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6.1 Systems of Stratification

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain the difference between open and closed societies.
  2. Define the several systems of stratification.
  3. Understand how Max Weber and Karl Marx differed in their view of class societies.

When we look around the world and through history, we see different types of stratification systems. These systems vary on their degree of vertical mobilityMovement up or down through a society’s stratification system., or the chances of rising up or falling down the stratification ladder. In some so-called closed societies, an individual has virtually no chance of moving up or down. Open societies have more vertical mobility, as some people, and perhaps many people, can move up or even down. That said, a key question is how much vertical mobility really exists in these societies. Let’s look at several systems of stratification, moving from the most closed to the most open.


The most closed system is slaveryThe ownership of people., or the ownership of people, which has been quite common in human history (Ennals, 2007).Ennals, R. (2007). From slavery to citizenship. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley. Slavery is thought to have begun 10,000 years ago, after agricultural societies developed, as people in these societies made prisoners of war work on their farms. Many of the ancient lands of the Middle East, including Babylonia, Egypt, and Persia, also owned slaves, as did ancient China and India. Slavery especially flourished in ancient Greece and Rome, which used thousands of slaves for their trade economies. Most slaves in ancient times were prisoners of war or debtors. As trade died down during the Middle Ages, so did slavery.

Figure 6.2

Slavery is the most closed system of stratification. Although U.S. slavery, depicted here, ended with the Civil War, slavery still exists today in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America.

But once Europeans began exploring the Western Hemisphere in the 1500s, slavery regained its popularity. Portuguese and Spanish colonists who settled in Brazil and Caribbean islands made slaves of thousands of Indians already living there. After most of them died from disease and abuse, the Portuguese and Spaniards began bringing slaves from Africa. In the next century, the English, the French, and other Europeans also began bringing African slaves into the Western Hemisphere, and by the 1800s they had captured and shipped to the New World some 10–12 million Africans, almost 2 million of whom died along the way (Thornton, 1998).Thornton, J. K. (1998). Africa and Africans in the making of the Atlantic world, 1400–1800 (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

The United States, of course, is all too familiar with slavery, which remains perhaps the most deplorable experience in American history and continues to have repercussions for African Americans and the rest of American society. It increasingly divided the new nation after it won its independence from Britain and helped lead to the Civil War eight decades later. The cruel treatment of slaves was captured in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic but controversial book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ignited passions on both sides of the slavery debate.

Today slavery still exists in parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, with some estimates putting the number of slaves in the tens of millions. Today’s slaves include (a) men first taken as prisoners of war in ethnic conflicts; (b) girls and women captured in wartime or kidnapped from their neighborhoods and used as prostitutes or sex slaves; (c) children sold by their parents to become child laborers; and (d) workers paying off debts who are abused and even tortured and too terrified to leave (Bales, 2007; Batstone, 2007).Bales, K. (2007). Ending slavery: How we free today’s slaves. Berkeley: University of California Press; Batstone, D. (2007). Not for sale: The return of the global slave trade—and how we can fight it. New York, NY: HarperOne.

Estate Systems

Estate systemsA system of stratification characterized by control of land that was common during feudalism. are characterized by control of land and were common in Europe and Asia during the Middle Ages and into the 1800s. In these systems, two major estates existed: the landed gentry or nobility and the peasantry or serfs. The landed gentry owned huge expanses of land on which serfs toiled. The serfs had more freedom than slaves had but typically lived in poverty and were subject to arbitrary control by the nobility (Kerbo, 2009).Kerbo, H. R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Estate systems thrived in Europe until the French Revolution in 1789 violently overturned the existing order and inspired people in other nations with its cries for freedom and equality. As time went on, European estate systems slowly gave way to class systems of stratification (discussed a little later). After the American colonies won their independence from Britain, the South had at least one characteristic of an estate system, the control of large plots of land by a relatively few wealthy individuals and their families, but it obviously used slaves rather than serfs to work the land.

Much of Asia, especially China and Japan, also had estate systems. For centuries, China’s large population lived as peasants in abject conditions and frequently engaged in peasant uprisings. These escalated starting in the 1850s after the Chinese government raised taxes and charged peasants higher rents for the land on which they worked. After many more decades of political and economic strife, Communists took control of China in 1949 (DeFronzo, 2007).DeFronzo, J. (2007). Revolutions and revolutionary movements (3rd ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Caste Systems

In a caste systemA stratification system based on rigid placement at birth into unequal groups based on one’s parents’ status, with no chance of moving out of these groups., people are born into unequal groups based on their parents’ status and remain in these groups for the rest of their lives. For many years, the best-known caste system was in India, where, supported by Hindu beliefs emphasizing the acceptance of one’s fate in life, several major castes dictated one’s life chances from the moment of birth, especially in rural areas (Kerbo, 2009).Kerbo, H. R. (2009). Social stratification and inequality. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. People born in the lower castes lived in abject poverty throughout their lives. Another caste, the harijan, or untouchables, was considered so low that technically it was not thought to be a caste at all. People in this caste were called the untouchables because they were considered unclean and were prohibited from coming near to people in the higher castes. Traditionally, caste membership in India almost totally determined an individual’s life, including what job you had and whom you married; for example, it was almost impossible to marry someone in another caste. After India won its independence from Britain in 1949, its new constitution granted equal rights to the untouchables. Modern communication and migration into cities further weakened the caste system, as members of different castes now had more contact with each other. Still, caste prejudice remains a problem in India and illustrates the continuing influence of its traditional system of social stratification.

