Unit Seven: Social Stratification

All social groups and societies contain differences amongst their members. Some groups have more access to the resources of society than others.  This means the daily life experiences of the various groups will be different.  Since there exists an unequal distribution of resources between group members, social stratification then, looks at the structured social inequality.  This unit will look at how groups of individuals, as well as nations, can be organized around a system of inequality.

titanicSocial Stratification refers to  a system in which people are divided or ranked into layers according to their relative power, property, and prestige.  This hierarchical arrangement in society allows different access to power and resources.  Every society stratifies its members.  Some societies have greater inequality than others, but stratification is universal.  Social stratification persists over generations and involves not only inequality, but an established belief system to support it.  Social stratification is an important element in our daily lives, and it can even determine if we live or die.  At the bottom of the page I have recommended the movie “Titanic“.  An assessment of the survivors found that 60% of first-class passengers survived, 36% of second-class passengers, and only 24% of third-class passengers survived. There have been three main systems of stratification throughout history: slavery, caste, and class.  Each is explored in greater detail below.

Systems of Stratification


Although slavery still exists today, it does not receive overt governmental or cultural support. Yet, historically slavery as an institution existed in many of the world’s dominant cultures.  Very few cultures of the world have avoided being enslaved by others.

slaveryCauses of Slavery.  Throughout history, people have been enslaved for three main reasons.  The first is the repayment of a debt.  In some cultures an individual who cannot pay a debt might be enslaved by the creditor.  Once the debt was paid the slave was to regain his freedom.  A second cause of slavery was for the violation of a law, such as murder or robbery.  A murderer or thief might be enslaved by the family of the victim as compensation for their loss.  The most common way to end up a slave occurred through war and conquest.  The losing group in a battle would often become slaves.

Conditions of Slavery.  The conditions of slaves varied by culture.  In some cases, slavery was temporary. You might be a slave for a set number of years, or you might be able to buy your way out.  Slavery was not always inherited by birth.  In some cultures, children of slaves were free.  Finally, not all slaves were powerless and poor.  Some slaves accumulated vast sums of wealth.  However, most slaves owned no property and were powerless.

1.  Excerpts from Slave Narratives

Slavery in the New World.  Slavery as an institution paralleled the development of the new world. The economies of the United States and Latin America depended on slave labor.  One new area of research on slavery in the New World takes a new look at the connection between slavery and racism.  It has long been believed that racism came first and that slavery was a byproduct of such racism.  New research seems to suggest the opposite.  Racism didn’t lead to slavery, but rather slavery led to racism.  European culture developed an ideology to defend slavery that made their culture superior and other cultures, particularly African, inferior.

1.  Focus on Slavery in the New World

2.  Life Aboard a Slave Ship

modernslaverySlavery Today.  Slavery still exists in some parts of the world today.  In some countries of the world such as the Sudan, slaves are an important source of labor.  In other parts of the world where agricultural production is important, slaves are used in the production and harvesting of export crops. But in much of the rest of the world, sex has become an important element in slavery.  Many women around the world are bought and sold as sex slaves.  Much of this activity is controlled by organized crime.

1.  Modern Slave Trade-freetheslaves.net

2.  Child Slavery

3.  Slavery in the United States Today

4.   Restaveks:  Haiti’s Child Slaves

5.   U.S. State Department Trafficking of Persons Report



untouchablesA caste system is a society where one’s status is ascribed.  A caste is determined by birth and lasts a lifetime.  Caste is enforced through endogamy (marriage within one’s group) and restrictions on occupations and residence.  The caste system is a rigid hierarchy which is preserved through formal law and cultural practices.  A case system is closed, where birth alone decides one’s position in life.  People are ranked in rigid categories, and there is little or no social mobility based on individual effort.  The most notable caste system is in India.  Although the Indian caste system is no longer sanctioned by the government, its effects remain.  Many people in India still cling to notions of superiority and inferiority for different groups.  Another example of the caste system was the apartheid system in South Africa prior to its removal in the early 1990’s.  Here’s a question to ponder.  Was the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s an example of a caste system?

1.  The Caste System and Hinduism

2.  Caste, and The God of Small Things

3.  Broken People:  Violence Against India’s “Untouchables”

4.  India’s Dalits Protest Discrimination by Refusing Letting Dead Cows Rot on the Streets


A class based system is the most common form of stratification today.  The United States operates in a class based system.  A class system is a way of ranking groups according to their relative power, property, and prestige.  The main distinction between a class based system and slavery and caste, is that a class system is much more open.  In other words, the ability for one’s social class to change is greater for class based systems.  This is one reason why so many people emigrate to the United States.  In a class based system, there are no laws that specify occupations or marriage arrangements based on birth.  A class system allows for social mobility, or the movement up and down the social ladder.  A more detailed account of social class can be found below.

What is Social Class?

socialclass1Imagine for a moment, that on the same day a child is born to a wealthy family, such as the Rockerfellers or the Fords, and a child is born to a family where both parents work at jobs that pay minimum wage.  Would the experiences these children have be different from one another?  Would there chances for success be different?  This unit will explore how social class influences every aspect of your life, from school experiences, to parental and gender roles, to which political party you vote for.  As the picture to the left shows, social class exists in all societies, including ancient Egypt.

Social Class refers to  a large group of people who rank close to one another in wealth, power, and prestige.  Generally speaking, the components of social class are educational attainment, occupation, prestige, and income. In comparison to slavery and caste, the boundaries between classes are less defined, and therefore, there is a higher degree of mobility.  Even so, class systems are marked by an unequal distribution of wealth, power, and prestige.

