What is Social Stratification? Definition, Elements, Features, and Functions

What is Social Stratification?

The system of arranging people in society into a hierarchy (ranking), whereby, some in higher and others in lower strata (layers) is called social stratification. Those in the top stratum have more prestige, power, privilege (i.e. they get preferential treatment) than those below.

In other words, the process of social division on the basis of different castes, ages, genders, occupations, religions, professions, cultures, classes, etc. is called social stratification. Members of every society are stratified into lower and upper strata.

The term ‘stratification’ is taken from the geologist who refers to different layers of soil or rock as ‘stratum’ that make the earth’s surface and so is true with society as its people (or groups) are arranged in strata just like layers of soil/rocks on the earth. All societies place their members in positions that are higher or lower, superior or inferior, in relation to each other. So, there is a vertical arrangement of people in society based on factors such as function (work), economy (wealth), gender, caste/ethnicity, age, etc. thus forming a hierarchy.


  • According to Lundberg “Social stratification is the division of the population into two or more layers, each of which is relatively homogeneous and between which there are differences in privileges, restriction, rewards, and obligations.”
  • Ogburn and Nimkoff define social stratification as, ‘The process by which individuals and groups are ranked in a more or less enduring hierarchy of status.’
  • Gilbert defines social stratification as the “division of society into permanent groups or categories linked with each other by the relationship of superiority and subordination”.

Criteria or Elements:

Wealth – as recognized by society and it is measured in assessed in quality or assessed in quality for e.g. Living standards displayed and the source of wealth is also socially significant.

Ancestry – referring to the family reputation, length of residence in the area; legitimacy or illegitimacy, racial or ethnic background, and nationality.

Functional of the individual – his occupation as an executive, teacher, scientist, unskilled laborer, skilled craftsman.

Religion – the kind and degree of religion practiced. All societies include some belief towards the supernatural force expressed in the form of religion.

Biological characteristics – including both age and sex. Adulthood is valued more than infancy and childhood in most societies. And men are accorded higher status than women in many societies.

Characteristics or Features

  • Stratification is social which means that it is based on group differences rather than individual differences.
  • It is ancient which means that stratification has been in existence since ancient times.
  • It is universal which means that it happens everywhere and is in diverse forms meaning that it takes different forms across different societies
  • It is consequential which means that stratification results in inequality.

In the Nepalese context, it is perfectly clear that some groups have greater status, power, and property (wealth) than other groups thus creating differences. These differences are what lead to social stratification.

Social stratification is based on four major principles:

  • Social stratification is a trait of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences.
  • It persists over generations.
  • It is universal (it happens everywhere) but variable (it takes different forms across different societies).
  • It involves not just inequality but beliefs as well (inequality is rooted in a society’s philosophy).

Relationship of Social Inequality and Stratification

Social stratification is manifested or noticed in various ways, such as social inequality (high caste and low caste), economic inequality (rich and Poor). Social stratification, therefore, is a particular form of social inequality.

Its Functions:

Structural functionalists argue that social stratification (i.e. social inequality) plays a vital role in the smooth operation of a society. Davis and Moore state that social stratification has profitable outcomes for the operation of society. Davis and Moore argue that the most difficult jobs in any society are the most necessary and require the highest rewards and compensation to sufficiently motivate individuals to fill them. Certain jobs, like mowing grass or cleaning toilets, can be performed by almost anyone, while other jobs, such as performing brain surgery, are difficult and require the most talented people to perform them.

In order to attract the most talented people, a society must offer those people rewards and incentives.

Difference between Social Stratification and Social Differentiation

Social StratificationSocial Differentiation
It involves the vertical (hierarchical) ranking of
social strata or layers.
Social differentiation involves the formation of
horizontal social divisions.
It refers to differential access to resources i.e. power,
prestige/status and property across social groups.
It does not refer to differential access to
resources but simply differences in aspects
such as physical (color, age, etc.), social
-cultural (such as values, beliefs, etiquette, etc.)
It implies social inequality.It does not necessarily imply social inequality.
For e.g. the high caste and low caste level/ strata.For e.g. the blacks and whites are social differentiation.

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