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Topics in Sociology: Social Stratification and Mobility


Key Concepts

  • Social stratification: The division and hierarchical ranking of people into layers associated with different degrees of command over material resources, power, and prestige. Divisions upon which stratification may be based include:

    • Income and wealth: Closely related to occupational and educational status.

    • Race and ethnicity: Many sociologists believe that racial categories are false and refer to ethnic differences instead. Race is a socially constructed set of distinctions that categorize people on the basis of biological characteristics. Ethnicity is a way of categorizing people on the basis of their shared cultural, linguistic, or national identities.

    • Gender: The set of socially constructed meanings, practices, norms, skills, and other characteristics ascribed to people on the basis of biological sex.

    • Age: In many societies, power, prestige, rights, and obligations are assigned to people on the basis of their age.

  • Stratification system: A specific set of relationships between stratified groups in a society. Most complex societies have several intersecting stratification systems. Sociologists have identified four major types:

    • Slavery: Stratification system in which some people own others as their property and control their activities. People become slaves through birth, military defeat, or debt.

    • Caste: Stratification system in which people are assigned to the social group (caste) of their parents. Their affiliation entails specific rights and duties and determines their lifestyle, occupational choices, wealth, and prestige.

    • Estate: Stratification system based on legal and customary distinctions between a group that possesses land and power by virtue of noble birth, and a group that works for the first group in exchange for land and protection.

    • Class:See Classical Sociological Thinkers > Karl Marx > Class and Elements of Society > Social Structure > Key Concepts: Marxism, Weber, and Conflict Theory > Social Class.

  • Social mobility: The movement of individuals or groups up and down stratification hierarchies. Mobility depends on type of stratification: It is quite rare under slavery and more common under class systems.


Major Perspectives


  • See Classical Sociological Thinkers > Karl Marx > Key Concepts > Class.


  • Society is stratified by class, status hierarchies, political affiliations, and other designations.

Functionalist theory

  • Stratification systems reflect values shared throughout society.

  • Stratification and inequality serve a positive function by ensuring that the most important roles are performed by the most qualified people.

Conflict theory

  • Contemporary societies are stratified by class, status, ethnicity, gender, and other divisions.

  • Stratification systems involve domination and exploitation of some groups by others.

Symbolic interactionism

  • Focuses on face-to-face interactions in stratified societies and groups.