We should probably stop for a moment and define wealth, power and prestige.  Wealth involves adding one’s property and income.  Property refers to such things as land, homes, automobiles, jewelry, stocks and so on.  Income refers to such things as salaries, rents, and interest.  In the United States there is an unequal distribution of wealth and income.    The richest 1% of families are worth more than the bottom 90% of Americans. With respect to the distribution of income, according to the Congressional Budget Office, in 2013 the top 20% of the population receive 53% of all income.  The bottom 20% receives only 5% of the nation’s income.   Statistics indicate growing inequality.  The richest 20% have grown richer, while the bottom 20% have grown  poorer.  The average CEO pay is 340 times that of the average worker.

prestige1Power refers to the ability to carry out your will despite resistance.  C. Wright Mills talks about the power elite, a group of people in the top two classes who seem to steer the direction of American society.  Mills claimed that the power elite control the three major sectors of American society- the government, the military, and the business world.  Many of these powerful people change from one sector to another.  Power elite theorists would point out that many former generals in the military upon retirement, take important jobs at multinational corporations, many in the defense industry.   Prestige refers to the respect accorded to one’s position.  Why do some jobs have more prestige?  Some jobs have more prestige than others because of the following four factors: 1)  They pay more,  2) They require more education, 3) They entail more abstract thought,  and 4) They offer greater freedom, or self-direction.  Historically prestige has been displayed in different ways, from dress to how one leaves a room, to how far over one bows.  Modern displays of prestige can be found in such things as where one lives, what type of car one drives, and in the wearing of designer clothing.

1.  Wealth, Income, and Power in America

2.  Inequality.org

3.  Top Generals Getting Jobs in the Defense Industry

4.  Just 158 Families Have Donated Over Half of All Money to Political Campaigns

5.  Top 1% Owns 50% of the World’s Wealth

6.  America’s richest 20 people own more than the bottom half of America – 152 million people combined

7.  Yes- There is a Ruling Class

8.  Wealth of the World’s 62 Richest People Equals that of the Poorest 3.6 Billion

9.  Research on the Revolving Door Between Government and Major Corporations

10.  George Carlin Explains the Loss of the American Dream and Who Runs the Country

11.  Politician Tells a Group of Bankers He Only Meets With Lobbyists Who Give Him Cash


When [the candidates] call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.” – Donald Trump on the campaign trail in the summer of 2015


The U.S. Social Class Ladder

Karl Marx believed there were only two classes, the capitalists and the workers.  Sociologists today have updated Marx’s classifications.  Most sociologists today believe there are six class divisions in the United States.  Social class can sometimes be best understood by comparing it to a ladder, with those at the top of the ladder enjoying a higher standard of living than those at the bottom.

oldmoneyThe Capitalist Class.  This class is made up of the extremely wealthy.  They comprise approximately 1% of the population.  The capitalist class is divided into two categories: “old” and “new” money.  Old money refers to families that have been wealthy for generations. Families like the Rockerfellers, Vanderbilts, and Morgans fall into this category.  New money consists of individuals who have made money in areas such as the stock market, entertainment, sports, or the internet.  Those who are in the new money category lack the influential social networks that those in old money enjoy.  Individuals in the capitalist class typically earn over $1,000,000 per year.  They have probably attended prestigious universities.  They occupy the top executive positions in America’s corporations.

1.  21 CEO’s Get “Golden Parachute” of over $100 Million Each

2.  Research Showing Wealthy People Less Ethical (youtube video)

3. The Ultra-Rich Are Hiding Way More Money Overseas Than People Realize

The Upper Middle Class.  For members of the upper middles class, education is extremely important.  Their wealth, power, and prestige they acquired are a result of mastering difficult skills.  People in the upper middle class usually have postgraduate degrees.  They represent the professionals and upper managers that run the various institutions in the United States.  They make up approximately 15% of the population, and earn somewhere in the area of $125,000 a year.

The Lower Middle Class.  Roughly 34% of our nation’s population falls in the lower middle class category.  Individuals in this class typically have some college training.  They constitute the lower level managers and semi-professionals in the various institutions in American society. They earn around $60,000 a year.  Most of the degree programs offered at a technical college will place people in the lower middle class.

  1. Goodbye Middle Class: 51% of Americans Make Less Than $30,000 a Year

factoryworkersThe Working Class.  Approximately 30% of the population is considered working class. Members of the working class generally have only a high school education, and therefore have fewer marketable skills.  Most factory and clerical workers are working class. They average around $35,000 a year in salary.  Many working class jobs offer little personal satisfaction, have continual supervision, and provide few benefits.

  1.  Child Care is So Expensive That Only the Rich Can Afford It
  2. Death Rates Go Up For Blue-Collar, Middle Aged White Americans
  3. Corporations Offer Paid Leave to Management, But Not to Lower Income Employees

The Working Poor.  Members of the working poor constitute roughly 16% of the population.  They may or may not have a high school education.  They earn between $18,000 – 20,000 a year.  They work at unskilled, low-paying, temporary jobs.  Many are functionally illiterate.  Many work at minimum wage jobs.  Laborers and workers in the service industry, such as a fast food restaurant or at a hotel, are the working poor.

1.  Working Class:  White Trash, the Construction of an American Scapegoat

2.  Schools Are Humiliating Students Whose Parents Don’t Pay Their Lunch Bills

3.  The Vicious Cycle of Losing a Drivers License Over Court Debt

The Underclass.  The underclass represent the lowest tier in the social class ladder.  They constitute about 4% of the population.  Because they are often unemployed, working part-time, or on welfare, they only earn approximately $10,000 a year.  Since they typically have very little education, they consequently have few marketable skills.  Most of the underclass are concentrated in large urban areas.  They are often individuals who have had a difficult time adjusting to a highly technical society.

