Social stratification is the categorization of society into a hierarchy based upon group identification.
Through social stratification, privilege and power flow to groups at the top of the hierarchy while people in lower-ranked groups face both explicit and implicit discrimination from society and the state.
Examples of social stratification include the separation of society into economic classes (rich vs poor), gender groupings (reinforcing patriarchy), racial and ethnic hierarchies, and birth-based castes.
Social Stratification Examples
1. Social Class Discrimination
Stratifying society into social classes is one of the longest-standing examples of systemic discrimination in society.
Marxist theorists have developed a now widely-recognized theory of social classes whereby society is roughly split into three classes:
- The Upper Class – A small group of wealthy people who enjoy the power and privilege of wealth in a capitalist system.
- The Middle Class – A large group of sufficiently educated people employed in comfortable jobs that offer economic stability. Middle-class people often have their own home, a mortgage, and may go on occasional vacations. As this is a large group, we often split it into lower middle class and upper middle class.
- The Working Class – A large group of people employed in precarious, difficult, and low-wage jobs who live paycheck to paycheck.
Working-class people often face discrimination due to their low amounts of disposable income, but also their accents and class culture. They may find it harder to achieve social mobility (making it hard to move into the middle class) due to employment discrimination and lack of social, cultural, and economic capital.
2. Patriarchy and Gender Discrimination
Most societies have historically embraced patriarchal social stratification. While progress has been made to challenge this, gender discrimination remains in many forms today.
In traditional patriarchal societies, positions of power such as government positions, the ability to own property, and even voting rights were only afforded to men.
Women have historically found themselves unable to participate in democracy, get an education at a university, obtain employment, obtain a loan, and be treated with respect by men they interact with.
Similarly, people such as trans people who do not fit into typical types of gender identities often face discrimination for not fitting into a restrictive social norm.
Read Also: A List of Gender Stereotype Examples
3. Race and Ethnic Discrimination
Discrimination against people based on their race and ethnicity has long been a systemic issue in society, manifesting as institutional racism.
People can often be placed into a social category of race in people’s minds based on their appearance. If a person appears to be from an identifiable race or ethnicity, they become categorized instantly, and they face an uphill battle trying to break through the stereotypes on people’s minds.
Generally, a person from a minority racial or ethnic group would face discrimination from the group that is in the majority and, generally, holds more power. Exceptions exist for societies where the minority holds power, including apartheid in South Africa.
Apartheid is a term that comes from the Afrikaans word “apartness”. It refers to the South African legalized discrimination against black South Africans that lasted from 1948 to 1991.
Known throughout the world as one of the worst examples of racial discrimination that lasted into the last decade of the 20th Century, the policy enforced segregation of neighborhoods, restricted non-white people from voting, and outlawed mixed marriages.
Slavery is another example of social stratification based on race. The most famous example is that of slavery in the United States which lasted until 1865.
Slavery involved withdrawing the human rights of people of African descent by rendering them the property of white slave owners.
This is among the most egregious historical examples of stratification based upon race. It involved creating a group of white “owners” and “slaves” where the white owners benefited from the labor theft and forced imprisonment of black people.
6. Rohingya Muslims
More recently, ethnic discrimination can be seen in places like Myanmar, where Rohingya Muslims face discrimination in the majority Buddhist nation.
This is an example of ethnic rather than racial stratification. Ethnicities are sub-groups within a society with their own unique culture and traditions. In the case of Rohingua Muslims, their culture is oriented around their religion which separates them from the Buddhist majority.
The military junta of Myanmar has, for several decades, denied the Rohingya people access to healthcare and rights as citizens. This positions them as outcasts in society who have less access to basic services and, of course, social mobility.
7. Dis/Ability Discrimination
A typical example of social stratification based on ability, illness, or disability, is that of lepers. For centuries, lepers were cast out of society to live alone in city outskirts.
Today, social stratification based on ability or disability is visible in sports, where professionals in disabled sports are underpaid and undervalued, as well as in public access to services, where people with disabilities are often unable to access (and even denied) services due to their disabilities.
