Chapter summary imageSocial Stratification is the ranking of individuals by objective criteria, like wealth.

What is Social Stratification?

the ranking of people and the rewards they receive based on objective criteria, often including wealth, power, and/or prestige.

What Are the Theories Behind Social Stratification?


stratification is the result of some kind of functional balance, is inevitable, and aids in the smooth functioning of society.

Conflict Theory:

social inequality is rooted in a system that is more likely to reward you based on where you start than based on your abilities.

Symbolic Interactionism:

a person’s particular social class affects how he or she discusses class in general.

What Social Policies Have Been Created to Ease Poverty?

U.S. welfare program; Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF); Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC); minimum wage.



  • social class is connected to a person’s ability to negotiate the social world
  • intelligence, drive, and personal choice influence a person’s social class
  • all people are different, so it makes sense that differences in social class exist

Conflict Theory

  • social mobility rarely occurs in a dramatic way
  • generally, one’s parents and the opportunities they can provide determine social class
  • the higher our socioeconomic status, the less we believe social class matters

Symbolic Interactionism

  • social class and our understanding of it are relative to our personal belief system
  • for example, middle-class citizens would not question poor people’s behavior if they held similar beliefs about marriage and childbearing
  • many poor women think childless people lead empty lives, so they place more emphasis on the maternal relationship than on marriage

Key Terms

Social Stratification

is the ranking of people and the rewards they receive based on an objective criteria, often including wealth, power, and/or prestige.


is the money received forwork or through investments.


is all of your material possessions, including income.

Transitional Poverty

is a temporary state of poverty that occurs when someone loses a job for a short time.

Marginal Poverty

is a state of poverty that occurs when a person lacks stable employment.

Residual Poverty

is chronic and multigenerational poverty.

Absolute Poverty

is poverty so severe that one lacks resources to survive.

Relative Poverty

is a state of poverty that occurs when we compare ourselves to those around us.


is the ability to carry out your will and impose it on others.


means given or assigned.

Power Elite

is a small group of people who hold immense power.


is the level of esteem associated with one’s status and social standing.

Upper or Elite Class

is a social class that is very small in number and holds significant wealth.

Upper Middle Class

is a social class that consists of high-income members of society who are well educated but do not belong to the elite membership of the super wealthy.

Middle Class

is a social class that consists of those who have moderate incomes.

Working Class

is a social class generally made up of people with high school diplomas and lower levels of education.

Lower Class

is a social class living in poverty.

Urban Underclass

is a social class living in disadvantaged neighborhoods that are characterized by four components: poverty, family disruption, male unemployment, and lack of individuals in high-status occupations.

Social Mobility

is the ability to change social classes.

Horizontal Mobility

refers to moving within the same status category.

Vertical Mobility

refers to moving from one social status to another.

Intragenerational Mobility

occurs when an individual changes social standing, especially in the workforce.

Intergenerational Mobility

refers to the change that family members make from one social class to the next through generations.

Structural Mobility

occurs when social changes affect large numbers of people.

Exchange Mobility

is a concept suggesting that, within the United States, each social class contains a relatively fixed number of people.

Meritocracy Argument

states that those who get ahead do so based on their own merit.

Entitlement Program

is a program offering assistance to which a person is entitled, requiring no qualification.


1. How does prestige affect one’s social standing?

2. How is the mobility of the urban underclass restricted?

3. What is the relationship between social class and education?

4. In terms of marriage and family, how do the values of the low-income single mothers interviewed by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas differ from the values held by most middle-class women? Why do you think this difference exists?

5. How does the concept of exchange mobility conflict with the beliefs of conflict theorists?

Where to Start Your Research Paper

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