1.  People Like Us: Social Class in America

2.  The Rich Are Winning the US Class War


Consequences of Social Class

The social class one occupies affects every aspect of a person’s life.  Listed below is a short description of how social class impacts various aspects of a person’s life.

Social Class and Family Life.  A person’s social class will affect such family issues as how to raise a child, the selection of a marital partner and the incidence of divorce.  Members of the upper classes tend to stress the importance of family history, and hence, see mate selection as something that affects more than just the individual.  Divorce rates are higher for the lower classes.  Working class parents tend to encourage children to conform to conventional norms and obey authority figures.  Upper class parents tend to encourage their children to express their individuality and use their imaginations.

Social Class and Politics.  One’s social class influences how one views the world.  Thus, political views are shaped by the family, work, and educational institutions of society.  There are always exceptions, but generally speaking, the higher you are on the social ladder the more likely you are to vote Republican.  The lower classes, which feel less secure about their livelihood, are more likely to vote Democratic.  The working classes tend to be more liberal on economic issues, but more conservative on social issues.  The upper-classes tend to be the opposite, having conservative economic views and liberal social views.

Social Class and Health.  One’s social class has a direct impact on one’s health. Rich people live longer than poor people.   The lower one is on the social ladder, the more likely they are to die before the expected age.  One of the main reasons for this is that there is less access to health care for the classes at the bottom of the social ladder.  Unsafe and unhealthy work environments are other contributing factors.  The members of the lower classes also have more mental health problems due to the stress package that comes with living in poverty.  Those at the top of the social class ladder have more access to nutritious food, safe work environments, and regular medical care, factors which promote a longer life-span.

1.  Cancer Alley

2.  Equity in Health

3.  Working Class Americans Getting Ill From Making Our  Furniture

4.  Social Class, Income and College Graduation Rates

Social Class and Technology.  With the movement to an information based society, those in the lower classes have a more difficult time adjusting to new technology, and henceforth, finding good paying jobs.  The upper classes benefit from the technology because they can move a business from one country to another and because they manage the technology.  The poor do not benefit.  Their bargaining power is decreased.  As new technology enters the workplace, it eliminates jobs.  The lower classes have even less to offer in the marketplace.  Their lack of education puts them in menial jobs.

To summarize, social class affects and influences every interest that a person has and every situation that a person encounters.  Click on the link below to see how social class influences a person’s taste in music.

Social class and taste in Music

Social Mobility

Sociologists have classified social mobility into three categories.  The first is intergenerational mobility.  Intergenerational mobility refers to changes in social class from one generation to another.  For example, recent immigrants may live their lives in the working class, but their sons and daughters may rise up to the upper middle class.  Structural Mobility refers to movements up or down the social class ladder due to structural changes in society, not individual efforts.  An example of upward structural mobility would be individuals who have made millions in new internet companies. An example of downward structural mobility would be those who lose good paying factory jobs and have to take lower paying service jobs.  Exchange Mobility refers to  people in one area move up, while people in another area move down.  A balance is maintained.  For example, many people with computer jobs may move up the social ladder, but an equal number of people who lost high paying factory jobs might move down the ladder.  It is important to remember that people can move up or down the social ladder.

Generally speaking, the rate of upward social mobility is higher in industrial and post-industrial countries than in pre-industrial countries.  Social mobility for men has been proven, but it has been difficult to prove for women.  Many women have remained employed in specific job clusters, and so the research is unclear.  Within a single generation, social mobility is uncommon.  The old “rags to riches” story is rare.  Although social mobility stills exists today and was widespread in parts of United States history, recently it has been harder to achieve. The opportunities for the children of poor families to experience upward mobility has not improved in many decades.  The “American Dream”, where someone can work hard to achieve success has become increasingly difficult. Wages, incomes and good paying jobs have all declined.

1.  The “Myth” of Social Mobility?

2.  Is Social Mobility Getting Harder to Achieve?

3.  More Social Mobility is Found in More Equal Societies

4.  Downward Social Mobility for the Middle Class

5.  Social Mobility and Its Connection to Race (Great Charts)

Theories of  Stratification

Social stratification focuses on the social inequality that exists in society at large. Therefore, the two perspectives that have something to say on this issue are conflict theory and structural- functionalist theory.

The Structural-Functionalist Perspective.  As you recall from earlier discussions, structural-functionalists believe that a harmonious society is one characterized by cohesion, cooperation, and stability.  For a society to run smoothly, it must be carefully managed.  Positions in government, business, schools, and other social institutions need to be filled by qualified individuals if a society is to operate smoothly. Therefore, according to structural-functionalist perspective, social stratification exists to motivate qualified people into those important positions. This perspective emphasizes that stratification is inevitable for the following reasons:

1)  Society must make certain that its positions are filled.

2)  Some positions are more important than others.

3)  The more important positions must be filled by the most qualified people.

4)   To motivate the more qualified people to fill these positions, society must offer them greater rewards.

heartsurgeonPositions with greater responsibility require greater accountability.  They also require a huge investment in time, energy, and money.  Think of a heart surgeon.  To become one requires paying for an expensive medical education for at least 10 years.  How do we motivate someone to put up with such demanding schedules and expensive bills?  According to structural-functionalists, we do it by offering doctors great rewards.   This function of rewarding people with talent has developed in modern societies a meritocracy, which is a stratified society based on personal merit.  In such a society equality of opportunity is promoted, while at the same time,  establishing a system of unequal rewards.

