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Social Stratification in Great Britain

social stratification

Social stratification is rigid subdivision of a society into a hierarchy of layers, differentiated on the basis of power, prestige, and wealth. It is the hierarchical arrangement of people in a society. Stratification is common in the animal kingdom on the basis of power and gender and some form of stratification has probably always existed among humans. With the development of food and other surpluses resulting from technological advances in agriculture and manufacturing, some people began to accumulate more resources or wealth than others.

Thus, the origins of social stratification are situated in the transition from hunter/gatherer societies to horticultural/pastoralist societies. They were marked by class stratification, intensive agriculture, and were based on assumptions of social inequality. All had complex government bureaucracies and were often ruled by despotic leaders who governed as divine monarchs. Countries and societies are also classified on the basis of their economic condition. At the international level, comparisons in economic condition are made between different countries. While it is still common to hear countries described as first-world or third-world, this system of classification is outdated and has been replaced with the terms developed and developing. Social stratification can happen on the basis of caste, income, wealth, education, religion, power, age, gender, occupation, race, region, language, party and politics. There could be many other factors influencing social stratification.

For the greater part of history, the existing stratification order was regarded as an immutable feature of society, and the implicit objective of commentators was to explain or justify that order in terms of religious or quasi-religious doctrines.

Social stratification can be defined as, “An institutionalized system of social inequality; rankings based on share of scarce and desirable values such as property, power, and prestige.” (
The key components of social stratification are (1) the institutional processes that define certain types of goods as valuable and desirable, (2) the rules of allocation that distribute those goods across various positions or occupations (e.g., doctor, farmer, "housewife"), and (3) the mobility mechanisms that link individuals to positions and generate unequal control over valued resources. A complete understanding of stratification requires several kinds of knowledge: first, what stratification structures consist of and how they vary; second, the individual and collective consequences of the different states of those structures; and third, the factors that make stratification structures change. Two different lines of thought inform modern theory on societal stratification. One is classical theory; concerned with political power and privilege, it employs historical evidence. The other is the empirical tradition, which deals with systematic data on stratification as it exists contemporarily.

The social status played a key role in early-modern English society. Wealth was important, but so were birth, education, and employment in determining social rank. As William Harrison describes in ‘Of Degrees Of People In The Commonwealth Of Elizabethan England’, “We in England, divide our people commonly into four sorts, as gentlemen, citizens or burgesses, yeomen, and artificers or labourers. Of gentlemen the first and chief (next the king) be the prince, dukes, marquises, earls, viscounts, and barons; and these are called gentlemen of the greater sort, or (as our common usage of speech is) lords and noblemen: and next unto them be knights, esquires, and, last of all, they that are simply called gentlemen.” ( Gentlemen varied greatly in wealth. Education was one way to attain gentle status - Masters of Arts, physicians, and lawyers were all assumed to be gentlemen. Clergymen too, aspired to gentle status and for the most part were accepted as such, though after the Reformation, the status of many local clergy fell, and the higher clergy were gradually excluded from political power. Well-established families naturally stressed birth and lineage, while newcomers stressed that merit was the most important element of nobility. English society was hierarchical but it was comparatively easy to move up or down the hierarchy - particularly from one generation to the next. The wealthier merchants and citizens of England's larger towns ranked with yeomen or gentlemen. This was the basic structure in the society.

But after the Second World War, the society went through a massive change and so did various classes or stratifications. Apart from the regular classes that comprised of royal, aristocrats, gentry and labour class; other stratifications were recognised.
The professional class emerged. In England the members of professions were generally, with¬out any income-bearing property, nor did they derive any substantial portion of their assets from commerce or trading. They were dependent on the income derived from private or public sources and paid in respect of services rendered. This class was in part recruited from the gentry and in part from solid burgess stocks. These were the men of skill and confidence, the class which maintained standards of erudition, and formed the base for political advising to the aristocrats. People who would fall under this category were the estate agents, secretaries, private tutors, doctors, lawyers and civil servants.

Women became more actively involved in social, political and economic spheres and came out as more independent individuals. They participated in the Second World War and were equal partners in helping to defend the enemies. They were more focused on their area of work or careers. Family life took a back seat. Women became more empowered and a working women class germinated.
Many immigrants started coming and settling in Britain, post-war. Great Britain’s population has shown increasing ethnic diversity since the 1970s, when people from the West Indies, India, Pakistan, Africa, and China began immigrating; in the early 21st century.

