among unequals in a market situation; status is determined primarily by relations with equals, even though there are many status contacts among unequals. The sanctions, in the case of status, are greater when violating the norms for relations with equals than those for relations with unequals.

One value of differentiating between class and status is that while these two dimensions of stratification are correlated, there are many cases in which they are discrepant. Thus individuals or groups may be higher in status than in class, or vice versa. Weber argued that such discrepancies are important aids to understanding the dynamics of social change and of conflict; he detected an inherent strain between the norms of the market and those of status systems. Markets are the dynamic source of tension for modern industrial society. Success or failure in the market constantly upsets the relative position of groups and individuals: groups high in status and wealth often lose their relative economic position because of market innovations, failure to adjust to change, and the like, while others rise suddenly on the scale of wealth. Those who had status and its frequent concomitant, legitimate access to political authority, exert their influence and power against the nouveaux riches. For example, a common interpretation of the behavior of the French bourgeoisie during the Revolution of 1789 is that they had not pressed for economic rights and power because they already possessed all they needed. Rather, they had wanted to force the monarchy and aristocracy to accord them high status. Similarly, Weber‘s disciple Robert Michels suggested that the political radicalism of many quite wealthy European Jews before World War i was a consequence of their having been denied a status position commensurate with their class level in society (1911, pp. 260-261 in the 1915 edition).

Social structure and political conflict . An industrial society characterized by an elaborate, highly institutionalized status structure combined with the class tensions usually found in industrial societies is more likely to exhibit class-conscious politics than is one in which status lines are imprecise and not formally recognized. It has therefore been argued that Marxist, class-conscious parties have been stronger in societies, like the Wilhelmine Germany in which Weber lived most of his life, that maintain a very visible and fairly rigid status system derived from preindustrial society than in class societies, such as the United States, that lack a feudal tradition of estates. Moreover, insofar as the dynamics of a successful industrial society undermine the ascriptive status mechanisms inherited from the feudal precapitalist order, the amount of political conflict arising from class consciousness is reduced. Hence it would seem to follow from Weber‘s analysis that the growth of industrial capitalism, and the consequent imposition on the stratification system of capitalism‘s emphases on achievement and universalism, weaken rather than increase class-linked consciousness of kind.

This thesis of Weber‘s that stresses the consequences of structural changes on class relationships has been paralleled by T. H. Marshall‘s analysis of the relationship between citizenship and social class (1934-1962, pp. 71-134 in the 1965 edition). Citizenship, for Marshall, is a status that involves access to various rights and powers. In premodern times citizenship was limited to a small elite; social development in European states has consisted to a considerable extent in admitting new social strata— first the bourgeoisie and later the workers—to the status of citizen. The concept of the citizen that arose with the emergence of the bourgeoisie in the eighteenth century involved a claim to universalistic rights in the status order, as well as the political one. Marshall has suggested that class-conscious ideologies of the extreme sort are characteristic of new strata, such as the bourgeoisie or the working class, as they fight for the right to full social and political participation—that is, for citizenship. As long as they are denied citizenship, sizable segments of these classes endorse revolutionary ideologies. In turn, older strata and institutions seeking to preserve their ancient monopolies of power and status foster extreme, conservative doctrines.

From this point of view, the history of political ideologies in democratic countries can be written in terms of the emergence of new social strata and their eventual integration into society and the polity. In Europe, the struggle for such integration took the form of defining a place in the polity for the business strata and the working class alongside the preindustrial upper classes and the church. Unless class conflicts overlapped with continuing controversies concerning the place of religion, as they did in Latin Europe, or concerning the status of the traditional upper strata, as they did in Germany, intense ideological controversy declined soon after the new strata gained full citizenship rights.

Power, status, and bureaucracy. Power, which in the Marxist analysis derives from class position, is a much more complex phenomenon in the Weberian model. Weber defined power as the chance of a man or group to realize their will even against the opposition of others. Power may be a function of resources possessed in the economic, status, and political systems; both status and class are power resources. Since men want higher status, they tend to try to orient their behavior to that approved by those with the higher status which they value. Power resources can also be found in institutions that command the allegiance of people—religions, parties, trade unions, and the like. Anyone with followers or, like the military, with control of force, may have access to power. In large measure, the relative weight of different power resources is determined by the rules of the political game, whatever these may be in different societies. The structure of legal authority and its degree of legitimacy influence the way in which power is secured.

For Weber, the key source of power in modern society is not to be found in the ownership of the means of production. Rather, the increased complexity of modern industrial society leads to the development of vast bureaucracies that become increasingly interconnected and interdependent. The modern state, with its monopoly of arms and administration, becomes the dominant institution in bureaucratized society. Because of the increasing complexity of operating modern social institutions, even economic institutions are brought into a close, dependent relationship with the administrative and military bureaucracies of the state. Increasingly, therefore, as all social institutions become more bureaucratized and the centralized state gains control of other social institutions, the key power resources become rigidly hierarchical large-scale bureaucracies.

Bureaucratization and alienation . This concern with bureaucracy as the key hierarchical power-related structure of the stratification system of industrial society (whether the society is formally capitalist or socialist is irrelevant) led Weber to formulate a source of alienation very different from that of Marx. For Weber, it was not only the wage worker who becomes alienated through his lack of control over his human needs; the bureaucrat is even more subject to obsessive demands. Bureaucracy, in fact, has an inherent tendency to destroy men‘s autonomy. It is characterized by formalism and it involves, in Weber‘s terms: (1) subordination; (2) expertise (and hence a rigid division of labor); (3) obeying fixed rules ([1906-1924] 1946, pp. 196-198). Even members of small, nonbureaucratic structures have their freedom reduced if these structures are involved with bureaucracies. In this conclusion, Weber agreed with Marx. However, for Weber the key depersonalizing element is the ‘expectation that the bureaucrat will give absolute loyalty to the organization. Loyalty within a bureaucracy is impersonal; no personal attachments are supposed to interfere with the functioning of the system. Thus the depersonalization of loyalty became the equivalent of what Marx called the alienation of man from his labor. Weber argued that, as a social mechanism, bureaucracy assumes absolute discipline and a high level of predictability. People in bureaucracies fulfill role requirements rather than their personal desires. Rational action in bureaucracies is not an end in itself but, rather, an aspect of the structure of social interaction. Individuals both judge others and interact on the basis of universalistic norms; personal motives are not considered. The bureaucratic structure functions for its own ends, not those of the people within it. In theory, all individuals in bureaucracies are expendable and only positions are important.

Preparation for a bureaucratic career involves increasing conformity. Bureaucracy requires that individuals become highly specialized. Success depends on the individual‘s ability to conform. As one enters a bureaucracy, he loses much of his freedom to change his life alternatives. He becomes highly specialized and therefore cannot move from one firm or type of job to another. Such specialization, such conformity to narrow role requirements—to the needs of the “machine”—means dehumanization, or alienation from true human choice.

The alienation inherent in bureaucracy is, for Weber, independent of the system of property relations. Socialism means more rather than less alienation, because it involves greater bureaucratization. There is little difference between capitalist and socialist societies in their class relations and their propensity to alienation. The source of alienation lies in bureaucracy, which is inherent in industrial society.

The growth of bureaucratization also has the effect of separating work roles from other activities, with socially destructive consequences. An individual within a bureaucracy has to conform to efficiency rules, production standards, and other impersonal goals that have no meaning in his life outside work, since they are the bureaucracy‘s goals, not his; he conforms to them while at work, but gets no guidance as to how to behave in other activities. Weber can be interpreted as having believed that the nonbureaucratic part of life was becoming increasingly normless while bureaucratic structures were becoming increasingly normative. As social institutions become more bureaucratized, individuals learn how to behave within bureaucracies but not outside of them.

In a sense, Weber raised Marx‘s ideas about the nature and consequences of stratification to a higher order of generalization. Marx‘s conclusions were based mainly on his analysis of social relations under capitalism; this analysis presupposed a social system in which the fruits of production were scarce and control over the means of production was inequitably distributed. Weber, by using more general analytical categories, sought to deal with issues that cut through all complex social systems. Thus he characterized every complex-system according to the distribution of economic and honorific life chances in it. While Marx stressed that social stratification is a result of economic scarcity, Weber emphasized that honor and prestige are themselves scarce: economic goods could increase, and everyone could gain in an absolute sense, but, since prestige is determined by relative ranking, if one went up, another went down. The latter form of stratification involves a zero-sum game, and consequently occasions continual tensions in any society with unrestricted social mobility.

Alienation also is presented as a broader category in Weber‘s work than in that of Marx. Basically, alienation from self involves compulsive conformity to norms: the alienated individual is role-bound. Since such compulsive conformity is inherent in bureaucracy, which Weber saw as the dynamic element in modern society, he was much more pessimistic about the future of society than was Marx.

Much of contemporary writing by intellectuals and social scientists about alienation is derived more from Weber than from Marx. For instance, the ideas advanced by Erich Fromm, David Riesman, William H. Whyte, Robert K. Merton, Arnold Green, and C. Wright Mills concerning the “bureaucratic,” “marketeer,” or “other-directed” personality, the “organization man,” and, in general, the individual who seeks to get ahead by selling his personality, are all related to the effects of bureaucracy on individuals. Weber is the intellectual father of these and all similar discussions. His ideas, therefore, constitute not only a contribution to sociological analysis but also a basic source for the moral criticism of society. They usually have not been perceived as such because Weber‘s empirical conclusion, that all complex societies will be both stratified and alienative, leads to no positive moral solution. This is because for Weber (as for C. Wright Mills), the only society that really makes individual autonomy possible is the nonbureaucratized society of small producers, and societies of this type are rapidly vanishing.

Functionalist approaches

Although the ideas generated by Marx and Weber remain the most fruitful sources of theory on social stratification, much of contemporary sociology accepts the so-called functionalist approach to the subject. This approach is associated with the names of Émile Durkheim, Kingsley Davis, Talcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton.

Durkheim and subsequent functionalists have assumed that since modern society has a complex and highly differentiated system of roles, which must be performed, different men must be motivated to perform different roles (Durkheim 1893). They see man as a social animal whose needs are not primarily physical and satiable but, rather, culturally determined and potentially unlimited. However, if all individuals had the same set of unlimited desires, no complex social structure would be possible. Consequently, some social or moral force must shape and limit these potentially unlimited desires. Society prescribes varying goals for different individuals and groups, sets limits on these goals, and prescribes the means that may legitimately be used to attain them.

In analyzing the function of stratification, functionalists see it as the mechanism through which society encourages men to seek to achieve the diverse positions necessary in a complex social system. The vast variety of positions that must be filled differ in their requirements for skill, education, intelligence, commitment to work, willingness to exercise power resources against others, and the like. Functionalist theory posits that in an unstratified society—that is, one in which rewards are relatively equal for all tasks—those positions which require more work, postponement of gratification, greater anxiety, and the like will not be filled by the most able people. The stratification system is perceived, therefore, as a motivation system; it is society‘s mechanism for encouraging the most able people to perform the most demanding roles in order to have the society operate efficiently.

The theory also suggests that status—honorific prestige—is the most general and persistent form of stratification because what human beings as social animals most require to satisfy their ego needs is recognition from others. Beyond a certain point, economic rewards and power are valued, not for themselves but because economic or power positions are symbolic indicators of high status. Hence, the functionalist school of stratification agrees with Weber that stratification, or differential hierarchical reward, is an inherent aspect of complex society and that status as a source of motivation is inherently a scarce resource.

The emphasis in functional analysis on the need for hierarchical differentiation does not, of course, explain how men evaluate different individuals in the stratification system. Parsons has pointed to three sets of characteristics which are used as a basis of ranking. These are possessions, or those attributes which people own; qualities, belonging to individuals and including traits that are ascribed, such as race, lineage, or sex, or that are attributed as permanent characteristics, such as a specific ability; and performances, or evaluations of the ways in which individuals have fulfilled their roles —in short, judgments about achievements. Societies, according to Parsons, vary considerably in the degree to which their central value systems emphasize possessions, qualities, or performances in locating people on the social hierarchy. Thus, ideally, a feudal social system stresses ascribed qualities, a capitalist society emphasizes possessions, and a pure communist system would assign prestige according to performance. Parsons has stated that no actual society has ever come close to any of these three “ideal-type” models; each society has included elements of all three. However, the variation in the core ideal value does inform the nature of the stratification system, patterns of mobility, and the like (1953).

If we assume, as most functionalists do, that the function of stratification is to act as a system of role allocation, then it follows that a key requisite for an operating social system is a relatively stable system of social rankings. That is, there must be consensus in a society about what sorts of activities and symbols are valued; without such consensus, the society could not operate. Given this assumption, an ongoing system of stratification requires a general set of ideological justifications. There must be various mechanisms which explain, justify, and propagate the system of inequality, and which cause men to accept as legitimate the fact of their own inequality. From an ideal-typical point of view, a system of stratification that is stable would set for various groups within societies goals that could be achieved by all within each group. Feudal societies, which theoretically separate the population from birth into distinct hierarchical strata which cannot be crossed, but within which men may succeed and gain social recognition for doing a good job, represent perhaps the extreme form of stratification as something that adjusts men to the needs of society. Theoretically, in a society in which individuals were socialized to accept attainable positions as the proper and necessary fulfillment of their role in life, men would feel “free” and satisfied. The sense of freedom, of being one‘s own master and of achieving what one thinks one wants to achieve, exists only where the means-ends relationship defined by society is stable—that is, where men do in fact get what they have been taught to want.

But it is extremely doubtful whether any such system of balanced means-ends relationships within a stratification system ever existed or could exist. The assumption that individuals seek to maximize the esteem in which they are held implies that those who are in low-valued positions are subject to punishment. To be valued negatively means to be told that one is no good, that one is bad. Consequently, it may be argued that there is an inherent tension between the need to maximize esteem and the requirements of a stratification system.

In actual stratification systems, this tension appears to be alleviated by various transvaluational mechanisms. That is, there seems in all societies to be a reverse stratification system, the most enduring form of which is usually found in religion. Inherent in many religions is the belief that wealth and power are associated with sin and evil, while virtue is associated with poverty. Christianity and Hinduism, for example, both posit that righteousness will somehow be rewarded in the hereafter, so that the virtuous poor will ultimately be able to look down upon the wicked rich. This mechanism, which holds out the hope of subsequent reward for adhering to the morality of the present, does not, of course, challenge the existing secular distribution of privilege. It does, however, reflect the inherent tension within stratified society: that there is both acceptance and rejection of the value system by the underprivileged. [See Millenarism.]

Durkheim and functionalist theory . Durkheim assumed that preindustrial society had been reasonably stable in that it had prescribed different sets of goals for different strata. He assumed that the lowly in feudal society had not resented not being high and that feudalism had been so organized that a man could and did obtain a sense of self-respect within his own group. Industrial society, he thought, is quite different. Society no longer provides the individual with definitions of means and ends that allow him to attain the goals his society defines as worthwhile. A highly integrated normative order such as feudalism had provided everyone with the possibility of feeling that his life was meaningful and successful within a given castelike stratum. In modern society, however, wealth and power become ends in themselves, and most people, unable to attain high prestige, find their own lives in conflict with social norms. Such conflict of norms leads to anomie, the breakdown of normative order, which becomes a chronic condition in industrial society ([1897] 1951, pp. 246-257).

Industrial society prescribes universalistic goals in monetary or bureaucratic terms. Since the norms of the market place and the bureaucracy prescribe common orientations and similar goals for all, it is inevitable that many men will experience life as failure. For Durkheim, the weakness of the stratification system of industrial society is that, basically, it encourages only one set of values, those involving individual success. This pressure on the individual to achieve results produces anomie— Durkheim‘s equivalent of alienation. The higher rate of suicide in industrial as compared with traditional society was, in part, explained by Durkheim in these terms. The individual no longer has the sense of being socially integrated that was possible in a Gemeinschaft society, that is, one with a strong set of closely related means and ends linked to the religious system. The individual does not have the means to achieve the universalistic goals set by modern society, and the society‘s normative order does not support him in his daily life, guide his activities, or give him a sense that his life is worthwhile. When the normative structure collapses, when individuals lose their sense of being involved in meaningful means-ends relationships, many break down, engage in obsessive behavior, and lose their ability to relate to achievable goals, and some commit suicide [see Suicide, article onsocial aspects].

The key to understanding Durkheim‘s contribution to the discussion of alienation and stratification is his emphasis on a stable society as a prerequisite for an integrated personality. The absence of an established harmony of means and ends, far from producing freedom, produces, according to Durkheim, resentment and apathy—the war of each against all. Durkheim‘s theory therefore leads to the ironic conclusion that people should feel freest in a closed, integrated system in which they have little choice of occupation or opportunity for social mobility, while in an open, universalistic system they should feel coerced, dehumanized, estranged. In the latter case it follows that they will also experience a need to, in Erich Fromm‘s words, “escape from freedom.” Society‘s emphasis on success thus becomes the principal source of alienation.

Durkheim‘s analysis of anomie ties into Weber‘s discussion of the alienative properties of bureaucracy, for, as Fromm, Merton, Riesman, and others have pointed out, to succeed in a bureaucratic society, one must not simply conform to a work role—one must sell one‘s personality to one‘s superiors. This implies that the rules for success are often very imprecise and hence create confusion about means and ends.

Anomie, social change, and rebellion. Durkheim‘s account of what Merton has called the “seeming contradictions between cultural goals and socially restricted access to these goals” ([1949] 1957, p. 123) is a key aspect of the theory of social change that is inherent in Durkheimian functionalism. Since no complex society can achieve a complete balance between its emphases on ends and means, stratification systems always generate pressure on individuals and strata to deviate systematically from the cultural prescriptions of the society, and hence they foster social change. As Merton put it:

The distribution of statuses through competition must be so organized that positive incentives for adherence to status obligations are provided for every position within the distributive order. Otherwise, as will soon become plain, aberrant behavior ensues. It is, indeed, my central hypothesis that aberrant behavior may be regarded sociologically as a symptom of dissociation between culturally prescribed aspirations and socially structured avenues for realizing these aspirations. (ibid., p. 134)

The outcome of the possible relations between approved goals and prescribed means has been analyzed in detail by Merton (ibid., chapter 4) and by numerous other writers [see Alienation; Integration; Social Mobility; Values]. These relations create a variety of strains fostering change. Thus innovation in the means of getting ahead occurs among those who feel strongly the culturally prescribed mandate to succeed but lack such culturally approved means to do so as access to capital, skills, education, and proper ascribed background characteristics. Innovation may have positive and negative consequences from the point of view of society. On the positive side is the effort to get ahead by “building a better mousetrap,” that is, by providing services that did not exist before, such as credit buying, which was first diffused by Jewish businessmen. On the negative side are the forms of innovation that are regarded as illegitimate. As Bell has pointed out, organized crime has constituted a major avenue of mobility in American life (1960, pp. 115-136). Minority ethnic groups and those of recent immigrant stock have contributed disproportionately to the ranks of professional criminals.

While Merton has elaborated on the sources of social and individual tensions in this area, more pertinent here is his emphasis that such tensions may also produce rebellion. Rebellion by the lower strata, he has argued, may be viewed as an adaptive response called for when the existing social system is seen as an obstacle to the satisfaction of legitimate needs and wants. In means-ends terms, rebellion involves the establishment of a new set of goals which are attractive to those who feel themselves “outcasts” in the existing system. When rebellion is not a generalized response but is limited to relatively powerless groups, it can lead to the formation of subgroups alienated from the rest of the community but united among themselves. Of course, rebellion may also take a political form in an effort to overthrow the existing society and replace it with one that stresses other values.

Emphasis on these and allied sources of rebellion advances the study of alienation and prospective lower-class rebellion beyond the concern with objective social inferiority and economic exploitation. The study of values in this context helps to explain the phenomenon that many quite poverty-stricken strata in different countries do not rebel and are often even conservative conformists, while other, relatively affluent strata, whose position is improving objectively, may provide the mass base for widespread rebellion (compare Durkheim [1897] 1951, p. 254). It is clearly possible, under the means-ends formula, for a very lowly group to accept its place and income because it has achieved as much as it has been socialized to aspire to. Conversely, a much more well-to-do group whose aspiration levels have been raised sharply as a result of rapid urbanization, greater education, access to international media, recent involvement in industry, and exposure to the blandishments of unions and leftist political parties may experience the phenomenon of unlimited “rising expectations” and hence feel dissatisfied and prove receptive to a new myth which locates “the source of large-scale frustrations in the social structure and . . . portray[s] an alternative structure” that would be more satisfying (Merton [1949] 1957, p. 156).

Functionalist sociology stresses the way in which stratification fulfills certain basic needs of complex social systems and so becomes one of the principal stabilizing mechanisms of complex societies. Like the Marxist and Weberian forms of analysis, it points to ways in which the demands of a stratification system press men to act against their own interests, and alienate them from autonomous choice. However, the focus in functionalism on means-ends relationships reveals the conflict-generating potential of stratification systems, in which goals are inherently scarce resources. Hence, functional analysis, like the other two, locates sources of consensus and cleavage in the hierarchical structures of society.

Empirical studies . A considerable amount of the research on stratification by American sociologists has stemmed directly from functional analysis. Perhaps the most extensive single set of studies is contained in the many volumes by W. Lloyd Warner and his associates reporting on the “social class” (i.e., status) system of a number of American communities (see, for example, Warner 1941— 1959). Warner, an anthropologist by training and originally a follower of Durkheim, has argued that any effort to deal in functional terms with the social system of a modern community must relate many of the institutional and behavioral patterns of the community to the needs of the classes within them rather than to the larger system as such. Using the method of reputational analysis (asking people in the community to rank others and seeing who associated with whom as status equals), Warner located five or six social classes ranging from “upper-upper” to “lower-lower.” Each of them was found to possess a number of distinct class characteristics, such as intrafamily behavior, associational memberships, and attitudes on a variety of issues. On the whole, Warner sees class divisions as contributing to social stability rather than to conflict, because the strata are separated into relatively distinct elements that have a more or less balanced and integrated culture. He has interpreted his data as indicating that those in lower positions tend to respect those above them in the status hierarchy and to follow their lead on many issues. While most sociologists would agree with Warner concerning the existence of the sort of status groupings that he has described (Weber presented a picture of American status relations in much the same terms), many would disagree with him concerning the degree of consensus within the system as to where individuals are located and would tend to agree more with Merton that tensions and conflicts are inherent in any hierarchical order. It is interesting to note, however, that while the various community studies of the accorded status system do suggest considerable ambivalence about where various individuals or families rank, particularly if they are not close to the very top or bottom of the system, investigations concerning the prestige rankings of occupations indicate considerable consensus both within and among a variety of nations [see Stratification, social, article on the measurement of social class; see also Hodge et al. 1966]. The prestige studies would seem to be in line with the assumption of functionalist theory that consensus in the desirability of different occupational roles is necessary in order to motivate the most competent individuals to seek those positions which are valued most.

Criticism of the functionalist approach . Functionalist theory has been sharply criticized by a number of sociologists who argue that while systems of widespread inequality characterize all existing complex societies, this fact does not demonstrate that inequality is a social requisite for a stable society, as many functionalists argue. Rather, these critics urge that systems of stratification persist and take the varying forms they do because the privileged strata have more power and are able to impose their group interests on the society. The greater rewards in income and status received by various positions reflect greater power than the need to motivate individuals to secure them. The value systems related to stratification therefore reflect the functional needs of the dominant strata, not those of the social system as such (Tumin 1953; Buckley 1958). A Polish sociologist, Wlodzimierz Wesolowski (1962), has suggested that functionalist sociologists, particularly Davis and Moore (1945), who have written the most comprehensive contemporary statement of the functionalist position, are wrong when they emphasize the need for stratification as a system of motivation in the form of material advantage or prestige. He has contended that there are alternative systems of social organization that can sharply reduce inequality in prestige and income while motivating people to seek higher education and fill responsible positions. Hence, class differences that derive from such forms of inequality may decline greatly. Wesolowski, however, agrees with the functionalists that complex social systems will continue to be organized on hierarchical lines, because systems of authority and command are necessary. Men will continue to be divided between those who occupy “positions of authority . . . who have the right (and duty) to give orders, while the others have the duty to obey them” ([1962] 1966, p. 68). And he has noted that Friedrich Engels, Marx‘s closest intellectual collaborator, “said that in a communist system the State as a weapon of class domination would wither away . . . [and yet] declared that it would be impossible to think of any great modern industrial enterprise or of the organization of the future communist society without authority—or superiority-subordination relationships” (ibid.).

Wesolowski agrees with the functionalists that stratification is inevitable because differentials in authority relationships, not variations in income or prestige, are necessary. As he put it, “if there is any functional necessity for stratification, it is the necessity of stratification according to the criterium of authority and not according to the criterium of material advantage or prestige. Nor does the necessity of stratification derive from the need to induce people for the acquirement of qualifications, but from the very fact that humans live collectively” (p. 69).

Wesolowski has presented in general terms a formulation very similar to that of the German sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, who has tried to reformulate Marx‘s theoretical assumptions so as to deal more adequately with certain structural changes in Western society—especially those which have resulted in the divorce of ownership from management that is characteristic of the modern corporation (Dahrendorf 1957). Many have argued that this separation negates Marx, since it means the disappearance of the class of private capitalists as a powerful stratum. Dahrendorf, however, has suggested that the only significant difference this change makes is that it is now more meaningful to speak of the differential distribution of authority as the basis of class formation than it is to speak of the ownership of the means of production. It is differential access to authority positions and, therefore, to power and prestige that gives rise to contemporary class conflict, for those who are excluded from authority in “imperatively co-ordinated associations” (a term Dahrendorf borrowed from Weber) will be in conflict with those who have command over them. Articulation of manifest interest and organization of interest groups then become the dynamite for social-structural change.

Functionalism and Marxism . In urging that the universality of stratification, or hierarchical differentiation—though not, it should be noted, of social class—is linked to the functional requirements for a power hierarchy, Wesolowski has built an interesting theoretical bridge between Marxist and functionalist sociology. For his and Dahrendorf‘s lines of reasoning ultimately are not greatly different from the functionalist approach to power presented by Parsons. The latter, of course, does not emphasize the theme of power as self-interested, which is found in the Marxian tradition, or that of coercion, which was stressed by Weber. Rather, Parsons has suggested that power—in his terms, the ability to mobilize resources necessary for the operation of the system—should be viewed in value-neutral terms, as follows. Inherent in the structure of complex society, especially in the division of labor, is the existence of authority roles, holders of which are obligated to initiate acts that are socially necessary. Most of the things done by those at the summits of organizations or societies are necessary. If individuals and groups are to achieve their goals within the division of labor, it must include a complex system of interactions. The more complex the system, Parsons has argued, the more dependent individuals are on others for the attainment of their goals, that is, the less free or powerful they are. And power is basically control over the allocation of resources and roles so as to make a given system operative. Power, under any system of values, resides in having what people desire, because they will obey for the sake of getting what they desire. Finally, unless the capacity to organize the behavior of those in a system existed, sharply differentiated societies could not operate (1963).

It should be noted that there is a coincidence of the Marxist and functionalist approaches to political power. Both approaches view it as a social utility—as the means, par excellence, through which societies attain their objectives, including the expansion of available resources. Elite theories of power, on the other hand, see it in “zero-sum” terms, that is, they assume a fixed amount of power, so that the gain of one group or individual necessarily involves the loss of others. Two reviews of C. Wright Mills‘s analysis of the American power elite (Mills 1956)—one by a functionalist, Parsons (1957), and the other by the student of stratification who, among leading American sociologists, stands closest to Marxism, Robert S. Lynd (1956; 1957)—criticized Mills for having a zero-sum game approach to power and for identifying it with domination. That is, both Lynd and Parsons agreed that power should be viewed, both sociologically and politically, in the light of its positive functions as an agency of the general community and that it is erroneous to view power, as Mills did, solely or even primarily in terms of powerholders seeking to enhance their own interests.

There is, of course, a link with stratification theory in Parsons‘ analysis of power, since he has assumed that what people value most are economic advantage and esteem. It follows from this that those who possess the qualities which place them at the upper levels of the economic and status hierarchies also have the most power. Money and influence, Parsons has noted, are exchangeable for power, since power is the ability to mobilize resources through controlling the action of others [see Systems analysis, article onsocial systems].

