Social stratification has been universal in time and space. Human society was stratified in the past as it is today.
What is social stratification?
Sociologists define social stratification as a system in which groups of people are divided into layers according to their relationships to power, property and prestige.
It is a way of ranking large groups of people into masters and servants; upper, middle and lower classes.
There are four major systems of social stratification:
This is undoubtedly the worst form of social stratification. It involves some people owning others as they do with cattle. The law of the land requires that a slave must do what his master wants.
How did some become slaves of others? Some became slaves after failing to pay debts they owed someone. Since they could not pay back in cash, they had to do so in kind by working for the creditor without pay.
Others became slaves when they committed crimes. If someone killed a person, the aggrieved family may demand that one member from the family that committed the crime be surrendered as a slave as compensation.
The commonest sources of slaves were wars. People captured in a war were taken as captives and turned into slaves.
The worst example of slavery existed between the 16th and 20th centuries when millions of Africans were captured in tribal wars and taken across the Atlantic Ocean where they were sold as slaves.
Slavery dehumanises people. Slave owners treat slaves as naturally inferior. It is said some people are born to be masters and others slaves.
When slaves are indoctrinated like this, they lose the ambition to do greater things than serving their masters.
Without self-respect and self-confidence, people cannot achieve much.
In a caste system, those considered inferior are not owned by others as chattels, but they suffer indignities as slaves do.
India is the classic home of the caste system. Caste is determined at birth. People are divided into four occupational groups.
Firstly, the Brahman who are priests and teachers. Secondly, the Kshatriya who are rulers and soldiers. Thirdly, the Valshya who are merchants and traders and fourthly, the Shudra, the peasants and labourers.
Beyond these are people who are said to be without caste. They are called Dalit and are said to be untouchable. They do the menial jobs and suffer discrimination, to be touched by them is said to be contamination.
This stratification of society developed in Europe’s middle ages. People were divided into three groups called castes. The first estate was made up of rulers, wealthy families and nobles. The second estate was made up of the clergy. In the days of the Roman Catholic Church, they wielded a good deal of political power in all European countries. To be crowned, kings had to obtain the Pope’s permission.
The Third estate was made up of commoners mostly serfs. If someone bought or inherited lands he automatically inherits the serfs as well. We learn from history of the French Revolution that members of the first two estates enjoyed the privilege of not paying taxes whereas the burden of taxation rested wholly on the third estate; hence, slogan: Liberty, equality and fraternity.
A class system of social stratification is based on money and possession of material wealth. It is much more open. A person born in the lowest social class can by hard work accumulate wealth and become a member of the upper class.
Karl Marx’s prediction that the majority proletarian would overthrow the bourgeoisies and set up a classless society has not yet come to pass. However, where social stratification is rigids it deters economic development.