Income inequality has been a central issue of social research for decades among political scientists, sociologists, economists, and policy analysts. Many factors have been investigated as the central cause for income inequality in the United States. Additionally, there has been a growing concern regarding the gap between the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor. Understanding the process of, and the factors contributing to, income inequality and the growing disparity between the wealthy and the poor helps scholars better understand the adverse consequences of inequality for individual health and personal security.
Keywords Conflict Theory; Functionalism; Income Inequality; Synergistic Effect of Race and Gender; Social Stratification; Structural Inequality
What is social stratification? How does income inequality contribute to stratification in the Unites States? Is stratification necessary for society to function?
These issues are of central importance to understanding the very nature of society and how individual opportunities are restricted or expanded based on their family status. Yet, many people are oblivious to how social stratification and income inequality influences their daily lives. Issues such as these fit into the broader study of social inequality, and more specifically, income inequality. They also shed light on the consequences of inequitable access to resources and how income inequality affects individuals, educational opportunities, job opportunities, advancement in employment, and living a long and healthy life.
Social stratification is the umbrella under which these concepts are united. In the United States, as is the case around the world, there is patterned inequality that divides society into categories in which there are disparities between access to social and economic rewards, with some people having more opportunity than others. Most scholars who investigate income inequality start from the foundation that there is social inequality that exists in the United States. This is attributed to variation in wealth, power, and prestige (Thio, 1992). Under the umbrella of scholarship on social stratification is one that focuses specifically on income as a primary factor that leads to differential opportunities and outcomes for members of society. Once thought of as a part of life (i.e., people are rich because they always have been, and the poor are poor because they don't work as hard), today many scholars are pointing to structural factors rather than individual choices as the major driving force behind social stratification, income inequality and the growing disparities between the rich and the poor. These scholars argue that inequality is not necessarily a function of society, but rather a result of institutional arrangements that perpetuate inequality from generation to generation.
The results of inequality have also garnered additional attention among sociologists, economists, political scientists, criminologists, healthcare, and social service providers. Social and income inequality are political issues that are gaining attention in the media, among the public and politicians.
Today there is still little consensus among these scholars regarding the causes and consequences of social inequality, income inequality, and ultimately the effects of inequitable opportunity on individual lives.
Theories of Inequality
There are many competing theories that attempt to explain income inequality on a national and international level. Most of these theories can be categorized into one of two theoretical camps: functionalism and conflict theory. The functionalist perspective asserts that inequality is a central component to the organization of society and serves a purpose in structuring social relationships. On the other hand, conflict theorists argue that income inequality is part of a socio-structural force lead by elites to increase their wealth and opportunity at the expense of the working and middle classes.
The theory of structural functionalism, coined by Davis and Moore (1945), asserted that stratification was necessary in society. The primary reasons given for their claims were that stratification serves a useful function of society. That is, not every job or task is equally important or desirable; these various tasks require different skills and therefore, in order to fill such positions there must be variation in the types of rewards given. Davis and Moore (1945) go on to explain that the function of stratification is to motivate the labor force in a highly competitive market and that without competition for higher pay (and thus, access to resources) it would be difficult to fulfill all of the needs of society. In other words, if a lawyer whose job requires extensive training and multiple degrees and the garbage collector were paid the same amount, nobody would want to collect the garbage or spend the additional time earning a law degree to become a lawyer. More specifically related to income inequality, Davis and Moore (1945) argue that the reason there is such a disparity in income between those at the top of the social ladder and those at the bottom is (1) those at the top have more skills; and (2) those at the bottom perform jobs that are less important than those at the top.
In a significant departure from structural functionalism, many scholars who adhere to the writings of Karl Marx regarding capitalism argue that inequality is not necessary, nor does it serve a pertinent function. Rather, as they see it, inequality is a symptom of societal dysfunction. Scholars such as Tumin (1953) claim that inequality provides opportunity to the privileged while at the same time limiting the possibilities for those in the working class. Moreover, it works to reinforce the status quo whereby the rich are able to secure their privilege in society and those who are less privileged are forced to work under the rules of the privileged. Finally, because of the disproportionate system of rewards, there is the possibility for those who are less privileged to become hostile to the status quo, resulting in crime or other acts of resistance.
