Chapter 2 - Maintaining and Reproducing Systems of Inequality

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This chapter introduces you to an analytical model for understanding the dynamics of how social stratification works. This model will be utilized throughout this text as a tool so this chapter explains the model and how it works.

I became interested in social inequality when I was about five years old though I didn’t call it that. At that point I witnessed some people calling names and making fun of a woman with a beard. Like most children that age, I thought that they were very mean. While it struck me as odd why a woman would have a beard, I didn’t understand why people would be so mean. I asked my mother why they were doing that and she said something to the effect that they were stupid. I accepted the answer, but started watching people a lot more closely. I noticed that being a bearded lady was not the only thing that made people be mean. Store owners were mean to some customers and friendly to others, people on the street avoided some people, ignored some people, and smiled at some people.

As I got older, lived in different environments, went to different schools, I still saw an awful lot of people being “mean” – even those that I thought were usually nice to people. I couldn’t really make sense of it, or see a pattern to it. There was a lot of talk about race, especially about African Americans, and that finally started to sink in. I “got it” that race might be a reason for people to be “mean,” but that wasn’t an answer. It didn’t tell me why people would be “mean” to someone because of their race. When I was about seventeen, I became aware of the women’s movement. I found out more, got involved, went to consciousness raising groups, and read a lot of books. I got a pretty good idea about patriarchy and how it worked and I tried to apply that framework to other kinds of inequality. The framework kind of worked, but didn’t satisfy me as to why inequality kept happening.

Then I took my first sociology class and was introduced to the idea of systems, culture, socialization, and social stratification. I was intrigued by the possibilities of stratification as an explanation for what I had seen in the world since I was a child. I read and studied and wrote papers and talked with people trying to find out the why’s and how’s of social inequality. It seemed like there should be something (or some things) that tied all of inequalities and systems together. However, the longer I have been a student of inequality the more discrete these stratification and race, sex and class discussions seem to have become. Over the years I have attempted to resolve the conceptual problems of stratification as being both a multidimensional (i.e. race, sex, and class) and a multilevel (individual, group and institutional) phenomena. In my efforts, I have created an analytical model which I feel addresses both of these areas. The model you are being introduced to is my attempt at a unified explanation of how social inequality is maintained and reproduced.

One of the conceptual challenges for students of stratification is resolving its multidimensional nature. Social scientists seem to have dealt with this challenge in two general ways. First are those who focus on stratification as largely a social class issue and discuss race and sex within the context of class. In this approach, stratification becomes virtually synonymous with social class inequality. The second approach generally avoids discussion of stratification and focuses on inequality based on race, sex, and class individually or in combination in varying ways. While much of the research and theory illuminates patterns and mechanisms, I haven’t been able to make any of them “work” in a way that makes sense to me.

The second conceptual challenge we face is the multi-leveled nature of stratification in that it functions at all levels of social organization. Once again, we have two primary schools of thought though they do not necessarily correspond to the stratification versus race, sex, class approaches above. One approach takes a social psychological approach and focuses on inequality from the basis of prejudice, stereotypes, and individual experiences of bigotry. The other focuses primarily on the macro level of institutions and what might be broadly termed as institutional discrimination.

C. Wright Mills, a renowned sociologist, argued that good sociology moves between, and connects, history and biography -- the macro and the micro. In stratification systems we have at once the individual as the embodiment of the stratification system, and a system that goes far beyond the individual to the basic structuring of all social activity. The argument underlying the model presented here is that with stratification systems, and all processes and societal systems connected to them, the micro and the macro may (and frequently do) exist simultaneously. The simultaneous nature of stratification systems lies in its embeddedness in the culture and therefore the socialization processes. In this way, individuals are kept in their place not only through broad institutional processes, but also through daily interactions within and across groups.

At its heart, stratification systems are about the division of power (both individual and strata focused) within a society. Power is then a key to maintaining (or changing) any system with unequal distribution of power which is inherent in social stratification systems. Stratification systems - whether ascribed, achieved, or inherited - provide a social hierarchy which results in imbalances of power and access between higher status and lower status groups. This imbalance is an assumed and integral function of stratification, and certainly perpetuates it. In other words, those with power and access retain it and control who gets it, and those without power remain outside the framework of attaining it. This makes it very difficult for the system to do anything but reproduce itself. In looking at the U.S. stratification system, this power feature is consistent regardless of which dimension of stratification we examine.

