social inequality

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what is social inequality?

Social inequality refers to the uneven distribution of:

  • resources such as money and power
  • opportunities related to, for example, education, employment and health

studies of inequality explore:

  • the nature of inequality
  • how much inequality there is and who gets what
  • why some people get more than others

social stratification describes the way society is structured in hierarchy of strata that are unequally ranked one above another

wealth- ownership of assets

income- cash or kind (e.g. company car)

status- social standing

power- ability to get what they want

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what are life chances?

life chances- people's chances of achieving positive/negative outcomes as they progress through life. Not distributed equally because class, gender and ethnicity affect life chances. Also shaped by wealth, income, power and status

inequalities in health- differences in health outcomes between social groups or geogrpahical areas. still exist in contemporary Britain

life expectancy has improved

the life expectancy gap between social classes has widened

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What different forms of stratification are there?

  • can vary between different societies
  • can change over time
  • ascribed- fixed at birth, unchanging over time
  • acjieved- earn on the basis of personal talents or merit
  • different according to how open or closed they are
  • open- social mobility is possible
  • closed- social mobility is not possible
  • e.g. caste system, apartheid
  • social class is based on economic factors such as occupation and income. open.
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How have sociologists explained social class?

the marxist approach-

  • identifies two main classes- bourgeoisie and proletariat
  • determined by economic factors- ownership and no-ownership
  • bourgeoisie own means of production
  • proletariat own nothing
  • bourgeiosie would decline and get richer
  • proletariat wuld increase and get poorer
  • proletariat rebels, leading to revolution
  • class system disappears

weber approach-

  • classes formed in marketplaces
  • class is group of people with similar life chances
  • property owners,, professionals, petty bourgeoisie, working class
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How does the functionalist approach view stratific

  • some positions are more important than others
  • top positions have to look desirable
  • a system of inequality is necessary
  • attract most talented people to the most important occupations
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How is social class measured?

registrar general-

  • 1911-1998
  • five social classes based on occupation
  • cannot accomodate people without jobs
  • doesn't tell us about an individuals wealth and property
  • people within the same job may have differences


  • National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification
  • 9 classes based on occupation
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What is gender

sex- whether a person is considered a man or a woman

gender- describes the different social practices, expectations and ideas that are associated with masculinity and femininity

families often socialise their children differently and they develop a gender identity

young children are often given different books and toys according to their gender

the process of socialisation is highly gendered

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What inequalities are based on gender?

equal pay act- employers must pay men and women the same salary where they are doing the same work or work of equal value

sex discrimination act- unlawful to discriminate or treat someone less favourably because of their sex

sexism- discrimination on the basis of sex

women are increasingly likely to achieve good educational qualifications, jobs and salaries. Feminists argue that gender inequality is still the most important source of division in society today. Society is still organised in ways that benifit men more than women. This is because we live in a patriarchal society

women's triple shift- paid employment, domestic labour, emotion work

childcare provision- prevents women with young children from participating in full time paid employment

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What is ethnicity?

ethnic group- social group whose members share an identity based on their cultural traditions, religion or language

ethnic minority- a group of people who are from a different ethnic group from the general population

racism- when people are treated differently and less favourably on the basis of their ethnicity

race relations act- outlawed discrimination, indirect discrimination and victimization

equality and human rights commision- helped to tackle racism and discrimination

metropolitan police recognises that institutional racism exists and must be addressed

equal opportunities policies supporting diversity in the workplace and education have been put in place

inequalities based on ethnicity are much less significant today that 40 or 50 years ago

ethnicity is no longer seen as a major social division

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what inequalities are based on ethnicity?

  • unemployment
  • poverty
  • homelessness
  • ill health
  • education
  • prejudice and discrimination in the labour market exist and so the life chances and quality of life of some ethnic groups are negatively affected
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How do sociologists approach the study of age?

chronological age- how long you have been alive. Used to determine whether you are allowed to participate in a range of activities

biological age- related to physical changes taking place in the body. usually linked to chronological age

age is socially constructed

expectation surrounding age vary from society to society and over time

childhood is seen as separate stage to youth and adulthood

children are regarded as dependent and vulnerable

in other cultures the separation of childhood and adulthood is less marked

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how do sociologists view youth?

youth- a period of transition between childhood and adulthood

in Britain, youth is regarded as an important stage of development

young people may continue to be financially dependent on their parents or other family members into their twenties and beyond

young people are not a uniform group

in Britain, youth is a 20th century product

other societies would not necessarily recognise the notion of youth as separate stage of life

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how do sociologists study older age?

the status of older people can vary between different cultures

in Britain, getting old is often seen as something to be avoided

in other cultures, older age is viewed as something to look forward to

ageism- a situation in which a person is treated differently and less favourably on the basis of their age

employment equality (age) regulations- regulations against age discrimination in employment and training

the social position of older people varies between individuals and groups

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How are wealth and income distributed in Britain?

wealth- ownership of assets that are valued at a particular point in time, often passed down the generations

income- flow of resources which individuals and households recieve over a specific period of time

wealth is distributed more unevenly than income

income inequality has widened over the last 30 years

can be explained partly by the huge salaries and bonuses paid to the highest earners

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What is social mobility?

