5. Stratification & Mobility

(a) Concepts - equality, inequality, hierarchy, exclusion, poverty and deprivation (b) Theories of social stratification (c) Dimensions - class, status groups, gender, ethnicity and race (d) Social mobility

Table of contents



It’s a prescriptive concept in sociology i.e. equality does not mean absence of diversity. In spite of various differences among human beings, all have equal moral worth. Thus, they enjoy equal rights in equal circumstances.

Types of equality:

  • Formal equality. Legal and political equality i.e. all people can take part in the race. Emerged with capitalism as a protest against the feudal order. It argues that unless socio-economic equality is ensured, legal and political equality are meaningless.
  • Equality of opportunity. The initial conditions which shape our prospects must be equally accessible to all. All start the race at the same place. Meritocratic inequality is justified as all have equal chance to be unequal.
  • Equality of outcome. Marxist/Utopian idea, all must finish the race together despite the difference in effort put in the race. It’s the Marxist solution to the eventual loss of equality in case of equality of opportunity.
    Functionalists view equality of opportunity as functional and anything beyond it as dysfunctional. They hold that it robs people of incentive and coercion would be needed to enforce equality of outcome.


Social inequality is the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society. People are socially evaluated in terms of superiority/inferiority and given unequal rewards in terms of wealth, prestige and power.


Stratification is a type of social inequality where groups are ordered in a hierarchy based on unequal social rewards. It can be further classified as:

  • Conflict theories say that it may either be cumulative (where the three rewards of wealth, prestige and power overlap; Marxian model) or it may be dispersed (the three rewards may not always overlap; Weberian model).
  • Andre Beteille defines stratification as either harmonic (where the norms legitimise inequality; caste system) or dis-harmonic (where norms legitimise equality but inequality is the reality).
  • Gerhard Lensky defines stratification from the PoV of the group. A group may be placed symmetrically on all three reward axes, this is called status consistency or status crystallisation. Asymmetry on the three axes results in status inconsistency and this generates conflict. He also said that power leads to accumulation of wealth (how initially surplus was appropriated).

Poverty & Deprivation

Debate revolves around whether poverty is to be understood in relative or absolute terms.

  • Absolute poverty is characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education, and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services. (UNDP)
  • Marx said that since stratification is cumulative the non-ownership class face absolute poverty in all spheres of wealth, prestige and power.
  • Relative poverty concepts say that the position of the dividing line that separates the poor from other members of society varies according to the affluence of the society.WB defines absolute poverty as income below $1.9/person /day.

The second area of controversy is whether poverty can be defined just in material terms. Some sociologists assumed that poverty consists of a lack of material resources while others believe that it consists of more than material deprivation.

The latter see poverty as multiple deprivation which can have many facets (especially the scarcity mindset).

NOTE: scarcity mindset - which promotes immediate consumption over delayed gratification - ensures that macro measures taken to alleviate poverty can only go so far. However, due to the commonality of this trait for humans, it can be built into systems to improve their functioning. This shows the necessity of having sociological theories that are both causally and meaningfully adequate.

Peter Townsend was one of the people who led the movement to define poverty in terms of relative deprivation. He asserted that:

  • Poverty can be defined objectively and applied consistently only in terms of the concepts of relative deprivation.
  • He justified this saying that society determines and conditions people's needs and efforts, even for food. Ex. tea is closely tied with British lifestyles, even though it is "nutritionally worthless" but "psychologically and socially essential".
  • Argues that it was necessary to move beyond consumption to examine how resources affected participation in the lifestyle of a community i.e. how it affects exclusion.

Herbert Gans - Positive functions of poverty

  1. Applied Mertonian functional analysis to study poverty.
  2. Poverty provides a group willing to serve as a peacetime army.
  3. Poverty allows the upper classes with an outlet for charity.
  4. Creates jobs for people in professions that serve the poor.

Merton in his Reference Group theory talked about how deprivation has nothing to do with objective conditions rather it is based on subjective feelings of deprivation in regards to the reference group. (Samuel Stouffer and the US Army study).

