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Sociology of Social Inequality


Sociologists see society as a stratification system that is based on a hierarchy of power (the ability to direct someone else’s behavior), privilege (honor and respect), and prestige (income, wealth, and property), which leads to patterns of social inequality. Inequality is about who gets what, how they get it, and why they get it. Social inequality is typically tied to race, gender, and class, with whites, males, those with higher education levels, and those with higher income levels sitting at the top of the hierarchy.

What is Social Inequality?

Social inequality is characterized by the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions or statuses within a group or society. It contains structured and recurrent patterns of unequal distributions of goods, wealth, opportunities, rewards, and punishments.

There are two main ways to measure social inequality: inequality of conditions, and inequality of opportunities. Inequality of conditions refers to the unequal distribution of income, wealth and material goods. Housing, for example, is an inequality of conditions with the homeless and those living in housing projects sitting at the bottom of the hierarchy while those living in multi-million dollar mansions sitting at the top.

Inequality of opportunities refers to the unequal distribution of "life chances" across individuals. This is reflected in measures such as level of education, health status, and treatment by the criminal justice system. For example, why do upper-class white males typically have more opportunities for wealth and success compared to lower-class black males, who have a higher chance of landing in the criminal justice system?

Two Main Theories of Social Inequality

There are two main views of social inequality within sociology. One view aligns with the functionalist theory and the other aligns with conflict theory.

Functionalist theorists believe that inequality is inevitable and desirable and plays an important function in society. Important positions in society require more training and thus should receive more rewards. Social inequality and social stratification, according to this view, lead to a meritocracy based on ability.

Conflict theorists, on the other hand, view inequality as resulting from groups with power dominating less powerful groups. They believe that social inequality prevents and hinders societal progress as those in power repress the powerless people in order to maintain the status quo. Positions are important so long as those in power consider them to be significant.

How Sociologists Study Social Inequality

Sociologically, we can study social inequality as a social problem that encompasses three dimensions: objective structural conditions, ideological supports, and social reforms.

Objective structural conditions include things that can be objectively measured and that contribute to social inequality. Sociologists study how things like educational attainment, wealth, poverty, occupations, and power lead to the social inequality between individuals and groups of people.

Ideological supports include things that support the social inequality present in a society. Sociologists examine how things such as formals laws, public policies, dominant values, etc. both lead to social inequality and help sustain social inequality.

Social reforms are thing such as organized resistance, protest groups, and social movements. Sociologists study how these social reforms help shape or change social inequality that exists in a society. What impact do they have, how long does the change last (is it a temporary change or does it lead to permanent change), and how are these social reforms started and organized?


Quick Study. (2000). Sociology: The Basic Principles of Sociology for Introductory Courses. Boca Raton, FL: BarCharts, Inc.

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