Stratification and Differentiation

An unfortunate fact of life is that what sets us apart isn't always what pushes us forward. Although our differences should lift us up, they can often do the opposite. In fact, in the social, political and economic landscapes, the practice of favouring some identities above others is all too common. 

Stratification and Differentiation Stratification and Differentiation

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Table of contents

    These processes are known as 'stratification' and 'differentiation'.

    • In this explanation, we'll discuss the concepts of 'stratification' and 'differentiation'.
    • We'll start by discussing the characteristics of social stratification, including open and closed systems.
    • Next, we'll discuss the characteristics of differentiation, followed by an outline of the difference between social stratification and social differentiation.
    • After this, we'll take a look at some examples of stratification and differentiation.
    • Lastly, after a brief overview of the theories of stratification, we will close the explanation with a brief look at class stratification.

    The definition of social differentiation and stratification

    Let's start with the definitions of these key terms, starting with stratification.

    What are the characteristics of social stratification?

    Sociologists claim that stratification describes an individual's social standing. The ranking of different groups shows system-wide inequalities that are upheld by the social structure. These inequalities can be identified through social patterns and issues.

    Sociologists are interested in how inequalities exist in society based on the hierarchy of different social groups and how this affects interpersonal and intergroup relations.

    There are two systems of stratification; the 'open', and the 'closed'.

    The open system of stratification

    An open system of stratification is one where individuals can achieve status through meritocracy.

    Due to changes within the stratification hierarchy, individuals can potentially change their position in society. This is called social mobility. However, this mobility may be more difficult for those belonging to a particular race, religion, social class, or gender.

    The UK and US are considered meritocracies, as it is possible and encouraged to work hard to achieve a higher status.

    Social mobility refers to the ability of individuals or families to experience changes in their wealth and social status over time. This can happen where an individual gets a high-paying job, moves into a higher tax bracket, and experiences lifestyle changes, such as more disposable income. They will have 'moved up' in the social hierarchy.

    Likewise, an individual can also 'move down' the social hierarchy; if they lose their job, or have to pay off a large debt, for example.

    The closed system of stratification

    In a closed system of stratification, individuals have little to no chance to change their position. Many sociologists attribute this to individuals' 'ascribed' statuses.

    An ascribed status is a status assigned at birth or assumed involuntarily. An ascribed status is not earned through personal effort or achievement.

    An ascribed status cannot be changed easily. Depending on the status, it may never be changed. It is dependent on many other factors such as the political, socioeconomic, and social climate.

    A royal title is a good example of an ascribed status, as it is given to an individual simply by virtue of their birth. Similarly, the Hindu caste system is a good example of ascribed status based on religion.

    We will now look at social differentiation.

    What are the characteristics of social differentiation?

    Social differentiation, or simply differentiation, is the distinction between social groups and people based on biological, physiological, and cultural factors. Differentiation is the acknowledgement of the differences between various social groups. It is the basis for social stratification within societies.

    Stratification and Differentiation, Two people holding hands, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Social differentiation often leads to stratification.

    Two ways in which differentiation can take place are highlighted below.

    • Biologically or physiologically - making a distinction between hair and skin colour, physique, and genetic makeup between different groups of people. For example, differentiating based on the physical differences between men and women.

    • Socially or culturally - making a distinction between the type of work, level of income, wealth, or power between different groups of people. For example, differentiating between the lifestyles of working-class and upper-class people.

    What are some examples of social stratification and differentiation?

    Consider the table below to understand how social differentiation can lead to stratification.


    1. Acknowledgement of human differences

    Women have different physiological processes than men

    Black people have high levels of eumelanin (a type of melanin) and typically darker skin, hair, and eyes than White people

    2. Social differentiation: emphasising 'superiority' of the dominant group and 'inferiority' of the non-dominant group (creation of inequality)

    • Men are not 'hormonal' and are emotionally stronger.

    • Women are more 'hormonal' and emotionally weaker

    • Lighter features, especially skin colour, are superior.

    • Darker features, especially skin colour, are inferior

    3. Ideological beliefs - translation of differentiation

    Men should be in charge as they make better decisions

    White people should make decisions as they are superior.

    4. Power

    Men in charge only put other men in charge, and create a different status for women, e.g. as home-makers

    Segregation between Black and White people, and mistreatment of Black people

    5. Social inequalities

    Fewer women are represented in positions of power, and in making important decisions about female home-makers

    Black people have little representation in positions of power and have fewer rights

    6. Social stratification

    Men are at the 'top' of society, e.g. the politicians, businessmen, and legislators. Women are at the 'bottom' of society - no social power or status

    White people are at the 'top' of society, e.g. the politicians, businessmen, and legislators. Black people are at the 'bottom' of society - no social power or status and widespread discrimination

    7. Result


    Systemic racism

    The difference between social stratification and social differentiation

    As mentioned above, differentiation is the basis for stratification in society; however, it is not enough to simply acknowledge differences between two groups. There must be an ideology and power to translate those differences into hierarchies in society.

    As specified in the above table, differentiation is the basis of stratification, as beliefs about the differences between social groups lead to inequalities and ranking. This, in turn, leads to a hierarchical social structure that reflects such beliefs.

    Theories of social stratification and social differentiation

    Stratification and Differentiation, Pile of old books, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Various sociological theories explain the existence and maintenance of social stratification

    Now that we are familiar with stratification and differentiation, let's look at sociological theories that discuss them.

    Functionalist theories of stratification

    Functionalists Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945) argued that since social stratification exists in all societies, it is inevitable. Capitalist societies are known for inequalities in social class, income, wealth, and power. Socialist societies were more known for inequalities in political power. Stratification, therefore, cannot be avoided.

