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Social Stratification and Class in America

The United States of America has always been a capitalist country thereby there can be no doubt that there exists classes in the society. According to Dennis Gilbert, a sociology professor in New York, class inequality persisted in the USA from the early 1900’s. The classes were very well defined, for example as passengers on the ship Titanic. Titanic foundered in 1912 to the bottom of the Atlantic and the death count was disproportionately divided among the classes. 40% of the first class passengers, 58% of the second class passengers, and 75% of the third class passengers perished in the depths of the Atlantic ocean. This clearly illustrates to us how social classes are divided even by death. The social classes in the United States of America are divided into 6 classes according to the Gilbert-Kahl model of the class structure. The topmost class consists of Investors, heirs, and executives who have an annual income of $2 million, and the lowest class or underclass have annual income of $15,000. The population of the USA is comprised of mainly the middle class (30%), and the working class (30%) who occupy white-collar, blue-collar jobs. The class inequalities fell drastically in the 50’s and 60’s but rose steeply after the mid 70’s (Gilbert, 2011). These class distinctions have been quantified with respect to the income levels of each social class.

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The structural-functional theory suggests that society is divided into interconnected parts and the stability of society depends on the classes working together as one unit. Therefore though there is disparity among all the classes that exist in society, they are all interdependent in such a way that if one class tries to dictate the other, then it will lead to complete disorganization in the society. Structural functional theory also believes that social systems tend to remain in equilibrium (Lucas, 2007), and changes in society leads to disharmony and violence.

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According to Alexander Hamilton (1780), classes in America are falling only under two categories. One is the rich and the well-endowed class, and the other one is the general mass of the country. Hamilton (1780), believes that to maintain equilibrium in society, the rich class should be given the power of governance which would ensure stability because they would not receive advantage on change and thereby check the unsteadiness of the lower class. Structural functionalism accepts that society is divided into various groups such as religious groups, ethnic groups etc. It asserts that the way society is organized is the most efficient and natural. Therefore structural-functional theory talks about the evolution of the society and the cohesive forces that work towards the integration of each group into the society to make it complete and stable.

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A German sociologist Max Weber defined social classes as being divided by their economic power. Therefore according to Weber (year), these classes have little in common except their income. They do not share any beliefs or ideas that lead to formation of a personal group. On the other hand, Weber (year) defines the status groups to be the ones that actually cause social stratification. Status groups evolve from a more personal perspective and they constitute of people who have similar lifestyle and habits. These status groups form their own clubs and tend to reject outright even those who are economically and educationally at par with them. These status groups tend to distribute privileges among their own kind, and abhor any outsiders trying to call them their equal. For example, the American South is starkly divided into ethnic groups. The rich Whites will not tolerate mingling with either the Blacks (which is unthinkable), but even the poor Whites that are socially not up to their level. Even education and economic power that the Blacks have attained today do not make them eligible to be included in the status group of the rich Whites. Social segregation ended with the civil rights movement, championed by the likes of Dr. Martin Luther King but social stratification has not ended.


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Structural functionalism is opposed to any kind of change that leads to instability in the society. They are even opposed to the feminist movement because they feel that the roles have been defined in the society for both men and women, and that if these roles are interchanged then it will lead to disorganization and total chaos. Gender stratification in society is a major problem even today because women have to prove again and again their abilities to be at par with men of commensurate intelligence and abilities. Jobs are first available to the affluent Whites and then they peter down to the Blacks, Hispanics, women and other minorities. A recent study showed that married couples are placed better in society than female headed families. The disparity between incomes of couple-headed families and female-headed families is more drastic than between majority and minority people (Author, year). This clearly shows the plight of women in society and that society is clearly divided in the acceptance of women as equal partners as men. Social stratification has worsened in this century as people have become more closeted, and recession has brought instability in the markets. People who depend on their jobs for their earnings have become very dissatisfied and are tending towards violence and intolerance towards other ethnic groups. Cheap labor has become the option for capitalists who are looking to make profits therefore jobs for the once affluent white collared mass have become scarce. This has led to further stratification and dependence on their status for becoming part of the elite society.

