The term stratification refers to the system of inequalities within and between societies, the processes of assignment to positions within a social hierarchy, and the means by which resources are allocated. Various theories have tried to explain how and why stratification systems emerged. The most prominent of these were developed in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries following industrialization, which altered the social structures of traditional feudal and agrarian societies and gave rise to more complex urban societies. Before industrialization, societies were more stable and had much less economic inequality, and clear, fixed boundaries separated groups like the nobility from their subjects (see Lenski 1966).

In his pioneering account, Karl Marx explained stratification as a product of the mode of production—the principal system of market organization (e.g., capitalism). He outlined a progressive transition from feudalism to capitalism and finally to socialism. Marx claimed that the organization and development of modern, industrial capitalist societies were driven by class relations. He argued that capitalist societies would grow increasingly divided between a capitalist class that owns the capital and therefore controls the means of production and a growing labor class (proletariat) that sells its labor to capitalists in order to survive. Marx predicted a struggle between capitalists and workers leading to the destruction of the capitalist system and the formation of a socialist society free of classes. Moving beyond his historical prediction, modern Marxists have reconceptualized his class schema to focus on authority, the inherently antagonistic relations between workers and owners/managers, and the exploitative nature of capitalism (see, for example, Wright 1997).

In the early twentieth century, Max Weber added a focus on social status and political power to Marx’s more purely economic perspective. He proposed class, status, and party as the three dimensions of stratification in modern societies, though he also discussed the role of castes and professions. Though Weber’s writings conceptualizing class were not very developed or novel, he has been deployed widely in class schemas focused on prestige, occupations, status, and skill. Weber’s present-day influence can most be seen in the use of his concept of closure—that is, the process by which organizations define boundaries that establish which members receive certain benefits and which do not.

Structural functionalism, which traces its roots to the work of Emile Durkheim, perceived stratification systems as universal to every society, from simple hunter-gatherer tribes to complex, modern industrial societies. Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore (1945) offered a particularly influential account of the "functional necessity of stratification." Structural functionalist theories were criticized for neglecting conflict and for failing to address the possible lack of stratification in small egalitarian tribes or the reduction of stratification in modern social democracies. Today, structural functionalism has few followers in the social sciences.

A common characteristic of these early attempts was the effort to develop general laws. During the post—World War II (1939-1945) period, however, social scientists have moved away from grand, all-encompassing theories of stratification toward more flexible perspectives, which perceive stratification as a result of the interplay between multiple actors and multiple dimensions of inequality. One of the main new issues gaining attention was that of gender. Scholars argued that gender played a central role in the formation and functioning of stratification systems. They showed that women’s exclusion from social life placed them in an inferior position, resulting in lessened life chances and status. While women’s standing in social and economic life has improved over the past half-century, women are still restricted by gender roles and patriarchy. Rich literatures examine the impact of family structure, occupational segregation, devaluation of women’s work, and sex-based pay gaps.

Other issues that came under greater scrutiny were race and ethnicity. Scholars demonstrated that one’s racial and ethnic background greatly influences one’s life chances. U.S. sociologists have devoted a great deal of attention to black-white differences in residence, educational achievement, and employment status. Many focused on residentially segregated ghetto communities where unemployment, poverty, and single parenthood were highly concentrated. Though many sociologists have demonstrated that some racial and ethnic differences can be explained by class-based factors like income level, there is an emerging literature on how race, gender, and class intersect to shape disadvantage.

There also has been great interest in the actors and processes that reproduce and maintain social inequalities. Many sociologists focused on the role of elites in the reproduction and maintenance of social inequalities. American sociologist C. Wright Mills (1956) argued that a "power elite" controls the economy, state, and military. Some scholars have described elites as a conscious, homogenous social class, which actively reproduces itself and guards the privileges it possesses. Perhaps the most productive line of inquiry has concentrated on the linkages between social origins and levels of attainment. Peter M. Blau and Otis Dudley Duncan (1967) famously analyzed the relationship between paternal occupation, education, and attained occupation. Debates about modeling techniques and historical and cross-national patterns of mobility and attainment dominated analyses of stratification from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Some scholars took the study of reproduction, mobility, and attainment in new directions and emphasized the role of social ties and culture. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that access to high culture and learned practices, which he referred to as cultural capital, enable the children of the privileged to get ahead and facilitate the reproduction of social inequalities. Bourdieu also offered the concept of habitus to account for the embodied disposition that dominant classes exercise instinctively to reproduce their higher status. The concept social capital emerged to refer to the resources that flow through social networks.

In recent years, with the rise of globalization and the expansion of neoliberalism across the globe, debates about the global stratification system gained a great deal of attention. World systems theorists, led by Immanuel Wallerstein, contend that industrial core countries have an exploitative relationship with the less-developed periphery. The perseverance of poverty in the Third World, the weakening position of traditional labor classes in industrialized countries, and rising income inequalities within nearly every country lead many to believe that we are now facing a global system benefiting a small minority while hurting the rest. While many note the massive levels of inequality between countries, there has been a lively debate about whether global inequality is increasing or decreasing. Glenn Firebaugh (2003), for example, claims that inequality between countries has decreased, while Branko Milanovic (2005) contends it has increased. Regardless, global inequality in income, health, and well-being remains enormous and in the future stratification scholars are likely to focus more on the plight of the dis-advantaged in less-developed countries, where the majority of the world’s population resides.

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