Social Stratification

There have been many advances toward social progress and equality in the past few decades in the UK. Despite this, society is still generally very stratified - social groups are still classified and ranked based on criteria such as wealth and status. Sociologists are deeply fascinated by this and the specific ways that social stratification manifests.

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Table of contents
    • We will introduce the meaning of social stratification.
    • We will cover different sociological views of social stratification.
    • We will discuss how social stratification affects different social groups, including caste and class.
    • We will study concepts related to social stratification, such as social mobility.

    To study each topic in more depth, take a look at their separate dedicated explanations.

    Social stratification in sociology

    There are many dimensions to social stratification. We will first clarify what we mean by "social stratification". Then, we will summarise:

    • Sociological views on social stratification
    • Different forms of social stratification
    • Social stratification and class
    • Social mobility
    • Wealth distribution in the UK
    • Poverty
    • The welfare state
    • Power relationships

    Social stratification: meaning

    Social stratification refers to the structuring of society through hierarchies that place different groups in different positions.

    Imagine a pyramid that represents society. The most powerful social groups are at the top of the pyramid, while the least powerful are at the bottom.

    Stratification is based on several factors, including income, wealth, social status and power. It can have wide-ranging impacts on all aspects of a person's life - their access to wealth and resources, education, career, life chances, etc. Let's see what the different branches of sociology have to say about social stratification.

    Social Stratification, people icons in hierarchical pyramid, StudySmarterStratification involves social hierarchies.

    Sociological views of social stratification

    Let's study views of social stratification from three primary sociological approaches.

    The functionalist view of social stratification

    Functionalist sociologists such as Davis and Moore (1945) believe that social stratification not only occurs in every society but is necessary to its functioning. Some essential positions in society require higher levels of skill, talent, and sacrifice and therefore come with high incomes and more social status than "less important" social roles.

    Therefore, functionalists argue that some social inequality is inevitable because people will always be treated differently according to their merits and what they contribute to society.

    The Marxist view of social stratification

    Karl Marx and subsequent Marxists suggest that, rather than being functional, social stratification is based on class exploitation. It results from the bourgeoisie (the ruling class) accumulating wealth and economic power at the expense of the proletariat (the working class) and is not inevitable or necessary.

    The Weberian view of social stratification

    Unlike Marx, Max Weber argued that social stratification is based not only on class but also on social status and political power. This meant that people's status and level of political influence could differ from their class/economic position and they could face inequality and stratification in multiple areas of society.

    For a general overview of functionalism, Marxism, and Weberian theory, visit Functionalism, Marxism and Max Weber's Sociology on StudySmarter.

    Forms of social stratification

    In modern times, several forms of stratification are recognised based on factors other than those highlighted above. Let's look at social stratification based on gender, ethnicity and age.

    Stratification by gender

    Gender is an identity based on the social roles and characteristics associated with femininity and masculinity. It is separate from sex, which is generally based on biological and physical distinctions of "male" and "female".

    Sociologists believe that gender socialisation - bringing up and treating girls and boys differently - is the main way people learn to "do" gender, rather than due to innate biological differences.

    Feminist sociologists argue that society is patriarchal - it is structured to benefit men at the expense of women because men tend to have more economic, political and social power. Despite considerable advances, gender inequality can be still be observed in many areas of society:

    • Gender-segregated "feminine" and "masculine" industries (such as nursing and engineering respectively)
    • Women are paid less than men - the gender pay gap
    • Women have lower chances of promotion and advancement
    • Women do most domestic work/childcare

    It is important to note that this can differ depending on factors such as class and ethnicity. For example, a woman of colour will have different experiences than a White woman, even if they have similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

    Stratification by ethnicity

    Modern Western societies are characterised by multiculturalism and filled with people of many different ethnic backgrounds. This can also be a site of social stratification, with ethnic minority groups facing unequal positions in the social hierarchy, especially if class, gender, disability, sexuality etc. are factored in.

    Ethnic groups are composed of people who share the same or similar culture, history, language, and/or religion. "Ethnic minority" groups are those who constitute a minority amongst the general population (who make up the "ethnic majority").

    Sociologists recognise and study racism, stratification and prejudice based on ethnicity faced by ethnic minorities in several fields, such as:

    • High levels of unemployment and underemployment
    • Reduced chances of getting high paid positions and being promoted
    • Underrepresentation in all levels of politics
    • Being unfairly targeted by law enforcement

    Ethnicity is often conflated with race, but sociologists usually prefer to use the term "ethnicity" as "race" is based on outdated notions of biological differences between racial groups.