These groups accounted for more than 5% of the population. There is also a significant minority of Polish people, who arrived after Poland joined the European Union. Now, a different class based on ethnic origin came into place.
Middle class emerged as the political moderator. People actively started participating in the House of Commons, whose 646 members are elected from single-member constituencies. Historically, the hereditary and life peers of the realm, high officials of the Church of England, and the lords of appeal (who exercise judicial functions) had the right to sit in the House of Lords, but in 1999 both houses voted to strip most hereditary peers of their right to sit and vote in the chamber. Most legislation started originating in the House of Commons. It was decided that the House of Lords may take a part in shaping legislation, but it cannot permanently block a bill passed by the Commons, and it has no authority over money bills. The crown need not assent to all legislation, but assent has not been withheld since 1707.

Britain was revolutionised with industries. It was the only way Britain could have handled the economic crunch which happened post war. The British economy suffered severely from the war. Manpower losses had been severe, including about 420,000 dead; large urban areas had to be rebuilt, and the industrial plant needed reconstruction and modernization.

Leadership in world trade, shipping, and banking had passed to the United States, and overseas investments had been largely liquidated to pay the cost of the world wars. This was a serious blow to the British economy because the income from these activities had previously served to offset the import-export deficit. In 1945, the Labour government pursued from the start a vigorous program of nationalization of industry and extension of social services. The Bank of England, the coal industry, communications facilities, civil aviation, electricity, and internal transport were nationalized, and in 1948 a vast program of socialized medicine was instituted (many of these programs followed the recommendations of wartime commissions). Job opportunities were created and people affected from Second World War started building their lives again with the help rapid Industrialization. So a working or industry class came into existence.

In the past thirty years, the social structure has got a different face and new social classes have evolved. Now society is stratified on the basis of education, occupation and income. A Social Class can be defined as, “An informal ranking of people in a culture based on their income, occupation, education, dwelling, and other factors.” The British society is often considered to be divided into three main groups of classes:

•the Upper Class,
•the Middle Class, and the
•Lower or Working Class

The Upper Class tends to consist of people with inherited wealth, and includes some of the oldest families, with many of them being titled aristocrats. The upper classes are not only defined by their title, but also by their education, and their blood line. The Middle Classes are the majority of the population of Britain today. They include industrialists, professionals, business people and shop owners. Working class people are mostly agricultural, mine and factory workers.

Since the end of 1970s and up till April 1998, social class has given rise to a lot of inequality. The most significant of all being income inequality. “In the 1970s, the incomes of the richest 10 percent were three times higher than the poorest 10 percent. The 1980s and 1990s witnessed a significant rise in income inequality, as wealth was redistributed away from ordinary working people to the rich. By the end of the 1990s, income inequality was four times greater. In 1996, over half of all total wealth was owned by just 10 percent of the population, whilst the top 50 percent owned a staggering 93 percent of all wealth.” (Julie Hyland, Social Inequality Rises in Britain) The rich became richer and the poor became poorer.

Children’s and their growth was highly affected due to this inequality. “Despite scientific advances in health care, infant mortality for children of unskilled workers is still almost twice that of professionals, a tiny advance from the 1970s. Poverty and social class continue to be the overriding determinant in a child's future, in more ways than one. Currently some 3 million children are living in families below the poverty line—defined as an income of less than 60 percent of the median. Children from poor backgrounds—defined as those in receipt of free school meals—generally record lower educational exam results.

In 1998, only a fifth of those 15- and 16-year-olds whose parents were employed in unskilled manual jobs achieved five GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) passes at grades A to C, compared to two-thirds of children of the professional and managerial classes.” (Julie Hyland) Low parental socio-economic status, low household income and low parental education levels are strongly related to a child’s poor intellectual skills at school. Young people with parents from higher socio-economic backgrounds were more likely to continue their full-time education at age 16 than those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Student characteristics such as ethnic origin and sex also demonstrated notable differences in staying on into full-time education. There is a significant concentration of black and Asian people amongst the poorest sections of society. They generally fare worse in education and employment.

The gap between men's and women's earnings has widened. Earnings from work are a primary source of income for the majority of households and individuals. Income, in turn, influences relative experiences of affluence or poverty. Workless lone parents, or people with disabilities, for example, tend to have low or no qualifications. Hence, they have less income. The use of credit has become widespread and though most people manage their debts sensibly, a small minority get into difficulties.

The influence of inequality on ‘life chances’ of different classes in society is crucial. The different classes in Britain have a great impact on the life chances of future generation. The lower or the working class will have fewer opportunities as compared to the middle and higher class to improve their condition.

