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The Impact of Social Class/Stratification Stratification and the division of people into social classes is a fundamental part of American society. Stratification is a concept that is universal; it is found in every country, every nation of the world. It is a system in which large groups of people, not individuals, are divided into different layers according to their relative property, power, and prestige. Stratification applies not only to the different nations of the world as a whole, but to the different groups of people within those nations as well.
Each of these groups is stratified into its own class; the group of people ranked most closely to them in property, power, and prestige. A person’s position in the stratification system affects everything about their life, from what they think and expect in life to how they see the world, as well as what opportunities they will have access to. There are three main types of stratification systems; slavery, caste, and class. In slavery systems individuals may be owned, bought, sold, or traded by other individuals.
Slaves were not always treated poorly, and many were not imprisoned for life, but their circumstances were certainly gruesome. Most of us know the history of the events from our own country, in which we engaged in a civil war over the slavery stratification system that was in place at the time. In the second system, the caste system, your status is ascribed at birth. You are stratified into a certain caste and you will remain there for life no matter what accomplishments you may achieve, or mistakes that you may make. And third we have the class system, which is characterized by its social mobility.
Unlike the slavery and caste systems, in which there is little or no movement between statuses, a class system is much more open and individuals may change their social class based on achievements. Your status is still assigned at birth, but you have the chance at upward social mobility based on material possessions that you acquire, or things that you achieve. Or you may be on the other end of the spectrum and experience downward social mobility, in which you drop down in social class, based on mistakes or missed opportunities.
Noted sociologist Max Weber stated that there are three components to social class; property, power, and prestige. Weber actually used the terms class, power, and status, but other sociologists updated them to provide clearer meaning. These three P’s of social class are what determine into which class each individual or group is placed. Property is another word for a person’s wealth. This includes any houses, cars, or properties you own, the money in your savings account, stocks, or investments; any material possessions of value.
Property is a significant factor in determining your social class, but not the only one. Power is your ability to control others and carry out your own will, even over their objections. The final factor that influences your social class is prestige. This refers to the respect or regard in which you are held in your community and society. These three factors are closely interrelated in determining one’s class. Property can lead to both prestige and power. You can use power to gain prestige and property. And prestige alone is enough to earn you property and power in the right circumstances.
So you can see how advancement or regression in one category can lead to the same in others (Henslin 177-179). Sociologists Joseph Kahl and Dennis Gilbert developed a model to portray the structure of the social class system in the United States. The model is depicted as a six rung ladder (Henslin 207 Figure 8. 5). The lowest rung is the underclass, which make up only about 4% of the United States population. These are the people for whom poverty is a persistent problem. They have little chance of moving up the ladder.
Many are unemployed and rely on government assistance for their main support. The next rung up the ladder is the working poor. These are the people who work at low-wage, unskilled, temporary and seasonal jobs, and make up about 16% of the population. Most are high school drop outs and many cannot even read. The third rung up is the working class. They make up about 30% of the population and include somewhat unskilled workers in both blue and white-collar jobs. With just a high school diploma as the average education, this group has little chance of climbing the social ladder.
Above the working class is the lower middle class. They are the largest group on the social ladder, making up 34% of the United Sates population. These are the people with high school or college education who are employed at technical and lower-level management positions. They can afford a mainstream lifestyle, and anticipate being able to move up the social ladder. Logically the next rung up the ladder would be the upper middle class. Making up 15% of the U. S. population, these are the people who have college or university degrees, some even with postgraduate studies.
They work in professional or upper-management occupations. And finally the smallest group at the top of the social ladder, making up just 1% of the population, is the capitalists. These are the people who own one-third of all U. S. assets. They graduated from prestigious universities and most come from old family money. They work as investors or top executives in fortune 500 companies; some are simply heirs to their wealth. Although this is the smallest group in the population, they have the property, power, and prestige to control almost everything.
This group of power elite uses their status to affect only laws and changes that benefit them and perpetuate the cycle that keeps them at the top. So, while social mobility is possible within a class system, it is not always easy to come by (Henslin 207-210). Each social class is like a subculture of society with distinct approaches to life. Your social class can affect your physical and mental health, family life, education, and influence your religion and politics. It can even affect your interactions with crime and the criminal justice system.
The higher up the social ladder you are, the more access you have to better health care, advanced education, and other opportunities. Which social class you belong to affects your decision of whom to marry; whether you will vote democrat, republican, or not at all; and even which religious denomination you will belong to. Statistically, the upper classes tend to vote republican, the middle and working class democratic, and the lowest classes do not vote at all. Your social class can also affect your dealings with the criminal justice system.
Most crimes are committed within the criminal’s home neighborhood, so lower classes are more likely to be victims of these crimes. From another aspect, the white-collar crimes of the privileged classes are generally dealt with outside the justice system, while the street crimes of the lower class are dealt with through police interaction and court cases. This means that members of lower classes are more likely to be in prison at one time or another. Based on these different factors I would classify my family as lower middle class.
My father owns a small business and my mother is a homemaker. They both have high school diplomas and some college education, and the household income is around $60,000 a year. Based on my personal social class there are both many advantages and disadvantages to my position. As a member of the lower middle class I have a decent chance at building on what my parents have established and advancing myself up the social ladder. My class position has allowed me the opportunity to pursue a college education and hopefully enter a professional career which will allow me to move up the ladder.
However, my social class was a major factor in which colleges I could even attend. Yale was always my life-long goal, but the realities of my social position made that impossible. Another disadvantage is that because my father owns his own business, my family does not have employer provided health care. Since individual health insurance plans are so expensive, I do not have access to medical care on a regular basis. I can only go see a doctor when something is extremely wrong, and even then I have to worry about the astronomical costs incurred.
These are just a few of the many, many examples of the effects that social class can have on our lives. The unequal distribution of our stratification system is certainly a social problem for many, but not the capitalists or upper middle class. As I mentioned before, these groups create a power elite to control the justice system and social climate to protect and suit their needs. It is a perpetuating cycle passed down through generations. The problem arises when you look at the fact that the top 20% of the population receives over half of all U. S. ncome, while the bottom 20% receives only 3. 4% (Henslin 199-201 Figures 8. 1, 8. 3). The extreme difference in income between the upper and lower classes causes conflict and strain, as well as a feeling of anomie and despair among the lower classes. This system has been in place in America for centuries so it must be working somehow; however, I personally do not see the benefits. Social stratification and class reaches all over the world. It is universal and inescapable. Each society stratifies its members in different ways but the affects are the same.
The group to which a person is stratified affects every single attitude, action, and perception they have towards life.
Works Cited Gompf, Ronald. “Stratification and Social Class. ” Sociology 101 Fall Semester 2010. Community College of Baltimore County – Essex Campus, Essex. Oct. -Nov. 2010. Lecture. Henslin, James M. “Global Stratification. ” Essentials of Sociology: A-Down-To-Earth Approach. Eighth ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2009. 170-95. Print. Henslin, James M. “Social Class in the United States. ” Essentials of Sociology: a Down-to-earth Approach. Eighth ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2009. 196-223. Print.