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Social stratification refers to the unequal distribution around the world of the three Ps: property, power, and prestige. This stratification forms the basis of the divisions of society and categorizations of people. In the case of the latter, social classes of people develop, and moving from one stratum to another becomes difficult.
Normally property (wealth), power (influence), and prestige (status) occur together. That is, people who are wealthy tend also to be powerful and appear prestigious to others. Yet this is not always the case. Plumbers may make more money than do college professors, but holding a professorship is more prestigious than being a “blue collar worker.”
The three “Ps” form the basis of social stratification in the United States and around the world, so a detailed discussion of these social “rewards” is in order.
Karl Marx assigned industrial society two major and one minor classifications: the bourgeoisie (capitalist class), petite bourgeoisie (small capitalist class), and proletariat (worker class). Marx made these divisions based on whether the “means of production” such as factories, machines, and tools are owned, and whether workers are hired. Capitalists are those who own the methods of production and employ others to work for them. Workers are those who do not own the means of production, do not hire others, and thus are forced to work for the capitalists. Small capitalists are those who own the means of production but do not employ others. These include self-employed persons, like doctors, lawyers, and tradesmen. According to Marx, the small capitalists are only a transitional, minor class that is ultimately doomed to becoming members of the proletariat.
Marx held that exploitation is the inevitable outcome of the two major classes attempting to coexist within the same society. In order to survive, workers are coerced into working long, hard hours under less-than-ideal circumstances to maximize the profits of the capitalists. Marx also held that given enough discontent with their exploitation, workers would subsequently organize to revolt against their “employers” to form a “classless” society of economic equals. Marx's predictions of mass revolution never materialized in any highly advanced capitalist society. Instead, the extreme exploitation of workers that Marx saw in the 1860s eventually eased, which resulted in the formation of a large and prosperous white collar population.
Despite Marx's failed predictions, substantial economic inequalities exist today in the United States. Wealth refers to the assets and income-producing things that people own: real estate, savings accounts, stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Income refers to the money that people receive over a certain period of time, including salaries and wages. Current social statistics indicate the poorest 20 percent of Americans earn less than 5 percent of the total national income, while the wealthiest 20 percent earn nearly 50 percent of the total. Further, the poorest 20 percent hold far less than 1 percent of the total national wealth, while the wealthiest 20 percent own over 75 percent of the total.
The second basis of social stratification is power, or the capacity to influence people and events to obtain wealth and prestige. That is, having power is positively correlated with being rich, as evidenced by the domination of wealthy males in high-ranking governmental positions. Wealthier Americans are also more likely to be politically active as way of ensuring their continued power and wealth. In contrast, poorer Americans are less likely to be politically active, given their sense of powerlessness to influence the process.
Because wealth is distributed unequally, the same is clearly true of power. Elite theorists argue that a few hundred individuals hold all of the power in the United States. These power elite, who may come from similar backgrounds and have similar interests and values, hold key positions in the highest branches of the government, military, and business world. Conflict theorists hold that only a small number of Americans—the capitalists—hold the vast majority of power in the United States. They may not actually hold political office, but they nonetheless influence politics and governmental policies for their own benefit and to protect their interests. An example is the large corporation that tries to limit the amount of fees it must pay through political contributions that ultimately put certain people into office who then sway policy decisions.
On the other hand, pluralist theorists hold that power is not in the hands of the elite or a few, but rather it is widely distributed among assorted competing and diverse groups. In other words, unlike elitists and Marxists, pluralists note little if any inequality in the distribution of power. For instance, citizens can influence political outcomes by voting candidates into or out of office. And the power of labor groups is balanced by the power of businesses, which is balanced by the power of the government. In a democracy, no one is completely powerless.
A final basis of social stratification is the unequal distribution of prestige, or an individual's status among his or her peers and in society. Although property and power are objective, prestige is subjective, for it depends on other people's perceptions and attitudes. And while prestige is not as tangible as money and influence, most Americans want to increase their status and honor as seen by others.
Occupation is one means by which prestige can be obtained. In studies of occupational prestige, Americans tend to answer consistently—even across the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. For example, being a physician ranks among the highest on the scale, whereas being a shoe shiner ranks near the bottom.
The way people rank professions appears to have much to do with the level of education and income of the respective professions. To become a physician requires much more extensive training than is required to become a cashier. Physicians also make a great deal more money than cashiers, ensuring their higher prestige ranking.
To occupation must be added social statuses based on race, gender, and age. Even though being a professor is highly ranked, also being a racial minority and a female may negatively affect prestige. As a result, individuals who experience such status inconsistency may suffer from significant anxiety, depression, and resentment.