A social class can be defined as a group of individuals who share a similar economic status in the society, on basis of wealth and income. Social class is a form of societal stratification. Stratification of a society entails the division of the society into categories arranged in social hierarchy according to access to wealth, prestige and power for instance slavery, caste and social class (Coté, 2011). There are various systems that exist in the society that tend to group people in various classes. These include slavery, caste and feudal systems.
Slavery is an economic form of inequality whereby some people are legitimately the property of others within the same society (Kirby, 2000). This form of stratification existed in the ancient times and during the colonial system. However, in the modern society, this form of slavery has taken new dimensions due to the strict policies and the international intervention on human rights. Slavery in the modern society includes human trafficking for prostitution or underpaid or exploitative labour.
The caste system is a form of social stratification based on heredity, with little mobility permitted across the strata. This form of social stratification was dominant in the Hindu society. People in the lower caste, included the slaves while the people in the higher caste included the priests and the ruling class. Intermarriages or any form of interaction is prohibited in this form of system.
The Feudal System
This is the stratification system in where high status class own land and have hereditary power. The unfortunate in the feudal system are the workers and labourers that help in perpetuation of this stratification (Levine, 2006). However, in the feudal system, it is allowed for people to move through the various strata.
There are different social classes in the society including the upper class, middle class, working class and the lower class. The upper class is the highest class of people within a population. In the United States, constitute five per cent of the population and are the owners of the means of production. They include owners of large amounts of property, owners and shareholders of large corporations, rich celebrities and media personalities, top financiers, politicians and members of prestigious families. The middle class on the other hand forms about 45 per cent of the U.S population (Kirby, 2000). This group of the society include university graduate managers, executives, supervisors, medium business owners and professionals such as teachers, physicians, layers and engineers. The working class in the U.S constitutes 35 per cent of the entire populace. Basically, working class people do not have post high school education. They are skilled semi-skilled labourers working in industries and factories, clerks, office workers, and farm and manual workers. Majority of this population do not own homes and live in rented average apartments. Finally the lower class or the poor make 15 per cent of the U.S population. This group of people are usually high school graduates with poor grades, or high school dropouts. They are the people who work for minimum pay or are regularly unemployed. Sometimes referred to as the underclass, this population do the dirty work in the society for minimal wages (Eitzen & Johnston, 2007). These social classes lead to what is referred to socioeconomic status. Socioeconomic status is to honour, prestige, respect, and lifestyle allied to various groups or positions in society.
Theories Of Social Class
There are various theories that were put forward by sociologists in an attempt to explain and understand the concept of social stratification. These theories include:
This theory was proposed by Karl Marx (1818-1883). The conflict view of social classes conceives that inequality is a reproduction of unequal distribution of resources and power and is the major cause of conflict and coercion (Kirby, 2000). According to Karl Marx, any social order comprised the regulation of contrasting interests and as a result, that conflict between people and among social classes was an integral part of every society. The presence of social classes is based on two criteria which is ownership of means of production such as land, and commercial enterprises and the ability to purchase and manipulate labour of others. Those in authority have access to means to enhance a reality that justifies their unfair actions. A dominant conception promotes a false consciousness whereby people in lower classes accept a belief system that hinders revolution (Levine, 2006). If lower class people become aware of their position as the oppressed or exploited class, they can start a revolution to demand justice and equality. For instance, social welfare programs that are aimed at empowering the poor are funded by taxes which some rich citizens may be reluctant to give because taxes minimize their net income. This case can cause conflict between the wealthy and the poor in a society leading to a revolution.
Structural Functionalism Theory
According to functionalism theory, the society is structured in various classes for it to be functional. The differences in wealth, power and other rewards with the various social classes are justified. Basically structural functionalists believe that social stratification or inequality in the society is functional and significant for maintaining equilibrium in the society. This theory stipulates that, certain positions within a society are more functionally critical than others and require unique skills for their execution (Shortell, n.d). Consequently only a small number of people in the society possess the talents which can be nurtured into these skills to such positions. The transformation of talents into skills require time and some sort of sacrifice by an individual (Shortell, n.d). Hence, to persuade the talented people to make these sacrifices to acquire skills, their future positions must possess an incentive value in the form of distinction, that is, privilege and unequal access to the limited and desired rewards which the society has in store. Thus, social inequality among various social strata in the quantity of the limited and preferred goods and the amount of status and esteem which they get is both functional and inherent in any society (Basirico, Barbara and Ross, 2007). The functions of poverty as proposed by this theory entail the fact that, people from lower class take low paying jobs, lives in informal settlements, purchase discount and used goods, and offer work to others including the social service workers and others who work for the improvement of the poor (Shortell, n.d). For instance, nurses are individuals who are not highly paid and are not highly prestigious in the society. However, they work for considerably long hours under tight schedules and are necessary for the functioning of the healthcare system, hence the functioning of the society.
