One of the main emphases of Northern Kentucky University’s online Bachelor of Science in Sociology degree program is the study of the distribution of wealth, social mobility, social class, power and prestige — or more succinctly, social stratification — in the United States. The sociological perspective on every interconnected aspect of how and why people are separated into hierarchical groups in a society is a complex subject.
How Is Social Stratification Defined?
Noted sociologist and humanistic scholar Pitirim A. Sorokin penned one of the most comprehensive definitions of social stratification. He wrote:
“Social stratification means the differentiation of a given population into hierarchically superposed classes. It is manifested in the existence of upper and lower social layers. Its basis and very essence consist in an unequal distribution of rights and privileges, duties and responsibilities, social values and privations, social power and influences among the members of a society.”
What Are the Basic Components of Social Stratification?
Sorokin’s definition focuses on the unequal distribution of all aspects of rewards or rights in a society, not just the financial ones. “Rewards” can also come in the form of prestige (widespread, consensual respect and reputation), opportunity for social mobility, inherited social standing and connections, and other forms of privilege and power.
Privations can be inherited too, whether financially in the form of family debt or socially through various systems of oppression and discrimination. Race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, education level, born economic class — all of these differentiations (and many more) can affect a person’s “lot in life” before they are even born.
In the U.S., statistics clearly show astonishing inequalities between socioeconomic classes as well as between dominant and minority subgroups in the distribution of wealth, income, health and social benefits, and other such measurable data. But there are many more dimensions to systemic stratification. And they are all interconnected, affecting one another in complex ways. This is the concept of intersectionality, an essential part of how sociology analyzes social stratification.
For instance, level of education and occupational prestige are much of what defines socioeconomic class. U.S. public schools in poor rural or inner-city areas generally have fewer resources than schools in wealthy areas, often resulting in a lower quality education. Higher education is prohibitively expensive for the poor. Therefore, the lower class has very little access to quality higher education. Good jobs usually require highly educated employees. Thus, the intersectionality of socioeconomic class, education and occupation in the U.S. effectively limits the lower class’s ability to land better jobs and break the cycle of poverty.
This is ironic, as the (intentioned) point of a capitalistic class system (like the one in the U.S.) is a form of meritocracy. An individual in an ideal meritocracy achieves their hierarchical rank in society through merit and vertical social mobility. Their wealth, social power and prestige is earned and derived from what they do and how well they do it as opposed to who they are or where they come from.
This principle of merit-based vertical social mobility and opportunity is part of the American dream. And it has worked for some — the classic rags to riches story. But, in reality, the American class system is much messier, and it is hampered by staggering inequalities. The intersectionality of poverty, access to education, discrimination, and the power and influence of the rich has created a cyclic form of stratification in the U.S., concentrating wealth, power and prestige at the top.
How Can Social Stratification Be Affected Positively?
History is replete with stories of people changing the stratification of their society for the better. Civil, human, labor and voting rights movements are all examples of citizens working toward the systematic dismantling of negative aspects of social stratification.
Through policy and regulation, legislative bodies have the power to redistribute wealth, social benefits, and opportunities for social mobility, offsetting the inequalities inherent to social stratification. And many progressive policy advocates and organizations around the world have outlined legislation shown to be effective toward this end.
But in political systems like that of the U.S., with privately funded election campaigns, interest groups and lobbying groups, wealthy individuals and corporations can hold an immense amount of influence in legislative governance. Again, wealth, power and prestige are intricately interconnected, reinforcing the cyclical nature of social stratification.
Clearly, the subject of social stratification is immensely complicated. And the phenomenon is at the root of many social issues worldwide. But it is also a fascinating and extremely important area of study for the engaged student of sociology. Sociologists can gain many insights from the careful scrutiny of social stratification in its many forms. And these insights can be used to form progressive strategies and guidelines for policy making and regulation aimed at addressing the worst of today’s current social inequalities.
Learn more about the NKU online Bachelor of Science in Sociology program.