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Social Stratification in American Society

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The term social stratification is generally used to depict the system of social standing. In this context, social stratification is used to refer to society’s categorization of its members into groups of socioeconomic ranks based on such factors as income, race, wealth, power, and education. In the United States, there is a popular misconception that all people have an equal chance to succeed. The emphasis on self-effort encourages the belief that individuals control their social standing. On the contrary, it can be argued that social stratification is a society-wide arrangement that makes inequalities apparent. However, it must be noted that social stratification is about the systematic inequalities as opposed to the individual inequalities. In line with this argument, no individual can be blamed for the inequalities, but rather it is society as a whole that creates inequality. Social stratification, especially in the United States, is a divisive issue in that it has competing definitions, models, and disagreements as to whether it actually exists. The purpose of the proposed research is to investigate the level of vertical mobility between one social class and another one in American society.


What factors affect vertical mobility between social classes in American society?


Vertical mobility in American social classes is dependent on the level of achievement or the amount of wealth that an individual accumulates.


Social stratification and social classes for that matter is based on educational attainment, wealth, income, occupation, or membership in a given social network or subculture. The systems of social stratification can be divided into two. The closed systems do not allow much change in social position and the movement from one stratum to the other is restricted. On the other hand, open systems are founded on achievement and vertical mobility is permitted. According to Hurst (2015), both systems reflect and emphasize certain cultural values and helps in shaping individual beliefs. Many people recognize a three-tier model that comprises of discrete social classes. However, some academicians have denied the existence of such social classes, especially in American society (Kerckhoff 2001). Despite this, it is highly appreciated that American society is hierarchically ordered in a social class arrangement.

There are different factors responsible for the social stratification in American society and the world as a whole. According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, social stratification is a product of private property accumulation. Rousseau argued that private property led to social inequality and, by extension, social conflict (Siroky and Sigwart 2014). He traces the growth of metallurgy and agriculture and the original establishment of private property to the emergency of social inequality between landowners and laborers (Delaney N.d.). He argued that in society characterized by social inequality, members who required both material goods such as warmth and food and social recognition became trapped in social relations detrimental both to their sense of worth and their freedom. In such an arrangement, there is an incentive for individuals to misinterpret their true desires and beliefs in an effort to attain their ends (Roksa et al. 2007). Consequently, even people who receive apparent adulation and love from their inferiors do not find satisfaction for their self-esteem (Bottero 2004). For Rousseau, the accumulation of wealth or private property led to the exploitation of the poor by the rich and creation a form of social inequality. The poor are isolated from the rich, and this ultimately leads to social stratification. This also implies that vertical mobility in a social class is dependent on the amount of private property one has at any given time.

In addition to private property, other factors perpetuate social stratification in the USA. For example, it has been argued that American society is meritocratic and social class is based on individual achievement. This implies that membership to a given social class is dependent on the level of one’s education and career achievements. Despite this, many scholars have questioned the existence of class mobility and have gone a step further to suggest that social class is inherited (Bastedo and Gumport 2003). For instance, a person who comes from a rich family may command a higher social status than a person born of a poor family. Equally, being born in a particular class may bestow certain advantages or disadvantages that enhance one’s likelihood to remain in the same social class that they were born.

Scholars who question the existence of social stratification in the United States often argue that society is stratified not in delineated categories but rather along a continuous gradation. This means that while there is inequality in American society, there is clear class difference. It is important to note here that whether a person ascribes to the opinion that classes are levels along a scale or discrete groups, all social classes in society consist of millions of people (Wilson, Wallin, and Reiser 2003). Therefore, social groups are so huge that they are characterized by the considerable internal diversity and any statement relating to a certain social class culture need to be taken as broad generalization.

Nevertheless, the fact that there exists social stratification in the USA cannot be ignored. In essence, there are different social classes in the United States, each with its own characteristics. For example, the upper class is characterized by the vast accumulation of wealth and substantial control and power over political institutions and corporations (Hurst 2015). Privilege in this class is usually inherited and class mobility is restricted to power. The upper-middle social class is marked by highly educated and salaried professionals whose jobs are held in high admiration such as professors, engineers, or lawyers. Vertical mobility in this class is dependent on the level of education that an individual has.


The proposed research will use qualitative research methodology, a form of scientific research that seeks to answer or find a solution to a problem using systematically predefined set of procedures and empirical evidence. Qualitative research also attempts to understand a given research topic or problem from the local population perspectives. This research methodology is particularly effective in collecting culturally specific information relating to values, beliefs, behaviors, opinions, and other social contexts of specific populations. There are different methods of conducting qualitative research, including participant observation, focus groups, and in-depth interviews. Participant observation is generally used to collect information relating to the naturally occurring behaviors and it is performed in their usual contexts. On the other hand, focus groups are used for collecting information relating to the cultural norms of a given group. Focus groups also help to generate broad overviews on issues concerning the subgroups or cultural group they represent. Finally, in-depth interviews are used for collecting information relating to personal histories, experiences, or perspectives. These interviews are particularly used when the research topic is sensitive.

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There are various advantages of qualitative research. One of these advantages of qualitative research is that it allows for the use of open-ended questions and probing. This allows the research respondents to respond using their own words while allowing the researcher to read their reactions and behavior. In this regard, respondents are not forced to select from fixed responses, as in the case of quantitative research that employs closed questions. In an open-ended interview, responses are culturally salient and meaningful, unanticipated, rich, and explanatory in nature (Hayden 2001). Another advantage of this research methodology is that it gives the research the flexibility in regards to probing the initial responses of the respondents. The use of probing techniques helps the researcher to have elaborated responses from the respondents.


It is expected that social stratification in the United States is the result of multiple factors rather than being restricted to a single one. However, the level of income and one’s educational achievement seem to be the dominant factors when it comes to social stratification. Generally, it is expected that vertical mobility is dependent largely on the level of income. Upward mobility is dependent on the level of education as well as income, while downward mobility is solely dependent on income. As people acquire more income, they tend to move from one social class to another that is higher. Still, the reduction in the level of income through, for example, job loss will move one from a higher social class to one that is at a lower level.

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Like with many other societies, American society is characterized by visible social classes that are based on income, level of education, and private property among other factors. Vertical mobility in these social classes is relatively easier, and individuals may move either way – upward or downward, depending on how long they maintain or improve their level of income, education, or wealth. However, it should be noted that not all people who are educated are employed in high-income jobs nor are all the employed people private property owners. In this context, it would be expected that there is a conflict into actually what causes social classes and vertical mobility within them. This research is subject to a number of limitations with major one being lack of enough time to conduct an extensive field research. Due to the course requirements, the research will be conducted within a limited timeframe and there is a possibility that this could have an effect on reliability of the information collected.


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