Stratification describes the different layers that exist in a society. Whilst some argue that it is possible for a society to run without such a structure, most known communities are separated by some sort of class division.

In the mid-nineteenth century German philosopher, Karl Marx, founded a revolutionary concept in social order communism. In a communist state there would be no stratification. At that time, Marx believed that all societies were split into two groups, according to the organisation and ownership of the means of production. These two groups were the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

The Communist Manifesto of 1848 described the development of social stratification throughout history, explained Marx’s ideology and made predictions as to the future. Survival relies on a number of basic necessities, including food, water, and shelter. In early times people only found food when it was needed, either by gathering or hunting animals. Marx called this state “primitive communism” as no one owned anything and there was equality amongst the hunter/gatherers. There was no stratification. With the introduction of agriculture came the concept of ownership. There was, for the first time, a surplus of goods, which could be traded for other goods. Primitive communism gave way to a system of feudal societies where stratification divided the rich and the poor. It was a hierarchical society where the rich landowners ruled over the poor workers. The industrial revolution brought about massive change in social order. Marx called the result capitalism. Two classes emerged in this period – the bourgeoisie (capitalists) and the proletariat (workers). Factory owners exploited their workers in order to increase profits. There was an obvious and unfair split in society, which was only to grow in the future.

Marx predicted a revolution in which the proletariat would defeat the bourgeoisie and share ownership of the factories equally between themselves. Although this did not occur in Britain, it did in Russia, in 1917. The proletariat revolted and all means of production fell into public ownership – it became a socialist state. This was close to Marx’s ideological dream of communism, where there would be no ownership and everyone would have equal opportunities. However, ownership (despite being equal) still existed and there was still some stratification – some people had better, more highly respected, jobs than others. There was still inequality and competition.

A later theorist, Max Weber, was influenced by Marx’s work but disagreed with his theory, he thought it was too deterministic. Marx, a structuralist, believed that people were shaped by the society in which they lived. Weber, a social action theorist, believed that individuals create society by action and interaction. He also disagreed with Marx’s theory on stratification. Marx based his view on class structure on ownership of the means of production whilst Weber believed it was dependant on “life chances”. Life chances depended on wealth and skills; the upper class had the most advantageous life chances, and the poor (e.g. the unemployed, elderly and the homeless), the least. Class could be determined by economic situation, market situation, status and political party. Whilst Marx split society

into two distinct classes, Weber that saw social structure was more complex. The four main strata he identified were the upper class, the middle class, the working class and the poor. However, within these groups, were other, more subtle divisions, which depended on a number of variables including differences in income, opportunities for upwards mobility, security of employment, language, life-style and social estimation of others.

Functionalists take the view that social stratification is both essential to the running of society and inevitable. They believe that all social phenomena exist because they have a positive function to fulfill. Durkheim, a functionalist, described society as a living organism in which different organs with specific functions (e.g. education, work and government) are inter-related.

Davis and Moore, functionalist sociologists, believe that society is a meritocracy. This means that people are inspired and motivated to perform tasks by the promise of a reward. They say that social stratification is good as inequality drives people to better themselves and ensures that the most important positions in society are taken by the best qualified and most competent. They judge certain jobs to be of greater importance than others and believe that there is only a limited pool of talent in society from which these skilled workers can be found. In order to convert this raw talent into useful sills, people must make sacrifices. It is argued that these sacrifices are only made in order to reap the rewards at the end (higher salary/job satisfaction/prestige) and that, without this incentive, people would not bother to go through the training required. Therefore, there would be a shortage in qualified professionals.

Melvyn Tumin criticizes Davis and Moore’s theory that stratification is functional. He believed that, in stable systems of stratification, obstacles are built in, which further exploit the range of talent. This means that, in a smoothly working stratified society, inequality tends to grow and lots of talent is wasted. This is often due to class discrimination.

It has been argued, however, that an unstratified society is a possibility. Such a society, in which everyone is equal, is known as egalitarian. The Kibbutz system in Israel is a good example of how this could work. Roughly four percent of the Israeli population live in one of the country’s two hundred and forty Kibbutzim. The Kibbutz system was established in 1948 when the Jews reclaimed Israel from the Arabs, and was an attempt to escape from the individualism and competition that prevailed in most of the developed world. It is run according to the Marxist principle of “to each according to need, from each according to ability”.

Most Kibbutzim are agricultural communities with a population ranging between two hundred and seven hundred people. All property, including land, buildings and produce, is communally owned between the members of each Kibbutz. All communities are freely distributed to members as and when they are needed, and all services are freely available. Children are all brought up and educated communally. There are no economic differences within Kibbutzim as money is not used and general assemblies are held to make any major decisions. This may sound like an unstratified society, but Eva Rosenfeld, who studied a Kibbutz in 1974, argued that there is some stratification.

Her studies concluded that there were two distinct strata within Kibbutzim – ‘leader/manager’ who were elected to run the Kibbutz and to allocate jobs and ‘Rank and file’ who undertook these jobs. Although the leader/managers did not have any economic advantage over the rank and file, their jobs earned them more prestige. She found that there was an uneven distribution of ‘economic gratification’ – there was stratification but, unlike western societies, it was based on power and prestige rather than material wealth.

Rosenfeld’s findings show that, even in a society with no economic differences, there can still be social stratification. Within the Kibbutz system there is comparative equality but it is not truly unstratified. It is possibly the closest thing there is to an unstratified society in modern times. Tribal societies could also be said to be classless but, even in these situations, there are differences between individuals based on their status within the tribe – there are usually leaders and followers.

