What Is Social Stratification, and Why Does It Matter?

How Sociologists Define and Study This Phenomenon

Person begging as tourists walk past.

Corbis / Getty Images

Social stratification refers to the way people are ranked and ordered in society. In Western countries, this stratification primarily occurs as a result of socioeconomic status in which a hierarchy determines the groups most likely to gain access to financial resources and forms of privilege. Typically, the upper classes have the most access to these resources while the lower classes may get few or none of them, putting them at a distinct disadvantage.

Key Takeaways: Social Stratification

  • Sociologists use the term social stratification to refer to social hierarchies. Those higher in social hierarchies have greater access to power and resources.
  • In the United States, social stratification is often based on income and wealth.
  • Sociologists emphasize the importance of taking an intersectional approach to understanding social stratification; that is, an approach that acknowledges the influence of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, among other factors.
  • Access to education—and barriers to education such as systemic racism—are factors that perpetuate inequality. 

Wealth Stratification

A look at wealth stratification in the U.S. reveals a deeply unequal society in which the top 10% of households control 70% of the nation's riches, according to a 2019 study released by the Federal Reserve. In 1989, they represented just 60%, an indication that class divides are growing rather than closing. The Federal Reserve attributes this trend to the richest Americans acquiring more assets; the financial crisis that devastated the housing market also contributed to the wealth gap.

Social stratification isn't just based on wealth, however. In some societies, tribal affiliations, age, or caste result in stratification. In groups and organizations, stratification may take the form of a distribution of power and authority down the ranks. Think of the different ways that status is determined in the military, schools, clubs, businesses, and even groupings of friends and peers.

Regardless of the form it takes, social stratification can manifest as the ability to make rules, decisions, and establish notions of right and wrong. Additionally, this power can be manifested as the capacity to control the distribution of resources and determine the opportunities, rights, and obligations of others.

The Role of Intersectionality

Sociologists recognize that a variety of factors, including social classracegender, sexuality, nationality, and sometimes religion, influence stratification. As such, they tend to take an intersectional approach to analyzing the phenomenon. This approach recognizes that systems of oppression intersect to shape people's lives and to sort them into hierarchies. Consequently, sociologists view racismsexism, and heterosexism as playing significant and troubling roles in these processes as well.

In this vein, sociologists recognize that racism and sexism affect one's accrual of wealth and power in society. The relationship between systems of oppression and social stratification is made clear by U.S. Census data that show a long-term gender wage and wealth gap has plagued women for decades, and though it has narrowed a bit over the years, it still thrives today. An intersectional approach reveals that black and Latina women, who make 61 and 53 cents, respectively, for every dollar earned by a white male, are affected by the gender wage gap more negatively than white women, who earn 77 cents on that dollar, according to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Education as a Factor

Social science studies show that one’s level of education is positively correlated with income and wealth. A survey of young adults in the U.S. found that those with at least a college degree are nearly four times as wealthy as the average young person. They also have 8.3 times as much wealth as those who just completed high school. These findings show that education clearly plays a role in social stratification, but race intersects with academic achievement in the U.S. as well.

The Pew Research Center has reported that completion of college is stratified by ethnicity. An estimated 63% of Asian Americans and 41% of whites graduate from college compared to 22% of blacks and 15% of Latinos. This data reveals that systemic racism shapes access to higher education, which, in turn, affects one's income and wealth. According to the Urban Institute, the average Latino family had just 20.9% of the wealth of the average white family in 2016. During the same timeframe, the average black family had a mere 15.2% of the wealth of their white counterparts. Ultimately, wealth, education, and race intersect in ways that create a stratified society.