7.3.2 Forms of Stratification Systems

Social stratification is the term used to refer to the division of society into layers or strata that makes up a hierarchy of unequal groups, who are ranked one above the other on the basis of wealth, power and status. The social stratification system of any society is such that those at the top have generally more power and prestige than those at the base. Sociologists have identified some important forms of stratification systems. Some are based on religious beliefs, others on race, gender, age and others on class differentiation. For the purpose of this unit, some systems of stratification based on religion, age, ethnic and class differences will be discussed.

The Caste Stratification System

This system of stratification is mostly prominent in India and the Hindu religion. The Indian society divides its population into five major castes:
1. The Brahmins (priests/teachers/healers) From the most pure
2. The Kshatriyas (soldiers/warriors)
3. The Vaishyas (traders/merchants)
4. The Shudras (servants/labourers)
5. The Untouchables (social outcastes/impure) To the least pure

IDevice Icon Activity 7.2
Having read the different forms of stratification systems, do you think any of these forms exist in our society? Give examples to explain your answer.

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In this type of stratification system status of individuals in each class is ascribed at birth in accordance with the Hindu religion, beliefs and customs and social mobility is completely close off to members of an inferior caste. This is because there is strict and rigid restrictions that are made to ensure the purity of higher caste. Thus, marriages are endogamous (permitted among members of same caste only) and caste membership determines social status, positions and occupations of individuals. In tribal societies, there is some evidence of caste but the rigidity and social inequality among different groups is much lesser than that of India.

The Age-set Stratification System

In such societies, allocation of rewards and status is primarily based on age set. In primitive societies, people have greater structural importance as they grow older. This is what is termed as rites de passage. Old people are seen as more experienced and their roles carry more prestige and these usually constitute their importance in decision making. Old people are also the foundation of political organisation within the tribe as well as serving as mediators to the gods.

However, in our modern society, the status of old people has changed considerably. In fact, there is a complete reversal of roles and status acquired. As the individual enters old age, his/her status fades with retirement and dependency in welfare. Old people have often marginal social positions and are discarded from decision making. Moreover, they tend to have lesser political influence and they are voiceless.

Elderly and Patterns of Poverty in an Unequal Society

American economist Galbraith (1958) argued that people are poor when their incomes fall remarkably below those of the community, even if they are sufficient for their survival. Besides all these they face marginal living and have degraded lifestyles. In this sense, the poor are thus devoid of all opportunities and are said to be an underclass. These can be classified into the following groups; the permanently unemployed, the elderly, the single parents, the disabled and large but low income families.

In respect to elderly of modern societies, we can note that the latter are unable to recover their full authority and prestige that they used to have before retirement. Many are faced with ageism, false stereotypes and prejudices as well as erroneous beliefs on their accounts. This resides in the fact that old people are also trapped in the class system since they lack certain prestige and power to lobby for their welfare and rights.

A Stratification System Based on Ethnic Differences
The apartheid system of South Africa illustrates a typical racial caste system of social stratification. After world war two, the population of South Africa was divided into four registration groups:

i) The 4.5 millions white descendants of European immigrants
ii) The 2.5 millions so called coloured people who have descendant from more than one race
iii) The 1 million people of Asian descent
iv) The 43 millions black Africans

Levels of segregation were based on micro segregation (public places such as public toilets, washrooms, railway carriage and public beaches had separate facilities for white and non whites), mezzo segregation (white and non white neighbourhoods was designed, black people were even compelled to move to homelands- a kind of ghetto) and macro segregation (whole peoples were segregated in distinct territories).

Under this system of government, the black natives were denied their civil rights, citizenships, proper education, ownership of land and any voice in parliament. Most of them were slotted in menial, low paid and working-class jobs. However, the struggle of young black resistance and the election of Mandela as president changed the situation and banned the Apartheid system in South Africa.

The class stratification system: this is a typical modern type of stratification system that tends to be universal in nature. The class based stratification system group people who hold the same economic situations such as occupation, income and ownership of wealth together. Those who are better off are usually those who enjoy more privileges such as higher educational level, status and lifestyle, leisure activities and power. The diagram below represents a typical class system.

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Those having a marginal position
on the labour market
From the above it can be said that, social stratification also varies in form from society to society.

We distinguish between two main types of stratification systems: (1) open and (2) closed.

In open stratification systems, achievement rather than ascribed characteristics (that are those given by birth) determine one's social rank. In closed stratification systems, ascribed characteristics will determine the individual's social ranking

(An ascribed status is one which cannot be changed, for example, race, gender, age, ethnic background).