Definition of SOCIAL STRATIFICATION: Examples, functions and classes

All societies exhibit some system of hierarchy wherebyits members are place in position that are higher or lower, superior orinferior, in relation to each other. The term stratification is taken from thegeologists who refer to different layers of soil or rock as stratum – theearth’s surface consisting of various strata, each of which are district fromcertain criteria according to which they have been categorised. Each societyhence constructs a vertical evaluative scale in terms of specific criteriaconsidered important to it and places its population in various layers orstrata at different classified levels on this scale – some in higher, others inlower and still others various levels between the highest and lower strata. Thosein the top stratum have more prestige, power, preferential treatment than thosebelow and each succeeding stratum possesses less of these attributes than theone above.

There is thus a universal tendency for societies allover the world to evaluate differences that are socially significant amongpeople, and that arise from cultural or biological variations. These variationsare ranked on a scale involving differential value. Social status refers tosocial standing or position of an individual or group in relation to others asranked by society in accordance with criteria which are considered of specialworth or value by society. Thus in some societies occupation, income and wealthmay be the important criteria that determine social status; in others, caste,creed, family name and background may be most important; in still others,education and ownership of material possessions may be the uppermost criteria.Whatever may be these socially defined criteria, they serve to placeindividuals and groups within some strata of society.

What is Social Stratification?

According to Lundberg, 1968 social stratification isthe “division of a population into two or more layers, each of which isrelatively homogenous and between which there are differences in priviledges,restrictions, rewards and obligations”. Stratification involves rankdifferentiation and constitutes an order of ranking on the basis of relativeposition within the rating system operating in society. Each stratum of societyis only relatively homogenous as distinct from other strata. Furtherpriviledges and rewards enjoyed or restrictions imposed may or may not berelated to needs of society. Social stratification has also been defined byCuber, 1954 as “a pattern of superimposed categories of differentialprivilege”. Three features of this definition need to be emphasized for greatercomprehension: a) Social stratification is a socially accepted cultural patternthat assigns members of society a general position in the structure of society;b) Social stratification is superimposed by members of society by traditionand, without either the will or conscious knowledge of the majority; and c)

Social stratification involves a system ofdifferential privilege, unequal distribution of privileges, goods, power services,etc among members belonging to different social strata. According to Jibowo,1992 stratification is the division of people into various classes.

Social class in society is pyramid in which highclasses take the topmost position and the lowest classes the base of thepyramid. Middle classes occupy intervening places on the pyramid between thesetwo extreme levels of society.

The social classes in the rural areaare different from those in the urban area in the following ways:

  1. Social classesare fewer in the rural than in the urban area. This is because theopportunities available for rural dwellers to modify their social positions arelimited.
  2. The lowest andhighest social classes in the rural area are closer than in the urban area.
  3. Rural social classtends to be lower class.
  4. The castesystem is not rigid in urban towns as much as in the rural areas or small townsof Hausa/Fulani dominated areas of Northern Nigeria. Among the Ibo, the castesystem is minimal. The group referred to as “Osu” was being subjected to caste discrimination.The system is virtually non-existing among the Yoruba.

Social stratification emerges from interaction ofmembers in society.

When people in society interact with one another overa prolonged period of time they tend to compare and rank individuals and groupswho differ from one another. Their relative worth is judged in terms ofspecific criteria. Roles are evolved, ascribed and evaluated differentially.

Some roles are regarded more important, with greateresteem and social value than others, and individuals filling these rolesthereby receive preferential treatment and greater reward than others. Groupsthus ranked with some degree of permanence are said to be stratified. Whensociety divides its population into a large number of such groups, a highlystratified society is the result.

Functions of Stratification

The following functions of stratification areidentified:

  1. A means ofaccomplishing essential jobs in society. Stratification in society constitutesa means of society’s getting some of its essential jobs done by distributingdifferent amounts of prestige and privilege to various strata. An army is anexample of stratification with clearly defined strata, each marked with visiblesymbol denoting rank, specific roles and role expectations, norms andprescribed standards of behaviour and inter-relationship-all clearly organisedto do a job. Armies are within the structure of society and societies as awhole are also stratified although more often with less clarity and demarcationbetween various strata than in the army. As society moves from the primitive,with little differentiation except on such bases as sex and age, toward greatersize and, with technological advances, greater complexity, its system ofdistributing privileges, prestige and rewards and punishment becomesincreasingly elaborate. The rewards society gives serve as incentives to getthe various essential jobs accomplished; hence, rewards must be commensuratewith the job to be done or at least adequate to attract individuals to do the job.These rewards may be economic, aesthetic or symbolic and give material and/orpsychological satisfactions.
  2. Regulation andcontrol of individual and group relationships and participation. Stratificationregulates and controls human relationships in society. Prescribed roles androle expectation, norms and standards of behaviour are involved inrelationships within each stratum and in interstratum relationships. Stratificationtends to regulate participation of groups and individuals in the total life ofsociety, giving them access to certain areas and restricting them to others.Inequality of opportunity or non availability of facilities gives advantages tothose in higher strata and deprives those belonging to lower strata thus,regulating participation.
  3. Contribution tosocial integration and structure. Stratification in society has a strongintegrative function, serving to co-ordinate and harmonise units within thesocial structure. Stratification further serves to influence the functions ofvarious units of social strata. Each may develop its own voluntaryorganizations to serve recreational (and some other) needs, the nature of such organizationsvarying from stratum to stratum. Thus members of a particular stratum will haveclubs, teams and perhaps a recreational centre distinct from those of otherstrata in society.
  4. Simplification.Stratification of society categorises people into different strata, thussimplifying man’s world in respect to his relations with other people. Whilewithin primary groups it is no problem to know how one should behave towardother individuals because of intimate knowledge of each other, to know how toreact in various situations involving several people outside of primary groupsis extremely difficult without such classification. For example, the criterionof age as an identification of adulthood, while not always valid in specific instances,does serve as a desired purpose when dealing with the entire population. Thereis hence practical justification in the practice of categorizing of people andresponding to each category differently, but responding identically to allpersons within a category.

