Hong Kong Society and Social Stratification

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The Concept of Social Stratification

Stratification is the geological concept of strata – rock layers in natural processes. While in sociology, the concept of stratification turns to refer to the different strata of social groups and their arrangements. Social stratification is a particular form of social inequality which involves power, prestige and wealth.

We can find in our lives that one group may own and enjoy more economic resources than another, or it may be held in high esteem, or it may be in a position to order other groups around. The study of social stratification is to explore how is the hierarchy formed within the society, how are social resources unequally distributed and how these different groups relate to one another.

Obviously, the arrangement of different social groups within a society is not really like the arrangements of rock in the earth’s crust as there are frequent and various interactions between the higher and lower social groups. Moreover, contrary to solid rock layers, “rises” and “falls” take place both by group and by individuals in social system. One group may rise in power and status while another group may fall. Individuals also move up and down to change their group belongings. So when we study social stratification, we should pay attention to its characteristic of interaction and mobility. Any neglect would lead to a false conclusion.

Theories of Social Stratification

Social stratification is not a new born concept. Long ago in ancient China, “Li” was considered a special subject on institutions and manners which gave a strict division and rules of social classes. In “Han Shu-Monograph on Food and Currency “, people were stratified in a descending order of scholars, peasants, workers and businessmen.

In the west, the earliest discussion on social stratification can be dated back to ancient Greece. Plato illustrated an ideal state in “Republic” with three stable classes of freemen—-Rulers or Philosopher Kings, Warriors or Guardians, and Workers, while Aristotle argued with an idea of the rich, the poor and the middle.

When talking about social stratification, we can always find these two names: Karl Marx and Max Weber. The classic statements on both social class and stratification provide the foundation from which we can fully appreciate current social dynamics and new directions in the study of social inequality.

The Marxist Perspective

Karl Marx was born in the aftermath of the European Revolution. By witnessing the end of the old era and the emergence of a new age, he found a similarity in all societies—-the ever existence of two social classes. He inherited Hegel’s account of the conflict between master and slave, then took the idea of two opposed forces to analyze the form of the conflict.

Marx was the first to develop a systematic theory on social class. A class is a social group whose members share the same relationship to the means of production. Individuals in a class not only act in much the same way but also tend to think in much the same way. There are two major social groups in all societies, a ruling one and a subject one. The relationship between the two major classes is conflict—-exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. Marx conceived the society as a system of production based on the existence of these two opposite social classes. The ruling class (the bourgeoisie) own the means of production (land, capital, labour power, buildings and machinery) while subject class (the proletariat) has no choice but to work for the capitalists. Wage labourers produce goods and services but get only subsisted rewards. Employers take the products away to sell them at a value greater than their cost of production. By accumulating this surplus value, capitalists get more wealth and means of production to sustain the system.

Capital is a social power. Political power comes from economic power, from the control of means of production. The ruling class build up the superstructure of society—-the major institutions, values and belief systems, according to the common interests of the group. They seek protection for their ownership of means of production through laws and mechanisms which are favorable to them. In addition, a distorted picture of reality (ideology) was invented to justify and legitimate the domination of the ruling class and to inculcate the mass oppressed working class a false consciousness of the nature of relationship between social classes.

Marx pointed out that there is a polarization of the classes through which the society would more and more split into the two great hostile camps. Although he did not deny the individual mobility between the social groups, the possibility is little because each group is relatively closed. Individual movement up and down does nothing to change the system. Only by thorough revolutions can social orders be reconstructed, can means of production be used by everyone and can social equality be achieved.

