Introduction: Social stratification simply means the inequality between different groups of people. We may observe this inequality in almost all cultures and societies. Social stratification has got very complex concepts all across the globe.
Meaning of Social Stratification
“Social Stratification refers to the socio-economic division of society into several sub-units or sub-groups, where people belonging to a particular sub-unit or sub-group enjoys superior or inferior power, status, opportunity, and wealth in relation to other sub-units or sub-groups.”
Social stratification means dividing society up into different layers (or ‘strata’). ‘Social Stratification’ refers to the categorization, classification, or dividing society up into horizontal layers.
An alternative way of saying social stratification is: social hierarchy. For example, we live under certain hierarchical categories like- the upper, middle and lower class or any other similar division. This division is based on the society as a whole and not as a single person.
Social stratification refers to a system whereby people in society are grouped into different social classes according to their birth, race, economic position, culture, ethnicity, wealth, income, earnings, occupation, education, and sometimes gender among other factors.
Social stratification is a system through which people are ranked – one above another. This rank creates a class or division in the society.
The concept of social stratification is prevalent since ages. Simply put, social stratification meaning includes categorization of individuals based on order, group, hierarchy, wealth or occupation.
Types of Social Stratification
There are many ways in which social stratification can manifest itself, based on different factors and elements. Mentioned below are the most common types of social stratification being followed in the society:-
1. The Caste system
The caste system is a system of social stratification in India, which divides Hindus into four main groups. We can even find the mention of these four varnas in important Hindu literatures. These four varnas are Brahmins, Kshyatryas, Vaishyas and Sudra caste. The powers, duties and financial status of each varna differ from each other.
- The Brahmins at the top (i.e. the priests and the teachers),
- The Kshyatryas on the next level down (these are rulers and warriors),
- The Vaishyas (farmers, merchants and traders),
- The Shudras (i.e. the labourers) on the bottom rung of the social ladder.
When an individual is born into a particular caste, he or she remains to be a member of it forever. Every caste is identified by name, and marriage in such a social stratification system is also determined by the caste of the likely couples. Since the caste system is hierarchical, a society that practices it is often faced with the challenge of class resentment. (Also read: Caste System: Meaning, Features, Causes, Effects, and Solutions)
2. The Class system
Some countries, especially the western societies, have a class system, where people in society are divided into three classes: upper, middle and lower class. Stratification is majorly based on the wealth of an individual. Just as the name of each class suggests,
- The upper classes tend to be aristocrats (or landed gentry) who have been born into lives of greater wealth and privilege. The high-class consists of eminent people in society. These people at the ‘top’ of a class based social hierarchy tend to be richer and are generally regarded as a successful people in the society.
- The middle class comprises of people who can afford to live decently but are not wealthy enough to enjoy the type of fine living experienced by the upper class. They manage to earn average income and enjoy decent social status in society. The middle classes can be further subdivided into upper middle and lower middle class people.
- The lower class is the category with people having lowest social status in terms of their position and economic status. They do not earn much. The term lower class is a snobbish term, that reflects a divisive and derisive attitude towards people who are not in the upper echelons of society. As a result, most people who belong to this ‘lower’ stratum of society tend to prefer to be referred to as working class.
A class system can easily become entrenched, and it can be hard to move between the classes. Moving between classes – e.g. from the working class to the middle class – can be done through education, marriage or acquiring wealth. This is known as social mobility. Social mobility can be upward (moving into a ‘higher’ class) or downward (moving ‘down’ through the strata of society).
One group that has posed a puzzle for traditional classed society is the nouveau riche, or those who have become newly rich. These people are often middle class businesspeople who have struck it rich. This makes them too socially powerful to be truly classed as middle class, and yet they do not share the values or the hereditary privileges of the upper classes.
3. Estate system
This system comes from the medieval Europe origin. Estate based social stratification gives much importance on the original birth status. It also considers wealth and other possessions that belong to the individual. This means if a person was born in a particular class, he/she remains in the same until death, without any change. This kind of social stratification works on the principle that each estate has a state and remains with it, right from the beginning until the end.
4. Gender Stratification
There are societies in the world that categorize their members in terms of gender. Gender stratification means that people who belong to a certain sex will have certain rights and privileges that the other sex may not enjoy. Even in the modern world, some societies are greatly defined by this type of social stratification. Gender stratification has led to many societal challenges such as gender-based violence and the marginalization of women. The fight for gender equality can be viewed to be an attempt to dismantle this type of social stratification. It is a fact that women around the world constitute a larger portion of poor population leading to feminization of poverty.
Though slavery has been abolished in most part of the world, it is still in practice in some countries. People, being classified under this category, are known as slaves. Every slave is under a master whom he/she belongs to. This system remains so from one hierarchy level to the other. It continues for generations. The master, thus, owns the slave and by this his power on the slave remains unlimited. It also means that the master can technically use the slave for varied set of reasons. The master can assign any task to the slave. The slave has to complete that task as and when asked for.
Slavery is a social stratification system that no longer exists in most part of the world. Slave trade has been outlawed across most countries and international bodies such as the United Nations.
The practice of slavery is against the principles of human rights. It is high time that focused efforts are taken to completely eradicate this evil practice.
There are several theories of social stratification. Some are religiously based, such as the caste system in India. Others are more about class and economics. Social stratification is a benchmark for a societal classification and categorization in the society. In some situations, social stratification can come out as a great support. However, in general, Social stratification all too often produces vast inequality, inferiority, dissatisfaction, and oppression. People who occupy lower social strata are often denied the economic, social and cultural opportunities that people on the higher strata feel entitled to have automatically. At all times, these are things that must be fought against. Many theorists of social stratification have noted the fundamental wrongness of dividing society into strata as it condemns vast swathes of the population to poverty and fewer opportunities. As such, it is often argued that we must dismantle the hierarchies in our societies as a necessary condition for achieving equality for all.