Other scholars who subscribe to the ideas of Marx have further argued that income inequality is an unjust distribution of power whereby those who own large corporations and provide jobs to the working class have the ability to manipulate wages, perception of competition, while preserving their status by exploiting others.
These two competing theories paint a very different picture of the factors that contribute to income inequality. Structural functionalists argue that inequality is a functional force in society that rewards those who do more meaningful work greater than those who do less important jobs. Conflict theorists argue that inequality is a result of larger socio-structural forces that manipulate those with the least power and privilege by promoting competition and controlling wages in favor of the wealthy.
Understanding the theoretical underpinnings of scholarship on social stratification and income inequality is only part of the vast work that has been completed on the subject. One of the most controversial aspects of inequality scholarship is the disparity not only between the rich and the poor but also the patterned inequality that has been shown to exist between whites and other racial groups, between men and women, and between those with low IQs (intelligence quotients) and high IQs, as measured on standardized tests.
The contributions of socioeconomic indicators such as race, gender, and IQ to social stratification and income inequality are central to scholarly debates surrounding the causes and correlates of various subgroups in the population and their social status. Scholars who study these issues often find themselves in the most heated social debates about the causes of inequality.
The issue of racial...
Siobhain Bowen 20/11/01
Sociology Essay Amie Hord
Inequalities exist in all types of human society. Even in the simplest cultures where variations in wealth or property are non-existent, there are inequalities between individuals, men and women, the young and the old. A person may have a higher status than others because of a particular prowness at hunting, for instance, or because he or she is believed to have special access to the ancestral spirits. To describe inequalities, sociologists speak of Social Stratification. Social Stratification lies at the core of society and of the discipline of sociology. Social inequality is a fundamental aspect of virtually all-social processes and a person's position in the stratification system is the most consistent predictor of his/her behaviour, attitudes, and life chances. "Social Stratification is a characteristic of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences." Social Stratification persists over generations. Social Stratification is universal but not variable. It involves not only inequality but also beliefs. 'It is useful to think of stratification as rather like the geological layering of rock in the earth's surface,' Societies can be seen as consisting of 'strata' in a hierarchy, with the more favoured at the top and the less privileged at the bottom." If we look back at the year 1912, when the Titanic sank, we can make a connection with social inequality for the way people lived back then. When we watched the blockbuster hit in 1997, we were shown how much of an impact that social inequality had on the lower class passengers. Women and children had the highest survival rate. Those who held a first class ticket, more than 60% of those survived because their cabins were on the upper decks. Only 1/3 of the third class passengers survived making 24% of the survival rate. When looking at the tragic events of Titanic, class was the only means of survival. It turned out to be a matter between life and death in the end. Therefore, it is not the cognitive psychology of how much individuals recognise each other, but the sociological problem of how groups of people are distinguished from each other. Therefore, the problem is one of inequality and the many forms of stratification are all perceptible differences because people are socially formed. Though they may originate in fixed characteristics at birth. In society today, there are unequal social relations of three kinds: power, property and prestige. It is these terms that help make every society a functional one.
Power relations exist everywhere in our society. "People differ in all sorts of ways. There are differences between adults and children, men and women, employee and employer, the highly educated and uneducated, the light-skinned and dark-skinned and so forth." The perceptible differences that exist between people are socially formed: meaning that 'within each society a certain significance and certain expectation will be attached to them, and these will help determine the impact.' (2001,de Swaan, 34) When speaking in terms of stratification we can bring in the Thomas rule: if something is expected to happen, these expectations affect what already happens. Power relations are dependence relations with a minus sign. If A is dependent on B to achieve something, this creates a relationship of dependence between them. When we stop, look and examine the world around us today, some of us may wander how societies persist without distributing their resources more equally. A has power = A has power over B, C, D, and E, i.e.; a relationship of dependence, which rests on a balance of power. The balance of power exists within a network; certain individuals are dependent on someone, who in turn is dependent on them. Power is a characteristic of a position within a network of people of dependence relations.
