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Social Class: Maintaining Divisions Within Society

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2786 words Published: 3rd May 2017

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As social beings we naturally form groups for survival and support, as the popular saying goes “No man is an island”, and indeed, we are not. We form social groups that unite us with one another and give us a sense of security. These groups can be created from the tiniest of excuses, for example; a group of people that meet at the bus stop every Tuesday at 5am, after seeing each other regularly they easily form alliance and share mutual goals and norms i.e. getting the bus on time. It is within these groups that we receive our social identities. These social identities can be awarded within a small intimate group like a family or in a large scale group like a class in society. Their common goals create an ‘us’ and a ‘them’ response governed by a group conscience (Tajfel, 1971). This response can be a strength, for example, a great championship team attempting to win 4x400meter relay race, find that distinguishing themselves from others could be positive experience that builds self-esteem, making them work harder than others and mesh better. However, even though these social groups provide us with positive identities, securities etc., they can at the same time have a negative effect and create bias towards other groups whether they realise it or not. In this essay, I will discuss how specific social groups based on class and status, come to exist and explore their importance in society.

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The disadvantages or advantages experienced by a social group within a stratum reflect the amount of power they have in society. The power comes directed from the resources one is advantaged enough to have, for example, ranging from being able to afford an education, from which, one can gain employment, from which, one can move up to a moderate position within a company, from which, they have the income to buy a house, car and pay for healthcare; to owning an international chain of restaurants, from which, one can afford a luxury yacht that offers luxury cruises, generating enough income to buy a third house and another yacht or two. This is why sociologists believed that social stratification was the core factor that influences the sharing of power in society.

There have been many attempts to determine a deciding factor for social power. Some feminists like Firestone (1971) believed that “all societies were divided into opposed ‘sex classes’ that were the basis of gender inequalities”. She argued that all men in society oppressed women because of the biological, psychological and physical shortcomings they experienced due to pregnancy, child-birth and child rearing. Her ideas stemmed from the women’s liberation movements in Europe and America in the 1960s and represented emancipation. Meanwhile, other systems presented a supressed, racially influenced explanation of social stratification. In the 19th century, the idea that race determined specifically by inherited biological distinctions was the deciding factor in social strata becoming prominent in society. Gumplowicz (1885) viewed “ethnic and racial conflict as the fundamental mechanism of social development”. Gumplowicz believed that it inevitable and natural for one ethnic group to surpass another, giving chance for the strongest to emerge. Gobineau (1853-5) and Chamberlain (1899) promoted racial stratification and warranted the oppression of ‘inferior’ ethnicities. Ideas like these were detrimental to the seemingly ‘inferior’ ethnicity and fuelled thinkers like Adolf Hilter (1925) who sought to eliminate inferior races in favour of the ‘Aryan’ race.

Sexual and racial inequalities are undeniably influential, however, they cannot be individually crowned as the primary causes of social stratification. Race itself does not exist, it is a social construct, and there is only one human race (Gordon, 1964). Ethnicity instead of race, on the other hand, does exist, based on cultural differences springing from history, origin, religion language and the like, however, it is an inequality that contributes to social stratification but does not solely determine the outcome. Similarly, sexual stratification struggles to define all social division because men and women thrive in complete isolation. Men and women’s sexual differences are the building blocks of society and essential for existence so they cannot be the core reason for stratification because stratification is division of society, they are requirements. Neither sexual nor racial inequalities can define a single source of stratification because people are so complicated and diverse, they cannot individually account for the complexities within society. Other sources of stratification are political status, religion or class.

