# 7.5C: Power and Inequality

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Power and inequality determine the socioeconomic conditions of different classes.

Learning Objectives

• Discuss the four basic assumptions of social stratification theory

## Key Points

• Social stratification is a concept involving the classification of persons into groups based on shared socioeconomic conditions.
• Conflict theories, such as Marxism, focus on the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility found in stratified societies.
• Social stratification has been shown to cause many social problems, including homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression, teen suicide, and a high prison population.
• In modern Western societies, stratification is broadly organized into three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class.
• Conflict theories, such as Marxism, point to the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility found in stratified societies.
• In Marxist theory, the capitalist mode of production consists of two main economic parts: the substructure and the Superstructure. Marx
• Social stratification has been shown to cause many social problems.

## Key Terms

• Marxist Theory: An economic and sociopolitical worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry centered upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and an analysis–critique of the development of capitalism.
• Conflict Theories: Perspectives in social science that emphasize the social, political, or material inequality of a social group, critique the broad socio-political system, or otherwise detract from structural functionalism and ideological conservatism.
• Weberian: Of or relating to Max Weber (1864–1920), influential German sociologist and political economist.

## Power and Inequality

In social science and politics, power is the ability to influence the behavior of people. The term authority is often used for power perceived as legitimate by the social structure. Power can be seen as evil or unjust, but the exercise of power is accepted as endemic to (or regularly found in) humans as social beings. French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926–1984) saw power as “a complex strategic situation in a given society social setting”. Power may be held through authority, social class (material wealth), personal charisma, expertise or knowledge, persuasion, force (such as law or violence), and a myriad of other dynamics.

Because power operates both relationally and reciprocally, sociologists speak of the balance of power between people in a relationship. All parties to all relationships have some power; the sociological examination of power concerns itself with discovering and describing the relative strengths – equal or unequal, stable or subject to periodic change. Given that power is not innate and can be granted to others, to acquire power you must possess or control a form of power currency (such as wealth, social status, authority, etc.).

## Social inequality and stratification

Social inequality refers to relational processes in society that have the effect of limiting or harming a group’s social status, social class, and social circle. Areas of social inequality include access to voting rights, freedom of speech and assembly, the extent of property rights and access to education, health care, quality housing, traveling, transportation, vacationing and other social goods and services.

The reasons for social inequality can vary, but are often broad and far reaching. Social inequality can emerge through a society’s understanding of appropriate gender roles, or through the prevalence of social stereotyping. They can also be established through discriminatory legislation. Social inequalities exist between ethnic or religious groups, classes and countries, making the concept a global phenomenon.

In sociology, social stratification is a concept involving the classification of persons into groups based on shared socioeconomic conditions; it is a relational set of inequalities with economic, social, political and ideological dimensions. Theories of social stratification are based on four basic principles:

1. Social stratification is a trait of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences.
2. Social stratification carries over from generation to generation.
3. Social stratification is universal but variable.
4. Social stratification involves not just inequality but beliefs as well.

## Classifications of stratification

In modern Western societies, stratification is broadly organized into three main layers: upper class, middle class, and lower class.

The upper class in modern societies is the social class composed of the wealthiest members of society, who also wield the greatest political power. The upper class is generally contained within the wealthiest 1–2 percent of the population, with wealth passed from generation to generation.

In Weberian socioeconomic terms, the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socioeconomically between the working class and upper class. The common measures of what constitutes middle class vary significantly between cultures.

The working class describes the group of people employed in lower tier jobs, often including those in unemployment or otherwise possessing below-average incomes. Working classes are mainly found in industrialized economies and in urban areas of non-industrialized economies.

## Social Stratification and Marxism

Conflict theories, such as Marxism, focus on the inaccessibility of resources and lack of social mobility found in stratified societies. Many sociological theorists have criticized the extent to which the working classes are unlikely to advance socioeconomically; the wealthy tend to hold political power which they use to exploit the proletariat inter-generationally.

In Marxist theory, the capitalist mode of production consists of two main economic parts: the substructure and the superstructure. Marx saw classes as defined by people’s relationship to the means of productions in two basic ways: either they own productive property or they labor for others. The base comprehends the forces and relations of production: employer-employee work conditions, the technical division of labor, and property relations—into which people enter to produce the necessities and amenities of life. These relations determine society’s other relationships and ideas, which are described as its superstructure. The superstructure of a society includes its culture, institutions, political power structures, roles, rituals, and state.

Social stratification has been shown to cause many social problems. A comprehensive study of major world economies revealed that homicide, infant mortality, obesity, teenage pregnancies, emotional depression, teen suicide, and prison population all correlate with higher social inequality.

There are three common characteristics of stratified systems:

1. Rankings apply to social categories of people who share a common characteristic without necessarily interacting or identifying with each other. The process of being ranked can be changed by the person being ranked, and it can differ based on race, gender, and social class.
2. People’s life experiences and opportunities depend on their social category. This characteristic can be changed by the amount of work a person can put into their interests. The use of resources can influence others.
3. The ranks of different social categories change slowly over time. This has occurred frequently in the United States ever since the American revolution—the U.S. Constitution has been altered several times to specify rights for everyone.

7.5C: Power and Inequality is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.