"People are 'in power' for as long as they stay there. Yet to stay
there, they are dependent on all those who are dependent on
them." (2001,de Swaan, 36)
One must ask themselves, that when looking at de Swaans quote, we begin to wonder who exactly has the power? This question, though interesting, must remain unanswered. "The most influential theoretical approaches are those developed by Karl Marx and Max Weber; most subsequent theories of stratification have been heavily indebted to their ideas." The ideas of Marx and Weber have influenced many other areas on the discipline too. Most of Marx's works were concerned with stratification and, above all with social class, "yet he failed to provide a systematic analysis of the concept of class. Marx's concept of class thus has to be reconstructed from the body of his writings as a whole." (1997,Giddens, 244) Marx took capitalist societies to task for channelling wealth and power into the hands of a few, all the while defining the practice as simply 'a law of the market place.' (1997, Macionis and Plummer, 247) Functionalists have a particular way of looking at the world. Everyone has a role in keeping laws in order and peace in society. Our roles as students are functional to the educational system; without student universities, function would not exist.
"In modern societies, governments often control their armed
forces from separating them: army, navy, and air force
compete for funding from the budget, which stops them
forming a united front against the government."(2001, de Swaan, 39)
When we look at all of these examples, the person or persons that occupy the position of power, has a direct link to the others in the network, 'who are not directly linked to each other,' corresponds to the pattern of what is known as a hierarchical network. When people hold a position of power they can take advantage of this position to strengthen it. "Class systems celebrate individualism and achievement, so that social standing serves as a measure of personal worthiness." (de Swaan.p.40)
"Inequality is not always injustice; on the contrary all
societies endorse some dimensions of inequality as
fair while condemning others as wrong. Justifications
for social stratification then, from place to place."
(1998, Macionis and Plummer, 249)
The inequalities of power are based on shared values. Power is legitimate authority in that members of society as a whole generally accept it as just and proper. It is accepted as such because those in position of authority use their power to pursue collective goals, which derive from society's central values. Thus the power of the American business executive is seen as legitimate authority because all members of society use it. This use of power therefore serves the interests of a society as a whole. Social inequalities developed as a result of change in property ownership. Sociologists argue that the introduction of herding and agriculture laid the foundations for gender inequalities. "Property entails the actual power to dispose of goods, including land and livestock."(2001,de Swaan, 40) When first looked at, property appears to be a 'relationship of power over things,' but property does in fact relate to people; basically those who do not have goods at their disposal. Property means having both goods at ones disposal and excluding others from disposing them. Sociologically speaking, this is known as the exclusive power of disposal. Most people decide to use their property to make others dependent on them. "Thus property is a power resource and a property relationship is a special type of power relationship." (2001,de Swaan, 40)
"In nomadic societies- compromising itinerant hunter-
gatherers, who feed off the animals and plants they
encounter on their travels- no crops are sown, and
the land is not cultivated." (2001,de Swaan,.41)
Tools that we use today were virtually non-existent, 'dwellings are abandoned as the company moves on,' they were lucky if little or anything was preserved, 'so that there is scarcely any question of property.' The nomadic people shun all forms of storage. They got rid of their utensils after little use; 'possibly to prevent the envy and competition that such property could arouse.' "Using data from the Oxford Study of social mobility, theorists such as Mike Savage, James Barlow, Peter Dickens and Tony Fielding, argue that the middle class consists of three main groups." (1995, Haralambos and Holborn, 71) Unlike many other groups in society, these groups are not distinguished from each other according to their seniority in class hierarchy, they instead enjoy the source of the advantages that they enjoy over the working class. The middle class gets their life chances from three types of assets: property assets, organisational assets and cultural assets. The propertied middle class includes those who have substantial property assets and would be regarded by Marxists as part of their bourgeoisie and small property owners or the 'petit bourgeoisie.' (1995, Haralambos and Holborn, 71-75) The self employed and small employers are included in this category. "People can only be acquired when people bring forth something durable; when they cultivate the land, produce durable goods, and store supplies." (2001,de Swaan, 41) The agricultural revolution had a large impact on our society and helped shape what it is today. People no longer were required to move from place to place in search of food, instead they turned that one place in which they lived into a 'suitable food supplying environment.'