According to structural-functional theory, social stratification or inequality is necessary to maintain stability in the society (Davis & Moore, 1953). Structural-functional theory argues that certain positions in society are unique and need skills that only a few possess. Therefore only a few in the society can be affluent and should be endowed with power and economic status at par with the duties they perform. These talented people make sacrifices during their training period, and are therefore given benefits and rewards later on that are disproportionate and privileged. This differential access of some talented people to rewards and benefits has a total effect on society’s equality. Therefore the theory is able to explain social inequality as inevitable and the right thing to happen under the circumstances. The differential access to scarce goods soon transcends to status groups and social stratification and further inequality as even the families claim to be in the status group. In the very words of a WASP member broadcasted in a documentary called “People like us: Social class in America” (Alvarez & Kolker, 1999), Mr. Phipps said that he finds others trying to join their member group ludicrous as you have to be born with the qualities of that member group and cannot learn to become one. These words illustrate very clearly the underlying attitude of most Americans who think that being part of a class is a privilege of the few and cannot be invaded upon by newcomers even if they possess the will and determination to become part of their group.

In the decade following 1995 through 2004, millionaire households in the USA have increased more than 50%. Proportionately the poor have become poorer and this can be attributed to the regressive income tax rates levied on individuals. The income tax rate on the higher income group was reduced and also opportunities for investment increased thereby making the wealthy, wealthier more than they could have imagined. Also families who inherit money and position of power tend to remain wealthy as they do not have to worry about a good education and opportunity to hold a good position of power. But on the other hand lower income groups that tend to depend on their daily wages to sustain their family have young children who take loans to finance their education thereby making them even more dependent on market viability. The current recession has made it very difficult to acquire loans and therefore lower income groups have been pushed to the brink as only a good qualification will provide them with good jobs. This has created a systematic divide between the upper middle class and lower class.

Structural-functional theory fails to explain how to remove the oppression faced by some of the classes in the society. Therefore Obama’s socialistic stand on how extract people from below the poverty line is pretty popular. The government, if it so wishes, can impose the progressive taxes which mean higher income groups pays proportionately more taxes than the lower income groups which is supposed to theoretically equalize the division in the society. In the USA, the working poor are helped extensively by the government to meet their daily requirements so that they can marginally afford some of the basic needs. But this tax scheme is nullified by the sales tax which is levied on goods and is the same whether a lower income group buys the goods or a millionaire buys it. Therefore these can be called as regressive taxes as they divide the society further and disparities between the rich and the poor widens. Therefore again the structural functional theory is proved correct that the inequality in society is inevitable.

Talcott Parsons (1976) was another stalwart of structural functional theory and he believed that society was derived from the actions of its people. According to him if the society has to improve, the right choices have to be made by the individuals concerned. Therefore society will shape its future according to the options chosen by its members. Class distinction has always been there in America, and it is debatable whether it is for good or for bad. Structural-functional theory is able to explain the disparities present in the society as good, but fails to provide succor to the oppressed. Therefore we have to formulate a certain theory and put it into practice whereby suffering of the poor ends. The stability of the society is imperative, and drastic change will lead to violence, therefore governance with caution is recommended. The recent elections show that race matters more than class and oppression are linked to ethnic groups. The majority vote that have the power to elect a president lies in the hands of the middle class and working class, therefore for years the Democrats and the Republicans have tried to swing this vote bank in their favor. The income group with higher economic power according to Hamilton should be allowed to rule because they will provide more stability to the masses but this again debatable as the underprivileged class would want to change their status and acquire positions of power. Whether it is possible or not only time will tell. Various theories, especially Marxist theory resurrected the pride in the working class but with demise of communist nations, this theory had to be shelved. Therefore it is a conservative prediction that social inequality or stratification will always exist.

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