Not everyone agrees with this viewpoint.  Some sociologists want to know, how do you measure the importance of a position?  How do we know lawyers are more important than physical therapists?  How do we know that a famous celebrity that makes $50 million dollars a year contributes more to our society than an engineer?  They would also point out that not all positions are awarded on merit.  The sons and daughters of wealthy parents tend to end up with nice jobs.  In 1996, Gilbert Amelio, CEO of Apple Computers, laid off more than 4,000 employees and saw Apple stock lose 40% of its value, but still paid himself more than $23 million.  Finally, if stratification is functional, then it should benefit everyone in society.  Clearly it does not.

sheiksThe Conflict Perspective.  Conflict theorists believe that society is held together by conflict and coercion, instead of function.  From a conflict perspective, society is based on groups competing for scarce resources.  Some groups have more power and resources than others. Those groups with an advantage do not want to share with those groups who are at a disadvantage.  Conflict theorists believe that society is ruled by the privileged elites.  These ruling elites, who have the most resources, tend to dominate and exploit the less privileged groups in society.  According to conflict theorists, inequality allows elites to control the distribution of resources, enforce laws, and influence value systems.  Thus, the lower classes in society experience blocked social mobility.

Global Stratification

Just as individuals within a society can be ranked according to power, property, and prestige, so too can countries around the world.  There are rich countries and there are poor countries. The term global stratification refers to patterns of social inequality in the world as a whole. The degree of stratification that exists in a society can vary.  Click on the link below to see a comparison of stratification in the United States, Germany, and Brazil.   Below is a description of some of the characteristics of the global system of stratification.

Distribution of Income Among Five Quintiles in Three Countries

World Inequality Report: 2018


Modern Classifications of Global Stratification

There are three main classifications for global stratification.  These new terms are the result of recent cultural and political changes.  The three classifications are:

1)  Most Industrialized.  Countries with the most modern, industrialized economies.  Most of these countries have moved into the “post-industrial” phase of societal development.  Examples would be: the United States, most of Europe, and Japan.  These are the wealthiest countries of the world.  These countries have the highest standard of living.  Most people live in homes with electricity and indoor plumbing.  Most children attend public schools.  People in these societies have the longest life expectancy.  Average annual income per person ranges $10,000 a year in South Africa to $35,000 in Norway.  These countries make up 18% of the world’s population but enjoy 79% of the world’s total income.

2)  Industrializing.  These are economies that are in the process of industrializing on a mass scale.  They still have a reliance on small farms and businesses.  Examples would be Russia, Eastern Europe, Mexico, and the Philippines. Average annual income per person is between $3,000 and $10,000 a year.  Some groups of people (mainly those living in cities) have prosperous lives, while many living in rural areas struggle with poverty. People in industrializing societies make up 70% of the world’s population.

3)  Least Industrialized.  These are economies where there is little industrialization.  A large percentage of the work force is employed in the agricultural sector.  Much of Africa, parts of South America, and some Asian nations fall into this category. These are the poorest nations of the world. Many citizens do not have access to electricity and indoor plumbing in their homes.  They have the lowest life expectancy.  Average annual income per person is less than $3,000 a year.  People in least-industrialized countries make up 12% of the world’s population.

1.  Living in and on a Dump in Guatemala (youtube video)

2.  Global Stratification Statistics

The daily life experiences of people around the world vary greatly depending on whether they belong to a developed, developing, or least developed country. In terms of income, the gap between the richest and poorest countries is quite severe. The information below shows how different life experiences can be for people around the world based on social stratification.


With respect to income, there is a huge disparity between countries.  The charts below demonstrate how the more developed countries have much larger incomes than the people who live in the least developed countries.


1. Global Map of Billionaires


Health Issues

There are a number of health issues that affect a person’s life.  Life expectancy rates and mortality rates are the most important.  Health outcomes in more developed countries are much better, especially for the wealthy, compared to people who live in the less developed countries.

Maternal Death Rates:  For women giving birth to a child has always been a risky affair. It has been especially more so in less developed countries. The high number of maternal deaths in some areas of the world reflects inequities in access to health services, and highlights the gap between rich and poor.  Research from the World Health Organization shows that almost all maternal deaths (99%) occur in developing countries. The maternal mortality ratio in developing countries in 2015 is 239 per 100 000 live births versus 12 per 100 000 live births in developed countries. There are large disparities between countries, but also within countries, and between women with high and low income and those women living in rural versus urban areas. Women in developing countries have, on average, many more pregnancies than women in developed countries, and their lifetime risk of death due to pregnancy is higher. A woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death – the probability that a 15 year old woman will eventually die from a maternal cause – is 1 in 4900 in developed countries, versus 1 in 180 in developing countries.

Infant Mortality Rates:  According to the World Health Organization, in 2015, 4.5 million (75% of all under-five deaths) occurred within the first year of life. Globally, the infant mortality rate has decreased from an estimated rate of 63 deaths per 1000 live births in 1990 to 32 deaths per 1000 live births in 2015.  The infant mortality rates are much higher in less developed countries compared to the less developed countries.  Too many mothers in the poorer countries experience the loss of a child.  For example, in Afghanistan the infant mortality rate is 117.23 per thousand live births.  In a more developed country like Japan, the infant mortality rate is 2.13.

Life Expectancy Rates: According to a World Health Organization report in 2013, life expectancy at birth for both sexes globally was 71 years, ranging from 62 years in low-income countries to 79 years in high-income countries, giving a ratio of 1.3 between the two income groups. Women live longer than men all around the world. The gap in life expectancy between the sexes was 5 years in 1990 and had remained the same by 2013. The gap is much larger in high-income countries (more than six years) than in low-income countries (around three years). Life expectancy at age 60 reflects the overall mortality level of a population over 60 years. In 2013, the global population aged 60 years can expect to live another 20 years on average, 2 years longer than in 1990. Life expectancy at age 60 in high-income countries (23 years) is 6 years longer than that in low-income and lower-middle income countries (17 years). Life expectancies at age 60 were longer and the increases larger in high-income countries. In such countries, life expectancy at age 60 had increased by almost as much as life expectancy at birth – around three years for both men and women. Life expectancy in a more developed country such as Monaco is 89.2 years, while in a less developed country like Chad life expectancy is only 49.81 years.