"Because property implies by definition the exclusion
of others, property relations can only endure when
this exclusion can be effectively maintained. Property
also calls for a non-aggression pact with other
possessors and means that possessors must defend their
goods from the propertyless- in agricultural societies
this means that the landless, and in industrial societies
it means that those who do not possess land, factories ,or
machinery, or financial assets.( 2001, de Swaan, 41-42)
According to both Marx and Weber, property confers power, and those members of the upper class are disproportionately represented at the higher levels of power. Property relations have their own repercussions on relationships of power. If the property you own, can be used in production is collectively known as capital. The agricultural society believes that the most important asset is their possession of land. The land gives off more than the farmer needs to survive. This surplus of food 'can serve as substance for those who do not work the land themselves, such as priests and warriors.'(2001,de Swaan, 42) Machines, factories, and vehicles all make up industrial capital. Most of peoples property consists of such durable goods, including their own homes. Knowledge has become an increasingly important skill in post-industrial society. Especially within the production process. Skills are also being regarded as means of production, 'their cultural capital, property that can be acquired through education.' (2001,de Swaan, 42) Property can be measured it terms of money, whereas power can not. But in order for some to have this property, they must have the acquired skills to do so and hold a title of being prestigious.
Prestige relates to the amount of esteem or honour associated with social positions, qualities of individuals and styles of life. The arrival of a particular person, may cause all those to stand up and applaud or perhaps even bow. Shortly after, someone else may walk in and all who were just applauding may carry on with their conversations. "Important people are described as 'prominent,' 'at the centre,' 'highly placed,' or 'grand.' (2001.de Swaan, 43) These important figures are looked up to and people listen to what they have to say. In every society,, there is and always will be a ranking order among people, depending on the type of position that they occupy. The higher the rank that they hold, the greater amount of prestige they receive, "Prestige is the value that others attach to an individual occupying a particular network position.'(2001,de Swaan, 43) Prestige exists only in the eyes of others; it is quite literally the regard in which someone is held. Sociologists, for more than half a century, have assessed prestige with various occupations. People in general, have a tendency to attach high prestige to occupations such as medicine, law and engineering that generate hig income. "People may derive from prestige from many things in which they are better or higher or more that others, as long as it counts in the estimation of those around them."(2001,de Swaan, 43) "But prestige reflects more than just pay since favoured occupations typically require considerable ability and demand, extensive education and training." (1998, Macionis and Plummer, 268) Prestige is constantly visible and considered by all sorts of insignia. For instance, when someone receives a medal, an award for merit, or even a sports trophy, we ourselves like put ourselves in a pedestal of prestige because it makes us feel better about ourselves and we also get pleasure from getting attention from our peers and total strangers. On the other hand, people like to flaunt and increase their prestige by "displaying their possessions." Some do it by driving around in fancy cars or wearing expensive clothing. Based on my own experiences, I know what it is like to deal with those who flaunt off their wealth. I grew up in the Bronx, NY, for 15 years, and moved to a tiny community located 20 minutes outside the city. Thrown into a town like this. I had to deal with others who were better than me and flaunted it in every way imaginable. To me, looking at my peers driving around in their Porsche's, BMW's, and Ferrari's, it was hard. For awhile in the beginning, I was a bit jealous of the kids but after awhile I began to think to myself, why am I jealous? There really was no concrete reason as to why I was feeling the way I was feeling. My parents moved us from an area in the Bronx that was unsafe, to an area in New York, that is one of the most prestigious towns in the country. We may not have lived on the "right" side of the tracks where the mansions were or drove around in a Ferrari, but we sure are living examples of social mobility. Many people in modern societies believe that it is possible for anyone to reach the top if they work hard and persistently enough. "In present day society, the mere fact of putting in frequent appearances on television is sufficient to confer prestige." (2001,de