Sociologists have shown that all societies are stratified or divided into layers, based on caste, class, gender, or race. As a result, some people in a society have greater advantages than others, leading to social inequality.
Some basic differences between people may affect their place in the social hierarchy. GENDER divisions are common, because of the different roles men and women play in bearing and raising children. Other divisions come from attitudes to RACE, or the unequal distribution of WEALTH.
The caste system is an ancient hierarchy, where fixed social roles are inherited, practiced by followers of the Hindu religion in India. While caste positions often guarantee employment, it also means that its members are unable to improve their social status. In most other societies, people are born into a social position or class, depending on the property, employment, or wealth of their family. However, education and economic success can help people improve their social position.
Societies can change when the roles dividing people, such as the division of labor or job opportunities, are shared more equally. For example, peacemaking efforts between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are directed at sharing political power fairly.
In recent history, many societies have passed laws that prohibit discrimination against people based on race, gender, or age. These ensure that all people are treated equally by employers, governments, and other members of society. Many of these laws guarantee what are known as human rights.
All children deserve a good education to help them achieve their full potential. Many developing countries cannot afford to provide education after primary level. Often, wealthy people choose to buy a better education for their children, giving them access to a full range of activities outside the classroom, such as sports or music.
Gender division is the social recognition and reinforcement of sexual differences between men and women. This might take the form of an unequal division of labor, reduced social opportunities, or social discrimination.
Although women have won important rights over the last 100 years, gender inequality is still commonplace in most parts of the world. While countries with equal rights laws have improved women’s access to politics, jobs, and property, women are still not equally represented in government and business, and are often paid less for doing the same jobs as men.
A few people in each society earn large amounts of money, or inherit fortunes handed down through their families. Their wealth gives them access to more economic and social opportunities than others, and can give them more influence over society as a whole.
Wealth gives people power in a society, because wealthy people can buy and use other people’s time. This can be seen as a reward for individual success. However, if only the rich can enjoy such success, there can be no social equality. The numbers on the chart illustrate the huge—and growing—gap between the world’s rich and poor.
Race is an outdated concept for distinguishing groups of people who share common physical characteristics, such as black skin or blonde hair. Ethnicity is a more accurate label that refers to a group’s cultural and linguistic habits, as well as their race.
Societies made up of several ethnic groups, each with their own cultural traditions, are called multiethnic societies. During the 20th and 21st centuries, many multiethnic societies have searched for ways to promote respect for these different groups, often passing laws to promote equal opportunities for all.