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Is Stratification Universal?
Is it necessary that some members of society receive greater rewards than others? Can social life be organized without structured inequality? Do people need to feel socially and economically superior to others? These questions have been debated by social theorists (and by the "average" woman and man) for centuries.
Such issues of stratification have also been of deep concern to political activists. Utopian socialists, religious minorities, and members of the counterculture of the 1960s have all attempted to establish communities which, to some extent or other, would abolish inequality in social relationships. Some of these experiments, including the Israeli kibbutz and the communes of the 1960s.
Social scientific research has revealed that in- equality exists in all societies—even the simplest of cultures. For example, when anthropologist Gunnar Landtman (1968, original edition 1938) studied the Kiwai Papuans of New Guinea, he initially noticed little differentiation among them. Every man in the village performed the same work and lived in similar housing. However, upon closer inspection, Landtman observed that certain Papuans—the men who were warriors, harpooners, and sorcerers—were described as "a little more high" than others. By contrast, villagers who were female, unemployed, or unmarried were considered "down a little bit" and were barred from owning land.
Stratification is universal in that all societies maintain some form of differentiation among members. Depending on its values, a society may assign people to distinctive ranks based on their religious knowledge, skill in hunting, beauty, trading expertise, or ability to provide health care. But why has such inequality developed in human societies? How much differentiation among people, if any, is actually essential?
Functionalist and conflict sociologists offer contrasting explanations for the existence and necessity of social stratification. Functionalists maintain that a differential system of rewards and punishments is necessary for the efficient operation of society. Conflict theorists argue that competition for scarce resources results in significant political, economic, and social inequality. The Functionalist AnswerWould people go to school for many years to become physicians if they could make as much money and gain as much respect working as street cleaners? Functionalists reply in the negative, which is partly why they believe that a stratified society is universal.
In the view of Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore (1945), society must distribute its members among a variety of social positions. It must not only make sure that these positions are filled but also see that they are staffed by people with the appropriate talents and abilities. Thus, rewards, including money and prestige, are based on the importance of a position and the relative scarcity of qualified personnel.
Davis and Moore argue that stratification is universal and that social inequality is necessary so that people will be motivated to fill functionally important positions. One critique of this functionalist explanation of stratification holds that unequal rewards are not the only means of encouraging people to fill critical positions and occupations. Personal pleasure, intrinsic satisfaction, and value orientations motivate people to enter particular careers. Functionalists agree but note that society must use some type of rewards to motivate people to enter unpleasant or dangerous jobs, as well as jobs that require a long training period. However, this response does not justify stratification systems such as slave or caste societies in which status is largely inherited (R. Collins, 1975; Kerbo, 1983:129-135; Tumin, 1953, 1985:16-17).
Even if stratification is inevitable, the functionalist explanation for differential rewards does not explain the wide disparity between the rich and the poor. Critics of the functionalist approach point out that the richest 10 percent of households account for 21 percent of the nation's income in Sweden, 24 percent in Norway, 29 percent in the United States, and 32 percent in France. In their view, the level of inequality found in contemporary industrial societies cannot be defended—even though these societies have a legitimate need to fill certain key occupations (Vinokur and Ofer, 1986).
The Conflict ResponseAs was noted in Chapter 1, the intellectual tradition at the heart of conflict theory begins principally with the writings of Karl Marx. Marx viewed history as a continuous struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed which would ultimately culminate in an egalitarian, classless society. In terms of stratification, he argued that the dominant class under capitalism—the bourgeoisie—manipulated the economic and political systems in order to maintain control over the exploited proletariat. Marx did not believe that stratification was inevitable, but he did see inequality and oppression as inherent in capitalism (E. Wright, 1980a, 1980b; E. Wright et al., 1982).
