MCAT Content / Social Class / Aspects Of Social Stratification

Aspects of Social Stratification

Topic: Social Class

Social stratification is a system of ranking individuals and groups within societies into socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power.

Sociologists speak of stratification in terms of socioeconomic status (SES). Socioeconomic status is a measure of a person’s position in a class structure.  A person’s SES is usually determined by their income, occupational prestige, wealth, and educational attainment, though other variables are sometimes considered.

Social class refers to the grouping of individuals in a stratified social hierarchy, usually based on wealth, education, and occupation. Class is an object of analysis for sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists and social historians. However, there is not a consensus on the best definition of the term “class,” and the term has different contextual meanings. In common parlance, the term “social class” is usually synonymous with socioeconomic status, which is one’s social position as determined by income, wealth, occupational prestige, and educational attainment.

Common models used to think about social class come from Marxist theory: common stratum theory, which divides society into the upper, middle, and working class; and structural-functionalism. Class is a combination of objective and subjective factors. Objectively, a class shares a common relationship to the means of production. Subjectively, the members will necessarily have some perception of their similarity and common interests, called class consciousness. Class consciousness is not simply an awareness of one’s own class interest but is also a set of shared views regarding how society should be organized legally, culturally, socially, and politically. Another idea that Marx developed is the concept of false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition in which the beliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest. In fact, it is the ideology of the dominant class (here, the bourgeoisie capitalists) that is imposed upon the proletariat. Ideas such as the emphasis of competition over cooperation, or of hard work being its own reward, clearly benefit the owners of industry. Therefore, workers are less likely to question their place in society and assume individual responsibility for existing conditions.

Social reproduction, a concept originally proposed by Karl Marx, refers to the emphasis on the structures and activities that transmit social inequality from one generation to the next. This contributes to social stratification, especially in regard to (or lack thereof) social mobility. For example, the upper class has many advantages while the opposite is true for the lower classes. Social reproduction revolves around the understanding that rich breed rich, and the poor breed poor. Those born into a particular class are more often than not bound to live their lives in that class.

Social mobility between social classes can be enabled to varying extents by economic capital, cultural capital, human capital, and social capital. Cultural capital is the accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that a person can tap into to demonstrate one’s cultural competence and social status. It includes resources ranging from holding a graduate degree to having a grasp of a group’s customs and rituals, both of which may confer an advantage in job markets and social exchanges. Social capital includes the advantages conferred by one’s social network, such as access to professional opportunities and insider knowledge. These types of capital facilitate mobility by providing access to opportunities and the tools to acquire wealth and status.

Power, prestige, and privilege can indicate an individual’s social class. Power refers to someone’s ability to get others to do his or her will, regardless of whether or not they want to. It is also a measurement of an entity’s ability to control its environment, including the behavior of other entities. Prestige refers to the reputation or esteem associated with one’s position in society. A person can earn prestige by his or her own achievements, which is known as achieved status, or they can be placed in the stratification system by their inherited position, which is called ascribed status. Prestige is a strong element in social mobility, but unchangeable parts of prestige that cause social stratificationPrivilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred. It’s important to note that privilege does not guarantee good outcomes for the privileged group or bad outcomes for everyone else. Privilege is not something a person can have, like a possession, as in “Where’s mine?”  Instead, it is a characteristic of the social system—like a rule in a game—in which everyone participates.

A social structure is a set of long-lasting social relationships, practices, and institutions that can be difficult to see at work in our daily lives. They are intangible social relations, but work much in the same way as structures we can see. The elements of a social structure, the parts of social life that direct possible actions, are the institutions of society. Overlaying these social structures are structures of power. By power we mean two things: 1) access to and through the various social institutions mentioned above, and 2) processes of privileging, normalizing, and valuing certain identities over others. This definition of power highlights the structural, institutional nature of power, while also highlighting the ways in which culture works in the creation and privileging of certain categories of people. Power in American society is organized along the axes of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, age, nation, and religious identities. Some identities are more highly valued, or more normalized, than others—typically because they are contrasted to identities thought to be less valuable or less “normal.” Thus, identities are not only descriptors of individuals, but grant a certain amount of collective access to the institutions of social life. This is not to say, for instance, that all white people are alike and wield the same amount of power over all people of color. It does mean that white, middle-class women as a group tend to hold more social power than middle-class women of color. This is where the concept of intersectionality is key. All individuals have multiple aspects of identity, and simultaneously experience some privileges due to their socially valued identity statuses and disadvantages due to their devalued identity statuses. Thus a white, heterosexual middle-class woman may be disadvantaged compared to a white middle-class man, but she may experience advantages in different contexts in relation to a black, heterosexual middle-class woman, or a white, heterosexual working-class man, or a white lesbian upper-class woman.

