Social Stratification and Politics

Posted: September 3rd, 2013





Social Stratification and Politics


Social stratification is a concept that encompasses classifying members of the society into various groups based on common socio-economic status (Owen 3). This sociological concept involves relational sets of inequalities that have political, social, ideological and economical origins. Social stratification is a system that divides society into various hierarchies. This system is based on the principles that view social stratification as a generational inheritance, societal trait and societal belief. Social stratification is also considered not only a universal principle but also a variable principle.

There are various system s used in social stratification. These systems are caste, class, slavery and estate systems. The estate system was predominant during the medieval time and consisted of the clergy, serfs and nobility. The slavery system was based on the ownership of individual s by others. The caste system encompassed ascribed status. This was popular in India. The hierarchies were scholars and priests, warriors and nobility, skilled artisans and merchants and finally there were the unskilled labor. The class system is a stratification based on occupational and economic roles. Different theories define different hierarchies in the class system. The concept of social stratification is synonymous to inequality as it segregates members of the society allowing others an easy access to resources. The implication of this is that societal stratification affects the political structures of society.

Politics refers to the activities that surround the authoritative distribution of an entity’s resource (Tansey 4). National politics refers to exercising authority over the distribution of a country’s resources. Politics in its self is a study that involves an analysis of the factors that affects an individual’s ability to possess society’s resources and to have control over the ability of others to gain the same resources. It is a power concept. Social stratification is the basis for defining relational power. This is because the actions of man are dictated by their economic and social positions in society. Therefore, social stratification remains to be an important aspect that influences distribution of political power among members of a society.

Theories Relating Politics to Social Stratification

Theorists who talk about the relationship between social stratification and power are Karl Marx and Max Weber. Both Karl Marx and Max Weber approach the concept of social stratification using the class system. Karl Marx defines class based on the ownership of means of production. The stratification gives rise to class struggle. The basis of the class struggle is the political inequality that exists in society. Weber on the other hand, talks about class from the perspective of economic, political and social status.

Karl Marx on Social Stratification


Marx analyses the history of class struggle in his theory of social stratification (Owen 18). In his analysis, he looked at those who own the means of production. He also talks about those who participate in the production process and the relationship between labor and work. Karl Marx also looks at the members of society who not only produce but also control the surplus produce. Control of the society’s resources is what gives rise to political segregation and struggle. The ownership of property allowed particular members of the society to control the distribution of these resources. According to Marx’s theory, political power is allocated based on basis of one’s ranking on the social hierarchy.


Karl Marx’s analysis is of a capitalist society and the main classes are the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Other subclasses like the peasants, proletariats, property owners and petty bourgeoisie but they do not have a major impact on the theory. The bourgeoisies are the capitalist who own the means of production. The means of production are land and labor. They possess not only capital, but also power to exploit purchased labor. The surplus value obtained from the produce of the purchased labor is used by the bourgeoisies to expand their capital.

The class of bourgeoisie is defined by the ownership of means of production and the use of this capital to exploit members of society and to expand their scope of possession. According to Marx, wealth is not sufficient to get one to the bourgeoisie class. This wealth has to be used to sustain status quo through the continuous manipulation of labor and the expansion of their capital. This has to be a continuous process that has to be sustained by the use of surplus value.

In the contemporary society, the bourgeoisies represent the members who possess political power. This power is gained through their social status. Marx brings an economic basis for the stratification of the society. This implies that the political structures are controlled and maintained by the wealthy. They use their wealth to manipulate the structures of society like the judicial system, the electoral process and even the legislative process. This control is used to maintain the status quo and to ensure that the cycle of wealth accumulation is continuous. An implication made by Karl Marx is that members of various states have been socialized to believe that social status is a basis for distribution of political power.

Marx takes a deeper analysis of the process of accumulation of wealth among the bourgeoisie. He talks about the historical fight against the feudal system that existed in medieval Europe. The proletariat comprised of mostly merchants, industrialists, craft men, traders and manufactures. They fought against the feudal authorities to gain the liberty to expand their businesses through marketing of their products. This struggle marked the formation of the class. Old feudal and hierarchical systems were undermined and while new structures and orders were put into place. The economical prowess among the bourgeoisies was later sustained through the purchase and manipulation of labor. This was the case in Britain during the nineteenth century when the bourgeoisie maintained ideological and political predominance. The British hired labor that created surplus value maintaining the wealth of their wealth.

According to Karl Marx, the other class is that of the proletariat. It comprises the members of the society who own labor power. They dearth of property forces them to depend on the bourgeoisie for survival. This creates an exploitative relationship where the proletariat is hired by a capitalist bourgeoisie. There is a constant recreation and reproduction of this exploitative relationship. The proletariat works for extra hours with low wages. This is done to ensure that the bourgeoisie gets profits. The results are an increase in poverty and wealth for the proletariat and the bourgeoisie respectively. The proletariat’s output during the extra hour is sold. The process prevents the proletariat from gaining wealth and subsequently maintains society’s status quo (Owen 19).

