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Module 4: Discussion Board Question 4-1
The Concepts and Theories of Stratification
As long as there have been human groups, there have been status differences between people in those groups. Stratification may have been simply based on age and gender: adults have more status and power than children and men have more status and power than women. However, as societies have become more complex, so have the factors that determine status. Karl Marx defined two major classes of people that were determined by their relationship to the “means of production,” everything that produces wealth. This could be land than can produce profits from crops or raising animals, or factories and machines that can produce goods that can be sold for profit. The first of these major classes was called the “bourgeoisie,” who own the means of production. They make their living from the profits earned by their enterprises. The second class is the “proletariat,” comprised of those who do not own any means of production so are left to sell their labor to the bourgeoisie. Today we refer to these classes as owners and workers. Obviously, these two classes have very different statuses and control over their lives.
Also, Marx argued that these two major classes have an inherent source of conflict. The goal of the owners is to make as much profit as possible, including paying the workers a little as they can. The goal of the workers is to get the highest wages and benefits as possible from their employer. According to Marx, this conflict often progresses into the employer under-paying and exploiting their workers to the point that the workers become upset and start resisting and maybe even revolting against the employer. Marx argued that before workers will resist or revolt, they must have a “class consciousness,” meaning they identify with others in their situation or class and become aware of their collective interests.
Later, Max Weber argued that while Marx’s social class analysis was valid, it omitted other dimensions of stratification that affect one’s status and therefore his concept was too narrow. Weber then proposed three dimensions of status that included Marx’s ideas and added new dimensions. He included, class or what we might term property, status or prestige and party or power. Be sure to read more about these dimensions in Chapter 9.
You might anticipate that the next question to be examined by sociologists is how people move from one social class to another. This is called social mobility, and usually has two major types: structural and exchange mobility. “Structural mobility” happens when the structure of society is expanding and the number of new high-level positions are increasing, making room for some people in lower-level positions to move up into the higher levels. An example of structural mobility is in early America when we had an ever-expanding economy with plenty of higher-level positons being created. This created a lot of opportunity for people in the lower-level positons to move up in the stratification system. “Exchange mobility,” as its name implies, requires someone to move down in the stratification system to make room for someone from the lower levels to move up. In some mature and very stable societies, there isn’t much structural mobility so the only way to move up is for people high in the stratification system to get displaced downward. This may happen when the child of someone high in the stratification system does not qualify for the high-level position of his/her parents and leaves room for someone to move up into that position from the lower levels.
An important goal for sociologists is to be able to explain how different aspects of society work. In this case, how does the stratification system work and why does it work the way it does? Three theories have been developed to explain this aspect of societies: the functionalist, social evolution, and conflict theories. These are three important theories of stratification that shed much light on how our stratification systems work. Be sure to read them in more detail in Chapter 9 in the text.
We may wonder why, in our society, someone who simply plays a game like football or basketball will make millions of dollars per year and is given a huge amount of the society’s resources, including very high status and prestige. Then someone with a college education who fills a very important role in our society as a teacher of poor minority children, giving them a chance to move up in the stratification system, is awarded a paltry, barely livable salary and much lower status and prestige than the athlete. We may ask, who makes these decisions and what does it say about our values as a society? Well, I think the three theories, especially the functionalist theory, can make sense out of this situation. After much thought, we may not agree with this discrepancy, but the theories will help us understand why it happens the way it does.
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