8. Indian Caste Systems
The Indian caste system is the most prominent examples of caste systems and one that demonstrates how people can be classified based upon the caste they are born into.
Typically, people within a caste are a group of people who are restricted to socializing and marrying within their caste, as well as only being able to find employment within the assigned profession of their caste.
In India, there are four groups of castes (within which there are multiple sub-castes). These are:
- Brahmins – Religious sages, priests, etc. within Hunduism. They are believed to have come from the mouth of Purusha.
- Kshatriyas – This caste is composed of rulers, administrators, and warriors. They are said to have come from the arms of Purusha.
- Vaishyas – This caste is composed of artisans, merchants, tradespeople, and farmers. They come from Purusha’s thighs.
- Shudras – This caste is made up of the peasants, laborers, and agriculturalists. They are said to have been forged from the feet of Purusha.
In traditional Indian society, people were not allowed to enter professions outside of their cate and had to marry within their group. People in higher castes would see lower castes as unclean and unworthy.
The caste system was officially abandoned and outlawed in India in the 20th Century.
9. Feudal System of Lords
In medieval Europe, societies were more often than no governed by feudal systems. These systems involves stratifying society into groups based on land ownership and proximity to the king.
Generally, the king would grant land ownership to people based upon their loyalty and fealty to the king. These people were called lords and nobles.
The lords and nobles would then divvy land out to people loyal to them, called vassals. Vassals were often knights who would have to pay taxes to the lords, and fight in wars on behalf of the king when required.
Vassals, in turn, would have peasants and serfs tending the land for them. Peasants and serfs lacked any special privileges, while on the other end of the spectrum, lords would act with relative impunity to laws of society.
10. Children’s Friendship Groups
An odd but relatable example of social stratification is children’s friendship groups. In friendship groups, there are often a small group of dominant children at the core.
Other children who spend time in the group may identify more as loners who hang out but do not have close friendships with anyone in the group.
These friendship groups often have the hallmarks of stratification: children at the center of the group have more power to make decisions for the group and cajole others to follow them. Children on the periphery often become the followers who don’t have as much agency to influence the group’s activities.
11. Japanese Edo System
During the period 1603 BCE – 1868 BCE, Japan was governed by a military government called the Tokugawa Shogunate. This period is known as the Edo society.
Throughout the Edo period, society was stratified into several groups:
- Samurai – The Samurai accounted for about 10% of the population. They were the warriors whose job was to be highly trained and prepared for war. The Edo period was relatively peaceful, so they were often quite idle. Interestingly, while Samurai enjoyed high status, they were not allowed to own land. However, they were the only people in the society who were allowed to own weapons.
- Peasants – The peasants could own land and paid taxes. They were highly respected because they provided the necessities for society, such as food. They were often very wealthy.
- Artisans – About 10% of the population were artisans. They had to live in secluded quarters in cities. Because they didn’t produce essential services, they were not as high-up as the peasants, but were respected for their art.
- Merchants – Merchants were at the bottom of the “officail” social order. They could build a lot of wealth and were respected members of society, but because they were not producers, they had lower social status. Merchants tended to live together in their own quarters of the city.
- Untouchables – Ethnic minorities, executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, butchers, and tanners were considered “untouchables” and generally outcast from society.
12. Monarchy and Birthright
Traditionally, birthright was a way of sustaining the power of people at the top of social hierarchies. People would be born into lordships in feudal England, for example.
Similarly, rulers were born into their social roles in dynasties. While this form of social stratification is at a historical low in our era, the monarchy in England is still run via a birthright system, while more insidiously, the dictator of North Korea is always born into their role.
In republics such as the United States, people are not born into an official position, but children of celebrities often use their parents’ social capital to gain leverage in society, as with the examples of famous celebrity dynasties like the Cyrus family of Billy Rae Cyrus and the children of Will Smith.
Oligarchies are social structures where a small number of people at the top of society amass wealth through ownership of capital.
