A class system is a social ranking based primarily on economic position in which achieved characteristics can influence social mobility, maintaining stable stratification hierarchies and patterns of class divisions by marking unequal distribution of wealth and power. Income inequality is a basic characteristic of a class system. In 1999, the median household income in the United States was $40,816. In other words, half of all households had higher incomes in that year and half had lower incomes. The people with the highest incomes, generally those heading private companies, earn well above even affluent wage earners

Daniel Rossides (1997) used a five class model to describe the class system of the United States: the upper class, the upper middle class, the lower middle class, the working class, and the lower class. While the lines separating social classes in his model are not as sharp as the divisions between castes and slavery, he shows that members of the five classes differ significantly in ways other than just income level. People with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to unemployment, are often poorly paid, and in many cases are on the lower rung of occupational ladders. Regardless of their actual performance on the job, the disabled are stigmatized as not earning their keep (Richard Jenkins 2004).

Such are the effects of ascribed status. Sandwiched between the upper and lower classes in Rossides’s model are the upper-middle class, the lower middle class, and the working class. The upper middle class, numbering about 10 to 15 percent of the population, is composed of professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and architects. They participate extensively in politics and take leadership roles in voluntary associations.

Even if stratification is inevitable, the functionalist explanation for differential rewards does not explain the wide disparity between the rich and the poor. Critics of the functionalist approach point out that the richest 10 percent of households account for 20 percent of the nation’s income in Sweden, 25 percent in France, and 30 percent in the United States. In their view, the level of income inequality found in contemporary industrial societies cannot be defended—even though these societies have a legitimate need to fill certain key occupations (World Bank 2000a:238–239).

Conflict View

The writings of Karl Marx are at the heart of conflict theory. Marx viewed history as a continuous struggle between the oppressors and the oppressed that would ultimately culminate in an egalitarian, classless society. In terms of stratification, he argued that the dominant class under capitalism the bourgeoisie manipulated the economic and political systems in order to maintain control over the exploited proletariat. Marx did not believe that stratification was inevitable, but he did see inequality and oppression as inherent in capitalism (Ralf Dahrendorf 1988).

Like Marx, contemporary conflict theorists believe that human beings are prone to conflict over such scarce resources as wealth, status, and power. However, where Marx focused primarily on class conflict, more recent theorists have extended this analysis to include conflicts based on gender, race, age, and other dimensions (Ralf Dahrendorf 1988).


Stephen Jenkins et.al (2004) Low income and multiple disadvantage in Britain, 1991-2001: analysis of the British Household: London: Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Ralf Dahrendorf. (1988) the modern social conflict; an essay on the politics of liberty; London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

The World Bank. (2000) World Development Report. New York: Oxford University Press

By Alex NT374@live.mdx.ac.uk


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