Swaan, 44) All prestige is based on comparisons: 'for every higher there must be a lower, for every greater there must be a lesser.' Prestige relations are by their nature unequal. "For people within a social arrangement it is almost impossible to avoid such comparisons, as best they can try to impose their own ranking order of prestige." (2001,de Swaan, 45) In a contemporary society, prestige derives more from individual achievement than form inherited positions, it is more often acquired than bestowed whereas in earlier societies statues was primarily based on descent. Powerful people will generally have more prestige over someone like you or me. This however, may not always be the case. These 2 dimensions 'coincide' with each other. "For example, in cabinet ministers, who not only hold positions of power in the network, known as government, but are also held in high regard." (2001,de Swaan, 45) All of this is reflected in the position that they occupy at ceremonial ceremonies. It is the attention and precedence that they receive by those around them. One position may give more power while the other position may have more prestige. "An obscure government official may decide on a subsidy to be awarded to a greatly respected artist."(2001,de Swaan, 45) Nevertheless, high prestige and high income go hand in hand.
"Occupational prestige ranking are much the same in all
industrial societies. In almost every society, the more
highly ranked work that involves the mental activity
from extensive supervision, confers greater prestige
than lower class occupations that require supervised
manual labour."(1998, Macionis and Plummer, 269)
Property too often goes hand in hand with prestige; but not always and not automatically. Status discrepancy comes into play when a gap opens between the position someone occupies in the ranking order of power and property. This applies to both someone who has a great deal of power, property, and little status, but to someone with high status but little power or property. "Property can be converted into esteem, in the case of multi-millionaires who show-off their wealth by extravagant displays of luxury." (2001, de Swaan, 46) Societies witness the conversion of prestige into power in the case of the film star who was elected president,' and with the convergence of prestige into property, and in the case of a member of a prominent family who secures a well paid position in business or a wealthy souse solely on the basis of birth.
Social inequalities are central to any understanding of social stratification; but social stratification itself consists of more than simply inequalities in life chances. The concept of social stratification as a particular form of social division emphasises the idea that individuals are distributed among the levels or layers of a social hierarchy because of their economic relations. These layers or 'social strata' are real social groupings, forged together through both their economic relations and their associated social relations and interactions; groupings that are able to reproduce themselves over time. Work in similar occupations, marriage, kinship, and informal interaction connect individuals together and build up boundaries that close one stratum and divide it off from another. Social stratification links almost all aspects of society together, and therefore understanding what is happening in it. Most sociologists feel that social stratification constitutes a core feature of all societies, shaping both the lives of individuals and other characteristics of societies. In society today, there are unequal social relations of three kinds: power, property, and prestige. It is these terms that help make every society a functional one. Social stratification is also one of the most contentious features of a society, and hence it is not surprising that there are a large number of resources designed to educate people about it and also to propose changes or alternatives. Social stratification helps us understand a wide range of other changes in society. Despite lacking in visibility, and however imperfectly measured in the existing social classification. Of course, we recognise that in contemporary society, people are less likely spontaneously to describe their own experiences in the language of class. They search for more direct and specific determinants of their life chances to put alongside their recognition of class, and they recognise the independent part played by age, gender, and ethnicity. We do not, then, live in a 'classless' society, though we do live in a society whose members no longer spontaneously and unambiguously use the language of class as the obvious, taken-for-granted way of describing social inequalities. Class is not dead, but perhaps the monolithic social imagery of class has, indeed, had its day. It is this, which makes our society a functional one, and what will help shape it to be a stronger one in the future.
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