The dimensions of stratification

The foregoing discussion of the Marxist, Weberian, and functionalist approaches to social class analysis has distinguished a number of issues that continue to concern sociologists. Instead of moving toward one concept of social class, students of stratification have generally reacted to an awareness of the complexity of the subject by differentiating a large number of apparently relevant concepts, most of which are directly derivable from the three traditions discussed above. The differences in approach have, in large measure, reflected variations in the intellectual concerns of the scholars involved.

Contemporary students of stratification continue to be divided into two groups: those who urge that there is a single dimension underlying all stratification and those who believe that stratification may best be conceptualized as multidimensional. That is, they disagree as to whether economic class position, social status, power, income, and the like are related to one underlying factor in most societies, or whether they should be considered as distinct although related dimensions of the stratification system. To some degree this controversy may be perceived as a continuation on a more formal level of the differences between the approaches of Marx and Weber. However, some of those who uphold the single attribute position are far from being Marxists. They do not believe that position in the economic structure determines all other aspects of status; rather, they would argue that statistical analysis suggests the presence of a basic common factor. For analytic purposes, however, the controversy cannot be resolved by statistical manipulation, since some of those who favor a multidimensional approach would argue that even if it turns out that these various aspects of stratification do form part of a single latent attribute, there is enough variation among them to justify the need to analyze the cases in which individuals or groups are ranked higher on certain dimensions than on others.

If we assume, as most contemporary sociologists do, that stratification may most usefully be conceptualized in multidimensional terms, we are confronted with the issues of which dimensions the various theorists emphasize. The dimensions they have suggested may be grouped into three categories: (1) objective status, or aspects of stratification that structure environments differently enough to evoke differences in behavior; (2) accorded status, or the prestige accorded to individuals and groups by others; (3) subjective status, or the personal sense of location within the social hierarchy felt by various individuals. These approaches in turn may be further broken down in terms of important variables, as follows.

Objective class concepts . Perhaps the most familiar component of objective status is power position within the economic structure. This is essentially Marx‘s criterion for class: persons are located according to their degree of control over the means of production. In the first analysis this serves to distinguish owners from employees. Owners, however, may vary in their degree of economic security and power, as large businessmen differ from small ones, and workers also may vary according to the bargaining power inherent in the relative scarcity of the skills they possess.

Another important concept in this area is extent of economic life chances. Weber perceived economic status not only in terms of ownership but also in terms of the probability of receiving a given economic return, or income. Thus an employee role, such as engineer or lawyer, which gave someone a higher probability of earning high income than a small businessman, would place him in a higher class position. Essentially, this dimension refers to power in the market. Indeed, the simple difference in income received has been suggested as the best way to measure economic class.

Variation in the relative status of different occupations has also been seen as an important criterion for differentiating positions in the economic hierarchy. This approach has increasingly come to be used in studies of social mobility. Occupational prestige is, of course, a form of accorded status, except that what is being ranked are occupations, not individuals or groups.

Another aspect of stratification that is sometimes perceived as an objective one is power, which may be defined as the ability to affect the life chances of others, or conversely as the amount of freedom from control by others. Power may also be conceptualized as the set of probabilities that given role relationships will allow individuals to define their own will—that is, to impose their version of order even against the resistance of others. This dimension is extremely difficult to describe in operational terms: how, for instance, does one compare the different amounts and types of power possessed by labor leaders, Supreme Court justices, factory owners, and professors? It is also argued that power should not be regarded as an aspect of stratification in itself, as if it were comparable with economic class, but, rather, as the dynamic resultant of the forces brought into play in different types of social situations. Authority—legitimate power within a formal structure—is clearly hierarchical, but the rank order of authority usually applies only to a given authority structure within a society, not to the society itself.

Finally, a number of sociological studies have treated education as a major determinant of objective status and as a dimension of stratification. The differences in behavior and attitudes of those who are higher or lower in educational attainments have been demonstrated by empirical research. On the theoretical level, it is argued that education, like the various economic dimensions, affects the life chances of individuals—their degree of security, their status, and their ability to interact with others. People are given differential degrees of respect and influence according to their level of education.

Accorded status . The dimension of accorded status is the one most sociologists tacitly or overtly refer to when they use the term “social class.” This dimension involves the amount of status, honor, or deference that a given position commands in a society. Various methods are used to study accorded status, but in any case the location of individuals or groups in the status system depends on the opinion of the individuals who go to make up the system rather than the opinion of the sociologist who observes it. Accorded status, then, is a result of the felt perceptions of others, and a social class based on accorded status is composed of individuals who accept each other as equals and therefore as qualified for intimate association in friendship, marriage, and the like.

Since this concept depends on rankings by others, it is difficult to apply it to large-scale social systems, particularly nations, except at the level of the small uppermost social class. Individuals from different communities cannot rank each other unless they rely on criteria more objective than social acceptability. The social class consisting of individuals who have, roughly speaking, the same attributes will vary with size of community; for instance, the type of individual who may be in the highest social class of a small town will probably be in the middle class of a large city. It has, in fact, been argued that the larger the community, the more likely it is that accorded status will correspond to objective status. In other words, individuals who live in large communities are more prone to make status judgments about others on the basis of knowledge about their jobs, how much their homes are worth, how many years of education they have had, and the like.

Accorded status tends to become an ascribed characteristic, that is, one that can be inherited. “Background,” which usually means family identification, is the way in which people define the source of accorded status. This implies that in addition to specific lineage, other visible ascribed characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, and religion, often constitute elements in status placement. In all societies that contain a variety of racial, ethnic, or religious groups, each such group is differentially ranked in honorific or status terms. Those groups which were present first and retain the highest economic and political positions tend to have the highest status. Thus in the United States, such traits as being white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant (preferably of the historically earliest American denominations, such as Episcopal, Congregational, or Quaker) convey high status on those possessing them. The status attributes of various socially visible groups are also determined by various typical characteristics of their members. Thus religious or ethnic groups which are poor on the average are of low status, and wealthy members of such groups tend to be discriminated against socially by comparably well-to-do members of more privileged groups (for instance, a well-to-do Baptist will have lower status in most American communities than a comparably affluent Episcopalian).

Status, it should be noted, is a power resource in much the same way as economic position or political authority. Since status involves being accepted by those in high positions, and since the desire for status is universal, men seek to accommodate their actions to those who can confer status on them.

Subjective status . Unlike objective and accorded class concepts, which locate individuals in the stratification hierarchy according to the judgments of analysts or of the community, subjective status categories involve efforts to discover the way in which the individual himself perceives the stratification hierarchy. In sociology there are essentially two main traditions of dealing with subjective positions, one based on the methodological device of self-identification and the other on reference group theory.

Self-identification. The technique of self-identification is used to determine the extent to which given individuals or portions of specific groups see themselves as members of a given class or other group that may be located in terms of stratification. Efforts to locate individuals have involved asking them to place themselves in one of a number of class categories furnished by the investigator in such questions as “Do you think of yourself as a member of the upper, middle, working, or lower class?” (Centers 1949). The number of alternatives furnished respondents may, of course, be larger or smaller than this. Other investigators, instead of following this procedure, have sought to find out what categories people use to describe the social hierarchy (Manis & Meltzer 1963).

Reference group theory. The groups that individuals use as reference points by which to evaluate themselves or their activities are known in sociology as reference groups. They can be, but need not be, groups to which an individual belongs. Thus a person may judge his degree of occupational achievement by comparing his attainments with those which preponderate among his fellow ethnic, racial, or religious group members, people he went to school with, neighbors, or those who are more privileged than he is and whose position he would like to attain. [See Reference groups.]

Reference group theory assumes that individuals rarely use the total social structure as a reference group but, rather, that they judge their own status by comparison with smaller, more closely visible groups. The extent of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with status is held to depend on one‘s reference groups.

Reference groups are often derivable from structural factors; thus neighborhoods, factories, employers, schoolmates, and the like often constitute relevant reference groups. On the other hand, relevant reference groups may be manipulated, as when organized groups that are competing for support seek to affect the reference groups of those whose support they want so as to increase their sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction (Lipset & Trow 1957). The formation of class consciousness may be seen as a process in which members of the lower social strata change their reference groups: while class consciousness is dormant or incipient, the lower-class individual relates himself to various small groups; with the full emergence of class consciousness, he relates himself to aspects of the larger social structure.

Objective and subjective orientations

The fact that social class may be conceptualized both objectively and subjectively does not mean that these are in any sense mutually exclusive ways of looking at the social hierarchy. Almost all analysts, regardless of which approach they choose to stress, are interested in examining the interrelations between their conception of class and other factors, which they view either as determinants or as consequences of class variations. Thus, as has been noted, Marx was intensely interested in the subjective reactions of people to their location in the class structure.

It is significant that Richard Centers, who is most identified with the social-psychological approach to class as involving self-definition, initiated his study of the subject as a way of finding out to what extent American workers were class-conscious in the Marxist sense. In fact, Centers‘ work is more directly inspired by Marx than is that of many sociologists, who are more wont to approach the subject in objective terms.

It should also be noted that there are close links between elements in Marx‘s thought and contemporary reference group theory. In seeking to suggest hypotheses that would explain the relationship between objective position and anticipated subjective reactions, Marx advanced a theory of relative deprivation. He suggested that although objective improvement in the economic position of the workers could take place under capitalism, this would not prevent the emergence of “true” class consciousness, since the position of the capitalists would improve more rapidly than that of the workers. As he put it, the “material position of the worker has improved, . . . but at the cost of his social position. The social gulf that divides him from the capitalist has widened” ([1849] 1962, p. 98). In another work Marx illustrated this generalization with the story of a man who was very happy with a small house in which he lived until a wealthy man came along and built a mansion next door: then, wrote Marx, the house of the worker suddenly became a hut in his eyes (1898, pp. 268-269 in the 1936 edition).

Similarly, although Marx never dealt with the distinction between class and status on a conceptual level, there are frequent references in his historical writings to distinctions among social strata in various countries. These distinctions actually reflect what would now be called variations among status groups. Perhaps the most interesting formulation related to this question may be found in a major Marxist classic by Engels. In discussing political life in nineteenth-century England, Engels pointed out in very clear terms that status may be an independent source of power, more important in a given situation than economic power:

In England, the bourgeoisie never held undivided sway. Even the victory of 1832 left the landed aristocracy in almost exclusive possession of all the leading government offices. The meekness with which the wealthy middle class submitted to this remained inconceivable to me until the great Liberal manufacturer, Mr. W. A. Forster, in a public speech implored the young men of Bradford to learn French, as a means to get on in the world, and quoted from his own experience how sheepish he looked when, as a Cabinet Minister, he had to move in society where French was, at least, as necessary as English! The fact was, the English middle class of that time were, as a rule, quite uneducated upstarts, and could not help leaving to the aristocracy those superior government places where other qualifications were required than mere insular narrowness and insular conceit, seasoned by business sharpness. . . .

The English bourgeoisie are, up to the present day, so deeply penetrated by a sense of their social inferiority that they keep up, at their own expense and that of the nation, an ornamental caste of drones to represent the nation worthily at all state functions; and they consider themselves highly honoured whenever one of themselves is found worthy of admission into this select and privileged body, manufactured, after all, by themselves. ([1880] 1935, pp. 25-26)

Clearly, what Engels was describing is a situation in which an old upper class, which had declined in economic power, continued to maintain its control over the governmental machinery because it remained the highest status group in the society. Those with less status but more economic resources conformed to the standards set up by the higher status group.

Stable and unstable status systems . The relationships among the different dimensions of stratification vary in different types of societies and different periods; they are probably at their weakest during periods of rapid social change involving the rise of new occupational strata, shifts from rural to urban predominance, and changes in the status and authority of key institutions, such as religion and education. Of all the relatively stable types of society, the ones in which the various dimensions of stratification are most closely correlated are rural, caste, and feudal societies. The growth of industrial and urban society in Europe and America has resulted in a system of stratification characterized by wide discrepancies between class and objective status, and between both of these and the subjective attributes of status. Currently, as Western society moves into a “postindustrial” phase characterized by a considerable growth in the white-collar, technological, and service sectors of the economy and a relative decline in employment in manufacturing, the relationships between the dimensions have become more tenuous. Status, economic reward, and power are tied to educational achievement, position in some large-scale bureaucracy, access to political authority, and the like. In a predominantly bureaucratic society, property as such has become a less important source of status and social mobility. Complaints about alienation and dehumanization are found more commonly among students, intellectuals, and other sectors of the educated middle classes than among the working class. Most recently, sections of the communist movement have openly discussed the revolutionary role of university students and the petty bourgeoisie, and have seen the organized proletariat in Western society as a relatively conservative group, unavailable for radical politics.

These developments may reflect the fact that some of the most politically relevant discontent in the bureaucratic “affluent society” of the 1960s seems to be inherent in social tensions induced by status inconsistencies. However, the bulk of resentment against the stratification system is still rooted in objective deprivation and exploitation. The concept of status inconsistency introduced by Lenski (1954), who derived it from Weber, refers to the situation of individuals or groups that are differentially located on various dimensions of stratification. Persons in such a situation are exposed to conflicting sets of expectations: for instance, those who are high in educational attainments but are employed in relatively low-paid occupations tend to be more dissatisfied than those whose stratification attributes are totally consistent. As evidence in support of this assumption it is possible to cite research findings that among the relatively well-to-do, those with discrepant status attributes are more likely to favor change in the power structure and to have more liberal or leftist attitudes than those with status attributes that are mutually consistent (Goffman 1957). Consequently, the increase in status discrepancy inherent in situations of rapid social change should result in an increase in overall discontent and, among those in the more ambiguous status positions (which in the 1960s occurred largely in the well-educated middle strata) in greater receptivity to the myths justifying rebellion. In industrialized societies those who form the underprivileged strata but who have consistent status attributes remain politically on the left but show little interest in radical change. Because all social change generates status discrepancies, rebellious and extremist mass movements are more likely to be found during periods of rapid industrialization and economic growth, and in areas where immigration has caused sudden population growth, than in industrially mature urbanized areas.

Analysis of the consequences of status discrepancies has yielded seemingly contradictory results, largely because some researchers treat all discrepancies as necessarily equal in their effects. For example, institutionalized discrepancies, such as those which result when a member of a minority group becomes rich but is still discriminated against, are equated with inconsistencies between education and occupation, or between occupation and income. Highly visible institutionalized discrepancies should result in more active expression of resentment and more efforts to bring about social change than do loosely structured personal inconsistencies. The latter are more likely to be reflected in efforts by the individual to change his personal situation through various forms of mobility, including change in occupation, residence, or organization. The consequences of status discrepancies should therefore be investigated within broad status categories rather than for total societies. For instance, discrepancies among the poor may have effects very different from those they have among the well-to-do. A manual worker with a claim, based on good education or family background, to higher status than his occupational position allows him is more likely to be politically conservative than workers whose status attributes are consistent. Among the well-to-do, however, status inconsistency will impair claims to high positions and will induce favorable attitudes toward liberal or egalitarian ideologies. The effects of status inconsistencies in societies with relatively rigid status lines are quite different from their effects in societies that have relatively fluid stratification systems. Clearly, the concept of status inconsistency, though potentially a useful tool in class analysis, presupposes some systematic treatment of how the relationship between the various dimensions of status varies from one type of stratification to another.

The future of social class . To conclude on a note of irony, it may be observed that in a certain sense history has underwritten one of Marx‘s basic assumptions, which is that the cultural superstructure, including political behavior and status relationships, is a function of the underlying economic and technological structure. As Marx put it in the Preface to Capital: “The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future” ([1867-1879] 1925-1926, vol. 1, pp. 8-9). Hence, the most economically developed society should also have the most advanced set of class and political relationships. Since the United States is the most advanced society economically, its class system, regarded as part of its cultural superstructure, should be more appropriate to a technologically advanced society than the class systems of the less developed economies of Europe. In addition, one might argue that the United States, since it lacks a feudal past, should evolve the institutions of a highly developed society in their purest form. Hence, an unpolitical Marxist sociology would expect the social class relationships of the United States to present an image of the future of other societies that are moving in the same general economic direction. Characteristic of such a social system is a decline in emphasis on social class, that is, a decline of distinct visible strata with a “felt consciousness of kind” (Lipset 1964a; 1964b); the various dimensions of stratification are more likely to operate in a crisscrossing fashion, increasing the numbers who are relatively high on some components of status and low on others. Highly developed societies of this kind, whether variants of the communist or the capitalist model, are more likely to possess systems of social stratification—varied rankings— than social classes.

These comments suggest the need to view stratification in international as well as national terms. (Horowitz 1966). The differences between the average per capita income of the poorest and wealthiest nations are on the order of 40 or 50 to 1, that is, much greater than the differences among social strata within the industrially advanced nations. These variations in national wealth constitute structural parameters that greatly affect the “class” relationships between nations. A Chinese communist has already advanced the thesis that the significant class struggle is between the predominantly rural nations, which are underdeveloped and very poor, and the urbanized, wealthy ones (Piao 1965). He has also argued that the wealth of the latter has to a considerable degree reduced the political expression of class tensions within them, but that this should be seen as a result of exploitation by the economically advanced countries of the underdeveloped ones. Whether this thesis is warranted by the facts of international trade relationships or not, it does seem true that any analysis of class structures and their political consequences must in the future consider the impact of variation in national incomes. Many in the elite of the poorer part of the world see themselves as the leaders of oppressed peoples; the radicalism of the intellectuals, university students, military officers, and the like in the less developed nations can be related to the social and economic inferiority of their countries, rather than to their position in the class structure. Such considerations take us far afield from the conventional Western sociological concerns with class relationships, but they clearly are relevant to any effort at specifying the sources of class behavior and ideologies. As sociology be comes more comparative in outlook and research, we may expect efforts to link class analysis of individual nations to the facts of international stratification.

Seymour M. Lipset

[Directly related are the entries Bureaucracy; Marxist sociology; Mass society; Mental health, article onsocial class and personal adjustment; Professions; Social differentiation; Social mobility; Status, social. Other relevant material may be found in Conflict, article onsocial aspects; Cooperation; Industrialization, article onsocial aspects; Leisure; Power; Social structure, article onsocial structural analysis; Society; and in the biographies of Durkheim; Engels; Geiger; Halbwachs; Lenin; Madison; Marx; mICHELS; Sorokin; Veblen; Weber, Max.]


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Establishing a valid and reliable measure of social class from presumed correlates of class that can be applied in a variety of research situations has proved an elusive task. Since indices are validated by showing that they measure what they profess to measure, the unresolved differences in prevailing conceptions of social class lead to different indices of it, all nominally professing to measure the same thing. In fact, these indices tap only those features of social class emphasized or employed in different conceptual formulations. This article will explore the different techniques of measurement of social class derived from diverse conceptions of it.

Components of social class . As a point of departure we need to develop some ideas about the components of a social class arrangement. The presence or absence of these components will enable us to distinguish the conceptualizations to which different techniques of measurement of social class are appropriate. Most writers would agree that, whatever else may be attributed to them, social classes, if they exist at all, are bounded, ordered, and mutually exclusive. To say that classes are bounded merely means that we can write a rule for each class that tells us whether a particular individual is to be included or excluded from membership in it. To talk about the property of order is to express in abbreviated form the assumption that there is a criterion according to which the bounded classes can all be arranged into a single hierarchy. Mutual exclusiveness means that social class membership is unambiguous, that is, we assume that membership in any one class precludes simultaneous membership in any other class (though movement from class to class may be permitted).

To these components common to most conceptions of social class arrangements may be added two others requiring further discussion: exhaustiveness and awareness. A social class arrangement is exhaustive if each person in the social system can be assigned membership in a social class. Whether or not any class arrangement is exhaustive is an empirical problem. However, most research operations assume exhaustiveness by adopting a rule, often implicit, assigning all members of a household to the same social class, or a rule relating the social class of a married woman, a child, a single individual, or an institutional inmate to the social class of his spouse, family of origin, or other relative. The exhaustiveness component serves to focus our attention on the problem of establishing a unit of social stratification, that is, on the question of the nature of the elements that the classes comprise. Typically, it is assumed that the unit of social stratification is the household or the family, and that the position of the unit in the social class arrangement rests largely upon the characteristics of its head.

Individuals in a social system may or may not be aware of the existence and form of the class system, their own class membership, the class membership of other individuals, and the rules by which the class membership of individuals is determined. The form and extent of awareness have direct implications for the methods by which social class may be measured. Where all participants in a social class system know the class membership of all other participants, any informant can reveal the class structure of an entire community. If knowledge is less than complete or is not universally shared, informants must be purposively selected. If knowledge extends little beyond awareness of one‘s own position, each participant can act as little more than an informant about himself. While these are the forms of awareness relevant here, we may note that by themselves they are insufficient to insure the development of class consciousness, which requires manifest consensus. The forms and extent of awareness discussed above insure only latent consensus: they require that the knowledge of various individuals coincide, but they do not require that individuals be aware of this coincidence.

Measurement strategies . The components of a social class arrangement, particularly the form and extent of awareness, will aid in differentiating alternative strategies for measuring social class. In the small community, where the range of acquaintance extends to most residents and where knowledge of everyone‘s standing is likely to be universal, one may be able to glean the social class position of all families from invidious comparisons of them solicited from a few informants, as Kaufman (1944) did in rural New York. Clearly, the size of a social system is an important parameter that restricts the application of this technique to smaller communities. But the evidence of its applicability, even in smaller places, is less than completely convincing.

In the Kaufman study of a New York rural community, the 14 raters who evaluated the social standing of the other residents formed an average of 6.2 prestige classes (Kaufman 1946). However, the standard deviation of the number of classes formed was 1.6, indicating appreciable disagreement among raters over the broad outlines of the class structure. In a similar study of a Northeastern textile mill community, Lenski found that his 24 raters identified an average of 5.4 strata. Once again, the standard deviation of 1.1 in the number of strata identified pointed “to the conclusion that no system of discrete, perceived social classes existed in the community” (1952, p. 142).

Although raters may disagree over the number of classes in a community and thereby call into question the existence of bounded classes, they may still achieve a degree of consensus over the relative standing of families in the community. Kaufman (1944, p. 9) found correlations above .74 between the ratings obtained from his individual raters and the composite scores from all raters combined. While this correlation indicates far less than perfect agreement, it does suggest that in small communities where most families are known to each other—on the average, Kaufman‘s raters were able to evaluate three-fourths of the nearly five hundred families in the community—there is at least a gross consensus about the hierarchy of the social placement of households.

In large urban centers—or medium-sized places, for that matter—awareness of the social position of others is at best indirect, and the methods discussed above are no longer applicable. But if knowledge of the social position of particular others is greatly reduced in the urban milieu, consensus may still exist about the shape of the social class structure, and individuals may be able to place themselves in it accurately. For “the status and role of the individual in relation to the means of production and exchange of goods and services give rise in him to a consciousness of membership in some social class which shares those attitudes, values, and interests” (Centers [1949] 1961, pp, 28-29). If the economic system and the latent social classes it creates are mirrored in the mind of all participants, one may obtain the social class position of persons simply by asking, as Centers did, their class identification.

This type of inquiry appears, however, to be subject to variable responses, depending upon the class categories identified in the question. When asked simply “What social class are you a member of?” or when forced to choose between membership in the “upper,” “middle,” or “lower” class, 80 to 90 per cent of a national sample—at least in the United States—will place themselves squarely in the middle, with negligible proportions electing the extremes or disavowing the existence of social classes. Adding a “working class” category to the tripartite division “upper,” “middle,” and “lower” yields a quite different picture: in this forced-choice situation about half the respondents will align themselves with the “working class” (which apparently falls between the “middle” and “lower” classes), while one-third retain their “middle class” identification (Centers [1949] 1961, p. 77). In view of the variation in responses to this question, depending on whether class categories are presented as forced alternatives, and which alternatives are specified, one can hardly use inquiries of this type to reveal the class structure. The inquiry presupposes that the structure exists; and if alternative class affiliations are specified, the researcher presumes to know the classes, their boundaries, and the ways of referring to them.

Just as variation in the number of classes identified by Kaufman‘s and Lenski‘s raters challenges the existence of bounded classes, so the exitsence of a social class system with a common representation in the minds of society‘s members is challenged by direct inquiry about the number of classes. Herman (1962), for example, found from a sample inquiry in a middle-sized satellite city near Philadelphia that, on the average, respondents identified 3.0 classes. This is only about half the number of classes formed by the “expert judges” of Kaufman and Lenski, but the standard deviation of 0.8 is not much smaller than that observed for raters in much smaller communities. Thus this study suggests the absence of a shared image of the class structure among urban dwellers.

Evaluation of social roles and symbols The absence of common awareness of the class structure, and substantially incomplete awareness of the social placement of particular individuals, shift the focus of attempts to measure social class from a concern with the rating of individuals to the evaluation of more abstract cues that may serve as criteria for estimating the social standing of individuals. Thus Davis (1956) asked respondents to evaluate photographs of living rooms according to the social standing of the people who lived in the homes, and demonstrated that the judgments of the pictures formed a Guttman scale [see Scaling]. Clearly, one can transform the evaluation of such cues into a measure of social status by either (a) requesting interviewers to identify respondents‘ living rooms as most nearly similar to one of the ordered pictures or (b) soliciting the same kind of judgment from respondents themselves.

Davis‘ work is particularly noteworthy because of its concern with relatively intimate cues, accessible in everyday life only to bill collectors, traveling salesmen, and one‘s friends. Better known, of course, are the studies of more public cues, such as occupational prestige (Counts 1925; National Opinion Research Center [NORC] 1947), in which respondents are required to evaluate the social standings of selected occupations and jobs. The resulting prestige hierarchy of occupations is easily transformed into prestige classes of individuals by identifying respondents‘ occupations with the prestige scores derived for similar occupations from such an evaluative study. However, as Duncan points out (1961a, pp. 110-114), this procedure requires appreciable guesswork, since prestige ratings for all the possible occupations of a random sample of the population do not exist.

Just as judges of individual families in small communities achieve gross consensus about the ordering of families, so respondents exhibit gross consensus in their evaluation of abstract cues to social class. Davis (1956) found a median correlation of .75 between the scale order of the ratings of living room photographs and each individual‘s rating of them. Reiss, using data from the NORC study of 1947, reports correlations on the order of .98 between occupational prestige measures derived from ratings by such diverse social groups as college and grade school graduates or respondents judged to be economically “prosperous” and “poor” (Reiss et al. 1962, p. 189). Of course, these correlations between aggregated scores derived by different groups of raters are higher than the average correlation between the ratings given by pairs of individuals randomly drawn from the population.

Evidence of the consensus between groups, and to a lesser extent between individuals, on the evalulation of occupations and other abstract social positions certainly does not mean that individuals would group occupations into identical occupational classes if left to their own devices. They would group them into prestige classes in such a way that few major discrepancies would be found in the relative position of particular occupations from rater to rater. But if they are instructed merely to form classes of similar occupations, respondents need not employ the criterion of prestige at all: kind of work, skills required for performance of the job, and other criteria might come into play. Campbell (1952) asked respondents simply to arrange a list of occupations into groups of similar ones. He found that respondents formed different numbers of groups, invoked different criteria for forming them, and achieved no obvious consensus on the composition of any particular occupational class. Nevertheless, after the respondents had formed groups of similar occupations, they were required to order the groups into social levels. Occupational prestige scores derived from this ordering proved to have a rank correlation of .97 with the scores derived from the NORC study of 1947, which were based solely upon judgments of the social standing of selected occupations as “excellent,” “good,” “average,” “somewhat below average,” or “poor.” This result and similar ones obtained from comparisons with other occupational prestige studies employing still different procedures indicate that the evaluation of occupations—and possibly other cues to the social status of individuals— is invariant under substantial shifts in method of measurement and despite the fact that respondents do not necessarily divide the occupational world into even roughly identical classes of jobs.

Sociometric techniques

Abandoning the dependence of techniques of measuring social class upon awareness of the class system on the part of members of the society requires identification of social classes without reference to judgments by participants in the system. A procedure that very closely approximates this approach makes use of objective sociometric relations to identify social classes. Many observers have noted that especially “the upper classes are organized into social cliques and exclusive clubs” (Warner [1949] 1960, p. 12). The fact that these cliques and organizations represent networks of sociometric ties suggests that attempts to delimit the boundaries of social classes with reference to interpersonal ties will produce cliques of individuals whose social standing—whether based on the prestige assigned their occupational roles or upon their individual esteem—is fairly homogeneous. Since sociometric techniques need not disclose the order of the classes they identify, this approach is not entirely free of reliance upon judgments by participants in the social system.

