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beneath the earth surface. A system of social stratification is similar to layers of rock: It is ageless, relatively permanent, and individuals in each layer are embedded. Yet, of course, earthquakes sometimes occur—they are relatively rare but powerful—and foundations are shaken. Profound changes can then occur.

The Origin of Social Stratification Systems

If we define conflict as the struggle for whatever is valued among people, we can realize that whenever something is valued that cannot equally belong to everyone, there will be conflict—struggles over what is valued. Some win, some lose. As some win they will try to consolidate their position as best they can; those who lose are placed in a position that makes it difficult for them to win in the future. The power of those who win increases over time, and the social patterns that emerge in society (which the powerful encourage) tend to favor their interests.

The social stratification process.

In any society, whatever is valued will always be in short supply. When this occurs, humans will pursue these values for themselves, and some, because of personal or group advantage, will be more successful than others in obtaining them.

Obtaining and keeping material goods through the successful application of personal or group power brings an accumulation of goods (privileges). Both power and privileges in turn bring prestige.

Both prestige and control over valued goods bring, in turn, more power.

The system of distribution, created out of personal power or group advantage, is eventually justified; it becomes “legitimate,” or regarded as right. Inequality is protected by the power of a few, and eventually by the ideas developed in society.

Finally, advantages are passed down to offspring. Possession of goods is not associated with person but with family. A class system is thus created and perpetuated.

Social Mobility

Social mobility refers to change in the individual’s class either in relation to his or her parents or during his or her own lifetime. We say that a society has high mobility where individuals are likely to change their positions.

We cannot change our gender or race. These are called ascribed qualities (rather than achieved qualities) and cannot be escaped. Individual blacks or women can achieve much in society in spite of the fact that it is more difficult for them, but they will always remain black or women. As long as these qualities are important for placing people in society, the individual will be affected.

Class is slightly different. Because it is based on economic criteria, it is achieved, at least to some degree.

Societies differ in the extent to which class mobility is possible.

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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