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Social Stratification: Definition, Types & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 27, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Social stratification - Vertical hiercarchy in the society - upper, midlle and lower classes and castes as inferiorty and superiority. Inferior / superior position. Vector illustration


  • The term social stratification refers to how societies categorize people based on factors such as wealth, income, education, family background, and power.
  • Social stratification exists in all societies in some form. However, it is easier to move up socially in some than others. Societies with more vertical social mobility have open stratification systems, and those with low vertical mobility have closed stratification systems.
  • The importance of stratification is that those at the top of the hierarchy have greater access to scarce resources than those at the bottom.
  • Sociologists have created four main categories of social stratification systems: class systems, caste systems, slavery, and meritocracy. The last of these is a largely hypothetical system.
  • Class consistency refers to the variability of one's social status among many dimensions (such as education and wealth) during one's lifetime. More open stratification systems tend to encourage lower class consistency than closed stratification systems.
  • Social stratification can work along multiple dimensions, such as those of race, gender, sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and so on. Intersectionality is a method for studying systems of social stratification through the lene of multiple identities.

What is Meant by Social Stratification?

Social stratification refers to a society's categorization of its people into rankings based on factors such as wealth, income, education, family background, and power. Someones' place within a system of social stratification is called their socioeconomic status. 

Social stratification is a relatively fixed, hierarchical arrangement in society by which groups have different access to resources, power, and perceived social worth.

Although many people and institutions in Western Societies indicate that they value equality — the belief that everyone has an equal chance at success and that hard work and talent — not inherited wealth, prejudicial treatment, racism, or societal values — determine social mobility, sociologists recognize social stratification as a society-wide system that makes inequalities apparent. 

While there are inequalities between individuals, sociologists interest themselves in large social patterns. That is to say, sociologists look to see if those with similar backgrounds, group memberships, identities, and geographic locations share the same social stratification.

While some cultures may outwardly say that one's climb and descent in socioeconomic status depends on individual choices, sociologists see how the structure of society affects a person's social standing and therefore is created and supported by society. 

Origins Social Stratification

Human social stratification has taken on many forms throughout the course of history. In foraging societies, for example, social status usually depended on hunting and leadership ability, particularly in males (Gurven & von Rueden, 2006). Those who brought back meat for meals were held in higher status than those who rarely succeeded at hunting.

Meanwhile, in parts of the world where agriculture has replaced hunting and gathering, anne's land holdings often form the basis for social stratification. These holdings tend to be transmitted throughout generations. This intergenerational transfer of wealth gave rise to what are known as estates, which were dominant in medieval Europe (Ertman, 1997).

The rise of agriculture also brought the emergence of cities, each with their own forms of stratification, now centered on one's occupation. As the skills needed for acquiring certain occupational skills grew, so did the intergenerational transmission of status according to one's occupational class.

One example of stratification according to occupational classes are guilds (Gibert, 1986). More rigid occupational classes are called castes, which exist both in and outside of India.

Examples of Stratification

The factors that define stratification vary from society to society. In many societies, stratification is an economic system based on wealth, or the net values of the money and assets a person has, and income, their wages or income from investments.

However, there are other important factors that influence social standing. In some cultures, for instance, prestige — be it obtained through going to a prestigious university, working for a prestigious company, or coming from an illustrious family — is valued. In others, social stratification is based on age.

The elderly may be either esteemed or disparaged and ignored. The cultural beliefs of societies often reinforce stratification.

Broadly, these factors define how societies are classified or stratified:

  1. Economic condition: the amount someone earns;

  2. Social class: classification based on, for example, economy and caste;

  3. Gender

  4. Religion

  5. Social networks: the connections that people have — and the opportunities these allow people in finding jobs, partners, and so on. 

One determinant of social standing is one's parents. Parents tend to pass their social position onto their children, as well as the cultural norms, values, and beliefs that accompany a certain lifestyle. Parents can also transfer a network of friends and family members that provide resources and support.

This is why, in situations where someone who was born into one social status enters the environment of another — such as the child of an uneducated family entering college, the individual may fare worse than others; they lack the resources and support often provided to those whose parents have gone to college (Gutierrez et al., 2022). 

A society's occupational structure can also determine social stratification. For example, societies may consider some jobs — such as teaching, or nursing — to be noble professions, which people should do out of love and the greater good rather than for money.

In contrast, those in other professions, such as athletes and C-suite executives, do not receive this attitude. Thus, those who are highly-educated may receive relatively low pay (Gutierrez et al., 2022). 


Slavery and indentured servitude are likely the most rigit types of social stratification. Both of these involve people being treated as actual property and are often based on race or ethnicity. The owner of a slave exploits a slave's labor for economic gain.

Slavery is one of the lowest levels in any stratification system, as they possess virtually no power or wealth of their own. Slavery is thought to have begun 10,000 years ago, after agricultural societies developed, as people in these societies made prisoners of war work on their farm.

As in other social stratification systems, the status of one's parents often defines whether or not someone will be put into slavery. However on a historic level, slavery has also been used as a punishment for crimes and as a way of controlling those in invaded or enemy territories.

For example, ancient Roman slaves were in large part from conquered regions (Gutierrez et al., 2022). Slavery regained its property after the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere in the 1500s. Portuguese and Spanish colonists who settled in Brazil and the Caribbean enslaved native populations, and people from Africa were shipped to the "new world" to carry out various tasks.

