Term Paper: Social Class and Inequality

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Social Class And Inequality

Social class is one of the more interesting concepts in sociology, in part because it is dependent upon circumstances. Social class has to do with standard of living, income, educational access, health care, and a number of other measurable factors, but, since these factors vary from country to country, and even from region to region within a single country, social class is a variable concept. Society generally thinks in terms of three social classes: upper class, middle class, and lower class. However, this three-class view of social class is somewhat limited. The upper class contains high-income people, but also includes those people in the wealthiest 1% and there is a tremendous difference in power between those groups. Likewise, the middle class includes both the lower middle class and the truly middle class, but the lower middle class, which is sometimes referred to as the working class or even the working poor, despite the fact the experiences of people in these groups are very different.

One of the most interesting things about social class is that it is not as much about the wealth that people have, but actually about the power that they can exert as a result of that wealth. This power transforms wealth into a hierarchy, so that a lower class person is defined, by the outward society, not only as a person with fewer financial resources, but also a person who is of lower personal merit. In many ways this view is dismissively reductive of human beings, but, in other ways the view simply acknowledges that reality of the power linked to wealth. The wealthier people are, the greater their access to medical care, education, and social networks. All of this means that wealthier people not only have a greater portion of wealth, but also that they have a greater portion of the opportunity to earn additional wealth. This paper will focus on social class and how social class relates to the inequality that pervades modern American society

Defining Social Class

Social class can be approached in both relational and gradational/distributal ways. The gradational approach to social class focuses on the wealth and income and defines social class solely by the amount of wealth people possess. This gradational approach is very familiar to Americans, who are used to thinking about poverty as having an income below a certain set amount and who have been conditioned to think of the upper-class as people earning $250,000 or more per year, if only because that figure was mentioned frequently in the past election. However, others believe that social class is not only about wealth, but also about other important factors including cultural and political status. Inherent in both definitions of social class is the idea that the higher the social class, the greater the power associated with the class, and, therefore, the higher the status of the class. While this may not always mean a direct correlation between wealth and power, overall the suggestion is that greater wealth will lead to greater power.

However, it can be dangerous to assume that wealth is sufficient to define social class. In fact, one of the reasons that social class largely resists definition is because it is about both wealth and status. Certain occupations are considered lower status, so that even relatively high incomes among people in these groups do not elevate them into a higher social class in most of their interactions with others. For example, people in the service professions are generally considered to be lower status than the people whom they are serving, even though many members of the service profession earn substantial incomes. Likewise, members of groups that have been traditionally marginalized, such as racial minorities, may be assumed by others to be members of the lower socioeconomic class, even if they have tremendous wealth, which can lead to them having some of the lower-status experiences that are associated with being a member of the lower class.

Because there are different ways to define social class, it is actually possible for people with the exact same economic and cultural conditions to view themselves as members of different social classes. This transforms the nature of social class because it makes it clear that economic conditions are not, in and of themselves, determinative of outcome. According to Erik Olin Wright, there are actually three different mechanisms that can help explain the differential impact of economic class on social circumstances. These three mechanisms are: class-based individual attributes and conditions; class-based opportunity hoarding; and class-based domination and exploitation (Wright, 2008, p.336). Taken together, these three different mechanisms attempt to explain what social class means. Under the individual attributes approach, the real importance of social class is in how it impacts the individual's personality development (Wright, 2008, p. 337). Under the opportunity hoarding approach, the role of social class in society is not to differentiate between the haves and the have-nots, but to ensure that the haves retain control over sources of power in society Wright, 2008, p.340). Finally, the mechanisms of domination and exploitation suggests that social class is a complicated relationship between those who are exploited and those who are exploiting them (Wright, 2008, p.341).

Origins of Unequal Distribution of Resources

This paper focuses on social class in America and examines those things that have contributed to an unequal distribution of resources within the United States. However, it is critical to realize that resources were distributed unequally when the first European settlers first came to the Americas. People brought their various social classes and class distinctions with them when they came to the colonies from Europe. What early America did was explode the rigid European approach to social class, which was, in many ways, almost a caste-like system where social classes were defined by one's circumstances at birth, and there was very little social mobility. Once in America, particularly after the American Revolution, there was a tremendous amount of social mobility, because the ability to acquire wealth was significant from the late 18th century through most of the 19th century. However, it is critical to realize that this social mobility was limited to white males. The two most significant minorities in an emerging America were Native Americans and African-Americans. The growing prosperity of white males and the roots of the American middle class depended upon the exploitation of both of these groups in order to gain greater levels of prosperity; the taking of Native American lands allowed white males to become land-rich, while the use of forced African-American labor allowed them to profit off of that land. Moreover, because women had no property rights for most of American history, their economic rights had little to do with the shaping of America's concept of social class.

What the above statements make clear is that it is not simply America's economic system that has contributed to the establishment of social classes in America. In fact, according to Joseph Stiglitz, "even though market forces help shape the degree of inequality, government policies shape those market forces. Much of the inequality that exists today is the result of government policy, both what the government does and what it does not do. Government has the power to move money from the top to the bottom and the middle, or vice versa" (Stiglitz, 2012, p.28). Therefore, when looking at historic rules and laws, allowing the widespread dispossession of Native American lands to benefit white settlers was a way that the law helped shift wealth from one group to another. Likewise, allowing the development of a race-based system of slavery was a way of shifting wealth from one group to another. The shifting of this wealth helped develop a status-based class system, which led to both Native Americans and African-Americans being considered lower-status than white Americans, even after the legal wrongs were no longer being perpetuated.

This leads one to the conclusion that the law has a significant impact on social class and on maintaining rigid class distinctions in the United States. However, it is important to realize that this does not have to be the case. "There are alternative legal frameworks. Each has consequences for efficiency and distribution. The wrong kind of rule of law can help preserve and extend inequities" (Stiglitz, 2012, p.188). The obvious corollary is that the right kind of rule of law can help end and limit inequities. American history provides an example of these laws expanding and then contracting legal inequities.

How Do Individuals in Different Social Groups Experience Inequality

What is fascinating is that inequality is experienced differently by different people. One of the interesting factors about social class is that it is experienced subjectively by members of the class, so that there may not even be a real awareness of the difficulties that result from being a member of an economically disadvantaged class. Instead, members of even the lower socio-economic class seem invested in the idea of the American dream and the idea of upward mobility. Sometimes… [END OF PREVIEW]

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