Dysfunctions of Social Stratification

Several dysfunctional effects of social stratificationhave been identified.

They are as follows:

  1. Status and rolein stratified society carry with their duties, rights and expectations. It hasbeen observed that the individuals who have been accorded status and roles bynature of their placement in various strata in society often lack thecapabilities and competence necessary to effectively fill these roles andperform the expected functions. Since others who may be competent and capableof filling such roles are not ascribed these roles because of the stratificationsystem that precludes them, the net result is wastage of social resources.
  2. Essential rolesof society are sometimes neglected or made subordinate when status is ascribed,not to them, but to some other roles that are less important to the essentialinterests of society. Essential effort and resources are thus diverted to functionsthat are of less social importance. The elaborate and somewhat ostentatiousobservance of feasting by certain stratified groups may neglect their highstatus, but contributes little and is functionally unimportant to effectiveperformance of prescribed roles.
  3. Socialstratification may “set the stage” for interstratum rivalry and conflict. Suchconflict may take various forms but in general results from an upthrust fromlower strata to share equal rights with the upper strata and a downthrust fromupper-strata to keep lower-strata in their place. Such conflict frequentlyoccurs when stratification systems are weakening, or in the process of disintegrationbeing subjected to a variety of influential forces within society such as newideologies, pressure groups, collective frustration of lower strata, and/orpolitical and other interest groups. Example, is the racial conflicts in theU.S.A., South Africa and countries newly independent or immediately prior to achievementof independence from colonialism.
  4. Stratificationmay be linked with various types of deviant behaviour. A stratification systeminvolves ascribing of roles to individuals and enforcement of conformity accordingto roles, expectations and prescribed norms and standards of behaviour. Forsome, particularly members of lower strata of society who have less rights andprivileges than those belonging to higher strata, conformity is difficult. Theytherefore deviate from normative behaviour and may even withdraw from societyto become vagabonds, drugs addicts, drunkards; seek devious means to avoidnormal social behaviour; resort to crime, or rebel in some way or other.
  5. Concentrationof power by controlling a lower class group may result in the monopoly of theassets of society for personal gain and benefit at the expense of the dominatedclass. Thus a privileged few may prosper while the lower classes are deprived. Suchinequitable distributions of power usually sow seeds of revolutions, whichoften has been the only way to destroy such imbalances.
  6. Each classtends to develop its own sub-culture, which may or may not fit into thecultural whole of society. In some cases where stratification is rigid, socialintegration is impeded and inter-communication between various strata may bedifficult, concern for the whole may be lacking as each stratum tends to functionas a sub-culture.
  7. Unless a memberof a lower class is supported by a basic philosophy that explains his positionin society and enables him to adjust to it, his personality will be adverselyeffected as will his own perception of himself as a “nobody” and one who does notcount. Stratification in society can hence impede normal development ofpersonality of members of lower classes so that realization of potential isnever achieved.


  1. Definesocial stratification according to Lundberg.
  2. List the functions ofstratification.


In this post, you have learnt about social stratification,its functions and dysfunctions. The dysfunctions of stratification can lead tothe breakdown of law and order in our society.


The main points in this post include the following:

  1. Socialstratification according to Lundberg is the “division of a population into twoor more layers, each of which is relatively homogeneous and between which thereare differences in privileges, restrictions, rewards and obligations”.
  2. Socialstratification has also been defined by cuber, as “a pattern of superimposedcategories of differential privilege”.
  3. According toJibowo, stratification is the division of people into various classes.
  4. The followingfunctions of stratification are identified:
    1. A means ofaccomplishing essential jobs in society
    1. Regulation and controlof individual and group relationships and Participation
    1. Contribution tosocial integration and structure
    1. Simplification.
  5. Dysfunctions ofstratification may lead to the breakdown of law and order in the society.


  1. Socialstratification according to Lundberg is the “division of a populationinto two or more layers, each of which is relatively homogenousand between which there are differences in privileges,restrictions, rewards and obligations.
  2. a) A means ofaccomplishing essential jobs in societyb) Regulation andcontrol of individual and group relationships andparticipation c) Contribution tosocial integration and structure d) Simplification.


  1. Givethe various definitions of social stratification.
  2. Explainthe functions of stratification.
  3. Discuss thedysfunctions of social stratification.


Chitambar, J.B. (1973). Introductory Rural Sociology.A Synopsis of

Concepts and Principles. New EasternLimited, India, 369pp.

Cuber, J.F. and Kenkel, W.F. (1954). Socialstratification in U.S.A.

Appleton, New York.

Jibowo, G. (1992). Essentials of Rural Sociology. Gbemi Sodipo Press

Ltd, Abeokuta, 243pp.

Lundberg, G.A., Schrag, C.C., Latsen, O.N. and Catton,W.R. (1968).

Sociology. New York:Harper, edition.

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