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11.6: Social Stratification

Social stratification is a society’s categorization of people into socioeconomic strata, based upon their occupation and income, wealth and social status, or derived power (social and political). As such, stratification is the relative social position of persons within a social group, category, geographic region, or social unit. In modern Western societies, social stratification typically is distinguished as three social classes: (i) the upper class, (ii) the middle class, and (iii) the lower class; in turn, each class can be subdivided into strata, e.g. the upper-stratum, the middle-stratum, and the lower stratum.[1] Moreover, a social stratum can be formed upon the bases of kinship or caste, or both.

The categorization of people by social strata occurs in all societies, ranging from the complex, state-based societies to tribal and feudal societies, which are based upon socio-economic relations among classes of nobility and classes of peasants. Historically, whether or not hunter-gatherer societies can be defined as socially stratified or if social stratification began with agriculture and common acts of social exchange, remains a debated matter in the social sciences.[2] Determining the structures of social stratification arises from inequalities of status among persons, therefore, the degree of social inequality determines a person’s social stratum. Generally, the greater the social complexity of a society, the more social strata exist, by way of social differentiation.[3]

An open class system is the stratification that facilitates social mobility, with individual achievement and personal merit determining social rank. The hierarchical social status of a person is achieved through their effort. Any status that is based on family background, ethnicity, gender, and religion, which is also known as ascribed status, becomes less important. There is no distinct line between the classes and there would be more positions within that status. Core industrial nations seem to have more of an ideal open class system.[4][5]

Caste is a form of social stratification characterized by endogamy, hereditary transmission of a lifestyle which often includes an occupation, status in a hierarchy and customary social interaction and exclusion based on cultural notions of superiority.[6][7]


  1. a b Saunders, Peter (1990). Social Class and Stratification. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-415-04125-6.
  2. Toye, David L. (May 2004). “The Emergence of Complex Societies: A Comparative Approach”. World History Connected 11 (2).
  3. a b c Grusky, David B. (2011). “Theories of Stratification and Inequality”. In Ritzer, George and J. Michael Ryan (eds.). The Concise Encyclopedia of Sociology. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 622–624. Retrieved 23 June 2014.
  4. Windows on Humanity by Conrad Kottak. Chapter 17, page 398.
  5. Sociology and You by Shepard and Greene McGraw Hill.A-26
  6. Scott & Marshall 2005, p. 66. 
  7. Winthrop 1991, pp. 27–30.