Today in the United States, we read in the newspapers constantly about the state of “classes” in our country. For instance, it is often said at tax time that the Federal budget is balanced on the backs of the “middle class.” To people in the “lower class,” the promise is held that in a capitalist society, by working hard you can lift yourself out of the lower income bracket to join the “middle class.” Entrepreneurs who can “find a need and fill it” can make it into the “upper class.” The point is that this kind of thinking, a product of “social stratification theory," is ingrained upon our minds. As a society, we accept it as a fact that we live in a multi-tiered “class” system, and that this is the way it should be because it is central to our nature as human beings.
As a society we should ask ourselves why we think this way, and whether there is another possible way of explaining our current situation. In contrast to this social stratification theory, we can examine the class theory of Karl Marx, who defines “class” in a completely different way. Marx proposed that there are only two classes in capitalist society, owners of capital (elite), and producers of capital (popular masses). Marx believed these are by nature involved in a basic and historical conflict.
The proponents of each theory are attempting to make a model of society in an attempt to understand the inequalities between individuals in that society; however, they differ in approach. The proponents of social stratification theory hold that inequality derives from the differing abilities of the members of society, and that societies need to put their most qualified individuals into the most vital positions, which earn them greater rewards. The proponents of Marx’s class theory state that the relationship between the two basic classes is historical and based on exploitation of one class by another, and that the current capitalist system, having grown out the feudal system by means of the industrial revolution, is designed to keep the elite class dominant over the larger lower class. Marx’s simple model is more comprehensive and useful because it endeavors to explain how we arrived at our current state of affairs, and to predict the outcome of the obvious class conflict in our society.
An example of a social stratification model can be made of the Feudal System, with a dominant nobility (betters). Barons were at the upper strata, higher than the knights, who were at a lower strata. The subjected masses (lessers) were serfs and peasants; undoubtedly some were more clever and successful than others who occupied a lower strata. Another model would be the current United States, where the social strata starts with the “upper-upper class,” the “upper class,” the “upper-middle class,” and so on down to the poor, or “lower-lower” class. In highly detailed social stratification models, trends and analyses are very complex. An excellent example of this is The Process of Stratification: Trends and Analyses by Robert Hauser and David Featherman. The many pages of tables and detailed analysis are exceedingly difficult to comprehend, which makes them difficult to use.
A model of social stratification is a snapshot in time which details the society as it exists at that time. In The Persistence of Social Inequality in America, John Dalphin states that “social stratification suggests that a society has divisions, cleavages, or splits within it. More specifically, it means that a society is divided into hierarchically arranged levels of families (and, increasingly, individuals), who have unequal access to what is valued in that society.” It is important to understand that the differing levels in the stratification model correspond to differing social strata, not to social classes as defined by Marx.
In “Marxist Class Analysis Versus Stratification Analysis as General Approaches to Social Inequality,” James Stolzman and Herbert Gamberg argue that social stratification theorists are not even really interested in explaining class, its origins and potential changes, and are not interested in assigning any historical context. It is helpful and important to know and understand stratification models in our society, but to be comprehensive we should also ask how social stratification became the way it is, and try to predict how it is going to change in the future. In Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in the United States, Harold R. Kerbo explains social stratification theorists’ view that “society is held together by the general consensus over the major values and norms in the society.” He goes on to say that they view the “task of social science as that of making a value-free analysis of society in order to uncover basic social laws, rather than attempting to promote social change.” We should be interested