One of the most extreme examples of an oligarchy is that of Putin’s Russia, where he amassed power by divvying out ownership of the nation’s largest corporations to friends and people loyal to him.
Similarly, in societies that promote neoliberal capitalism, such as the United States, power and money is slowly amassed by the most successful business owners (such as Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos) who can use that money to invest, sustain, and grow their wealth.
Oligarchic societies lead to widening economic inequality and amassing of power to a small group of privileged people at the top of society.
14. Occupational Status
Societies are also often stratified by occupational status. People in highly paid white-collar professions can garner higher social status than those in lowly paid blue-collar professions.
Professions that tend to garner more respect include lawyers, doctors, engineers, pilots, and economists.
By contrast, working-class professions that garner less respect include tradespeople and retail workers.
One example of the discrimination people may face in relation to occupation is discrimination from your partner’s parents. Some parents might insist that their child marry a doctor or lawyer, for example.
15. Immigrant Rights
People migrating to new countries often find themselves the victims of discrimination based on their categorization.
This can be both official and unofficial.
For example, official discrimination might involve restricted rights of non-native people to gain access to healthcare, education, or voting rights despite the fact they pay taxes or, indeed, are even naturalized citizens.
A more sinister example of the disadvantages migrants face, however, is employment discrimination. They may find themselves at a disadvantage when applying for jobs because of their skin color or accent. This works to slowly push migrants down the social hierarchy and locals from the majority ethnic group up the social hierarchy.
16. Hunger Games
The book and movie series The Hunger Games depicts social stratification in a fictional communist society that is based on, or at least rhymes with, Stalin’s Russia.
In the fictional world of the Hunger Games, there is a wealthy capital city with surrounding districts that are controlled by military force by the capital.
The capital enjoys the spoils of its victory over the other regions. It has ultimate control, subjugating people born in the poorer districts and forcing them to labor for the good of the people who live in the capital.
Each district has its own specialization; for example, one district is the mining district that provides coal and electricity to the capital.
This social structure is not unlike Stalin’s Russia during the great famine of 1932 to 1933. During the famine, the producers in Ukraine, a Soviet satellite state, were starved to death en masse while they produced grain for the enjoyment of those in urban centers like Moscow who were largely untouched by the famine experienced by the food producers of the society.
Endogamy refers to the restriction of marriage to people within social groups. It denies people’s ability to marry outside of their assigned status at birth.
This is common, for example, in caste systems, where people must marry within their caste.
It’s particularly true of castes that are seen as inferior or even ‘untouchables’. Mixing with, let alone marrying, people within untouchable castes is seen as a social taboo.
Endogamy is an example of social stratification because it is a practice that sustains hierarchical groups of people within a society for generations, denying their ability to move between castes and sustaining discriminatory practices against people based on their bloodlines.
18. Global Stratification
Global stratification refers to stratification on a global scale. It occurs due to unfettered neoliberal globalization, colonialism, and imperialism.
As a result of these forces, rich nations have competitive advantages that allow them to get wealthier and increase the global wealth gap.
At the same time, poorer nations become economically dependant upon wealthier nations. We can see this in the middle income trap where poorer nations who develop rapidly suddenly hit a ceiling and their economies cannot bridge the wealth gap. (see also: core nations vs periphery nations.
Social stratification involves the separation of society into groups so that some groups could enjoy greater privilege and power than other groups. It is a hallmark of just about every society in history, and according to theories like the Davis-Moore thesis, is innevitable.
While we may feel as if society is getting more egalitarian in the West, there is still evidence of social stratification, especially in relation to everyday racism and sexism. Social stratification examples include social class discrimination and historical apartheid.
Foster, J.D. (2018). Gale Researcher Guide for: Social Stratification. Farmington Hills: GALE.
Grusky, D. (2019). Social stratification, class, race, and gender in sociological perspective. London: Routledge.
Littlejohn, J. (2021). Social stratification: An introduction. London: Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.