Fertility Rates: More developed  countries have lower fertility rates than the least developed countries. This makes it more difficult for the poorer countries to become more productive and hence wealthier. Modern research shows that a more developed country such as Singapore has a fertility rate of .079 children per mother whereas a less developed country such as Niger has a fertility rate of 7.03 children per mother.


Education Issues

One way that countries have used to get out of poverty has been to increase the education of its citizens. An increase in educational attainment has been a critical factor in helping poor countries to become wealthier.  It has also been especially important to educate the female members of society. Of the 774 million adults (15 years and older) who still cannot read or write, two–thirds of them (493 million) are women.

1.  2014 Human Development Index International Comparison


Theories of How the World’s Nations Became Stratified

To the student of sociology, the question of how did the world’s nation’s become stratified is an important one.  How did world inequality occur?  Below is a list of some of the explanations sociologists use in describing world stratification.

Modernization Theory.  Modernization theory falls under the structural-functionalist approach.  This theory states that the whole world was poor up until the first European countries began to industrialize.  Modernization theory explains global stratification in terms of technological and cultural differences between nations.  Western European cultures produced advances in technology that spurred the industrial revolution, which created an environment that allowed the development of capitalist economies. There are stages to economic development that all societies must pass through.  High income countries then can play an important role in the economic development of low-income societies.  This can be accomplished by rich countries exporting and promoting the use of birth control technology, teaching high-tech farming methods to poor nations, introducing machinery and information technology which raises productivity, and by providing foreign aid for large projects such as irrigation systems and power plants. According to modernization theory, rich countries are part of the solution to the problem of global stratification.

Culture of Poverty.  This theory also falls under the umbrella of structural-functionalism.  Culture of poverty  is the only stratification theory which attempts to place some of the blame of poverty on the poor society.  It looks at internal reasons for poverty.  This theory believes that poverty is perpetuated from one generation to the next because of cultural factors of the society.  Such cultural factors could include:  a desire to cling to traditional ways, a distrust or fear of technology, or religion.  This theory became quite popular in the United States during the 1970’s and 1980’s in explaining poverty in urban areas and why people were on welfare from one generation to the next.

1. Culture of Poverty

The two theories described above have a perspective of wealthy nations being helpful or beneficial in reducing stratification and poverty. The theories outlined below see rich countries as part of the problem, making poor countries economically dependent and in debt.

colonialism4Colonialism.  This theory explores the process by which one country takes over another country.  This is usually done by force.  Under colonialism, the “mother” country will exploit the resources of the “host” country.  Raw materials are shipped back to the home country to be converted into products for sale.  Countries that have been colonized are expected to purchase their finished products from the colonizing country.  The colonizing country creates a social structure (government, laws, schools) for its benefit.  Many of today’s least industrialized countries have had a period of colonialism in their past.  Colonialism allowed the economies of countries like Great Britain and France to grow, while the country that was occupied saw its economy stagnate.  Most of the world’s nation’s that were colonized have not seen their economies recover since.

Maps of Colonialism

World System Theory.  The sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein developed “world system theory” to explain global stratification.  World system theory argues that no country can be seen in isolation, and that there exists a world economic system that must be understood as a single unit.  The term globalization is often used with world system theory.  It explores how the capitalistic nations economies, in particular, have become tied together over the past few centuries.  According to this theory, the world has developed where there exists a camp of wealthy nations, and a camp of poor nationsAt the center of the world economic system are the rich powerful industrialized capitalist countries that control the system.  These are called the core countries.  Around these nations are the semiperipheral countries.  These countries occupy an intermediate position in the world-system, and include such countries as South Korea, Mexico, and Turkey.  The semiperipheral countries are at a middle level of income and are partly industrialized.  They extract profits from the peripheral countries and pass the profits on to the core countries.  At the bottom of this system are the peripheral countries.  These countries are poor, not industrialized, largely agricultural, and manipulated by the core countries which extract resources and profits from these countries.  They are mostly in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.  This world economic system has resulted in a modern world in which some countries have obtained great wealth, but other counties have remained poor.  The core countries, that is the Western European countries, and the United States and Japan, make themselves wealthy by exploiting the resources of the peripheral countries at low prices, world-system theory suggests.

1.   Summary of World System Theory

2.  Why are People Opposed to Globalization?

3. Synopsis and Analysis of World System Theory

Dependency Theory.  Dependency theory is closely related to world system theory.  This theory looks at results of European colonization and imperialism.  The persistence of poverty exists even after the colonial power has left.  The least industrialized nations have grown dependent on the most industrialized nations, both politically and economically.  This theory argues that the poverty in the world’s poor nations is a result of exploitation by the wealthier nations.  An example would be the term “Banana Republic.”  This term refers to countries in Central American ( Honduras, Costa Rica, and others) that have a limited numbers of resources to offer for export ( sometimes just one), such as bananas.  The economy of this country becomes linked to the economy of the country or countries which purchase the product (the United States).   For example, as long as India was dependent on Great Britain, Great Britain became wealthier and India remained poor.  Countries that produce oil, such as Saudi Arabia, would also be an example that fits dependency theory.

