What is social stratification?

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What is social stratification?
In North America, social stratification is formed into a class system of upper, middle and lower class. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images News/Getty Images)

Social stratification may be defined as long-standing inequalities in power, wealth and status between groups within a single society. These groups are typically separated into classes or castes, but may also extend to ethnic separation. Inequalities based on personal qualities like intelligence or kindness do not establish stratification. Placement into a social hierarchy is dependent on an individual's access to valued resources. Stratification is a system where groups are treated differently based on their social characteristics such as societal roles or social status.

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Four Principles of Social Stratifiction

There are four principles which aid in explaining the existence of social stratification. Social stratification is a societal trait, not just individual that is universal, but its structure and norms varies between societies. Social stratification is also generational and it is supported by established customs or beliefs. Some theorise that social stratification is a necessity to a certain degree because specific tasks in a society hold more value than others. To ensure that only the most qualified occupy these positions, there must be more rewards than are provided in less important positions.

Caste System

Caste systems are social stratification based on designation or labelling. In pure caste systems there is no chance of moving up in social class. In some societies there are a small number of major castes and hundreds of sub-castes. Birth typically determines occupation, marriage unites people of the same caste or social ranking, and each group interacts with its own "kind". Typically cultural beliefs support the continuation of a caste system of social stratification.

Class System

Class systems of social stratification are based on both birth and achievement. Social classes aren't as strictly defined as they are in a caste system because individuals may move up in social class based on achievement intellectually, financially, or through marriage. This open social mobility is an important element of a class system. In class systems there is interaction between upper and lower classes and the division of each class isn't as clearly defined.


Social stratification that is based on personal merit is called a meritocracy. In a pure meritocracy system individuals are rewarded based on ability. Wealth, however, in this system resembles a caste system in that individuals may be born into a position of high social status rather than achieving it. There is an opportunity for mobility between groups, however, in a meritocracy system.

Estate System

The estate system, also known as feudalism, consists of three main characteristics. First, classes or social groups are legally defined. Each estate has status with certain legal rights, duties, privileges and obligations. Second, each estate is seen as having specific functions and these are characterised by division of labour. For example, clergy provide religious consult and prayer, while commoners provide food and labour for upper classes. The last characteristic of an estate system of social stratification is that estates were divided by political groups. This means that clergy, nobility and commoners function as three separate political groups.

Classless Societies

Some societies, like Russia, claim to have no classes because there is no private ownership of the major elements of society. Still, these societies are socially stratified into occupational classes instead. These classes include government officials as the highest ranking class, then academics, labourers and peasantry. These societies lack the economic inequality that other systems have but share other elements such as inequality in the distribution of valuable resources.

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