Conflict Perspectives say that poverty and social exclusion are caused by the failure of society to adequately allocate resources and provide fair opportunities. Causes:

  • Failings of the welfare state.
  • Lack of power and weak bargaining position of the poor and socially excluded.
  • Social structures such as stratification are the cause of this.
  • Marxists hold that poverty and exclusion are the consequences of a capitalist system.


Social exclusion refers to ways in which individuals may become cut off from full participation in the wider society. It focuses attention on a broad range of factors that prevent individuals or groups from having opportunities open to the majority of the population. In order to live full and active life individuals must not only be able to feed, clothe and house themselves but should also have access to essential goods and services such as education, health, transportation, insurance, social security, and even access to the police or judiciary.
Some features of social exclusion are:

  • It is a structural feature of society.
  • It is involuntary, i.e. exclusion is practiced regardless of the wishes of the excluded.
  • Prolonged experience of discriminatory behaviour often produces a reaction on the part of the excluded who then stop trying for inclusion.After they stop trying for inclusion they may no longer desire to be allowed in the Hindu temple or religious events. But this does not mean that social exclusion is not being practiced. The point is that the exclusion occurs regardless of the wishes of the excluded.

Ruth Levitas came up with three major discourses on why people are excluded from society.

  • Moral Underclass Discourse. Says that the excluded are seen as deviant, immoral, impulsive, welfare dependent, unhealthy, polluting (in case of India) and criminal.
  • Social Integrationist Discourse. Exclusion is seen as an outcome of exclusion from the paid labour market.
  • Redistributionist Discourse. Mainly about power and the way it is exercised. Looks into the structural causes of exclusion.

Amartya Sen says that exclusion involves 4 components:

  • The excluded.
  • Institutions from which they are excluded.
  • Agents of exclusion.
  • Processes used for exclusion.

Christine Bradley lists the major ways of social exclusion in India:

  • Geographical segregation. Dalits usually live separately from the rest of the village.
  • Intimidation.
  • Physical violence.
  • Barriers to entry. Mainly transaction costs and documentation requirements.
  • Corruption.

Impacts of social exclusion:

  • Deprivation - social, economic, educational, cultural, and political.
  • Social stigma and marginalisation.
  • Fear psychosis among the excluded. Ex. the Rohingya migrants from Myanmar.
  • Inequality, poverty, unemployment, and forced migration.
  • Deteriorating quality of life.
  • Scarcity mindset.


These theories try to define four things:

  • Cause.
  • Structure.
  • Consequences.
  • Desirability.

Conflict Perspective


  • Creation of surplus and unequal access to surplus thus resulting in two classes. Aware of reality of multiple classes but for his works he considered only two classes.
  • Stratification is cumulative for Marx.
  • Stratification is based on in-built exploitation in class societies and is de-humanizing. Pauperisation, polarisation, and homogenisation leads to conflict and revolution.
  • Stratification is universal according to Marx, being absent only in primitive communism. It is undesirable due to its exploitative nature.

Weberian Theory of Social Stratifcation

Supplements Marxist ideas rather than supplanting them.

  • Structure of stratification (and class) is based on access to market rewards. Weber divides society into 4 classes based on their ability to access market.
  • Stratification is dispersed between class, power and status groups according to Weber. Unequal prestige hierarchy leads to formation of status groups. Quite often status hierarchy overlaps with class hierarchy, but not always. Status groups may cut across classes preventing homogenisation.
  • Weber agrees that stratification leads to exploitation which leads to conflict but revolution is only one of the possibilities. Even after a revolution, stratification won’t be removed due to unequal power among members.
  • Stratification is exploitative and thus undesirable, but it is universal in capitalist economies. In pre-capitalist economies only status differentiation exists.

Structural-Functionalist Theory

(Consensus Perspective)

Functionalist theorists tend to ignore structure of stratification in society, they are only concerned with the cause and consequences of any social item. SF theory holds that stratification results because of unequal distribution of rewards due to unequal talent.


  • Value consensus needed in society. Society has some dominant values, those who perform better in terms of those values rewarded more, thus creating stratification.
  • Stratification acts as motivation to conform to societal values.
  • Unequal power desirable as DoL is essential.
  • Also stratification is universal as value consensus must be maintained in society.

