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Stratification and Social Mobility in United States

Inequality is a social reality affecting many cultures and societies. The term stratification is described by Chaefer as structured standing or position among various individuals perpetuating the concept of unequitable distribution of reward and power, a privilege enjoyed by the privileged few (34). Hierarchies paint the social landscape and social classes are defined by means of their membership to a particular social group or subculture, occupational type, educational level, income class, and amount of wealth. Between-individuals inequalities in status are to be found universally; but the question is how much inequality would warrant a so-called stratified society.

The Four Basic Structures of Stratification

In Sajjadi, basic stratification structures were identified: first, slavery; second, estate; third, caste; and fourth, class. Viewed as the most extreme of all these structures, slavery is one in which individuals are owned as property by others where the owner exercises full control over the slave which often times end in the use of violence. Existence of slave system is sporadic across many eras and locations; however, two examples of slave societies are in the early Greek and Roman civilizations and the southern US during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The second is the estate system akin to feudalism. There are three salient features of feudal estates. One of which is that they are legally sanctioned. Each estate possesses its own status having legal obligations, privileges, duties and rights. The next is division of labor which means that a group is expected to perform a definite set of functions. The nobles were ordained to protect and defend the people; the clergy, give spiritual comfort; and the commoners, to ensure there is food in every table. The last is that feudal estates are political structures which mean that all of these three estates function like political groups and possess power.

The third is the caste system which is closely associated with Hindu tradition, custom, religion and philosophy. According to the Hindus, the caste system has a divine sanction and origin. The origin of this stratification in Indian societies could be traced back in the chaturvarna system. Doctrinal teachings subdivided India into four major varnas - Brahmins, Kashtriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. The Varna system which is highly prominent in the Vedic period is mainly based on occupation as well as division of labour; however, evolved in ancestral traditions. A family who makes a living of being a teacher had been in generations past resorted in the same profession and is followed by succeeding generations, believing that divine appointment has caused their clan to become teachers.

The fourth basic structure is social class. This system is a universal occurrence which denotes that a certain group of individuals having definite societal status permanently defines their association with other groups. Basis for the stratification is undoubtedly economic but they are not simply economic groupings. Across time and societies, the virtual significance and meaning of membership to a specific group varies, most especially in those societies that have legally differentiated groups of individuals according to occupation or birth. The popularly known illustration of socioeconomic class is adopting a system of hierarchy with reference to income, wealth, economic status, or occupational type.

Stratification in United States

The sociological phenomenon I find most interesting to study and work on is the stratification and social mobility in United States. Social class seems to be the most appropriate type of stratification to describe inequality in America. Social stratification certainly exists in United States although most Americans believe only in the three class model – the rich, middle class and the poor. Some sociologist proposed more complex structure and yet others deny its very existence. Here we try to expound on some academic class model proposed by sociologist William Thompson and Joseph Hickey: the upper, corporate elite, upper middle, traditional middle, lower middle, and working classes.

Upper class is a term that includes those referred to as the “blue bloods” for instance the Roosevelt and Astor families. There seemed to be confusion on the inclusion of "nouveau riche" into the upper class or the exclusive use of this term to denote established families. W. Lloyd Warner, a 20th century sociologist subdivided upper class into two: the first is composed of the "upper-upper class" or the bourgeoisie and the "lower-upper class" or the yuppies. In the former, established upper-class families are included while in the latter are those who have achieved a highly wealthy status in their lifetime. Because there is no such thing as a lower threshold in the upper class, it is an outright impossibility to compute the exact proportion of American households identified in this class.

The high incomes and the potential for wealth from stock options have given rise to the term corporate elite; among them are top executives especially Chief Executive Officers or CEOs who receive the best financial compensation of all occupations in the US today. The median HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Median_income"salary received by an American CEO annually is $140,350; this income exceeds the combined income of 90% of households in the U.S. On the other hand, the upper middle class is composed of professionals who are highly educated and perform self-directed work. A number of them have earned Master’s degree at the very least and have incomes greater than the high five-figure range. In this group, members are actively involved with professional as well as personal networks therefore they have a great influence in society.

The middle class is probably the most unclearly defined of all the social classes. The term has been found to be used to either define a group of managers and professionals also referred as upper middle class or those between wealth extremes with a disregard for significant differences in occupation, influence, educational level, culture and income. Those households occupying the center of American society may be called middle-middle class. These average Joes or those lying at the middle of the socio-economic divisions are commonly where the working class and the lower middle class meet. The lower middle class is generally described as having less privilege compared to the middle class. Individuals in this group are commonly working in supporting occupations and seldom acquired advanced academic degrees though more often than not they are bachelor degree holders. The term working class is used to denote individuals who are working at this level.

Markers of Social Class in United States

Markers of social class in United States includes but is not limited to social status, income, education, occupation and culture. Social status is defined as the rank or position of an individual or group in society and determined in two ways- through individual achievements or achieved status and by inheritance or ascribed status. In the US, many members of the society have sorted themselves along the position continuum which varies in compensation, prestige, influence, and importance. In this land of opportunity, many people especially immigrants have gained better living conditions, far from the land they came from due to their ‘ given chance’ of getting better education and occupation. Thus, having them earn a considerable place in the society. In other cases, where in status is inherited or has been fixed by birth, the individual is given and taught many social roles and are socially positioned by their family by equipping them with all the traits and characters that would sustain their inherited status. For example, being the son of a wealthy family may carry the same status or even higher status than his parents due to his upbringing that makes him even better in the craft that made his parents wealthy.

