What Is Social Stratification, and Why Does It Matter?

How Sociologists Define and Study This Phenomenon

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Social stratification refers to the way people are ranked and ordered in society. In Western societies, stratification is primarily seen and understood as a result of socioeconomic status, which produces a hierarchy in which access to resources, and possession of them, increases from the lower to the upper strata.

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 one factor that perpetuates inequality. 

Money, Money, Money

Looking strictly at stratification by wealth in the U.S., one sees a deeply unequal society, wherein approximately 40 percent of the nation's wealth is controlled by just 1 percent of its population, while the majority—the bottom 80 percent—has just 7 percent.

Other Factors

However, social stratification can be based on factors other than wealth. For example, in some societies, stratification is determined by tribal affiliations, age, or caste. In groups and organizations, stratification may take the form of a distribution of power and authority down the ranks. For example, think of the different ways that status is determined in the military, schools, clubs, businesses, and even groupings of friends and peers.

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

Intersectionality

Importantly, sociologists recognize that social stratification is not just determined by economic class. Other factors influence stratification, including social classracegender, sexuality, nationality, and sometimes religion. As such, sociologists today tend to take an intersectional approach to seeing and analyzing the phenomenon. An intersectional approach recognizes that systems of oppression intersect to shape people's lives and to sort them into hierarchies. Consequently, sociologists see 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—negatively for women and people of color, and positively for white men. The relationship between systems of oppression and social stratification is made clear by U.S. Census data that show that 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 60.8 and 53 cents 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, Income, Wealth, and Race

Social scientific studies also show that one’s level of education is positively correlated with income and wealth. In a 2011 survey of young adults in the U.S., those who have a college degree or higher are nearly four times as wealthy as the average young person and have 8.3 times as much wealth as those who did not advance beyond high school.

This relationship is important to understand if one wants to grasp the nature of social stratification in the U.S. However, it is also important to consider the role of race and systemic racism when examining the link between educational attainment and wealth. In a 2014 study among 25 to 29-year-olds, Pew Research Center reported that completion of college is stratified by race. Sixty-three percent of Asian Americans have a bachelor's degree, as do 41 percent of whites; however, just 22 percent and 15 percent of Blacks and Latinos do, respectively.

What these data reveal is that systemic racism shapes access to higher education, which in turn affects one's income and wealth. According to the Urban Institute, in 2016, the average Latino family had just 20.9 percent of the wealth of the average white family, while the average Black family had even less—a mere 15.2 percent.