Discussions of health by race and ethnicity often overlap with discussions of health by socioeconomic status. In general, wealthy people are found to live longer on average than middle-class people, and middle-class people live longer than poor people, but not longer than rich people. One researcher referred to this socioeconomic gradient in health as the “status syndrome.” This relationship between income and health has shown to be true even in countries where everyone has access to health care, and when comparing those who have similar rates of smoking, obesity, and alcohol use.

There is a wide gap between the wealth of the world’s richest countries and its poorest, resulting in a number of global inequalities. This vast gap results in different access to resources and opportunities for each country’s population. To discuss this global inequality, sociologists may refer to the world’s ”twin peaks,” or two groups of its richest and poorest countries. At the top of the hierarchy, a group of countries has 13% of the world’s population but receives 45% of its income (adjusted for international purchasing power). At the bottom of the hierarchy, a group of countries has 42% of the world’s population but receives only 9% of income (adjusted for international purchasing power). The existence of these twin peaks demonstrates that there is a wide gap between the world’s wealthiest and poorest nations. Even though global inequality has decreased in recent decades, inequality is persistent and shows no signs of disappearing. Globalization has also exacerbated this inequality through the exploitation of cheap labor and the rapid consolidation of many industries. While there are valid arguments that outsourcing labor leads to some economic growth in developing nations, there is still no question that globalization also leads to poor working conditions, extremely low wages, and indentured servitude. Monopolies and oligopolies on a global level are powerful and difficult to regulate, allowing for unfair practices and the pushing out of local businesses. Offsetting this risk requires careful legislation and the social expectation that firms behave responsibly and with respect for local economies.


Practice Questions


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MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

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Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Passage 5 Question 24


Key Points

• Social stratification refers to a society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power.

• Sociologists speak of stratification in terms of socioeconomic status (SES). Socioeconomic status is a measure of a person’s position in a class structure. A person’s SES is usually determined by their income, occupational prestige, wealth, and educational attainment.

• Social class refers to the grouping of individuals in a stratified social hierarchy, usually based on wealth, education, and occupation.

• Class consciousness is not simply an awareness of one’s own class interest but is also a set of shared views regarding how society should be organized legally, culturally, socially, and politically. False consciousness is a condition in which the beliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest.

• Social reproduction is the passing on of social inequality across generations.

• Social mobility between social classes can be enabled to varying extents by cultural capital and social capital. Cultural capital includes resources ranging from holding a graduate degree to having a grasp of a group’s customs and rituals, both of which may confer an advantage in job markets and social exchanges. Social capital includes the advantages conferred by one’s social network, such as access to professional opportunities and insider knowledge.

• Power, prestige, and privilege can indicate an individual’s social class. Power refers to someone’s ability to get others to do his or her will, regardless of whether or not they want to. Prestige refers to the reputation or esteem associated with one’s position in society. Privilege refers to any advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred.

• The concept of intersectionality is key when understanding social class. All individuals have multiple aspects of identity, and simultaneously experience some privileges due to their socially valued identity statuses and disadvantages due to their devalued identity statuses.

• The socioeconomic gradient in health refers to how wealthy people are found to live longer on average than middle-class people, and middle-class people live longer than poor people.

• Global inequalities, exacerbated by globalization, have led to a wide gap between the world’s wealthiest and poorest nations. This vast gap results in different access to resources and opportunities for each country’s population.


Key Terms

Socioeconomic status: The social standing or class of an individual or group. 

Social class: A division of a society based on social and economic status.

Class consciousness: Awareness of one’s place in a system of social classes, especially (in Marxist terms) as it relates to the class struggle.

False consciousness: A way of thinking that prevents a person from perceiving the true nature of their social or economic situation.

Social reproduction: Refers to the emphasis on the structures and activities that transmit social inequality from one generation to the next.

Cultural capital: The accumulation of knowledge, behaviors, and skills that a person can tap into to demonstrate one’s cultural competence and social status.

Social capital: The networks of relationships among people who live and work in a particular society, enabling that society to function effectively.

Social stratification: Refers to a society’s categorization of its people into rankings of socioeconomic tiers based on factors like wealth, income, race, education, and power.

Power: An entity or individual’s ability to control or direct others.

Prestige: Refers to the reputation or esteem associated with one’s position in society, which is closely tied to their social class.

Privilege: A special, unearned advantage or entitlement, used to one’s own benefit or to the detriment of others.

Socioeconomic gradient in health: Refers to how wealthy people are found to live longer on average than middle-class people, and middle-class people live longer than poor people.

Global inequalities: Refers to the unequal distribution of resources among individuals and groups based on their position in the social hierarchy.

Globalization: An ongoing process that involves interconnected changes in the economic, cultural, social, and political spheres of society.



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