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Social Stratification

  Social stratification, in sociology, refers to the existence of inequalities between groups on the basis of wealth, power, race, income, age, prestige or some other characteristic which are built into the fabric of society. Social stratification is not simply the existence of social inequalities it is a peculiar sort of social inequality. It refers to the presence of social groups which are hierarchically ranked. Those who belong to a particular group (or social stratum) have some awareness of their common interests and a common identity. They share a similar style of life and social habits, which distinguish them from members of other social groups above and below them in the hierarchy. Sociologists have distinguished three types of stratification: caste, estate and class. There is a certain amount of debate as to whether stratification is universal.

The Indian caste system is one example of social stratification. Hindu society in traditional India was divided into five main strata: four castes (varna) and an outcaste, the untouchables. They are ranked in a hierarchy of ritual cleanliness which derives from the lifestyles and occupations permitted to members of a particular caste. This hierarchy of prestige, grounded in notions of ritual purity, is mirrored by a hierarchy of power. The upper castes are the Brahmins (priesthood), followed by the Khasatriyas (secular and military rulers and landlords), the Vaishyas (entrepreneurial middle classes) and the Shudras (workers and slaves). The Harijans stand outside the hierarchy as outcastes or untouchables who perform only those degrading tasks which are considered unclean. So polluting is the presence of the untouchables that if their shadow falls across that of a Brahmin then it renders it unclean. Within the different castes themselves thousands of subdivisions (jatis) exist and these determine occupation.

In modern society it is generally assumed that class is the basis of social stratification. The major classes in the West are: an upper class (the wealthy, employers and industrialists, plus top executives—those who directly own productive resources); a middle class (which includes most white-collar workers and professionals); and a working class (those in blue-collar and manual jobs). In some industrialized countries, such as France and Japan, a fourth class peasants (people engaged in traditional types of agricultural production) has until recently been important. Some have argued that American society does not fit this class system of stratification: other attributes such as race and gender are often identified as important sources of social inequality.

Sociologists have drawn attention to the importance of stratification for the life chances of those who occupy different positions in the strata. In the UK, for example, despite the introduction of a National Health Service, the health of the population, in almost every respect, is directly related to class. DA

See also bourgeoisie; capital; embourgeoisement thesis; ethnicity; feminism; Marxism; occupation; power; profession; social mobility; structure.Further reading F. Parkin, ‘Social Stratification’ in , T. Bottomore and , R. Nisbet (eds.), A History of Sociological Analysis; , J. Westergaard, , H. Resler, Class in Capitalist Society; , E.O. Wright, Classes.



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