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).
According to Peter Saunders, in modern Western societies, stratification depends on social and economic classes comprising three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class. Each class is further subdivided into smaller classes related to occupation. The term stratification derives from the geological concept of strata, or rock layers created by natural processes.
In a nutshell: social stratification refers to the ranking of social groups above and below each other, in terms of how much power, prestige and wealth members have.
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. 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.
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 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 Groote Eylandt and Bickerton Island, off the coast of Arnhem Land, who have arranged their entire society, spirituality, and economy around a kind of gift economy called renunciation. According to David H. Turner, in this arrangement, every person is expected to give everything of any 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.
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.
Weber built on Marx's ideas, arriving at the three-component theory of stratification and the concept of life chances. Weber believed there were more class divisions than Marx suggested, taking different concepts from both functionalist and Marxist theories to create his own system. Weber believed in the difference between class, status, and party, and treated these as separate but related sources of power, each with different effects on people’s lives. He claimed there should be four main classes: the upper class (like the bourgeoisie of Marx’s theory), the white collar workers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the manual working class (like Marx’s proletariat). Weber's theory resembles modern Western class structures, although economic status does not seem to depend strictly on earnings in the way Weber envisioned. Weber criticized Marx's theory of the proletariat revolt, believing it to be unlikely.
Weber derived many of his key concepts on social stratification by examining the social structure of Germany. He noticed that contrary to Marx's theories, not everything is based simply on ownership of capital. Weber examined how many members of the aristocracy lacked economic wealth yet they had strong political power. Many wealthy families lacked prestige and power because they were Jewish. Weber introduced three independent factors that form the stratification hierarchy; class, status, and power, as follows:
|style="background:#ccccff" align="center" width="100%" colspan="5"|
|Bourgeoisie||Upper class||Ruling class||Nobility||White-collar|
|Petite bourgeoisie||Upper middle class||Creative class||Gentry||Blue-collar|
|Proletariat||Middle class||Working class||Nouveau riche/Parvenu||Pink-collar|
|Lumpenproletariat||Lower middle class||Lower class||Old Money||Gold-collar|
|Social class in the United States|
|Middle classes||Upper classes||Social structure||Income||Educational attainment|