1.  The Banana Republic and the United Fruit Company


Maintaining Global Stratification

worldbankNeocolonialism.   Neocolonialism also refers to the dominance of the most industrialized nations over the least industrialized nations.  This theory believes that this dominance is maintained through international organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund.  This means that the poorer nations will always be in debt to the wealthier nations.  Those who lend money tend to have more power than those who borrow.  This relationship can also be seen in the sale of military weapons.  Poor countries purchase millions of dollars of military hardware from the wealthier nations, and then end up with huge repayment plans, as well as outside influence in their affairs.  Under neocolonialism, there is less of a need for military control. Influence is maintained more from indirect political control and economic exploitation.  It should be mentioned that neocolonialist nations still keep large militaries for occasions when political and economic control is not enough to maintain their advantage.  The links below demonstrate the large U.S. military presence around the world.

1.  Causes of the Debt Crisis

2.  A Century of U.S. Military Interventions

3.  Neocolonialism

4.  The U.S. Global Empire

5.  America’s Empire of Bases

6.  American Unified Regional Commands

7.  International Treatment of Haiti Since the Earthquake

Multinational Corporations.  Multinational corporations play an important role in keeping poor nations poor.  The influence of multinational corporations is not limited to national boundaries.  Some multinational corporations are so large that they have larger gross domestic products than the countries they do business in.  These companies try to manufacture their products where labor costs are the lowest.  Many people believe that large multinational corporations, such as Nike, take advantage and exploit the cheap, overseas labor market.  Multinational corporations have so much power and money, that they can influence the government of the host nation.  An example of this is how AT & T influenced our government to intervene in the affairs of Chile in 1973 with the overthrow of Allende from  the position of president of Chile.




Poverty is a difficult concept to define. In societies where there are few resources, most of the members of the society are poor and deprived.  When a surplus exists, then it is possible for some people to accumulate more than others.  Those with the least in society can then be defined as poor. Thus, poverty does not refer to a deprivation of  resources alone, but to an uneven distribution of the resources available. Defining poverty becomes even more difficult when we try to specify what a “minimally acceptable lifestyle” is. There are currently three widely used definitions of poverty today.

Absolute Poverty.  This definition tries to establish a level below which people are unable to achieve the necessities of life. The problem comes in trying to define what is a necessity. Is a car, television, cell phone or microwave considered a necessity?  Despite this difficulty, this definition tries to define it in terms of a diet, clothing, housing, and medical care. This definition establishes a fixed economic level below which people are considered poor.  The use of the poverty line in the United States would be an example of absolute poverty.  Government programs for the poor in the United States such as heating assistance are based on how lose one is to the poverty line.

Relative Poverty.  According to this definition, people are poor relative to some standard, and that standard is partially shaped by the lifestyles of other citizens. This definition applies to both the past and the present. The lack of indoor plumbing today would be a sign of poverty. However, for people one hundred years ago, that was the norm. In the present, people look around and notice what others have and compare their lives to what others possess.

Cultural Poverty. This definition of poverty views poverty not only in terms of how many resources people have, but also in terms of why they have failed to achieve a higher economic level.  Using the cultural definition of poverty, the poor are identified as those who are permanently and unwillingly poor.  These are people who are likely to remain poor for a long time, possibly generations. It is this group of people that poverty programs should be focused on. But this definition would exclude people such as college students, who although they might be suffering for a short time, are not to be viewed as a societal problem because they will likely improve their situation.

1.  Poverty Guidelines for the United States

2.   Poverty Rate For Wisconsin Increases 

3.   Poverty and Food Insecurity Rates for Rock County

4.  America’s Poor:  Map of Poverty in America

The most commonly used measurement is the poverty line. The poverty line is the level of income below which a person or a family is considered poor. The poverty line is defined in absolute terms: it is based on the cost of a minimal diet multiplied by three because low-income families spend about one-third of their income on food. Once the poverty line has been established, then the poverty rate can be found by dividing the number of poor people by the number of people in the country.  The poverty rate declined during the 1960’s and 1970’s but went back up during the recessions of the 1980’s and early 1990’s. It is approaching all-time highs since the economic crisis of 2008 began.

Social Characteristics of the Poor

There are many characteristics that affect the poor. The list below focus on the main influences.

Race and Ethnicity.   A higher percentage of minorities are in poverty in comparison to white Americans.Looking at each racial group separately, nonwhites are more likely to be poor than whites. Although 24.1% of African Americans and 21.4% of Hispanic Americans are below the poverty cutoff, only 9.1% of whites are.  There are many reasons for racial and ethnic differences in poverty levels, but at the core is oppression and discrimination. Whether African American, Hispanic, or Native American, each minority group has suffered through unique problems that have contributed to their poverty rates, from slavery to discriminatory laws, to the reservation system.

Children.  35% of the poor are children under the age of eighteen, and more than half of these children live in single-parent families headed by women.  Poverty rates among children are as high today as they were thirty years ago. A major reason for the persistently high poverty among children is changes in the family structure in the United States: higher divorce rates more children born to unmarried women, and more female-headed families.  Parents of poor children today are younger- the U.S. teenage pregnancy rate is far higher than that in most other industrial nations.  Younger workers today earn less than younger workers in the past.  This means that poor children today have fewer resources available to them and live in worse circumstances than in previous generations.  The younger the child is, the greater the probability of living in poverty.  Children in poverty are more likely to suffer from stunted growth, score lower on tests and be held back in school, suffer from lead poisoning, and suffer a host of other problems.  In 2013, 19.9% (14.7 million) of people under the age of eighteen are living below the poverty threshold.  Here is a link that looks at child poverty rates by state:

1.  Child Poverty in the United States 2009 – 2010

2.  Child Poverty and Its Lasting Consequences

3.  Child Poverty Rates at All Time High


Elderly:  Poverty among the elderly is relatively low- compared to the non-elderly and previous generations.  The poverty rates for non-white elderly are higher than for white elderly.  The number of poor elderly varies greatly by state.  Elderly women are more likely than elderly men to be living in poverty. because of government support through social security and Medicare, the percent of elderly living in poverty has declined.