Max Weber (1948) suggested that a wider perspective that incorporates sex and ethnicity should be considered. He believed that there were three unique aspects that spread across humanity and influenced the distribution of power in society and life chances in their own way. The three aspects were class (economic power), status (communal power) and authority (authoritative power). Weber was initially influenced Karl Marx and further developed his own ideas specifically about class and status. Social class refers to a conscious group of people that share the same socio-economic background, whose life chances are decided by the class they belong to. The class system in Britain is a prime example, society is divided into the upper class (mostly aristocrat families, headed by the Queen); middle class (upper-middle class e.g. architects, barristers, high level doctors etc.; middle-middle class e.g. management, teachers, accountancy, social work etc.; and the lower-middle class e.g. clerical, administrative etc.); working class (skilled e.g. a white van man or self-employed contractor and unskilled e.g. customer service or telesales); and the underclass (long term unemployed living off welfare).

Marx (1867) believed that almost every society was a class society with exception of the most primitive societies because they were smaller and undeveloped. He viewed possessing ‘means of production’, especially property, was the deciding influence in social division. He suggested society was of capitalist nature, distinguishing two conspicuous classes: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie owned the means of production and derived majority, if not, all of their income from capital. They were known as the capitalist class. On the reverse were the proletariat, who did not own any means of production and instead work for the bourgeoisie. They were known as the working class. The bourgeoisie, owning the means of production, kept majority of the wealth generated by the proletariat; the bourgeoisie received surplus value from their resources, meanwhile, the proletariat only received a small percentage of their economic worth. He believed that skilled labour in particular had greater value and deserved higher wages. Marx strongly believed that the proletariat were oppressed to the extent that the existed in a state of false consciousness, where they were content with their hardship. He believed that over time the classes would collapse due to internal conflict and a revolution would ensue. He believed the solution to the class system was effective communism.

Weber, influenced by Marx, overruled the idea of effective communism, thinking that the proletariat revolution was highly unlikely because the power of false consciousness was too strong. He understood the bourgeoisie/proletariat class relationship was not so black and white. There were grey areas such as the manager that does not own the means of production and governs the proletariat but does not receive surplus let alone receiving their fair wages. He suggested the distribution of power was not rooted purely in economic power. Both the possession and non-possession of economic assets disperse power in society because from both avenues income is secured, for example, working for an company is labour which has to be ‘bought’ by the employer, thus, providing income/capital via the non-possession of economic assets. Weber viewed class divisions as having economic basis only and that individually class alone could not condition people into stratum. He believed that the increase in wages that Marx sought after would, if granted, would produce cause and effect experience from significant changes in lifestyles, subsequently creating antagonism in the disadvantaged groups. This revolution would be spurred by rational motives instead of stir from false consciousness.

Instead of just class, there were two more aspects determining distribution of power and life chances in society: status (communal power) and authority (authoritative power). Status, for example, held ground when it came to prominent religious figures/poets that were highly significant in society with little economic power. Authoritative power could be executed by a senior police officer that has a lot of authority but not a lot of property. Other criticisms were that the boundaries between various groups are almost impossible to specify. Also, a moral stance was not identified, whether the motives for the division where good or bad. Dahrendorf (1959) also mentioned that in many western societies there are fairly large middle classes because education was more prevalent and available, creating the opportunity to progress.

Weber understood that unlike Marx, explaining stratification in only terms of economic factors was unreasonable and stressing the importance of non-economic factors. He further developed his ideas on the non-economic factor of status. Social status refers to the ranking of an individual in a society as superior or inferior according to the values that they have in common. It is the reputation of the individual granted by lifestyle and duties, dictating their life chances, those that successfully conform to the required standard receive great honour and prestige (high status); and vice versa. In minute societies, status is determined by intimate details gathered from regular face to face interaction. However, in larger, complicated societies, ranking is generated by generalisations based on age, sex, family relationships, ethnicity, sexuality etc., putting one into a specific social group regardless of ability or accomplishments. It is the potentially boosting or diminishing assessment of lifestyle choices without any real information about the individual preferences.

