In sociology, social stratification is the hierarchical arrangement of social classes, castes and strata within a society. While these hierarchies are not universal to all societies, they are the norm among state-level cultures (as distinguished from hunter-gatherers or other social arrangements).

Critical overview[]

Social stratification is regarded quite differently by the principal perspectives of sociology. Proponents of structural-functional analysis suggest that since social stratification exists in most state societies, a hierarchy must therefore be beneficial in helping to stabilize their existence. Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, indicated that stability and social order is achieved by a universal value consensus. Functionalists indicate that stratification exists solely to satisfy the functional prerequisites necessary for functional proficiency in any society. Conflict theorists consider the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in many stratified societies. They conclude, often working from the theories of Karl Marx, that stratification means that working class people are not likely to advance socioeconomically, while the wealthy may continue to exploit the proletariat generation after generation. Marx identified that the social classes are stratified based on their connection to the means of production and thus the ruling class, bourgeoisie, and working class, proletariats, maintain their social positions by maintaining their relationship with the means of production. This maintenance of status quo is achieved by various methods of social control employed by the bourgeoisie within many aspects of social life, eg.ideologies of submission promoted through the institution of religion. However, some conflict theorists, mainly Max Weber and followers of his Weberian perspective, also critique Marx's view and point out that social stratification is not purely based on economic inequalities but is equally shaped by status and power differentials. Weber's analysis indicated the presence of four social classes which he refers to as the propertied upper class, the property-less white-collar workers, the petty bourgeoisie, and the working class. Another important factor to note is found in the work of Francois Adle who stated that, "The advancement [of] technology has changed the structure of mobility completely"

Non-stratified societies[]

Anthropologists have confirmed that social stratification is not universal as once thought. Non-stratified egalitarian societies exist which have little or no concept of social hierarchy, political or economic status, class, or even permanent leadership. Also known as acephalous (or "headless") societies, the best examples of egalitarian cultures all have hunter-gatherer economies, although not all hunter-gatherers can be considered egalitarian.


Anthropologists identify egalitarian cultures as "Kinship-oriented," because they value social harmony more than wealth or status. These are contrasted with Economically-oriented cultures (including States) in which status is prized, and stratification, competition, and conflict are common. Kinship-oriented cultures actively work to prevent social hierarchies from developing which could lead to conflict and instability. They do this typically through a process of reciprocal altruism.

A good example is given by Richard Borshay Lee's [1] account of the !Kung San, who practice "insulting the meat." Whenever a hunter makes a kill, he is ceaselessly teased and ridiculed (in a friendly, joking fashion) to prevent him from becoming too proud or egotistical. The meat itself is then distributed evenly among the entire social group, rather than kept by the hunter. The level of teasing is proportional to the size of the kill--Lee found this out the hard way when he purchased an entire cow as a gift for the group he was living with, and was teased for weeks afterward about it (since obtaining that much meat could be interpreted as showing off).

Another example is the Indigenous Australians of Northwest Arnhem Land (and perhaps elsewhere in Australia), who have arranged their entire society, spirituality, and economy around a kind of gift economy called renunciation. In this arrangement, every person is expected to give everything of any consumable resource they have to any other person who needs or lacks it at the time. This has the benefit of largely eliminating social problems like theft and relative poverty. However, misunderstandings obviously arise when attempting to reconcile Aboriginal renunciative economics with the competition/scarcity-oriented economics introduced to Australia by Anglo-European colonists.

Marx's inspiration[]

According to Marvin Harris[2], Lewis Henry Morgan's accounts of the egalitarian natives of Hawaii formed part of Marx's inspiration for Communism. See Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (ISBN 0-87348-261-1). But Marx's frame of reference was the highly stratified, economically-oriented society of industrial Europe. So, even though Marx was concerned with equality, his philosophy emphasizes materialism, economics, and politics. Many people argue that these are less important issues in an egalitarian society, where relative material and political equality result naturally from well-maintained, mostly non-competitive social relationships (kinship).

The basic differences in attitude between Kinship-oriented and Economically-oriented societies may, in part, explain some of the difficulties met when implementing socialist ideals in an already stratified culture.

Weber's inspiration[]

Weber built on Marx's ideas, arriving at the three-component theory of stratification and the concept of life chances.


  1. ^ Lee, Richard B. (1976), Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors, Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
  2. ^ Harris, Marvin (1968), The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture ISBN 0-7591-0133-7

External links[]

See also[]

Social stratification: Social class
Bourgeoisie Upper class Ruling class Nobility White-collar
Petite bourgeoisie Upper middle class Creative class Gentry Blue-collar
Proletariat Middle class Working class Nouveau riche/Parvenu Pink-collar
Lumpenproletariat Lower middle class Lower class Old Money Gold-collar
Slave class Underclass Classlessness
Social class in the United States
Middle classes Upper classes Social structure Income Educational attainment

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