As a demonstration of the validity of this approach, Duncan and Artis (1951a) report an intraclass correlation of .52 between the Sewell Socio-economic Status Scale scores of households involved in mutual visiting relationships in a rural Pennsylvania community. Similar associations are revealed through secondary analysis by the present authors of data on a hacienda and a peasant farming community in Costa Rica originally studied by Loomis and his associates (1953). Let Y equal the social status of each family (ascertained from judges‘ ratings), Xj equal the average social status of all families with which visiting relationships are maintained (excluding families related through kinship or common church membership), and X2 equal the total number of families with which visiting relationships are maintained. For the hacienda, where the social status of the 55 resident families was heterogeneous, we find that the standardized partial regression coefficients (the b* of Walker & Lev 1953, pp. 318-320) associated with the two independent variables are .61 for the social status of families connected by sociometric ties (Xt) and —.24 for the number of families with which such ties are maintained (X2); the multiple correlation of Y with the two independent variables is .70. In the small farming village, where the social status of the 47 resident families was more homogeneous, a similar pattern of results is found, but the degree of association is diminished: the partial regression coefficients in standard form of Y with X1 and X2 are .14 and — .10, respectively, while the multiple correlation is .18. In sum, these results indicate both the tendency for families to establish sociometric relations with their status equals and the tendency of higher status families to isolate themselves by forming fewer contacts. However, the magnitude of the observed associations varies, depending in part upon the status homogeneity of communities. In no case are the associations large enough to establish class boundaries unequivocally. As Duncan and Artis conclude in their Pennsylvania study: “If the socioeconomic status score distribution were divided into class intervals, no doubt [sociometric] ‘cleavages‘ could be shown to exist between ‘classes‘ so defined. However, inspection of sociometric charts gives no indication of the most appropriate breaking points for such divisions, and there is, accordingly, no unique solution to the problem of the number of classes and their boundaries” (195la, pp. 24-25).

Objective indicators of social class

The vast majority of social class or social status metrics make little or no reference to awareness of one‘s own social position, perception of the class position of others, evaluation of social roles and symbols, or sociometric relations. Instead, researchers pursuing substantive interests other than a concern with stratification systems per se have found it expedient to form indices of social status and social class from such objective information as occupational role, ethnic background, income and earnings, individual attainments (especially education), and even material possessions. In our opinion, the formation of indices from these objective items is at best hazardous; it is preferable to treat such objective items as separate dimensions of social stratification rather than combine them into a single index. The reasons for this are several, but the most commanding is that many dependent variables are not identically related to education, occupation, and income. To cite one example, in the indigenous, nonfarm population of the United States, fertility (number of children ever born) appears, when duration of marriage has been controlled, to have an inverse relation to educational attainment and a modest positive relation to income (see, for example, Freedman & Slesinger 1961).

Occupation, education, and income. Among the several objective indicators of social class, occupation is one of the most important. However, distilling a few relatively homogeneous occupational groups from the many thousands of distinct jobs held in the labor force is a difficult task that probably has no fully satisfactory solution. The socio-economic groupings of detailed occupations worked out by Alba M. Edwards (1933) are still widely used by researchers to ascertain membership in broadly defined social classes. Indeed, the major occupation groups currently employed by the U.S. Bureau of the Census represent only a slight modification of the socioeconomic classification of occupations proposed by Edwards after the 1930 census of population. In devising this classification, Edwards merely arranged the detailed occupational categories of the census into what appeared to be meaningful socioeconomic groups. While the detailed categories purport to be fairly homogeneous with respect to the kinds of work performed, it is difficult to aggregate them into broader groups according to a single, over-all criterion. Edwards was able to effect a skill classification only for most manual occupations, while white-collar employees were differentiated primarily according to type of work. Once Edwards had formed the major occupational groups, he ordered them largely on socio-economic grounds (for a detailed discussion of these and other problems connected with the Edwards classification, see Hodge & Siegel 1966).

Instead of using the kind of procedure followed by Edwards, one can measure occupational status by directly assigning socioeconomic scores to more detailed occupational groups. Thus Charles (1948), using the educational and income distributions of incumbents, derived a quantitative score for the 177 occupations identified in the 1941 census of Canada in which more than 50 per cent of the gainfully employed males were salaried or self-employed. For each occupation, the average earnings and the percentage of gainfully employed with nine or more years of schooling were transformed into standard scores, on the basis of the distributions for all 177 occupations, and these two scores were averaged to produce a socioeconomic score for each occupation. The occupations were ordered in terms of these scores, and arbitrary boundaries were chosen to form eight socioeconomic classes. Blishen (1958) devised a quite similar index on the basis of the 1951 census returns for Canada. Bogue (1963, chapter 14) derived a score for each of the occupations identified in the detailed classification of the U.S. Bureau of the Census. This index required use of a factor analytic technique for assigning weights to summary measures of the income and educational distributions of the incumbents of each occupation.

Duncan (1961a) has derived a quite similar index, although his method of summarizing the income and education distribution of detailed occupational groups and of deriving weights for these summary measures differs from Bogue‘s. On the basis of the classic study of occupational prestige by North and Hatt (National Opinion Research Center 1947), one can assign prestige scores to 45 detailed occupational categories identified in tabulations of the 1950 U.S. census of population. For these 45 titles, Duncan observed that the prestige scores had a multiple correlation of .91 with his summary measures of the education and income levels enjoyed by the occupations‘ incumbents. In constructing his index of occupational socioeconomic status, Duncan used the multiple regression equation associated with the multiple correlation reported above to establish weights for the two components of his index. These weights, established over the 45 detailed occupational groups of known prestige, could then be applied to the measures of education and income that were known for all occupations, yielding an index of occupational socioeconomic status. The results of Duncan‘s and Bogue‘s efforts produced nearly identical measures (for all detailed occupational categories, Bogue reported a correlation of .95 between his scores and Duncan‘s index).

There apparently is little basis for choosing between these indices, and one might well decide to employ neither. For, as Whelpton and Hollander have pointed out (1940, p. 489), associations between social and economic characteristics and occupational affiliation are redundant insofar as most occupational classifications employ socioeconomic criteria in their construction.

Reliability . Such measures of socioeconomic status as education, occupation, and income recommend themselves not only by their ease of collection but also by their reliability. Adopting objective measures does not, however, relieve one of the responsibility of taking into account the probable effect of measurement errors. Table 1 shows reliability coefficients for years of school completed, occupational socioeconomic status, and income. The values exhibited in Table 1 were calculated from cross-tabulations of 1950 census returns with reports solicited by highly skilled interviewers in the 1950 Post-Enumeration Survey. Although the reliability coefficients appear quite large, they are small enough to produce appreciable attenuation in correlations involving objective status indicators. For example, in the 1950 census reports, the correlation (for males 14 and over) between years of school completed and income in 1949 was .325; assuming uncorrelated errors, one would estimate the true correlation by (.325)/(.858)½(.822)½ = .387, taking the reliability coefficients from Table 1. The squares of the observed and corrected values are .106 and .150, respectively, indicating that errors produce an understatement of the true common variance between education and income by about one-fourth [ = 1 — (. 106)/(. 150)]. This correction is intended for illustrative purposes only, since it is not quite legitimate in the present case. If one takes the Post-Enumeration Survey results as true values, one can see in the second column of Table 1 that errors in reporting are in fact correlated with the true levels of education, occupational socioeconomic status, and income. The ceiling and floor imposed on most socioeconomic variables tend to produce positive correlations between errors and true scores. A man whose true level of education, occupation, or income is high can only under-report his actual level, while a man whose true level is low can only overreport his actual level. The precise effects of correlated errors and of possible correlations between errors on different status variables have yet to be evaluated (compare Bogue & Murphy 1964).

Table 1 — Reliability coefficients and correlations of errors for three variables as reported in the 1950 U.S. Census of Population and the 1950 Post-Enumeration Survey (PES)
VariableCorrelation between PES (Y) and Census (X)Correlation of (Y-X) with Y
a. Scored according to midpoint of intervals used for tabulation in source .
b. Maior occupation groups were scorad according to Duncan‘s Socioeconomic Index, for which see Duncan 1961b, table VIM, p. 155 .
Source: Calculated from U.S. Bureau of the Census 1960 .
Years of school completed a .858.280
Occupation b .879.237
Income in 1949 a .822.273

Style of life

Many common objective measures of social status tend to obscure socioeconomic variation in special populations. For example, American students of social stratification have, with a few notable exceptions, ignored differentiation within the farm population, which is typically treated as a single group. Here, as elsewhere, style of life, as reflected in social participation, residential area, house type, living room equipment, and other visible aspects of status, may serve to array the population hierarchically, if not to segregate it into distinct classes.

Probably the best-known attempts to assess life style through the recording of personal possessions are the several versions of Chapin‘s Living Room Scale. Actually, Chapin posed his problem as the generic one of measuring socioeconomic status, which he saw as “the position that an individual or a family occupies with reference to the prevailing average standards of cultural possessions, effective income, material possessions, and participation in the group activities of the community” (1935, p. 374). Consequently, the original version of Chapin‘s scale was based on measures of cultural and material possessions derived from enumeration of household equipment and housing characteristics, lists of membership and degree of involvement in voluntary organizations, and a measure of income. However, “the total of the weights given to living room equipment were found to correlate so highly with the combined weights of the four indices that the equipment of the living room could be taken as a fair index of socio-economic status” (ibid., p. 375).

After almost a decade of experimentation, Chapin finally arrived at a short Social Status Scale, which is derived from an enumeration of 17 items of living room equipment, ranging from radios and newspapers to fireplaces and hardwood floors, plus an evaluation by interviewers of the condition, repair, and orderliness of the respondent‘s living room and the articles in it. Evidence about the validity of this shortened version comes from its correlation with income and occupation. In a nonrandom sample of residents of several metropolitan areas, 14 per cent of the variance in the short social status scores could be accounted for by income, and 27 per cent by occupation. Associations of the same order of magnitude were observed in an analysis of a more detailed living room scale based on nearly fifty items of household equipment (ibid., pp. 389, 397). Since Chapin‘s various versions of the Living Room Scale are not very highly intercorrelated with other criteria of socioeconomic position, we are unable to recommend them (or modifications of them) as single general measures of socioeconomic status. Rather, we prefer to regard their content as a reflection of one aspect of social status—life style—which is functionally intertwined with other elements into a socioeconomic configuration whose parts are but loosely connected (as revealed by measures of association).

Socioeconomic status of farm families . One interesting application of Chapin‘s formulation has been in measuring the socioeconomic status of farm families, which cannot be differentiated very well (especially within states or regions) by means of the usual objective indicators, such as education and occupation. Pursuing the facets of socioeconomic status identified by Chapin, Sewell (1940) constructed indices of material possessions (house construction, floor and wall finishings, etc.), cultural possessions (living room rugs, magazine and newspaper subscriptions, education of husband and wife, etc.), and social participation (family attendance at church, farm cooperative, and Pta activities) of Oklahoma farm families. Sewell‘s Farm Family Socio-economic Status Scale is derived by combining all three of these indices, and, when a measure of effective farm income is added to them, can be shown by the method of tetrad differences to measure a single common factor. The elements of the total index are not, however, dramatically intercorrelated. As one can see in Table 2, the index of social participation bears only

Table 2 — Intercorrelations between components of Sewell‘s Farm Family Socio-economic Status Scale (data from Oklahoma, circa 1938)a
ComponentsIndex of cultural possessionsEffective income indexIndex of social participation
a. Correlations based on a sample of approximately 800 families .
b. This measure is excluded from Sewell’s final scale .
Source: Adapted from Sewell 1940, p. 80 .
Index of material possessions.790.555.318
Index of cultural possessions .597.366
Effective income indexb  .245

modest positive associations with indicators of material and cultural possessions. Thus, the degree of their involvement in the community cannot be predicted from the life style revealed in the objects with which families surround themselves.

Interrelations of status indicators

While the raison d‘etre of objective indicators of social status often seems to be nothing more than convenience, such indicators are nevertheless functionally intertwined both among themselves and with class identification and life style. Thus education is a kind of investment whereby one acquires an occupation from which income is the return limiting the life style one may set and, hence, the class identification one may consistently maintain. The ordering imposed upon these variables by their functional interrelation is not meant, of course, to imply that they form a simple causal chain. Quite the contrary. Class identification probably rests as much upon educational attainment as upon life style. Indeed, many ingenious economic devices— such as credit—have become important cogs in the machinery of business precisely because they enable an individual to maintain a class identification he would have to forgo were his life style determined solely by his current money income.

The fact that status variables are functionally interrelated does not imply that they are strongly intercorrelated statistically. On the contrary, they are a loosely associated configuration. Materials from the 1950 U.S. Census of Population reveal that for males 30 per cent of the variation in years of school completed and 18 per cent of the variation in income can be accounted for by major occupation group, while 11 per cent of the variation in income can be accounted for by educational attainment. One aspect of these loose connections between objective indicators of social status is that individuals with disparate configurations of occupation, education, and income are free to adopt similar class identifications. Indeed, under the conditions imposed by these loose associations, relatively few individuals will have consistently high or consistently low education, occupational status, and income. The absence in the United States of objective configurations of education, occupation, and income around which classes may crystallize tends, of course, to leave individuals with ambiguous notions about their appropriate class identification. Consensus about one‘s social class position and that of others becomes nearly impossible to attain. This is perhaps the fundamental reason why class identification and class awareness have not played a central role in the indices of social class typically employed in the United States.

Size of status systems . Clearly, size of place is an important parameter that limits the use of judges‘ ratings in devising measures of social status. There is also some feeling that size of place is intertwined with the degree of association between status variables: while objective status positions are not highly intercorrelated at the societal level of integration, they may be highly intercorrelated in smaller communities, where the status attributes of all families and individuals are more visible and widely known. In large measure, this suggestion is built upon qualitative reports from community studies, the most notable empirical evidence being that amassed under the guidance of W. Lloyd Warner. Using data collected in the Jonesville investigations, Warner ([1949] 1960, p. 172) reported that the common variance (the proportion of the variation in one variable accounted for by another) between pairs of such objective characteristics as occupation, education, income, and house type (measures of the last characteristic having been formed largely from inspection of the size and condition of dwelling units) ranged between 36 and 64 per cent. But there is no reason whatsoever to believe that these associations are either typical of other communities or, for that matter, accurate for Jonesville. First, they are based on a biased sample of individuals whose characteristics are not fully known (Pfautz & Duncan 1950, pp. 208-209). The admission (see McGuire 1950) that the sample is in fact a “blue ribbon” one suggests that the correlations are as high as they are because of the introduction of a correlation between extremes achieved by under-representing the middle sectors of the class structure. Second, Hochbaum and his associates (1955) have demonstrated that in an urban setting (St. Paul, Minnesota) associations between education, occupation, and income fall in a range lower than, and only partially overlapping with, that observed in Warner‘s reports. Third, associations between these variables reported in other small communities are not appreciably higher than those calculated above for the United States as a whole. Thus Duncan and Artis (1951b) show, for a rural community of 533 households, that 21 per cent of the variation in judges‘ prestige ratings, 29 per cent of the variation in education (of male household heads), and 20 per cent of the variation in Sewell‘s Socio-economic Status Score can be accounted for by major occupation group. Income accounts for similar fractions of the variance in judges‘ prestige ratings, education, and Sewell‘s Socio-economic Status Score. So far, then, there is no really substantial empirical evidence for assuming greater crystallization of status variables in small communities than in the nation as a whole.

It is reasonable to assume that patterns of organizational membership and interpersonal contacts are more salient features of small-scale status systems than of large urban ones, since in the latter individuals are not known, and membership groups do not extend, throughout the entire community. For example, Kaufman (1944) reports that for a rural New York community, prestige class accounts for 41 per cent of variation in the number of memberships in voluntary associations, and one can estimate from his report that membership in the local Presbyterian church accounts for 30 per cent of the variation in judges‘ prestige ratings. No direct comparisons with the correlations to be found in urban settings can be made, but from the files of the National Opinion Research Center we were able to estimate for residents of a suburb of the District of Columbia that 10 per cent of the variance of the number of memberships in voluntary associations could be attributed to either years of school completed or family income. Both associations were much lower than one would expect from Kaufman‘s study and somewhat lower than the values obtained by Duncan and Artis (1951b), who used a more elaborate measure of participation in formal organizations. These findings suggest that voluntary organizations are an important focus of stratification in small communities but become less important in this respect as scale becomes an obstacle to community-wide organization.

Status consistency . In the United States, the lack of crystallization in the national status structure—as revealed by the modest associations between different status attributes—has encouraged divergent approaches to the measurement of social class. Some researchers, most notably Lenski (1954; 1956), have abandoned the task altogether. Instead, a modified view of the class structure is proposed, in which not only the condition of universal class awareness, but also the condition of mutual exclusiveness of classes, is relaxed. Different variables, such as occupation, educational attainment, ethnic background, class identification, and judgments by others, may be understood as defining different status hierarchies. Since the stratification system is not very crystallized—that is, since these different aspects of status are not highly intercorrelated—individuals will vary in their degree of consistency: some will be quite consistent, experiencing high or low standing on each of the several status indicators, while many will be inconsistent in varying degrees, combining some elements of high status, such as a college education, with elements of low status, such as a modest income. In such a scheme a person does not occupy a single position in a unique hierarchy of mutually exclusive classes; rather, his social status is defined by his positions on several dimensions of stratification, and one aspect of his total position in such a stratification system is held to be the consistency between the levels he occupies on various dimensions of status.

Adopting the formulations implicit in the theory of status consistency may not, of course, be a feasible research strategy to choose in countries with less fluid status systems. However, even the rigidity of the Indian caste system is apparently insufficient to produce extremely high associations between status variables in urban areas. For example, for Poona, India, we can calculate from published tabulations (Sovani et al. 1956, tables 6.1 and 6.3) that an arrangement of castes and an occupational classification similar to the major occupation groups of the U.S. Bureau of the Census account for 10 and 46 per cent, respectively, of the variation in total family income. These values, like similar associations observed for the United States, do not show enough common variance between status variables to rule out a status consistency approach.

The multidimensionality of social stratification systems is implicitly assumed in the status consistency approach. Actually, this multidimensionality is only manifest and is open to empirical evaluation. Indeed, the plethora of social class indicators reviewed above might be defining a single latent continuum. The conclusions about measuring social class that one might derive from the application of latent structure or factor analyses of status variables are hard to specify because in relatively complex situations these techniques often yield several equally plausible representations of the underlying structures [see Latent structure]. For example, in an application of latent structure analysis to the problems of measuring social class, Rossi found that dichotomously represented items covering such features of social status as possession of certain household objects, class identification, education, and interviewer‘s rating could be treated either “as correlated latent continua with linear tracelines or as essentially unidimensional with parabolic tracelines” (1951, p. 250). Ambiguities such as these leave open the fundamental question of whether the multidimensionality in status variables at the manifest level can be reduced to a single latent continuum. It seems unlikely that more elaborate methodologies will provide any easy answers, especially insofar as they tend to ignore the functional interdependence between status variables.

Selecting measures of social class

How is the individual researcher to choose among the wealth of existing measures of social class without first conducting his own independent investigation of stratification? Our view is quite simple, but provides no explicit rules: selection of an appropriate measure of social class, like the choice between alternative modes of data analysis, depends on the problem to be investigated, and should reflect the interpretation the researcher is likely to make of correlations between social status and the variables regarded as dependent. Thus, in studies of morbidity, differential rates according to social status are apt to be interpreted as a reflection of either differential nutrition and health care or differential exposure to hazardous work environments. Accordingly, in such studies one should employ measures of socioeconomic status, like income or occupation, that have a clear connection with the intervening variables, such as health care, nutrition, and risk, that are thought to specify the relation between mortality and status. Alternative measures, such as class identification, which seem less relevant in studies of morbidity, of course assume greater salience in investigations of other matters (child-rearing practices, for instance). Thus, in selecting a measure of social class the researcher should think his problem through clearly and then make his choice. So selected, different measures of social class can achieve appreciable face validity within the particular context in which they are employed. Reliability is, of course, a more complex matter, but it is no less true in other areas than in stratification research that, to quote Rossi again: “Fruitful empirical work in an area where errors of measurement tend to obscure the fundamental structure can only be possible by the employment of descriptive models in a methodology where such errors are explicitly provided for” (1951, p. 225).

Robert W. Hodge and Paul M. Siegel

[Directly related are the entries Caste; Census; Community, article onthe study of community power; Social structure, article onsocial structural analysis; Status, social. Other relevant material may be found in Homelessness; Labor force, article ondefinitions and measurement; Latent structure; Scaling.]


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Campbell, J. D. 1952 Subjective Aspects of Occupational Status. Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard Univ.

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Duncan, Otis Dudley; and Artis, Jay W. 1951b Social Stratification in a Pennsylvania Rural Community. Pennsylvania State College, School of Agriculture, Agricultural Experiment Station, Bulletin 543. University Park, Pa.: The College.

Edwards, Alba M. 1933 A Social-economic Grouping of the Gainful Workers of the United States. Journal of the American Statistical Association 28:377-387.

Freedman, Ronald; and Slesinger, Doris P. 1961 Fertility Differentials for the Indigenous Non-farm Population of the United States. Population Studies 15:161-173.

Herman, Mary W. 1962 Class Concepts, Aspirations and Vertical Mobility. Pages 115-152 in G. L. Palmer et al., The Reluctant Job Changer: Studies in Work Attachments and Aspirations. Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press.

Hochbaum, Godfrey et al. 1955 Socioeconomic Variables in a Large City. American Journal of Sociology 61:31-38.

Hodge, Robert W.; and Siegel, Paul M. 1966 The Classification of Occupations: Some Problems of Sociological Interpretation. American Statistical Association, Social Statistics Section, Proceedings [1965]: 176-192.

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The study of stratification systems involves three main topics: the degree of inequality of rewards and privileges (in wealth, power, and fame) in different societies and the causes and effects of different amounts and kinds of inequality; the relation between the distribution of the good things of life and the solidarity of categories of people with different levels of reward (such as social classes, ethnic groups, and regions within societies) and the causes and effects of different patternings of solidary groupings in relation to the distribution of privileges; and the patterning of social relations between people of different levels of reward (conflict, domination, ritual equality, and so forth) and its causes and effects. The pattern of a stratification system can be fairly well outlined if we know the amount of inequality in the distribution of rewards, the amount and patterning of solidarity among people at approximately the same level in the distribution, and the relations between “the rich, the wise, and the well-born” and the poor, the ignorant, and the lowly.

Inequality of rewards and privileges

In order to measure the degree of inequality, it is necessary to have quite precise measures of the rewards obtained by the individuals or groups of a society. For this reason, much of what we know about the causes and effects of different degrees of inequality is based on studies of the distribution of income and property. The measurement of the political power of various individuals and groups within a society is very poorly developed, and therefore it is difficult to obtain measurements of the degree of inequality of power in different societies. Likewise, it is very difficult to determine whether fame and social honor are more unequally distributed in some societies than in others, although such men as Alexis de Tocqueville have given strong reasons for believing that societies do differ in this respect

A final difficulty in the measurement of inequality is that the social groups which are the units of stratification systems vary among societies. Let us suppose, for instance, that in one society all commercial, industrial, and agricultural firms are families, while in another many of the firms are corporations. It may well be that in the corporately organized society there is a concentration of wealth and power in a few firms, while in the society where firms are families the distribution of power and money among firms is more even. At the same time, it may be that in the corporately organized society no families have very great wealth and power, whereas in the society where families are firms the distribution of wealth and power among families is very unequal. When the very structure of the social groups that appropriate money, power, and fame differs, statistical measurements of the distribution of wealth (or power and fame, if they can be measured) ought to be constructed on correspondingly different bases. But if they are so constructed, the measures are not comparable.

With these precautions in mind, I will outline some of the main causes of different degrees of inequality of condition in various societies, especially the distribution of culturally valued competences; the distribution of “tenures,” particularly property rights, which allow some part of the people in a society to obtain benefits which are not dependent on their current performances; taxation and social security systems; and the technological organization of societies.

Culturally valued competences . The distribution of culturally valued competences affects the amount and patterning of inequality, because those activities in a society that give high returns have to be carried on in a distinctive language, pattern of etiquette, or technical culture. Part of this is due to the inherent character of highly productive activities. For instance, many of the activities in the urban economy cannot be carried on without writing and, consequently, literacy. Also, most foreign trade must be carried on in foreign languages, so the profits go to multilingual people. Another reason why highly productive activities have to be performed within a distinctive culture is that they are highly interdependent and require communication among the participants. Thus, historical accident may determine that the government and commerce and literature of England will be carried on largely in the dialect of the Midlands. But once this language is chosen for such highly valued activities, competence in that language is closely related to capacity to enter those fields where wealth, power, and fame are to be had.

The capacity to read and write the language of the elite is much more widely distributed in some societies than in others. First, societies differ greatly in their degree of linguistic homogeneity. In Japan, England, France, Germany, Spain, Australia, and some of the Latin American countries that do not have large native Indian populations (Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, for instance), the traditional spoken languages are dialects of a common root language. Other societies have very substantial linguistic diversity: nearly half the population of the Soviet Union speaks one of the minority languages as a mother tongue; in Peru, Bolivia, the Central American highland republics, and southern Mexico a large proportion of the population speaks an Indian language; and many of the new nations in Africa and Asia have no majority language at all. Under these conditions, whatever language is chosen to be used in carrying on the activities that produce wealth, power, and fame, a substantial proportion of the population will be seriously disadvantaged. Thus, a high degree of inequality of language groups is characteristic of these societies, even where (as in the Soviet Union) substantial efforts are made to create highly valued activities in the various minority cultures. When the powerful language groups exploit their advantage to the fullest, as was typically the case in colonial areas before independence, the resulting degree of inequality is very high.

Whatever the degree of inequality deriving from linguistic heterogeneity, in order to participate in the high-return activities of urban and cosmopolitan society people must learn to read and write. Societies differ a great deal in the degree of inequality of educational opportunity, especially in the degree of advantage derived by urban people from living in cities. In advanced societies elementary schooling exists in both urban and rural areas. In poorer societies generally, the only people who live near enough to schools to send their children are urban people. This means that in poorer societies a large proportion of the population cannot compete for those high-paying, powerful, or prestigious positions that require literacy. In such societies there are thus two radically separate labor markets, marked off by the fundamental cultural variable of literacy, which have different wage rates, different levels of political power, and different chances for fame and social honor. This in turn shows up in a larger degree of income inequality between urban and rural people in underdeveloped societies.

The available information on the literacy rates in urban and rural areas in different societies supports this analysis. For those societies for which we have data on urban and rural literacy rates over a long period of time, it is uniformly the case that rural literacy rates approach the urban rates, although both are, of course, increasing at the same time (UNESCO 1953). It is also true that the difference between the rural and urban rates is quite small in richer societies and quite large in poorer societies, and thus the degree of inequality in cultural preparation for the urban labor market is generally much higher in underdeveloped countries. In the United States an urban employer has little reason for preferring an urban-born worker over a rural-born worker, while in Honduras the urban-born man can probably read, while the rural-born worker is probably illiterate.

Although literacy in the elite language is probably the most important cultural characteristic determining the shape of stratification systems, other cultural competences, such as an educated dialect, technical skills, knowledge of the laws and procedures of urban society and appropriate modes of dress, also affect stratification position. The more culturally homogeneous a society, the less inequality will be caused on such grounds. Although traditional societies vary a great deal in degree of cultural heterogeneity, the general tendency of modernization is to equalize cultural competence, either by cultural homogenization or by increasing, through specification of additional legal, commercial, and literary languages, the diversity of the culture in which the business of the society is carried on.

Distribution of tenures. By “tenure” we refer to a socially defensible right to a flow of rewards —money, power, or fame—which is not dependent on people‘s current performances (as when people hold property or sinecures). If tenures are unequally distributed, the structure of competences or activities in a population is not sufficient to explain the degree of inequality. For instance, according to the Return of Owners of Land of 1873 in England, four-fifths of the land was held by less than 7,000 persons. If land rents form a major part of the income of a society and if power derived from landownership is institutionalized in a House of Lords and in landowners‘ control of local rural society and if the peaks of the distribution of fame and social honor are reserved for large landlords, then this great inequality of property creates a great inequality of reward and privilege.