The 'equal life chances' agenda recognises that today's unequal outcomes shape tomorrow's unequal opportunities, and has a particularly strong concern with the intergenerational transmission of inequalities, to prevent life chances being so strongly determined by the circumstances into which we are born as they are at present. To improve the social condition, we need to target the improvement of current generation of people to help improve the life chances of the future. By improving parent’s skills we can boost the life chances of their children. Good parental educational attainment contributes positively to child development, motivates them to aspire, builds confidence and helps in child behavioural development. By providing basic housing, food, education and work opportunities, the life chances of future generation from all classes can be improved.
There are various theories which explain the correlation between social class and inequality. One of them is ‘Functionalist’ theory of inequality. Functionalism relies on the metaphor that society is a body or a living system (Rigney 2001, p. 17). Just as a human organism consists of many parts (e.g., brain, heart, stomach) working together for the survival of the person, so does society which consist of multiple cooperative components. Functional analysis proceeds not by examining the details of specific interactions but by looking at the society as a whole and determining how it maintains itself. For a society to remain healthy, the most functionally important positions must be filled by the most qualified people. However, the number of people with the talent and/or the training to fill these roles is limited.

Consequently, society allocates greater rewards to those positions that are more important and require scarce talents. Inequality is an unconsciously established system through which societies fill the most crucial positions with the most skilled persons. Some degree of inequality is inevitable because it contributes positively to the functioning of societies. In modern terms, why do doctors, judges, and computer scientists make more money and receive more respect than garbage collectors and migrant farm workers? Their answer is that some positions are more important to the survival of the society than others are. These positions require much talent and education.

Another theory is the Marxist which is very popular. Karl Marx propounded this theory of inequality. As per him all human societies (except, as has been noted above, the earliest forms of hunter-gather societies) have been "class based" in some way, shape or form. One group has always owned and controlled the fundamental material resources that are necessary for the maintenance of social existence (such things as food production, the creation of shelter, clothing and so forth). This is the Capitalist class (or "bourgeoisie"). In modern society, they are the owners of land, factories, financial institutions etc. And the other group did not own or controlled the production of such things but had the ability to sell their labour power (that is, their ability to work) in return for wages. This is the Working class (or "proletariat"). Marx was aware that there could be individual movement between the two great classes he theorized. Capitalists could be driven out of business and into poverty / wage labour by competition, just as members of the working class could raise capital, create their own successful business and grow rich. Marx was clear that more classes can exist but these two classes were the basic distinguished factors of inequality.

Weberian theory of inequality and social stratification is also important. Although, Weber echoed the class distinctions of Marx in his theory but he did give importance to the influence of status and power/party along with class. Weber was more concerned to analyse the way in which social systems were stratified "at the level of individuals / social groups" - the way in which, for example, people doing much the same sort of work could have quite different levels of status and / or power. Weber defined social class as any group of people who share a similar position in an economic market or own property. The position in the labour market can be distinguished as High occupational positions (for example, white collar professional workers) and Lower occupational positions (for example, blue collar or manual workers). The ownership of property was distinguished as the Large property owners (for example, landed gentry, owners of large companies) and the Small property owners (for example, small shopkeepers). As per Weber, a propertied class in placed at the top because of their economic power, social status and political influence. A "professional class" or the High Occupational position holders was placed next because of their high position in the labour market and ownership of lesser forms of property (stocks and shares, for example), in addition to their relatively high social status and some political influence. The Lower occupational position holders and the working class were placed the lowest in the social classism because of their lesser social status and lesser ability to exert political influence.

Post-modernity concentrates on the tensions of difference and similarity erupting from processes of globalization: the accelerating circulation of people, the increasingly dense and frequent cross-cultural interactions, and the unavoidable intersections of local and global knowledge. The postmodernist view on social class is nothing new but a reformed version of the old. As per them, because of easy access to knowledge through media, internet, etc, our society has emerged as more informed and education has become the priority. Many want to complete their education which in turn might help them to increase their social status, earnings and a knowledgeable individual is in a better position to participate in politics. Many argue that there is nothing like post-modernisation. We are still evolving as a society and modernisation is taking place in all spheres of life. Many sociologists argue that we are still trying to reform our social system. The position of women has become better in the society. But the social classes are still distinguished on the basis of wealth, education and occupation. People who own more land, wealth and have political influence are considered the upper class and the others are distinguished on the basis of their occupation and education. We can conclude that as long as all the classes are developing, there will be inequality but if the upper class takes steps to evenly distribute wealth and position to lower class and the lower class tries to evolve and grab the opportunity, and then only a social equilibrium can be achieved.

Harrison William, c.1577, Of Degrees of People in the Commonwealth of Elizabethan England,
Hyland Julie, 17 May, 2000, Social Inequality Rises in Britain
Rigney, Daniel. 2001. The Metaphorical Society: An Invitation to Social Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. (p.17)
Published: 2008-05-31
Author: Parimita Chakravorty

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