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Ever since people began to speculate about the nature of human society, their attention has been drawn to the differences that can be easily observed between individuals and groups within any society. The termsocial inequality describes a condition in which members of a society have unequal amounts of wealth, prestige, or power.Wealth accounts for all of a person's material assets, including land and other types of property.Prestige refers to the respect with which a person's occupation is regarded by society.Power is the ability to exercise one's will over others.

All cultures are characterized by some degree of social inequality. When a system is based on a hierarchy of groups having unequal economic rewards and power in a society, sociologists call itstratification.

Stratification is one of the most important and complex subjects of sociological investigation because of its great influence on human interactions and institutions. Of course, each of us wants a «fair share» of society's rewards, and we often come into conflict over how these rewards should be divided. Family members argue over who should be given money to buy new clothing or take a vacation; nations go to war over precious resources such as oil or minerals. As a result, sociologists have directed their attention to the implications of stratification in ranking members of a society and the ways in which social inequalities are passed on individuals, groups and generations.

Stratification is universal and social scientific research has revealed that inequality exists in all societies. Viewed from the sociological perspective stratification has several forms:

1.Stratification by social class, based on income differences and unequal sources of wealth. American sociologists have worked out the class system of the United States using a five-class model. About 1 percent of Americans are categorized as upper-class, a group limited to the very wealthy. These people form intimate associations with one another in exclusive clubs and social circles. By contrast, the lower class, consisting of approximately 20 percent of Americans, is populated by many of the elderly, as well as single mothers with dependent children and people who cannot find regular work. This class lacks both wealth and income and is too weak politically to exercise significant power.

Between these two classes are the upper middle class, the lower middle class, and the working class. The upper middle class, numbering about 10 percent of the population, is composed of professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and architects. They participate extensively in politics and exercise leadership roles in different associations. The lower middle class, which accounts for approximately 30 percent of the American population, includes less wealthy professionals, such as teachers and nurses, owners of small businesses, clerical workers. The working class, about 40 percent of the population, are people holding regular manual or blue-collar jobs (as contrasted to white-collar jobs, i.e. employees). Yet, certain members of this class, such as electricians, may have higher incomes than people in the lower middle class.

2.Stratification by race and ethnicity, based on minority groups division. When sociologists define a minority group, they are primarily concerned with the economic and political power, or powerlessness of this group. Thus,a minority group is a subordinate group whose members have significantly less control or power over their own lives than the members of a dominant or majority group have over theirs. However, in certain instances, a group which constitutes a numerical majority can still be a minority group in sociological terms (for example, women).

The term«racial group» is used to describe a minority (sometimes a rather dominant) group which is set apart from others by obvious physical differences. Whites, blacks, and Asian Americans are all considered racial groups within the United States.

Unlike racial groups,an ethnic group is set apart from others primarily because of its national origin or distinctive cultural patterns, for example, Jews.

In most societies, physical differences tend to be more visible than ethnic differences, that is why stratification along racial lines is less subject to change than stratification along ethnic lines. But in a biological sense, there are no «pure races» and no «physical» traits that can be used to describe one group to the exclusion of all others.

Racial and ethnic groups can relate to one another in a wide variety of ways, ranging from friendships and intermarriages to behaviors caused by prejudice, i.e. a negative attitude towards an entire category of people. This negative attitude can have different forms:racism (the belief that one race is superior and all others are innately inferior),discrimination (denying opportunities and equal rights to individuals and groups), genocide (the deliberate, systematic killing of an entire people or nation), segregation (physical separation of two groups of people in terms of residence, workplace, and social functions) and its extreme form apartheid (separation of blacks, coloreds, and Asians from the dominant whites),anti-Semitism (Anti-Jewish prejudice). Contrasted to all these negative attitudesis pluralism, i.e. mutual respect between the various groups in a society for one another's cultures, which allows minorities to express their own cultures without experiencing prejudice.

3.Stratification by gender, based on sexism, i.e. the ideology that one sex is superior to the other. Although numerically a majority, in many respects women fit the definition of a subordinate minority group within contemporary society. Sociological studies indicate that this is a men's world and there are no societies in it in which women play the decisive role.

There are obvious biological differences between the sexes which contribute to the developmentof gender identity, i.e. the self-concept of a person as being male or female. But many societies have established social distinctions between the sexes which do not result from biological differences. The so calledgender roles are defined as expectations regarding the proper behavior, attitudes, and activities of males and females. The application of traditional gender roles leads to many forms of differentiation between men and women. Men have traditionally been viewed as the providers for the family, while women have been expected to assume almost total responsibility for child care and household duties. In addition, our culture views many forms of work as «women's work» or «men's work». Both sexes are capable of learning to cook and to type, yet these tasks are usually performed by women. Both men and women are capable of learning to fly airplanes, but this function is generally assigned to males. When one looks at the political structure of contemporary countries, one has to look hard to find many women.

However in modern industrial societies there has been an evident change in the application of traditional gender roles to sexes.

Few social roles are completely restricted to either men or women. In terms of power dynamics, women clearly gain some additional degree of power by earning their own incomes. Women are increasingly participating in their nations' paid labor force. But barriers still remain. Very few women occupy historically defined «men's jobs» that carry great financial rewards. They do either inferior work or occupy inferior positions in the same work. Significantly fewer women than men hold senior management positions and most of women report to male chief executives. In short, women face many difficulties within the paid labor fore.

The social consequences of women's employment are also serious. In theory at least, women should gain in self-esteem and power within the family as they move outside the home and function as productive wage earners and men would have more time and opportunity to become involved in the care and socialization of children. But in practice, as women have taken on more and more hours of paid employment outside the home, they have been unable to get their husbands to take a greater role in home-making duties, including child care. Sociological studies have proved that in industrial societies the social role of being a father is greatly de-emphasized: the longest time period of father—baby interaction is 10 minutes 26 seconds, the average period being 38 seconds per day! In dual-career marriages very often wives have the longest total workweeks (often as many as 75 hours per week, including both paying jobs and household), while men have the shortest workweeks.

Thus, women's growing participation in the paid labor is hardly bringing them greater freedom and power. As a result, more wives are moved to protest.

4.Stratification by age, based on age differentiation. Some of this age differentiation seems inevitable; it would make little sense to send young children off to war or to expect most older citizens to handle physically demanding tasks such as loading goods at shipyards.

Age, like race and gender, is an ascribed status. «Being old» is a master status that sometimes overshadows all others. Moreover, this status is generally viewed in negative terms. Sociological studies report widespread perceptions of older citizens as stubborn, touchy, quarrelsome, bossy and meddlesome. These studies also show that elderly persons receive less respect as they get older. Abuse and neglect of elderly members within the family have received increasing public attention in recent years. The competition in the labor force is not in the elderly's favor either; very often younger adults view older workers as «job stealers». This belief does not only intensify age conflict but leads to age discrimination. And last but not least, the elderly are especially likely to be victims of age segregation. Many have to live in special nursing houses in which they are very often at a disadvantage and feel lonely and unhappy.

Thus, the subordinate status of the elderly is quite evident in all societies and the elderly fit all the properties of a minority group with one crucial difference: all of us will eventually assume the ascribed status of being an older person and an increasing proportion of any population is composed of elderly citizens.