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Unit 7 – Social Inequality and Stratification


At the end of this unit, students will be able to:

1.  Define and provide examples of social inequality in Canada and other countries.

2.  Discuss possible negative consequences of class systems.

3.  Explain the importance of Marx’s notion of classes and how it has shaped history and contemporary times.

4.  Differentiate between class and strata levels.

5.  Define and contrast the use of quintiles and deciles in sociological research.

Core Readings:

Steckley, J., & Letts, G. K. (2007). Chapter Eleven: Social Inequality: Stratification.


In this chapter, we are going to look at social inequality and stratification.

What’s stratification?

Well, as the text book points out, stratification is the organization of society into hierarchical layers of unequal “worth.”  In a stratified society, individuals are organized into layers where some individuals are valued more than others. In advanced industrial society where value is measured monetarily, we can clearly see the stratified nature of society by taking a look at the Statistics Canada income statistics for 2005. Take a look at the statistics. Notice how some individuals are “worth more” than others. Notice that some individuals in Canada (twenty three million in fact) bring in as little as $5,000 dollars per year income while some people make over $250,000 per year in income. That’s stratification. In a stratified society, some people (e.g., single parent mothers and homeless people) don’t receive hardly anything and are seen to deserve nothing. On the other hand, other people, corporate CEO’s, are seen to deserve more and are accorded such.

Now, this might seem harsh to say this, especially if you’ve never had a critical look at our society, but it’s true. We live in a stratified society where some people are seen to be worth more than others.

Now at this point, you may make objections and say that personal worth is not measured by income, that we all have something to contribute, or it’s “what’s inside” that counts and I agree with that. In an ideal world, personal worth would probably not even be an issue. But, in our society where income and money gets you access to everything you need to survive, income is really the only measure of worth that counts. If you don’t have an income, you’re lost and this is why sociologists, when they look at stratification, look at income.

Now you can see that, in terms of income, there is a rather dramatic difference in relative worth. But, it’s actually even worse than that. The data above only includes data for income which is basically the money you get from waged, salaried, or self employment. Income data never includes an even more important determinant of worth in our societies; wealth.

And what is wealth?

Well, wealth is basically the property you own, the business you own, the investment you own, any inherited wealth, and so on. Surprisingly, when we look at wealth, the “worth gap” expands dramatically. Consider this Wikipedia link of the world’s wealthiest people.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_billionaires

It’s astonishing. Warren Buffet, one of the richest men in the world, has a net worth of sixty two (62) billion dollars. It’s more shocking when you consider it in the context of global poverty. That is, the net value of this single wealthy individual is greater than the annual GDP of 129 countries!



So you see, we live in a stratified world.

So why is that?

Why do we live in a stratified society?

Initially, when we ask ourselves this question, our “instinct,” our training might encourage us to throw our hands up and dig out our religious or scientific ideology to justify. During the middle ages; for example, the Catholic church was all about the justification of inequality. During the Middle Ages, society was organized into discrete strata or “estates.” There was, in descending order of power and wealth, the priestly estate (the top level, closest to God, most worthy), the nobility, and the peasantry. During the Middle Ages, the Catholic church had this mythology that supported and justified inequality. They said that “God” had ordained the three estates in heaven and that you were born into a specific estate because God put you there. So, if you want to go to heaven when you die, you better shut up and do what you’re told and not complain about it. It’s basically what they said. And of course, the Catholic faith is not the only religion to justify inequality. Eastern philosophies use the concept of karma to justify. A typical Eastern priest (i.e., guru) will tell you that you suffer in poverty (and there is a lot of poverty in places like India) because you deserve it. “It’s your karma,” they say and obviously, you deserve it probably because you did something bad in a past life. In this way, the religions of the world justify and “explain” inequality and this is one of the ways that we, that you, might come up with when you try to come up with a reason for inequality.

Now as noted above, religions aren’t the philosophical systems that justify inequality. There is an ideology in science, Social Darwinism, that also justifies inequality and if you can’t stomach religions explanations for equality, often this is the next best thing for you. Social Darwinism, invented by a guy named Herbert Spencer, basically argues that nature is all about survival of the fittest. According to this ideology, the “strong” rise to the top on their “natural” (bell curve like) ability while the weak settle into some kind of meager, average existence and that, they will say, is perfectly natural. That’s just the way it is, they say, and you can’t argue with it because that’s “nature’s way” or “god’s way” and that’s that.

