C hapter 8
I. Why Focus on the World’s Richest and Poorest?
A. When sociologists study social stratification, they focus on the connection
between social location and their life chances.
B. Social location is a product of the categories humans have created.
II. The Extremes of Poverty and Wealth in the World
A. Absolute poverty is a situation in which people lack the resources to satisfy
the basic needs no person should be without.
1. The United Nations has set the absolute poverty threshold in
developing countries at the equivalent of US$1.00 per day. The World
Bank (2009), on the other hand, believes that threshold should be set at
US$1.25 per day. According to the United Nations (UN) threshold, 1.1
billion people live in a state of absolute poverty. Based on the World
Bank threshold, that number is 1.4 billion people.
B. Relative poverty is measured not by some objective standard, but rather by
comparing a person’s situation against that of others who are more advantaged
in some way.
C. Extreme wealth – The most excessive form of wealth, in which a very small
proportion of people in the world have money, material possessions, and other
assets (minus liabilities) in such abundance that a small fraction of it (if spent
appropriately) could provide adequate food, safe water, sanitation, and basic
health care for the 1 billion poorest people on the planet.
D. Core Concept 1: When sociologists study systems of social stratification,
they seek to understand how people are ranked on a scale of social worth
and how that ranking affects life chances.
1. Social stratification - the systematic process of categorizing and
ranking people on a scale of social worth such that the ranking affects
life chances in unequal ways.
2. Life chances - the probability that an individual’s life will follow a
certain path and will turn out a certain way.
3. Social inequality - A situation in which these valued resources and
desired outcomes (that is, a college education, long life) are distributed
in such a way that people have unequal amounts and/ or access to
III. Ascribed versus Achieved Statuses
A. Ascribed statuses - Social positions assigned on the basis of attributes people
possess through no fault of their own—those attributes are acquired at birth
(such as skin shade, sex, or hair color), develop over time (such as height,
weight, baldness, wrinkles, or reproductive capacity), or are possessed
through no effort or fault of their own (such as the country into which one is
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born and religious affiliation “inherited” from parents).
B. Achieved statuses - Attained through some combination of personal choice,
effort, and ability.
C. Ascribed and achieved characteristics may seem clearly distinguishable, but
that is not always the case.
1. Status value -a level of respect or admiration for a status apart from
any person who happens to occupy it.
2. Esteem - the reputation that someone occupying an ascribed or
achieved status has earned from people who know and observe the
B. Life Chances across and Within Countries
a. The chance that a baby will survive the first year of life depends
largely on the country where it is born.
b. Life chances vary within countries as well.
i. In the U.S., an average of 8 babies per 1,000 live births die
before reaching age one. Of course, those chances vary by
racial and ethnic classification.
IV. Caste and Class Systems
A. Core Concept 2: Caste and class systems of stratification are opposite,
extreme points on a continuum. The two systems differ in the ease of
social mobility, the relative importance of achieved and ascribed statuses,
and the extent to which those considered unequal are segregated.
B. Real-world stratification systems fall somewhere on a continuum between two
1. Caste system (or “closed” system) - people are ranked by ascribed
characteristics (over which they have no control)
2. Class system (or “open” system) - people are ranked by merit, talent,
ability, or past performance
C. Within a class system, movement from one social class to another is termed
V. Conceptualizing Inequality
D. Core Concept 3: Functionalists maintain that poverty exists because it
contributes to overall order and stability in society and that inequality is
the mechanism by which societies attract the most qualified people to the
most functionally important occupations.
1. Functionalist View of Social Inequality
a. Davis and Moore argue that social inequality—the unequal
distribution of social rewards—is the device by which societies
ensure that the best-qualified people fill the most functionally
b. Functional importance is defined by:
i. The degree to which the occupation is functionally unique (that
is, few other people can perform the same function adequately)
ii. The degree to which other occupations depend on the one in
2. The Functions of Poverty
84 Social Stratification
a. Herbert Gans (1972) said that poverty performs at least 15
i. Fill unskilled and dangerous occupations
ii. Provide low-cost labor for many industries
iii. Serve the affluent
iv. Sustain organizations and employees serving the poor
v. Purchase products that would otherwise be discarded
3. A Conflict View of Social Inequality
a. Core Concept 4: Conflict theorists take issue with the premise that
social inequality is the mechanism by which the most important
positions in society are filled.
i. Melvin M. Tumin (1953) and Richard L. Simpson (1956) point
out that some positions command large salaries and bring other
valued rewards, even though their contributions to society are
ii. In societies characterized by a complex division of labor, it is
very difficult to determine the relative functional importance of
any occupation, as the accompanying specialization and
interdependence make every position necessary to the overall
iii. How much inequality in salary is necessary to ensure that
qualified people choose these positions over unskilled ones?
4. A Symbolic Interactionist View of Social Inequality
a. Core Concept 5: Symbolic interactionists emphasize how social
inequality is communicated and enacted in everyday encounters.
i. When symbolic interactionists study social inequality, they
seek to understand the experience of social inequality.
ii. How is social inequality communicated and how does that
inequality shapes social interactions—interactions that involve
a self-awareness of one’s superior or inferior position relative
iii. Social inequality is also conveyed through symbols that have
come to be associated with inferior, superior, and equal
iv. There is a negotiation process by which the involved parties
reinforce that inequality in the course of interaction or they
ignore, challenge, or change it.
VI. Explaining Inequality across Countries
1. Modernization Theory
a. Core Concept 6: Modernization theory holds that poor
countries are poor because they have yet to develop into
modern economies and that their failure to do so is largely the
result of internal factors such as a country’s resistance to free-
market principles or to the absence of cultural values that
drive material success.
i. Modernization - a process of economic, social, and cultural
transformation in which a country “evolves” from preindustrial
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or underdeveloped status to a modern society in the image of
the most developed countries.
2. Dependency Theory
a. Core Concept 7: Dependency theory holds that, for the most
part, poor countries are poor because they are products of a
i. Colonialism - a form of domination in which a foreign power
uses superior military force to impose its political, economic,
social, and cultural institutions on an indigenous population so
it can control their resources, labor, and markets.
ii. Decolonization - a process of undoing colonialism such that the