For centuries, sociologists have analyzed social stratification, its root causes, and its effects on society. Theorists Karl Marx and Max Weber disagreed about the nature of class, in particular. Other sociologists applied traditional frameworks to stratification.
Karl Marx based his conflict theory on the idea that modern society has only two classes of people: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie are the owners of the means of production: the factories, businesses, and equipment needed to produce wealth. The proletariat are the workers.
According to Marx, the bourgeoisie in capitalist societies exploit workers. The owners pay them enough to afford food and a place to live, and the workers, who do not realize they are being exploited, have a false consciousness, or a mistaken sense, that they are well off. They think they can count on their capitalist bosses to do what was best for them.
Marx foresaw a workers’ revolution. As the rich grew richer, Marx hypothesized that workers would develop a true class consciousness, or a sense of shared identity based on their common experience of exploitation by the bourgeoisie. The workers would unite and rise up in a global revolution. Once the dust settled after the revolution, the workers would then own the means of production, and the world would become communist. No one stratum would control the access to wealth. Everything would be owned equally by everyone.
Marx’s vision did not come true. As societies modernized and grew larger, the working classes became more educated, acquiring specific job skills and achieving the kind of financial well-being that Marx never thought possible. Instead of increased exploitation, they came under the protection of unions and labor laws. Skilled factory workers and tradespeople eventually began to earn salaries that were similar to, or in some instances greater than, their middle-class counterparts.
Max Weber took issue with Marx’s seemingly simplistic view of stratification. Weber argued that owning property, such as factories or equipment, is only part of what determines a person’s social class. Social class for Weber included power and prestige, in addition to property or wealth. People who run corporations without owning them still benefit from increased production and greater profits.
This article discusses stratification in the U.S. and sociological theories of stratification and inequality including conflict theories of Marx and his two-class system of proletariat versus capitalist, Weber and others, and functionalist theories of Durkheim, and Parsons. The conflict perspective is described, including Marxist notions of exploitation and Weber's theory of stratification based on wealth, power and prestige. The article also explains how characteristics continue to prevent a person from moving up in the U.S. stratification system. The functionalist perspective of stratification is also discussed, to include meritocracy. Attempts to challenge classical sociological theories that emerged are discussed, including Neo-Marxism, Neo-Weberianism, and Neofunctionalism.
Keywords American Dream; Ascribed Characteristics; Capitalist Class; Class Conflict; Dialectical Materialism; Exploitation; Income; Inequality; Meritocracy; Life Chances; Neofunctionalism; Neo-Marxism; Neo-Weberianism; Power; Prestige; Proletariat; Social Class; Stratification; Wealth
Sociology had its beginnings in the 19th and early 20th century during the industrial revolution, primarily to make sense of what was happening in the world, particularly in western Europe where industrialization was bourgeoning. When the industrial revolution reached the U.S., the Chicago School of sociology, essentially an urban sociology, came into existence. It followed at first with a functionalist perspective, and asked, with so much change in the social order, what remained constant, what was the glue that kept society from flying apart at the seams? The classical functionalist sociologists, including Durkheim, Merton and Parsons, focused on this perspective, seeking the stabilizing factors of society, while other classical sociologists such as Marx and Weber examined the new capitalist economy and the struggle between groups of people for resources. Their cumulative writings became the basis for sociological study into the mid-twentieth century, with a divergence into two schools of thought: functionalist and conflict. However, in the mid-twentieth century, new technologies began to emerge and new economic developments called for modern approaches to sociological theory. One such modern approach was Neo-Marxism (Fligstein, 2000). Other approaches have developed, often in response to Neomarxism, including Neofunctionalism and Neo-Weberianism.
Stratification in the U.S.
The primary determining factor in the American class structure is the amount of income gained from wages, salaries, governmental aid and property ownership (Beeghley, 2000.) Most Americans work for someone else to earn a living.
