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A Sociological Perspective on Class and Inequality
 
 

A Sociological Perspective on Class and Inequality





"United we stand; divided we fall" is the motto of our country. However, when we study the true workings of the United States at close range, it becomes clear that we are not quite as united as we claim to be.

In fact, our society, like most others in the world, is filled with inequities. There exists a polarized structure whereby the population essentially is segmented into economic and racial classes and other defining groups.

Known as social stratification, this term explains the phenomenon in which the levels of a society are divided based upon wealth or power.

A. Social Classes

Social classes are the most common types of groupings used to delineate economic groups within a particular society.


Even though the three most commonly cited classes are lower or working class, middle class, and upper class, in reality, American society is not so capable of being neatly pigeonholed. Our society contains huge disparities of wealth, income, education, and occupation that no one system is able to completely classify them.

Further complicating attempts made to group social classes is that in different societies and other parts of the world, other stratification systems are employed based upon those societies' values or norms.

Additional stratification systems include:

  • caste systems. This is an ancient system that originated in India and integrated religion and tradition, as well as economic level.
  • hierarchical structures. These are found mostly in communist countries because the nomenclature, or structural stratification, in these societies is more commonplace.


"In the United States, the dimensions of inequality such as income and education do not correlate highly enough to produce coherent social groups; nor does any single, continuous dimension exhibit any natural breaks. Any boundaries or cutoff points are therefore arbitrary." - Douglas M. Eichar, 1989

This line of thinking with regard to economic structures then raises the question, "What are the parameters for defining specific classes?"
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B. Social Class: Distinctions

Combining multiple sources of information in an attempt to discern character traits of particular classes, the following parameters were established:

  • Upper class. The upper class is made up of 10 percent of the total population, elite white-collar professionals, business owners and heirs, with earnings listed at $100,000-plus for single persons and $250,000 annually for double-income families.
  • Upper middle class. This class is made up of 15 percent of the total population, white-collar professionals, and people with great autonomy or graduate degrees, commonly earning annual salaries of $62,500-plus for single persons and $100,000 for households of two income earners.
  • Lower middle class. This class is made up of 30 percent to 33 percent of the total population and includes semi-professionals, people with a bachelor's degree, some college, or limited autonomy; average annual earnings of between $32,500 to $60,000 per year.
  • Working class. This is made up of 30 percent to 33 percent of the total population and includes clerical, service, and blue-collar workers, people with minimal autonomy and a high school or some college education. Income ranges from $15,000 to $32,500 a year.
  • Lower class. The lower class is made up of 17 percent to 20 percent of the total population, frequently unemployed, below the poverty threshold off and on, with no high school education and typically earning less than $15,000 annually.
References for the above classifications included American Class Structure in an Age of Growing Inequality by Dennis Gilbert and the book Society in Focus by William Thompson and Joseph Hickey as the references pertaining to the percentages constituted by each class as well as occupations commonly held within each class. Income figures were taken from the 2005 Economic Survey, published by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2006 and available online. Income statistics apply to all individuals of age 25 or older with earnings.

C. Controversial Classifications

However, controversy surrounds these unilateral distinctions, for many feel that they do not take into consideration the overall picture. For example, someone who is classified as upper middle class and regularly earns above the $62,500 mark may have sizable outstanding bills and other expenditures that cause their income after taxes to qualify for the working class level.


Regardless of the distinct class boundaries, the vast majority of Americans are under the erroneous assumption that they are members of the middle class.

Because it is very difficult to accurately assess whether such individuals or families do indeed meet the middle class criteria, the answer to the question of class often becomes subjective based upon one's own vantage point.

In spite of attempts to clarify class distinctions, there remains a large element of ambiguity. Nonetheless, social scientists and other professionals continue to use them as a general means of characterizing individuals based upon their status quo position in life.

In addition, while there may be an infinite set of measurements upon which class may be determined, the traits most commonly used for classification purposes include family of origin, educational level, wealth, occupation, accolades, refinement, notoriety, and others.