According to Marx, he predicted that various political events would occur in the capitalist society. In order to maintain their social status, the bourgeoisie would enact laws that are more repressive. With the increase of oppression, class-consciousness would increase among the proletariats and a subsequent labor movement would be formed. The end of the capitalist era would be marked by a revolution instigated by the movement among the proletariats. This would usher in a communist society.


A contradictory and antagonistic relationship exists between the proletariat and bourgeoisie. This is because the former is struggling to increase their wages and alleviate their social status while the latter is doing the opposite. The bourgeoisie manipulate labor and work to ensure that the proletariat remains without property. This represents the struggle that is seen in the contemporary society. The struggle is that for power in society. This is because power is the exercise of authority over the various structures in society. This shows that Karl Marx’s theory on social class shows the relationship between social stratification and politics.

Max Weber on the Theory of Social Class


Max Weber discusses the concept of social stratification with a view on social classes (Owen 20). He argues that social class is the most influential cause of conflict in the society. He stipulates that the different dimensions of social structure are class, status and honor. He establishes a relationship between the ideological and material aspects of society through status and class. He attributes social action to the both status and class. He argues that the concept of class comprises power, prestige and wealth. Wealth is a representation of the economic structures of the society while prestige is symbolic for the social aspect and power is the representation of political structures of the society.


Max Weber describes power as the ability to exercise authority over various resources in society (Owen 20). He argues that it is the ability of individuals to see the realization of their desire even against the will of other members of the society. Societal power encompasses political, economic and social powers. Weber also analyses the concept of domination, which he says is the possession of authority in a particular sphere. Domination can occur because of tradition, rational-legal reasons and charisma.

Class, according to Weber, is a component of an individual’s life chances. The life chance results to wealth and economic interests. This wealth is represented in the aspects of market commodity and labor. Possession of property and advantage in the market place increase one’s living standards. Weber argues that those who own property are able to control the methods of wealth creation. This is because of their control over the market. Among the wealth owners, there exists a subdivision based on the means used to create wealth.

Among those who do not own property, there exists further stratification based on the services that they provide to the market. There are skilled, unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The grouping is based on the value of one’s labor and the different values produce different standards of living. In his theory, Weber argues societal action will only occur when there is a consciousness on the influence of economic power and the distribution of property on stratification.

While discussing the concept of status, Weber defines it as the probability of an individual’s life chances being influenced by prestige and social honor. Prestige is influenced by wealth and social restrictions. These restrictions are like residence and the patterns that are followed during marriage. High status groups enjoy distinct lifestyles and definite patterns of consumption and association. On the other hand, those occupying the low status in the society, have their sense of worth pegged on futuristic hope.

Both class and status have an influence on the political aspect of society. Status and class interests define political power. This implies that the interests of a particular influential class are well reflected on the political structures. According to Weber, parties are the definite structures of political power. The main aim of parties is to obtain dominance in the various spheres of influence. Parties are organized based on the interests of various social classes. The influence that the different classes have in the market is well translated to the political sphere. Charismatic dominance occurs among the classes that are exposed to concepts of leadership and governance. This might me among the elite of the society who hail from a family background of leaders.


Max Weber’s argument is that class and status influences the dominance of an individual in the various spheres of society. This dominance affects the activities of parties in the political avenue. Those in the higher classes at times experience dominance based on the legitimacy that is pegged on traditional authority. Members of prestigious classes dominate over those of the lower classes based on the belief that they have better life chances in the economic, political and social spheres of life.

Blackman’s Struggle for Social Equity

American treatises published from as early as 1854 spoke of the racial segregation that existed. Conservatives such as Henry Hughes and George Fitzhugh justified the slave system in America (American Sociological Association, 265). Hughes argues that the essentials of slavery should remain unchanged because the practice is civilly and morally right. Fitzhugh expressed his concern in relation to the suggested liberty in America. This liberty was in regards to accommodating the African America community. Fitzhugh felt that this liberty had failed. He opposed democracy and justified the slavery among the black American community. He opposed a free society where every man acted for himself and he attributed the growth of poverty and crime in Europe to concepts like freedom, liberty and equality. He argued that morality could only be maintained in a society that upheld slavery along side Christianity. Fitzhugh and Hughes were proponents of the philosophical justification of slavery. The social atmosphere among the African American community was echoed in other parts of the globe like in South Africa. The fight against apartheid was the black man’s plea for equity in all aspects of the society.

Slavery was the basis for the African American struggle for equity. Slavery among the African community is vividly remembered because of its brutality and inhumanity. Although white slaves were used earlier than 1942 in the Mayan Temple, Egyptian pyramids and the Mongolian fighting machine, a lasting legacy of oppression was left by the enslavement of Africans. African slaves were not treated as humans but commodities. They were abused and sold for the main reason of accumulating profits. The abolition of slavery in various countries did not mark the end of the oppression. This is because current economic, social and political structures remind the society of the enslavement of the African community (Vorenberg 154).

The end of the American civil war in 1865 was to mark the end of slavery in America. Slaves were freed after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. However, the white American still oppressed the African Americans. Attempts towards granting the African community equality were encouraged by amendments in America’s constitution. These were the Thirteenth to Fifteenth Amendments.

