Nowadays there are only a few communities which can be regarded as non-class societies. There hardly can be found a state which is not characterized by class stratification. Nevertheless, people still cannot agree on basic points concerning class stratification: the definition of class, origins of classes emerging.
Thus, there are several theories explaining what the class is and why did classes appear. The only idea that all people share is that the existence of classes is a specific form of inequality. The essence of this inequality becomes transparent when comparing non-class and class societies.
In the first place it can be helpful to focus on the class theories provided by scholars. Thus, conventional Marxist approach to the class definition which can be formulated as follows: “a relationship to the tools, labor and materials needed for necessary productions” (Gailey, 1985, p. 67). Basically, property and access to gaining income determine class stratification (Weber, 1998). However, this approach was developed and rethought be many scholars.
For instance, stated that anthropologist Morton Fried, who was regarded as a Marxist approach supporter, transformed the definition and made the major stress on “unequal access to the basic resources that sustain life” (qtd. in Gailey, 1985, p. 67).
As far as the class existence is concerned, some scholars (Fried is one of them) suppose that the major factor of class emerging was population pressure. Gailey (1985) points out that another scholar, Esther Boserup, suggested that the development of agriculture led to population growth, which in its turn caused class stratification.
Nevertheless, Gailey (1985) claims that such theories are quite equivocal since population pressure has little to do with class stratification. For instance, Wrigley argues that European industrial revolution, which is regarded as one of the most potent factors of class stratification, was accompanied by population decrease.
Admittedly, the theories differ in some points. However, it is possible to note the thing which they all have in common: class stratification is one of the types of inequality. It is based on certain economical factors.
To understand the essence of class stratification it is important to juxtapose it to other types of inequality such as gender inequality or status segregation (existence of castes). As has been mentioned above the class stratification is based on economical development of the society. At the same time, gender inequality is “associated with masculinity” (Gailey, 1987, p. 32). Thus, there are two groups: males and females.
Males are regarded as a privileged group. This kind of inequality is based on historical factors. According to Gailey (1987) patriarchic societies grew from the assumption that aggressiveness, strength and power are characteristic features of masculinity, while females were characterized by patience and obedience.
Another type of inequality is status inequality, i.e. the existence of castes. It was developed on the basis of ethnic segregation (Weber, 1998). After certain relationships between ethnic groups some started enjoying power and others became deprived of numerous rights. It is important to point out that this kind of inequality is also historically determined. More so, people do not have much of a choice, they are born to pertain to certain group.
After having compared the three types of inequality it possible to state that class stratification is more flexible. For instance, an individual can pertain to one class when born and then appear in many classes throughout his her life. Thus, a person can be born in a poor family than obtain certain education and even become a white-collar worker, then becoming a rich person.
Of course, the person can become a bankrupt and these transformations can take place many times. Admittedly, as far as gender and ethnic segregation are concerned, such shifts from one group to another are much more difficult to implement.
Of course, it may seem that the modern world is full of such inequalities. Nevertheless, there were times when there were no classes. In fact, even nowadays it is possible to find communities which live in non-class societies. The main difference between class and non-class societies is that class societies are individualistic or individual-oriented and non-class societies are collectivistic, i.e. they are dependent on their collective labor (Leacock, 1982). In class societies many people do not produce anything but fulfill certain tasks.
They buy products for money they gain. In non-class societies people used to produce what they needed and/or changed their goods on something they did not produce but needed. Thus, tribes produced food and could change it for cloths produced by other tribes. Admittedly, nowadays it is hard to imagine that such schemes are possible since the development of societies has led to class stratification.
In conclusion, class stratification is based on economical factors. The major factor which influenced the class stratification was the development of societies (mainly economical development). It differs from other types of inequality by its flexibility.
Gailey, C.W. (1985). The State of the State in Anthropology. Dialectical Anthropology, 9(1-4), 65-89.
Gailey, C.W. (1987). Evolutionary Perspectives on Gender Hierarchy. In B.B. Hess & M.M. Ferree (Eds.), Analyzing Gender: A Handbook of Social Science Research (pp. 32-68). Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.
Leacock, E.B. (1982). Relations of Production in Band Society. In E.B. Leacock & R.B. Lee (Eds.), Politics and History in Band Societies (pp. 159-171). New York: CUP.
Weber, M. (1998). Class, Status, Party. In R.F. Levine (Ed.), Social Class and Stratification: Classic Statements and Theoretical Debates (pp. 43-57). Boston: Rowman & Littlefield.