Davis & Moore

  • Universal need in societies for effective role allocation and performance.
  • Some roles are more important than others (based on functional uniqueness and/or dependence). Stratification required for functional role allocation: most talented people to the most important roles.
  • As important roles require longer periods of training, they require greater sacrifice of time and money. Therefore, higher rewards are required to motivate talented people to work towards these roles.
  • Higher rewards also act as a continuous motivator for effective performance.
  • Effective role allocation and performance are the consequences of stratification.
  • It is desirable and universal as every society has the need, the need for speed.

Critique of Sructural Functionalist Theories

  • Merton: Unachievable goals lead to deviance. Making stratification dysfunctional.
  • Melvin Tumin critiqued Davis & Moore’s theory in detail.
  • There are no objective ways of measuring talent and the importance of roles.
  • Those with more power get more rewards. Not related to functional importance of roles.
  • Inequality not always motivating. It can act as a barrier too, ex: survival before sacrifice for unprivileged. Scarcity mindset.
  • Those who occupy highly rewarded posts erect barriers to recruitment. Ex. Judicial recruitment in India is restricted by the collegium system.
  • He said that only when perfect equality of opportunity is in place will stratification be functional, otherwise it acts as a barrier to the installation of the very same equality of opportunity.
  • In terms of sacrifice for training, Tumin said that there are a lot of perks of being a student, free time, opportunity for self-development etc.
  • In terms of money loss he says any loss during the training can be easily made up in the first 10 years of economic activity.
  • Gerhard Lensky said that stratification is both integrative and exploitative.


Ideas of stratification of class, status group, gender, ethnicity and race.


Marx: most important economic stratification. Basis is control over forces of production. Cumulative stratification.

Weber: class based on access to market rewards, agrees that ownership is important but it isn't everything. Pre-capitalist stratification is based on status groups. Dispersed stratification.

Dahrendorf: ownership no longer important. We live in post-capitalistic society where capital and class have decomposed. Society is an Imperatively

Coordinated Association (ICA) and conflicts are institutionalised within the social framework and are between management and workers not ownership and non-ownership class. Further talks about decomposition of labour and capital.
E. O. Wright: Contradictory class location of managerial class. Two other assets are essential for hierarchy level: credentialed skills and organisational assets.


In the non-owner block as we go from left to right credentialed skills decrease. From top to bottom organisational assets decrease. Thus, Wright concludes that now stratification is more complex than ever.

Runciman: need to redefine class. It is no longer based only on ownership. He defines it as a set of roles whose common location in social space is a function of nature and degree of economic power.

Economic power is based on: ownership, control, marketability of skills. He studied stratification in Britain and gave a 7 class hierarchy.

Upper class
Upper middle class
Middle middle class
Lower middle class
Skilled working class
Semi and unskilled working class
Underclass (cannot participate in labour market)

Jan Pakulski & Malcolm Waters: Class is dead. They said that the clustering of economic similarities is breaking down, a clear index of this is the political dialogue. Major political issues now are gender, ecology etc.

Arrived at the death of class on the basis of their study of the phases of capitalist society:

  • 19th century. Economic class society. Great inequality in terms of wealth. Dominant culture shaped by dominant class, thus, clustering common.
  • 20th century. Organised class society. Unions emerge, democracy, state intervention in economy, welfare state etc. change the paradigm of the scenario. Political and bureaucratic elite control capitalists.
  • 1980s onwards. Status conventional society. People can choose any lifestyle without regards to class background. Values independent of class position. Frequent lifestyle changes lead to fragmentation of hierarchies.
    Synthesis for importance of class.

John Westergaard: studied same data as Pakulski & Waters. Said that 90s marked the neo-liberal shift around the world. By late 90s inequalities had risen and earning of the highest paid 10% increased by 40% while those of the lowest 10% remained unchanged. Thus, he concluded that economic class was more important than ever before.Oxfam study on the rise of income inequality in India.


Weber: first to highlight status groups. In industrial society:

  • Closed status groups are now open.
  • Hierarchy of status groups follows that of class but doesn't completely overlap.
  • Heterogeneity of class is the reality rather than homogenisation.
  • Status groups would exist even in socialist societies.

