In sociology, social stratification is the hierarchical arrangement of social classes, castes and strata within a society. While these hierarchies are not universal to all societies, they are the norm among state-level cultures (as distinguished from hunter-gatherers or other social arrangements).

Critical overview Edit

Social stratification is regarded quite differently by the principal perspectives of sociology. Proponents of structural-functional analysis suggest that since social stratification exists in most state societies, a hierarchy must therefore be beneficial in helping to stabilize their existence. Talcott Parsons, an American sociologist, indicated that stability and social order is achieved by a universal value consensus. Functionalists indicate that stratification exists solely to satisfy the functional prerequisites necessary for functional proficiency in any society. Conflict theorists consider the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in many stratified societies. They conclude, often working from the theories of Karl Marx, that stratification means that working class people are not likely to advance socioeconomically, while the wealthy may continue to exploit the proletariat generation after generation. Marx identified that the social classes are stratified based on their connection to the means of production and thus the ruling class, bourgeoisie, and working class, proletariats, maintain their social positions by maintaining their relationship with the means of production. This maintenance of status quo is achieved by various methods of social control employed by the bourgeoisie within many aspects of social life, eg.ideologies of submission promoted through the institution of religion. However, some conflict theorists, mainly Max Weber and followers of his Weberian perspective, also critique Marx's view and point out that social stratification is not purely based on economic inequalities but is equally shaped by status and power differentials. Weber's analysis indicated the presence of four social classes which he refers to as the propertied upper class, the property-less white-collar workers, the petty bourgeoisie, and the working class. Another important factor to note is found in the work of Francois Adle who stated that, "The advancement [of] technology has changed the structure of mobility completely"

In a nutshell; social stratification is where we have social groups ranked one above the other, in terms of how much power, prestige and wealth members have.

Non-stratified societies Edit

Anthropologists tell us that social stratification is not the standard among all societies. John Gowdy writes: "Assumptions about human behaviour that members of market societies believe to be universal, that humans are naturally competitive and acquisitive, and that social stratification is natural, do not apply to many hunter-gatherer peoples."[1] Non-stratified egalitarian or acephalous ("headless") societies exist which have little or no concept of social hierarchy, political or economic status, class, or even permanent leadership.

Kinship-orientation Edit

Anthropologists identify egalitarian cultures as "Kinship-oriented," because they value social harmony more than wealth or status. These are contrasted with Economically-oriented cultures (including States) in which status and material wealth are prized, and stratification, competition, and conflict are common. Kinship-oriented cultures actively work to prevent social hierarchies from developing which could lead to conflict and instability. They do this typically through a process of reciprocal altruism.

A good example is given by Richard Borshay Lee's [2] account of the !Kung San, who practice "insulting the meat." Whenever a hunter makes a kill, he is ceaselessly teased and ridiculed (in a friendly, joking fashion) to prevent him from becoming too proud or egotistical. The meat itself is then distributed evenly among the entire social group, rather than kept by the hunter. The level of teasing is proportional to the size of the kill--Lee found this out the hard way when he purchased an entire cow as a gift for the group he was living with, and was teased for weeks afterward about it (since obtaining that much meat could be interpreted as showing off).

Another example is the Indigenous Australians of Northwest Arnhem Land (and perhaps elsewhere in Australia), who have arranged their entire society, spirituality, and economy around a kind of gift economy called renunciation. In this arrangement, every person is expected to give everything of any consumable resource they have to any other person who needs or lacks it at the time. This has the benefit of largely eliminating social problems like theft and relative poverty. However, misunderstandings obviously arise when attempting to reconcile Aboriginal renunciative economics with the competition/scarcity-oriented economics introduced to Australia by Anglo-European colonists. See also the Original affluent society.

Marx's inspiration Edit

According to Marvin Harris[3] and Tim Ingold [4], Lewis Henry Morgan's accounts of egalitarian hunter-gatherers formed part of Marx and Engel's inspiration for communism. Morgan spoke of a situation in which people living in the same community pooled their efforts and shared the rewards of those efforts fairly equally. He called this "communism in living." But when Marx expanded on these ideas, he still emphasized an economically oriented culture, with property defining the fundamental relationships between people.[5] Yet, issues of ownership and property are arguably less emphasized in hunter-gatherer societies.[6] This, combined with the very different social and economic situations of hunter-gatherers may account for many of the difficulties encountered when implementing communism in industrialized states. As Ingold points out:

Yet the notion of communism, removed from the context of domesticity and harnessed to support a project of social engineering for large-scale, industrialized states with populations of millions, eventually came to mean something quite different from what Morgan had intended: namely, a principle of redistribution that would override all ties of a personal or familial nature, and cancel out their effects.[7]

Weber's inspiration Edit

Weber built on Marx's ideas, arriving at the three-component theory of stratification and the concept of life chances.



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