In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Stratification

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Classic Works
  • Gradational Approaches to Stratification
  • Education and Human Capital
  • Cultural Capital
  • Social Capital
  • Gender and Economic Inequality
  • Race, Ethnicity, and Class
  • Inequality, Institutions, and the State

Sociology Social Stratification
Robert Andersen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 July 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0053


Broadly defined, social stratification is an important part of many areas of study in sociology, but it also constitutes a distinct field on its own. Simply put, social stratification is the allocation of individuals and groups according to various social hierarchies of differing power, status, or prestige. Although divisions are often based on gender, religion, or race and ethnicity, the present entry focuses largely on socioeconomic inequalities, for the most part leaving other forms of social inequality to other entries. In this regard, social stratification is found in every society, even if it takes on slightly different forms. Uncovering what accounts for differences in social stratification—among societies and within particular societies over time—is a long-standing goal of the field. The classic works of early stratification sociologists—spurred by the work of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim—tended to be concerned with the question of “why” and “how” stratification arose in the first place. Although this debate continues to be an underlying motivation for much research on stratification, empirical research typically tackles questions for which evidence is more tangible. By the 1950s, stratification research was increasingly concerned with social mobility, though mostly within individual countries. By the 1980s, explaining cross-national differences in stratification became an important goal of the field. By now, stratification research is characterized by several debates. Although it has received somewhat less attention in the past decade or so, a classic debate centers on how socioeconomic position should be measured. Emphasis here has been on the applicability of measures of social class, status, and prestige. Although there are certainly important exceptions, differences in approach generally fall along territorial lines. European sociologists have tended to focus on relevance of occupation-based measures of social class, while North American sociologists have tended to rely on measures of socioeconomic status, which incorporate education as well as occupation. There have also been debates regarding the most effective ways to measure class and socioeconomic status. Yet other debates center on the importance of incorporating race and gender in studies of stratification. Finally, in recent decades emphasis has moved to the importance of education, both as a source of stratification on its own, and how it affects economic inequalities.


There are several good textbooks that students new to the field of social stratification would find useful. Three edited volumes are particularly good. Geared at the graduate level, Grusky, et al. 2008, an edited volume that includes both classic and contemporary writings from original authors, is noteworthy for its breadth. Grusky and Szelényi 2007 covers similar topics but at a level much more accessible for undergraduates. Manza and Sauder 2009 also cover a wide range of topics in social stratification but is unique in its greater emphasis on political inequality.

  • Grusky, David B., Manwai C. Ku, and Szonja Szelényi. 2008. Social stratification: Class, race, and gender in sociological perspective, 3d ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Graduate students will greatly benefit from reading this volume, which includes both classic and recent articles from many important researchers in all the major fields of social stratification. Several of the chapters are perhaps too challenging for most undergraduate students, however.

  • Grusky, David B., and Szonja Szelényi. 2007. The inequality reader: Contemporary and foundational readings in race, class, and gender. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

    Part of the same series as Grusky, Ku, and Szelényi’s Social Stratification, this volume covers the same terrain but is geared more toward undergraduate students.

  • Manza, Jeff. and Michael Sauder. 2009. Inequality and society: Social science perspectives on social stratification. New York: W. W. Norton.

    A very good text for undergraduate courses on social inequality. Compared with other similar texts, provides far greater emphasis on the role political inequality.

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