If social stratification usually refers to the kind and degree of distribution of resources (e.g., wealth, status, prestige, and privilege) within a social system, then political stratification is best understood as the extent to which such inequalities are encapsulated in, or influenced by, political structures and processes (i.e., involving influence, authority, or power). In this sense power is understood not only in relation to achieving desired results, even against opposing interest, but also in terms of the ability to frame and set agendas. Conceived of and measured as an absolute, or relative, entity, political stratification is often used in studies on societal change, egalitarian opportunity structures, democratization, the distribution of power and equality, and the efficiency of social and political justice. Linking political, economic, and social inequality structures, the concept is central to the social sciences and social policy.

Narrower conceptualizations of political stratification, favored particularly by political scientists in the 1960s and 1970s, usually focus on stratified political activities, positions, and influence of individuals, groups, parties, or nation-states. Studies in this vein tend to explore a variety of topics including political elites, the electorate, conceptions of democracy and citizenship, political activism, and new social movements. However, this narrow conception is rarely accompanied by a clear overarching theoretical model about political stratification. Indeed, attempts to distinguish political from social stratification are only partially successful and not widely accepted in the social sciences, due in part to the complex yet profound interdependence between the political, social, economic, and cultural spheres. Political stratification in a wider sense, however, has permeated the social and political sciences. Indeed, most modern studies on social stratification are steeped in a political discourse.


From an institutional perspective political stratification can be related to norms, values, class structures, status groups, associations, and laws, which structure the relations between individual and collective actors. For example, this perspective would suggest that associations are based on social and economic interests, which in turn give rise not only to a stratification order due to differential capacities and influence, but also to cooperation and conflict according to these pursuits. Based on differing relations to the means of production, the German political philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) predicted that the bourgeoisie would protect its economic interests by repressive laws. This would create a class consciousness; cause the resolution of regional, ethnic, and other conflicts among the proletariat; lead to a unified and politically organized labor movement; and ultimately result in the overthrow of the capitalist system by revolution, to be replaced by a classless, communist society. Critics argue that class theory fails to account for the growing presence of a strong middle class, the absence of antagonistic relations between classes, the continued success of elites to set agendas, and the triumph of capitalism over socialism as an economic-political system. This criticism is not as convincing as it appears at first. On the one hand neo-Marxists are able to overcome at least part of these criticisms by emphasizing the exploitative nature of economic interactions also within the growing middle class, which, based on differential access to wealth, authority, skills, or credentials, become at once exploiters and exploited within a capitalistic system. Beyond this, systematic economic exploitations and political paternalism continue to take place based on differential access to resources between nations of differing economic development levels, social groups differentiated by ethnicity or gender, and the transfer of advantage and privilege from one generation to another. On the other hand there exist other class theories that do not share the assumptions of Marxist class structures. For example, class structure can relate to the social positions of actors as identified by their integration into the labor market. This is distinct from a social hierarchy, and usually borrows from German sociologist Max Weber’s (1864-1920) notions of class. In this sense, class does not imply a single hierarchical dimension. A nonhierarchical class schema as developed by, for instance, British sociologist John Goldthorpe and his colleagues, differs from class schemata based on some vertical (i.e., ascending/descending) dimension. For example, skilled industrial workers, small proprietors, and minor officials may occupy a similar position in a hierarchy, but may be separated by class in that they are subjected to very different technical and economic realities due to innovations or governmental policies. A second Weberian approach to institutional structures consists of his distinction between different authority-types: traditional, legitimated by heredity and traditions; charismatic, based on inspirational leaders; and legal-rational, based on law and rationality.

Another important tradition from an institutional perspective relates to the subjective assessment of status or prestige. The ranking or rating of occupations according to their subjectively perceived prestige and its resulting access to social, economic, and political resources started most likely with American educator George S. Counts (1889-1974) in the 1920s but was popularized by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) in the 1940s. While some argue that it is the subjectively attributed qualities to these titles themselves that structure society, and while others suggest that subjective aspects are merely proxies for an underlying social and economic structure, Weber emphasized the interdependence between class, status, and prestige. According to Weber power has different bases that interact with each other: class based on economics, status based on prestige and honor, and party based on political power and domination via associations. An important variant to this theme was presented by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002), who explored the convertibility between economic, cultural, social, and symbolic capital.


