Social stratification is defined as “the ranking of people and the rewards they receive based on objective criteria, often including wealth, power, and/or prestige” (Carl, 2013). Plainly put, people place importance on other people, whether knowingly or not, based on a variety of different factors. Society acts as an underground democracy, voting desirable qualities to the top but, in most cases, not openly acknowledging that those favored are considered to have a more important existence than those with less desirable qualities.
In some societies, political ability and power skyrocket people to the top of the social ladder whereas, in other societies, wealth and power hold the key to meaningful existence. Beauty, popularity, and fame are some other sought after qualities. A mix of more than one determining factor for a high social ranking further increases your position in the social hierarchy. Some other factors in considering social rank are race, gender, sex, religion, ethnicity, career, neighborhood, transportation type, style, lifestyle, family origin, affiliations and many more.
In the United States, the social stratification system in comprised of a variety of these factors. It is important to note that social stratification naturally creates inequality and with that being said, it is ironic that the U.S. openly acknowledges the existence of social classes. Although there are many variables to each specific class and even more subclasses, the classes predominantly recognized are the Upper Class, Upper Middle Class, Middle Class, Working Class, Lower Class, and the Urban Underclass.
INCOME, WEALTH, POWER, AND PRESTIGE
John D. Carl recognizes income as “the money received for work or through investments” and wealth as “all of an individual’s material possessions, including income”. Income and wealth play an important part in one’s social standing. The amount of money you make and the amount of assets that you have accumulated says a lot about how society perceives you. However, most people who can identify as Upper Class, possess even more than capital gain has offered them; power and prestige.
Power is “the ability to carry out your will and impose it on others” (Carl, 2013). Power is powerful, do we agree? And there are different forms of power including persuasive power and force. People who hold power have the ability to get what they want, either through direct or indirect means. Some more common types of power are manipulation, unspoken or spoken authority, and persuasion. However, forcing someone to do something against their will is another type of power which may be taboo but still a relevant tactic.
Prestige, on the other hand, is a more subtle scaling of social rank. It refers to “the level of esteem associated with our status and social standing” (Carl, 2013). This characteristic can be more closely associated with the respect a career or position demands. For example, a heart surgeon is seen as a more prestigious career than that of a waitress. The social standing in itself calls for a level of recognition and respect which only accentuates the image of the class.
The Upper (or Elite) Class is, without question, at the top of the pecking order. Membership to this class is limited and often requires being born into a wealthy and powerful family with other contingent factors such as attendance at exclusive schools or social clubs. About one percent of the population in the United States bear this social standing associated with wealth, power, and prestige.
Just below the upper class, and bridging a very wide gap, is the Upper Middle Class. The people who fall into this category make at least $100,000 per year and have accumulated wealth. Their social standing is largely due to their level of monetary success and they do not have access to exclusive clubs such as the Upper Class.
The Middle Class is the most desired social standing among the majority of the population in the U.S. and mainly, because most people feel that it is attainable and believe that middle class living is “comfortable”. However, sociologists recognize that middle class covers a broad spectrum of careers and income levels vary from $40,000 to $80,000 per year. Most middle class people have a high school diploma and/or college but their occupational standing may be that of a low paid white collar worker, high paid blue collar worker, or skilled laborer.
As compared to the thirty-four percent of the population identifying as middle class, the Working Class makes up about thirty percent and most have not completed high school. Working class is just what it sounds like and most of these people are construction workers, unskilled laborers, or other low paying blue collar employees. Lack of education and other resources contribute to the limited opportunity for advancement out of this class.
The constituents of the Lower Class are “the ones who truly feel the effects of poverty” (Carl, 2013). People who identify in this class work for very low wages, often part time, if they are employed at all. The lower class can be considered teetering, if not chronically, under the poverty line. A large portion of the African American and Hispanic population make up the lower class and one of the most challenging obstacles is the ability to advance because they are often living from one paycheck to the next.
Finally, the Urban Underclass is the absolute bottom of the social standing by all means. People in this class live in high crime neighborhoods with poor schools. Advancement from this level of the social ladder has, without question, the biggest disadvantages because people in this situation lack the resources and often lack the vision to see beyond the immediate needs of survival. A variety of complex issues add to the decline in social opportunity at this level including drug use, domestic violence, and broken homes.
As I referenced earlier, social stratification naturally encourages inequality and social classes are not a cookie cutter designs for social standing. There are, in fact, numerous social groups within those categories which are separated based on criteria other than income, power, wealth, and prestige. Race, gender, sex, religion, ethnicity, likeability and many other factors seem to influence our opinions as to how a particular individual or family is stratified into or within their determined social class.
POWER AND PRIVILEGE
The higher a person places in terms of social standing, the more income, wealth and power they have. Coincidentally, their opportunity structure changes providing them with more privilege. Access to better schools, neighborhoods, and healthcare are among a few privileges enjoyed by those with higher socio-economic statuses. The more income and wealth a person has, the more able they are to pay for better quality of care and comfortable lifestyles.
This privilege adds to the stratification of society and creates more inequality. For example, people identifying as middle class tend to move to the suburbs while people in the lower class may rent apartments in a less desirable neighborhood. The income in the suburbs is higher therefore the taxes are more expensive which means more funding for suburban schools and better education, etc. This is a prime example of how the gap is widened between social classes and social mobility is further hindered. Privileges do not stop at better health coverage. Privilege demands better treatment in every facet available.
Carl, J. D. (2013). Think Social Problems 2013. Pearson.