Social Stratification: Crash Course Sociology #21


Imagine two people.
Two extremely wealthy people. One of them inherited their money, acquiring it
through the luck that comes with being born to owners
of immense amounts of property and wealth. And the other person worked for what they
have. They started at the bottom, and through
years of hard work and clever dealing, they built
a business empire. Now: which one would you say deserves their
wealth? Sociologically, the interesting thing here
isn’t your answer, not really. It’s the fact that different societies in
different times and places have different
answers to this question. Because the question of what it means to
deserve wealth, or success, or power, is a matter
of social stratification. [Theme Music] Social stratification is what we’re talking
about, when we talk about inequality. It’s a system by which society categorizes
people, and ranks them in a hierarchy. Everything from social status and prestige, to the
kind of job you can hold, to your chances of living
in poverty, are affected by social stratification. That’s because, one of the first principles
of social stratification is that it’s universal,
but variable. It shows up in every society on the planet,
but what exactly it looks like – how it divides and categorizes people, and the
advantages or disadvantages that come with that
division – vary from society to society. Realizing that social stratification exists
in every society brings us to another principle: that stratification is a characteristic of
society, and not a matter of individual differences. People are obviously all different from each other,
so we might assume that stratification is just a kind
of natural outcome of those differences, but it’s not. We know this because we can see the effects
of social stratification on people, independent
of their personal choices or traits: For example, children of wealthy families are more likely to live longer and be healthier, to attend college, and to excel in school than children born into poverty. And they’re also more likely to be wealthy
themselves when they grow up. And this highlights another key principle
of social stratification: It persists across generations. So, stratification serves to categorize and
rank members of society, resulting in different
life chances. But generally, society allows some degree
of social mobility, or changes in position
within the social hierarchy. People sometimes move upward or downward
in social class, and this is what we usually think of
when we talk about social mobility. But more common in the United States is horizontal
mobility, changing positions without changing
your standing in the social hierarchy. This generally happens when a person moves
between jobs that pay about the same and have
about the same occupational prestige. Like stratification itself, social mobility
isn’t just a matter of individual achievement;
there are structural factors at play, too. In fact, we can talk specifically about
structural social mobility: when a large number of people move around
the hierarchy because of larger societal changes. When a recession hits, and thousands of people
lose their jobs and are suddenly downwardly
mobile, that’s structural mobility. But stratification isn’t just a matter of
economic forces and job changes. Which brings us to another aspect of social
stratification: It isn’t just about economic and social inequalities;
it’s also about beliefs. A society’s cultural beliefs tell us how to categorize people, and they also define the inequalities of a stratification system as being normal, even fair. Put simply: if people didn’t believe that
the system was right, it wouldn’t last. Beliefs are what make systems of
social stratification work. And it’s these beliefs about social
stratification that inform what it means to
deserve wealth, or success, or power. These four principles give us a better understanding
of what social stratification is, but they still haven’t told
us much about what it looks like in the real world. So, sociologists classify stratification systems
as being either closed or open. Closed systems tend to be extremely rigid
and allow for little social mobility. In these systems, social position is based
on ascribed status, or the social position
you inherit at birth. On the other hand, open systems of
stratification allow for much more social mobility,
both upward and downward. Social position tends to be achieved, not
ascribed. Now, these terms are pretty theoretical, so let’s look
at some examples of more closed or open systems,
as well as societies that fall in the middle. The archetypal closed system is a caste system. Of these, India’s caste system is probably
one of the best known. And while it’s a social system of decreasing
importance, it still holds sway in parts of rural India,
and it has a strong legacy across the country. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble: The traditional caste system contains four
large divisions, called varnas: Brahman, Kshatriya,
Vaishya, and Sudra. Together these varnas encompass hundreds of
smaller groups called jatis at the local level. The caste system in its traditional form is
a clear example of an extremely rigid, closed,
and unequal system. Caste position not only determined what jobs
were acceptable, but it also strongly controlled its
members’ everyday lives and life outcomes. The system required endogamy, or marriage
within your own caste category. And in everyday life, the caste system
determined who you could interact with and how, with systems of social control restricting
contact between lower and higher castes. And this whole system was based on a set
of strong cultural and religious beliefs, establishing caste as a right of birth and
living within the strictures of your caste as a
moral and spiritual duty. Thanks Thought Bubble. We see a variation of the caste system in
feudal Europe with the division of society
into three orders or estates: the nobility, the clergy, and the commoners. Again, a person’s birth determined his social
standing; commoners, for instance, paid the most taxes
and owed labor to their local lord. So they had little expectation that they’d
rise above their station. The whole social order was justified on the
belief that it was ordained by god, with the
nobility ruling by so-called divine right. Both caste systems use ancestry and lineage
as a main principle of social stratification, but race has also been used as the main
distinction in closed social systems. The South African system of apartheid, for instance,
maintained a legally enforced separation between
black people and white people for decades. Apartheid denied black people citizenship,
the ability to own land, and any say whatsoever
in the national government. The Jim Crow laws of the American South were
another example, as was slavery before that. In contrast with caste systems, class systems
are the archetypal open systems. They aren’t based solely on ascribed status
at birth. Instead they combine ascribed status and
personal achievement in a way that allows for
some social mobility. Class is the system of stratification we have
in American society. The main difference between caste and class
systems is that class systems are open, and social mobility is not legally restricted
to certain people. There aren’t formally defined categories in
the same way there are in the Traditional
Indian Caste system. Being in the “under-class” in the U.S.
