Chapter 12:  industrial societies:  social stratification


stratification in industrial societies

As the technologies of societies have advanced, their systems of stratification have grown more complex.  The increased productivity of industrial technology has greatly expanded the range of possibilities for inequality, and refinements in the division of labor have created numerous occupational positions between the highest paid and the most respected, and the lowers paid and least respected.  There has also been an increase in the degree to which different dimensions of inequality are independent of one another.  As a result, it is no longer possible to characterize stratification as a simple matter of a few “haves” and a huge majority of “have nots,” as was the case in the typical advanced agrarian society (324).

Political Stratification

Despite the differences in the political system of industrial societies, one thing is true of them all:  their political elites have the greatest influence in choosing among the wide range of options available to industrial societies and in influencing the way their huge economic surpluses will be apportioned.

In agrarian societies, the governing elite was generally a small, homogeneous, and well-defined group, and top positions were often hereditary.  In industrial societies, there is a greater openness of the political system that allows a somewhat more diverse set or group to enter the ranks of the political elite through multiple channels, and multiparty electoral systems produce and sustain competing groups of elites.  To complicate matters further, constitutional principles in the democracies often provide a variety of checks on executive authority, while federal systems divide political power between national officials and regional officials (325).

In a number of industrial societies, there is a strong symbiotic relation between politicians and economic elites.  This is especially evident in societies with brokerage-type political parties (325-326).

Control of the economic surplus in industrial societies is not simply a matter of elites versus masses.  Different sets of elites often come into conflict with one another.  Another significant feature of the relation between elites and the masses in western industrial societies is the amount of power that has been acquired by organizations representing large blocs of ordinary citizens (326).

Today, because of the productivity of industrial societies and their democratic polities, almost all parts of the population share to some degree both in the control of the economic surplus and in its benefits (327).

The Distribution of Income

In industrial societies, incomes vary enormously with the US and Canada having the most unequal distributions.  The highest earning 20% of households receive 2.7 times the share of the lowest earning 40% in the US, and 2.3 times their share in Canada.  Nonetheless, incomes in industrial societies, including the US and Canada, are more equal than in contemporary nonindustrial societies (328).

The Distribution of Wealth

Wealth appears to be more unequally distributed than income in industrial societies.  In equalities in wealth are much more closely linked to age than are inequalities in income.  As individuals grow older, most accumulate household furnishing and other possessions, pay off mortgages on their homes, and build up equity in pension funds.  Turning to trends, however, there is no clear evidence that ownership of wealth has consistently grown either more concentrated or more dispersed (331).

Occupational Stratification

For most members of industrial societies, their occupations are the chief determinant of their income and wealth (332).

Educational Stratification

One of the great achievements of industrial societies has been the expansion of educational opportunities.  Formal education is no longer a privilege limited to children of an affluent minority.  Despite this increase, however, inequalities in their utilization persist.  The amount of education an individual receives is a function of many things:  intelligence, motivation, health, peer influence, family tradition, and family resources.

Differences in educational achievement have substantial consequences for subsequent achievement in the occupational system of stratification.  Most jobs in modern industrial societies have educational prerequisites, and insufficient years of education or lack of an appropriate diploma can bar otherwise qualified individuals from careers in many fields (333).  The importance of educational stratification today is clearly evident in data on the relationship between education and income.  The most highly educated young Americans, receive almost 3 times more income than their least educated counterparts (334).

Racial and Ethnic Stratification

Many industrial societies have racial or ethnic divisions within them.  Canada between French and English speaking populations, Belgium between Flemings and Walloons, and the US between African and European Americans.  When membership in an ethnic or racial group has an appreciable influence on an individual’s access to the benefits a society offers, the group has become, in effect, a class (334).

Classes of this kinds, however, are different from most others in several respects:

1.         the resource that is involved in ethnic and racial systems of stratification is an ascribed characteristic;

2.         racial and ethnic classes usually have a greater degree of class consciousness than most others;

3.         because physical traits and primary relationships are involved, it is more difficult for an individual to move into or out of an ethnic or racial class (335).

Age and Sex Stratification

Inequalities based on age and sex have been part of every human society.  To some extent, these inequalities reflect genetic differences among the members.  These biologically based differences have been reinforced and extended in most societies by cultural norms.  In this sense, modern industrial societies resemble preindustrial societies (337).

In virtually all industrial societies the income of women is substantially lower than that of men.  This is partly due to a heritage when women seldom worked for long outside the home and when those who did were assumed to be supplementing their husband’s or father’s income and therefore less in need of high wages than men.  But it is also rooted in the present.  Married women in the paid labor force find that they must constantly balance the demands of their jobs and careers against those of their families and children.  Nevertheless. this wage gap has closed with advancing industrialization (338).

The legal and political standing of women has also greatly improved as a result of industrialization.  Laws that once restricted their right to own property have been eliminated, and women now own much of the wealth in all western societies (339).

Vertical mobility

Compared with agrarian societies, industrial societies offer many more opportunities for individuals to improve their status.  In agrarian societies, high birthrates ensured an oversupply of labor in almost every generation.  At every level in society, a substantial percentage of children were obliged to work in occupations of lower status than their parents or to join the ranks of beggars, outlaws, prostitutes, and vagabonds.  Although a few improved their situation, far more were downwardly mobile (340).

In industrial societies, conditions are strikingly different.  Falling birthrates have reduced the oversupply of labor, while technological advances have greatly increased the proportion of high-status, high-income jobs.  Furthermore, because the upper classes have smaller families than the lower classes, opportunities are created for many children of the latter to become upwardly mobile.  Finally, flawed though they are, the systems of free public education in industrial societies give talented and disciplined children from the lower classes an opportunity to acquire skills that can help them move up the social ladder (340).

As a result, there is no industrial society in which the rate of downward mobility exceeds the rate of upward mobility.  This development has undoubtedly been a factor in reducing the threat of a working-class revolution predicted by Marx (341).

Social inequality:  2 Basic Trends

In advanced industrial societies, legally based hereditary status has been virtually eliminated.  In addition, opportunities for participation in political decision making have substantially broadened in industrial societies.  The franchise has been extended ever more widely until virtually the entire adult population is now able to vote in all of them.  Finally, income inequality has bee greatly reduced and though inequalities exist, the change has been significant (341).

Thus, the overall level of inequality in industrial societies is considerably less than that in agrarian societies of the past, or in most nonindustrial societies today.  An important consequence of this is the rising standard of living and improved life-chances of the average member of industrial societies (342-343).

The gap between rich and poor nations reveals the other side of the development coin:  while on the one hand the advancing technology of industrialization has helped reduce the level of inequality within industrial societies, on the other it has increased inequality among societies in the world system.  This gap has been widening ever since the start of the industrial era.  For instance, between 1860 and 1990, the wealthiest quarter of the world’s population increased its share of world income fro 58-89% while the bottom share fell from 12.5 to 2%.  With the new technology gradually eroding the barriers between societies, the social impact of this trend is bound to increase (343).