The model presented here attempts to address the multidimensional nature of stratification by using the unifying concepts from the study of cultural processes (socialization, culture, and norms), the nature and enforcement of power (socialization, and formal and informal sanctions), and the dynamics of maintaining groups (and strata) as distinct entities (boundary maintenance). The purpose of the model is to provide a unified conceptual and analytical tool for understanding both the multidimensional and multilevel nature of stratification systems. In other words, it can be used to examine how race, sex and class are maintained and reproduced at the individual and societal levels.

Unifying Principles

If power is central to maintaining and reproducing stratification, then we need a useful definition of “power.” People generally think of power in an individual sense. As such, power is usually thought of as lying within the bounds of being able to get what one wants – usually by physical force or coercion. Upon further thought, we may add to this definition the ability to persuade others as a form of power. And upon further reflection, we may add the “grease the wheels” kind of power which involves using various inducements or one’s personal network to achieve the desired end. It is interesting that when we think of power it almost always relates to someone getting his/her own way. From this, we could define power as: the ability of an individual (or group) to realize his/her (their) will in spite of opposition, or to achieve a desired end through finesse, connections, or prestige.

This definition of power may be acceptable at the level of the individual or the group, but it does not work within the context of stratification systems. In stratification systems we have a structured imbalance in power. “Power” is linked to social position within a predefined system. Within this broader social context power takes on a very different form than “individual” power, though the two are certainly not unrelated. Personal power is tied into social position and social definitions of what constitutes “prestige” and “authority” as discussed in Chapter 1. With what we might term “strata power,” there is not necessarily, or generally, the conscious use of power by an entire strata. Instead of conscious strata application of force, we have a system structured to give advantages to some and restrict access to others.

I have stressed the word “conscious” above because in stratification systems the distribution of power is generally seen (if it is seen at all) as “natural,” or “just the way things are” – especially by those in (or near) the upper strata. In this social sense, power becomes more similar to the “grease the wheels” type of power in that “the system” works smoothly for some groups and may not work at all for others. General acceptance of the stratification system occurs through socialization into the society. Those who might challenge the system (generally those in the lower strata) may face significant penalties for attempting to do so.

This brings us to an important point about “strata power” in that it is linked to authority. Authority implies rights within boundaries. Within the context of the social system these “rights within boundaries” govern virtually all aspects of our interactions with each other and within social institutions. Strata placement determines those rights in relationship to the society. The boundedness of these rights means that the exercise of power in ways proscribed by the social system is invalid. Therefore, it is a valid use of authority for upper strata to utilize social institutions to apply constraints (controls) to other strata. Constraints limit access to those resources that allow parties to add new advantages to a situation. Some constraints may be coercive in nature such as threatening loss of property, threatening livelihood, or threatening physical violence or confinement. This use of coercive force is the domain of the upper strata and the social institutions organized to keep the strata in their places. Further, it is an invalid use of authority for lower strata (or members of lower strata) to do things that are seen as usurping the “rights” of the dominant group.

There are numerous examples where the dominant group responds to a non-dominant group as a “usurping” of dominant group “rights.” A common example has to do with language and self-naming. It is relatively common to hear complaints about “politically correct” language. Dominant group members may feel “put out” that they have to watch what they say. The right to name others is within the authority of the dominant group, while the right to challenge language or for a group to name itself, exceeds the authority of the non-dominant group. The dominant group’s anger is at the infringement of their “natural” rights under the stratification system. Therefore, the right to name and label lies with the dominant group. There was (and in some areas still is) significant resistance to non-sexist language, and there still is resistance to groups of color naming themselves or taking issue with how other things are named. Examples of the latter would be such things as naming a car “Cherokee,” or a restaurant chain “Sambo’s,” or a football team the “Redskins.”

It is interesting to examine dominant group response to group self-naming. One of the best examples of this is the evolution of naming by Black Americans. The dominant group applied the name of Negroes. Blacks went through a series of names, ultimately arriving at a general consensus of African American (though this will probably change over time – one suggestion at this point is Neo-Nubians). The dominant group then reclaimed their naming power by institutionalizing “American” as a designator for other groups.