From a relational perspective political inequality structures emerge from differentiated interactions between agents. At the base are actors such as individuals, political bodies, associations, and nation-states, which interact with each other. These interactions are patterned not only according to institutionalized rules but such interactions, never a perfect reproduction of institutional blueprints, also create, maintain, and transmute these rules. Societal structures from this perspective are based on and created from the recurring patterns of relations. Based in part on the study of religious and political characteristics of groups, German philosopher and sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) proposed that society exists only as social representations, or collective ideas, which provide the basis for social relations as societies’ external form (i.e., rejecting the idea of society as something that can have a substantive existence). Indeed, the objectification of the church or the state is created from complex relations and interactions among the members of large, heterogeneous groups. In this vein democratization and social equality can be understood as the reduction of systematic power differences between group members within a social system, while the distribution of power also gives rise to the structuring of social relations in terms of cooperation, conflict, and competition. Differential relations between agents within a social system were initially studied with simple sociograms in order to understand power structures and relations. These have been replaced by more sophisticated forms of network analysis, in which power structures are explored in terms of differing relations between nodes and their quality, reciprocity, density, intensity, and durability within a network structure. This approach can be found in studies focusing on cliques, associations, interest groups, and elites.


From an embodied perspective political stratification can be understood in a number of different ways. Here individuals are at the forefront as they, through continuous acts of self-definition, interpret and make sense of norms and values, and as they interact with each other. Based on the symbolic interactionist perspective of American philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), the "socio-physiology" of individuals underpins self-awareness, interactions, and behavior. Interactions and the thus-derived structures are based on the interpretation and internalization of rules by individuals. Or structures and stratification are based on interaction according to a system of rules, yet these interactions concurrently reproduce and transform the rules and thus the underlying structures. For French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984), organizations and institutions (e.g., schools, asylums, medicine) are invested within individual bodies through discipline and punishment of their bodily activities. As such, individuals in modern societies no longer require the policing of their thoughts and activities by others but become their own guards. Connected to this notion is governmentality, which also plays a role in conceptualizing political stratification from a poststruc-tural perspective. Governmentality refers to power as tactical and continuous negotiations between actors and institutions (e.g., markets). Meaning and knowledge are shaped via the interconnection between discoursive strategies and practices. From this perspective, power is omnipresent and embedded in all forms of discourse and actions. Knowledge thus produced and internalized has the power to regulate and discipline the self. Also, Bourdieu’s notion of different forms of capital could be understood as part of embodied structures because such capitals are connected to personal fields of power and the habitus of the individual.

In sum, political structures can be conceived of in terms of institutions, relations, and bodies, although these perspectives are best understood as ways to organize different theoretical approaches rather than implying differences in kind. Throughout, controversies about political stratification center on questions such as: What is stratified? How is it stratified? What causes such stratification? and What are its consequences? Postmodern, particularly poststructural, theorists would argue that due to technological innovations and the increased speed and efficiency of mobility of information, goods, and people, all social, economic, political, and cultural structures are dissolving. In the absence of dominant political structures and social order, individuals no longer have positions and trajectories but are either encouraged or forced to construct themselves and to interpret their environment according to context-dependent, ephemeral, media-dominated, lifestyle and consumption choices.

Such suggestions may point at important dynamics associated with modernization and globalization, but empirical evidence continues to illustrate the persistence of structures. Part of the criticisms against structural approaches is based on three misunderstandings: inability for (privileged) individuals to perceive the constraints of structures, structures as something static, and determinacy of structures. However, individuals’ subjective experience of structures is not necessary for structures to exist. Structures do not necessary imply stability as even highly dynamic and changing systems can be based on structures. And the presence and influence of structures rarely determines completely the thoughts and actions of individuals. Despite the demonstrable social, economic, and political changes that modern (and all other societies) are experiencing, structures themselves continue to exist as they persist, adapt, or transmute. Modern questions about political structures should not be based on whether they exist but rather in what form and in which context they exist.

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