Lesson 1: Introduction to Social Inequality and Stratification


This lesson provides you with a general introduction to the hierarchical differences between people that affect access to resources, how people live and are treated by others, and how they, in turn, treat others. Several concepts are discussed that serve as building blocks in the sociological understanding of inequality and stratification. You will also be introduced to the fact that many types of inequalities exist in society. Three of the most important are those based on economic resources, race/ethnicity, and gender. These provide separate hierarchies that point to the complexity of inequality in any society. Given these (and other) hierarchies, an individual generally finds that he/she simultaneously belongs to a number of groups, each of which may be in a different position on the various hierarchies. For instance, one may be female, white, and middle class. Such an individual holds a privileged position on two hierarchies and is disadvantaged on the third. Another individual may be male, black, and working class. This person belongs to two disadvantaged groups and one privileged group. Take a moment to review the groups you belong to. Most students find that there are inconsistencies in their profile; they are neither totally privileged nor completely disadvantaged, given the composition of their group membership.

Finally, the readings draw attention to the fact that stratification systems change. They are not static. They differ from society to society and, within any one society, change over time. This emphasizes the importance of structure and process in sociology. No society is unchanging. We must also remember that even when the same concept (e.g., caste) is used to describe two different societies, there are usually important differences in the way the concept is manifested in each. For instance, a caste system is shaped by the history, culture, and population dynamics of a specific society.

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to accomplish the following:

  1. delineate the difference between inequality and stratification.
  2. discuss, with examples, four methods used to maintain inequalities in society.
  3. know the differences between inequalities based on class, color, and gender.
  4. define the concepts of sex, gender values, norms, and institutions.
  5. explain what is meant by slave, caste, estate, and class systems.
  6. give reasons why sociology is interested in the study of inequality and stratification.

Reading Assignment

Inequality and Stratification

  • Chapter 1, pp. 2–19
  • Chapter 3, pp. 38–48


Sociology describes and explains the consequences of structural inequalities. These are inequalities that arise out of social interaction and the value systems which emerge in society. Any group of interacting persons, be it a small informal play group, a family, or something more formal such as a university, is made up of several positions or statuses (leader, member; father, mother, children; provost, professor, student) each of which carries role requirements or expectations. This separation of roles is a division of labor that is expected to make the group (social system) run smoothly and survive into the future. In all societies, these different positions are rarely given the same value. Some are seen as more important than others in the group. Role differentiation and the value attached to each role together result in the ranking of people in a group. Social ranking or hierarchical difference is what we call structural inequality. For example, within the Catholic Church, the positions of pope and archbishop are ranked higher than the position of the laity. In addition, all societies put a higher value on some characteristics than on others. This forces those who possess the devalued characteristics to occupy lower positions in the system. For instance, boys and men are ranked higher than girls and women. In some societies one's value increases with age and the elderly are highly ranked, while in others old age is devalued. Similarly, the "white" skin is ranked higher than the "black" skin and heterosexuality higher than homosexuality.

It is possible to envisage a situation in which the ranking system of positions in a group changes frequently. Inequality would still exist, but would be unstable. If, however, the ranking system is carried over from one generation to the next, that is, is reproduced over generations, a stratification system has emerged. As noted by Rothman, stratification systems can be based on a variety of qualities including economic (e.g. slavery, caste, estate, and class systems), prestige (race, sexual orientation), or power positions. Different societies have different stratification systems, and these can change over time. Once a stratification system is in place, there is an unequal distribution of and access to resources such as wealth, honor, and power from one generation to the next.

Sociology makes a distinction between biological differences and the meanings we impose on them. People differ in height, weight, hair color, or skin color, and there are cultural differences in cuisine, anatomical differences between male and female, differences in sexual preference, etc. How these differences get ranked depends on a number of issues. First, what are the separate categories recognized by the group or society; in other words, how is the difference constructed or the group demarcated? For instance, in the recognition of skin color, how many categories are legitimized or classified? Once classified, what meanings are imputed to one color as opposed to another? Why do human societies give greater significance to skin color in classifying people than to the size of ears? All the above issues point to the fact that we, as human beings, decide what is important to classify, highlight the trait, and give it meaning. Therefore, recognized biological, social, or cultural differences become socially meaningful inequalities. A major concern of sociology is analyzing the social processes through which these categories are created. One can see that in the long run, retaining the power to make the rules, or to name, define, and invent categories is important for people who compose a group and for groups within society. This is clearly the case when we look at the struggles between valued and devalued groups. For instance, in the 1960s, blacks appropriated the negative term "black" and reinvented it in a new and positive term: "Black Power." Gays and lesbians are, presently, attempting to shed the definition of sexual deviance, and many women (especially feminists) refuse to accept that they are inferior to men because of the biological differences observed between the sexes. All of these devalued groups are trying to do away with stratification systems that have been erected as a result of the differences recognized in society.

