Stratification is the “structured social inequality or, more specifically, systematic inequalities between groups of people that arise as intended or unintended consequences of social processes and relationships” (Conley, 2013). Although talking about the rich, the poor, and the way society is economically stratified sounds like the job of economists, it can actually be viewed as part of a wider social system by sociologists. For example, if a sociologist studies what effect being born into the working class has on life opportunities and upward mobility in the class system or why some groups in society are more disadvantaged than other groups, they are asking questions about stratification.
In America, stratification of society is primarily based on socioeconomic status, which refers to any measure that attempts to “classify groups, individuals, families, or households in terms of indicators such as occupation, income, wealth, and education” (Conley, 2013). Although in America the borders between socioeconomic classifications are not very well demarcated, the majority of the population generally divides society into the upper class, the middle class, the working class, and poor. In the US, “upper class” is associated with income, wealth, power, and prestige. According to various sources, what characterizes upper class members of the population is that their source of income generally comes more from returns on investments rather than wages. Also, in America the upper class is only composed of “about 1 percent of the population” (Conley, 2013). Next, the U.S. tends to be regarded as a middle-class nation with almost 90 percent of the population identifying themselves with this stratum. The common definition of middle class, however, is individuals with non-manual jobs that pay significantly more than the poverty line. This definition is highly debated, of course. The difference between middle class and working class in America historically has been that middle class individuals hold white-collar (office workers) jobs and the working class individuals have blue-collar (manual work) jobs. However, the rise of the low-wage service sector has played a role in eroding the tradition manual-nonmanual distinction between the working and middle class.
The answer to how society is stratified globally is not an easy one. In the US one of the primary causes for the increasing income and wealth inequality is globalization -“the rise in the trade of goods and services across national boundaries, as well as the increased mobility of multinational businesses and migrant labor” (Conley, 2013). If this has been the effect in the US, then what has been the effect on worldwide inequality? Well, there is no doubt that global income inequality has steadily risen over the past few centuries. For example, during the Industrial Revolution, large scale factory production replaced small cottage industries, resulting in the creation of vast unequally distributed wealth. Meanwhile, European powers were busy colonizing and exploiting resources from different parts of the world. Then in the mid-twentieth century, the world and its wealth were “carved up and ruled” by major Western powers. By then enormous global inequalities had emerged through the combination of colonialism and unequal development. Since the 1950s, most of the former colonies have attained independence, but they are well behind the West in regards to income per capita. The relationship between globalization and inequality is a complex and constantly changing one.
In the late 1990s, when America was experiencing substantial economic and job growth, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich took a series of low wage jobs (waitress, house keeper, cashier at a big box retailer) to see if she could get by financially on service worker wages. What she found is that there is no such thing as an unskilled job. All jobs take skill, intelligence, and experience according to Ehrenreich. Moreover, she found that working full time at minimum wage jobs does not even generate enough income to pay rent for a half-size mobile home. Overall, she’s discovered that it’s just not possible to get by on these low-income service jobs. She says that there were a lot of jobs created in the 1990s, however, most of these jobs are not ones that you can live on. Ehrenreich believes that this is what undermines the myth of the great American job producing economy. The working class, according to Ehrenreich, is not even living at a sustainable level. Rather they are living in a state of emergency, often malnourished with inadequate housing and inadequate health care. She says the real philanthropists are the ones who are working for less than they can live on.
Conley, Dalton. You May Ask Yourself: An Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013. Print.