social mobility- movement up or down between a society's strata

in britain, it refers to movement between social classes

status is based on achievement rather than ascription

meritocratic society- individuals achievements are based on their own talents and efforts

intra-generational- movement of an individual over the course of their life

inter-generational- movement between the generations of a family

long range- from bottom to top or vice versa

short range- unskilled to skilled e.g.

self-recruitment- where children remain in the same class as their parents

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How much social mobility is there in Britain?

social mobility fell at the end of the 20th century in the UK

social mobility is in decline

problems- some studies of intergenerational mobility focus only on males, studies that ask participants to recall their earlier employment are likely to be based on unreliable data, researchers have to decide which age and point in a person's career to measure mobility from

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what is poverty?

absolute- income is not enough to get minimum you need to survive. do not have access to necessities. criticized as it is difficult to know what the minimum is

relative- cannot afford to meet general standard of living. income is less than average. means we will always have poverty as long as people have less than the average income

definition influences how we measure poverty, number of people in poverty and the extent to which it is said to exist

it determines to what extent the government accepts that poverty exists, what policies are made and how people in poverty are treated

if an absolute definition is used, the role of government and amount of resources will be much less

EU describes poverty as material, cultural and social resources are so imited as to exclude them from the minimum acceptable way of life

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How do we measure poverty?

UK government- low incomes. 60% of the median income after housing costs. 22% of UK are below poverty line

PSE- income levels, lack of necessities, subjective measures. asked people to identify items and activities they considered necessities. necessities are items and activities that all adults should have. some may choose to go without, this would not count as poverty. found that poverty rates had risen sharply

factors that explain increase in poverty- increase in proportion of workless households, increase in pay gap between low and high skilled workers, changes in taxes, demographic changes which have meant an increase in low income groups

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Who is likely to experience poverty?

  • lone parent households
  • workless households
  • families with a child under 11
  • adults in one person households
  • children and young people
  • those who left school aged 16 and under
  • women
  • housholds headed by someone from a minority ethnic group, particularly Pakistani or Bangladeshi
  • minority ethnic groups are disadvantaged in unemployment, pay, jobs and welfare state
  • women have a longer life expectancy so more female pensioners living alone
  • women are more likely to head lone parent families
  • women earn less than men
  • women are more likely to work part time
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Which other groups are likely to experience povert

  • families with 4 or more children
  • seen as having negative impact on life chances, including life expectancy, health, housing, education and occupation
  • pensioners are more likely to live on a low income over time
  • retirement with occupational pension- higher income than state pension
  • people with disabilities are at risk of poverty
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How do we explain poverty?

culture of poverty- people from the poorest section of society were socialised within the subculture of poverty. as a result, they were unable to take up opportunities to break free from poverty

examples- 'people can do little to change their situation so they may as well accept it', 'live for the moment', 'there is no point saving or planning for the future'

these values, developed to help them adapt, also prevented them from escaping poverty

values were passed on through generations

does not explain what causes poverty

ignores structural factors

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how do we explain poverty (continued)

cycle of deprivation- children born into poverty, have a deprived childhood, less likely to perform well at school, future opportunities limited, as adults live in poverty, become parents of deprived children

fails to explain why some groups fall into poverty

should be treated as a structural phenomenon, not a family or individual phenomenon

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what other explanations for poverty are there?

underclass- people who experience long term poverty and who are unable to gain a living

symptoms of the underclass- crime, extramarital births, economic inactivity among men of working age

welfare reform encouraged crime, single parenthood and unemployment and took away the incentive to work

underclass remain in poverty because the welfare state encourages them to depend on state provision. it is too generous.

highly controversial

some reject the concept

others say it exists as a label to blame victims for their misfortunes, stigmatize some people and distance them from society

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what other explanations of poverty are there? (con

distinction drawn between poverty and social exclusion

social exclusion- being excluded from participation in society's social, economic, political and cultural life

consumption- purchasing goods and services

production- participating in socially or economically valuable activity

political engagement- participating in local or national desicion making

social interaction- with family, friends or communities

use of terms like underclass and poverty can encourage blaming victims

social exclusion stresses the role of society in excluding people. more useful than poverty as it highlights that social problems have many causes

critics argue that it includes too many things to be useful

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what do structural explanations of poverty involve

marxist approach- poverty results from class based inequalities which are built into capitalist society

capitalism generates extreme wealth for the capitalist class. also, it produces poverty among sections of the working class

a minority groups makes profit out of the rest of the population. inevitable that some will be poorr

poverty works to the advantage of the bourgeoisie. fear of poverty can be used to discipline workers and keep wages down

only way to remove poverty is to have revolutionary change in society

critics argue that if we examine societies that went through social change, we would still find poverty and inequality

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what do structural explanations of poverty involve

unemployment is a central issue in understanding the causes of poverty.

some believe the social security system often fails to meet people's needs. benefits are too low. solution to ending poverty is to provide people with more money by increasing pensions and benefits

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does social class still matter?

  • social class has become less relevant in Britain
  • class divisions and identities are no longer of great significance
  • we now live in a classless society
  • the working class has shrunk as a result of changes in the occupational structure and a decline in manufacturing industries
  • social class identifies have weakened
  • class origins are not very important in shaping outcomes in modern Britain
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