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The Concept of Social Stratification and My Position in It

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Every morning that I walk to class, I analyze the people passing me by, as they hurry along to start their day. The historic Naperville streets that I stroll through have shown a consistent pattern of strangers. I notice that they are often dressed in fine apparel, walking with their head held high, and white in complexion. This environment has been familiar to me because I have always grown up in areas that mimic this town. Until this year, I have never truly questioned my observations. Why do all of these individuals have such similar characteristics? The complicated answer to my inquiry remained in the concept of social stratification and structured social inequality.

Now imagine a rock wall that has horizontal layers naturally embedded into its composition. The formation of these layers is known as stratification. The highest layers in the rock are analogous for people in society that have more resources in the social structure of stratification. As the layers get lower toward the bottom, they constitute the groups of people that have fewer resources. In “The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality” by Dennis L. Gilbert, social stratification is formally referred to as, “social ranking based on characteristics such as income, wealth, occupation, or prestige”(17). This structure of social ranking then becomes legitimate and accepted within society. The United States suggests that each individual has an equal chance at success; however, sociologists believe that there are larger social patterns that challenge this theory. While it is possible for people to succeed in life with self-effort, the social stratification system makes it extremely difficult to move from one social class to another. Stratification in the United States is mostly based on two things: wealth and income. Wealth is a person’s money, property, and assets minus debts. Income is the amount of money a person earns in a year. While being rich or poor are influences of social standing, there are other factors that effect ones position in society. Parents tend to pass on their social class and familiar lifestyle to their children. This gives the children cultural capital and networks through extended family and friends. Another factor are the cultural norms toward the occupational system that lead to social inequalities. A professor has great prestige and is expected to teach because they love their job, but receive a relatively low compensation. Successful CEOs in business are expected to have driven and aggressive attitudes, where profit drives their effort.

Sociologists recognize that social stratification is a society-wide system that is not about individual inequalities, but divergence within the system. After social differentiation is established, people are seen in different ways or categories. As Dr. Corsino stated in his class lecture, people start to believe that “its better to be in some boxes, than others”. Individuals create a mindset that they want to be involved certain groups of society and they create negative views toward the categories they don’t want to be apart of. Over centuries, this phenomenon has caused categories to morph into social inequality. Structural inequality is repetitive and has been embedded in society over centuries. Institutions within an economy have created government policies and laws have maintained a system of privilege. This form of inequality is defined as “structural” because the established regulations over time have made it more difficult for some groups to obtain resources than others. Advantages are given to certain groups of the population based on a society that honors people with certain characteristics or qualities. One way that this inequality can be seen is through the living conditions of people in poverty. According to Dr. Corsino in our lecture on wealth distribution, the bottom 60% of the United States has to share 25% of the overall income. People that are severely poor in a capitalistic structure are often homeless and surrounded by violence or a lack of stability. Their position in society makes it more difficult to move up in social classes when they do not have access to resources. Inequality of opportunity for individuals leads to individuals not given an equal chance in life. The history of “white majority” corporate workers in business, have proven to be negligent toward people of the opposite gender or race. With a foundation of inequality certain groups of people are not given equal chances, as white men have continued to dominate the field. Throughout history, structural inequality has been prevalent, as people have been given resources and opportunities based on unchangeable factors. In order to understand the extent to which social inequality and social stratification effect society, it is important to examine the influential framework created by Karl Marx and Max Weber.

Both Marx and Weber were theorists who both examined capitalism and socioeconomic development. Marx focused on the two classes of the industrial society of his time: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. On page 18 of “The American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality”, Gilbert mentions how Marx describes, “the bourgeoisie as the class that owns the means of production… and the proletariat as the class who must sell their labor to the owners of the means to earn a wage and stay alive”. Marx’s ideology was that every person must be involved with production or cooperate to survive. A person’s work experience shapes their relationships and place in society. The bourgeoisie in the capitalist society are becoming richer through surplus value, or the extra money that is coming in from paying the workers low wages. Marx predicted that this inequality would lead to a revolution and everything would be equally owned. Marx’s vision never came true, but instead, the working class became educated, more skilled, and defended by unions and labor laws.

While Max Weber agreed that owning property or obtaining wealth determined an individual’s social class, he believed it was only part of the equation. Weber focused on a multi-dimensional stratification system that included economic structure, prestige, and power. This theory creates an environment that is easier for people to move up and down in their social class. He believed that you could move up in social class if there are political implications or an individual is respected their community. In the textbook on page In order to have prestige or power, people must obtain things that others do not have. Examples of “purchasing” status in society would be an earned college degree, a successful business, or brands and better assets.

From the moment I get out of bed in the morning to the time I go back to sleep, my life is affected by the social stratification system. Almost everyday for the past 5 years of my life I have woken up in a familiar and safe environment. My two loving parents and younger brother have greeted me as I walked down my staircase with 14 steps. I eat a healthy breakfast, followed by my daily vitamins and then wash my dishes with an unlimited source of water. After brushing my teeth with Colgate toothpaste and putting on my brand name clothes, I would get in my 2015 Kia Optima and drive to school. The material objects that surround me, signal what class I am from. My morning routine is one miniscule example of how my personal and social identities are influenced by my social position. I have been raised to have greater chances at receiving an exellent education, living healthy lifestyle, and succeeding financially. When looking at the bigger picture, I have always been destined for the middle-class life. My parents moved into a larger house on the “better side of town” when I was in 7th grade so I could go to a better high school. My grandmother told me that she would pay for most of my college and my parents told me that they would pay for the rest with some of their savings. I ended up attending North Central College, with the help of my family, because I received a scholarship for my grades and a music scholarship. With the education and degree that I receive from North Central, I expect to go further in life then if I didn’t go to college. My future goals are to graduate from college with a Marketing degree and find a job that allows me to continue living a similar life, if not more successful, than the one I had growing up. My position in the social stratification system has been established since I was at a very young age and continues on into my future. As a white female that is positioned in the middle-class social hierarchy, I have privilege that was innate.

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