In general, property income as a percentage of the total of all personal income declines with modernization (partly because of changes in taxation systems but mostly because urban production is less capital-intensive than agriculture). At the same time, the proportion of jobs that are held on some sort of tenure (mainly based on seniority) tends to increase. Roughly speaking, this results in a redistribution of tenure rights, which tends to increase the rewards of the poor and decrease the rewards of the rich, relatively. Still, there is a persistence of societal differences, at any level of economic development, in the proportion of the good things of life that are rewards for current efforts and skills and the proportion that are held on some type of socially defensible tenure; and there are great variations in the degree of inequality in the distribution of such tenure rights. A comparison of English land tenure with that of either France or the United States, of Japanese land tenure before the postwar land reform with the Malayan distribution, or of Peruvian land tenure with that of Mexico will show that incomes from “rent,” as a form of economic return, can be either very unequally or very equally distributed. What effect this has on the total stratification structure will depend on the proportion of total income that is imputable to rent. Likewise, sinecures, or jobs that make no substantial demands on the man who holds them, are much more common, and the benefits from these jobs are more unequally distributed, in some societies than in others.

It is generally true that entrance into tenures is more ascriptively allocated than is entrance to jobs at which one has to work. In other words, land, stocks and bonds, and sinecures are more likely to be distributed by inheritance than are jobs that require skill or exceptional talent. The proportion of a society‘s income, power, and social honor which is held on some kind of tenure is thus related to the degree of openness of opportunity.

The causes of differences between societies in the degree of inequality in the distribution of tenures are not well known. The main determinants seem to be aspects of the political history of the societies, such as conquest or social revolution, and certain kinds of economic developments, such as plantation or ranch agriculture, which tend to concentrate tenures in a few hands.

Taxation and social security systems . Another major influence on the degree of inequality and its pattern is the system of taxation and social security. The system of taxation is intimately tied to the system of tenures in three ways. First, the social defensibility of a right to a flow of benefits is usually guaranteed, and often obtained, by political means. Thus, the existence of a government with resources of its own derived from taxation or expropriation is a conditioning variable for tenure systems. Second, government and ownership are not usually distinguished sharply and unequivocally in primitive and feudal societies. The medieval manor is both a local government and the lord‘s property. The modern distinction between taxes and rents or between the national budget and the lord‘s or king‘s budget is not clearly drawn in such societies. Third, without very complex accounting and enforcement structures, apportionment of the tax burden in relation to ability to pay is made easier by taxing (or expropriating) tenures than by taxing income. In addition, the distribution of the tax burden has direct influence on the distribution of income.

Governments influence income distributions by redistributive social security, as well as by taxation. Social security arrangements are those techniques by which the lame, the halt, the blind, and the incompetent are allocated their social rights and income. Age, sickness, genetic accident, and social imperfection create people who are “useless” from the point of view of the productive activities of a society. The economic support of these people may be arranged within the family, as the “uselessness” of children is almost always handled. But if the heads of families are biologically or socially imperfect or are in jail, the position of their families is determined by different techniques in different societies. The presence or absence of politically arranged systems of social security, as well as their character and policy if they exist, are fundamental in determining the social status of “useless” people. There is less inequality in societies that care for and support the imperfect than in societies where those with poor biological, social, or moral equipment must fend for themselves.

The following very rough outline will distinguish several types of relationships between taxation and social security systems, on the one hand, and stratification, on the other.

First, there are stateless peoples—that is, peoples who are not subject to coercion by a tax-supported state. For these peoples, the elementary social units that carry on productive, household, and kinship functions also carry on the social insurance functions of society and define the status of children, the aged, the infirm, and the insane. The social unit itself carries the brunt of the malfunctioning of key people.

Second, in intermediate-level societies (feudal systems, traditional empires, medieval mercantile states) a separate governmental structure provides a contingency reserve of power, to guarantee the tenures of the rich against both external enemies and internal revolt and theft. As tax farmers, landholders, and patricians, the rich either perform government functions themselves or collect rents, tributes, taxes, or services from their underlings in order to maintain the governmental structure. Citizenship, in the sense of rights guaranteed by the central government and influence on the central government, is confined to the rich. Social security, beyond that provided for the rich by tenures, remains a local affair within the kin group or manor or merchant company, is provided as charity by the church, or takes the form of a general tolerance of begging. In such societies the government reinforces the inequality of condition, rather than mitigating it. Generally a feudal state‘s government has a rapidly declining capacity to enforce its will, that is, to collect taxes or guarantee tenures, as one travels out from its center; near the borders of feudal states the lords must maintain their own armies and are not tightly controlled from the center. Thus, even for tenure holders “citizenship” depends on geographical variables. Government guarantees the right of the rich to oppress the poor; and the closer they are to the center, the freer they are to do so.

Finally, as a government grows in power and the size of its budget increases compared with the largest private interests, it becomes capable of resisting these interests and of enforcing its will up to the border. This ability, along with the bureaucratization of government, fulfills the elementary prerequisites of the extension of “citizenship” to the general population. In other words, the government can now guarantee a certain minimum of political rights and social security to all people living within the borders of the nation. Government services, guarantees, and social security payments become the right of every man; taxation of the rich to provide services and income to the poor becomes general instead of taxation to support a government to defend the tenures of the rich. Rent becomes a form of income radically distinct from taxation. Gradually, it becomes an established political principle that citizens have a right to a certain level of living and should not be allowed to fall below that level. Social insurance functions tend to move more and more under the sway of the government, and charity comes to be enforced by law, rather than pleaded for by begging.

Broadly speaking, then, increases in the level of taxation for central government functions first increase the amount of inequality, by protecting the rich, and then decrease it, by taxing the rich for the benefit of all citizens. There are, of course, numerous variations in taxation systems and social security systems that cause variations and deviations from the pattern outlined here. [See Taxationand Welfare Economics.]

The economic and technological base . Technology affects the degree of inequality of reward in two different ways. First, various types of technical and economic activity either require or cause different degrees of inequality within the productive organization itself. Different technological systems require different distributions of skills. A research organization, for instance, requires a relatively high degree of skill by all, whereas a mine generally requires many unskilled workers and a few highly skilled ones. In addition, large cooperative undertakings tend to give rise to a complex hierarchy of authority, and rewards tend to be associated with authority both because people in authority have the power to take more rewards and because it seems fair to most people that different degrees of responsibility should meet with different levels of reward.

The combination of skill requirements and authority systems of the technical organization of productive groups in a society thus to a large extent determines the shape of the distribution of rewards. Early modern armies, for example, required many men to do the handwork of fighting and few to plan, train, and lead. Modern armies require a good many skills of very different types, and they use relatively less hand labor as it becomes more efficient to kill men by machines. Therefore, the distribution of ranks (and consequently of pay and deference) in armies is much less unequal than it used to be. Armies today have a much larger group in the middle ranks and a smaller group at the very bottom. Likewise, it has been argued that the complex authority system required to construct, maintain, and distribute the benefits from a complex irrigation system has tended to create a very high degree of inequality in societies where the economic base is irrigated agriculture (Wittfogel 1957; cf. Eberhard 1952).

A second effect of technology on the degree of inequality of reward is that technological systems have different degrees of productivity. This has two implications. First, societies with different technological bases will have different amounts of resources to distribute unequally, after some base line of sufficiency is reached. Thus, an increase in wealth seems to increase the level of inequality. In addition, in complex societies different people will be involved in different technological systems. If some of these are “high-wage” industries while others are “low-wage,” if some give special access to political power (people involved in military technology, for instance), or if different technical systems offer differential chances of becoming famous (acting in movies, as opposed to running motels, for instance), then the mix of industries in a society helps determine its stratification system. As a general rule the technological systems introduced late in a country‘s development give a greater return to the individuals involved in them than do the older industries. Those who, because of tenures that compel them to remain in the older technological systems, skills that tie them to the older industries, or inertia and family tradition, are bound up with declining industries tend to be dis-advantaged compared with those in new industries and occupations.

Societies also vary in their flexibility, or labor mobility. Low labor mobility tends to give rise to an oversupply of labor (with consequent lowering of wages and returns) in the older sections of the economy. Low incomes in older sectors, along with the compensating excessive wages in the new industries, which have to attract labor over the barriers of low labor mobility, tend to increase the degree of inequality in societies. [See Labor Force, article onmarkets and mobility.]

It seems that a considerable part of rural poverty in otherwise rich societies can be explained on such grounds: regional inequalities between areas that have an industrial structure based on older industries and areas in which innovation is concentrated seem to derive from low labor mobility. But whether societies with highly flexible labor markets in fact tend to have less regional inequality of income, to a degree over and above that which can be explained by the concentration of illiteracy or minority language in certain regions, has not been investigated sufficiently.

In sum, then, the amount of inequality of reward in different societies is determined to a large extent by the amount of inequality in the distribution of cultural competences, especially the ability to read and write the elite language; by the importance of property and sinecure income in the total income of society and by the degree of inequality of property; by the degree of development of taxation and social security and by variations in tax and social security systems; and by the mix of industries of a society, their total productivity, the requirements of their technical systems for inequality within the enterprise, and the conditions under which new industries compete with old industries for the labor force of the society.

Patterns of group solidarity

Societies vary not only in the ways in which the total distribution of their valuables is structured but also in the type of relation that obtains between the degree of inequality they exhibit and the structure of their solidary groups. This has two major aspects. First, how does the distribution of good things in the society relate to the other bases men have for feeling themselves to have a common destiny with other men? Second, how does the distribution of rewards itself cause men to associate to improve their positions? Since men‘s sense of justice interacts with their sense of self-interest when they judge the fairness of the distribution of rewards in society, and since a large share of public policy (especially taxation, social security, tariff policy, and policy toward monopolies) is directly relevant to the degree of inequality, solidary groupings of men who share a common position in the stratification system have great political importance.

Economic interest and pre-existing groups . As implied in the previous discussion of the causes of different degrees of inequality, depressed ethnic groups, rural regions, and regions whose industrial structures emphasize older industries will tend to have distinctive positions in the distribution of rewards, although more so under some conditions than others. Most societies have at least one ethnic group that occupies a distinctive position in the economic system, for example, the Europeans in Algeria or South Africa, the Negroes in the United States, the Chinese in southeast Asia, the Tamils in Ceylon and east Africa. The mutual reinforcing of common interest and common cultural tradition tends to make such groups solidary internally, while the surrounding society often combines communal hostility with opposing economic interests when dealing with such groups.

Likewise, most societies have at least one and often several regions that have a certain amount of regional solidarity and political organization and distinctive positions in the regional distribution of income. For example, the following areas represent more or less well organized and politically powerful concentrations of poverty on a regional basis: the south in the United States and in Italy; central Asia in the Soviet Union; the northeast in Brazil; the southern tier of states in Mexico and also the central area (except for the capital city itself); Java, as compared with Sumatra, in Indonesia; and the central region of the Congo (Kinshasa), as opposed to Katanga. When such regional groups with divergent positions in the distribution of the good things of a society exist, they can form a basis for common action of the relatively poor communities of a society against the relatively rich. Conversely, if a group of the rich can gain control of regional organizations (even though the region as a whole is poor) and appear to act in the name of the region, they can extend their power a great deal. Examples would be the plantation owners in the American south, the great landowners of Prussia, and the oil sheiks in the Arabian areas.

The same thing that can be said of stratification within a society in this respect can also be said of the world as a whole. Undoubtedly the main determinant of a man‘s income level is what country he happens to be born in, and the defense of the interests of the world‘s poor in international politics rests heavily on the diplomatic apparatus of the world‘s poor nations. [See Peace.]

Just as the coincidence of a common economic fate with solidary ties on other grounds, such as ethnicity or region, strengthens the political capacity of a group, so the division of the poor or the rich into diverse communal or regional groups can limit the scope of pure class organization. Ethnicity, region, and community are bases of solidarity and organized action in politics and in the economic structure. These may or may not be important in a society. If they are important, it may be true that such natural “acting groups” occupy different stratification positions as a whole and act to affect the stratification system. Thus, although the politics of some major industrial cities in the United States have been run by the poor of those cities for some time, the poor are organized to affect politics as ethnic groups, rather than as the poor. This means that the strength of the lower class as a whole on economic questions is probably less than it would otherwise be.

Mutual association . The distribution of privileges is also related to the kind of solidarity that, arising from common conditions of life, provides one of the possible bases for group formation. Both informal social life and formal organization to defend collective interests tend to follow the lines of the distribution of privileges. However, the form taken by this relationship between group life and the class system varies among different societies, depending on the way in which the determinants of solidarity are related to the distribution of privileges. Probably the most important of these determinants are the size of work places, the degree of residential segregation of the social classes, and the degree to which the rewards of social classes are formally allocated to large categories of people defined by an abstract criterion, as when voters are selected by a property qualification.

The larger the size of work places or the more social life tends to be restricted to class equals, the more militant the unions and political parties of the social classes tend to be and the more closely the structure of solidarity in the society is likely to be intertwined with the distribution of rewards (Lipset et al. 1954). The more ecologically differentiated the cities in which people live (so that poor homes are geographically concentrated in slums and rich homes in good neighborhoods), the fewer members of other classes any given man will be likely to meet and the more social relations will be correlated with the structure of social classes. And finally, the more formal privileges are distributed according to abstract criteria that are applied to a large number of people uniformly, the more relevant collective action is likely to be to changing a man‘s conditions of life and the more closely group life will correspond to the class structure. For instance, a universal property qualification for voting is more likely to unite the poor to obtain equal representation than is a process of individual qualification of voters that is so administered as to be generally discriminatory against the poor, even if the two systems have exactly the same effect. Likewise, if all the workers in a factory have their wages determined by the setting of one basic wage rate, they are more likely to act in common than if wage rates are negotiated individually, even if the same amount of money is spent for wages in the two situations.

Conversely, when the rich and poor meet at work (although, of course, not as equals), especially in small enterprises; when the rich live next to the poor (although, of course, in richer houses); and when the rich treat the poor as individuals (although, of course, not as if they were rich individuals), the degree of class solidarity on both sides is likely to be lower, for the rich sympathize with the lot of the poor and the poor develop attachments to the rich.

Relations between the classes

On the fundamental question of how the social classes treat each other, there is much less theory and research. It is quite clear that societies vary in this respect. For instance, in the United States, outside the South, and in the Soviet Union it is considered very ill-mannered for a man to emphasize his superior social position or to insist on deferential treatment from those whose social standing is not as high. In contrast, many racially stratified societies and countries that have not destroyed their feudal aristocracies during the course of modernization have maintained organized patterns of deference. Likewise, in those societies that are generally called liberal, greatly unequal power is supposed to be limited to specific purposes rather than used to the full in all situations; while, in many feudal and semifeudal areas, it is considered perfectly legitimate for men to use all the power at their disposal to govern in detail all aspects of the lives of their inferiors. In some societies the lower classes treat the upper classes as open enemies or objects of hostility, while in other societies they are polite and suppress (or do not have) such hostility.

Within any society there are clear variations in the way superiors in different walks of life treat inferiors: usually a general in an army or the captain of a merchant ship or a plantation boss acts in a more authoritarian way than an equally rich and powerful superior in retail trade or manufacturing. Part of the variation between societies can again be explained by their mix of industries: a society whose economic base is plantation agriculture is likely to have basically authoritarian relations between the social classes in daily life, while a society with an economic base in wholesale commerce and international banking (e.g., Switzerland, the Netherlands) will have less open authoritarianism, even if the degree of inequality is the same.

Another major variable explaining differences among societies in this regard seems to be the ideological residue of social revolutions. Equalitarianism of manners was apparently not as prevalent in the United States before the War of Independence, and certainly it was not as prevalent in the Russian empire before the 1917 revolution and in Mexico before the revolution of 1910-1920. It is likewise certain that the manners of colonial populations toward Europeans changed after the anticolonial revolutions of recent years; and Europeans are not nearly as arrogant in their behavior as they were when these peoples were their subjects. Whether this ideological equalitarianism will spread to the symbolic behavior of classes toward each other within former colonial societies is not yet clear, but the tendency to generalize the revolutionary ideology is obviously present, for example, in Indian attempts to reduce discrimination against Untouchables.

Although the whole area of the comparative study of stratification systems is very underdeveloped, the theory of the causes of the way the rich treat the poor and of the way the poor react is probably the least developed part.

Arthur L. Stinchcombe

See also Bureaucracy; Equality; Literacy; Poverty; Social mobility; Stateless society; Welfare state; and the biographies of Marx; Ossowski; Tocqueville; Trotsky


Bendix, Reinhard 1956 Work and Authority in Industry: Ideologies of Management in the Course of Industrialization. New York: Wiley. → One of the few systematic studies of the way social classes treat each other in different societies.

Bukharin, Nikolai I. (1921)1926 Historical Materialism: A System of Sociology. London: Allen & Unwin. → First published as Teoriia istoricheskogo material-izma. Probably still the best introduction to the Marxist theory of the causes of differences in stratification systems.

Clark, Colin (1940) 1957 The Conditions of Economic Progress. 3d ed. New York: St. Martins. → An analysis of the effect of modernization on occupational and income distributions.

Deutsch, Karl W. 1953 Nationalism and Social Communication: An Inquiry Into the Foundations of Nationality. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press; New York: Wiley. → Perhaps the best account to date of the development of stratification positions of ethnic groups in several European societies and in India.

Eberhard, Wolfram 1952 Conquerors and Rulers: Social Forces in Medieval China. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill. → Maintains that riches created by irrigation invite conquest, thus causing high degrees of inequality; for an argument in opposition to this one, see Wittfogel 1957.

Inkeles, Alex; and Rossi, Peter H. 1956 National Comparisons of Occupational Prestige. American Journal of Sociology 61:329-339. → Shows that most occupations in the modern sectors of different economies have the same relative standing in different countries.

Kuznets, Simon 1956— Quantitative Aspects of the Economic Growth of Nations. Part 1—. Economic Development and Cultural Change 5—. → A continuing study by Simon Kuznets, usually included as a supplement to No. 4 of each volume. A rich source of information on the dynamics of the creation and distribution of money, the fundamental reward in stratification systems.

Lamartine Yates, Paul 1961 El desarrollo regional de México. Mexico City: Banco de Mexico, Investigaciones Industriales. → A very good monograph on the causes of regional inequality in a developing country, with suggestions for policies of equalization.

Lipset, Seymour M. et al. (1954)1959 The Psychology of Voting: An Analysis of Political Behavior. Volume 2, pages 1124-1175 in Gardner Lindzey (editor), Handbook of Social Psychology. Cambridge, Mass.: Addison-Wesley. → An empirical analysis of the determinants of class solidarity in political behavior.

Lockwood, David 1958 The Black-coated Worker. A Study in Class Consciousness. London: Allen & Unwin. → An analysis of white-collar unionism which shows that class solidarity is dependent on the allocation of rewards according to abstract classifications of people.

Marshall, T. H. (1934-1949) 1950 Citizenship and Social Class, and Other Essays. Cambridge Univ. Press. → The title essay provides a historical analysis of the distribution of legal, political, and social security rights among social classes in Great Britain.

Sahlins, Marshall D. 1958 Social Stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press. → Provides empirical support for the proposition that richer societies have more inequality.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1961 Agricultural Enterprise and Rural Class Relations. American Journal of Sociology 67:165-176. → An analysis of the internal structure of enterprises in different types of agriculture and its effect on the class structure.

Stinchcombe, Arthur L. 1965 Social Structure and Organizations. Pages 142-193 in James G. March (editor), Handbook of Organizations. Chicago: Rand McNally. → Contains analyses of stratification within organizations, of the distribution of power and wealth among organizations and its relation to revolutionary movements, and of the properties and development of such communal groups as ethnic groups and regions.

Trotsky, Leon (1931-1933) 1957 The History of the Russian Revolution. Translated by Max Eastman. 3 vols. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press. → Volume 1: The Overthrow of Tsarism. Volume 2: The Attempted Counter-revolution. Volume 3: The Triumph of the Soviets. First published in Russian. One of the best accounts of the development of class organizations in Russia.

Unesco 1953 Progress of Literacy in Various Countries: A Preliminary Statistical Study of Available Census Data Since 1900. Paris: UNESCO.

Wittfogel, Karl A. 1957 Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1963.


Controversies similar to those that have marked attempts to define class and to determine whether classes “really exist” are now beginning to arise over the concept of class culture. The implications raised by Marx about class formation and class action are being echoed by questions about the formation and consequences of a lower-class culture (or culture of poverty). On a practical level, the existence of a separate lower-class culture may be taken as a reason for attempting to alter that culture rather than altering the conditions that may have fostered its development. The strong reactions to the U.S. Department of Labor‘s recent (1965) report on the Negro family stem from precisely this question: Can we eliminate poverty and approach equality through changing lower-class conditions such as inferior educational and occupational opportunities, or must we attempt to change certain lower-class cultural forms directly?

The question of whether we can speak of a class culture is similar to the question of whether we can speak of a class. The ambiguities about the concept of class culture stem from the ambiguities about the concept of class. We shall therefore briefly review some of the discussion about the concept of class, which will help to throw light upon similar discussions about class culture.

Definitions of social class

There is a vast literature on the definition of class, or social class. A distinction is sometimes made between the two terms: the former is defined in terms of objective criteria such as economic power, while the latter is defined in terms of subjective criteria such as class consciousness. Various writers make use of terms such as stratum, socio-economic status, and occupational class as alternatives to class, but the general tendency, which will be followed here, is to use only the single term class, or social class (Pfautz 1953).

“Realist” definitions. For the sake of sanity, and of perspective, three major questions are here singled out of the vast literature on class: (1) Is a social class a social group—rather than an aggregate or category of individuals—marked off by patterns of interaction and by barriers to interaction with members of other classes? (2) Are members of a social class conscious of the existence of class division, of economic or political class interests, and of their own membership in a class? (3) Is there a distinctive culture or way of life for each social class? These three criteria—class interaction (the social class as a group), class consciousness, and class culture—form the core of most “realist” attempts to define social class. Since they are three closely related ideas, they are often discussed together. Schumpeter (1919-1927), Maclver and Page (1949), and Ossowski (1957), among many others, have all made explicit reference to the factors of class interaction, class consciousness, and class culture as criteria for distinguishing a separate class.

The idea that a separate class of people in a society would develop a distinctive class culture or way of life is an old one. Particularly in cases where the barriers to interaction between members of different classes are circumscribed by law or custom, as in a caste society or estate society, we would expect the separate development of class cultures within a wider cultural framework that holds the separate castes or estates together as part of a total society. However, once we are dealing with “classes” where there are no legal or customary boundaries that must be adhered to, we can no longer be so definitive in our conclusions about the existence of separate class cultures.

“Nominal” definitions . Most recent research on social class uses a “nominal” definition. Studies that report findings on the lower class, working class, middle class, or upper class usually define class in terms of an index such as occupation, education, or income, or some combination of these indices. The use of a combined index raises the question whether each component of the index is measuring the same thing. It has long been recognized that there may be different status hierarchies and that one should distinguish, for example, between such factors as economic status, social status, and political status (Weber 1921). The general idea that an individual may be ranked differently according to different criteria leads to the question of the degree of correspondence between the different rankings, and a field of empirical investigation has emerged that seeks to identify the consequences of ranking consistency or inconsistency. Marshall (1956) has suggested that inconsistency on different rankings has been increasing in complex societies and that this is the reason for the present interest in the multidimensional aspects of class status.

In using a nominal definition, whether unidimensional or multidimensional, the researcher sidesteps the question of whether classes really exist, and thus he can carry out his research. Although, at one level, this literature avoids tangling with the “real” issues of social class, at another level it is of great importance because it provides us with information about the relationship between social classes, nominally defined, and other variables. Thus, social class has been either positively or negatively correlated with family stability, juvenile delinquency, mental disorders, aspirations, membership in voluntary organizations, and so forth. One strength of some of these empirical studies is that, properly used and interpreted, they can provide us with data on the relationship between nominally defined social classes and variables that can be seen as indices of the factors of basic “realist” concern—class interaction, class consciousness, and class culture.

Feudal European societies are frequently contrasted with contemporary Western societies in order to illustrate a declining sharpness of class boundaries. As a result, the advisability of research on social classes in contemporary societies has been carefully questioned (Rose 1958; Wrong 1964). Gradations of rank are said to be more characteristic of modern society than are discrete social classes; moreover, social mobility is common. We therefore may not find sharp class barriers to communication or strongly developed class consciousness or completely distinctive class cultures. But while we would not expect to find them in fully developed form, we may find them to a degree. To what extent are there class barriers to communication (the literature on interclass marriages would be relevant), to what extent do we find class consciousness, and to what extent are there separate class cultures?

Class culture as a concept

To what degree is it possible to speak of distinctive class cultures or subcultures, and to what degree does the existence of a common culture cut across all social classes? To what degree can we speak of separate class values, attitudes, behavior, and beliefs—of a separate class way of life? At one extreme, each class would have separate and unique cultural forms. At the other extreme, a common culture would cut across the whole society without any differences, modifications, or variations by social class. Rodman (1963) has reviewed the literature pertaining to the question of whether society is based upon a common value system or a class-differentiated value system. He points out that those who hold either extreme position are partly right and partly wrong and that we must consider the range of values to be found in the different classes; the overlapping ranges result in a common core of values, while the extremes of the ranges suggest that some classes (particularly the lower class) have developed unique values.

Insofar as it may be possible to generalize about the relationship between class status and cultural forms, we are dealing with at least the following issue: To what extent do the conditions of class life influence cultural patterns? Since conditions are most pressing within the lower class, in a way that is difficult for members of the lower class to avoid or control, we would expect to find the most fully developed variations from the dominant culture within the lower class. Indeed, this appears to be so; at least, most of the discussion of class culture deals with lower-class culture, or the culture of poverty. Some authors have sought to describe a culture of poverty. Others have objected to these attempts, on the grounds that there is a vast amount of heterogeneity to be found among lowerclass members (Bernard 1966). As a result, it has been suggested that we should talk about the lower classes rather than the lower class; and that we should talk about subcultures of poverty rather than the culture of poverty.

Since much of the research on social class is based upon a nominal definition of class, the controversy about the utility of the concept of lower-class culture should not be surprising. Lower-class conditions that are implied by an occupational category, such as unskilled labor, or by an income category, are obviously not all-powerful in determining cultural forms. We must therefore expect a good deal of cultural heterogeneity within a nominally defined social class. As a result, the discussion that follows contains many references to the objections that have been raised to the notion of a class culture; and even where such objections are not specifically raised, the attempt to describe separate lower-class, working-class, middle-class, and upper-class cultures must be seen in a context of homogeneity stemming from class conditions, tempered by heterogeneity stemming from other considerations.

Lower-class culture

A good deal has been written about lower-class culture, the culture of poverty, or the culture of the underprivileged. In general, most authors take the position that there are certain features of lower-class status that tend to lead to the development of certain cultural forms. Allison Davis (1946) has referred to the culture of underprivileged workers in an analysis based upon evidence from a city in the United States. Raymond T. Smith (1956) has identified a lower-class cultural tradition in British Guiana, and he has made tentative comparisons of his data with published data on lower-class communities in Peru and Scotland. Walter B. Miller (1958) has referred to the focal concerns of lower-class American culture in an essay based upon his studies of gang delinquency. Oscar Lewis (1961) has briefly spelled out an introductory statement on the culture of poverty based upon his extensive materials on families in Mexico, and he has specifically suggested the existence of some universal features of the culture of poverty that transcend national boundaries. Many others have addressed themselves to a description and understanding of lower-class culture, including Cohen and Hodges (1963), Hylan Lewis (1967), and Rainwater (1966).

What are the features attributed to the so-called lower-class culture? Walter B. Miller (1958) singles out six major focal concerns of lower-class culture—concerns that revolve about “trouble,” “toughness,” “smartness,” “excitement,” “fate,” and “autonomy.” Smith (1956) refers to the peripheral position of men within the lower-class family. Oscar Lewis (1961) mentions the following, among many other traits of the culture of poverty: gregariousness, violence, consensual marriages, authoritarianism, present-time orientation, tolerance, and fatalism. Cohen and Hodges (1963) report the following features, among others: most interaction with kin and neighbors, maintenance of separate kin networks by husband and wife, less participation in voluntary organizations, a preference for the familiar, authoritarianism, intolerance, anomie, distrust, toughness, extrapunitiveness. More comprehensive details from studies on social class differences, focusing particularly upon the lower class, can be found in the reviews by Herzog (1963) and Chilman (1965) and in the continuing coverage of the subject provided by Poverty and Human Resources Abstracts.