There are many consequences of inequality that sociologists are interested in, and throughout this course several will be discussed. For now, I will briefly touch on three to give an insight into what is to come. First, when we study inequality/stratification, we are interested in its material impact. For instance, who gets what (e.g., income, honor), how much of it is received (distribution), and how does this affect the degree to which individuals and groups can meet their basic requirements in life (e.g., food, shelter, health)? What does it mean to the poorest group of families if data show that in 1980, the poorest 20 percent of the United States population obtained 5.2 percent of the nation's income and in 1990 this fell to 4.6 percent? If the poor are getting a smaller share of the nation's income, how does that translate into the ability to secure health care, education, food? Sociologists are also concerned with the relationships between the different ranks or strata. How do people of different ranks treat each other or relate to each other? What are the rules for interaction, what kinds of stigma have been attached to which groups, and how do others behave towards members of that group? For instance, what is the impact of believing that minority women are sexually promiscuous? What types of behavior has this elicited from men? What stigma are attached to people with physical or mental disabilities, and how are they treated by the majority of people or by policy-makers? People who are devalued are generally believed to have a problem and to be a problem in society. Many have begun to turn the issue around by arguing that those in power who categorize and devalue help create "the problem" and play a major role in perpetuating the problem through their stigmatization and the behavior that flows from it.

Lastly, the issue of justice is important. Since the eighteenth century, Western scholars have been interested in such ideas as equality, liberty, and fraternity. The idea that all persons are equal before God and the law has grown, and it is believed that social inequality allows injustice and oppression to flourish. Those higher up on the social scale can make decisions from which they and their offspring (or group) benefit and then impose unfair constraints or conditions on those with less advantage. Thus, the rich could get richer (given the right tax laws, laws about education, health policies, or inheritance laws, etc.) and the poor become poorer. For example, if a law exists that requires that workers in a company be informed about the investments made from the company's profits, the activities of managers and owners would be more easily challenged by workers who are interested in safeguarding their jobs.

In order that people's access to resources be limited, there are four broad mechanisms used by groups and societies to ensure inequality. These are exclusion, disabling, decoupling, and creating scarcity. These processes can be found in all systems of inequality and stratification. Exclusion is the process of keeping the devalued out of the competition or rewarding people unequally for the same performance. Those in the group with access to resources make the rules about what the rules are, who can be admitted to the group, and how rewards will flow. Organizations based on gender, caste, class, or ethnicity have, in the past, made rules that limit membership to those with the required characteristics. Licensing laws, for example, keep the unqualified from membership in a profession. The process of disabling seeks to convince those with devalued characteristics that they do not have the ability to compete effectively. Women, the old, and blacks were for a long time told that they were not smart enough to succeed in certain professions or indeed do well in higher education. Decoupling ensures that those who can benefit by certain information or networks are not connected with the requisite group. In a company or organization, the disadvantaged are often not in the know about job opportunities, advancement information, or training program openings. Finally, resources can be made scarce. Openings at the top can be reduced, available jobs can be decreased, or the number of student scholarships or loans can be cut back. This is not to invoke conspiracy theories, however, since unrelated decisions involving several people can have unforeseen consequences.

Study Questions

  1. What is meant by structural inequality?

    Structural inequality is the patterned inequality arising from the way positions are ranked in society.

  2. What is the distinction between inequality and stratification?

    When the ranks of positions in a system remain stable over generations, inequality becomes stratification.

  3. How does Rothman define social class, people of color, sex, and gender?

    Social classes are composed of people who have similar economic positions in society. Today the focus is on the type of work people do (occupation) and the amount of resources (ownership and control of resources) that they command. People of color are those singled out in society for unequal treatment based on their "race" or ethnicity. Sex and gender denote the differentiation in society based on biological (sex) and behavioral or attitudinal (gender) characteristics.

  4. How do caste systems differ from class systems?

    Castes are closed systems of stratification. One is born into a caste and cannot change it by individual effort. Class systems allow for movement up and down the hierarchy. A child may end up in a higher or lower class than his/her parents. Class systems vary in degrees of openness.

  5. What are the four mechanisms used in society to ensure inequality?

    You will need to define exclusion, disabling, decoupling, and scarcity to answer this question.