Contemporary conflict theorists believe that human beings are prone to conflict over such scarce resources as wealth, status, and power. However, where Marx focused primarily on class conflict, more recent theorists have extended this analysis to include conflicts based on gender, race, age, and other dimensions. Sociologist Ralf Dahrendorf, currently president of the respected London School of Economics, is one of the most influential contributors to the conflict approach.
Dahrendorf (1959) has argued that while Marx's analysis of capitalist society was basically correct, it must be modified if it is to be applied to modern capitalist societies. Yor Dahrendorf, social classes are groups of people who share common interests resulting from authority relationships. In identifying the most powerful groups in society, he includes not only the bourgeoisie—the owners of the means of production—but also the managers of industry, legislators, the judiciary, heads of the government bureaucracy, and others. In one respect, Dahrendorf has merged Marx's emphasis on class conflict with Weber's recognition that power is an important element of stratification (Cuff and Payne, 1979:81-84; E. Wright, 1980a, 1980b).
Conflict theorists, including Dahrendorf, contend that the powerful of today, like the bourgeois of Marx's time, want society to run smoothly so that they can enjoy their privileged positions. The status quo is satisfactory to those with wealth, status, and power; thus, they have a clear interest in preventing, minimizing, or at least controlling societal conflict.
The powerful, such as leaders of government, use limited social reforms to buy off the oppressed and reduce the danger of challenges to their dominance. For example, minimum wage laws and unemployment compensation unquestionably give some valuable assistance to needy Americans. Yet these reforms also have the effect of pacifying those who might otherwise become disgruntled and rebellious. Of course, in the view of conflict theorists, such maneuvers can never eliminate conflict, since workers will continue to demand equality and the powerful will not give up their control of society.
Conflict theorists see stratification as a major source of societal tension and conflict. They do not agree with Davis and Moore that stratification is functional for a society or that it serves as a source of stability. Rather, conflict sociologists argue that stratification will inevitably lead to instability and to social change (R. Collins, 1975:62; L. Coser, 1977:580-581).
Lenski's Approach: A SynthesisSociologist Cerhard Lenski, Jr. (1966; Lenski and Lenski, 1987) has offered a view of stratification which synthesizes certain elements of the functionalist and conflict approaches. Lenski believes that each of these perspectives is valid under certain conditions and those different stages of technological development lead to different systems of stratification.
Lenski describes the process of change in economic systems as their level of technology becomes more complex, moving from hunting to industrial society. Subsistence-based, hunting-and-gathering so-cities, people are focused on survival. While in-quality and differentiation are evident, a stratification system based on social class does not emerge cause there is no real wealth to be claimed. Essentially, Lenski agrees with functionalists at the key resources of a society are allocated for persons who occupy important roles. However, as a society advances in terms of tech-logy, it becomes capable of producing a considerable surplus of goods. Consequently, a definite and rigid social class system develops with, for example, a ruling class, a merchant class, and a peasant class. Surplus resources disproportionately distributed to those individuals and classes with the greatest status, influence, and power.
Such unequal allocation of resources leads to e societal tension and conflict discussed by Marx, Dahrendorf, and contemporary conflict theorists. Yet, in Lenski's view, inequality does not necessarily increase with industrialization. In order to minimize strikes, slowdowns, and industrial sabotage, the elites share a portion of the economic surplus with the lower classes. At the same time, the elites are able to maintain their power and privilege.
We now return to the question posed earlier—"Is stratification universal?"—and consider the sociological response. Some form of differentiation is found in every culture, including the advanced industrial societies of our time. As Lenski has argued, the allocation of surplus goods and services—controlled by those with wealth, status, and power—reinforces the social inequality which accompanies stratification systems. While this reward system may once have served the overall purposes of society, as functionalists contend, the same cannot be said for present disparities separating the "haves" of current societies from the "have-nots."
Later in this chapter, we will observe the ways in which people's very health and well-being are influenced by their positions in the stratification system. Whatever their theoretical differences, sociologists agree that social class is an extremely important variable in stratification.
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