However, income is only one facet of a person's wealth. One must add in property, especially income-producing property, as well as boats, cars, vacation homes, and stocks to determine wealth. It is no wonder, then, that a primary symbol of the American Dream is home ownership. In addition, the accumulation of all types of "stuff" is a familiar pastime in the U.S.
In an age where new technologies such as the computer and telecommunications have emerged, there is much wealth in the U.S. and indeed, in the world, but it is concentrated in the hands of a few. Since the 1980s, incomes have risen for many Americans. The cultural value in the U.S. of hard work and success lends credence to functionalist notions of a meritocracy, where those who have accumulated wealth deserve to be compensated in such a fashion because of their extraordinary efforts or talents, or both. Those who have not achieved the success that has come to be known as the American Dream are sometimes viewed as unwilling to work hard to overcome barriers to their success. Whether undeserving or not, the result has been poor health care, an invisible status in government and politics, and a larger than ever prison population used to control this ever-larger segment of the population (Fligstein, 2000).
Certainly, many Americans have achieved some modicum of comfort. There is very little, if any, absolute poverty in the country, when compared to the poverty of countries in sub-Saharan Africa, for example. But poverty does exist and the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to widen. Since the 1990s, poverty has created more poverty while wealth has continued to produce more wealth. Between 1991 and 2001, the top one fifth of the U.S. population increased its income by 31%, while the poorest one fifth saw its income increase by only 10% (DeNavas-Walt, Cleveland & Webster, 2003). Women and people of color, especially, who have experienced discrimination based on their ascribed characteristics of sex and race, have made some strides in gaining equality. Yet there is evidence that discrimination against women and various minority groups (particularly African-Americans) continues, and that stratification in the U.S. still exists and the rich still get richer. In 2000, the wealth of the average white household was more than ten times that of the average African American household, and eight times that of the average Latino/a household (Orzechowski & Sepielli, 2001). In fact, among prosperous nations, the U.S is first in inequality of income distribution (Rothchild, 1995).
Classical Sociological Perspectives on Stratification
Since its inception in the 19th century, sociology has produced the classical sociologists who have attempted to determine how society works: what causes it to shift and bump, what causes its smooth operation. The two most influential perspectives are the conflict and the functionalist schools.
According to conflict perspectives, societal groups are constantly in a struggle over the power to control scarce resources. The conflict might take the form of politics, litigation, negotiations, or family discussions about financial matters. Advocates of the conflict perspective view social life as a continuous power struggle among competing social groups (Kendall, 2007). Marxism is a branch of the conflict perspective in sociology.
According to Karl Marx, the social class we belong to is directly related to our work, or our ability to own the means of production. Marx identified only two classes: the proletariat, or worker class who earns a wage for work performed, and the bourgeoisie, or the capitalist class, who owns the factories and other means of production and hires (and also exploits) the workers. These relationships, according to Marx, are inevitable. A worker is always exploited, a capitalist always exploits by keeping the profit made by exploiting the worker. The capitalists maintain control of the economic and social system: politics, government, education, and other institutions to manipulate the social structure in their favor (Kendall, 2007).
Marx predicted a social revolution by the workers that would overthrow the capitalists' yoke, and capitalism would end with the overtaking of the means of production by the state, creating a more equal distribution of social resources. His notion of dialectical materialism was the belief that “history progresses in stages that are based solely on ownership of the means of production (i.e., feudalism replaced aristocracy, capitalism replaced feudalism, and true socialism or communism will replace capitalism)” (“Dialectical materialism, 2006). When the Russian Revolution occurred in 1917, much of the world believed that Marx's prediction was coming true and capitalists began to defend against the possibility. However, the United Soviet Socialist Republic fell from power in 1991 (Francis, 2007) and much has happened since then in the world's distribution of wealth.
Weber's Analysis of Class
Building on Marx's theory of class struggle, as well as other theories of capitalism, Max Weber, who lived later than Marx, was able to see capitalism in its various forms over time. While he agreed that economics was a basis for studying human behavior, Weber included other important resources such as social and political power and prestige...