But, that’s not that. As sociologists, we can’t stop them. Remember, sociology is the study of how we create the world we live in and so to stop our analysis by pointing to spiritual rules or natural laws is anathema to a sociologist. For a sociologist, inequality doesn’t “just happen” as the result of some Divine Darwinian unfolding. Sociology is the study of the world we create and just like everything else about our social world, we create inequality. We create it with our thinking and our perceptions, our thoughts and our actions, and our ways of approaching the world. We create it because we accept it and reproduce it and there is lots of different ways we do that, but for the common human (i.e., the human without significant power and resources), it’s recreated mostly because we sincerely believe that some people are worth more than others.

We believe it and buy into it.


Because that’s how we’ve been trained to think. From the moment we walk into the “hallowed halls” of education (i.e., from the moment we step into our kindergarten class), the “mental structures” of inequality are pounded into our heads. From the day we walk into school, the message is sent to us over and over and over again. In every test you take, in every mark you get, in every activity you undertake, you learn that some people are just better than others and the better ones, the smarter ones, the stronger ones, the more “worthy” ones, get some kind of reward. They get an “A” on the exam or a star or a big smiley or a capital letter or the trophy or the higher salary or whatever.

And the losers?

They are held up to public ridicule. They are not given a star, they are not given an “A,” they don’t get the team letter or the trophy and the big lesson for them is “that’s life.” That’s just the way it is. Remember the bell curve? It’s natural and inevitable and you just have to accept it.

It’s the message we get right?

Some people are better than others and the better ones are more worthy of our praise, reward, respect, and so on. It’s how we are trained and so when we graduate and go out into the “real world”, we take that with us and when we see inequality, we just thank Father God or Mother Nature that we have enough talent and ability to at least avoid destitute homelessness. By the time we graduate from high school, it’s so ingrained in us that we never question it. We just accept it as necessary and inevitable and reproduce it whenever we are called upon to.

And that’s how stratification is created by us. The conceptual structures of inequality are planted in school and then when we graduate school, we accept and reproduce inequality within the parameters of our power.

Of course, we don’t stop there. What I have said above only accounts for a small piece of the stratification puzzle. In a sociological account of inequality, we have barely scratched the surface. Amongst sociologists, a lot has been said about social inequality and stratification. Indeed, some of the biggest names in sociology, i.e., Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim have sounded off about stratification trying to figure out how and why it emerged.

Some of them, Emile Durkheim and the functionalists for example, tend to adopt a justificatory stance toward inequality saying that inequality is “functional” for society. Paying people more money; they say, attracts “the best and the brightest” to do the “hard” jobs that require the greatest sacrifice and if we didn’t do that; they say, society would crumble.

Unfortunately, functionalism isn’t an adequate explanation for inequality and breaks down under the weight of its own faulty logic. Consider, if people get paid based on the work and sacrifice they do, then the hardest job that requires the most sacrifice must be a soldier fighting in another country. The longest hours, the most difficult conditions and dangerous conditions and the biggest sacrifice imaginable and yet soldiering is one of the lowest paying jobs there is.

Or consider the reproduction of the labor force. Mothers giving birth and raising children are, in terms of the ongoing stability of society, the single most important function there is and yet they are unpaid while the corporate CEO for Coke, a company with absolutely no social utility at all, might make 100 million dollars in a year in benefits, salaries, and stock options. According to functionalist logic, soldiers should make top dollar, but they don’t. So obviously, something else is going on besides the simplistic sorting implied by functionalist accounts. Not that there isn’t utility in functionalist theories of society, but just that as an explanation for equality, the functionalist explanations are inadequate. And besides, I’ve seen with my own two eyes how inequality is created out of thin air. The curving of exams in universities, the construction of intelligence tests, and so on.

And that’s just a couple of examples. They can be multiplied both by looking at our own lives and looking at the vast amount of sociological research that has been devoted to understanding inequality. From my own life–I have small children and I know for a fact that my children do better in school when I’m helping them. Unfortunately, that takes a lot of effort and time. You have to spend time with them reading, going over math, signing their forms, going to their field trips and if you don’t, their performance suffers. Now, I can find time to do all those things, but I have a spouse and the financial resources to help. If I didn’t have a spouse, and if I had to work forty, fifty, sixty hours to just survive like some single parent females, where would I find the time to help my children amidst the paid labor, house cleaning, laundry, and meal preparation that forms the necessary part of my routine day? It would be exceedingly difficult and in such a situation, my children would be at a disadvantage through no fault of their own.

