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Social stratification is a sociological term for the hierarchical arrangement of social classes, castes, and strata within a society. While these hierarchies are not universal to all societies, they are the norm among state-level cultures (as distinguished from hunter-gatherers or other social arrangements).
Social stratification is regarded quite differently by the principal perspectives of sociology. Proponents of structural-functional analysis suggest that since social stratification exists in all societies, a hierarchy must therefore be beneficial in helping to stabilize their existence. Conflict theorists consider the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility in many stratified societies. They conclude, often working from the theories of Karl Marx, that stratification means that working class people are not likely to advance socioeconomically, while the wealthy may continue to exploit the proletariat generation after generation. "The advancement in technology have change the structure of mobility completely" (Francois Adley). However, some conflict theorists, mainly Weber and his followers also critique Marx's view and point out at that social stratification is not purely based on economic inequalities but is equally shaped by status and power differentials. They proceed to examine the basis and structure of stratification in society along all of the three axes.
Though often considered incredible, Anthropologists have confirmed that social stratification is not universal as once thought. Non-stratified egalitarian societies exist which have little or no concept of social hierarchy, political or economic status, class, or even permanent leadership. The best examples of egalitarian cultures all have hunter-gatherer economies, although not all hunter-gatherers can be considered egalitarian.
Anthropologists identify egalitarian cultures as "Kinship-oriented," because they value social harmony more than wealth or status. These are contrasted with Economically-oriented cultures (including States) in which status is prized, and stratification, competition, and conflict are common. Kinship-oriented cultures actively work to prevent social hierarchies from developing which could lead to conflict and instability.
A good example is given by Richard Borshay Lee's account of the !Kung San, who practice "insulting the meat." Whenever a hunter makes a kill, he is ceaselessly teased and ridiculed (in a friendly, joking fashion) to prevent him from becoming too proud or egotistical. The meat itself is then distributed evenly among the entire social group, rather than kept by the hunter. The level of teasing is proportional to the size of the kill--Lee found this out the hard way when he purchased an entire cow as a gift for the group he was living with, and was teased for weeks afterward about it (since obtaining that much meat could be interpreted as showing off).
Another example is the Indigenous Australians of Northwest Arnhem Land (and perhaps elsewhere in Australia), who have arranged their entire society, spirituality, and economy around a kind of gift economy called renunciation. In this arrangement, every person is expected to give everything of any consumable resource they have to any other person who needs or lacks it at the time. This has the benefit of largely eliminating social problems like theft and relative poverty. However, misunderstandings obviously arise when attempting to reconcile Aboriginal renunciative economics with the competition/scarcity-oriented economics introduced to Australia by Anglo-European colonists.
Lewis Henry Morgan's accounts of the egalitarian natives of Hawaii formed part of Marx's inspiration for Communism. But Marx's frame of reference was the highly stratified, economically-oriented society of industrial Europe. So, even though Marx was concerned with equality, his philosophy emphasizes materialism, economics, and politics. Many people argue that these are all not important issues in an egalitarian society, where relative material and political equality result naturally from well-maintained, mostly non-competitive social relationships (kinship).
The basic differences in attitude between Kinship-oriented and Economically-oriented societies may, in part, explain some of the difficulties met when implementing socialist ideals in an already stratified culture.
- Lee, Richard B. (1976), Kalahari Hunter-Gatherers: Studies of the !Kung San and Their Neighbors, Richard B. Lee and Irven DeVore, eds. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
- Caste system
- Social inequality
- Social Organization
- Theodor Geiger
- Three-component theory of stratification
- Class stratification
- Pentagonal Revisionism
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