The naming example above points to the interesting phenomenon of the exercising of power by the dominant group. Namely that as the interests of the dominant group are forwarded so that they express and reinforce the collective advantage of that group. If we assume a Weberian interpretation of social class, it is transparent why power should work in this way. According to a Weberian approach, a social class is a group comprised of members who lie close to each other in wealth, power, and prestige. Due to this, their interests in relationship to their class should also be similar. Taking the definition of “class” that extends beyond socio-economic class, then racial or sex class groups would share similar uniting features.

The reason for this is that stratification systems are normalized through the culture and socialization. We are socialized into the societally appropriate groups and learn to take our place within those groups. If this is the case, then the rules of norm enforcement also apply to these classes or strata. In other words, normative constraints act on an individual and a group level to reinforce and maintain the stratification system across its various components.

Taking the “group” interests another step, the functioning of societal systems and social processes also serves to reinforce and maintain the boundaries between strata or classes. Therefore group formation and maintenance processes expand to the macro level to maintain and reproduce social stratification – a macro form of boundary formation and maintenance.

The model presented makes the assumption that systems of stratification are maintained through the application and maintenance of power. It is assumed that since strata are “groups” that group processes are in place to maintain the groups. This implies that in part, groups are maintained through the use of normative constraints which require the application of positive and negative sanctions (rewards and penalties) for achieving compliance and maintaining group/stratum integrity. In the maintenance of the system rather than the group, institutional processes are utilized to maintain this system and to mete out rewards and punishments in a manner consistent with the culture.

From the discussions of the maintenance and reproduction of a culture in Chapter 1, we learned that the value component of culture includes cultural ideologies. We also learned that norms are the rules for behavior derived from the cultural values. These norms are then enforced through the application of sanctions (rewards and punishments) which in turn reinforce the value system. This is all pretty straightforward, and the assumption is that norms are generally enforced at the individual level. While part of this enforcement occurs external to the individual, it is certainly also an internal process. In other words, most people keep themselves within the normative rules of behavior.

As social scientists we know that culture is linked to the individual through socialization. This socialization is carried out by socialization agents -- some of which are institutional (e.g. education and media, etc.) and some of whom are individual (e.g. family and peers). The purpose in socialization is the internalization of the culture so that the culture’s members can function both as self-monitors and as enforcers of cultural norms upon others. In fact, in a variety of ways each of us operate at both an individual and institutional level as socialization agents. Essentially this means that norm enforcement and socialization are occurring simultaneously at the micro (individual) and macro (societal) level.

Through socialization we internalize our statuses and roles and an understanding of the broader processes of status outside of our own. Those statuses and roles are institutional in nature – meaning that they occur within the larger context of social institutions. It is interesting that sociologists generally discuss master statuses and social statuses as distinctly different types of status. While we argue that master statuses give us our social location within the broader society, we do not link this to the more general discussion of statuses and roles. This oversight provides a blind spot both in the analysis of stratification systems and generally confines such discussions to an extra-personal level. It also has the effect of confining discussion of statuses in general to the largely individual level. I believe that the rules of status at the individual level (status is a social position and every status has roles) also applies to master statuses. In other words, racial, social class, and sexual statuses also have roles. This means, for example, that there is a status of “White” within the racial stratification system and there are “White” roles. While there has been extensive examination, theorizing and acceptance of this in terms of sex-based stratification, even those discussions do not link us generally back to the broader concepts and processes of status and roles.

Assumptions of the Unified Model of Maintenance of Social Stratification Systems

Below are the assumptions upon which the model is based.


1.         Maintaining stratification systems requires maintaining the distribution of power within a society. This maintenance includes cultural belief systems and normative constraints as well as institutional structures and rules.


2.         Status is both individual and group. And the mechanisms and processes of status as a general concept apply to strata statuses such as sex, social class, and race.


3.         Normative constraints are enforced through the application of sanctions which can be applied both individually and systematically. Therefore, rewards are meted out at the individual, strata, organizational, and institutional levels and reinforced across all of them. Given the underlying assumptions of norm enforcement, it is unlikely that only high status groups are “rewarded” and only lower status groups are “penalized” for actions within the society.