    Stratification by age

    Age can be understood as both a biological and chronological category (e.g. "I am 15 years old") and a social category (e.g. "I am a teenager/young person"). Sociologists are interested in age as a social category and how various ages are perceived.

    People face different challenges at different ages throughout their lives, which can be exacerbated by factors such as class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, etc. Let's take a look at the experiences of young and elderly people.


    Teenagers and young adults alike can face stratification and inequality in several ways.

    • Young people may be unable to live independently and have to depend on their parents/live at home.
    • They may suffer high levels of unemployment due to personal and economic uncertainty.
    • Also, they may be unable to access higher education and well-paying jobs based on their income or social class.

    Old age

    We may think of older people as experienced and secure, but they can also face age discrimination and inequality.

    • For example, getting older is viewed negatively in the UK and is considered something to be avoided.
    • Older people can be disregarded for certain jobs and roles (although this is now illegal).
    • Some older people also don't have substantial pensions saved up and so struggle to get by once they retire.

    Social stratification: caste and class

    One of the primary ways people face stratification in society, regardless of other circumstances, is through their social class background.

    Measuring social class

    Social class is often based on occupation because an individual's occupation is usually closely linked to their income, social status and life chances.

    Originally, social class in the UK was recorded and measured through the Registrar General's Social Class (RGSC) scale. However, this was then replaced by the National Statistics Socio-economic Scale (NS-SEC) due to problems with the RGSC, such as disregarding unemployed people and married women.

    Life chances

    An important aspect of social stratification is its impact on life chances.

    A person's life chances refer to their chances of "doing well" in many areas of life, including life expectancy, educational attainment, finances, career, housing, physical and mental health and more.

    Life chances are impacted greatly by social class because upper and middle-class people have better access to many institutions/services that improve quality of life, e.g. good healthcare, than working-class people.

    Social Stratification, icons of baby, adult and old person within a circle, StudySmarterSocial class inequality can impact people's life chances.

    Studies of social class

    There are two prominent studies on social class undertaken on the theory that the working class is becoming more "middle-class" in culture and norms. Let's examine them.


    John H. Goldthorpe conducted the "affluent worker" study in Luton in the 1960s, interviewing well-paid car plant workers to understand if their newfound wealth affected their values and behaviours. He found that they were not, in fact, becoming more "bourgeois" but argued that they made up a "new", self-interested working class.


    Fiona Devine conducted research on Luton workers in 1992, following up on Goldthorpe's study. She discovered that working-class values and lifestyles hadn't actually changed as much as Goldthorpe suggested.

    Significance of social class

    There are many ongoing debates about whether social class is as significant in people's lives as it used to be. Some believe that class identity has declined, while others argue that class is still incredibly important in shaping lives and experiences.

    Social mobility and stratification

    Social mobility refers to when people move up and down the social class hierarchy.

    The level of social mobility in society is important to keep track of. High levels of mobility - lots of people changing their social status - can reveal if the society in question is meritocratic, for example.

    Upward social mobility can technically be achieved through routes such as high educational attainment, marrying into a well-off family, etc. However, working-class people in the UK have lower chances of moving up the social ladder as they may lack the privileges and connections of the middle class.

    Difference between social stratification and social mobility

    Social mobility should not be confused with social stratification. Social stratification refers to the hierarchising of different social classes, and social mobility is when people move between these classes.

    Wealth distribution and social stratification in the UK

    A person's income refers to a flow of money that they receive through work, investments, or benefits. They may also have wealth - assets that are of value, such as property, land and shares. Income and wealth are both distributed very unevenly in the UK.

    However, wealth is distributed even more unequally - the wealthiest 10% of British households owned almost half of all wealth between 2012-14.

    Sociologists argue that this is exacerbated due to the emergence of a new "overclass" of ultra-rich and powerful individuals, e.g. millionaire CEOs, who hoard wealth and exploit the poor.

    Poverty and social stratification

    Poverty can be defined in several ways, the most prominent of which are as follows.

    1. Absolute poverty is when people cannot afford to meet their basic needs on their income level.
    2. Relative poverty is when basic needs are met, but people cannot afford the average standard of living in their society.