is not equivalent to being an “untouchable”
from India. In class systems, the boundaries between
class categories are often blurred, and there’s greater opportunity for social
mobility into and out of class positions. The American system of stratification is founded
on this very idea, in fact: that it’s possible, through hard work and
perseverance, to move up the social hierarchy,
to achieve a higher class standing. And this points to another difference in
systems of stratification: Instead of ancestry, lineage, or race being
the key to social division, the American system has elements of a
meritocracy, a system in which social mobility is
based on personal merit and individual talents. The American dream is that anyone, no matter how
poor, can “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and become upwardly class mobile,
through nothing but hard work and gumption. The American system is certainly more meritocratic
than feudal Europe or traditional India; but the idea of meritocracy is as much a justification
for inequality as it is an actual principle of stratification. In an open, class-based system of
stratification, it’s easy to believe that anyone who’s
not upwardly mobile deserves their poverty. Because a meritocratic class system is supposed
to be open, it’s easy to ignore the structural
factors that influence class standing. But just as the Indian caste system and feudal
estate system placed their limits on certain groups, the American class system limits just
how far hard work can take some people. The US class system tends to reproduce
existing class inequalities, because the advantages that you start with
have an incredibly powerful impact on where
you can end up. This is part of the reason that the US is
still stratified along race and gender lines. That said, these inequalities are no longer
explicitly enshrined in the law, which is an example
of the greater openness of class systems. Because of this openness, class systems also have
a greater likelihood of opportunity for individuals to
experience status inconsistency: a situation where a person’s social position
has both positive and negative influences on their
social status Stratification isn’t just a matter of one
thing after all. When we talk about socioeconomic status, for
instance, we’re including three things: income, education, and occupational prestige. An example of status inconsistency is an
adjunct professor who’s very well educated,
but earns a low income. There’s an inconsistency among these different
aspects of their social status; low income tends to decrease social status
while at the same time, a high level of education and the societal respect for the occupation
of college professor improves social status. All these comparisons between closed and
open systems might make it sound like they’re
totally different: a system is either one
or the other. But really they’re two poles on a spectrum. Not every society is strictly a caste system
or a class system. Modern Britain, for instance, is a good illustration
of a mixed system of stratification. It still maintains a limited caste system
of nobility as a legacy of the feudal system
of estates, which survives alongside, and helps
reinforce, a class system similar to what
we have in the U.S. And some systems of stratification even
claim that its citizens are entirely equal, as
the Soviet Union did. Following the Russian Revolution of 1917,
the USSR was established as a theoretically
classless society. But inequality is more than just economic. And Soviet society was stratified into four
groups, each of which held various amounts
of political power and prestige: apparatchiks or government officials, intelligentsia,
industrial workers, and the rural peasantry. So, like I mentioned before, stratification
is universal, but variable. If you want to study a society, one of the things
that you need to look at is that way that it’s stratified,
and whether, and how, social mobility occurs. Today we learned about social stratification. We talked about four basic principles of a
sociological understanding of stratification. We discussed open and closed
systems of stratification, and finally we talked about examples of
different kinds of stratification systems, including
caste systems and class systems. Next time we’ll talk more about the why and
how of stratification by looking at different
sociological theories of stratification. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr.
Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it’s made with the help of all of these
nice people. Our animation team is Thought Cafe and Crash
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