What Do Sociologists Mean by Social Stratification?

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What do sociologists mean by social stratification? Discuss its consequences for society and for individuals living within it. Illustrate and support your response with sociological argument and evidence.

Sociologists have varying views on social stratification, therefore their approach to how it can impact society and individuals results in very different concepts. This piece of work will identify and discuss the key points which are significant to the sociological debate. Social Stratification is ‘a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy’ (Macionis & Plummer: 2006:190). Stratification involves the layering of society into strata where a hierarchy emerges. Social stratification involves the classification of people into groups based on shared socio-economic conditions, which results in inequalities within society with individual and social, political, economic and ideological consequences. All stratification systems will have five common features. Social stratification will continue throughout generations and individuals within each society must believe in the system for it to function. It can be found in societies all over the world but levels of inequality will differ from one society to another. Stratification is a characteristic of society, not just a reflection of inequality between individuals yet it produces shared characteristics within each strata; each member of society will identify with the group they subjectively or objectively belong. There are two types of social stratification, open and closed. Within open systems, an individual’s social position will be ascribed at birth; however some degree of social mobility is possible. Within a closed system, the social position of an individual is again ascribed at birth but there will be little or no opportunity to change that social position. The functionality of social stratification is interpreted differently by the various theoretical perspectives of sociology. Consensus theorists suggest that since social stratification is found in all societies, hierarchy may be necessary in order to structure society and that each individual within society is different so cannot be treated equally. They support the idea that social institutions such as education are used to categorise individuals according to their talents and attributes. Individuals with better attributes should have greater rewards within society. This difference between individuals naturally produces inequalities within the stratification system; however functionalists regard this as a positive outcome. The unequal distribution of rewards and resources motivates people to better themselves and work harder, to obtain higher social strata and therefore receive superior rewards. ‘As a functioning mechanism a society must somehow distribute its members in social positions and induce them to perform the duties of these positions’ (Davis and Moore: 1945:242). This idea of role distribution also links with Davis and Moore’s theory of meritocracy; ‘a system of social stratification based on personal merit’ (Macionis & Plummer: 2005:202). Meritocratic principles are crucial to a productive society and distribute rewards according to individual ability and efforts by promoting equality of opportunity while delegating inequality of rewards. Conflict theorists argue that rather than benefit each member of society, social stratification provides social rewards to the individuals in the higher strata, at the disadvantage of the people in the lower strata’s. They do not agree that meritocracy exists; suggesting instead there is inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility found in stratified societies. Marxists believe that inequality is systematically created and maintained though social institutions by powerful social groups interested only in maintaining their position. In Marx’s view ‘[i]t is the workers who create wealth by their sweat and toil but most of the...
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