And please don’t misread what I’m saying. I’m not blaming the single parent here. Single parents do the best they can, but  considering the lack of financial, social, and emotional support our society provides for them, there is a limit and as sociologists looking at inequality, we have to recognize that limit because in that limit is another one of the sources of inequality. For children in school, disadvantages like that accumulate. As they progress through school, they get farther and farther behind and in some cases, and after getting the umpteenth “D” or “F” or negative frown from their teacher, they just throw their hands up and give up and become a permanent part of the “underclasses” not because they don’t have talent or ability, but because society didn’t provide the supports to the parent to ensure that ability would be tapped into and nurtured. As you can see, inequality is not natural and not god given, but constructed.

Now, of all the sociologists who had a “go” at inequality, my favorite is Karl Marx. Many of you will know Karl Marx as founder of communism. According to your high school social texts, Karl Marx was the guy that wrote the Communist Manifesto, thereby touching off a century of brutal repression in Soviet Union. True, his writings where used to create a brutal and authoritarian society, but Marx himself never intended that. In fact, quite the opposite. Perhaps more than any other sociologist since him, Karl Marx had a utopian vision of society. Marx was born during the industrial revolution and as he grew up, he was utterly shocked by how people were being treated in the emerging “wage slave” factories of the industrial revolution. Marx saw, with his own two eyes, brutal working conditions, callous disregard of safety, wages barely enough to ensure subsistence, and all the while a merchant and industrial class growing fat and wealthy on the exploited labor of others. Marx was horrified by the oppression and the suppression. He made it his life’s mission to study the capitalist, the economic system and determine how it worked to create inequality. He was a prolific writer, constructing a classic and detailed analysis of how wealth was extracted out of the hands of the working and peasant classes and deposited into the bank accounts of the powerful and wealthy. His three volume Das Capital remains the quintessential analysis of economic exploitation and the extraction of “surplus value.”

Now, although it took Karl Marx three volumes to explain the economic jiggery of the capitalist system; in essence, it is really not that difficult and works something like this. You the worker, perform a service (i.e., you give someone a therapeutic massage), or make a good (like a widget), or do something useful for someone else. Someone else then pays you a fee for doing that service or making that product. That fee will include some estimate of the cost of the materials you used (office rental, massage oil, massage table, etc.) plus a fair fee representing the value of your labor (say $50.00 a hour).

So far, so good.

Now for Marx, the economic exploitation (and hence the inequality) comes in when somebody else (i.e., the bourgeoisie capitalist) sticks their greedy little fingers into your economic pie. In this case, rather than giving you the full value of your wage, who has control over the “means of production” (i.e., you work in their therapeutic massage parlor), pays his bills with the money you make and then returns to you only a fraction of the money he collected and keeps the rest for himself. What’s left over after all the bills are paid is called “surplus value” or “profit.” For Marx, profit was generated through the labor of the working classes and Marx felt, quite strongly, that the extraction of profit from the (often exploited) labor of the working classes was a vile and soul destroying feature of capitalist society and he was right. Because of the emphasis on “profit”, the capitalists were always engaged in some kind of effort to “cut costs” so that they could realize more profit. This “cutting of costs” often meant lowering wages, laying people off, chintzing out on safety measure, exploiting child labor, and so on. For the capitalist, the pressure is always on and this pressure leads inevitably to exploited and alienated labor. For Marx, there was no getting away from it. It was part of the inevitable dynamic of capitalism.

And least, you think this was a problem only during the cruel emergence of the Industrial Revolution, think again. Although conditions seem to be “okay” in our advanced industrialized nations, the truth is the dynamic of capitalism and the constant pressure to lower costs, leading to the inevitable exploitation of labor, continues on even today, even worse than during the industrial revolution. It’s hidden from us in the West though and carried out by the major global internationals in their ongoing effort to cut costs and increase profits.[1]

Now as noted, Marx provided a brilliant and seminal analysis of the creation of inequality. Marx; of course, went further and outlined a program of social change that he hoped would lead to a society free of inequality and unnecessary suffering. Believing that no one deserved to be valued more than another, Karl Marx coined the phrase from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs! In Marx’s ideal society, nobody deserved to experience life at the bottom of social hierarchy no matter what.

