Social stratification refers to a class concept in which individuals are classified into “groups based on shared socio-economic conditions” (Shepard, 2004, p. 67). In contemporary western societies, social stratification is organized in terms of three layers namely, the upper class, the middle class, and the lower class. These classifications are unique to state-based societies rather than feudal societies which are characterized by nobility-to-peasant relations. This paper focuses on Karl Marx and Max Weber’s explanations of social stratification.
According to Karl Max, the capitalist system of production is made up of two economic elements namely, the substructure and superstructure. These elements define relations of production in terms of the employer-employee work relations (Shepard, 2004, p. 69). They also define division of labor, as well as, property relations. In the capitalist society, the means of production is owned by the ruling class. Consequently, Marx identified two social classes namely, the bourgeoisie (owned capital) and the proletariats (sold labor). The bourgeoisie used various social control measures such as exploiting the proletariats to maintain status quo. The ruling class ideology promoted false consciousness through political and non-political institutions, norms and art. Marx explained that the capitalist system would finally collapse due to its internal conflicts, thereby giving way to revolutionary consciousness (Shepard, 2004, p. 71). This would lead to the development of a classless communist society in which social stratification is limited. Thus, Marx explained social stratification in terms of ownership of means of production which determined membership in the two social classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.
Max Weber’s explanation of social stratification was based on Marx’s ideas about social classes. However, Weber did not believe in the collapse of capitalism and emergence of effective communism, as well as, the occurrence of proletariat revolt. Weber pointed out the “difference between class, status and power” (Shepard, 2004, p. 92). According to Weber, class refers to the economic position of an individual in society. Unlike Marx, Weber did not consider class as the main factor in stratification. This is because he realized that there were financially stable managers who controlled corporations which they did not own. Status refers to the level of prestige, honor, and popularity enjoyed by a person in society. Unlike Marx, Weber explained that capital value was not the main determinant of political power. He noted that political power was also determined by a person’s status in society. Weber defined power as the ability of an individual to get his way irrespective of the resistance caused by others. For instance, a government official may own little wealth but has immense power. Even though Marx pointed out only two social classes, Weber pointed out four social classes which include “the upper class, white collar workers, the petite bourgeoisie, and the manual working class” (Shepard, 2004, p. 102).
Max Weber’s approach better represents the inequality in America. This is due to the following reasons. First, inequality in America is not only based on possession of capital. Status also contributes to inequality. For instance, an African American is likely to receive poor treatment due to his racial status. Thus, even though the African American can be wealthy, he might lack the prestige or treatment enjoyed by the European Americans. Second, as Weber points out, there are several social classes in America. These classes have unequal access to power, and economic resources. Finally, as Weber explains, social stratification is also determined by life chances (Shepard, 2004, p. 102). In America, a person’s socio-economic status is, largely, determined by the opportunities available to him. For instance, Native Americans have remained poor due to the fact that most of them live in reservations which are isolated from the country’s economic centers. Consequently, they have limited access to economic opportunities.