    Davis and Moore (and other functionalists) also argue that not only is stratification inevitable, but it is also desirable, as it rewards individuals based on their contribution to society. Society has to be unequal to give higher rewards to those that have more important jobs, such as surgeons and engineers.

    In addition, stratification allocates roles to individuals so that they can contribute to society and keep it stable and functioning.

    Marxist theories of stratification

    Marxist theories of stratification argue that stratification is not desirable because it involves inevitable conflicts between the bourgeoisie (ruling capitalist class) and the proletariat (working class). According to Marx, society is stratified by individuals that have capital (private property and wealth) and individuals that work for those with capital.

    The inequalities of society are sustained through bourgeoisie ideology, as the bourgeoisie not only exploit the workers for economic gain, but have the political power to further their own interests.

    Weberian theories of stratification

    Max Weber created a three-component theory of stratification which claims that stratification hierarchy is about the interplay between class, status, and power. Unlike Marxist theories, Weber stated that society is not only categorised by those with capital, but also by those with status and power.

    Status refers to social prestige or standing, while power refers to an individual's ability to do what they want, typically by knowing the 'right' people or experiencing a lack of accountability. Weber argues that someone can have capital but may lack status and power. Similarly, someone can have a high status, but may lack capital.

    Feminist theories of stratification

    Feminist theories claim society is stratified between men and women, which results in conflict between the two social groups. The gender pay gap and sex discrimination in the workplace mean that men not only have higher income, but also higher status and power in society. Inequality in wealth and income is one way in which society is unequally divided by gender.

    Stratification by gender results in a patriarchal society in which men are systematically given higher power and status whilst women are marginalised.

    More recent feminist theories of stratification also consider the intersections between gender, race, and social class, as it is widely recognised that women of colour and working-class women have different experiences than White or upper-class women.

    Postmodern theories of stratification

    Postmodern theories claim that society can no longer be stratified using traditional factors such as social class. Due to globalisation and consumerism, individual identities are too complex to categorise in the same way as before.

    Neoliberalism and the New Right theories of stratification

    The New Right believes that stratification is a necessary result of neoliberal economics. Neoliberal economics typically encourage free trade, limited government spending, and a free market economy.

    Peter Saunders (1996) claimed that neoliberal economics has led to the growth of the UK's economy and living standards. Stratification is a necessary price to pay for that.

    Similar to functionalists, New Right thinkers believe that those who contribute more to society should be offered more incentives. In this way, talent is encouraged and inequality is more accepted. It is the talented that accumulate more income and wealth.

    Class stratification and differentiation

    There is inequality within social classes in society. A social class refers typically to an individual's standing on the wealth and income hierarchy. This is typically characterised by someone's occupation, but can also include other factors such as level of education. Although not everyone agrees with this, it is widely thought that society is predominantly stratified by class.

    There are thought to be five broad social classes in the UK. Starting from the lowest, these are:

    • Lower class (the homeless or unemployed).

    • Working-class (those with low or semi-skilled jobs, including manual jobs such as factory workers).

    • Middle-class (those with managerial and professionally skilled jobs such as teachers, office workers, businesspeople, and nurses).

    • Upper class (those with very high-paying jobs or those with family wealth, also called 'old money').

    • Aristocrats (the monarchy and those with inherited titles such as lords and barons).

    There are two additional dimensions of class that are worth considering in sociology. These are:

    Status and power

    There is inequality in the levels of status and power in society. Status refers to someone's social prestige and standing in society. Power refers to someone's ability to do what they want, often by knowing the 'right' people, or enjoying a lack of accountability for their actions. Status and power are obtained in various ways, such as by force (in dictatorships, for example), tradition (monarchies and the like), or individual skill sets (in democracies).

    Differences in life chances

    There is inequality by social group in terms of differences in life chances. This includes differential access to resources such as adequate healthcare, housing, and education. It can also include differences in quality of life such as the chances of owning property, going on holidays, having disposable income, and retiring early.

    Stratification and Differentiation - Key takeaways

    • Social stratification is the categorisation and ranking of different groups of people within society.
    • Social differentiation is the distinction between social groups and people based on biological, physiological, and cultural factors. Social differentiation is the basis for social stratification.
    • Theories of stratification and differentiation include functionalist, Marxist, Weberian, feminist, postmodern, neoliberal and New Right theories.
    • Society is predominantly stratified by class, which is determined by an individual's economic/wealth standing in society.
    • Levels of inequality can be expressed as differences in access to life chances, which include various resources and opportunities.
    Stratification and Differentiation Stratification and Differentiation
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Stratification and Differentiation

    What are the similarities between social stratification and social differentiation?

    Social stratification and social differentiation both describe the differences in individuals' positions in society.

    What is an example of stratification?    

    An example of stratification is the difference in power and status between men and women in society; historically, men have been 'ranked' higher in society than women. However, society is stratified in many other ways including by social class, race, age, and disability.

    What does differentiation mean in sociology?    

    In sociology, differentiation is the distinction between social groups and people on the basis of biological, physiological, and cultural factors.

    How do you explain stratification?

    Stratification can be explained using a pyramid hierarchy; different groups of society are given different 'rankings' and categorisation based on several factors, including race, gender, social class, age, and disability.

    What is the difference between stratification and differentiation? 

    Differentiation is the basis of stratification, as beliefs about the differences between social groups lead to inequalities and ranking. This, in turn, leads to a hierarchical social structure that reflects such beliefs. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    One cannot change their social status in an open system of stratification. True or false?

    A closed system of stratification is a system where individuals' statuses are ____ rather than achieved. Fill in the blank.

    How many broad social classes are there in the UK?

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