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Class System

Class System

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify components associated with the class system, such as meritocracy, status consistency, and structural social mobility.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hello. Welcome to Sociological Studies. In this lesson, we're going to give a more full elaboration of the class system and the class system in American society. Let's start definitionally and define the class system. Class system is a system of social stratification based on economic achievements in life rather than ascribed or just given birth position like in a caste system.

So the central idea of a class system is that there's more freedom, more social mobility. Society is less rigid. So somebody can go out, ideally through their talent, hard work, and personal merit, and achieve their class position and achieve where they end up in life. Just as you achieve the status of doctor, you also achieve the status of prostitute, statuses that are more socially stigmatized.

The idea with a class system, then, is that you are going to achieve what you achieve in life based upon your own personal merit, your own personal hard work, and your own personal talents or lack thereof. We call this a meritocracy, which is a system of social rewards based upon individual merit and achievement.

So we are ruled by people who deserve to be there, who have the merit to be there, just like those in power, this worldview goes, have gotten there because of their merit. They deserve their power. So this meritocracy, then, holds that if you're in power, it's because you deserve to be. You have merit, you worked hard, and you got ahead. Likewise, if you're poor, you're poor because it's your fault. You lack talent, you lack work ethic, or strongly, you lack the merit. So meritocracy is just basically rule by those with merit.

And so carrying this idea to the extreme, then, it leaves no room for social causation, no room for social impacts to affect people, and says you are in life what you, as a person, achieve. So it's behind this idea-- you hear it in American society a lot, that we all have equal opportunities, and everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and advance in the social hierarchy based upon their merit, talents, and hard work.

But really, we're living in what we would call a plutocracy instead, which is the role by the wealthy, and that wealth gets you advantage and gets you ahead and gets you power, not necessarily merit. Sociology, then, teaches us that people do not have equal opportunities to achieve success and to achieve their class position from the start. We don't have equal opportunities at the start.

Things like race, gender, the cultural environment we live in, and our birth family will affect our life chances, will affect our accumulated wealth in life. And so plutocracy, then, is a more accurate way to look at the American society we're living in. We tend to reproduce the existing structure. When we are born into this class, we tend to die in that class. So there's not all that much happening in American society in reality. But ideally, we like to pride ourselves that we have equality of opportunity, and we're living in a meritocracy.

And since we're living in an open society, ideally, we like to think that people can go out and achieve wealth, prestige, and power, and they can achieve these things based upon their own merit and hard work. So we can get wealth, just as we can get prestige, just as we can get power in society. And since we ideally have an open society, we can get differential amounts of these at the same time. So not everybody has the same amount of wealth that they do prestige and power. Like a caste system, these things go hand in hand. You all get them at the same time in a caste system. But in our society, you can achieve different levels of them.

So, for instance, a US college professor has prestige based upon the title, the advanced degrees, the educational capital he acquired. He gets prestige or she gets prestige. But they have very little wealth. You're not paid very much as a college professor. And you have very little power.

Your boss, on the other hand, might have more power than you do. He might have more wealth than you do. But society, he lacks prestige. He lacks social honor more than likely. So we see how these things are not always the same. And when they are, we call the status consistency. Status consistency across different dimensions of wealth, prestige, and power, different dimensions of inequality. You can be more or less consistent with your statuses. But the central idea is that they vary.

The last idea we need to touch on in this tutorial is structural social mobility, which is moving up or down in society based upon structural changes less than individual effort and changes. So structural social mobility, then, entire groups move up in society or move down in society based upon structural changes in society. An example recently is the financial crisis of 2008. Many people lost savings, lost their homes based upon this big crisis that they didn't control. This is a structural issue. And so we're yet to work all of this out exactly, but we could look back later on in life and see, you know what? A lot of people ended up moving down in the structure based upon this crisis.

Another example is the Russian Federation. The modern Russian Federation, those societies, experienced much upward social mobility due to industrialization of the economy. Whole groups of people moved up due to structural changes. That's the idea of structural social mobility. We're seeing this now with China as well. When China becomes integrated into the world economy, this has caused some upward structural social mobility for some as they've been able to capitalize on the opportunities generated by integration with the global economy.

Closer to home, the industrialization of the American economy that occurred in the '70s '80s, and '90s caused downward structural social mobility as hordes of people lost the only employment that they knew, the only employment that they were used to doing. So we see, now, we have a group of aging, older workers who primarily had manufacturing jobs, blue collar jobs. Now, they haven't been able to get the new information society jobs that require new skills. So we had a bunch of people, then, move down structurally.

And structural social mobility is a really great way to use your sociological imagination. Remember that idea given to us by C. Wright Mills, which connects personal troubles with broader structural issues. So this is exactly what's happening. Structural social mobility connects individuals with big changes in society. Well, I hope you enjoyed this discussion of the class system. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Class System

A system of social stratification based primarily on economic achievements over the lifecourse.


A system of social rewards based on individual efforts and achievements (i.e. on merit).

Status Consistency

Consistency across various measures of inequality (i.e. wealth, prestige, and power).

Structural Social Mobility

Social mobility that occurs when structural changes, rather than individual efforts, cause groups of people to move up or down in society.