Income is regarded to be an important feature in a social class. It does not cause stratification rather it is reflected on that status. There are two types of income being monitored by the Department of Commerce: personal and household income. Personal income is an individual indicator which is often applied only to individuals whose age is above 15, 18, or 25, the age requirement for membership to the labor force. Several factors affect income in the US and these include education, racial background, gender, and age. The US Census Bureau mentioned that men are generally highly paid than women while Caucasian Americans and Asians have higher earnings compared to their African American and Hispanic counterparts. Individuals above 18 had an overall median personal income amounting to $25,149 ($32,140 among 25 years old and above in 2005. In the same year, earning of age 15 was $28,567.

In contrast, household income considers all the residents in the household over 18 and does not only cover all salaries and wages but also personal investment, business, regular rental receipts, child support payments, and unemployment insurance. Residents need not have any consanguinal relations with the household head for their income to be part of the household's income (US Census 2007 pub 60). Because households are quite similar economically, utilization of household income is still one of the most widely acknowledged income indicators (Williams 10).

Some experts would say that prestige and income are societal incentives necessary to occupy desired positions with the personnel that is highly motivated and qualified (Levine 7). However, this conclusion is divergent to the general observation that upper management in several companies are less informed and experienced than most of their subordinates, and that their positions are attained because of inheritance and connections.

Because income is a product of employment and education is a principal determinant of employment, the level of education is a variable often related to generated income in the United States. Many studies have correlated income levels to other social outcomes such as health care, housing, life expectancy, and quality and quantity of education attained. Many studies have emphasized on the relationship of income to education. The higher the educational level, the higher a person earns. For instance, individuals who have a college degree have comparatively higher income than the national median while those who have high school diplomas have lesser income than the national median. Studies have also shown that individuals with doctorate degrees belonged to the top 15% based on annual earnings. Educational attainment then is an important class feature in American society and is considered a crucial factor toward social mobility.

Another feature of social class is occupational status. Occupational status is a product of level of education and is a variable that also impacts access to social resources such as health, housing, and income. People with low-wage jobs are associated with low education levels because these jobs are often sought out and available to those who have less education. Blue-collar workers are paid less because it does not take a college diploma to perform these jobs. On the other hand, white-collar jobs But, White collar jobs require more human capital, skill and knowledge and therefore produce higher earnings. With higher education it is more likely for one to occupy a professional-level job wherein he or she may earn a higher salary. Therefore, those with less education are more likely to be working in Low-wage jobs.

Class culture also has been shown to have a strong influence on the mundane lives of people, affecting everything from the manner in which they raise their children, initiation and maintenance of romantic relationship to the color in which they paint their houses. The strongest cultural differences seem to run along the professional middle class-working class divide. A recent increase in residential class segregation and the overall tendency of individual to associate mostly with those of equal standing as themselves has further strengthened class differences.

Social Mobility in United States

The most important concept in a class system of stratification is social mobility. In class system, social stratification based on both birth and individual achievement; personal merit becomes more important. Since societies became more competitive and more meritocratic some elements such as energy, social skills, character, ambition, physical attractiveness, talent, and luck played great role in social mobility and changing social position. Social mobility refers to changes in social position which occur during a person's lifetime.

There are two ways to study social mobility; intragenerational mobility and intergenerational mobility. By the first concept, we mean upward and downward movement in social ladder and by second one we refer to upward and downward movement in social hierarchy compared with the previous generation. Such a change may be described as "vertical mobility," by contrast with a more general changing position ("horizontal mobility"). Mobility is enabled in part by cultural capital (such as higher education or an authoritative accent), human capital (such as competence and effort in labour), social capital (such as support from one's social network), physical capital (such as ownership of tools), and symbolic capital (such as the worth of an official title). Many of these factors, however, ultimately remain intertwined with economic capital.

Upward social mobility is a change in a person's social status resulting in that person receiving a higher position in their status system. Likewise, downward mobility results in a lower position. A prime example of an opportunity for upward mobility nowadays is athletics. There is an increased number of minorities seeking careers as professional athletes which can either lead to improved social status or could potentially harm them due to neglecting other aspects of their

life (e.g. education). Transformative assets would also allow one to achieve a higher status in society, as they increase wealth and provide for more opportunity. A transformative asset could be a trust fund set up by family that allows you to own a nice home in a nice neighborhood, instead of an apartment in a down trodden community. This type of move would allow the person to develop a new circle of friends of the same economic status.

Social class in United States is an open playing field. Through an individual’s achievement, occupation, educational attainment, and hardwork can attain a significant place in the society. Many individuals have already made a great leap in the social ladder. The new rich have increased tremendously over the last twenty years. There is upward mobility in social class ladder in that span of time. But with the current economic crisis that started two years ago and recovery is far from what is hoped for, that resulted in massive employment recession, it seems that the social mobility will move downwards. There is now increasing numbers of ‘new poor’ Americans. Still, definition is relative, what they consider poor might not be compared to other people of the world. Definitely, there will be changes in the social class structure of United States with the economic situation it is facing nowadays.

Social stratification concept makes it possible to understand people’s behavior. Without classifying people, it will be difficult to address social needs and social issues. Social class determines people’s way of life, customs, religions, happiness and other important aspects in the development of the individual, the community and the nation as a whole. Popular culture’s catering to the wealthy and social welfare for the poor can be easily tracked as shift in economic activity is pronounced such as the economic situation now.

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