Global stratification refers to the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and prestige among different nations of the world.
Within a society, the hierarchical arrangement of individuals and groups is called social stratification. Global stratification is the same phenomenon on an international scale.
Some nations enjoy enormous wealth & privilege, while others suffer from poverty & marginalization. Global forces such as globalization, cultural imperialism, and colonialism can exacerbate global inequalities.
Global stratification often involves classifying countries into various hierarchical categories. It can also be studied using poverty and inequality indices, which we will look at later.
Global Stratification Definition
Global stratification refers to:
“the systematic inequalities in access to resources and power that exist among countries and between groups within countries”.(Roberts & Hye, 2015)
Global stratification is not just limited to economic inequality but also includes political & social inequality. It is a multidimensional concept that takes into account factors such as education, healthcare, etc.
While studying global stratification, it is helpful to classify nations into a few categories based on their economic status, level of industrialization, etc.
Classifications of Global Stratification
One of the earliest classifications came up after World War II, which divided countries into the First World, Second World, and Third World:
- First World: The First World consisted of the capitalist democracies of North America, Europe, and some other nations (Australia, Japan, etc.).
- Second World: The Second World included the communist nations of the Soviet Union.
- Third World: Finally, the remaining regions (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) were called the Third World. But this was primarily a political classification—built on the opposition between capitalism & communism—and after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, it fell out of use.
It was replaced by another typology that classified nations as:
However, the term “undeveloped” makes some countries sound inferior, so this classification is also going out of favor.
Today, countries are simply classified as:
- low-income nations
This is based on their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, that is, the total value of the nation’s goods and services divided by its total population.
Global Stratification Examples
- Wealth: Economic resources are distributed unevenly across the world. GDP per capita is often used to quantify wealth: in 2022, this value was over $100,000 for countries like Luxembourg & Qatar, while it was less than 500$ for countries like Burundi & Malawi (World Bank). This disparity leads to an immense difference in access to resources, opportunities, and standard of living.
- Access to education: Basic literacy skills and access to education vary throughout the world. In 2022, the literacy rate among adults in developed countries was around 98%, while it was 75% in developing countries (UNESCO). Similarly, the net enrolment ratio in the former is almost 100%, while it is only 85% in the latter. Education is a key factor in economic development, and without it, countries remain stuck in poverty.
- Political power: The control of resources & decision-making power is distributed unevenly across the world. For example, in the United Nations, although all nations have the right to participate and vote in the General Assembly, they do not have equal say in the decision-making. The five permanent members of the Security Council (China, France, Russia, the US, and the UK) have veto power, so have much greater power.
- Racial & ethnic status: The distribution of resources & opportunities is uneven among different racial & ethnic groups. For example, in the United States, the median household income for white households is around $70,000, while for black households it is around $45,000 (Census Bureau, 2022). Similarly, the graduation rate for white students is about 80% while it is 70% for black students (NCES).
- Gender status: Around the world, gender has a key role in determining the kind of opportunities open to a person. Globally, the labor force participation rate for men is 80%, while for women, it is 55% (World Bank, 2022). There is a global gender pay gap of about 16%, meaning that, on average, women are paid 16% less than men for doing the same job. These differences reflect as well as perpetuate gender inequality in our world.
- Sanitation: According to WHO, around 2.2 billion people around the world lack basic sanitation facilities such as toilets. Marginalized communities, such as women and those living in slums, find it particularly difficult to find safe & private facilities, which leads to the spread of diseases. The pandemic has further highlighted these problems and shown how necessary it is to make sanitation accessible to everyone.
- Life expectancy & health: Life expectancy and health outcomes differ significantly across countries. People in high-income countries have a life expectancy of around 76 years, while in low-income countries it is around 64 years (WHO). People in high-income countries have greater access to preventive care & treatments to deal with diseases. Plus, they also have easy access to nutritious food and sanitation facilities.