Despite the great contribution to the study of social stratification, people raised problems in Marxist approach as listed below:

Not all societies are class societies

Class may not be the most basic social division

The rise of the middle class and the fragmentary class structure

Working class consciousness and intellectual wishful thinking

To solve these problems, Neo Marxist scholars have made many efforts. Succeeding Marx’s basic view of social stratification, the primary concern of modern Marxian theorists has been to apply this Marxian view of society to industrial societies that have experienced change since Marx’s time, while also using new methods of social science research to validate some of the principal Marxian concepts. For instance, Gramsci accused dehumanizing aspects of modern capitalism and advocated more education on working class to develop intellectuals among them. Poulantzas thought the fragmentation of class structure was a defining characteristic of late capitalism, so any analysis must tackle the new constellation of interests and power. Structural Marxist, Wright, did some empirical research on social stratification. Inspired by other’s works, he borrowed the concept of skills and defined class in relation to the productive system: Capitalists, managers, workers and the petty bourgeoisie.

The Weberian Alternative

Max Weber contributed the most to development of stratification theory since Marx. He was said to have had a dialogue with Marx but got different conclusions. Marx saw classes in economic terms, while man does not strive for power only in order to enrich himself economically. He expanded Marx’s standard of class division to a multidimensional view.

People forming the same class roughly share common life chances which are reflected into class situation. In Weber’s point of view, ownership of property will directly give an individual more life chances in market, however, the skills and education the individual has had is also playing an important role in defining social classes. Under this assumption, Weber was able to explain the emergence of middle class while Marxism failed to do so. He identified as “social class” according to the economic rewards in labour market—- the working class as a whole, the petty bourgeoisie, technicians, specialists and lower-level management and the classes privileged through property and education.

Moreover, social stratification is not only decided by class(economic rewards), status is another significant perspective. Whereas class refers to the unequal distribution of economic rewards, status refers to the unequal distribution of social honor, which refers to how a person or a group is regarded by others. Individuals from a similar status group are likely to share similar status situation including lifestyle, sense of belonging and restriction on interaction with outsiders etc. This dimension managed to solve the doubt about the role of gender, ethnicity and religion in stratification theory.

The last dimension in Weber’s three-component theory of stratification is party or power. To achieve whatever goals, people form organizations in rational orders to influence and dominate others. The most typical organizations of this kind are political parties and bureaucratic institutions. Where is one stand and how is one placed within the organization decide one’s position in this dimension of stratification.

Weber concluded that the three dimensions of hierarchies lead to the ranking of individual and group in human society. Nevertheless, the importance of each dimension differs in different societies.

Weber’s theory of social stratification has relativity and mobility, which enlightened his successors like Anthony Giddens, Frank Parkin and John Goldthorpe, etc., to continue promoting the development of multidimensional theory of stratification.

The Former Study on Hong Kong ‘s Social Stratification

Boggs, C. (1984). The two revolutions : Antonio Gramsci and the dilemmas of western Marxism (1st ed.). Boston, MA: South End Press.

Crompton, R. (1993). Class and stratification : an introduction to current debates. Cambridge, UK ; Cambridge, MA, USA: Polity Press.

Haralambos, M., & Holborn, M. (2008). Sociology : themes and perspectives (7 ed.). London: HarperCollins Publishers.

Hess, A. (2001). Concepts of social stratification : European and American models. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire ; New York: Palgrave.

Kerbo, H. R. (1996). Social stratification and inequality : class conflict in historical and comparative perspective (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Levine, R. F. (1998). Social class and stratification : classic statements and theoretical debates. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Li, P. (2004). Social stratification in China’s today(Zhongguo she hui fen ceng) (1 ed.). Beijing: She hui ke xue wen xian chu ban she.

Li, X. (2008). Dream and reality : stratification and social mobility in Hong Kong(Meng Xiang Yu Xian SHI: Xiang Gang De She Hui Fen Ceng Yu She Hui Liu Dong) ( 1 ed.). Beijing: Publisher of Peking University.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1888). Manifesto of the Communist party ([5th ed.). London,: W. Reeves.

Poulantzas, N. A. (1982). Political power and social classes. London: Verso.

Saunders, P. (1990). Social class and stratification. London: Routledge.

Weber, M., Gerth, H. H., & Mills, C. W. (2009). From Max Weber : essays in sociology. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon ; New York: Routledge.

Wright, E. O. (1997). Class counts : comparative studies in class analysis. Cambridge ; New York

Paris: Cambridge University Press ;Maison des sciences de l’homme.

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