Social stratification defines any structure of inequality that persists in a society across generations. Social strata are groups of people such as people who belong to the same social class or have the same education level. Social strata are organized in a vertical hierarchy. In early societies people shared a common social standing. In the hunting and gathering societies there was little stratification: men hunted for meat while women gathered edible plants.

The general welfare of the society depended on the mutual sharing of goods between all members and no group emerged as better off than the others. Social inequality began with the emergence of horticultural and pastoral societies. For the first time people had reliable sources of food and the population increased. Not all members of the societies needed to be involved in the production of food and people were free to choose their occupation.

In the agricultural societies that followed, the division of labor resulted in job specialization where people valued certain jobs more than others. The industrial revolution that started in the 18th century further differentiated people according to their wealth and occupation. Social stratification can be organized in terms of class, gender, race and ethnicity, age or disability. Social class is based on the economic differences between groups in terms of income and wealth, possession of material goods, occupation and status.

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This type of stratification is an open system. People are born in a certain class but can move up or down between the different social layers. This change of class is called social mobility. People in higher social classes have better access to health, better education, housing and work conditions. There are two main theories about the formation of classes and the class conflict, the Marxist and the functionalist. The Marxist theory was created in the early-to-mid 19th century by the German philosophers Karl Marx (1818 to 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 to 1895).

According to the Marxist theory, class is related to the ownership of the means of production. In the capitalist system, the ruling class owns the means of production. This includes the working class, which has only its own labor to offer in order to survive. The functionalist theory was created in the 20th century by the American sociologists Kingsley Davis (1908 to 1997) and Wilbert Moore (1914 to 1987). The functionalists believe that the classes are necessary to make society ffective. According to this theory, a certain number of tasks with a different level of complexity must be accomplished in any society. Those who perform the difficult tasks are entitled to more power, prestige and money. Social stratification based on race and ethnicity is underpinned by differences determined by the genetic and cultural features of groups. Sociologists claim that differences between races are minor and this type of stratification is social.

The stratification based on ethnicity results in treatment of groups of people with prejudices and discrimination, giving them different life chances. Unequal life chances can include income, housing, health and employment. Age stratification could lead to different social status. In some societies older people have higher social status, while in other societies they are considered to be of less value compared to youngsters. Disability stratification is based on physical disadvantages. People with physical disabilities can suffer discrimination in a number of areas.

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