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Diminishing status can be very dangerous because it can create a sense of negativity around those of said status, if not worse. For example, in the Indian Caste system, status is assigned according to ethnicity. They range from the religious scholars and leaders at the highest status group known as the Brahim, and the lowest status group known as the Dalits or the untouchables. This is a closed/ascribed status system where despite challenges one cannot change their status because they are born into it. An open/achieved status system is one where status groups are based on merit and achievement so there is social mobility. According to Parsons (1940) status is assigned depending on the most significant social position in a society, for example, lineage, gender, age etc. An example of status assignment are in a tribal society where older men have the highest ranking and young women have the lowest ranking until married off, then a young woman can increase her ranking via her association with her husband. Modern societies alternatively, determine membership by specific public positions. Despite the large variety of occupations, those with the most prestigious receive higher status and vice versa. Strangers are usually judged based on the assumed status gathered from clothing to accents to cars. In contemporary societies status is assumed via income and consumption, and aspirations are geared towards earning higher incomes.

Parsons was criticised by an array of sociologists, some argued that not everyone in contemporary societies share the same significant social positions. Therefore, a unified set of views cannot be assumed. Modern societies also have multiple value systems that dictate status. Others stated that in some value systems a person that is, for example, a black doctor despite the high status of being a doctor would be assigned a low status because of his ethnicity. Weber (1924) believed that when it came to life chances, status was a more important factor instead of class because majority of the population would be more likely to make sacrifices based on social status as it affected their day to day life more.

From a Functionalist perspective, stratification is essential for society to operate smoothly; especially in industrial societies with complicated division of labour. They believe that the inadequate wages served to motivate people to aim higher, creating competition for important roles in society. Critics contended that the definition of important roles were inadequate and stated that the importance of roles does not directly reflect in wages. Society is not a meritocracy because many are born into their class and status. Also, how is inequality essential for society?

Another perspective was the conflict theory stating that stratification is universal but inevitable, unnecessary and not vital for society. Stratification was fashioned and maintained by the elite to guard and enhance their interests. Inequality is not inevitable and it does not promote the ideal functioning of society. They continue to sustain disparity by controlling ideas and information of the masses to keep them in their boxes spreading ideologies such as “scientific racism”, “the divine right of kings” and “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” etc. Information released to the public is often manipulated or filtered e.g. Paris Hilton being mentioned on BBC’s 10 o’clock News etc. Technology is used to monitor our habits e.g. mobile phones, surveillance cameras, oyster cards, credit cards, Facebook etc. The elite sustain by keeping close-knit social networks that pass their privileges from generation to generation.

Having looked at the in-depth definition of stratification, I think society is divided for worse. Established class and status play an important role in keeping the rich ‘rich’ and the poor ‘poor’. I support the Marxist view when it comes to the bourgeoisie oppressing the proletariat recklessly. However, as Weber stated it is more complicated that two distinct classes but the presence of the “elite” is still felt. However, communism is not necessarily the answer to society’s woes. Stratification is naturally inevitable to a degree because the variety of innate differences in people’s abilities. It also provides necessary structure to govern large populations. Evolution states that after distribution of essential resources, the surplus will eventually rank some as more affluent. Symbolic interactionists mention that predominant symbols i.e. wealth, define all social interactions, which in turn develops a person’s sense of self and placing in society. Wealth is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly when it is earned through hard work; it is just harmful when its distribution is extremely lop-sided due to exploitation. The proletariat are the building blocks of society and they deserve a share of the capital.

We all have same basic needs and it is selfish for people to have ridiculous amounts of excess i.e. four twenty bedroom mansions and a private jet while the majority of people elsewhere cannot guarantee where their next meal is coming from. This is inequality and an exhibition of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality to highest order. It is not necessary for the groups to fuse into one group and develop intimate social ties; however the groups should have mutual respect towards one another as fellow human beings regardless of personal differences. The resources in the world are not infinite and they do not belong to a single social group. Diversity should not be punishment; it is what makes humans great, ideally the gap between rich and poor would be moderate. Other than that, stratification is natural and the wealth should be distributed more freely throughout to ease irresponsible division and unnecessary antagonism in society.


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