Social Inequality – Explanations of Inequalities

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Emma Rudd BMA
3A Explanations of Inequality and Difference
Class Explanations
Marx and Weber showed the deepest conflicts in society revolve around class issues such as
the distribution of income, wealth and power. Class structures have changed since they wrote
but Savage (2000) identifies certain reasons why class is still central to explanations of
economic inequality.
Savage argues 3 things
1. The unequal distribution of wealth in the Britain can be explained in terms of the division
between a small upper class who posses huge amounts of property and a much larger
class who rely on income from wages and salaries.
2. The labour market where the classes are formed, remains the main arena for the
generation of income
3. He believes that the class theory offers the best explanation for economic inequalities.
1. Class Stratification
Social differences are found in every society. People vary in their personal qualities (e.g.
intelligence, beauty), their social roles (e.g. occupations) and their general group characteristics
(e.g. sex, age, ethnicity). These differences man people have unequal chances of success
some may have natural advantages (e.g. physical strength) while others may enjoy social
advantages (e.g. being born into a rich family). Whatever the reasons it is clear that societies
usually distribute their rewards unequally between individuals and groups.
Stratification takes different forms in different societies and historical periods. The four major
systems of stratification are slavery, feudalism, Hindu castes and the social class system of
industrialised societies.
The major division in this system is between free citizens and unfree slaves. Slaves are regarded
as property of their owners and they are deprived of civil, legal and political rights.
The feudalism system was organised mainly around the ownership of land, which benefited
those born into the aristocracy and clergy, to the disadvantage of those born into families without
land. Those born without land worked the lord's land and provided him with agricultural produce
and military service in return for his protection from rival nobles.
The Hindu caste system in India has four main castes, which are groups you are born into. You
cannot change your caste in this lifetime, but if you are good you will be rewarded and move up
the caste system upon rebirth. It regulates social interaction between these groups and reduces
any pollution, which could result from close contact with members of a lower caste. This system
is supported by religious beliefs and ideas of Hinduism.
Social Class
Social class is the dominant form of stratification within Britain and other modern societies. Class
is a matter of economic inequalities and each class consists of people who share similar
positions in the economic structure. There are some key differences between the social class
system and other stratification systems. In the class system there is generally much greater legal
and political freedom (e.g. workers have contractual relationships with employers, unlike the
feudalism and slavery systems). Secondly the class hierarchy does not rely on religious
justification (unlike the caste system). Thirdly there are fewer barriers to social mobility in the

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Emma Rudd BMA
class system. Lastly the economic marketplace assumes a much more central and dominant
role in classbased societies. The economic marketplace plays a major role in these societies,
and it is this that determines their social class ranking. This is especially true of capitalist
societies.…read more

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Emma Rudd BMA
Unequal but Fair?
Saunders (1995, 1996) argues that while Britain is an unequal society it is not necessarily unfair.
He blames leftwing sociologists for spreading the SAD thesis: the argument that class related
Social Advantages and Disadvantages, rather than individual merit, is the main factor behind
success or failure. Saunders believes that it is academic ability and personal ambition, which
shape individual success or failure. If you are bright and willing to work hard you will almost
certainly succeed.…read more

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Karl Marx (18181883) stressed the fundamental importance of economic processes, since
every social group must firstly satisfy its material needs (e.g. for food, shelter, clothing). Humans
are inevitably involved in economic activities and as they come together to do these economic
tasks they enter into a social class relationship. According to Marx the early era of `primitive
communism' was reasonably egalitarian because it was based on very simple hunting and
gathering techniques.…read more

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Economic Determinism ­ Marx attached too much importance to economic factors.
He implies that the dominant ideas of society are little more than ideologies to help to
maintain the economic positions of capitalists. However critics argue that culture is not
just a direct product of economic forces, and that cultural conflicts (e.g. around gender,
ethnicity or nationalism) have their own reality and they cannot always be reduced to
economic issues.
Predictions ­ Many of Marx predictions haven't been fulfilled.…read more

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a considerable number of finely graded occupational classes, each based on market position.
The people within each class share broadly similar life chances.
Status refers to the degree of honour or prestige, which is attached to social groups in society.
The members of status a group tend to share common values and lifestyles and form a
community. They use `status symbols' to announce their common membership.…read more

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Production of Market?
Marxists define classes in terms of ownership of the means of production (a twoclass
model). Whereas Weberians see classes as positions in the market place (allowing for
a wider range of classes). Marxists say Weberians identify too many trivial
marketbased classes and distracts attention from the basic split between capitalists
and workers.
View of History
Marx saw history as a long march towards the final goal of a communist society where
class rivalry no longer exists.…read more

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Davis and Moore regard power as a social resources which is distributed throughout
society in such a way that it works for the common good. They overlook the way power
is used as a weapon by some groups to further their own material interests.
Some of the highest rewards go to the wealthiest people who do not really perform any
function but simply live off the interest payments of their wealth.…read more

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programmes on class, maintaining that this type of research explains a good deal of what
happens in society, but admit it must remain selfcritical. It cannot simply assert that
class is an important factor in social life ­ it must demonstrate it.
Class in Postmodern Society
Many criticisms of class analysis come from postmodernists. For example Pakulski and Waters
argue that class diverts attention away from more important areas such as identity, race and
gender.…read more

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This is a dense but comprehensive summary of the explanations for social inequalities which is great. This can easily be transferred into flashcard into more concise material. Great job.

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