    In the UK, relative poverty is more common than absolute poverty. Certain social groups, such as older people, those with disabilities, some ethnic minorities and lone-parent families, are more at risk of poverty.

    Sociological examinations of poverty

    Sociologists have looked at poverty through two lenses: a culture of poverty and a cycle of deprivation. The first angle views poverty as an individual failure, the result of absorbing values and subcultures that encourage staying in poverty.

    The second suggests that poverty is cyclical and passed down through generations, making it very difficult to break out of.

    Sociological explanations of poverty

    There are a number of explanations, sociological and otherwise, of how poverty arises and is maintained.


    Functionalists believe that poverty serves a positive function for some groups in industrial society as poor people are easy to exploit, do the "undesirable" jobs and represent social evils e.g. "laziness".


    The Marxist approach argues that poverty is an outcome of capitalism, which creates and thrives off class inequalities by enriching the ruling class at the expense of the working class.


    Feminists highlight that women are more likely to experience poverty than men for a range of reasons, including the gender pay gap, unequal divisions of labour and absorbing the worst effects of deprivation to protect their families.

    New Right

    The New Right believes that an overly generous welfare state creates welfare dependency and an "underclass" of people who remain in poverty because they would rather live off benefits than work.

    Other approaches

    Alternative explanations for poverty are the effects of unemployment, an inadequate welfare system, economic insecurity and globalisation.

    Social Stratification, icon of hand holding dish with coin falling into it, StudySmarterSociologists have different views on poverty.

    The welfare state and social stratification

    We've mentioned the welfare state as a potential cause of poverty. But what is the welfare state?

    The welfare state is a system set up by the government to meet the basic physical, material and social needs of its people. It covers things such as healthcare, social services, education and welfare benefits.

    There is much debate and controversy on the degree to which the welfare system should be responsible for addressing and eliminating social stratification, especially since welfare is funded through taxation.

    Power and social stratification

    A very important dimension of social stratification and inequality is power.

    Weber, power and authority

    Max Weber theorised that power comes from either coercion (forcing someone to do something) or authority (when one person willingly obeys another).

    Person A has power over Person B when Person A gets what they want from Person B, even if it is against Person B's will.

    Weber identified three forms of authority:

    • Traditional: Based on traditions and customs
    • Rational/legal: Based on laws and rules
    • Charismatic: Based on an influential leader/figure

    Other sociological views on power

    Marxists believe that power is based on unequal and exploitative class relationships, where the bourgeoisie exerts power over the working class.

    On the other hand, feminists such as Sylvia Walby (1990) argue that power is patriarchal and is used by men to subjugate and exploit women.

    Power and politics

    The government is possibly the most direct source of power in society.

    People have differing views on the role of the state and how it exercises its power. Pluralists, for example, argue that power is divided between many different groups and interests. However, Marxists and conflict theorists assert that power is concentrated in the hands of a privileged few.

    Social Stratification - Key takeaways

    • Social stratification refers to the structuring of society through hierarchies that place different groups in different positions.
    • Stratification can be based on a range of factors, including class, gender, ethnicity and age.
    • Sociologists have differing views and explanations for stratification, poverty, and the degree to which the welfare state is responsible.
    • Social mobility and wealth distribution can tell us a lot about the degree of stratification and inequality in society.
    • Stratification occurs through exercising power, which can come from and manifest in a number of ways.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Stratification

    What is the purpose of social stratification? 

    Sociologists of different perspectives have different ideas about the purpose of social stratification. For example, Marxists argue that the purpose of stratification is to exploit the working class, while functionalists believe it is necessary for society to function.

    Is social stratification necessary? 

    Sociologists strongly disagree on whether social stratification is "necessary". Functionalists would argue that it is, while Marxists would argue it isn't and is harmful to society.

    What are the four major systems of social stratification? 

    Social stratification can occur through many different systems in society. Four major systems are stratification by social class, gender, ethnicity, and age.

    What are some examples of social stratification? 

    Some examples of social stratification include poverty, unemployment, worse life chances, pay gaps, unequal divisions of labour, underrepresentation, etc.

    Why is gender a dimension of social stratification? 

    Feminist sociologists argue that gender is a dimension of social stratification because society is patriarchal - it is structured to benefit men at the expense of women. This is because men tend to have more economic, political and social power.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What are the three types of conflict models?

    What are the five main sources of intergroup conflict?

    True or false: According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a resolution is: "the act or process of resolving something, meaning to deal with it successfully."


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