Notably, the United State's early gricultural economy was one intertwined with slavery, a fact that would help lead the Civil War after it won its independence from Britain. Slavery still exists in many parts of the world.

Modern slaves include those taken as prisoners of war in ethnic conflicts, girls and women captured and kidnapped and used as prostitutes or sex slaves, children sold by their parents to be child laborers; and workers paying off debts who are abused, or even tortured, to the extent that they are unable to leave (Bales, 2007).

Even in societies that have officially outlawed slavery, the practice continues to have wide-ranging repercussions on socioeconomic standing. For example, some observers believe that a caste system existed in the southern part of the United States until the civil rights movement ended legal racial segregation. Rights, such as the right to vote and to a fair trial, were denied in practice, and lynchings were common for many decade (Litwack, 2009).

South Africa, meanwhile, had an official caste system known as apartheid until the 1990s. Although black people constituted the majority of the nation's population, they had the worst jobs, could not vote, and lived in poor, segregated neighborhoods.

Both systems have, to the consensus of many sociologists, provided those of color with lower intergenerational wealth and higher levels of prejudice than their white counterparts, systematically hampering vertical class mobility.

Caste Systems

Caste systems are closed stratification systems, meaning that people can do very little to change the social standing of their birth. Caste systems determine all aspects of an individual's life, such as appropriate occupations, marriage partners, and housing.

Those who defy the expectations of their caste may descend to a lower one. Individual talents and interests do not provide opportunities to improve one's social standing. The Indian caste system is based on the principles of Hinduism.

Indian Hindu caste system social hierarchy chart flat vector color diagram or illustration

Those who are in higher castes are considered to be more spiritually pure, and those in lower castes — most notably, the "untouchable" — are said to be paying remuneration for misbehavior in past lives. In sociological terms, the belief used to support a system of stratification is called an ideology, and underlies the social systems of every culture (Gutierrez et al., 2022).

In caste systems, people are expected to work in an occupation and to enter into a marriage based on their caste. Accepting this social standing is a moral duty, and acceptance of one's social standing is socialized from childhood.

While the Indian caste system has been dismantled on an official, constitutional level, it is still deeply embedded in Indian society outside of urban areas.

The Class System

Class systems are based on both social factors and individual achievement. Classes consist of sets of people who have similar status based on factors such as wealth, income, education, family background, and occupation.

Class systems, unlike caste systems, are open. This means that people can move to a different level of education or employment status than their parents. A combination of personal choice, opportunity, and one's beginning status in society each play a role. Those in class systems can socialize with and marry members of other classes.

Social stratification and different wealth class division tiny person concept. Economical discrimination and financial gap inequality with society separation and hierarchy contrast vector

In a case where spouses come from different social classes, they form an exogamous marriage. Often, these exogamous marriages focus on values such as love and compatibility.

Though there are social conformities that encourage people to marry those within their own class, people are not prohibited from choosing partners based solely on social ranking (Giddens et al., 1991).

Meritocracy (as an ideal system of stratification)

Meritocracy, meanwhile, is a hypothetical social stratification system in which one's socioeconomic status is determined by personal effort and merit.

However, sociologists agree that there have been no societies in history that have determined social standing solely on merit.

Nonetheless, sociologists see aspects of meritocracies in modern societies when they study the role of academic and job performance and the systems in place intended to evaluate and reward achievement in these areas (Giddens et al., 1991).

Systems of Stratification

Sociologists have distinguished between two systems of stratification: closed and open. Closed systems accommodate for little change in social position. It is difficult, if not impossible, for people to shift levels and social relationships between levels are largely verboten.

For example, estates, slavery, and caste systems are all closed systems. In contrast, open systems of social stratification are — nominatively, at least — based on achievement and allow for movement and interaction between layers and classes (Giddens et al., 1991).

What is Status Consistency?

The term status consistency describes the consistency — or lack thereof — of an individual's rank across factors that determine social stratification within a lifetime. For example, a child in a class system may fail to finish high school — a trait of the lower class — and take up a manual job at a store's warehouse — consistent with the lower or working class.

However, through persistence and favor with their employers, this person may work their way up to managing the store or even joining the corporation's higher level management – an occupation consistent with the upper-middle class.

The discrepancies between someone's educational level, occupation, and income represent low status-consistency. Caste and closed systems, meanwhile, have high status-consistency, as one's birth status tends to control various aspects of their lives.

The Role of Intersectionality

Intersectionality is an approach to the sociological study of social stratification. It has been preferred by sociologists because it does not reduce the complexity of power constructions along a single social division, as has often been the case in stratification theories. 

Generally, societies are stratified against one or more lines. These can include race and ethnicity, sex and gender, age, religion, disability, and social class. Kimberle Crenshaw introduced the concept of intersectionality as a way of analyzing the intersection of race and gender (2017).

Crenshaw analyzed legal cases involving discrimination experienced by African American roman along the lines of both racism and sexist. The essence of intersectionality, as articulated by the sociologist Patricia Hill Collins (1990), is that sociologists cannot separate the effects of race, social class, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and so on in understanding social stratification (Gutierrez et al., 2022).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, Feb 27). Social Stratification: Definition, Types & Examples . Simply Sociology.


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