D. Social Mobility

As we have laid out the basic framework by which individuals or families are lumped into particular classes and categories, we will now discuss the manner by which people ascend or descend, depending on the case, within the class system.


By definition, social mobility occurs whenever people move across social class boundaries or move from one occupational level to another. Mobility can occur either upwards or downwards.

Types of social mobility studies include:

  • Intergenerational mobility. This mobility compares parental levels to that of their children.
  • Intragenerational. These study the career mobility (job changes) a person makes within his or her lifetime.
  • Feudal and caste. Types of societies that were closed, meaning a person's position in society was largely based on inherited characteristics, such as family origin, gender, or ethnic group.
  • Meritocracy. Typically a British system whereby a position in the hierarchy is determined by an individual's perceived cumulative worth based upon personal history, upbringing, and accomplishments.

Note: While some of these ascribed or inherited characteristics still hold a great deal of social relevance within modern societies, contemporary Britain tends to place a greater emphasis on what people are able to accomplish.


Some social scientists tend to favor the idea that an individual's lot in life is determined by ancestral upbringing. Thus, it requires that the person from humble roots work a great deal in order to change her or his social position in life. Not only is this a matter of economics but also of shifting values and ambitions.
According to this line of thinking, families take great pride by instilling their unique set of beliefs in their children with the hope that, in turn, they will pass the same ideologies onto their own children.
E. Barriers to Social Mobility
Family norms are not the only barrier to social mobility. Other notable factors include:
  • Competition. In order to move up the ladder, one must possess a great deal of ambition and persistence.
  • Resources and opportunities. To reach one's goal level, along with drive, one can also greatly benefit from access to viable opportunities and ample resources, money, connections, tools, and more. Those with good education, strong motivation, and some wealth can rise more easily and more quickly. The lower down on the ladder one starts, the more difficult it is to ascend, and the further one must rise.
  • Devastating situations. Those who may be in good positions starting out can encounter offsetting experiences that either completely wipe them out or leave them changed forever. Such instances can include medical conditions requiring the use of their entire life savings, criminal misdoings tarnishing their reputation, or even natural disasters that alter their economic position.
From the 1855 German novel Soll and Haben by Gustav Freytag is the quote: "The oppression of debt is found in lost farms, homes, and even personal liberty....The poor borrow; the rich lend."

F. Poverty: Profile



We tend to consider the lowest class that of the working class poor or poverty stricken. Hence, it may be a good idea to review the concept of poverty from a sociological perspective.

First off, there are two ways of looking at poverty: objective poverty and subjective poverty. Quite often, these two concepts are confused.

  1. Objective poverty. This term is used as an indication of the level of income at which one cannot afford all the resources needed to survive. Note: Oftentimes, this term is used in conjunction with the phrase "below the poverty line."
  2. Subjective poverty. This idea is used more to express the state of feeling a sense of deprivation directly as a result of economic insufficiencies.

The major distinction between the two concepts is that those persons who are objectively poor are, in fact, earning below the established poverty line, whereas those who are subjectively poor may actually be earning enough on which to live and get by, yet feel in comparison with others who are better off that they are lacking resources.


In having made the distinction between objective and subjective poverty, we can now understand that it is objective statistics that relay information as to the numbers of people who are classified as being poor. Subjective statistics are not so readily available because they tend to rely upon beliefs and values more than facts.

When discussing the economic levels of individuals or families, another frequently used term is "economic inequality." This refers to the major disparities in the distribution of economic assets and incomes among members of the population. Plus, the term may also be employed to compare and contrast nations and corporate entities.

Though calculating the differences or similarities among people or entities may seem relatively simple, in fact, it becomes more complicated when multiple factors such as family size (population), expenditures, earnings versus age, and others are taken into account in the equation.

Economic inequality has existed in a wide range of societies and historical periods; its nature, cause, and importance are open to a broad debate. The importance in studying economic variances is to understand the ways in which all people live, not just a segmented group.

Furthermore, knowledge of the plights of some individuals and fancies of others is paramount to creating some form of balance between polar opposites so that all human beings are perceived as having value in society.
 
 
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