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Topic 9: Stratification—Functionalist and Conflict Theories

The word stratification is used a lot in the world of social scientists. It is a concept that rivals socialization in terms of importance; in fact, some consider it a major factor in how we learn to relate to the world.

So what does it mean? It is an intimidating word, but if you break it down to it’s root you find the word ‘strata’, and strata means one in a series of layers. If you look at where this root appears in other words related to the physical world, substratum meaning the underlying layers of the earth; stratosphere meaning the layers of the atmosphere, you can see the concept of layering quite clearly.

But what could this word mean in the social world? Think about it. How do we layer people within the social world?

The sociological explanation of stratification refers to a system or institutional patterns which society uses to rank groups of people. A person is typically placed within the different layers or groups in accordance to their access to valued and scarce resources.

Now that we have the sociological definition, lets move back to the question I asked a before—How do we layer or group or rank people in the social world? See how many ways you can list. The top four ways people are ranked in society are as follows; economic, religious, race/ethnicity and gender.

Which do you think is the most important way we categorize people? Which controls most areas of your life? Typically in American society we see economic class as the most significant, but this is open for discussion. The importance of these rankings varies depending on the type of society you are born into. We for the most part have been born or live in a capitalistic class based society—So it makes sense that economic class would be the most important determinate of strata placement.

Look again to the four main means of dividing or ranking people (religion, race/ethnicity, economic, gender). How many of these things can we change in our society? For the most part only two; religion and economic class. (I know with enough money the medical world can alter genders and skin tone, but no matter what procedures you have done legally your gender and race/ethnicity will remain the same.)

The categories that we have no control over and things we cannot change are part of what sociologists call an ascribed status. An ascribed status is one’s position in society is determined by something an individual has no control over and cannot change; like race and gender.

Whereas the categories that we have control over and can in some way change are part of what sociologists call an achieved status. An achieved status means that there are elements within a persons control that an individual can alter to alter their social ranking within the stratification system.

These two types of status’s are related directly to the two types of societies(open and closed societies), and the type of society determines whether a persons position in society can be changed.

The first societal type is the open society. An open society is one where the boundaries between strata are more flexible. In this type of society there is room for movement or mobility; either upward or downward. So in an open society your status is one that is achieved. A society that is based on economic class is considered to be an open society.

The second societal type is a closed society. A closed society is one in which the boundaries between strata are very clearly drawn and fixed. There is absolutely no movement between the different rankings. In a closed society a persons status is always ascribed, because the position you are born into is the position you die in. You have no control over your rank in the social world. It is solely based on the family, race, gender, economic class you are born into, and it will never change as long as you remain within that society. Examples of a closed society are; feudal systems (any system with royalty was once or still is in some ways feudal), a caste system and any society that still allows slavery.


There are two main macro sociological theories the look at the phenomena of stratification; Functionalist and Conflict.


The functionalist theorist will always ask the question what purpose or function does something serve? So they ask what purpose does stratification(ranking/categorizing people) server? How does ranking people into different layers of groups help society keep going?

The answer they come to is that society has many different jobs that must be filled. All societies have needed different jobs to be done so the society could survive and continue to prosper. This is why there are many different groupings of people.

The next question to pose to a functionalist would be why are the different rankings of people apparently unequal due to the fact that some are more valued and receive more than others?

A functionalist would answer this question by saying that like the human body where all organs are needed to keep the body running—all jobs are needed to keep the society going. But like the human body where some organs are more important than others; some jobs in the social world are more important for the survival of society. And society must make sure these important jobs are filled and maintained by the best and the brightest.

The only way to attract and keep these bright people to the more important jobs is to attract them to the jobs with a series of rewards, and these rewards must be related to the degree of the importance of the job. The attractive rewards for the important jobs are what motivates talented people to take on the more demanding, high profile occupations in a society.

There must be a reward system built in to all societies to that guarantees that the division of jobs or labor in a society is maintained. So all societies carry within them a source of inequality, because different levels of rewards serve as motivators for people within the society to take on the various jobs.

According to a functionalist there are three main types of rewards. The first is economic (food and shelter). The second is the entertainment factor a job holds; such as free time or sheer enjoyment of work. The third is the status or prestige a job holds; that is the respect you receive from other as it relates to your work.

So in brief, a functionalist sees stratification and inequality as an inherent part of all social systems, because there will always be different jobs to be filled. And some jobs will always be more vital to the survival of the society than others; so to get talented people to fill these jobs there must be different levels of rewards to attract them to the more demanding tasks.


The conflict theorist will look at the phenomena of stratification and ask the question: Who benefits from the current social ranking within a society? And the obvious answer to that would be those at the top of the social hierarchy are the ones who benefit from the current stratification and reward system.

A conflict person maintains that the problem within a capitalistic society is a very fixed and rigid stratification system. They would say the idea that an economic class based system is an open society is only an illusion; a dramatic lie used to perpetuate the existing unjust and unequal division of labor and division of rewards.

Remember a conflict person thinks that societies; all the structures, beliefs and rules are created by those in power so they can maintain their wealth and power. The idea of a free market, and the ability to work for who you please, etc. gives us an illusion of power or control over our destinies. It also gives the illusion of having many different economic classes and different areas of power.

But for Karl Marx, the founder of the conflict perspective. There are only really two main divisions of class in a capitalistic society and they are those with power/wealth and those without.

The first class is the dominant class—the bourgeoisie as Marx calls them, or the capitalist class. These are the people who own the tools and materials for their work, or the means of production. So they own the land, the factories, the technology, the patents or the copyrights.

The second class is the oppressed class—the proletariat as Marx calls them, or the workers. These are people who do not own the means of production, and must support themselves by selling their labor to those who own the means of production.

If you look at these two definitions of class, which class do you belong to? Well the answer to that for most of us would be the oppressed class. Marx would say that we are fooling ourselves if we don’t accept where we really our in the stratification system, and he says that one of the reasons we don’t really understand our real place in the system is due to the existence of a middle class.

The middle class, or as Marx called them the petit bourgeoisie were a class that he saw would disappear, and he looked at them in a very limited way. The middle class were basically what Marx saw as small business owners who saved their capital and ran their own businesses using their family as the primary source of labor.

Marx said that this class would be driven out of existence by the capitalists. That eventually the greed of the dominant class would push the small business owners out of existence, and this can be seen in many cases today—mom and pop coffee shops, pharmacies, grocery stores seem to being forced out by bigger companies.

Marx believed that when the middle class vanished so to would the capitalist society. Because with the middle class gone there would be a great disparity between rich and poor, and this increased and apparent inequality would spark a revolution that would bring down the economic system replacing it with a communistic system. The word communism means a classless society in which all are equal, and receive equal rewards for their work.

Contemporary conflict theorist see Marx’s focus on economic rewards as a somewhat limited way of viewing stratification systems, and while they still acknowledge the economic factor as being the most important they add Weber’s ideas of prestige and power. Power is the ability to direct your will over someone else’s, and prestige is the social honor associated with a lifestyle.


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