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Introduction

How does social stratification affect people’s lives?

Last week, we explored how sociologists think about deviance, crime, and social control. You used the sociology skills you’ve been developing to consider the ways social background, social groups, and culture all affect what a society considers deviant, the difference between positive and negative deviance, what gets defined as a crime, and who’s most likely to be a victim or a perpetrator (or someone wrongfully accused). One of the most influential factors is social status: If you’re poor, you have a much larger chance of interacting with the justice system as either a victim or a defendant. This is just one reflection of social inequality.

This week, we’ll be taking a deeper look at social inequality as the result of vertical social structure. Earlier in the course, you learned about social structures as the social patterns that organize society, and in Chapter 4, we explored the roles, statuses, and groups that make up horizontal social structure. Vertical social structures organize society into a hierarchy, in which some groups have more wealth or power than others. This ranking, called social stratification, is strongly entwined with the disparity in privileges and opportunities that people of varying social backgrounds enjoy. These differences in privilege and opportunity not only cause inequality; they are also reinforced by it. This week we’re going to learn more about inequality, how social theory explains it, and its potentially tragic effects.

We’ll also be considering some innovative solutions to inequality. You’ve just met Ron Finley in this week’s Strayer Story, for example, and heard about his work to grow healthy food in South Los Angeles. Finley is trying to address an especially damaging effect of social inequality: Poor people living in cities often don’t have access to healthy, affordable produce. Urban agriculture programs like the Ron Finley Project aim to empower people to grow their own food and change their own communities. In doing so, they also work to break through social stratification and improve people’s life chances.

Ron Finley knows that the work he’s doing is about more than just food. It’s about tackling inequality head on, one bite at a time.

WHY DOES FOOD MATTER?

Ron’s story is important, because it shows the subtle ways our social systems can create or perpetuate inequalities. Food deserts, like the one where Ron lives, mean that an entire community does not have access to healthy, fresh food. This increases the likelihood of obesity and preventable diseases, and negatively impacts the health of the community. Think only of the economic impact—people who are chronically ill have the added expense of paying for treatment and medical care, which can also affect their work-life balance and job prospects. Most tragically, chronic illness often leads to early death. What does that mean for children or family members who rely on or have to care for that person? There’s another deeper impact. Studies have shown that students who eat a fresh, healthy, balanced meal do better in school. So not only does access to food affect health and income, it also affects education and the prospects of future generations. As you can see, it’s not just about food.

WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?

Every society has some form of inequality, because every society experiences stratification. This means people are ranked based on their wealth or other resources. This stratification can lead to significant inequality in people’s chances to succeed in life. Inequality can be found in all different facets of life, including health, income, and education. Sociological theories try to explain stratification by examining why it exists, and how it affects people’s daily lives. This is what we will be examining in detail this week.

The Roots of Inequality

Imagine that you and four other people are about to begin playing the popular board game Monopoly. Following the rules, each player begins with $1,500. You start the game, go around the board, buy properties or land on someone else’s properties, and sometimes end up in Jail or Free Parking. Like life itself, whether you eventually win or lose the game is a matter of both luck and skill.

Person sits and plays Monopoly board game.

Loki Baho

But if Monopoly were more like real life, each player would not begin with $1,500. Instead, they would begin with very different amounts, because in real life some people are richer than others, and some are much poorer. In fact, reflecting on the unequal distribution of wealth in the United States, one player—the richest—would begin with $6,668 of the $7,500 distributed to the five players combined. The next richest player would have $705. The third player would start with $195, while the next would have $15. The fifth and poorest player would actually begin $80 in debt! Figure 6.1 depicts this huge disparity in money at the beginning of the game.

Figure 6.1

Chart credits for Figure 6.1

Based on distribution of wealth data from Lawrence Mishel, Josh Bivens, Elise Gould, and Heidi Shierholz, The State of Working America (Ithaca, NY: ILR Press, 2013).

Now suppose you are the player starting $80 in debt. How would you feel? You certainly can’t afford to buy Park Place or Boardwalk. Even landing on a “pay” space like “income tax” the first time you go around the board would virtually force you out of the game. If you landed in Jail, you could not afford to get out. What are your chances of winning the game? Yes, you have a chance to win, but how likely is this? The second, third, and fourth players have a better chance of winning than you do, but in the long run they certainly will not win nearly as often as the richest player, who, after all, starts out with about 89% of all the money distributed at the beginning. And the wealthiest players don’t only have the most money; they have access to influential social networks, and—as you learned last week—they’re statistically less likely to be the victim or perpetrator of violent crime.

The point to rememberA society’s stratification has significant consequences for people’s attitudes, behavior, and life chances.

Unlike most games, real life is filled with differences in wealth and other resources a society values. Sociologists refer to rankings based on these differences as social stratification. Except for the simplest preindustrial societies, every society is stratified to some extent, and some societies are more stratified than others. Another way of saying this is that some societies have more economic inequality, or a greater difference between the best-off and the worst-off, than others. In modern society, stratification is usually determined by income and other forms of wealth, such as stocks and bonds, but resources such as power and prestige matter, too. No matter what determines it, a society’s stratification has significant consequences for its members’ attitudes, behavior, and, perhaps most important of all, life chances—how well people do in such areas as education, income, and health. As you saw in this week’s Strayer Story, even living in a neighborhood that has a grocery store can affect your life chances.

This week, we’ll explore the problem of social stratification. We’ll cover the following aspects:

  • Systems of stratification. This includes slavery, caste systems, class systems, and classless societies.

  • Explanations of stratification. We’ll cover how functionalists, conflict theorists, and symbolic interactionists explain social stratification.

  • Class and inequality in the United States. The United States has its own class structure and plenty of inequality. We’ll talk about class and social mobility, and we’ll also discuss how poverty affects people.