- Environmental degradation: Low-income countries and communities are usually more vulnerable to the impacts of environmental degradation. The poorest half of the world is responsible for only 10% of carbon emissions, while the wealthiest 10% are responsible for nearly half of the emissions. The impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise and extreme weather events, also harm low-income groups much more.
- Employment opportunities: In 2020, the unemployment rate was 3.9% in developed countries while it was 6.1% in developing countries (ILO). Moreover, the quality of employment also differs: in developed countries, people tend to have stable, well-paying jobs with benefits, such as healthcare. In contrast, people in developing countries are often forced to work in low-paying, informal jobs with no security or benefits.
- Access to technology: People in developed countries have better access to technology. For example, average internet penetration in developed countries is around 88%, while it was only 42% in developing countries. This severely limits access to information, education, and economic opportunities, especially for marginalized communities. Without access to technology, existing disparities are further exacerbated. Technological globalization generally suffers from cultural lag, meaning wealthier companies always have a technological advantage.
- Cultural power: Cultural power is often held by wealthier nations, who can use mediascapes to promote their own beliefs and values. This leads to social phenomena such as Americanization, McDonaldization, and cultural homogenization.
Measuring Global Stratification
While classifications based on GDP per capita are very useful, they also have some limitations.
Earlier, we saw how global stratification can be studied by classifying nations into different categories, such as high-income, middle-income, and low-income. Such classifications, based on GDP per capita or similar economic measures, have certain limitations.
Therefore, they are usually studied along with some other measures:
1. Global Poverty
Generally, the wealthier a nation, the lower its poverty level; however, this correlation is not perfect, and only judging countries based on their GDP per capita can be misleading.
Suppose there are two countries, A & B. In A, the wealth is evenly distributed, and a small number of people are poor. But in B, there are few people with enormous wealth while a large number of people are living in poverty.
In both cases, GDP per capita might be the same (since it’s an average figure), but clearly, the two nations are vastly different. Therefore, studying poverty is important as it allows us to understand how many people are living in extreme destitution.
Global poverty is measured through a poverty line, typically defined as an income of less than $1.90 per day. In 2019, 735 million people were living in extreme poverty, with the majority of them in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.
2. Global Inequality
Global inequality involves both the inequalities between nations and those within individual nations.
In 2007, the richest one-fifth of nations had about 75% of the world’s income, while the poorest fifth of the nations own only 1.5% of the world’s income (Neckerman & Torche). Such inequalities are only growing with time—in 2020, 26 billionaires owned as much as the poorest half of the world.
As we saw earlier, relying on GDP per capita can be misleading, as it doesn’t portray the distribution of wealth. Therefore, other tools, such as the Gini coefficient, are used to measure inequality.
The value of the Gini coefficient ranges between 0 and 1. 0 means that the income is the same for everyone or perfect equality. A value of 1 means that one person has all the income. So, the closer the value is to 1, the greater the economic inequality in a country.
Global stratification refers to the unequal distribution of wealth, power, and status across different nations.
It tells us how vastly different lives are in high-income and low-income countries, not only in economic but also in sociopolitical terms. Plus, it also throws light on the disparities existing within nations
Global stratification often involves classifying nations into different categories. Such classifications—usually based on GDP per capita—can be supplemented with knowledge about global poverty and global inequality to get a clearer picture.
International Labour Organization (ILO). (2021). Global Employment Trends. https://www.ilo.org/global/topics/employment-and-social-protection/global-employment-trends/lang–en/index.htm
National Center for Education Statistics. (2022). Graduation rate by race and ethnicity. National Center for Education Statistics.
Neckerman, K. M., & Torche, F. (2007). “Inequality: Causes and consequences”. Annual Review of Sociology, 33(1).
Roberts, K., & Hite, A. (2015). Global stratification: patterns and trends. Routledge.
UNESCO. (2022). Education: data and indicators. UNESCO Institute for Statistics.
World Bank. (2022). GDP per capita (current US$). World Bank.
World Health Organization (WHO). (2021). Life expectancy. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/life-expectancy/