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.

Money, Money, Money

Looking strictly at stratification by wealth in the U.S., one sees a deeply unequal society, wherein as of 2017, 42 percent of the nation's wealth was controlled by just 1 percent of its population, while the majority—the bottom 80 percent—have just 7 percent.

Other Factors

But, social stratification exists within smaller groups and other kinds of societies, too. For example, in some, 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, like 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 power to make rules, decisions, and establish notions of right and wrong, as is the case with the political structure in the U.S, which has power 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 this is not just determined by economic class, but that 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, so sociologists see racismsexism, and heterosexism as playing significant and troubling roles in these processes too.

In this vein, sociologists recognize that racism and sexism affect one's accrual of wealth and power in society—negatively so for women and people of color, and positively so 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 64 and 53 cents to the white man's dollar, are affected by the gender wage gap more negatively than white women, who earn 78 cents on that dollar.

Education, Income, Wealth, and Race

Social scientific studies also show definitive positive correlations between level of education, and income, and wealth. In the U.S. today, those who have a college degree or higher are nearly four times as wealthy as the average citizen 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., but also important is the fact that this relationship too is affected by race.

In a recent study among 25 to 29-year-olds, Pew Research Center found that completion of college is stratified by race. Sixty percent of Asian Americans have a bachelor's degree, as do 40 percent of whites; but, just 23 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 Urban Institute, in 2013, the average Latino family had just 16.5 percent of the wealth of the average white family, while the average Black family had even less—a mere 14 percent.