The Thirteenth Amendment of 1965 illegalized slavery. This particular amendment passed Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation into law. The congress was granted the liberty to enact laws that abolished slavery. The implication of this law was that slave owners were to incur greater costs in order to have work done. Other slave owners wanted compensation for seceding slaves. In the northern states, the citizens feared that the released slaves would take their jobs. The African Americans were denied good jobs and they were restrained from accessing proper education (Vorenberg 160).

After the Thirteenth Amendment, the Andrew Johnson succeeded Abraham Johnson as the American president. He enacted retrogressive laws that segregated the African American community. He stipulated that members of the white race were the only ones who could participate in the legislation of the Southern Constitutions. However, in 1866, the congress tabled a bill that acknowledged African Americans as American citizens. Johnson’s efforts to stop the bill were futile when it was finally passed by the congress. The bill acknowledged the incoherent rights of African Americans, regardless of their race. The bill stipulated that the federal government was to intervene in the event that a state would not comply with this law. The Fourteenth Amendment was enacted in 1868. This amendment stipulated that the freed slaves had to be given their rights. This amendment safeguarded the rights of the American citizens. Such rights were like those of a right to education, the ability to sue others and the right to make political decisions and vote. The citizens in the south still undermined the African Americans and the white population still had more rights.

The years 1867 and 1868 saw the congress pass the Reconstruction Act. This act stipulated that the African American community were granted the liberty to participate in political decisions that were involved in creating the Southern State Constitutions. The act distributed political power among the black and white community. The government gave all races in America the liberty to make political decisions. In the South, civil education was carried out among the Africa Americans. However, by 1867 many African American men could not vote because of the threat they received from the white citizens. Women were allowed to participate in other political activities apart from voting.

In 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment was introduced in the American Constitution. This was an emphasis on the African American’s right to vote. The law stipulated that the government did not have the ability to refrain any citizen from voting regardless of their color or background as slaves. Black men were given the right to vote. The departure of the Union Soldiers who protected the rights of the black prompted the enactment of laws that made it difficult for black men to vote. The laws were referred to as Black codes. They were oppressive to the black population as some of them demanded that they sign labor contracts to work for full years. Other codes required the unemployed African Americans to be incarcerated and their children be taken up to work as slaves. The employers of the black community were also allowed to whip their workers. The codes required the African Americans to take and pass voting tests before they were allowed to vote. The white population easily passed these tests because unlike the black community, they knew how to read and were well educated.

The African Americans were threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, a white men’s group that oppressed the black community. Apart from this, they also attacked members of the white community who accommodated the blacks. They carried out cruel punishments to these individuals. Such punishments were like hanging them, torching their homes and beating them. Despite of the enactment of these laws, the rights of the African American community were infringed. They were treated as animals and there was great inequality in the society (Vorenberg 172).

Obama and the Politics of Race

The year 2008 will remain recorded in American history. This is because, for the first time, a black president had been elected to lead America. Many had never expected the day to arrive because of the racial prejudices that are embedded in the American society. President Obama’s rise to power was met by large opposition that was driven by racial perspectives. Such racial aspects are the evidence of contemporary forms of slavery and discrimination among the African American society.

During his 2008 political campaign, president Obama faced opposition from citizens who believed that a black man could not lead the country (Teasley & Ikard 10). Racial prejudices prevented citizens from voting the America’s current president. The president’s healthcare reforms were also rejected by some based on racial discrimination. According to a study, more citizens would support a bill by the former president, Bill Clinton. Implicit racial prejudices affect the voting patterns in America. The simple identification of Obama as a ‘black’ candidate during the 2008 campaigns was a sign of social inequalities. This awakens the era of slavery in America. The roots of president Obama trace him to a black father and a white mother; this implies that he is biracial. He is as black as he is white. However, the categorical rejection of him being white due to mixing of the black and white race shows racism in America.


Politics and social stratification are correlated concepts. This is because the former deals with power struggle in the society while the latter is what determines who is allocated power in this struggle. Power struggle can be ascertained through an analysis of social stratification. This is because man’s actions are influenced by his economic and social position. Interest groups and political organizations are the avenues where interests of similar social groups are promoted. Various philosophers discuss the concept of social stratification in relation to power struggle. Politics becomes a major area of focus in these philosophical studies because it is believed to be teleological in nature. Man is in a constant struggle for power and his social position can act as advantage when it comes to gaining and sustaining this power. Therefore, social stratification will always be viewed in light of its effect on politics.



Work Cited

American Sociological Review. Washington, D.C: American Sociological Association, 1936. Internet resource.

Owen, Carol. Social Stratification. London: Routledge & K. Paul, 1968. Print.

Tansey, Stephen D. Politics, the Basics. London: Routledge, 2002. Internet resource.

Teasley, Martell, and David Ikard. “Barack Obama and the Politics of Race.” Journal of Black Studies. 40.3 (2010): 411 – 425. Print.

Vorenberg, Michael. Final Freedom: The Civil War, the Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

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