The study of social stratification is a very topical and popular area in the study of sociology. The idea of climbing the social hierarchy has driven the most ambitious and limited the most vulnerable in society for centuries. People’s life experiences and opportunities depend on the relative ranking of their social category.
Being male or female, black or white, upper class or working class makes a big difference in terms of life chances, especially in cases where mobility within the hierarchy is limited. In this essay, I intend to outline the difficulties in theorising class and the social hierarchy in the UK, how class can affect the economic, cultural and social aspects of every day life; especially in regard to education and evaluate the social hierarchy in the UK and other alternatives that have been suggested to reform it. Furthermore, I will draw on my own experience of class and social stratification that I encountered when I began at UCL compared to my previous experience with class in my hometown in Northern Ireland. For the purpose of this essay, the working definition of social stratification is to describe, “inequalities between individuals and groups within societies” (Giddens and Sutton Philip W., 2017).
This applies to not only economic factors such as property, but also the stratification of other attributes, such as gender, age religion or military rank. The problem with such stratification is that it almost always leads to the unequal distribution of power, privilege, and prestige in society and movement between groups. The working definition of class for the purpose of this essay will be, “a large-scale grouping of people who share common economic resources, which strongly influence the type of lifestyle they are able to lead” (Giddens and Sutton Philip W., 2017). Class is fluid – it has no constraints over time or in different cultures. In my own experience, perhaps for the first time significantly, when I moved to UCL I found an extraordinary amount of emphasis put on one’s social and economic class. What type of school you went to, what area you are from, accent you have or what your parents do for a living all seemed to be significant personal attributes. This was a stark contrast to Northern Ireland where, due to political unrest between nationalists and unionists, your class can be primarily made up of your religion.
There is certainly less emphasis on economic factors and the aspiration to be viewed as part of the elite. In light of this, it is submitted that it is very difficult to define and categorise the social stratification in society. Many theorists have tried to define and predict future outcomes of sociological stratification, most notably Karl Marx and Max Weber.
Karl Marx theorised Class Conflict which saw class as a group of people who stand in a common relationship to the means of production and found industrial capitalism an exploitive system of class relations that had to be overthrown. This theory has been criticised as overly simplistic as it does not recognise the difference in skilled labourers, especially today with these differences becoming more complicated. Furthermore, the communist revolution resulting from increasing class consciousness never materialised and now more than ever it is the working class who have the largest stake in capitalism. However, with new anti-capitalist and anti globalisation social movements, for example with Jeremy Corbin leading the Labour party in Britain, this may give fresh impetus to Marxist studies. Regarding my own experience with class, I find it difficult to identify with Marx’s theory of class consciousness as the blur between the different strata in UK society seems to be intensifying with people finding it harder to identify with one specific class. I find, that I identify with aspects of many classes, as although economically I may be considered upper-middle class, my social and cultural background may suggest that I am working class. Like Marx, Max Weber regarded society as characterised over power and resources, however, he recognised a need for a more complex ad multi-dimensional measure that included both status and party. Status for Weber is not purely economical, but also, social honour and prestige.
He recognises that wealth is not always the main indicator of class, for example the ‘genteel poverty’ in Britain. To take Northern Ireland as an example, Marx would argue that the economic inequality caused by the oppression of Catholics by Protestants led to the troubles in the late 20th century. On the other hand, Weber notes that the parties to which people belonged are religious as well as economically and class different. I identify with Weber’s theory more as it would not be economics that selects my family into a different class to protestants, but our religion or party. Weber’s writing draws attention to the complex interplay of class, status and party as distinct aspects of social stratification, creating a more flexible basis for empirical studies of people’s life chances. It is undeniable that our class defines parts of our lives whether we like it or not.
Social mobility refers to,”the movement of individuals and groups between socio-economic positions” (Giddens 2017). In the UK, the Oxford mobility study done by John Goldthorpe in 1987, suggests that rates of absolute social mobility in Britain were still quite restricted and mostly short-range was only possible. Furthermore, it found that women struggled more to overcome social structure and become socially mobile. Although, the overall trend in the UK was that sons were working in better jobs than there fathers, this is partly due to the change in structure of employment in the UK needing more white-collar jobs than blue-collar jobs. This is an important example of how social stratification has been institutionalised and can affect your opportunities without you even realising.
Therefore, due to social stratification, it can be very difficult for people to break the barriers facing their class to create the life they desired and not the life that has been given to them.