1.  Poverty Rates by Age and State

Place:  Regionally, the South has the highest poverty rates, with the Northeast having the lowest.  Counties with poverty rates over 20% are found largely in rural areas. forty percent of the poor live in central city areas.

1.  Areas With Concentrated Poverty 2006- 2010


feminzationofpovertyGender:  Women are more likely than men to be poor.   The trend towards more women making up the ranks of the poor is called the Feminization of Poverty. The Feminization of Poverty  refers to the phenomenon where half of all families headed by women live in poverty. Women are found disproportionately in lower paying jobs with fewer benefits. With the high rate of divorce and the large number of never-married women with children, coupled with the cost of child care, housing, and medical care,  there has been an increase in the number of female-headed families (with no husband being present) being poor (28.7%, compared to 5.5% for married-couple families and 13.8% for male-headed families.  In 1959, 23% of families in poverty were headed by women; today, this figure has grown to 50%.   Young men today are over twice as likely to earn poverty-level wages compared to men in the 1980’s, and are thus less able to support a wife or children, many men have departed the family leaving women alone to raise their children.  The poverty rate among women was 14.6 percent in  2011. The “extreme poverty rate” among women was the highest ever recorded, climbing to 6.3 percent in 2010.  “Extreme poverty” means that your income is below half of the federal poverty line—and by 2010, more than 7.5 million women had fallen into that dire category.

What all those statistics add up to is that more than 17 million women in 2010, compared with 12.6 million men. As usual, things were worse for older women; twice as many women over 65 were living in poverty, compared with men.  And those numbers just represented the population-wide average. For Hispanic and black women, the poverty rate increased even faster and rose higher—to 25 percent for Hispanic women and to 25.6 percent for black women.

1.  Women’s Poverty Rate Stabilizes But Remains Historically High

1.  The Feminization of Poverty

2.  Basic Facts about Low-Income Children: Birth to Age 18

Why Are People Poor?  There are two competing thoughts for why people are poor.  Some sociologists believe that social structure, lack of education, necessary job skills, and discrimination, are responsible for poverty.  In other words, society is primarily responsible for poverty.  Other sociologists focus on individual characteristics.  Such things as making the choice to have children at an early age, or the lack of the skill of deferred gratification, which is the giving up of something now for something later, as reasons for people living in poverty.

1.  Why are People Poor?

Myths of the Poor

Much of the debate by politicians and citizens over poverty and how much assistance should be provided to the poor is based on faulty assumptions and misperceptions. These myths are discussed below.

Refusal to Work: The first myth is the notion that poor people refuse to work. 10.5 million individuals were among the “working poor” in 2010. The working poor are persons who spent at least 27 weeks in the labor force (that is, working or looking for work) but whose incomes still fell below the official poverty level. Many of the poor hold menial, dead-end jobs that have no benefits and pay the minimum wage.  The  Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (welfare reform) made assistance to the poor temporary and cut monies to supplemental  programs such as food assistance.  It shifted welfare programs from the federal government to the states. It mandated that welfare recipients find work within two years. It limited welfare assistance to five years. The misconception that the poor refuse to work ignores all those “invisible poor”, those who are working but not making it and those who work in the informal economy, not captured by the Census Bureau Statistics.  Many work for money or exchange of services by cleaning, painting, etc…they just are not counted in the official economy.

Welfare Dependency:  One of the popular perceptions of the poor is that welfare benefits are too generous, that  it is too easier to stay on welfare than to work, and that welfare encourages unmarried women to have children. Of the means-tested public assistance programs for the poor, food stamps have the broadest reach- some 46 million Americans (about 15% of the population, and an all-time high) were receiving food stamps in 2011.  However, when most people talk about  welfare moms, what they mean is the cash assistance and other meager benefits supplied (sometimes) under TANF.  TANF support sometimes includes vouchers for childcare, clothing, and other needs along with cash assistance, but this varies widely from state to state.  Only 1.9 million were actually receiving TANF in 2011.  Since the welfare reform of 1996, participation by eligible families has plummeted:  84% of those families in need received ADC in 1995, dropping to 52% receiving TANF in 2000, and only 40% in 2005.  Most poor moms, whether single or married, are not on welfare.

1. Five Problems With the TANF Program



Welfare Mothers Having Babies to Receive Benefits:  There is a belief that poor moms spend decades, or even lifetimes, on welfare.  Since 1996, there has been a five-year lifetime cap on TANF assistance for adults.  In 2006, the average length of time families received TANF assistance was 35.4 months  and case closure data from 35 states indicated that less than one-half of one percent of cases were closed because families had hit the 5-year ceiling.  In 2010, about 32% of single moms in poverty were working at least part time(compared to 17% of single dads in poverty) rising to 59% and 40% respectively, for near-poor single moms and dads.  Poor and welfare moms rarely refuse to work, but are more likely to be laid off, to spend more time looking for work, and to be stuck in low-income, no-benefit jobs that make survival more difficult.