A mere listing of lower-class cultural traits, however, is not especially helpful. In the first place, the meaning of a trait, such as a concern about toughness or authoritarianism, is not self-evident. For example, the tolerance reported by Oscar Lewis (1961, p. xxvii) is “a high tolerance for psychological pathology of all sorts,” while the intolerance reported by Cohen and Hodges (1963, p. 321) is “above all toward the ethnic minority group.” The original reports must therefore be read for a clear account of the meaning of the traits. A second reason for the inadequacy of a listing is that many of the authors are concerned with the cultural patterning of the traits, that is, the sense in which they form an integrated cultural system (W. B. Miller 1958, pp. 6-7). For example, Oscar Lewis acknowledges that some of the traits he lists are “also found in the middle and upper classes. However, it is the peculiar patterning of these traits which defines the culture of poverty” (1961, p. xxvii).

One example from the literature may help to epitomize some of the basic features of lower-class culture. Rainwater (1966, pp. 206-207) has condensed a good deal of detail in his elaboration of three different kinds of survival strategies in the lower class: an expressive life style, which may lead to immediate gratification; a violent strategy; and a depressive strategy. He suggests that “when the expressive strategy fails or when it is unavailable there is ... the great temptation to adopt a violent strategy in which you force others to give you what you need. . . . Finally . . . there is the depressive strategy in which goals are increasingly constricted to the bare necessities for survival. . ..”

One important point that underlies all discussions of class culture revolves about the distinction that must be made between statistically significant class differences and characteristics of a class. There is a danger that the statistically significant difference—which may be represented by a finding that 25 per cent of lower-class adults are “authoritarian” in comparison to 15 per cent of middle-class adults—will be converted into an unqualified statement that authoritarianism is a lower-class characteristic.

Researchers are ordinarily very careful in pointing out the qualifications to their findings, but the reader who is looking for the characteristics of the culture of poverty all too frequently singles out the tentatively stated findings and ignores the carefully stated qualifications. For example, in an article entitled “Characteristics of the Lower Blue-collar Class,” Cohen and Hodges carefully point out that they are reporting statistically significant differences between the lower class and other classes and that to take their descriptions literally, “even though these descriptions point to real and important differences, is to subscribe to a caricature” (1963, p. 332).

Hylan Lewis (1967) has written a careful evaluation of the concept of the culture of poverty stemming from an account of his own research among low-income groups. First, he documents a variety of life styles that are to be found among low-income people. Second, he points to a variety of practical and theoretical dangers arising from the unqualified use of the class-culture concept. Finally, he introduces the idea that much of the behavior of low-income people can be seen as a pragmatic response to the stresses and deprivations of life. Insofar as lower-class behavior is pragmatically based, it is responsive to the overpowering conditions of life rather than to cultural guidelines; from this perspective lower-class culture, whatever its characteristics may be, takes on lesser importance.

A related view has been elaborated by Rodman (1963; 1966) with his concept of the lower-class “value stretch.” From this perspective, a major lower-class problem is the inability to behave in accordance with the dominant values because of deprived conditions. A major response is to “stretch” the dominant values (or to develop alternative values without abandoning the dominant values ) so that some degree of desirability becomes attached to behavior that is more in accord with lower-class conditions. The result is the existence of a wider range of values within the lower class, with less commitment to each level of that range.

The working, middle, and upper classes

Since there are no universally accepted definitions of working class, middle class, or upper class, any attempt to delineate the culture of these “classes” is an approximation at best. Since contemporary societies are better characterized in terms of “nonegalitarian classlessness” (Ossowski 1957) than in terms of discrete classes, any division into classes for purposes of analysis is arbitrary. Agreement does not exist on the number of classes to be found in a community or in a society. The arbitrary criteria used to assign individuals and families to specific classes and the arbitrary terms assigned to different classes often make comparability between different studies difficult. For example, working class and lower class are sometimes used interchangeably. And even when they are not, the criteria used to separate working class from lower class (or upper-lower class from lower-lower class) may differ, and the exact cutting points on these criteria may differ. With these qualifications firmly in mind, we can proceed to a brief account of some of the cultural characteristics of the working, middle, and upper classes.

Working-class culture . Kahl (1957), in summarizing the literature, has characterized the working class by the basic value orientation of “getting by.” The working-class man usually cannot look forward to much promotion or pay increase; he has little commitment to his job and more commitment to outside interests. Thus, his interests turn to his family and to the pleasures of consumption. S. M. Miller and Frank Riessman (1961) refer to the following characteristics of a working-class subculture: stability and security; traditionalism; intensity; person-centeredness; pragmatism and antiintellectualism; and excitement. Cans (1962) characterizes the working-class subculture as one that stresses the importance of family life and peer group life above the importance of work commitment and work advancement; he refers to this as “person-oriented” behavior. Perhaps two characteristics stand out most clearly: the concern for stability and security; and the person orientation of the working class.

Middle-class culture . Many of the cultural characteristics attributed to the middle class—concerns for individual development, deferred gratification, occupational success and advancement— are frequently part of the dominant value system in society. However, other classes, because of their conditions of life, do not stress these characteristics as much, if at all. In a summary statement Kahl (1957) distinguishes between a lower-middle-class concern about respectability, which is manifested by a desire for children to attend college as well as by a strong interest in religion and home ownership, and an upper-middle-class stress upon success in a career, upon which the family‘s style of living is based. Kahl (ibid., p. 201) also mentions an emphasis on “individual initiative combined with smooth group functioning,” on “planning for the future,” and on “activity, accomplishment, practical results.” Cans (1962) characterizes a middle-class subculture as emphasizing the importance of the nuclear family, child rearing, the husband‘s career, and education in terms of its contribution to career advancement. He also refers to a “professional upper-middle-class culture,” which is similar to the middle-class culture but in which more stress is placed upon individual self-expression and development within the nuclear family and within the work world. Finally, Seeley and his associates (1956, p. 357) refer to a “premium on foresight and control,” “prudent calculation,” faith in education and technique, an “orientation towards the future,” and a child-centered home as characteristics of the middle class.

For all the reasons mentioned above, and in addition because of the frequently heterogeneous population composition of the middle classes and because of the dominant nature of the middle-class values, we must not expect to find a neatly delimited group that shares these values. In particular, because of the dominance of these values, we must expect a good deal of agreement with them in other classes.

Upper-class culture . If one uses group interaction in defining a social class, the upper class frequently qualifies best. The upper class is also conscious of its position in society and stresses marriage within the class in order to preserve the favored position of its members. Moreover, certain subcultural customs tend to set the upper class off from the rest of society. Kahl refers to “the skills of graceful living” and the emphasis upon tradition, familism, and lineage as characteristics of the upper class. Baltzell (1958) refers to different speech patterns, a past-time orientation, a “being” rather than a “doing” orientation, and an emphasis upon lineage as characteristics of the upper class. In short, the upper class typically consists of a relatively small group of families with inherited wealth and position who are in intimate contact with each other, who stress endogamy, and who value and practice a graceful style of living that sets them somewhat apart from other classes.

If the defining criteria of a social class are the variables of group interaction, class consciousness, and class culture, then social classes exist only in small measure in most contemporary societies. If we assume gradations of rank according to a variety of criteria and if we use arbitrary indices and cutting points in order to delimit a social class, then we have nominally defined social classes. Most research has been done on nominally defined social classes, and despite the variability of the definitions, there has been enough consistency to provide us with information about social class differences. One feature of this empirical research is that it has provided us with information on certain cultural attributes on which there are social class differences. As a result, it has been possible to describe briefly, if approximately, some features of lower-class, working-class, middle-class, and upper-class culture. But it has not been possible to present, without qualification, the unique and distinctive features of any class culture because of the vast amount of overlapping that is found.

Hyman Rodman

[See also Elites; Status, Social


Baltzell, E. Digby 1958 Philadelphia Gentlemen: The Making of a National Upper Class. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Bernard, Jessie 1966 Marriage and Family Among Negroes. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Chilman, Catherine S. 1965 Child-rearing and Family Relationship Patterns of the Very Poor. Welfare in Review 3:9-19.

Cohen, Albert K.; and Hodges, Harold M. JR. 1963 Characteristics of the Lower Blue-collar Class. Social Problems 10:303-334.

Davis, Allison 1946 The Motivation of the Underprivileged Worker. Pages 84-106 in William Foote Whyte (editor), Industry and Society. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Cans, Herbert (1962) 1964 The Urban Villagers: Group and Class in the Life of Italian-Americans. New York: Free Press.

Herzog, Elizabeth 1963 Some Assumptions About the Poor. Social Service Review 37:389-402.

Kahl, Joseph A. 1957 The American Class Structure. New York: Rinehart.

Lewis, Hylan 1967 Culture, Class and Poverty. Washington: Health and Welfare Council of the National Capital Area. → Contains three essays by Lewis. See especially “Culture, Class and the Behavior of Low Income Families.”

Lewis, Oscar 1961 The Children of Sánchez: Autobiography of a Mexican Family. New York: Random House.

MacIver, Robert M.; and Page, Charles H. (1949) 1961 Society: An Introductory Analysis. New York: Holt.

Marshall, T. H. 1956 General Survey of Changes in Social Stratification in the Twentieth Century. Volume 3, pages 1-17 in World Congress of Sociology, Third, Amsterdam, Transactions. London: International Sociological Association.

Miller, S. M.; and Riessman, Frank 1961 The Working Class Subculture: A New View. Social Problems 9:86-97.

Miller, Walter B. 1958 Lower Class Culture as a Generating Milieu of Gang Delinquency. Journal of Social Issues 14, no. 3:5-19.

Ossowski, Stanislaw (1957) 1963 Class Structure in the Social Consciousness. New York: Free Press. → First published as Struktura klasowa w spotecznej swiadomosci.

Pfautz, Harold W. 1953 The Current Literature on Social Stratification: Critique and Bibliography. American Journal of Sociology 58:391-418.

Poverty and Human Resources Abstracts. → Published since 1966 by the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, University of Michigan and Wayne State University.

Rainwater, Lee 1966 Crucible of Identity: The Negro Lower-class Family. Daedalus 95:172-216.

Rodman, Hyman 1963 The Lower-class Value Stretch. Social Forces 42:205-215.

Rodman, Hyman 1966 Illegitimacy in the Caribbean Social Structure: A Reconsideration. American Sociological Review 31:673-683.

Rose, Arnold M. 1958 The Concept of Class and American Sociology. Social Research 25:53-69.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. (1919-1927) 1951 Imperialism and Social Classes. New York: Kelley. → Contains two works, first published as “Zur Soziologie der Imperialismen,” 1919, and “Die sozialen Klassen im ethnisch homogenen Milieu,” 1927. A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Meridian.

Seeley, John R. et al. 1956 Crestwood Heights: A Study of the Culture of Suburban Life. New York: Basic Books.

Smith, Raymond T. 1956 The Negro Family in British Guiana: Family Structure and Social Status in the Villages. London: Routledge.

U.S. Department OF LABOR 1965 The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Weber, Max (1921) 1946 Class, Status, Party. Pages 180-195 in Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published as Part 3, Chapter 4 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. A paperback edition was published in 1958.

Wrong, Dennis H. 1964 Social Inequality Without Social Stratification. Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology 1:5-16.

Social Structure

views updated May 29 2018

Social Structure






In academic work the evaluation of concepts depends as much upon fashion as upon utility. In the decade following World War II the concept of “social structure” became extremely fashionable among social anthropologists and at times attained such extreme generality that it could be applied to almost any ordered arrangement of social phenomena. No useful purpose can be served by pursuing all these ramifications of usage. Instead, this article examines the versions of the concept adopted by George Murdock in America, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and various of his followers in Britain, and Claude Levi-Strauss in France. The usages of other writers may be considered as modifications of one or other of these relatively extreme positions. Although nationality is relevant here, it is not decisive; there are British anthropologists whose position is close to that of Levi-Strauss just as there are Americans whose postulates are very similar to those of Radcliffe-Brown, but “structuralist anthropology” has a different connotation in France and in Britain, and the two meanings should not be confused.

Early uses of the concept Although the fashionable use of the term is a post-1945 phenomenon, the concept of “social structure” has a long history, which may be briefly reviewed. In its original English meaning the word “structure” referred to building construction, but by the sixteenth century it was also being used to refer to the interrelations between the component parts of any whole. It was in fact widely used in this sense in anatomical studies, which were in active development at that period. Its further extension from anatomy to sociology, though delayed for several centuries, was a logical corollary of the very general use of organic analogies by political philosophers. Hobbes does not actually use the expression “social structure” in his Leviathan, but his conception of the state as an artificial organism, in which the function of each component institution and office holder is carefully distinguished, is one to which the term might very well have been applied even in the seventeenth century. The explicit idea that the study of social structure should be an objective for sociological enquiry seems to be due to Spencer (1858), who refers to “the Inductions of Sociology—general facts, structural and functional as gathered from a survey of societies and their changes.”

The fact that Spencer brought the terms “structure” and “function” into direct association shows that he had an anatomical image in mind. This image appears again in the work of Durkheim, who was the source of Radcliffe-Brown’s ideas. As early as 1910 the latter gave lectures on Durkheimian sociology under the title “Social Structure.” Provided that we accept the organic analogy, there is no difficulty about understanding what these authors mean. Society is treated as a kind of living creature, the parts of which can be dissected and distinguished. The “social structure,” then, is the mesh of mutual positions and interrelations in terms of which the interdependence of the component parts may be described; the “function” of any part is the way it operates so as to maintain the total system “in good health.” But as soon as we ask such questions as Is society really an “organism” Where do we discern the boundary between one society and the next? How do we distinguish between a society that is in good health and one that is in a pathological condition?, the extreme artificiality of the model becomes apparent.

A less clearly defined strand of thought, which is free of organic overtones, is to be discerned in early Marxist literature. This is relevant for anthropology because of the close dependence of Engels (1884) upon Morgan (1877). Marx (1859) had written of the relations of production as constituting “the economic structure (Strukur), the real basis (Basis) on which is erected a juridical and political superstructure (Vberbau) and to which correspond the forms (Formen) of the determined social conscience.” Marx’s metaphor here is plainly that of a building, not of an organism, but the notion of structure is not sharply distinguished from a variety of other concepts. Elsewhere there are references to political, juridical, religious, and philosophical systems—in contexts where the word “system” is indistinguishable from the above uses of “structure,” “superstructure,” and “form” (Lefe-bvre 1962). More recently, sociologists have added such variants as “infrastructure,” “macrostructure,” “microstructure” on an apparently arbitrary basis. Engels (1884) specifically refers to Morgan’s “Stage of Savagery” as one in which “the social structure is based on ties of consanguinity,” but we need not suppose that he had any very clearly defined concept in mind; such expressions as “social order,” “social system,” or “social form” would have served just as well. On the other hand, if one were to seek a candidate for the first anthropological work which may be considered a “study of social structure” (in any of the three senses under discussion), the most obvious candidate is certainly Morgan’s work (1871), where the title word is Systems. The terms “system” and “structure” are not always synonymous in anthropological writing, but they are often indistinguishable.

Murdock The meaning which Murdock attaches to the expression “social structure” may be gathered from the items listed below. His principal concerns are the ethnographic facts and the taxonomic classification of societies on the basis of manifest, readily discernible characteristics. The Human Relations Area Files, located at Yale, which were originated by Murdock and which have remained his principal research tool, are an attempt to compare societies systematically by analyzing written source materials (of very varied quality and origin) according to a strictly uniform procedure. It is presupposed that the tribal names which appear in anthropological monographs correspond to fixed, readily distinguishable social entities (societies, tribes, cultures), which are fully described by listing the sum of their attributes. Murdock has drawn up a list of such possible attributes (Yale University 1938), and the immediate purpose of the Area Files (HRAF) analysis is to determine whether each listed attribute does or does not occur in the particular “society” under investigation. The taxonomy established by Murdock (1949) depends primarily on varieties of kinship organization. Insofar as Murdock uses an organic analogy, it is that of a dissected model laid out in a showcase; there is no attempt to envisage society as a living entity capable of growth. The taxonomy is based upon statistical correlation rather than functional analysis. The similarity of society A to society B is a factor measured by the number of instances in which the two societies share the same attributes as measured by the HRAF scheme of analysis. The ultimate objective is historical. In botany, Linnaeus’ taxonomy, based on classification by attributes, was later adapted into a scheme for tracing lines of evolution on a phylogenetic basis. Murdock claimed that his social taxonomy could likewise lead to evolutionary inferences (1949, chapter 8 and appendix). Critics reject the view that social aggregates are closely comparable to botanical species and argue that Murdock’s view of cultural attributes is misleading. Concepts such as “patrilineal descent,” “matrilocal residence,” and so forth do not refer to characteristics which are present or absent in any clear-cut way in any particular case. Murdock’s use of statistics shows that he considers each of his listed cultural attributes intrinsically independent of any other. This is completely at variance with the assumptions of the functionalist anthropologists, who presuppose an intrinsic interdependence between the parts of the whole.

Despite his use of the term “social structure” in book titles, Murdock’s attitude has been ambivalent. He denigrates the concept as “static” and “sterile” (1955). He argues that emphasis on “structure” should be replaced by an emphasis on “process"; “The Linnaean system,” he remarks, “only became something living after Darwin had discovered the process of variation and natural selection.” Vogt (1960) makes a similar distinction, contrasting the “static” notion of structure (which he sees as a characteristic preoccupation of British anthropologists) with the “dynamic” notion of process favored by American scholars. It is not clear to the present writer how “social process” in Vogt’s sense can differ from “history,” and it appears that all those who write in this manner are in some measure historical determinists who believe that “laws” of social change can be discovered if we only look hard enough. The assumption that synchronic studies are necessarily “static” while diachronic studies are “dynamic” is not borne out by the facts, and the identification of this antithesis with a contrast between structure and process is meaningful only if structure is restricted to the formal and static taxonomic sense adopted by Murdock. For example, Fortes’ “Time and Social Structure: An Ashanti Case Study” (1949) and Goody’s collection of essays (1958), which derive from it, are all based on synchronic studies; they are all studies of social structure (in the British but not in Murdock’s sense), but none of them is concerned with static phenomena.

Radcliffe-Brown and the British school Murdock’s use of the word “structure” implies either a building analogy (“society is an assemblage of independent bricks”) or a dead organic model dissected for demonstration. In contrast, Radcliffe-Brown presumes that society may be compared to a living organism or a working mechanism. For Radcliffe-Brown, a society has a life of its own: it is not an object so much as a creature, so that the study of structure—that is, the interdependence of the component parts of the system—is indissolubly linked with the study of function, or how the component parts of the system “work” in relation to each other and to the whole.

Radcliffe-Brown’s explicit formulation of this view and its application to anthropological studies are post-1931 developments. Radcliffe-Brown’s A Natural Science of Society (1957) shows how he was thinking about these matters in 1937, when it was written. Bateson (1936) illuminates directly the parting of the ways between the cultural analyses of Malinowski and Benedict, on the one hand, and the structural view favored by Radcliffe-Brown, on the other. The structuralism of Radcliffe-Brown was developed as a reaction to the lack of precision shown by Malinowski in his handling of the concept of culture. Warner’s A Black Civilization (1937), written under Radcliffe-Brown’s tutelage, is the earliest monograph which is unambiguously structuralist in style in this sense.

Although Radcliffe-Brown’s views of social function depend upon a holistic view of social structure, his British followers have not, in general, concerned themselves with the analysis of total working systems. Radcliffe-Brown himself was engaged in comparative work and theoretical generalization, and he encouraged his followers to concentrate on those aspects of a social system which display clear-cut formal characteristics and which reflect to a minimal degree the interplay of personal rivalries. A characteristic sample of such studies may be found in Radcliffe-Brown (1924—1949), Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (1940), Radcliffe-Brown and Forde (1950), Evans-Pritchard (1940), and Fortes (1945). The authors concern themselves with only one formal aspect of society at a time—political structure, kinship structure, ritual organization, as the case may be. They display this system as a set of rules (jural obligations); they discuss the mutual interdependence of the rules and the fit between the society and its environment (ecology). But there is a tendency to play down any discrepancy between rule and practice. As a consequence of this, these studies show a marked neglect of economic organization.

Firth and other British structuralists In contrast, other British writers such as Raymond Firth and A. I. Richards took over functionalist ideas (in a rather different form) from Malinowski but rejected Radcliffe-Brown’s thesis that a system of jural regularities—a formal “structure”—may always be discerned behind the day-to-day operations of social life that an anthropologist observes in the field. It is notable that Firth and Richards pay much greater attention to economics than do the British structuralists and have consistently stressed the importance of the individual acting in his own interest as against the importance of Radcliffe-Brown’s “social person,” whose actions are fully defined by the rules which pertain to his social situation. A terminological detail calls for attention here. For Radcliffe-Brown and his followers the expression “social organization” is, in most cases, a synonym for “social structure,” but Firth has for many years used “social organization” as a polar concept by which he seeks to emphasize the discrepancy between what actually happens and what a formal study of the rules might lead us to expect (see Firth 1964). The two viewpoints are complementary, and the tendency during the last few years has been for British writers to move closer to Firth’s position (e.g., compare Forde 1950 with Forde 1963; both papers discuss the same aspects of Yako social structure, but the former, written directly under Radcliffe-Brown’s influence, lays far more stress on the formal aspects of the rules as distinct from their practical application).

Weberian theory Over the years, British structuralism has been considerably modified by the assimilation of ideas derived from the sociology of Max Weber into a theoretical framework which was originally derived from Durkheim. Linton (1936) seems to have been the first anthropological author to make explicit use of the Weberian concepts of status and role, although it seems possible that Linton himself was influenced by Radcliffe-Brown (then teaching in Chicago). A full-scale development of Weberian role theory as a tool of anthropological analysis is to be found in Nadel’s The Theory of Social Structure (1957). Other Weberian concepts which have been extensively utilized by British structuralists are given below. (1) There is the notion of “ideal types,” which has sometimes been assumed to depend upon a discrimination similar to that by which Firth distinguished social structure from social organization. (2) There is the threefold typology of “traditional,” “bureaucratic,” and “charismatic” leadership. Weber’s notion of the charismatic leader has proved particularly rewarding in the analysis of such phenomena as Melanesian cargocults, and anextensive literature discusses how far the structure of government in African states of the “traditional” type may be compared with or distinguished from “rational bureaucracy” of the western European type as understood by Weber (e.g., Fallers 1956). (3) Weber’s concept of Verband was translated into English as “corporate group,” thus suggesting an exact equivalence with the concept of “corporation,” which has a sophisticated technical significance in English jurisprudence and which became assimilated into the language of British anthropology through its treatment by Maine (1861). In a penetrating summary of a large body of writing, Fortes (1953) pointed out that a crucial characteristic of the British structuralist studies of the interplay of political organization and kinship was that they treated unilineal descent groups (clans, lineages) as corporate groups in Weber’s sense and that on this account a substantial body of Weberian theory became directly applicable to anthropological analysis.

It is notable that anthropological structuralism in the British sense has achieved its most convincing results when applied to social systems in which a segmentary structure of unilineal descent groups provides the over-all framework within which political activity takes place. In societies which lack unilineal descent groups and where, consequently, the Weberian categories are harder to apply, structuralist analysis has proved markedly less successful. As a by-product of this failure of theory, some writers have tried to prove that societies which lack unilineal descent groups are really just the same as those which possess them (Davenport 1959), the apparent object of this exercise being to show that Weberian categories can be applied with success even to “nonunilineal” descent groups. In the present writer’s opinion this is a fallacy.

The ensuing debate has led to a clearer definition of various standpoints. The following summarizes what seems to be the present position of Fortes: Society is to be viewed as a system of corporations in Maine’s sense. The corporations may be perpetual groups (corporations aggregate) or perpetual offices (corporations sole). Each such corporation has associated with it a set of jural rules which specify inter alia what the corporation possesses (its “estate”), who the members are (“the principle of recruitment”), how leadership within the corporation is exercised, what the formal rights and obligations of the corporation as a whole are vis-a-vis other like corporations, what the formal rights and obligations of the subunits of a corporation are vis-á-vis one another. The ultimate units of any such segmentary system are individual office holders, but it is important to distinguish the office from the individual who holds it. An office is, in principle, immortal; the holder is not. The individual in the course of his lifetime moves from office to office and always holds a variety of different “offices” simultaneously. The rights and duties of a particular office can be uniquely specified, but the rights and duties of a particular individual will depend on circumstance and will normally entail inconsistency. Thus an individual who holds office as head of a university department and is also the owner of a particular residential house and the father of a family will have rights and duties in respect to each of these statuses, but it may or may not be possible for him to fulfill all three roles with equal adequacy.

A full description of the social structure would entail an analysis of all the rights and obligations which link all the offices and corporations in the system—a task which would be plainly impossible but which can be carried out piecemeal in a partial way. The anthropologist’s focus of interest is not in this structure as such but in “the way it works” —that is, in the perception of the way in which living human beings, who are all the time being born, growing older, and dying, pass through an ordered system of offices.

At a beginning level of analysis the system of offices is unchanged by the passage of individual office holders through the system, and it is at this level that Fortes has concentrated his own work (1949). At the next level of analysis “social change” results from the fact that individual office holders modify the rules pertaining to the offices which they occupy. In Forte’s view the sociological analysis of “change” in this sense is a matter for the future and may prove impossible.

Other British writers have tried to evade this limitation, and recently there have been a number of attempts to bring the dimension of historical time within the scope of structural analysis while avoiding the pitfalls of historical determinism. Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954) was an attempt of this kind, which presents Kachin political ideology as a structure of persisting verbal categories and argues that historical change in the empirical society results from a re-interpretation of existing categories rather than from a change in the structure of ideas.

Fortes’ interest in the way individuals move into and out of social office links his work with that of Gennep (1909), and, despite the greater importance attached to ideas deriving from Weber, the influence of early twentieth-century French sociology on the work of British “structuralist” anthropology remains very strong. As a consequence, despite differences of terminology and orientation, French and British ideas about social structure cannot be fully distinguished.

Lévi-Strauss and the French school The mathematical idea of “structure,” which is also that employed in “structural linguistics,” is somewhat different from that of either architecture or biology. The emphasis here is upon the transformability of a relational set rather than upon the quality of the relations as such. If a piece of music—originally in the form of a sheet of printed notes—is played on a piano, recorded on a phonograph record, transmitted over the radio, and finally played back to an auditor, the music passes through a whole series of transformations—it appears as printed notes, as a pattern of finger movements, as sound waves, as modulations of the grooves on a piece of bakelite, as electromagnetic vibrations, and so on. However, something is common to all these manifestations. That common something is their structure. This mathematical idea is abstract and very general; it includes the biologist’s notion of structure as a special case. The analogous notion of “social structure,” when derived from the mathematical concept, has likewise more general, more abstract uses than when it is based on an organic analogy. Lévi-Strauss’s view of structure has been taken over more or less directly from linguistics, and it is because of this that his arguments often appear highly abstract when compared to the relatively empirical analyses of British structural anthropologists, whose ideas ultimately derive from biology through the thinking of Radcliffe-Brown. Radcliffe-Brown conceived of the task of social anthropologists as that of establishing a kind of Linnaean taxonomy of functioning social systems. In such a taxonomy the difference between one society and another would be one of structure, but this structure was a readily describable empirical characteristic of the system. In Levi-Strauss’s analysis, on the other hand, interest in structure comes to the fore only when one system is contrasted with another. Levi-Strauss is interested in how far empirical systems correspond (or fail to correspond) with the theoretically possible transformations of a single (mathematical) structure; his structures thus start out as “models” rather than as empirically observed facts. For example, it is possible to imagine, as an ideal type, a society which has a strictly unilineal descent system and a strictly “unilocal” residence pattern. This gives us two binary variables—descent, which is patrilineal (P) or matrilineal (M), and residence, which is virilocal (V) or uxorilocal (U). With these limitations, we have four possibilities (or classes): P + V; M + U; P+ U; M + V. Actual societies do not fit tidily into categories of this kind, yet a great many actual systems can be approximately sorted in this way. If this is done certain facts emerge. The distribution is not at all random. Societies of class 1 are common, of class 4 less common, of class 2 very rare, and of class 3 virtually nonexistent.

