Dimensions of StratificationStratification is the division of society into classes that have unequal amounts of wealth, power, and prestige. The members of each particular social class hold similar amounts of scarce resources and share values, norms, and an identifiable lifestyle. Karl Marx and Max Weber made the most significant early contributions to the study of social stratification. Marx explained the importance of the economic foundations of social classes, while Weber emphasized the prestige and power aspects of stratification.
Explanations of Stratification Each of the three major theoretical perspectives explains stratification of society in a different way. According to functionalists, stratification assures that the most qualified people fill the most important positions, that these people perform their tasks competently, and that they are rewarded for the efforts. Inequality exists because some jobs are more important than others and often involve special talent and training. The conflict theory states that inequality exists because some people are willing to exploit others—stratification is based on force rather than people voluntarily agreeing to it. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how people are socialized to accept the existing stratification system.
Social Classes in America Sociologists have identified several social classes in the United States—the upper class, the middle class, the working class and the working poor, and the underclass. Most Americans think of themselves as middle class; in reality, however, only about 40 to 50 percent of Americans actually fit this description.
Poverty in America Poverty is widespread throughout the United States, with African Americans, Latinos, women, and children making up a disproportionately large percentage of the poor. In recent years, welfare reform has been undertaken. While it has succeeded in reducing the number of people receiving welfare, most of its former recipients hold low-paying jobs and continue to live in poverty.
Social Mobility Social mobility, the movement of people between social classes, is usually measured by changes in occupational status. Social mobility can be horizontal or vertical; sociologists are most interested in vertical mobility. Societies are classified as having either caste or open-class systems depending on the degree of social mobility that is possible. Although the United States provides considerable opportunities for advancement, great leaps in social-class level are rare.
Chapter 9: Inequalities of Race and Ethnicity
Minorities, Race, and Ethnicity Sociologists have developed specific definitions and characteristics to differentiate the terms minority, race, and ethnicity. A minority is a group of people with physical or cultural traits different from those of the dominant group in society. A race is people who share certain inherited physical characteristics that are considered important within a society. An ethnic group is one identified by cultural, religious, or national characteristics. Negative attitudes toward ethnic minorities exist in part because of ethnocentrism.
Racial and Ethnic Relations Generally, minority groups are either accepted by a society—which leads to assimilation, or they are rejected—which leads to conflict. Patterns of assimilation in the United States include Anglo-conformity, melting pot, cultural pluralism, and accommodation. Three basic patterns of conflict are subjugation, population transfer, and genocide—the most extreme form of conflict.
Theories of Prejudice and Discrimination To a sociologist, prejudice refers to widely held preconceptions of a group and its individual members. It involves a generalization based on biased or insufficient information. Racism is an extreme form of prejudice. Prejudice usually leads to discrimination. Functionalists recognize that by fostering prejudice, a dominant group can create a feeling of superiority over minority groups and thus strengthen its own members’ self concepts. According to conflict theorists, a majority uses prejudice and discrimination as weapons of power to control a minority. Symbolic interactionists believe that members of a society learn to be prejudiced.
Minority Groups in the United States Minorities in the United States continue to suffer from what sociologists call institutionalized discrimination. This type of discrimination results from unfair practices that are part of the structure of society and that have grown out of traditional, accepted behavior. It has caused some racial and ethnic groups to lag behind the white majority in jobs, income, and education. Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and white ethnics are the largest minority groups in the United States.