The Poor Get Special Advantages:  There is a belief that the poor receive a number of handouts for which other Americans have to work.   Concerning the larger system, we tend to assume that government monies and service go mostly to the poor in the form of welfare, when in fact the greatest amount of government aid goes to the wealthy (tax loopholes, mortgage interest deductions, bank bailouts, and subsidies to a number of industries such as agriculture, mining, and the media.  The poor also pay more than the non-poor for many services.  Hospitals routinely charge more for services to patients without health insurance compared to those covered by a health plan. Check cashing services, located largely in poor neighborhoods, prey on customers without bank accounts.  Because many poor people do not have transportation to get to supermarkets, discount stores, or warehouse stores, they must buy from nearby stores, which have higher prices due to their monopoly power. When the poor pay sales taxes on the items they purchase, the tax takes more of their income than it does from the non-poor. Rather than receiving special advantages, the poor pay more commodities and services.  Along with earning low wages and paying a large proportion of their income for housing, one can understand why some of the poor have a difficult time getting out of poverty.

1.  21 Key Statistics About Poverty

2.  CEO Rant About How Bad the Poor and Homeless Are

The Criminalization of Poverty

Although many people, even those collecting benefits, perceive the welfare and criminal justice systems as separate, they have over time become systems that work in tandem.  Poverty and homelessness have become a law enforcement concern, rather than a social issue.  American society is moving towards viewing poverty as a crime- hence the phrase the “Criminalization of Poverty”. This changing perception over the past few decades in the United States has increased because American citizens have been told that poverty is a moral shortcoming and that the poor abuse and take advantage of government benefits. However, research shows that over 83 percent of all benefits going to low-income people are for the elderly, the disabled, or working households. Only 1 cent of every food stamp dollar is used in a fraudulent manner. Since the Banking Crisis of 2008, many communities have passed laws targeting the poor.  Las Vegas passed an ordinance forbidding the sharing of food with the homeless in public places. In Gainsville, Florida, a law was passed limiting the number of meals that soup kitchens may serve to 130 people in a day.  Phoenix, Arizona has been using zoning laws to stop a local church from serving breakfast to homeless people.  According to a report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 18% of cities impose bans on sleeping in public, 53% of cities prohibit sitting in particular public places, and 9% of cities prohibit sharing food with homeless people.

1.  North Carolina Passes Bill  Mandating Criminal Background Checks and Drug Tests to People Who Collect Welfare or Food Stamps

2.  Minnesota Bill to Make it a Crime for the Poor to Have More Than $20 in Their Pockets

3.  The Criminalization of Poverty: To Collect Welfare, first You Have to Pee Into a Cup (The Daily Show)

4.  Solution to Homelessness- Give Away Homes?

5.  U.S. Cities Criminalizes Sharing Food With the Homeless

6.  Florida’s “Camping” Laws Bar Homeless From Using Blankets

7.  John Oliver:  Municipalities Targeting Poor People With Fines and Fees

8.  The Poor Get Prison:  The Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty

9.  Kansas Passes Bill Limiting Cash Withdrawals Per Day to $25 For Poor People Collecting Benefits

10.  Congresswoman Calls For Drug Testing the One Percent, Not the Poor



Poverty Around the World

Just as poverty in the United States is relative, so is poverty around the world.  There are many definitions and debates about the number of poor in the world. One of the leading sources for information on poverty around the world is the World Bank.  Their definition of extreme poverty is below:

Extreme Poverty.  This category refers to people who live on an income of $1.25 per day.  The World Bank estimates that in the year 2010, roughly 1.2 billion people were living in extreme poverty. People in this category cannot meet basic needs for survival.  There is little or no access to education, health care, safe drinking water or sanitation.  Most people in this category live in a rudimentary shelter with few possessions and are chronically hungry. A country as a whole is deemed to suffer from extreme poverty if the proportion of the population in extreme is at least 25 percent of the total population.

Graphs on Poverty Rates

UC Atlas of Global Inequality


   actionSociology in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

Titanic.  This movie explores issues related to both social stratification and social class.

Amistad.  This movie explores the issues related to slavery.

Pixote  The life of a small Brazilian boy in a major Brazilian city. The film highlights the social stratification of the developing world, where the wealthy participate in a western dominated world culture, while the poor do not have access to the social services of a western welfare state.

Gandhi.  This movie has a lot pertaining to sociology, but for this unit, look for issues of caste and colonialism.

Pretty Woman.   How does a prostitute from the underclass cope in the world of the upper class?

The Joy Luck Club.  There is a lot in this film regarding sociology.  But in this unit, the concept of intergenerational mobility plays an important role.

Recycled Life.  The dramatic and touching story of thousands of adults, children, and generations of families who live in a Guatemala City garbage dump.

Snowpiercer.  Set in a future where a failed climate-change experiment kills all life on the planet except for a lucky few who boarded the Snowpiercer, a train that travels around the globe, where a class system emerges.

books03Sociology in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1.  Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World  By Robert Neuwirth

2.  Bobos in Paradise:  The New Upper Class and How They Got There  by David Brooks

3.  Sex Trafficking: The Global Market in Women and Children  by Kathryn Farr

4.  Slavery:  A World History  by Milton Meltzer

5.  The Working Poor:  Invisible in America  by David K. Shipler

6.  Nickel and Dimed:  On Not Getting By in America  by Barbara Ehrenreich

7.  The End of Poverty:  Economic Possibilities For Our Time  by Jeffrey Sachs


Brym, Robert J.
2003  Sociology: Your Compass For A New World  Canada:   Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Ferrante, Joan

2000  Sociology:  The United States in a Global Community  United States:  Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Henslin, James M.
2000   Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach  (3rd Edition)   Boston:   Allyn and Bacon

Henslin, James M.
2010   Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach  (8th Edition)   Boston:   Allyn and BaconMacionis, John J.

1999 Sociology.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Macionis, John J.

2006  Society:  The Basics (8th Edition)  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Prentice Hall

Copyright ©2002, 2014 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved


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