We are then led to consider just why such distributions should be nonrandom, and this may lead us to fundamental insights into factors which affect all human societies and not just societies of a particular taxonomic type.

In a Radcliffe-Brown analysis, “the structure which persists” is the structure of a particular society associated with a particular culture and a particular geographical locality; in a Levi-Strauss analysis, “the structure which persists” is an attribute of human social organization as such; we can come to recognize the nature of this structure only when we build up a generalized model from radically contrasted empirical examples. As a case in point, Levi-Strauss (1963) has compared the stereotype of Australian aboriginal society with the stereotype of Indian caste (see Table 1).

Levi-Strauss’s argument is that in the Australian context all the items in the left-hand column are structurally and functionally interdependent and in the Indian context all the items in the right-hand column are similarly interdependent, but since the items listed on the right are the mirror inversion of those listed on the left, the structure represented by the right-hand column is really the same structure as that represented by the left-hand column. The right-hand column is generated from the left-hand column by applying a single transformation rule—the structure “remains the same,” in the same

Table 1
Australian societyIndian society
Source: Based on Levi-Strauss 1963.
In Australia the social unit is a “horde,” which is exogamous.In India the social unit is a “sub-caste” (jafi), which is endoga-mous.
Hordes are distinguished as totemic groups, totems being categories of nature (animals, plants).Subcastes are distinguished as occupational groups, occupations being categories of culture (potters, ropemakers, drummers, etc.).
The activities of totemic groups are group activities sanctioned by myth and consist of the ritual creation of animals (things of nature).The activities of caste groups are individual activities based on real knowledge and consist of the rational creation of artifacts (things of culture).
Magical totemic increase ceremonies rest on an ideology that totemic groups should supply each other with food just as they supply each other with women.Ritual attitudes to pollution have the consequence that a subcaste is a commensal group as well as an endogamous group. The exchange of food across sub-caste boundaries is prohibited.
In all other respects the division of labor depends only upon sex and age. Horde groups and totemic groups are not occupa-tionally differentiated.Since subcastes are differentiated by occupational specialism they are economically interdependent.
Thus the larger society is united by intergroup transactions involving the interchange of objects of nature (women and food).Thus the larger society is united by intergroup transactions involving the interchange of objects of culture (artifacts and occupational services).
Horde groups and totemic groups are of intrinsically equal status.Subcastes are of intrinsically unequal status.

sense as a square remains the same when we rotate it through 90 degrees or an algebraic equation remains the same when we change all plus signs into minus and minus signs into plus. Levi-Strauss’s procedures for discriminating between relevant and irrelevant evidence are no doubt arbitrary, but so are those of his British colleagues, and his demonstration that patterns of “structure” of this kind exist in the ethnographic data poses problems of fundamental sociological significance.

Assessment I have outlined three different uses to which the concept of social structure has been put by leading contemporary anthropologists. The value which we place on these different usages will depend upon our objectives. The Murdock usage and the Radcliffe-Brown usage are clearly to be preferred if our prime interest is typological and taxonomic, while those who set themselves the ambitious objective of discovering human universals will be more attracted by the higher-level abstractions which Levi-Strauss has brought into It the discussion. It deserves note, however, that none of these theorists has as yet dealt at all adequately with the time dimension in social affairs.

Whichever way we approach the concept of structure, it entails the notion of persistence. In Fortes’ treatment, the time of history and the time of the individual life cycle are distinguished. The structure of social units is conceived of as permanent relative to the life span of the individual members of society who pass through the system. Fortes would not claim that social structures in his sense are changeless but only that they are relatively changeless. For his purposes, change in structure is a phenomenon of history and as such lies outside sociological analysis. Lévi-Strauss, on the other hand, has tried to integrate his scheme with a kind of Neo-Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. The emphasis on binary contrast, which permeates the “structuralism” of Levi-Strauss and his associates in a very radical way, is a direct borrowing from the structural linguistics of the Prague school and is closely linked with Jakobson’s use of the notion of “distinctive features.” It also seems to tie in with the contrast theory of meaning, which is one of the doctrines of the Oxford school of linguistic philosophy. The essence of the argument is, roughly, that “we can recognize a thing for what it is by seeing what it is not”; thus the structure of any set is that which is common both to the set and its inverse (cf. the horde/subcaste example above). This can be given a Hegelian twist by identifying the structure with the “synthesis” which derives from (but is already implicit in) any “thesis” when viewed in conjunction with the “antithesis” which it generates. It is not at all clear to the present writer just how Levi-Strauss relates this potentially historicist argument to his structural models. Some times he seems to be saying simply that contrasted empirical examples of social systems are best understood as different manifestations of a single model structure; at other times there is a suggestion that the different manifestations are viewed as a dialectical sequence, each empirical type serving to generate its own antithesis. By this argument societies which are contrasted manifestations of the same structure should be found distributed in adjacent territorial areas in a synchronic dimension and in the same territorial area in a diachronic dimension. Pareto’s ideas about a “moving equilibrium” are not very different from this. Leach’s Political Systems of Highland Burma (1954) can be considered as an attempt to test out this argument in terms of concrete ethnohistorical materials.

Structuralism in linguistics has run into the same time-scale difficulties as structuralism in social anthropology, and it may be of interest to see what has happened in this neighboring field. It has lately come to be emphasized that a verbal utterance can never be a synchronic event. It starts at the beginning and progresses to the end. The form of the utterance is not, in general, completely predetermined by its beginning; it is “generated” as the utterance progresses as a response to grammatical rules which are applicable or not applicable depending upon the developing sequence. The grammatical rules are like the rules of a game: they do not determine what is said; they merely delimit what is a permissible choice at any particular point in the sequence. They specify what is possible and also what is not possible, but between these limits they allow freedom of choice. The work of the mathematical economists has been developing in a rather similar way: progressions of events through time are coming to be thought of as delimited by qualified rules (as in a game) rather than “determined” in an historicist sense. This kind of application of game theory and its derivatives disposes of the notion that ’structure is, of necessity, a static synchronic concept. A game of chess is a sequence in time, and no individual move in the sequence is predictable, yet it is plain that the sequence as a whole is “structured” in a quite formal and easily describable way. The rules of chess are specific and not generative, but we are familiar enough with types of games where the rules themselves change according to circumstance—e.g., a dice game which includes the rule “player who throws a six has two extra throws.” Some British anthropologists are already disposed to make their descriptions of social structure in terms of sets of rules defining the interdependent rights and obligations attaching to sets of offices. To start thinking of such rules as being of the generative kind would not call for any very drastic modification of established conventions. Earth (1959; 1966) is one of the few anthropologists who has so far made some tentative exploration of this idea. In the view of the present writer it may prove a fruitful line of development.

Edmund R. Leach


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The concept “social structure” is, paradoxically, so fundamental to social science as to render its uncontested definition virtually impossible. Basic concepts in particular seem likely to suffer from this difficulty, since their primordial character demands that they provide an effective link between the field of inquiry and the particular approach, or even the personal philosophy, of the individual scholar. Various controversies, both apparent and real, are thus especially likely to surround the use of such concepts. In the case of “social structure,” some of these difficulties are purely terminological and are, hence, more easily resolved than mayappear possible on the surface. Others derive more fundamentally from disagreement over the basic philosophical assumptions appropriate to social research. And still others reflect substantive theoretical problems, which seem likely to persist even when there is agreement over terminology and basic philosophy. Before one can proceed to analyze social structure in detail, one must confront certain basic issues arising from these three areas of controversy.

Terminology . Despite some contention to the contrary, I would hold that terminological problems are relatively easy to solve, since there is more agreement among sociologists and other behavioral scientists about concepts than about what words should be used to designate them. Virtually every general approach to social behavior involves some or all of the following five conceptual distinctions as actual or potential distinct loci of variation:

(1) An individual component, i.e., some conception of personality or aggregated characteristics of individual personalities.

(2) A group component, i.e., a set of variables essentially referring to various aspects of the process of social interaction among people.

(3) A morphological component, i.e., a set ofvariables pertaining to the spatial-temporal arrangement of individuals and the physical size of groups.

(4) A systematic component which focuses on theproperties of interrelationships among activities as such, independently of the people performing them, generally treating such activities as social roles.

(5) A cultural component comprising ideas(norms, values, beliefs) which are learned and shared by people and are transmitted symbolically from person to person.

As we shall see presently, different philosophical and theoretical viewpoints yield different orderings of relative emphasis on these five components and, indeed, sometimes result in wholly eliminating one or another of the components from effective consideration. From a purely definitional standpoint, the question of what one means by “social structure” thus reduces to the question of how many and which of these five conceptual components one wishes to denote by the term. Since we wish to compare, and to some degree synthesize, various points of view, we shall define “social structure” very broadly as the totality of patterns of collective human phenomena that cannot be explained solely on the basis of human heredity and/or the non-human environment (compare Levy 1952, pp. 8-17). This definition includes all five aspects, allows for interrelations among them, and thus provides a context for a comparative discussion of current approaches.

Philosophical assumptions

Certain basic philosophical questions raised principally by the “structuralist” cultural anthropologists bear on the question of the relationship of models to social structure (Levi-Strauss [1958] 1963, pp. 277-323). Everyone presumably agrees that the twentieth-century scientist, as opposed to his nineteenth-century counterpart, is no longer trying to “discover reality” but, rather, is seeking to understand observations by imposing different kinds of order on them in the form of various models, exploring the implications of each, and accepting one model as opposed to another on pragmatic grounds. The structuralist position in effect extends this argument by observing that ordinary people are subject to the same epistemological limitations as are scientists. According to this view, any discussion or thought of social structure by anyone implies that he is constructing and using models, which we shall term “folk models” to distinguish them from the analytic models constructed by the scientist (Anderson & Moore 1960). Folk models thus constitute an important cultural element of social structure; some examples would be forms of games and patterns of responses to questions, as well as language itself. The formal properties of folk models are, furthermore, susceptible to study and are capable of yielding important insights into social structure through such procedures as, for example, “componential analysis” (Goodenough 1956).

Few social scientists would disagree with this position as stated so far. To be sure, it begs the question of the relative explanatory importance of folk models as opposed to other aspects of social structure under given circumstances, but such a question is presumably a fruitful one which can in principle be answered through empirical research. However, the argument usually does not stop at this point but frequently proceeds to combine with the foregoing an essentially phenomenological view of social reality. As a result, folk models emerge, not simply as one important component of social structure but as the totality of social structure itself. The study of social structure thus becomes no more and no less than the study of folk models (see Levi-Strauss [1958] 1963, p. 279). This perspective leaves us, however, with the problem of the relationship between folk models, on the one hand, and analytic models constructed by the scientific observer, on the other.

It must be said that some confusion occurs in the structuralist literature as a result of a frequent failure to make this distinction explicit. Once such a distinction is made, however, it becomes apparent that these two types of models are very likely to be quite different; indeed, if they were not, the value of social science itself would be highly questionable. And not only can the social scientist construct analytic models based on his analysis of folk models, but he can also construct analytic models of other social phenomena that are not necessarily reflected in the cultural system at all, such as certain morphological patterns. In order to maintain a consistently phenomenological viewpoint in the face of such possibilities, the structuralists are obliged at this point to assume that scientific models have latent cultural existence as “unconscious” folk models (ibid., p. 281).

It is certainly possible, in principle, to proceed in this manner, but one may reasonably question the value of so doing. If one is concerned primarily with the analysis of the formal properties of symbolic systems per se-—as are, in all fairness, most structuralists—the difficulties of this mode of procedure are not great. But where the analysis requires any investigation of latent behavioral or morphological characteristics, the attempt to maintain a consistently phenomenological viewpoint would seem to involve many unnecessary complications. Pragmatically, the same results could be obtained more easily by merely assuming such behavioral and morphological characteristics to be external to the cultural system and raising purely empirical questions regarding their relationships to it. Furthermore, divesting the structuralist approach of phenomenology does not result in stripping it of its genuinely valuable contributions: that it calls attention to the inevitability of model construction in the study of social structure and that it identifies folk models as an important component of cultural systems, in the process drawing particular attention to the relevance of linguistic analysis (Anderson & Moore 1960; Dumazedier 1964; Jaeger & Selznick 1964; Osgood et al. 1957). Moreover, such divestiture reveals a very important question that otherwise remains confused or obscured—the question of the importance of folk models, relative to other patterns of social phenomena, as sources of theoretical explanation. The problem of the relationship, under various conditions, of folk models on the cultural level to other patterns manifest on the morphological, systemic, group, and individual levels of social structure is a matter for empirical investigation, the answer to which can hardly be assumed away or denned out of existence. Thus I would accept the epistemological observations of structuralism but would stop short of a phenomenological position. This position leads to substantive agreement with the structuralists that folk models, conceived as part of the cultural component of social structure, are indeed important; however, it also raises the question of the relative importance of such models under specified conditions as a matter for empirical determination.

Theoretical problems

We may now turn to a discussion of actual theoretical issues as they center on two major questions: first, the relative ordering of, and general relationships among, the five aspects of structure previously indicated; and, second, the nature of the mechanisms of interrelationship.

Divergent views of social structure

As to the questions of ordering and general relationships, three basic viewpoints have been particularly important; I shall refer to them as the cultural, interactionist, and morphological positions, respectively. The cultural point of view emphasizes the explanatory primacy of culture as a system of ideas that are learned, shared, and transmitted by people who, in turn, are oriented to situations by virtue of the culture that they have learned. Situations thus evoke responses, culturally defined as role expectations, by virtue of which people find themselves interacting with one another, with the possibility of resultant morphological differentiation. The causal progression is from the cultural-individual aspects of the situation to the systemic aspects, to group characteristics, and, finally, to the morphological aspects of structure. The entire chain is not usually explicit; it is more common for this approach to stress the interrelationships of culture, personality, and social system, defining social structure as some combination of these elements, with group and morphological considerations viewed as somewhat ancillary. An essentially “theatrical” view of social structure emerges, wherein culturally defined systems of role expectations await the participation of people, and this participation either incidentally yields group and morphological characteristics or implies them as contextual constants.

It is impossible to discuss here all of the divergences of detail exhibited by different versions of the cultural approach; major instances would include “culturological” social anthropology (e.g., Kluckhohn 1953; Kluckhohn & Strodtbeck 1961; Murdock 1949), the phenomenological structuralism previously discussed, and the voluntaristic theory of action applied to the analysis of social structure (Weber 1922; Parsons 1951; for a similar but somewhat different approach, see Nadel 1957; also see Kroeber & Parsons 1958).

In some respects both the interactionist and the morphological positions represent the obverse of the cultural approach, in that both postures either imply cultural and individual characteristics as contextual constants or view them as emergent secondary properties. In the interactionist version of social structure, people with highly generalized expectations about one another’s probable behavior are taken as given and are morphologically presumed to interact with one another. From the ensuing reciprocal process of role taking and role playing, increasingly stable systems of role expectations emerge which, in turn, become generalized into superordinate systems of cultural norms. The causal progression is thus from group phenomena to systemic aspects and, finally, to cultural patterns (Blau 1964; Homans 1961; Mead 1934).

The morphological conception of social structure is essentially similar to the interactionist version, but it is more macroscopically conceived. It assumes a disposition on the part of people to engage in stable interaction relative to certain specified but highly generalized cultural expectations. Emergent systemic and cultural properties of the situation therefore depend on morphological structure, which, through variations in the numbers of people involved and their spatial and temporal relationships to one another, as well as to artifactual facilities, imposes limits on the possibilities of interaction capable of producing emergent characteristics (Cottrell 1955; Duncan & Schnore 1959; Durkheim 1893; Halbwachs 1938; Helm 1962; Schnore 1958).

These divergent viewpoints have, in turn, yielded apparently opposing conceptions of social structure. From the cultural standpoint, social structure emerges as an object of orientation comprising cultural and systemic elements in terms of which the actions of individuals, groups, and morphological entities occur or are directed. On the other hand, from the interactionist and morphological viewpoints, social structure has, by and large, been thought of as the totality of group and morphological patterns, with individual elements contained in the group patterns and with or without systemic components, depending on the particular version of theory. Cultural elements are viewed as essentially external, in either a contextual or an emergent sense, or they are for some purposes deemed irrelevant.

Two principal theoretical controversies have resulted from this situation; one of these may be regarded as at least partially resolved, but the other is now only beginning to be fully explored. The first of these controversies is that of the cultural versus the interactionist versions of social structure. The key to the resolution of this problem lies in the development of the voluntaristic theory of action combined with the introduction of symbols into interaction theory. No adequate theory of social behavior now seems possible unless it explicitly recognizes some process of social learning. The symbolic interactionist position, in contrast with that at least implied by earlier “radical positivists,” is that social interaction cannot be a purely physical process but, rather, involves reciprocal role taking and role playing with reference to a learned repertoire of relatively stable expectations (Mead 1934).

Approaching the same problem from the opposite pole, the voluntaristic theory of action seeks to remove the metaphysical cobwebs from transcendental idealism by arguing that the “force” of ideas on the social order is actually felt in an entirely empirical manner—through socialization and subsequent action, with inevitable reference to learned normative orientations (Parsons 1937, esp. pp. 77-82). Both positions, therefore, not only insist upon the existence of cultural components in social structure but also identify essentially similar ones: relatively stable sets of learned (and “learnable”) normative expectations. The result is a more comprehensive view of social structure than either the cultural or the interactionist position alone provides; it includes four of the five components we have identified, excluding only morphological structure.

It is precisely this absence of morphological considerations that leads to the second major theoretical issue: the place of human ecology in current theories of social structure. The emphasis on elements capable of transmission through learning has at times led to stressing roles and norms to the exclusion of concrete people and things in physical space. The result can be a view of social action that is literally carried on by nobody anywhere. In this sense the achievement of a measure of integration between cultural and interactionist viewpoints has been something of a Pyrrhic victory; it has concomitantly involved—at least on the theoretical level—a gradual destruction of an earlier positivist unity of morphological and interactionist approaches (Durkheim 1893).

Among the consequences of this situation has been a tendency either to view demography and human ecology as distinct disciplines entirely separate from sociology, or to view many current theoretical developments as essentially irrelevant to social reality. Furthermore, since social research must necessarily start by observing people and things, another consequence of this line of theoretical development has at times been a virtually enforced lack of relationship between research and theory. This situation has led unavoidably to the existence of entire bodies of analytical and statistical operations that have no clear correlates in current theoretical thought and, consequently, to the viewpoint—which, in light of the highly operationalistic emphasis of modern science, is surprisingly widely accepted in sociology—that there exists something called “methodology” which is generically different from something else called “theory.” The unreality of this dichotomy has made increasingly apparent the fact that the cultural, interactionist, and morphological approaches do not actually represent differing “schools of thought” so much as they represent emphases on different aspects of social structure; thus, any reasonably complete theory of social structure must explicitly confront the question of interrelationships among these different aspects.

Causal mechanisms

Curiously enough, the question of causal mechanisms in social structure has received relatively little explicit attention. Broadly speaking, two kinds of mechanisms seem to pervade the literature, more often implicitly than explicitly, deriving from the cultural and morphological approaches, respectively. The first type of mechanism, which we shall term psychological, assumes that individuals severally receive cues from the social environment which, when combined in their personalities with learned responses (culturally prescribed or not), result in actions that, when aggregated, constitute social-structural patterns. In contrast, the second type of mechanism, which we shall term ecological, seeks to explain behavior through a process of elimination by arguing that certain actions are impossible owing to limiting features of the situation; in other words, social action is patterned by virtue of the fact that it must occur within the confines of limiting conditions.

To some extent it is true that cultural theories of social structure tend to rest on psychological explanatory mechanisms and morphological theories to rest on ecological mechanisms, whereas interactionist theories historically have exhibited a shift in emphasis from ecological to psychological mechanisms. But this statement is, at best, only a partial approximation. For example, ecological mechanisms need not be limited to those involving physical properties of a morphological nature; they can be extended to include cultural and systemic characteristics, as in “structural—functional requisite analysis” (Levy 1952) and in adaptive theories of social change. Wilson and Wilson, for instance, explicitly define “social structure” as “the systematic form of limitation by which eccentricities are checked and complementary diversities are preserved” ([1945] 1965, p. 49, italics added; also see Eisenstadt 1964). Actually, it is impossible to discuss one type of mechanism meaningfully without at least making some implicit assumptions about the way the other is operating in the situation. Thus the scope of any psychological mechanism is limited by what cues are in fact present in the situation and what past elements could have been learned, as well as by physical, including artifactual, possibilities. Similarly, all ecological mechanisms assume the presence of some given level and kind of motivational orientation on the part of the actors involved. Thus the main theoretical issue is not which mechanism is present in some absolute sense but, rather, at what point in the analysis it is pragmatically appropriate to explicate which type of mechanism while making what assumptions about the other type.

This issue has often been obscured, perhaps partly because of a lack of synthetic effort, but surely because of the intellectual legacy of functionalism. For in its classical statement functionalism draws attention away from the question of causal mechanisms simply by assuming that social structures operate in such a way as to maintain themselves in some stable state (Merton [1949] 1957, pp. 19-84; Radcliffe-Brown 1952). Such an assumption permits one to make the type of ecological argument characteristic of “structural-functional requisite analysis”: that the existence of such a state implies that certain activities contributing to its maintenance are perforce somehow being performed (Levy 1952, pp. 149-197). But such an argument invites questions about the status of psychological mechanisms in the situation (Brown 1963, pp. 109-132; Homans 1964; Inkeles 1959). Classical functionalism avoided such questions by assuming, in effect, a complete congruence of psychological mechanisms with ecological explanatory devices, thereby giving a teleological cast to social structure (Malinowski 1944) and inviting tautologous formulations. It is possible to drop this assumption and still maintain a nominally functionalist position. But the questions begged as a result of so doing transcend the original functionalist position to such a degree as to suggest the adoption of a different perspective al-together. The focus becomes one of discovering the nature of causal mechanisms that interconnect different aspects of social structure, rather than one of assuming the mechanisms and thereby inferring structures (Dore 1961).

This position suggests a resolution, in principle, of another question in regard to causal mechanisms that has often plagued the analysis of social structure: the “statics versus dynamics” problem. Masking the theoretical issues is the immediate terminological question of whether the concept “social structure” should be restricted in its reference only to those elements of the social order which remain constant over time. Thus Firth (1951), for example, proposes to use the term “social organization” to denote patterns of change, in contrast with “social structure,” which indicates patterns of stable elements. Analogous to this distinction is the familiar “process versus structure” dichotomy. But processes are inseparable from structure, in the sense that any social structure is held together by mechanisms relating its elements (see Vogt 1960; see also Gurvitch [1950] 1957-1963, vol. 2, pp. 403-446). Operation of such mechanisms through time results in more or less change or stability in the values of the variables reflecting the social structure. Consequently it is misleading to treat patterns of stable interrelations as if they were basically different from patterns of change, inasmuch as both types of pattern result from the operation of social forces through causal mechanisms. It is not the case that change, simply because it is change, somehow involves “more mechanisms” than does stability.

Toward an eclectic view

The current path of what one might term “post-functionalist revisionism” thus suggests that dynamic strain is always present on some levels of social structure (Moore 1963), and, while hardly Marxist in its orientation, suggests the fruitfulness of a reconsideration of some of the basic insights of Marx in this context. The five structural aspects which we have distinguished are interrelated by a complex of dialectical tensions which, in principle, can be concretely operationalized and explicated as a set of interrelated psychological and ecological causal chains cutting across the five aspects of social structure, with their operation resulting in more or less “stability” and “change.”

The immediate problem would seem to be, first, the allocation of proportional contributions of variance among the cultural, systemic, morphological, group, and individual aspects of social structure. One can then seek to explain the statistical results thus obtained by assuming various psychological and ecological causal mechanisms whose existence can subsequently be verified or disproved by detailed analysis of actual social situations.

An as yet small, but perhaps significant, literature is beginning to arise utilizing essentially this perspective and centering—at least in its initial stages—on the analysis of “structural” or “compositional” effects. Thus far it has proved possible, in such analyses, to isolate individual from group effects and to separate both individual and group effects from a residue involving morphological, systemic, and cultural properties (Blau 1960; Lazarsfeld & Menzel 1961; Davis et al. 1961). Some inferences of precise mechanisms have been made, mostly centering on socialization on the individual level; interpersonal strategies yielding “social approval” on the group level; and emergent consolidation of normative systems through adaptation between the group and systemic, and group and morphological, levels (Davis 1963; also see Heider 1958; Blau 1964).

It is as yet too early to assess the probable ultimate fruitfulness of this approach. Various problems seem to arise, for example, in developing consistent operational ways of moving from the group to the systemic, morphological, and cultural levels of analysis. The main difficulty seems to lie in systematically relating interpersonal phenomena to ecological processes (in the traditional sense), value systems, and various (often vaguely conceived) macrostructural, dialectical “forces” (Boudon 1963; Selvin & Hagstrom 1963; Tannenbaum & Bachman 1964). However, with increasing recognition that many theoretical controversies regarding social structure either reduce to the use of different words to denote the same things or arise from an emphasis on different relatable aspects of the same phenomena, will perhaps come a fruitful synthesis, eventually more original than eclectic.

Stanley H. Udy, Jr.

[See alsoFunctional analysis; Interaction, article onSOCIAL INTERACTION; Perception, article onSOCIAL PERCEPTION; Social institutions; Sociology, article onTHE DEVELOPMENT OF SOCIOLOGICAL THOUGHT.]


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Status, Social

views updated May 14 2018

Status, Social


Until about 1920 the term status was most commonly used to refer to either the legally enforceable capacities and limitations of people or their relative superiority and inferiority. More recently, the rights and duties fixed by law have seemed less significant than those fixed by custom; and thus the nonscalar usage, now often called “status in the Linton sense,” after the social anthropologist Ralph Linton (1936), has come to be a synonym for any “position in a social system.” While the nonscalar usage of the term has broadened, however, the scalar usage has narrowed. Whereas formerly superiority of status could mean any sort of hierarchical ordering—of power, wealth, or honor—to many it now refers only to esteem, prestige, honor, respect, that is, to various forms of evaluation.

Status in the Linton sense. According to Linton, a status is marked off by the fact that distinctive beliefs about, and expectations for, social actors are organized around it. “Child” is a status because we believe children are less mature than adults and because in American society children are expected to be more submissive to the authority of their parents than are adults. The status “31 years old,” on the other hand, although there are beliefs and expectations held of 31-year-olds, is typically not called a status, because the same beliefs and expectations are held of 30-year-olds.

Age, sex, birth, genealogy, and other biological and constitutional characteristics are very common bases of status. Nevertheless, status is a phenomenon, not of the intrinsic characteristics of men, but of social organization. While it is natural in one society to use biology to define a status, in another it is completely irrelevant. Americans mean by the expression “father” the genitor of a child; in many parts of Australia and Africa, people sharply distinguish genitor from father. Americans mean by the expression “brother” the son of one's father; many patrilineal societies mean by it both the son of one's father and the son of one's father's brother. Even where the same characteristic is used, it may be used differently by two different societies. An American of any traceable degree of dark color is a “Negro”; but Brazilians see eight distinct degrees of color, with each corresponding to a distinct status. Nor is it necessary to actually possess an attribute to have the status based on it. What matters is not what you really are but what people believe you to be. The very substantial number of Negroes who each decade pass into the “white” population have not changed their color, but people believe they are white and organize behavior toward them around this conception.

The term status is often not clearly distinguished from the term role, and some use the two terms almost interchangeably. But one can make the distinction easily enough if one keeps in mind that status defines who a person is (e.g., he is a child, or a Negro, or a doctor), while role defines what such a person is expected to do (e.g., he is too young to work; he should not want to push himself ahead; he should care about patients).

A common method of identifying the statuses of a social system is to discover its “list” of status designators. For example, kinship studies typically begin with a list of kin terms and their usage. If father's son and father's brother's son are both brothers, they have a common status; if one is brother and the other is cousin, they have different statuses. Although statuses are often reflected in language in this way, the rule does not seem to be perfectly general. Some distinctions are made by language (e.g., blonde, brunette) that do not seem significant of status, while some distinctions are not made by language (e.g., leader and follower in small, informal groups) that are very indicative of status.