4.         All systems, stratification systems included, have what we might label as “costs of operating.” Stratification systems are a large form of groups, therefore they are subject to group formation and boundary maintenance processes. Within this boundary formation and maintenance process, groups take on (or are given) dichotomous characteristics (or at least the perception and interpretation of characteristics are dichotomous). Within stratification systems, dominant groups are frequently seen as having the characteristics that the subordinate groups do not; or conversely that desirable social characteristics are embodied by the dominant group while less or undesirable characteristics are assigned to less dominant or subordinate groups.


5.         While each form of stratification operates in a somewhat unique way, the basic processes follow a cultural model. In other words, societies build upon a basic template and apply it in a variety of ways.

Now that you have a foundation in the basic concepts and an outline of the thinking behind the model, let’s take a look at it. The table below presents the basic formation of the model.

Basic Overview of the Unified Model of Stratification


Dominant Group

Non-Dominant Groups


What are the promised or actual benefits (e.g. rights, status, privilege, material) that individuals and/or the group receive for supporting the systems that maintain their position?

What are the promised rewards or benefits to individuals and/or groups, for complying with the systems and processes that maintain the status system the way it is?


What are the penalties for engaging in behavior that undermines, or is counter to, the processes that maintain their status within the social system?

What are the penalties for challenging (or being perceived to challenge) the systems and processes that maintain them at a lower status?


What are the ordinary “costs,” losses, or consequences, that individuals and/or the group pay as a natural consequence of operating within the boundaries of processes and systems?

What are the ordinary “costs,” losses, or consequences, that the individual and/or group or a member pay as a natural consequence of operating within the processes and systems?

Explanation of the Unified Model

The question that the model addresses is “How is the power and status maintained within the context of the social stratification system?” Looking across the table, it is divided into Dominant and Non-Dominant categories. These categories reflect the higher status and lower status groups within the context of the stratification system. In this basic model, the non-dominant group is collectively all those of lower status than the high status group. In the case of sex stratification, the table would stand as is with Males being the dominant group and females being the non-dominant group. In the case of race, European Americans would be the dominant group and all other racial groups would be the non-dominant group. This “lumping” of groups together under the non-dominant group category is one way to use the model. However, it can be more specific. For example, we could pick European Americans and Native Americans as the dominant and non-dominant groups respectively.

Looking down the table above, the model takes the norm enforcement process of sanctions – positive and negative (rewards and penalties) – and assumes they apply both individually and to groups as a whole. Rewards then are those actions, processes, and benefits either real or promised to societal members for complying with the rules (norms) of stratification. Rewards are positive sanctions that may be applied individually or institutionally for operating within the constraints of the stratification system. Both dominant and non-dominant groups and their members receive (or are promised) these “benefits.” Benefits provide the positive “incentives” for not challenging the system.

In this context, penalties are negative sanctions that are applied to those who do not conform within the accepted limits of the stratification system. In other words, there are penalties and punishment (real or expected) for not complying with the cultural and institutional rules that maintain the stratification system. This may be either at an individual level, or at a broader group level, though generally they are applied to individuals.

Last are costs, which are the natural consequences of the system operating the way it does. These costs are born by both individuals and strata as a whole. The “costs” of the system are experienced by individuals and groups. If we look at the sex stratification system for example, males are the dominant group and females the non-dominant group. Our society expects males to engage in high risk behaviors (being tough, fighting, promiscuous, etc.). Because of the social expectations, men as a group, have more injuries and die younger than women as a group. On the other hand, women are defined within the culture as being inferior and as sexual objects. A natural “cost” for women then are such things as lower pay than males and sexual harassment.

Extension of the Model

There is an important component not included in the table of the basic model. That component is the dynamics that occur within the non-dominant groups under the stratification system. As you recall, I am assuming that strata are types of groups, and because the society has applied meaning to these groups they have boundaries. Therefore, boundary maintenance processes are operating at various levels within groups as well. This is complicated by the fact that the non-dominant groups are not unified in terms of relations to the dominant group. There may be very strong group identity among some members and not as strong among other members. Within the course of most non-dominant group members daily lives they will encounter others of their group (and even of other non-dominant groups) and be responded to based upon a wide array of expectations depending upon the strength of group identity. Within the context of the model non-dominant group member’s face a dual challenge of working within overlapping pressures from both dominant and non-dominant groups.