Symbolic Interactionism Theory
This is another theory explaining social stratification in the society. According to symbolic interactionists, social inequality is part of our presentation of self. Eitzen & Johnston (2007) stated that, our speech, gestures, clothes, friends, possessions and activities provide information regarding our socioeconomic status. For instance, in life, the poor and the rich have different access to the “props” used to project certain form of self. Particularly professional wear such as official suits can be too expensive for the lower class people to afford, which can delimit them in job interviews, where a professional image matters (Levine, 2006). Organizations such as Dress for Success offer professional wear for those who cannot afford it, equalling the playing somehow in terms of impression management.
Social Classes Promote Inequality
Belonging to a given social class has intense influence for individuals in all areas of life including education, health care and employment. Literally, social stratification determine what individuals eats, clothes they wears, where they shop, schools they attend, where they work, income they earn, quality of life and how long they live. Children coming from lower class are not likely to attain higher education (Kirby, 2000). First, there parents are not highly educated, hence are casual labourers and cannot afford to support their children through school. As a result these children learn with a lot of difficulties and are not able to achieve better grades. Consequently, poor performance denies them an opportunity to pursue better professional courses and may end up taking apprenticeship and start working early in manual work. This creates a cycle of poverty in generations.
Poorly paying jobs for the lower class people are meant to sustain their daily needs. This category of people does not have any savings (Blanden, Gregg & Macmillan, 2011). They do not enjoy medical benefits as they are casual labourers. As such, they do not have access to quality healthcare.
On the other hand, upper class population are highly educated individuals with money and emphasize on education for their children. They take their kids to the best private schools and support them in whatever way. These children get good grades and proceed to university to pursue highly competitive courses that land them into highly paying prestigious jobs (Eitzen & Johnston, 2007).
Social class also influence family structure. Poor people have very little choices, young illiterate women opt marriage in order to survive. They look for someone to depend on, as their family parents may not be able to care for them after maturing (Kirby, 2000). In addition, most women from low class society get children out of wedlock as the men responsible for pregnancy may not be willing to take responsibility due to striking poverty levels.
Although America technical has an open system allowing social mobility (movement of individuals within the classified system of social classes), there exist structural patterns where individuals tend to stay very close to the class they were brought up in (Levine, 2006). However, there still more than what meets the eyes, because, if at all we the U.S have an open system, then why there are no opportunities to move between classes? (Coté, 2011)
Inequality Leads to Poverty
People of the highest classes own the means of production. They are able to manipulate labour from the other classes in order to increase their income. In the U.S the federal poverty line is applied in determining who should be classified as poor. In 2005 12.6 per cent (approximately 37 million) of the U.S population were considered poor (Levine, 2006).
In the United States, the gap between the upper and the lower class is very profound. The wealthiest 20 per cent of the U.S population make control about 84 per cent of wealth. The ratio of CEO earning to a factory worker in the 1960s stood at 42:1 and rose to 531:1 in the year 2000, in 2005, it was 411:1 and 344:1 by 2007 (Blanden, Gregg & Macmillan, 2011). By comparison, the same ration stands at 25:1 in Europe according to a study by United for a Fair Economy. This shows how inequality in the society has been perpetuated over the years (Blanden, Gregg & Macmillan, 2011).
Social stratification is an aspect of every society. Societies are categorised into four social strata including the upper class, middle class, working class and the lower class. Various theories have been put forward to explain the existence of social classes. These theories include the symbolic interactionism, structural functionalism and the conflict theory. In the United States, inequality is profound within the various classes. A small part of the U.S population control a very large portion of wealth, while the majority of the working and the poor population continue to suffer. Social stratification influences a person`s education, health care as well as employment. Despite the U.S having an open system where social mobility is permitted, the country`s structural systems do not offer equal opportunities for achieving this mobility. There is also a high tendency of a person living close to the social class they were raised in.
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Coté, S. (2011). How social class shapes thoughts and actions in organizations. Research in Organizational Behavior, 31: pp.43-71.
Eitzen, D. & Johnston, J. (2007). Inequality: social class and its consequences. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
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Social Class and Inequality (Name)