Figure 6.3

Many observers believe a caste system existed in the U.S. South until the civil rights government ended legal racial segregation.

A country that used to have a caste system is South Africa. In the days of apartheid, from 1950 to 1990, a small group of white Afrikaners ruled the country. Black people constituted more than three-quarters of the nation’s population and thus greatly outnumbered Afrikaners, but they had the worst jobs, could not vote, and lived in poor, segregated neighborhoods. Afrikaners bolstered their rule with the aid of the South African police, which used terror tactics to intimidate blacks (Berger, 2009).Berger, I. (2009). South Africa in world history. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Many observers believe a caste system also existed in the South in the United States after Reconstruction and until the civil rights movement of the 1960s ended legal segregation. A segregated system called Jim Crow dominated the South, and even though African Americans had several rights, including the right to vote, granted to them by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, these rights were denied in practice. Lynchings were common for many decades, and the Southern police system bolstered white rule in the South just as the South African police system bolstered white rule in that country (Litwack, 2009).Litwack, L. F. (2009). How free is free? The long death of Jim Crow. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Class Systems

Many societies, including all industrial ones, have class systemsA system of stratification containing unequal groups but with a relatively high degree of social mobility.. In this system of stratification, a person is born into a social ranking but can move up or down from it much more easily than in caste systems or slave societies. This movement in either direction is primarily the result of a person’s own effort, knowledge, and skills or lack of them. Although these qualities do not aid upward movement in caste or slave societies, they often do enable upward movement in class societies. Of the three systems of stratification discussed so far, class systems are by far the most open, meaning they have the most vertical mobility. We will look later at social class in the United States and discuss the extent of vertical mobility in American society.

Sociologist Max Weber, whose work on organizations and bureaucracies was discussed in Chapter 4 "Groups and Organizations", also had much to say about class systems of stratification. Such systems, he wrote, are based on three dimensions of stratification: class (which we will call wealth), power, and prestige. WealthIncome, stocks, bonds, real estate, and other dimensions of one’s total material possessions. is the total value of an individual or family, including income, stocks, bonds, real estate, and other assets; powerThe ability to influence others to do one’s bidding even if they don’t want to. is the ability to influence others to do your bidding, even if they do not want to; and prestigeThe status and esteem people hold in the eyes of others. refers to the status and esteem people hold in the eyes of others.

In discussing these three dimensions, Weber disagreed somewhat with Karl Marx, who, as you might recall from Chapter 1 "Sociology and the Sociological Perspective", said our ranking in society depends on whether we own the means of production. Marx thus felt that the primary dimension of stratification in class systems was economic. Weber readily acknowledged the importance of this economic dimension but thought power and prestige also matter. He further said that although wealth, power, and prestige usually go hand-in-hand, they do not always overlap. For example, although the head of a major corporation has a good deal of wealth, power, and prestige, we can think of many other people who are high on one dimension but not on the other two. A professional athlete who makes millions of dollars a year has little power in the political sense that Weber meant it. An organized crime leader might also be very wealthy but have little prestige outside of the criminal underworld. Conversely, a scientist or professor may enjoy much prestige but not be very wealthy.

Classless Societies

Although, as noted earlier, all societies except perhaps for the simplest ones are stratified, some large nations have done their best to eliminate stratification by developing classless societiesSocieties with no social stratification.. Marx, of course, predicted that one day the proletariat would rise up and overthrow the bourgeoisie and create a communist society, by which he meant a classless one in which everyone had roughly the same amount of wealth, power, and prestige. In Russia, China, and Cuba, revolutions inspired by Marx’s vision occurred in the 20th century. These revolutions resulted in societies not only with less economic inequality than in the United States and other class systems but also with little or no political freedom. Moreover, governing elites in these societies enjoyed much more wealth, power, and prestige than the average citizen. Overall, the communist experiments in Russia, China, and Cuba failed to achieve Marx’s vision of an egalitarian society.

Some Western European nations, such as Sweden and Denmark, have developed “social democracies” based on fairly socialist economies. Although a few have nominal monarchies, these nations have much political freedom and less economic inequality than the United States and other class societies. They also typically rank much higher than the United States on various social and economic indicators. Although these nations are not truly classless, they indicate it is possible, if not easy, to have a society that begins to fulfill Marx’s egalitarian vision but where political freedom still prevails (Sandbrook, Edelman, Heller, & Teichman, 2007).Sandbrook, R., Edelman, M., Heller, P., & Teichman, J. (2007). Social democracy in the global periphery: Origins, challenges, prospects. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Key Takeaways

  • Systems of stratification vary in their degree of vertical social mobility. Some societies are more open in this regard, while some are more closed.
  • The major systems of stratification are slavery, estate systems, caste systems, and class systems.
  • Some Western European nations are not classless but still have much less economic inequality than class societies such as the United States.

For Your Review

  1. What, if anything, should the United States and the United Nations try to do about the slavery that still exists in today’s world?
  2. Why do you think some class societies have more vertical social mobility than other class societies?