Social hierarchy can be based on the possession of different qualities in different communities, and some societies are more equal than others, but none can ever be completely unstratified as there will always be inequalities in certain areas, due to individual differences.

P.S: Remember that plagiarism is a crime!!

The 1990s have been characterized by the emergence of an underclass.’

Explain and evaluate

The term underclass is problematic in that there is no agreement between sociologists on what constitutes an underclass, or indeed whether an underclass exists. The term underclass was originally used in Weberian analysis of social stratification. Weberians assess social class according to the status and market position of the individual, and use the term ‘underclass’ to describe the social group which is located at the very bottom of the social structure. This class is seen as separate from the working class. Weberians argue that an underclass is made up of people who are economically disadvantaged and consequently have very weak market position. In addition, they believe that members of an underclass are unlikely to possess the labour skills necessary for them to be considered for employment, so demand for their services is limited. Furthermore, when employment is available, the wage that is offered is often so low that it prevents members of the underclass from participating fully in society. Weberians argue that, as a result, members of the underclass lack the social status, which results in them being deemed as having very little to offer society. This results in discrimination, so the cycle of deprivation is self-perpetuating.

According to Darendorf, the term underclass describes those who live in poverty and for whom poverty has become a way of life. In a similar vein, Frank Field MP defines an underclass as being made up of individuals who have little chance of escaping from poverty and a life on welfare benefits. Saunders defines an underclass as a ‘stratum of people who are generally poor, unqualified and irregularly or never employed’. Saunders’ New Right analysis of the underclass suggests that the underclass is on the increase, because one of his features of the underclass is deprivation, the number of those in deprivation seems to be on the increase.

Regardless of the definition of the underclass, evidence suggests that the population in this lowest stratum of society is growing. Despite government claims of all-time low numbers claiming the Job Seekers’ Allowance, evidence shows that there are record numbers of claimants for other benefits which are not linked to the dole queue, for example, income support and disability and mobility benefits. In addition, there is a huge number of single mothers claiming benefits who are effectively trapped in the poverty cycle and consequently do not have the financial means to participate fully in society. The position of the poor has been exacerbated during the 1990s when there has been a redistribution of income from the lowest to highest positions in society. The 1990s have also been a period of blame, when the poorest members of society have been seen as the ‘feckless’ poor and effectively blamed for their own impoverished condition.

Evidence put forward by Rex and Tomlinson demonstrates that members of ethnic groups are disproportionately represented within the lower echelons of society. According to Rex and Tomlinson, non-white individuals are more often found in a disadvantaged position both financially and socially. They argue that all too often members from ethnic groups do not have the material goods or benefits which are available to white members of the working class. Although they agree with the notion that the underclass is differentiated from the working class, Rex and Tomlinson perceive that members of ethnic

minority groups fall into this category more frequently than whites. They argue that blacks are more likely to be discriminated against in education, housing and employment, and that generally they have fewer life chances than the majority of the white members of the working class. Rex and Tomlinson also argue that individuals from ethnic minority groups can face social discrimination in that they are often excluded from white working class culture, and as a result are often forced to lead marginalized existences. Rex and Tomlinson describe an ‘immigrant underclass’, but successive government legislation has tightened immigration controls, so this part of the underclass has not increased much since the 1970s when Rex and Tomlinson first the used the term. It is important to note that the number of black individuals who form the underclass has not gone down either.

However, we should also bear in mind that not all members of ethnic groups are found in the lowest stratum of society. Evidence demonstrates that a higher percentage of African-Asians are in the professional classes than whites. In Weberian theory, class is marginalized while issues of discrimination and status are prioritized. However, according to Marxists, individuals from ethnic groups do not constitute a separate social class, but are objectively members of the proletariat. According to Castles and Kosack, who agree with the Weberian analysis in so far as ethnic minorities tend to be found in low paid, low status jobs or over-represented in the unemployment statistics, the root of the differences between black and white members of the proletariat, often constitute a reserve army of labour. However, in terms of status, it may be that the white members of this reserve army are one step of the ladder ahead of black members. Having a reserve army of labour keeps wage and pay demands down and is therefore essential for capitalism. This group of workers can be hired in times of boom and laid off in times of recession. However, Castles and Kosack believe that the proletariat is split in two. They argue that the most disadvantaged group comprises individuals from ethnic minorities, while the other group consists of indigenous whites. This is useful for the bourgeoisie because it gives them a scapegoat for Britain’s housing and employment problems. This can be especially applied in the 1990s, when blacks have been scapegoated by politicians and the media for the increase in crime rate and for the lack of housing and jobs in Britain. This can create further tension between blacks and whites and result in further discrimination. This is problematic for Marxists because while the black and white proletariat fight each other, it prevents the development of class consciousness. Marxists would reject the idea that an underclass has emerged in the 1990s but would accept that there has been an increase in the number of individuals in poverty.

It can be argued that whether sociologists agree or disagree about the term underclass, there is a group in society who live below the poverty line and as a consequence are unable to participate fully in society. Although poverty in Britain is now new, the 1990s have been a period of greed and self-interest during which British society has become a place of ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and the gap between rich and poor has grown immensely. It can be argued that people are no longer surprised to find those on benefits fitting the category of underclass. However, recent evidence on poverty shows that a quarter of all those who live in poverty in Britain today are elderly. In addition, a high percentage of those living in poverty are actually working in full-time positions. In a country where a welfare state was introduced to act as a safety net, the 1990s have seen the return of many diseases which are directly associated with poverty.