Pakulski & Waters: trend is towards status convention due to increased fragmentation.

GENDER & Social Division of Labour

Covered in systems of Kinship. Click here to read more.


Racial and ethnic stratification refers systems of inequality in which a fixed group membership is a major criterion for ranking social positions and their differential rewards.

Race is socially defined category of people who share common biological traits that are deemed socially important. Ethnicity refers to the condition of being culturally distinctive. Ethnic peoples are bound together by virtue of common ancestry and a common cultural background. One drop rule to identify black people in the US can be used as an example of social construction of racial categories. BLACK LIVES MATTER! Can't miss this example.

Samuel Morton said that racial differences and stratification had a biological basis. Morton compared cranium sizes of different races and said that blacks had smaller craniums which accounted for their low educational and social status.

Andre Beteille said that biological differences become social inequality only when they are designated as such.

WEB Du Bois - Race conflict theory.

  • Studied causes of conflict between races.
  • He said that black americans have a double consciousness with two competing identities.
  • In The Philadephia Negro he noted that black communities had:
  • lower education rates,
  • were younger,
  • had higher incidences of crime, poverty and death.
  • Major cause of this was their lack of access to healthcare and occupational hazards, which was caused by racial prejudice against the black community.

Racial Formation Theory: process through which social, political and economic forces influence how a society defines racial categories. These categories then end up reinforcing those forces in a feedback loop.

Racism without racists refers to modern day structural racism in institutions.
Ali Rattansi - in modern times, degree of racialism is more important than complete racism. For synthesis of a question on racism.

Thomas Hylland Erikson sees ethnicity as relationships between groups whose members consider themselves distinctive, and these groups are often ranked hierarchically in society.

He says that the boundaries between ethnicity and race are somewhat blurred as:

  • Ethnic groups often believe that they have common origins and thus, they share common ancestors and potentially common race characteristics.
  • Some racial groups have become ethnified, i.e. they have tended to adopt cultural characteristics which might distinguish them as an ethnic group. Ex. African-Americans, etc.
  • Some ethnic groups have come to be racialised in common perception. For ex. in Mauritius, Creoles are seen as lazy and careless; Hindus are seen as stingy and hardworking; Muslims are seen as religious fanatics and non-minglers.Having clarified the race-ethnicity issue he goes on to define types of ethnicity:
    • Modern migrants.
    • Indigenous people.
    • Ethno-nationalists. Minority group seeking an independent state. Ex Gorkhaland TA.
    • Ethnic groups in plural societies. Culturally distinctive groups in post-colonial states.
    • Post-slavery minorities. Minority groups descending from slaves.NOTE: Minority can be any group of people that are distinguished by a biological or cultural difference that society sets apart and subordinates.He further says that the idea of race remains a useful term when ethnic groups are thought by themselves or others to be distinguished by physical appearance.
  • Marx- Without slavery there is no cotton; without cotton there is no modern industry.
  • Boggs said that the US was built up on an economy of slavery. That in itself was no crime. The crime of the US is that it is the first and only country which, having freed its slaves legally then continued to enslave them and denied them equal rights on the basis of their color.
  • John Howard- A society which had consistently underinvested in black students ought to now adopt race based policies aimed at helping young blacks overcome the deficits yielded by segregation. The legacy of decades of systematic deprivation could be overcome only by color conscious policies direct at the victims of that deprivation.


  • Social mobility is defined as movement across the social structure. Movement along hierarchy is called vertical mobility (may be upward/downward) and changing position in the social structure without movement along the hierarchy is called horizontal mobility. Depending on norms, mobility is either encouraged (open society) or prohibited (closed society). Though no system is completely open or closed, people want equality universally.

Pace of mobility may be different too:

  • Intra-generational. Ex. Ambani, Jobs, Gates became very rich in their own lifetime.
  • Inter-generational. Ex. jati status upgradation, sanskritisation, etc.

Source of Social Mobility

The graph shows the levels of mobility with the kind of society.

In Agriculture, till the development of a sizeable surplus, vertical mobility is very low. It increases with the advent of the industrial age as more and more avenues for work and reward open up. Similarly, with the increasing DoL in industrial societies specialisation ensures that horizontal mobility is reduced (ex. a bookbinder cannot work as a blacksmith).


