This tutorial will cover the topic of the class system, through the definition and discussion of:
The class system is a system of social stratification based upon one’s economic achievements in life rather than one’s social position being ascribed or given by birth, like in a caste system. The central idea of a class system is that there is more freedom and more social mobility; society is less rigid. A person can venture out, and ideally, through their talent, hard work, and personal merit, achieve their class position in life.
Just as you can achieve the status of doctor, you can also achieve a status that is more socially stigmatized, like that of a prostitute.
The idea with a class system is that you are going to achieve what you achieve in life based upon your own personal merit, hard work, and personal talents--or lack thereof. This is called a meritocracy, which is a system of social rewards based upon individual merit and achievement.
People are ruled by others who deserve to be there and have the merit to be there--this worldview posits that those in power have gotten there because of their merit. They deserve their power. Meritocracy holds that if you're in power, it's because you deserve to be because of your merit, hard work and talent. 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. Therefore, meritocracy is basically rule by those with merit.
Carrying this idea to the extreme leaves no room for social causation or social impacts to affect people. This idea says that you are in life what you, as a person, achieve. It is also this idea that drives the notion heard often in American society, that all people 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.
In reality, you're living in what would be called a plutocracy, which is the rule by the wealthy, and the idea that it is wealth, not merit, that provides you with advantage and power. Sociology teaches that people do not have equal opportunities to achieve success and to achieve their class position from the start. People don't have equal opportunities at the start--considerations like race, gender, the cultural environment you live in, and your birth family will affect your life chances and accumulated wealth in life.
Therefore, plutocracy is a more accurate way to look at the American society you're living in. People tend to reproduce the existing structure. When they are born into a certain class, they tend to die in that class. In reality, there's not much happening in American society. Ideally, though, Americans like to pride themselves in the notion that they have equality of opportunity, and live in a meritocracy.
Since you're living in an open society, ideally, you likely think that people can achieve wealth, prestige, and power, based upon their own merit and hard work. You can get wealth, just as you can get prestige, and power in society. Also, in an open society, you can get differential amounts of these at the same time. Not everybody has the same amount of wealth that they do prestige and power. In a caste system, these things go hand in hand--you would get them all at the same time--but in American society, you can achieve different levels of them.
Suppose you are a U.S. college professor, with a good amount of prestige based upon the title, the advanced degrees, and the educational capital you have acquired. Yet, though you have the prestige, you likely have very little wealth, because you're not paid very much as a college professor. You also have very little power.
Your boss, on the other hand, might have more power than you do. He also might have more wealth than you do. Yet in society, he may lack prestige and social honor. You can see how these things are not always the same. When they are, it is called status consistency. Status consistency can apply across different dimensions of inequality--wealth, prestige, and power. You can be more or less consistent with your statuses, but the central idea is that they vary.
A final idea to touch upon is structural social mobility, which consists of moving up or down in society based upon structural changes, less than individual effort and changes. In structural social mobility, entire groups move up or down in society based upon structural changes in society.
In the financial crisis of 2008, many people lost savings and their homes based upon a crisis over which they had no control. This is a structural issue. Even though experts have yet to fully work out the sociological implications, it may be the case that many people ended up moving down in the structure based upon this crisis.
In 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, which is the idea of structural social mobility.
This is also occurring in China. As 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 were accustomed to doing. Now, there exists a group of aging, older workers who primarily had manufacturing jobs and blue collar jobs. They haven't been able to attain the new information society jobs that require new skills. This group of people moved down structurally.
Structural social mobility is a great way to use your sociological imagination. Remember the idea developed by C. Wright Mills, which connects personal troubles with broader structural issues? This is exactly what's happening--structural social mobility connects individuals with big changes in society.
Today you learned about the class system, including the ideas of meritocracy, status consistency and structural social mobility.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.
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).
Consistency across various measures of inequality (i.e. wealth, prestige, and power).
Social mobility that occurs when structural changes, rather than individual efforts, cause groups of people to move up or down in society.