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Social Stratification

Social Stratification

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will define, discuss, and describe social stratification. The class system and caste system will be defined. The impact of the industrial revolution, societies, and social mobility will be delineated.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, welcome to Sociological Studies. In this lesson we're going to talk about a topic that's near and dear to my heart, social stratification. Social stratification is the structured ranking of groups in society in a hierarchical fashion.

So you can think of stratification like strata, like layers of soil. Soil gets deposited in layers. So you might have a layer of topsoil, then another layer of soil, and then clay at the bottom. Society is the same way. Groups of people are stratified in layers. And they're unequal, or inequal. So stratification then is a system for structuring inequality in society. And social inequality, as I have on the board here, describes a condition where everyone has different amounts of wealth, power, and prestige.

All societies have inequality in some fashion. And all societies exhibit some form of stratification. It is important to know that social stratification is built into the structure of society. It's a structural issue not an individual quality. So where you are in the structure of society is not your fault per se. Society exhibits a structure. Parents pass on positions in structure to their children. Sociologists have built careers studying wealth transfer, and status transfer, and class transfer from parents to children.

And societies, given that they have inequality, they don't just come apart, right. We have to be at least somewhat complicit and on board with different levels of wealth, power and prestige in society. Well every society then has beliefs about why stratification exists. And help us become OK with it. And we call that ideology. Explanations for why we have stratification in society.

I'd like to turn now and compare and contrast two forms of social stratification, the caste system and the class system. For starters, let's look at the caste system, which is a rigid system of stratification that is virtually closed and the boundaries between classes are firmly observed. And there's no social mobility in caste systems. Social mobility is the movement either up or down in the social strata, in the social hierarchy.

Caste systems don't really allow for social mobility because you are born into the caste that you are going to achieve in life. It's not like you can go out and buy your own talent, and hard work, and get ahead, and move up in the social hierarchy. It doesn't work that way in caste systems. You're born into the caste that you will remain in your entire life. And castes are bound up with certain occupational categories.

So you're going to be born into an occupational category that is going to be a carpenter, for instance. And you will be a carpenter. You won't even really give it any thought. These societies are that controlled. It even determines who you can marry. You cannot marry somebody from a different caste.

Now caste societies are largely a thing of the past. We still see some historical vestiges, some hanging on of the caste system in parts of rural India, for example. But even in the cities in India the caste system is giving away with economic industrialization. But the caste system was a large part of human society up until the Industrial Revolution.

Because caste systems limit opportunities for advancement and for really the freedom to chart your own way of life they didn't change. Caste societies were pretty stable and pretty traditional through time. Because think about it, if you just know at birth what you're going to be and who you can marry, et cetera well the society is not really going to change too much. All of that changed though with the Industrial Revolution.

So we start to see the caste system, giving away with the transition to an industrial society and with the transition to industrial capitalism. So prior to the Industrial Revolution there was little chance for upward social mobility. In Europe, for instance, in the feudal societies you were born either into the nobility or you were born a peasant. And little changed in your life. But the Industrial Revolution demolished feudal societies and traditional forms of social stratification, giving way to class systems and class societies.

And the class system, rather than the caste system, is a system of social ranking based on economic position achieved. And achieved is really the key to see it here. You can go out then and achieve your class by your hard work, talents, or accomplishments, life circumstances, et cetera. Whereas in a caste system you couldn't. Everything was rigid. That was ascribed to you, given to you at birth. But in a class system there's more freedom, more social mobility, ideally. And you can achieve your status rather than have it given to you.

So in this transition then from a feudal society to industrial capitalism what happened was feudal lords closed off all the common area. And all the peasants where cast off. Because they could realize then that they could make some money with their land in markets that weren't there before. So what are these peasants going to do? Well they go into the city.

And then all of a sudden they have to start selling themselves and competing with each other for work in a factory. So they start to work for a wage, which was something they never did before. This whole idea of a wage, so common to us now, has a history. And it came into being. So this was a transition that they had to figure out. It wasn't comfortable to all of a sudden compete with somebody and work for a wage.

But doing so, at the same time that it was scary for these people, gave them more opportunities more freedom. In industrial capitalism there are many different jobs, many different functions that people can choose to go into. So this then starts to sort society based upon economic position achieved.

So we see a more fluid social system. It's less rigid. And there's more social mobility, ideally. And now we even think about how caste systems and the preindustrial ordering of people in groups. We think about that and we think that's abhorrent, it's abhorrent to our modern industrial sensibilities. Well, how could you do that? Well, a hallmark of American society, one of our founding values, is equality of opportunity. And this is because we value very much the freedom to go out and achieve our economic position, achieve our class in life. And we ideally think that everyone is equal opportunities.

But sociology is really good at showing us that this isn't the case. Even though we are living in ostensibly a class society where everyone can go out and achieve their economic position from the same starting point sociology shows us that this is a myth. And that in this country people's life chances are affected by their birth, by the culture, and the cultural environment they grow up in, by categories such as race and gender. So not everyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps with the same equality of opportunity. But nonetheless we are characterized as a class society. And we have a class system of social stratification.

Well thank you for tuning in comparing and contrasting class systems with caste systems and discussing this overarching idea of social stratification. Enjoy the rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Caste System

A rigid system of social stratification that does not allow for social mobility.

Class System

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

Industrial Revolution and Societies

The industrial revolution and the transition to industrial capitalism largely got rid of caste systems of social stratification and replaced them with less rigid and more flexible class systems of stratification.

Social Inequality

A condition in which members of a society have different amounts of wealth, power, and prestige.

Social Mobility

The degree to which one can move upwards or downwards in society.

Social Stratification

Like layers of soil, or "strata," social stratification is the hierarchical layering of groups of people in society from high to low.