NOTE: with the advent of the British, the political route for mobility vanished, agriculture became progressively backward and thus, the caste system appeared as a perfectly closed system.

Apart from transformation of society, formal education also plays an important part in increasing mobility for all classes. Education leads to transmission of skill and improves employability of the people, thereby allowing them to be socially mobile.Political mobilisation is another major avenue for social mobility with the advent of the democratic governments.

Though critics have been quick to point out that in case of education:

  • It benefits the upper classes more than the lower classes.
  • Pierre Bourdieu says that education filters out the poor. Cultural capital acquired at home shapes performance in education systems.
  • Motivation is also stronger in the upper classes than the lower classes.
  • The deprived have to pay a much higher opportunity cost to stay in the system.
  • In cases of chronic poverty an immediate gratification values develop, while education demands a delayed gratification ethic.

While education opens up avenues for mobility, barriers still remain. It can act as an agent of mobility or of fostering consensus over the status quo depending on how it's oriented.

Causes of Mobility

Fox & MillerStudied mobility in terms of movement of blue collar workers to white collar occupations. They found that five factors when present simultaneously make for the highest mobility:

  1. High economic growth.
  2. Expansion of education access.
  3. Urbanization.
  4. Political stability.
  5. Achievement orientation.

Three longitudnal studies (same sample over long periods of time) were conducted in Britain to provide comparative perspectives on mobility. They are the Glass Study, the Oxford Study and the Essex Study.

1949 - Glass Study

Developed the 7 class model used by all three studies. David Glass found that though there was high absolute mobility, but most mobility was short range. 2/3rd of all men in different class from their fathers, but in the 1949 sample no one moved from class 7 to class 1.

1972 – Oxford Study

Found that absolute mobility increased further. Also 7% of the class 7 kids were in class 1, the longest mobility possible. Relative rates of mobility still unequal, 45% of class 1 members had fathers from class 1.

1984 – Essex Study

Included data for women’s mobility and considered mobility in terms of childhood supporter rather than the father. This study found that 1/3rd of class 1 people were from working class background but a person with upper class background was still 7 times more likely to be in upper class. In women the difference was more marked, upper class women were 14 times more likely to remain there.

Peter Saunders

Conducted a longitudinal study in 1990s. Traced children born in 1958 after 33 years. Found that compared to childhood supporter 52% had improved their standing. He claimed that Britain was moving towards a meritocracy.

Savage & Egerton

Critiqued the study of Saunders. Used the same data. They said that inequality still exists and class of birth matters. Took data on high ability children (HAC) from school. Found that upper class HACs performed better than those from other classes. They found that a HAC from upper classes ended up in upper classes 75% of the time whereas a HAC from the lower class only ended up in the upper class 45% of the time.

Michael Sandel - Tyranny of merit

  1. We live in an age of winners and losers, with the odds stacked in the favour of the already fortunate. Divisive politics on the rise due to this.
  2. Social mobility has stalled and inequality has become entrenched.
  3. There is a need to rethink attitudes to success and failure and pay attention to role of randomness in human affairs

Michael Young - The Rise of Meritocracy

  1. Said that society based on meritocracy would eventually mutate into a dystopia.
  2. Those judged to have merit of a certain kind harden into a new social class while excluding others from it.

Why does Mobility Occur?

  • Growth of occupations with high rewards.
  • Greater access to education.
  • Declining fertility in upper class.
  • Political stability (Pax Romana, Pax Brittanica)
  • High achievement orientation.
  • Urbanisation and rise of services.

NOTE: Inclusive economic development is a direct indicator of social mobility.
Consequences of Mobility

  • Leads to economic growth. Upwardly mobile people are more efficient.
  • Leads to cultural homogenisation. Ex. denims (a blue-collar cloth).
  • Reduces conflict and increases innovations in society.
  • Breakdown in class divisions. Polarisation decreases.
  • Anomie results.

How does vertical mobility affect a social system?

Vertical mobility leads to development of status/positional hierarchies (Pakulski & Waters) rather than class based hierarchies. This affects the traditional system and fosters change in even a closed social system.

Previous Post

Next Post