Status as the unit of social systems. Everyone has more than one status. No status, in any social situation, encompasses the person. Therefore, it is natural to distinguish the status and the person. What appears to many as less natural is that sociologists typically take the status rather than the person as their basic unit in analyzing social systems. The argument that leads to this conclusion has two premises: first, it is argued that persons and statuses are not only distinct concepts; they also identify distinct levels of analysis; second, it is argued that given the typical concerns of sociologists, it is status rather than person that is the more useful level of analysis.

That person and status are independent levels of analysis is claimed for three reasons. First, even though two persons have quite different psychological motives or characters, very often their observable conduct is similar if they have the same status. For example, because of the way medical institutions function, very acquisitive and very altruistic doctors may behave in much the same way if both want to succeed. Second, even though two persons have the same psychological motives or character, very often their observable conduct is different if they have different statuses. Because of differences in the way medicine and business are institutionally structured, very acquisitive doctors behave differently than very acquisitive businessmen. Third, even if two persons with similar character structures are seen in two different statuses, very often their observable conduct is different: for example, the authoritarian son is not the authoritarian father.

If the two levels of analysis are distinct, which is the concern of the sociologist? A social system is a process of interaction between actors, and its structure is made up of the relationships between the actors. If we entertain the idea that the unit of such a system is the person, then either we must discover a basic personality structure from which its behavior derives or we must regard the behavior of the system as being a result of individual differences in the character of its members. For example, we could argue that Russians and Americans are aggressive people, and therefore Russia and the United States are aggressive; or that the influence structure of a small social group is due to the dominance of some personalities and the submissiveness of others. But the first argument does not come to terms with highly differentiated modern society, and the second does not come to terms with processes inherent in the social system itself that most sociologists believe bring about such differentiation in influence.

Status is, therefore, the unit of social systems for most practicing sociologists. However, frequently they do not face the fact that status is an abstract concept; that is, they often want to use status to explain “behavior,” meaning by behavior every concrete event that takes place in the “real” world. But status and role will not explain behavior in this sense, any more than will person and character. Status is the unit of sociological analysis because it is the most elementary component of that kind of abstract system, the social system, studied by sociologists, not because it has some priority over other concepts in explaining concrete behavior.

Sets and sequences of statuses and roles. Social position is always defined relative to a counter-position. A doctor behaves to a patient one way, to a nurse a second way, and to a hospital administrator a third way. The elementary unit of analysis for social systems, therefore, is not the status itself, but the relation of two statuses. Looked at from the point of view of some participant in the system, one of these statuses is his own, or the “subject status,” while the second is a definition of the “other,” or the “object status.” More complicated structures of these elementary relations are still in the process of being defined, and terminology is not yet well established. Following Merton (1957), however, one may say that a set of object statuses of a single subject status is a role set; a set of subject statuses of a single person is a status set; and a set of subject statuses through time, such that it is necessary and sufficient that the subject occupy an earlier status for him to occupy a later status, is a status sequence. Thus, Smith's being a doctor means that he must involve himself in social relations with nurses, patients, other doctors, hospital administrators, and so on (role set); perhaps Smith is also a husband, a father, a deacon of the church, a member of the grand jury (status set); the process by which he became a doctor required that he first be a medical student, then an intern, then a resident (status sequence).

Status as a property of actors. Status sets, role sets, and status sequences may all be distinguished from status characteristics. All three are units, in the same sense that a particle is a unit in physical theories; that is, they are basically elements of which properties are asserted, not themselves properties. That is why status is often thought of as static rather than dynamic and why so little can be done with the concept in the eyes of many sociologists. Status can, however, be treated as a property of actors—that is, as a status characteristic—as well as a unit of a social system, and in this sense it is a dynamic concept. Vice-president of company Q is a status in organization Q and might have various properties, such as centrality in the communication network of the organization. Smith, who is vice-president of Q, may also be a juror in a court trial, and his evidently middle-class status, or even the information that he is a company vice-president, will play a substantial part in organizing the attitudes of other jurors toward him, although vice-president of Q is not a status in the jury itself (Strodtbeck et al. 1957). Thus, status may function in systems other than the system of which it is the elementary unit, because it is a property of actors as well as a unit.

Functions of status in interaction. Stable interactive systems depend on the emergence of normative expectations. Once emerged, such expectations are not created de novo every time two new actors encounter each other. Instead, the two classify themselves in terms already established in society; they identify both themselves and the other; and knowing who they are, relative to each other, they understand what attitude to take toward each other.

Underlying this view of organized social interaction—which stems in a direct line from Cooley (1902), Park (1928), and the Hugheses (1952) to almost every modern sociologist—is the assumption that every actor is sensitive to the attitudes others will take toward him. Every actor, therefore, tends to feel tense and upset if unable to define the social situation in such a way that the behavior of the other is predictable. For if it is not possible to behave in appropriate ways to the other, one may be very embarrassed or even shattered if a serious breach of moral order results.

How one classifies both oneself and others, given an established set of statuses in society, is a matter of the cues in both the situation of the encounter and in the action of the other. One of the more dynamic features of this theory of social interaction, in fact, is the idea that each action implies a status, and each status an action; therefore, each actor reveals how he defines the situation in the way he behaves, and thus provides other actors with cues to their own statuses in the situation. If actors start fairly far apart in their definitions of the situation and if, as a result, their behavior is different from what others expect, the situation is self-corrective in the sense that each readjusts his behavior to the definitions of the others. The path of such readjustments is in the direction of reciprocity, that is, of defining each other in terms of the appropriate reciprocal statuses.

The idea that one's self-conception is mirrored in the behavior of others is of course Cooley's, although the “looking-glass self” is both a more and a less complicated notion. It is less complicated in that it does not concern itself with how adult actors in an encounter use each other's behavior to define the situation; it is more complicated in that it is concerned both with self-image (definitions of the self) and self-esteem (evaluations of the self). What is relevant at this point is the self-image hypothesis, which Huntington (1957) has given some degree of confirmation by showing how medical students come to see themselves as doctors. Where students are involved in an interactive situation with a nurse or patient who expects them to behave like, or even defines them as, doctors, they are more likely to think of themselves as doctors.

Status ambiguity. The tradition of Park and Hughes leads one inevitably to the study of status ambiguity as a central theoretical problem. If every actor has more than one status, the attitudes of any two statuses may be either compatible or incompatible in their demands on the self and the other. If two statuses that are activated in the same situation are incompatible, it will be difficult for each status occupant to know how to interact with the other, because it will be difficult for him to know which status is the basis of their interaction. For example, a female doctor and a male patient may have a problem in maintaining the doctor-patient interaction in the face of the male—female definition it might also be given. Such ambiguity is a source of strain and discomfort, and thus people tend to do something about either getting out of such situations or changing them. Lenski's analysis of “status crystallization” (1954; 1956) and Homans' analysis of “social certitude” (1961, chapter 12) are essentially concerned with this same process. Lenski, for example, finds that status ambiguity creates so much stress that many want to withdraw from sociable interaction, while many others want to change the social structure so that such situations are redefined.

Status evaluation. The more colloquial use of status—and the use still favored by many sociologists—connotes evaluation; hence honor, esteem, respect, and prestige are its synonyms. Status in this sense is a gratification, and its loss a deprivation. Opportunities to improve status are seized by almost everyone, even in societies that are not achievement-oriented (Lipset & Zetterberg 1956). When status is threatened, its loss is resisted. For example, Short and Strodtbeck (1965) have found that established leaders of adolescent conflict gangs ordinarily restrain their followers; but when threatened with displacement as leaders, they provoke gang aggression, which is status-enhancing in such gangs. In general, when status is lost, people are angry and disturbed. For example, downward social mobility is correlated with prejudice against minority groups; those who have lost status are more aggressive toward such groups than even the lower stationary classes (Greenblum & Pearlin 1953).

How is status evaluation determined? Cooley saw the situation in terms of a respected or accepted source and the self as a social object. According to this view, self-evaluation is a reflected evaluation: given a significant source, self-evaluation is determined by the source's evaluation. Such a result, for example, is found by Miyamoto and Dornbusch (1956), who asked respondents to rate both themselves and others in their social group on intelligence, likableness, attractiveness, and confidence. The same respondents estimated how well they would be rated by others. Self-evaluations were highly correlated with evaluations made by others and were correlated to an even greater degree with perceptions of these evaluations.

A third element of the evaluation situation has been given an important part in the process by Speier and Garfinkel. Speier (1935), concerned with conferring honor, and Garfinkel (1956), concerned with status degradation, have emphasized the part played by the public audience. An audience is a part of the community that also reflects the source's evaluation, rather than evaluating the actor directly and independently. According to Speier and Garfinkel, the source determines self-evaluation, but the stability and force of that evaluation depend on its acceptance by a public. Cooley, of course, was in the first instance concerned with how children derived self-esteem from parents; there the audience seems least important. Speier and Garfinkel are concerned with how society confers honor or dishonor on adult members of the moral community. If it were not for the reflection by the public of the source's evaluation, self-evaluation would be subject to continual counterpressure; those people with whom one daily interacts would not support or grant the honor (or dishonor) derived from the source. In what sense, then, would it be honor or dishonor at all? And how could it remain stable?

The stability of self-evaluation is particularly important because uncertain evaluation apparently makes people very anxious. Status anxiety can lend importance to even the most trivial behavior of the source and the public. For example, how the boss greets an employee may have an exaggerated significance to the employee who does not know where he stands, although the employer does not intend to convey any evaluation at all by what he says or the way he says it. Status anxiety also increases the assertiveness of status claims. The upwardly mobile, for example, can be as prejudiced as the downwardly mobile if their mobility leaves them uncertain as to exactly how they stand in their community. The argument is that they are concerned about validating their not yet accepted status, so that they emphasize their distance from the lower-status classes more than stationary upper classes do (Greenblum & Pearlin 1953). As it happens, mobility is apparently neither necessary nor sufficient to create status anxiety, but Silberstein and Seeman (1959) have confirmed the hypothesis that status anxiety, when it does exist, increases the emphasis on social distance from lower-status classes.

There is a fourth vital element in evaluation situations: since Durkheim it has been understood that status deprivation or gratification is relative to a referent. In the Division of Labor (1893) Durkheim showed that happiness was relative and depended on comparisons with others; in Suicide (1897) he applied his idea to status-related phenomena. The original meaning of anomie was not the absence of expectations for behavior but rather the absence of a referent or standard of comparison. Very rapid upward or downward social mobility, Durkheim argued, made the actor uncertain about which others in his society were appropriate standards of comparison—how, then, could he tell if he had enough wealth, privilege, or esteem? The importance of the referent was later demonstrated experimentally by Hyman (1942), and the most important application of the concept was in The American Soldier (Stouffer et al. 1949). This study showed that in comparing oneself to others in the same status class, if one has less in the way of privilege, esteem, or reward, one feels relatively deprived, whatever the absolute level of advantage. [See Reference groups.]

Status differences in small groups . Once status differences have emerged within a group, they are found to correlate highly with participation rates, evaluations of performances by members of the group, and influence over group decision making. A member who has been defined as very good is given more opportunities to participate, seizes such opportunities with greater assurance, is more favorably evaluated (even if the same performance, objectively evaluated, would prove to be a poor one), and is more likely to influence others than a member defined as not very good. Furthermore, because interaction is correlated with the status order in this way, the status order tends to persist. For how can the least-regarded member of the group, once so defined, upset the status order? He is seldom given a chance to participate; if he accepts the evaluations others make of him, he does not make much use of the chances he has; and even if he does, his contribution is evaluated through the distorted image the group has of him. Objective disproof might upset the status order, but such disproof is seldom available; and even when it is available, the group apparently resists its implications. Whyte (1943) found, for example, that a street-corner gang in danger of complete reversal of status abandoned certain activities—in this case the dating of a girls' club—that too visibly demonstrated the superior capacities of lower-status members.

Most of the research results on status differences in groups have been obtained for task-oriented groups, and nontask groups are apparently much less stratified. A task imposes two kinds of constraints on members: They are forced to say what they think should be done about something; and if they disagree, they are forced to resolve their disagreements. If they disagree, resolving disagreements must enhance the status of some members and depress the status of others. But in nontask groups one is less often forced to this extremity, so that quite possibly such groups are less differentiated than task groups. Moreover, it is likely that task groups vary in the degree of stratification as they move from nontask, to task, and back to nontask phases of activity.

A task group may be composed either of status equals (say, all Harvard sophomores) or of status unequals (say pilot, navigator, and gunner in a small bomber crew). If it is composed of status equals, differentiation of status is a gradual process and one that involves struggle and tension. If the group is composed of status unequals, on the other hand, the underlying status order is already determined and there is not nearly the same tension about it. In a study of mock juries, for example, initial differences in education and occupation determined the participation rates and influence of jurors (Strodtbeck et al. 1957). And a study of mental health specialists showed that the lower-status specialists not only deferred to the higher-status ones but also liked them (Hurwitz et al. 1953). The underlying status order in the task group of status unequals is apparently based on stereotyped conceptions of people's worth, brought into the group from the external community. Even those with lower statuses come to believe in these stereotypes, as research on Negroes in biracial work groups shows (Katz et al. 1958).

Stability of status structures . Characteristics such as skin color, technical competence, sex, and ethnicity may come to be differentially evaluated by a society. We can think of these characteristics independently of the particular actors who possess them and analyze the properties of this abstracted status structure. As part of this same status structure one may include all those privileges, advantages, possessions, and symbols that have evaluative significance for the actors of a given society. There is a long history of investigations that have sought to define the conditions under which such status structures are stable.

Weber (1921) argued that those who had high status would tend in time to acquire wealth and those who had wealth would tend in time to acquire status. Benoit-Smullyan (1944) built on this idea the theory that if this natural tendency to conversion is blocked, it will turn itself into a revolutionary impetus to change the status structure. For example, for a half century before the French Revolution the bourgeoisie had been advancing in wealth and thus were able to buy noble status by purchasing army commissions or magistrates' offices. Then the encroached-on nobility, fearing the depreciation of their status, stopped the sale of nobility-bearing offices to the bourgeoisie; the bourgeoisie thus turned to revolution (Barber 1955). Moreover, it has been argued that this theory also holds true for the French peasants' impetus to revolution; although some have believed that the position of the peasants was declining in the half century before the revolution, a case has been made for the view that, in fact, the peasants were rising both in wealth and status before the revolution and that their desire to improve their over-all standing, rather than their reaction against growing degradation, explains their part in the revolution.

Similar interpretations have been offered of populism and progressivism in American politics, of the Ku Klux Klan and more recent radical right movements in the United States, and of the English revolution of 1640. The last of these has provoked a continuing controversy over the question of the rise or decline of the British gentry class before the Puritan revolution. Tawney (1941) has interpreted the revolution of 1640 as a struggle for political power between a rising gentry class and a declining court nobility. On the other hand, Trevor-Roper (1953) has tried to show that the country gentry in fact declined in wealth between 1540 and 1640 and was moved to revolt in order to overthrow the court nobility, which they saw as responsible for their decline. But both arguments involve the same sorts of assumptions: if a status structure is consistent (the terms crystallized, balanced, or congruent are typical synonyms), it will be stable; if it is not consistent, people experience great tension and strain; and because of this strain, pressures tend to build up in the system that make the status structure unstable.

Status politics of this kind form a regular part of the process of industrialization (Marshall 1949; Lipset 1964). Of great interest in the thesis of Marshall and Lipset is the distinction between short-run and long-run effects of economic change. In the short run one will find, Marshall claimed, a polarization of extremist ideologies: the newly created strata will develop extremist left ideologies as they seek greater equality of political participation in society, while the older strata will become defensive and develop extremist right ideologies that preserve their established monopoly of status. However, in time, as the newer strata come to have a legitimate place in society, with status and power equal to their wealth, the newer strata develop much less extreme ideologies and the older strata become less defensive. Thus, extreme class conflict is a passing phenomenon. This hypothesis has had some success in interpreting changes in both communist and fascist parties in contemporary Europe. First, it appears true that Communist party strength is correlated with early industrial expansion rather than mature capitalism. Second, even where communist parties have not lost strength, they appear to have softened their line in the more mature industrial societies. Third, in the more mature capitalist systems the fascist parties have been peripheral in significance; like the communists, the fascists are most active in the early periods of industrial expansion (Lipset 1964).

Status symbolism . Status is apparently a very contagious phenomenon. Because the value of a status is so communicable, in time almost every aspect of a social system can become part of its status structure. For example, within an organization the status value of an occupation is communicated to the rug, desk, way of being paid, physical location within the office, washroom used, and so on. The only limit yet known to this process is the “equilibrium limit”: that is, if the transfer of status value is likely to bring about the kind of situation that would make the status structure unstable, it will probably not occur. Thus, if both white-collar and blue-collar workers in an organization were to use the same parking lot, probably the parking lot would not come to symbolize status.

Most of the elements to which status value becomes communicated are symbolic of the status structure, rather than significant in their own right. The processes associated with such symbols are therefore largely derivative. Nevertheless, they are very interesting in their own right. The study of such processes still rests largely on the work of Veblen (1899). In Veblen's study of status symbolism there are three basic assumptions: first, that possessions and objects of consumption become significant, not so much as economic objects (although to begin with they are economic), but as symbols of prowess and worth; second, that satisfaction with such objects is a matter of comparison with others like oneself (pecuniary emulation); and third, that it is a matter of self-respect to display one's status to others (conspicuous consumption) and, indeed, even to outdo others wherever possible.

Since Veblen only two ideas have been added to our knowledge of such processes. First, the importance of status symbolism depends on the urbanization process, for in smaller communities, in which the past history and present position of everyone is fairly well known, one does not depend on clothing, housing, style of life, and manner to reveal one's status to others. Visible display of status is more common where one fairly often encounters others who have relatively little personal knowledge of one's position (Form & Stone 1957). Second, in an open-class society there is a continual inflationary and deflationary cycle in status symbols. In fashions, for example, the lower-status groups may aspire to the symbols of higher status, so that elite fashions are mass-produced for the nonelites. But the status value of such fashions depreciates, and the elites therefore find it necessary to invent new symbols of their status, thus deflating the status currency. The nonelites, in turn, aspire to the newer status symbols, restarting the process. Possibly, however, the nonelites are left with some sense of having improved their status.

Morris Zelditch, Jr.

[Directly related are the entriesGroups, article on Role structure; Role. Other relevant material may be found inInteraction; Social structure; and in the biographies ofBarnard; Cooley; Linton; Simmel; Weber, Max.]


Adams, J. STacy 1963 Toward an Understanding of Inequity. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 67:422-436.

Bales, Robert f. 1950 Interaction Process Analysis: A Method for the Study of Small Groups. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley.

Barber, Elinor g. 1955 The Bourgeoisie in Eighteenth Century France. Princeton Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1967.

Barnard, C. 1946 Functions and Pathology of Status Systems in Formal Organizations. Pages 46-83 in William F. Whyte (editor), Industry and Society. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bendix, Reinhard; and Lipset, Seymour m. (editors) (1953) 1966 Class, Status, and Power: Social Stratification in Comparative Perspective. 2d ed. New York: Free Press.

Benoît-Smullyan, Émile 1944 Status, Status Types, and Status Interrelations. American Sociological Review 9:151-161.

Berger, Joseph; Cohen, Bernard p.; and Zelditch, Morris Jr. 1966 Status Characteristics and Expectation States. Volume 1, pages 29-46 in Joseph Berger, Morris Zelditch, Jr., and Bo Anderson (editors), Sociological Theories in Progress. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Biddle, Bruce j.; and Thomas, Edwin j. (editors) 1966 Role Theory: Concepts and Research. New York: Wiley.

Cohen, Albert k. (1955) 1963 Delinquent Boys: The Culture of the Gang. New York: Free Press.

Conference On New Approaches In Social Anthropology, Jesus College, Cambridge, Eng., 1963 1965 The Relevance of Models for Social Anthropology. Edited by Michael Banton. London: Tavistock; New York: Praeger. → See especially the article by Ward H. Goodenough, “Rethinking 'Status' and 'Role': Toward a General Model of the Cultural Organization of Social Relationships.”

Cooley, Charles h. (1902) 1956 Human Nature and the Social Order. Rev. ed. In Charles H. Cooley, Two Major Works: Social Organization and Human Nature and the Social Order. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → Each title reprinted with individual title page and pagination. Separate paperback editions were published in 1964 by Schocken.

Durkheim, Émile (1893) 1960 The Division of Labor in Society. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published as De la division du travail social.

Durkheim, Émile (1897) 1951 Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press. → First published in French.

Form, M. H.; and Stone, G. P. 1957 Urbanism, Anonymity, and Status Symbolism. American Journal of Sociology 62:504-514.

Garfinkel, Harold 1956 Conditions of Successful Degradation Ceremonies. American Journal of Sociology 61:420-424.

Greenblum, Joseph, and Pearlin, Leonard i. 1953 Vertical Mobility and Prejudice: A Socio-psychological Analysis. Pages 480-491 in Reinhard Bendix and Seymour M. Lipset (editors), Class, Status, and Power: A Reader in Social Stratification. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Homans, George c. 1953 Status Among Clerical Workers. Human Organization 12:5-10.

Homans, George c. 1961 Sociai Behavior: Its Elementary Forms. New York: Harcourt.

Hughes, Everett c. 1945 Dilemmas and Contradictions of Status. American Journal of Sociology 50:353-359.

Hughes, Everett c.; and Hughes, Helen m. 1952 Where Peoples Meet: Racial and Ethnic Frontiers. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Huntington, Mary Jean 1957 The Development of a Professional Self-image. Pages 179-187 in The Student-Physician: Introductory Studies in the Sociology of Medical Education. Edited by Robert K. Merton, George G. Reader, and Patricia L. Kendall. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Hurwitz, Jacob; Zander, Alvin f.; and Hymovitch, Bernard (1953) 1960 Some Effects of Power on the Relations Among Group Members. Pages 800-809 in Dorwin Cartwright (editor), Group Dynamics: Research and Theory. 2d ed. Evanston, 111.: Row, Peterson.

Hyman, Herbert h. 1942 The Psychology of Status. Archives of Psychology 38: Whole no. 269.

Jackson, Elton f. 1962 Status Consistency and Symptoms of Stress. American Sociological Review 27:469-480.

Katz, Irwin; Goldston, Judith; and Benjamin, Lawrence 1958 Behavior and Productivity in Bi-racial Work Groups. Human Relations 11:123-141.

Lenski, G. E. 1954 Status Crystallization: A Non-vertical Dimension of Social Status. American Sociological Review 19:405-413.

Lenski, G. E. 1956 Social Participation and Status Crystallization. American Sociological Review 21:458-464.

Linton, Ralph 1936 The Study of Man: An Introduction. New York: Appleton.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1964 The Changing Class Structure and Contemporary European Politics. Daedalus 93:271-303.

Lipset, Seymour M.; and Zetterberg, Hans L. 1956 A Theory of Social Mobility. Volume 3, pages 155-177 in World Congress of Sociology, 3rd, Amsterdam, 1956, Transactions. London: International Sociological Association. → Reprinted in the 2d edition of Bendix and Lipset (1953).

McDill, Edward L.;and Coleman, James S. 1963 High School Social Status, College Plans, and Academic Achievement: A Panel Analysis. American Sociological Review 28:905-918.

Marshall, T. H. (1949) 1964 Citizenship and Social Class. Pages 65-122 in T. H. Marshall, Class, Citizenship, and Social Development: Essays. New York: Doubleday. → This essay is based on a lecture delivered at Cambridge in 1949. The collection of essays was first published in England in 1963 as Sociology at the Crossroads.

Merton, Robert K. (1957) 1959 Continuities in the Theory of Reference Groups and Social Structure. Pages 281-286 in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. 2d ed., rev. & enl. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Miyamoto, S. Frank; and Dornbusch, Sanford M. 1956 A Test of the Interactionist Hypotheses of Self-conception. American Journal of Sociology 61:399-403.

Park, Robert E. (1928)1950 The Bases of Race Preju-dice. Pages 230-243 in Robert E. Park, Race and Culture. Collected Papers, Vol. 1. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Short, James F.; and Strodtbeck, Fred L. 1965 Group Process and Gang Delinquency. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Silberstein, Fred; and Seeman, Melvin 1959 Social Mobility and Prejudice. American Journal of Sociology 65:258-264.

Speier, Hans (1935) 1952 Honor and the Social Structure. Pages 36-52 in Hans Speier, Social Order and the Risks of War: Papers in Political Sociology. New York: Stewart.

Stouffer, Samuel a. et al. 1949 The American Soldier. Studies in Social Psychology in World War II, Vols. 1 and 2. Princeton Univ. Press. → Volume 1: Adjustment During Army Life. Volume 2: Combat and Its Aftermath.

Strodtbeck, Fred l.; James, Rita m.; and Hawkins, Charles (1957) 1958 Social Status in Jury Deliberations. Pages 379-388 in Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues, Readings in Social Psychology. 3d ed. New York: Holt. → First published in Volume 22 of the American Sociological Review.

Tawney, R. H. 1941 The Rise of the Gentry: 1558-1640. Economic History Review First Series 11:1-38.

Trevor-Roper, H. R. 1953 The Gentry: 1540-1640. Economic History Review, Supplement 1. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Veblen, Thorstein (1899) 1953 The Theory of the Leisure Class: An Economic Study of Institutions. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library. → A paperback edition was published in 1959.

Weber, Max (1921) 1946 Class, Status, Party. Pages 180-195 in Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published as Part 3, Chapter 4 of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. A paperback edition was published in 1958.

Whyte, William F. (1943) 1961 Street Corner Society: The Social Structure of an Italian Slum. 2d ed., enl. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Zelditch, Morris Jr.; Berger, Joseph; and Cohen, Bernard P. 1966 Stability of Organizational Status Structures. Volume 1, pages 269-294 in Joseph Berger, Morris Zelditch, Jr., and Bo Anderson (editors), Sociological Theories in Progress. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Social Status

views updated May 18 2018

Social Status





Social status has been used throughout history to differentiate individuals and groups of people in order to maintain hierarchical systems of inequality between and among people and to enforce the idea that certain groups of people are, by nature, born to a certain level of existence.

Social status is often described as ones standing in society; the word status is derived from the Latin statum, meaning stand. In a narrow sense, the term refers to ones legal or professional standing within a group; in a broader sense, it means ones value and importance in the eyes of the world (de Botton 2004, p. vii). At various points in history, the belief that inequality was a way of life was subscribed to by both the oppressed and their oppressors in terms of religion, law, and cultural norms. History, law, and cultural artifacts show that in nearly every society, certain groups of people were held in high esteem while others were ignored or ridiculed. Historical events such as the French Revolution, the American Revolution, and the civil rights movement largely transformed societies, moving them away from hierarchical ladders that restricted upward mobility because of heredity, lineage, family, gender, race/ethnicity, skills, physical attributes, religion, accent, and temperament.

The desire for social status can spur individuals to act on their dreams, achieve goals, and form a common bridge with others. Often, though, individual achievement has not been considered a factor when comparing ones social standing in a community. According to Alain de Botton in Status Anxiety (2004), what mattered was ones identity at birth, rather than anything one might achieve in ones lifetime through the exercise of ones faculties. What mattered was who one was, seldom what one did (p. 87).


According to de Botton, the characteristics of groups that historically have been considered high status can be traced from Sparta in 400 BCE to Brazil in 1960. Such characteristics have ranged from military training, wealth, power, sainthood, knighthood, social graces, and hunting ability to those with the abilityphysical, intellectual, and artisticto persuade and/or bully other groups into offering respect or a redistribution of favor. Derrick Bell, in Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education (2004), relates social status to race/ethnicity, access to opportunity, and the reflection of persons of color when discussing issues of privilege and status. According to Bell (2004), Du Bois reminds us that to compensate their low wages, segregation gave whites a public and psychological wage. David Roediger adds that status and privileges could be used to make up for alienating and exploitative class relationships, North and South (p. 81).


