Social stratification is the system by which a society ranks its members by groups into a hierarchy, typically in an order that reflects their wealth, status, and/or power. An individual’s place in this hierarchy will affect the opportunities, resources, and even sometimes the rights available to them. In a stratified society, the upper classes will have more access to and control over resources and positions of power, while the lower classes will have far less access and fewer advantages in life.
Four Basic Traits of Social Stratification
- Social stratification is an overarching trait of a society, beyond individual cases of inequality. The lines between upper and lower classes will be clear and distinct, and the inequality between the two will be consistent.
- Social stratification persists generationally. Children born into a higher class will likely pass on the wealth, power, and influence of their parents to their own children, and children born into a lower class will likely face overwhelming obstacles to achieve a higher class than their parents.
- Social stratification is universal, but variable. It occurs in many different kinds of societies, but it can manifest in very different ways in different societies.
- Social stratification is rooted in a society’s beliefs. The lines along which a society stratifies tend to reflect that society’s attitudes and philosophies, especially what things they perceive as valuable or worthy of high status.
Common Types of Social Stratification
There are many ways that social stratification can manifest in a society, and more than one kind of social stratification may affect any given society at a time. A few of the most common kinds of social stratification include:
A society where men are inherently afforded higher privileges and access to power on the basis of their gender is called a patriarchy. A society where this is true for women instead is called a matriarchy.
Societies often separate their members into groups by age, with different expectations and opportunities given to each group. An example of age stratification in society is the American legal age of adulthood being set at 18, meaning that children 17 years of age and younger have a more limited set of rights and privileges compared to their adult counterparts.
Social stratification by race is often the result of racist attitudes in the society in question. In a society stratified by race, typically the majority group will make up a large portion of the upper classes and enjoy privileges that people of other ethnicities in the lower classes do not have.
Stratification by wealth is often one of the most pervasive types of social stratification, since it becomes much easier for a person to gain and amass more wealth once they are already wealthy, and wealth is easy to pass down from generation to generation. In America in 2019, the 3 richest men in the nation hold as much wealth between them as the bottom 50 percent of Americans combined, which is an extreme example of how much inequality wealth stratification can foster when it is left to grow over years and years.