We all know that Karl’s program didn’t work. Not because it wasn’t theoretically elegant, it was. Marx had a brilliant analysis of the circulation of capital and the extraction of wealth from the working classes. In my opinion, the primary weakness of his program was that it advocated violent overthrow of the capitalist social class. In his Communist Manifest, Marx called for a violent overthrow of the bourgeoise state (bourgeoise was his term for the ruling elites of a society). Unfortunately, the old aphorism seems to be true. Violence begets violence. You simply can’t build a utopian society on the suffering and death of another person. As we clearly found out, when you start like that, you set a precedent that nut jobs like Stalin could use to justify their autocratic revision of otherwise utopian principles.

Still, despite Marx’s failure to develop a workable utopian program, his criticism and analysis remains remarkable. His attitude was very much a “we made it” so we can “unmake it” attitude. He analyzed the flow of capital, saw through the economic exploitation, even provided an incredible analysis of the way inequality was created and justified. He even saw a role of religion here. Marx said that “religion was the opiate of masses” and when he said that, he was referring to the way religion can be used to justify inequality.

It might seem a little odd to us these days, but the role of religion and priests in the justification and perpetuation of inequality was quite clear during the Middle Ages where priests and cardinals provided what would now be considered transparent ideological justifications. During that time, priests in the churches taught that god had created different estates the clergy, the nobility, and the peasantry. According to church ideology, you were born into these estates because god put you there and if you wanted to go to heaven, you should shut up and accept that because that’s just the way it is.[2] Of course, ideological justifications are a little different these days. We still have the church and it still plays its role, but now, we also have the “scientific” explanations (read ideologies) trying to justify inequality.


This assignment is a required assignment. Do a Google search for “global sweatshops” and “child labor.” Write an 800 to 1200 word paper answering questions like “how many children are currently being exploited globally,” “in what countries do you find child labor,” “what sorts of jobs are children expected to perform.” Provide your own commentary and opinion. Before you answer your question, have a look one more time at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_billionaires just so you can get a sense of the level of inequality and stratification that exists on this earth.

Here are a couple of links to start you off.

Study Questions:

  • How does class affect individual identity (both positive and negative aspects) and why is class inequality an important aspect when studying social inequality?
  • How can social inequality affect your psychological functioning?
  • Compare conditions of the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s of the industrial revolution to working conditions in second or third world countries today.
  • How are people ‘forced’ to suffer under poor working conditions (in past or current times)?
  • How does social inequality affect people with physical or mental disabilities?
  • Compare the relationship and reciprocal interactions of the different classes in Canada.
  • How are concepts such as the ‘American dream’ or ‘trickle down theory’ part of dominant ideology?
  • Provide your own example of Hegemony.
  • What problems might you create if you use a ‘class reductionist’ approach?
  • Compare and contrast class systems in the capitalist system to the Hindu Caste system. Why would it be harder to break this social order in the caste system than in the capitalist system?
  • Why is social inequality in educational systems such a detrimental problem?
  • Develop an example of where you can apply strata research in social science disciplines. What are some advantages and disadvantages of this methodology?

Recommended Readings:

Title: Combating inequality in Africa
Source: Ernest Harsch in Africa Renewal
Website Link:

Title: Socioeconomic status at the heart of health care inequality
Source: Greg Basky in CMAJ
Website Link:

[1] See; for example, Children and the Global Sweatshop http://www.monitor.net/monitor/sweatshop/ss-global.html

[2] Interestingly enough, you can also find this kind of raw justification for suffering and inequality (peasants did suffer in poverty of course) within the Indian caste system. According to the Indian caste system, you are born into one of several castes (priests, warriors, farmers) and you should accept that or else. Now, the caste system differs in that it suggests that you are born into a certain worldly position because of “karma” (i.e., past life misdeeds), but the justification of inequality is basically the same. According to eastern and western religious systems, there is some divine and/or cosmic reason for the inequality and suffering that we find on this earth.  See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_caste_system for more information.

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