Theories have been developed to describe social status, class, and identity. Similarly, social status has been described in terms of international dominance and competitiveness between countries. Thye and Lawler (2005) note that status characteristics theory investigates the effect that individual properties such as age, gender, and ability have on interaction. The theory asserts that these status characteristics are indicative of task ability. In collective task settings, members act as if status characteristics give clues suggesting how capable each individual is of contributing to the successful completion of the groups task (p. 126). Status characteristics theory, in essence, attributes rewards, influence, and value to certain groups based on characteristics and expectations of competency. Edward Said (2003) has described the use of social status to plunder other nations in the quest for international superiority. Said frames social status in terms of a countrys plunder and conquest under the aegis of a civilizing mission, the idea that some races and cultures have a higher aim in life than others; this gives the more powerful, more developed, more civilized the right to colonize others in the name of a noble ideal (p. 333). The historical underpinnings of social status can be traced to the Greeks. Said states that each culture defines its enemies, what stands beyond it and threatens it. For the Greeks beginning with Herodotus, anyone who did not speak Greek was automatically a barbarian, an Other to be despised and fought against (p. 335).

Social status is often viewed through the lens of comparing groups along specific criteria and the relationship between groups. According to Suls and Wheeler (2000), Newcombs 1943 analysis of college student political attitudes revealed that people use groups or social aggregates as standards or frames of reference when evaluating their abilities, attitudes, or beliefs (p. 85). Similarly Suls and Wheeler state that Roper (1940) first introduced the idea of a reference group by suggesting that individuals perceptions of their own status depends on where they stand in relationship to other people (p. 85). Abowitz (2005) conducted a recent study of undergraduate college students to ascertain their views of the American class system. Based on a survey of a random sample of 154 undergraduate students, Abowitz reported that college students believe that they can achieve a certain social status through individual factors that are part of, as the author states, an achievement ideology, the idea that success and social standing are largely a product of individual effort and not a product of family privilege and connections (p. 716).


According to classical research conducted to understand the role of student persistence in college, background characteristics of students and their social status were some of the most reliable predictors of success. Similarly, Toutkoushian and Curtis (2005) found that the socioeconomic status of specific school districts can help explain variations in students average standardized test scores, college attendance, and school rankings. Sociometry, a systematic method for investigating relationships, was used in Kosir and Pecjaks (2005) study to determine whether students were categorized by their peers as having social status and popularity. Based on the results of their research, Kosir and Pecjack found that peer-perceived popularity is a construct that is distinct from sociometric popularity.

Other studies of social status involve the predictive value of subjective assessments of social status with an individuals health status. Research by Operario, Adler, and Williams (2004) based on a national sample of 500 adults, ages eighteen and over, used the Scale of Subjective Status. Participants were instructed to do the following:

Think of a ladder with 10 steps representing where people stand in the United States. At step 10 are people who are the best offthose who have the most money, the most education, and the most respected jobs. At step 1 are the people who are worst offthose who have the least money, least education, and the least respected jobs or no job. Where would you place yourself on this ladder? (p. 241)

For this portion of the research, the sample rated themselves on average above the midpoint of the scale at both baseline and follow-up (Operario et. al. 2004, p. 241). Including measures of global health and health risk factors, the authors found predictive utility in self-report measures of socioeconomic status and individual health status.

Levin (2004) measured social dominance by groups that want to have a higher status than other groups using such distinctions as religion, ethnicity, and gender. Using a social status questionnaire, Levin found that differences in social dominance between arbitrary groups (e.g., ethnicity and religion) was greater when the status gap between the groups was perceived to be larger.

Thus, social status, depending on the historical time frame, country, and culture, can be delineated through ones resources and achievement. However, the hierarchy suggested by comparing ones standing with others still exists and is prevalent in societies where resources and power define the influence that one or a group has. This power and influence permeate aspects of governance and the place each person subscribes to with reference to an individuals or a groups relative value and standing.

SEE ALSO Lifestyles; Sociometry


Abowitz, Deborah A. 2005. Social Mobility and the American Dream: What Do College Students Believe? College Student Journal 39 (4): 716728.

Alcoff, Linda M., and Eduardo Mendieta, eds. 2003. Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Bell, Derrick. 2004. Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform. New York: Oxford University Press.

De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status Anxiety. New York: Pantheon Books.

Kosir, K., and S. Pecjak. 2005. Sociometry as a Method for Investigating Peer Relationships: What Does It Actually Measure? Educational Research 47 (1): 127144.

Levin, S. 2004. Perceived Group Status Differences and the Effects of Gender, Ethnicity, and Religion on Social Dominance Orientation. Political Psychology 25 (1): 3148.

Operario, D., N. E. Adler, and D. R. Williams. 2004. Subjective Social Status: Reliability and Predictive Utility for Global Health. Psychology and Health 19 (2): 237246.

Said, Edward. 2003. The Clash of Civilizations. In Identities: Race, Class, Gender, and Nationality, eds. Linda M. Alcoff and Eduardo Mendieta, 333335. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Suls, Jerry, and Ladd Wheeler, eds. 2000. Handbook of Social Comparison: Theory and Research. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Thye, Shane R., and Edward J. Lawler, eds. 2005. Social Identification in Groups. Vol. 22 of Advances in Group Processes. Boston: Elsevier.

Toutkoushian, R. K., and T. Curtis. 2005. Effects of Socioeconomic Factors on Public High School Outcomes and Rankings. Journal of Educational Research 98 (5): 259271.

Marci M. Middleton

Social Status

views updated Jun 11 2018

Social Status


Social Status and Property. In ancient Mesopotamia, social status seems to have been linked closely to ownership of property. Written records provide abundant evidence regarding transactions involving people of means, but these sources are biased toward privileged members of society who resided in urban centers, executed written contracts, and maintained private archives. Nonelite members of society undoubtedly also conducted economic transactions, but they were probably accomplished by verbal argreement and not written down.

Social Hierarchy. The clearest statement concerning Mesopotamian social hierarchy is found in the Laws of Hammurabi (circa 1750 b.c.e.), which provided for three separate—and unequal—tiers: the awilum (freeman), generally thought to be an individual owning his means of support; the mushkenum (dependent, or serf), who presumably did not own his means of earning a living and worked land owned by another; and the wardum (slave), who was the property of his owner. Outside this law collection, little is said about the relative status and privileges of the freeman and the dependent; the terms awilum and mushkenum do not occur regularly in administrative records, where one would expect to find information relating to individuals’ niches in society and the economy. In fact, no one ever identified himself as awilum or mushkenum. As subjects of transactions, wardu (slaves) were bought, sold, and inherited, and slaves are identified as such in sale documents and other contracts.

Freemen. The basic social unit was the household, which usually consisted of parents and their children. The father was the head of the household. (He was called en in Sumerian and belu in Akkadian—words best translated as “lord” or “master,” or in some contexts “owner.“) The father was responsible for the family’s land, their most important economic resource. Family land was passed on through the generations from father to son, so Mesopotamian society can be described as patrilineal. The father was also responsible for his wife and children, and in texts he is referred to as his wife’s “lord” or “master.” He made decisions on the family’s behalf, such as arranging the marriages of his children and disposing of the property his wife brought into the marriage as her dowry. He had authority to sell his wife and children into slavery, to divorce his wife, to adopt children and name them his heirs, and to disinherit his children, both biological and adopted.

Women. Most of the evidence bearing on the economic and social history of women pertains to their roles in marriage. Socio-economically, the point of marriage was to provide male heirs for family property. In Mesopotamia a woman married into her husband’s family, and entered his household. Thus, in addition to being patrilineal, Mesopotamian society was also patrilocal. A woman’s marriage was arranged by authority of her father, but both father and mother often appear as the contracting agents in marriage agreements. Parents could execute a marriage contract for their daughter even while she was an infant or a young girl. In most such cases, she continued to live in her father’s home until she reached maturity, although some contracts stipulated that she move into the house of her contractual father-in-law, who would support her until the marriage to his son eventually took place. A father also provided his daughter with a dowry, movable property equivalent to her share in the inheritance from his estate. She took her dowry into her new household when she married, and her marriage contract stipulated how much—if any—control she might have over her dowry.

Women’s Property. By and large, women did not own immovable property—that is, land. There were occasions when a head of household who had no sons designated his daughter as his heir, and under exceptional circumstances a father might give land to his daughter. According to a tenth century b.c.e. Babylonian entitlement monument, a father gave his daughter land on the occasion of her marriage. She married the son of a man to whom her father owed a debt, and it can be concluded that the marriage gift—in effect, the permanent transfer of land from one family to another—was the means by which the bride’s father repaid his debt to the groom’s father. In order to ratify the transfer, all the male members of the bride’s family swore an oath acknowledging the gift—a legal means to ensure that no male family member could lay claim to this parcel of land that traditionally had been the property of the men in the bride’s family.

Divorce and Second Marriages. Divorce was rare. It was usually executed by the husband and only if a wife had behaved in a way that was shameful to her husband or, most often, if she had not provided him with heirs. If a husband did divorce his wife for childlessness, he was enjoined not to send her away empty-handed but to return

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to her the value of the dowry she had brought from her father’s house. Lack of heirs was also the usual circumstance under which a man took a second wife, a practice which appears in legal contracts only rarely. If his first wife were gravely ill and he took a second wife, a head of household was obligated to continue to support his ailing wife.

The Wife’s Status. A wife had a particular legal status with certain socio-economic privileges, as indicated by a letter written by a Babylonian woman to the owner of her sister and her children, who had been sold into slavery during the reign of Kadashman-Turgu (circa 1281 - circa 1264 b.c.e.). Because the king had recently declared the liberation of all native-born women, she demanded that her sister’s owner free her and grant her the status of a wife. While a woman with the status of a wife was under her husband’s authority, she was not his property and had certain privileges and rights. According to the Laws of Hammurabi (circa 1750 b.c.e.), a woman who could prove maltreatment by her husband would not be penalized and could take back her dowry and return to her father’s house. Once her marriage ended through widowhood or divorce, a woman was free to “marry after her heart.” Outside their roles as wives, women are found in surviving documents writing to the king, initiating and participating in lawsuits as defendants and witnesses, and on occasion taking part in business transactions.

Cloistered Women. During the Old Babylonian period (circa 1894 - circa 1595 b.c.e.) some daughters, seemingly of wealthy families, were dedicated as priestesses and entered a sort of cloister. In the city of Sippar the cloister, called the gagum, was attached to the temple of the sun god Shamash. These women, called naditu—literally, “women set apart“—took with them property equivalent to what would have been their dowries. Free to participate in commercial activity, some of the naditu amassed small and large fortunes, which, in most cases, reverted to their families when the women died.

Children. In the social hierarchy of the family, children were under the authority of their parents, and their father was responsible for making decisions that would affect their economic well being and their place in society. The strict family hierarchy is apparent in adoption contracts, which regularly included the following penalty provision: “If <name of child > says to his father: ’You are not my father,’ or says to his mother: ’You are not my mother,’ his father and mother shall beat him and/or sell him for silver, and/or disinherit him, and/or pour hot asphalt onto his head.” The socio-economic status of children was determined by their sex. The eldest male child was the primary heir to the family property and responsible for performing the mortuary rituals that perpetuated the memory of deceased parents and ancestors and ensured them a good afterlife. These two functions were inextricably linked in a never-ending mutually beneficial cycle: land received from the family ancestors supported the next generation, who in return perpetuated the memory of the deceased ancestors. Daughters were an expense. They had to be supported while at home and provided with a dowry when they married. In families that did not derive their income from land—such as craftsmen or merchants—sons often seem to have followed their father into the family business. In times of economic distress, parents could and did sell their children—with males generally bringing higher prices than females. While this practice may appear heartless to modern people, selling a child to a family of means or to the temple was a way for impoverished parents to ensure that child’s survival—and their own.

Chattel Slaves. Chattel slaves, individuals who were usually the lifelong property of other individuals and resided in the households of their owners, were different from debt slaves, who continued to live with their families and went into service for a set period of time to work off a debt. Male and female chattel slaves are documented in the records of family and institutional households. They could be bought, sold, bestowed as gifts (including marriage dowries), and disbursed as components of the inheritance from an estate. In general, children born to slaves were the property of the slaves’ owners; such slaves were designated with a special term in Akkadian: wilidbitim, or “house-born.” Slaves could marry free persons, and the Laws of Hammurabi include several provisions dealing with the social status and economic rights accorded children from such a union:

If a slave of the palace or a slave of a commoner marries a woman of the awilum-class and she then bears children, the owner of the slave will have no claims of slavery against the children of the woman of the awilum-class. And if either a slave of the palace or a slave of a commoner marries a woman of the awilum-class.
and when he marries her she enters (his) house … together with the dowry brought from her father’s house, and subsequent to the time that they move in together they establish a household and accumulate possessions, after which the slave … should go to his fate (that is, die)—the woman of the awilum-class shall take her dowry; furthermore everything that her husband and she accumulated subsequent to the time that they moved in together shall be divided into two parts, and the slave’s owner shall take half and the woman of the awilum-class shall take half for her children. (LH §§175-176; Roth)

Chattel slaves were also acquired from foreign lands, either as prisoners of war or abductees, and written records indicate that some merchants specialized in the slave trade. According to written evidence, slaves were rarely bound or chained, but instead wore a distinctive haircut, the abbuttum, that marked their slave status. Anyone who aided a fugitive slave—by removing the abbuttum or by any other means— was regarded as having stolen another man’s property and dealt with severely. Within a family household, a wife who could not bear children could give a female slave to her husband as a concubine; the children of such a union would be regarded as her own. Similarly, a head of household could have children with a female slave belonging to him. In that case, he was permitted, but not required, to recognize such issue as his children, to grant them status as free persons, and to give them a share in his estate.

Temple Slaves. Temples owned slaves, receiving them as gifts or as foundlings left in the street. Ration lists indicate that male slaves performed heavy-duty agricultural labor on the extensive temple lands, such as working the fields, transporting heavy goods, or constructing and maintaining canals. Female temple slaves performed light agricultural work, but their most important task was helping with temple textile production.

Social Mobility and Manumission. Most of what is known about social mobility applies to slaves. Wardum, the Akkadian term for slave, is derived from the verb waradum, which means “to descend, go down“—a linguistic detail that gives a clue about the ancient Mesopotamian conception of slavery; that is, a slave was a person who had lost status. While kings could decree the return of all debt slaves to their former status, such decrees stipulated clearly that they did not apply to chattel slaves. Evidence of freeing chattel slaves dates from as early as the Ur III period, circa 2112 - circa

2004 b.c.e. All slaves could save money in order to buy their freedom, and a nonslave married to a slave could purchase his or her spouse’s freedom. Children born to a freed slave were also free. An owner could grant his slave woman’s freedom in order to marry her and give her the legal status of a wife, and the owner of a female slave who bore him children could—by publicly recognizing (literally, “naming“) those children as his own—raise them from slave status and give them the right to claim a share of their father’s property. Without such legal measures, any offspring a slave woman bore her owner were legally the owner’s slaves rather than his children with rights to inherit. According to the Laws of Hammurabi, if a freeman had children with his wife as well as with a female slave and if during his lifetime he did not acknowledge the children of the slave as his offspring and heirs, at his death those children and their mother should be set free. Although these children did not receive a share in their biological father’s estate, the children of the man’s wife were prohibited from claiming them as slaves.

Sons of (the City). At certain times in both the Babylonian and Assyrian kingdoms, citizens of specific ancient cities were accorded special privileges, such as exemptions from taxation and labor obligations (corvee) otherwise due the palace. Eligibility seems to stem not only from one’s place of residence, but from membership in one of the ancient families long established as scions of that city. After Shalmaneser V, king of Assyria (727-722 b.c.e.), suspended exemptions from paying straw and grain taxes for the ancient religious capital of Ashur, his successor, Sargon II, restored the privileges, sharply criticizing his predecessor. Advice to a Prince, a didactic Babylonian composition purporting to teach a monarch on how to enjoy a righteous and successful reign, advised:

If he (the king) imposed a fine or imprisonment upon a “son” of Nippur, Sippar, or Babylon, the city where that fine was imposed will be razed to its foundations and a foreign foe will enter the place of imprisonment.
If he called up the whole of Sippar, Nippur, and Babylon to impose forced labor on the peoples aforesaid, requiring of them service at the recruiter’s cry, Marduk, sage of the gods, deliberative prince, will turn his land over to his foe so that the troops of the land will do forced labor for his foe. Anu, Enlil, and Ea, the great gods who dwell in heaven and earth, have confirmed in their assembly the exemption of these (people from such obligations)….
If an officer or temple warden or royal administrator who holds wardenship of a temple in Sippar, Nippur, or Babylon, imposes forced labor upon them (the citizens aforesaid) for the temples of the great gods, the great gods will quit their sanctuaries in a fury, they will not enter their shrines. (Foster)

The reasons for granting these privileges are unknown. It may have been connected with the ancient religious importance of the cities in question or with the king’s desire to cultivate support that the old established families of those cities could offer.


John A. Brinkman, Review of Symbolae iuridicae Martino David dedicatae, Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 32 (1973): 159–160.

Benjamin R. Foster, From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia (Bethesda, Md.: CDL Press, 1995).

Rivkah Harris, “The naditu-woman,” in Studies Presented to A. Leo Oppeenbeim, june 7, 1964 (Chicago: Oriental Institute, 1964), pp. 106–135.

Harris, “The Organization and Administration of the Cloister in Ancient Babylonia,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 6 (1963): 121–157.

Leonard W. King, Babylonian Boundary-Stones and Memorial Tablets in the British Museum (London: Trustees of the British Museum, 1912).

Martha T. Roth, Law Collections from Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, second edition, Society of Biblical Literature, Writings from the Ancient World Series, volume 6 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995).

Kathryn E. Slanski, The Babylonian Entitlement narûs (kudurrus): A Study in Form and Function, ASOR Books, volume 9 (Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2003).

Slanski, “Middle Babylonian Period,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, 2 volumes, edited by Raymond Westbrook, Handbuch der Orientalistik, volume 72 (Leiden: Brill, 2003), pp. 485–520.

Elizabeth Stone, “The Social Role of the naditu-woman in Old Babylonian Nippur,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 25 (1982): 50–70.

Raymond Westbrook, “Old Babylonian Period,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, pp. 361–430.

Social Structure

views updated May 21 2018

Social Structure


Social structure refers to durable features of sustained, large-scale, social coexistence that shape individual conduct. Attempts to summarize the nature of human society are often said to offer accounts of social structure. Such accounts vary but typically include claims addressing five facets: (1) collective features, process, or patterns that are (2) consistent across large populations and (3) persist for long periods and that are (4) manifest as impersonal and implacable influences that strongly condition (5) the lives that individuals can lead. Claims to priority for particular accounts are sometimes advanced as structuralismassertions of precedence for particular impersonal, extra-individual, or collective features. In polemic usage, the label has accompanied wide and varied claims of displacing superficial or shallow alternatives in favor of deep, overarching generalizations about human conduct, language, or cognitive capacities.

All social sciences incorporate some variants of the concept, but the issues posed by social structure roughly coincide with the disciplinary charter of sociology. Seminal contributions (and their authors) are often lauded for providing distinctive visions of social structure. Since such efforts address the ultimate nature of human society, they are best understood as charter statements that unite followers (and antagonists) into schools whose agreements (and disagreements) extend to the nature, content, and value of the master texts.

Karl Marx (18181883) traced the origin of social structure back to the necessity for humans to wrest sustenance from nature through labor. However, the results of labor include matter that has been gathered and reshaped and that if put aside today will add to the fruitfulness of any further labor. Thus fields cleared of forest, iron forged into plows, or grain not eaten but kept for seed become means of productionproducts of past labor that can be added to future labor to make it more fruitful.

Any society thus must address the problem of who will be assigned control of the means of production. Marx observed that the products of work, built up over generations, became the property of a relative few, who could then assign to themselves the lions share of the product of future work, without themselves having to do it. He suggested that collective life, including religion and politics, would be constrained to perpetuate such a division of the population into unequal classes. Individual outlooks and actions would tend to conform to interests arising from class positions. And the classes would be linked into antagonism until the growing scale of factories would insure the ascendance of the propertyless in a revolution abolishing property and bringing on a new social structure of a classless society.

Émile Durkheim (18581917) underscored that matter was not property unless nonowners respected owners claims. Markets required moral solidarity to ensure that contracts were honored, for example, constraining buyers and sellers from grabbing away goods or payments without relinquishing what they had offered in return. More broadly, Durkheim argued that absent moral limitation supplied by society, humanitys inherently insatiable desires would lure humans into vice and unreliability as workers, family members, or citizens.

Durkheim argued that moral sentiments shared in common formed social factsenduring, extensive, external forces that constrained individuals into moral conformity. He offered three complementary accounts of how this might work.

First, Durkheim suggested that the force of society would wax and wane with the overall volume of interaction in a population, suggesting that the impact on individuals rises and falls as moral messages are repeated to them more or less frequently. In turn, the average frequency (and consistency) of moral messages arriving at each individual reflects the totals received and retransmitted by the individuals interaction partners, taken en masse. In this manner, the moral sentiment impinging on individuals arises from collective, accumulated experience that is external and beyond individual control. Second, Durkheim also suggested that participation in collective celebrations, notably religious worship, would amplify and reinforce moral sentiments expressed through such ceremonies. Third, Durkheim feared that inconsistent messages, generated by participation in diverse groups that upheld contrasting normative outlooks or participation in groups unwilling to specify clear moral standards, would result in a state of normative dissonance and weakened moral regulation that he termed anomie.

Max Weber (18641920) also took issue with Marxs insistence on the primacy of economic factors. He called attention to contrasts rooted in religious outlooks and in other sources of diverging worldviews. Weber thought the common element uniting social structures was learned adherence to schemes of valuesabstract ideals spelling out goals and pitfalls. These might include how to serve God (after specifying what God or gods to serve), or the unlimited pursuit of gain, or putting obligations to kin ahead of obligations to the ruler.

Values are highly abstract and often are only expressed indirectly through parables, stories, sermons, and the writings of sages. From these, readers, commentators, and legislators work at deriving further rules that people should follow. For Weber, uniform or structural regularity across a population was the result of enmeshing in a web of normsmorally binding rules that reflected values held in common. While Weber recognized that values and their derivative norms could derive from tradition, or from religious inspiration he termed charisma, he also emphasized that rules were subject to extension and elaboration through reasoning by experts who were learned in the code. He feared that such expanding rationality would come to confine humanity in an iron cage of intricate but colorless regulation.

Specialists continue to seek to purify and refine seminal visions. Most sociologists accept that many categorical contrasts, such as race, class, and gender, are collective durable features of large populations that shape lives. Many would extend this list to include the principle categories used to sort and count people in censuses and surveysthe demographic variables including age, ethnicity or national origin, religion, education, and so forth. All of these variables strongly condition a wide range of behaviors including friendship, marriage, political preferences, consumer choices, and much more.

Why and how this occurs remains open. Some would insist that such regularities require that individuals act as if extant rules and social definitions are binding. The puzzle is what (if anything) is adequate to account for assent to unequal outcomes on the scale that is required.

An alternative is that durable features reflect how (and in what degree) categories channeled persons into different settings, social pairings, and uses of time. A principal motive is that power-holders can address recurrent organizational dilemmas by drawing on widely understood social classifications to allocate work, authority, or rewards. Any population consists of individual histories that incorporate the (variable) past degree of such sorting, along with assorted consequences and correlates. Classifications are guides (of varying accuracy) to similarities and contrasts in past experience that, in turn, influence individuals and power-holders in subsequent choices over settings, pairings, and time use.

SEE ALSO Caste; Culture; Hierarchy; Marxism; Stratification; Structuralism


Durkheim, Émile. 1951. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Trans. John A. Spaulding and George Simpson. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1970. The German Ideology, ed. C. J. Arthur. New York: International Publishers.

Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, eds. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, trans. Ephraim Fischoff et al. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Steven Rytina

Social Status

views updated Jun 11 2018

Social Status

Renaissance society recognized many different degrees of social rank. Since the Middle Ages, the social hierarchy* had contained three broad groups: the clergy (known as the First Estate), the nobility (the Second Estate), and the commoners or workers (the Third Estate). Within each estate were many ranks that sometimes overlapped. However, not everyone fit neatly into this structure. Beginning in the late Middle Ages, a new category—the middle class—had emerged and grown to include many levels of its own. Also, certain groups of people were outsiders, with no fixed position on the social ladder.

The First Estate: Clergy. Members of the clergy had high status in Renaissance society, which saw their spiritual activities as vital to the public welfare. The highest-ranking clergy members—popes, cardinals, patriarchs, and bishops—were mostly of noble birth. Urban and rural priests occupied a much lower place on the social scale. They generally fell far below the high-ranking prelates* in terms of wealth and education.

The clergy also included members of religious orders: monks and nuns who lived apart from the everyday world. The leaders of these orders usually came from the ranks of the nobility. Some orders ranked higher on the social scale than others and tended to attract people from wealthy noble families.

The Second Estate: Nobility. Originally, membership in the nobility depended on birth and family background. By the 1500s, however, more individuals were gaining noble rank either by buying land and titles or by earning distinction in battle. Three factors affected the status of a noble: birth, political power, and wealth. People valued land above other forms of wealth and looked down on money gained through trade or manufacturing. Thus, stark differences of rank existed within the noble classes. Some families controlled large estates with authority over many peasants, while others had fallen in fortune and had little left to them but their titles.

The highest-ranking members of the nobility, such as dukes and barons, often associated themselves with the royal courts. The lesser nobles and the gentry stood one rung below them on the social ladder. These social categories were not always clearly defined. Their members came from varied backgrounds and drew their status from many sources: military service, government offices, success in business, or marriage into higher-ranking families. The lesser nobles and gentry worked to increase their prestige by acquiring land and making desirable marriages. Some eventually created their own coats of arms* as a symbol of their rank.

The Third Estate: Commoners. The Third Estate was the most complex and changeable part of society. Originally defined simply as the working class, by the Renaissance it included high-ranking professionals and the entire, growing middle class. Moreover, the makeup of the Third Estate varied across rural and urban settings.

Most Europeans lived in the countryside. The highest classes of commoners in rural areas were the landlords who leased land from members of the clergy or nobility and rented it out. Below them were small farmers and peasants who rented the land they worked. Next came landless laborers who moved about in search of jobs. During the Middle Ages, most rural laborers were serfs, tied by law to the lands that they worked. By the time of the Renaissance, serfdom had fallen into decline in western Europe, but in eastern regions it expanded, and many peasants fell to the status of serfs.

Those who lived in Renaissance cities tended to look down on country dwellers, except for those who owned large amounts of land. In addition to these social boundaries between city and country, deep divisions existed within urban society. In many areas, for example, the citizens of a city or town enjoyed special status and privileges that the rest of the city's residents did not share. In northern Italy and parts of Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands, only citizens could hold public office. These citizen elites* overlapped with the ranks of the gentry and lesser nobility.

The urban middle class covered a broad range of social rank, based on such factors as education, profession, and wealth. Lawyers and judges, with their high levels of education and positions of social power, held the highest positions in urban society—sometimes even higher than the lesser nobles. Government officials, physicians, and intellectuals also stood high in the middle-class social order. Just below them in status were merchants and artisans*, especially those who belonged to local guilds*. Guild membership set artisans apart from low-ranking laborers, who were usually poor and enjoyed few legal rights. Even within this class, however, differences in status existed based on working skills. Laborers whose work required more strength than skill fell nearly at the bottom of the social scale. Only household servants had lower status.

Outsiders. Some groups, such as Muslims, Jews, gypsies, and slaves, existed outside the structure of the three estates. Usually poor, they had limited legal rights and often lived apart from the rest of society.

Women were also a group apart. A woman held no social rank in her own right, but shared that of her father and later, if she married, her husband. Aside from these relations, her status depended to a large degree on her "honor"—that is, on her observance of a strict social code that prohibited sex and childbirth outside marriage.

(See alsoAristocracy; Bourgeoisie; Cities and Urban Life; Family and Kinship; Peasantry; Servants; Slavery; Women. )

* hierarchy

organization of a group into higher and lower levels

* prelate

high-ranking member of the clergy, such as a bishop

* coat of arms

set of symbols used to represent a noble family

* elite

privileged group; upper class

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson

* guild

association of craft or trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

social stratification

views updated Jun 08 2018

social stratification See STRATIFICATION.

social structure

views updated May 29 2018

social structure See STRUCTURE.

social status

views updated May 21 2018

social status See STATUS.

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