Adding this component to the model offers a fuller picture of the actual dynamics of social stratification and I encourage you to expand the model as you become more comfortable working with it. Within the context of non-dominant group analysis, the existing stratification provides the context for the dynamics within the group. The rewards, penalties, and costs become in-group rewards, penalties and costs. These could however, become relevant to the group as a whole if the dominant group perceived a unification of high group identity. In a stratified social environment such as ours, that could result in increased constraints and controls placed on the non-dominant group. The table below reflects what the addition of the non-dominant group dynamics might examine.

Expanded Unified Model of Stratification


Dominant Group

Non-dominant group in relationship to dominant culture

Inside the non-dominant group


What are the promised or actual benefits (e.g. rights, status, privilege, material) that individuals and/or the group receive for supporting the systems that maintain their position?

What are the promised rewards or benefits to individuals and/or groups, for complying with the systems and processes that maintain the status system the way it is?

What are the rewards for maintaining non-dominant group solidarity?


What are the penalties for engaging in behavior that undermines, or is counter to, the processes that maintain their status within the social system?

What are the penalties for challenging (or being perceived to challenge) the systems and processes that maintain them at a lower status?

What are the penalties for challenging or ignoring non-dominant group solidarity?


What are the ordinary “costs,” losses, or consequences, that individuals and/or the group pay as a natural consequence of operating within the boundaries of processes and systems?

What are the ordinary “costs,” losses, or consequences, that the individual and/or group or a member pay as a natural consequence of operating within the processes and systems?

What are the costs of maintaining non-dominant group solidarity?

Why bother with this model?

Our public and private dialogues around social inequality simply don’t get us anywhere. I believe that there are two reasons for this. First is that they are based upon rhetoric that we don’t understand. The knowledge that our society, and many of the individuals in it, apply differential and unequal treatment to men and women, or middle class and poor, or gays and straights, or “whites” and “people of color,” does not tell us why or how. Second, there is a pervasive belief that it is simply uninformed individuals who continue to perpetuate inequality. While individuals are certainly involved, they are not necessarily working as free actors outside the context of the social environment. Social inequality is much bigger than individuals.

Much of the early examination of social inequality, and the one most common in current public discourse is the “discrimination model.” In other words, the discussion focuses around “disadvantaged” groups within the society. If we say we are going to talk about sexual inequality the focus is women; with racial inequality the focus is “people of color;” with wealth inequality the focus is the poor. About a decade ago people started seriously thinking about the idea of privilege as it relates to dominant groups. It is a good and logical inclusion as “disadvantage” implies that someone has “advantage.” In the current public rhetoric however, the discussion of advantage and privilege as a component of social inequality has morphed into the advantage and privilege of “disadvantaged” groups. So we hear about “reverse discrimination” and “special rights” and unfair advantages that disadvantaged groups have.

Perhaps the most important thing this model does is to move us beyond the discrimination model of the enforcement of stratification systems, and beyond the privilege versus discrimination model as well. It offers us a fruitful approach for examining the mechanisms of the stratification system at both the individual and societal levels, and clearly points out the mechanisms utilized to induce non-dominant groups to comply, and the costs that the dominant group pays for their dominance. These two areas are ones that are rarely, if ever examined.

Some people respond to this model critically, feeling that by examining rewards for non-dominant groups and their members it “blames the victim.” There is nothing that is further from the intent of this author. As social scientists, we know that compliance to social rules goes far beyond negative coercion to comply. Social interaction at all levels is a dance. Implicit in the roles of master statuses are the power dynamics of the social dance that maintains the counter-point of societal interaction. Because of the way I conceptualize stratification and its integration into values and norms, we are all participating willingly or unwillingly, consciously and unconsciously, in maintaining and reproducing the stratification system. Being able to look clearly and analytically at all levels and components of this reproduction gives us a more conscious approach to our participation and where the key points are that maintain inequality.

Looking Forward

You will be using this model as you proceed through this text. Refer back to this chapter when you get confused. By the time you get through Section 1 (the next three chapters) you will have had the opportunity to work with it a number of times. It is my experience that people do find it a valuable tool that provides insights that they did not have before. The response from students in my classes is that it does help them see how inequality works – not just in society but in their lives. They say that it also helps them see the pressures they live under and how that affects them in a myriad of ways.

Look for patterns as you use this model. Ask yourself if you see any relationships in the table when you complete a model. For example, is there a relationship between rewards and costs between dominant and non-dominant groups? Also ask whether the costs are worth the rewards that are offered.