SOCIAL STRATIFICATION: THEORETICAL UNDERSTANDING
Social stratification can be defined as the arrangement of groups of individuals in hierarchical positions on the basis of criteria like wealth, prestige, ethnicity, gender, and power. Because of the similarity of their positions in the social structure, they develop a common consciousness of who they are, what their common problems are, and what should be done to remove these problems. Social stratification is a major form of social inequality. Sociologists point out that in complex industrial countries like the U.S.A., the main type of social inequality is individual-based inequality and profession-based inequality. Lists have been prepared to show the public perceptions of the relative prestige attached to various occupations. One such list shows the medical doctor on the top with the sweeper at the bottom. The social worker has a middle rank.
The quick mobility of individuals disturbs the arrangement of status in the hierarchy and this prevents the development of group consciousness. For the development of group consciousness, it is important that there is stability in the social structure that individuals remain in a group for a considerable amount of time, and that the avenues for social mobility are limited. Class and caste are the main factors of social stratification in India (and Nepal).
There are two prominent social thinkers who have enriched our understanding of the nature, types, and consequences of social stratification: Karl Marx and Max Weber.
As per Marx’s analysis, economic factors play an important role in society. According to his theory of class, a class consists of a group of people who have similar relations to the forces of production. For example, in modern societies, all individuals who own factories are capitalists and all individuals who work in these factories for wages are workers. Similarly in an agrarian society individual who owns land can be called a feudal lord and those who work for them are serfs or laborers. He also believed that the interests of these different groups were irreconcilable, which means that one gain at the expense of others. The result was that the workers, laborers, or slaves were always exploited by the capitalists, feudal lords, or slave owners in their respective societies. All other institutions in society, religious, political, or educational, helped the process of exploitation through various means. For example, religion preaches fatalism, which convinces people that their suffering cannot be prevented and that passive suffering can bring them heavenly rewards after their deaths. Similarly, the government puts down with coercion, attempts by the poorer sections to demand justice in economic opportunities by calling it a law-and-order problem or rebellion. In the Indian context (Nepalese context as well), a Marxist analysis would interpret caste and the karma theory associated with it as justifying the exploitative relations between the landlord and serfs. They prevent the serfs from understanding that the landlord is exploiting them and this prevents them from fighting the exploitative system. Thus, Marx places before us the theory of the economic basis of social inequality.
Max Weber, another prominent thinker, agreed with many ideas of Marx but differed on other issues. He agreed with Marx that the most important dimension of stratification is economics which results in the formation of the hierarchical system of class but he points out that there are other factors that determine social stratification. According to him, there are three dimensions of stratification: wealth, status, and power. Weber also asserted that class formation did not depend solely on ownership of productive forces, it depended on the market situation by which an individual could realize his potential in competition with others. For example, a reputed lawyer or a doctor may not own a field or an industry but he has specialized skills, which not many others have. That is why these professionals are paid lucrative salaries. Weber points out that if the market situation of the individual is good then the person can become wealthy and consequently gain membership into the upper class. Status is the second dimension of stratification and it is a measure of prestige, the society gives to an individual and that depends on the lifestyle of the person. A person who occupies a high office would be respected because of his status and not because of his economic position. The third dimension is power which is the ability of the individual to influence the actions of others against their own will. For example, a village community leader may neither be rich nor occupy a high office but his position as leader of the community gives him power. Weber agrees that in most cases, all three dimensions, wealth, status, and power are interrelated. A person who enjoys wealth and power is likely to enjoy high status. This is however true of most cases but not in all cases. For example, a Dalit may be skilled and well-to-do but may not be given the respect he deserves because of his caste background. Weber by adding these dimensions of stratification, has enabled a broader understanding of social stratification.
Social stratification refers to the hierarchical arrangement of individuals or groups in a society. This hierarchical structure is based on various factors such as wealth, power, education, occupation, and social status. Theoretical perspectives on social stratification help us understand how and why societies create and maintain these hierarchical structures. Here are some key theoretical frameworks:
1. Structural-Functional Perspective
This perspective, associated with scholars like Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, views social stratification as a necessary and functional aspect of society. According to this theory, social inequality serves a purpose in maintaining social order and stability. It argues that certain roles in society are more important and demanding, and consequently, individuals in these roles should be rewarded more to ensure that these roles are filled by the most qualified individuals.
2. Conflict Perspective:
Karl Marx’s perspective sees social stratification as a result of the unequal distribution of resources, especially economic resources. Marx argued that capitalism inherently leads to the class struggle between the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (working class). Social stratification, in this view, is a tool used by the elite to maintain control and exploit the working class.
Max Weber expanded on Marx’s ideas by introducing the concept of social class as well as status and power. While acknowledging the role of economic factors, Weber argued that social stratification is multidimensional. In addition to class (economic position), it involves status (prestige and social honor) and power (ability to influence others).
3. Symbolic Interactionism:
This perspective, associated with thinkers like George Herbert Mead, focuses on the micro-level interactions and how individuals make sense of their social world. Social stratification is seen as a result of people’s perceptions, labels, and symbols. Individuals may be assigned certain social statuses based on factors like appearance, behavior, or achievements.
4. World-System Theory:
Developed by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, this theory looks at social stratification on a global scale. It suggests that the world is divided into core, semi-peripheral, and peripheral nations, each playing a specific role in the global economic system. Core nations are typically more economically developed, while peripheral nations are less developed and often exploited for resources and labor.
This framework, developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw, considers how various social categories (such as race, gender, class, and sexuality) intersect and influence an individual’s experiences of privilege or disadvantage. It emphasizes that social stratification is not solely determined by one factor but is a complex interplay of multiple factors.
Understanding social stratification through these theoretical perspectives helps researchers and scholars analyze and explain the dynamics of inequality within societies. Each perspective provides a different lens through which to view and comprehend the complex nature of social hierarchy and its impact on individuals and groups.