Chapter 9. Social Inequality

Chapter 9 Resources and Activities

Key Terms

absolute poverty: A severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information.achieved status: A status  received through individual effort or merits (e.g., occupation, educational level, moral character, etc.).

ascribed status: A status received by virtue of being born into a category or group (e.g., hereditary position, gender, race, etc.).

avoidance rituals: Ritualized practices by which people keep both a physical and social distance from status superiors.

blue-collar: Relating to manual work or workers.

bourgeoisie: In capitalism, the owning class who live from the proceeds of owning or controlling capital.

caste system: A system in which people are born into a social standing that they will retain their entire lives.

class: A group who shares a common social status based on their economic position or relationship to the means of production.

class system: A stratification system based on class structure and individual achievement.

conspicuous consumption: Buying and using products to make a statement about social standing.

cultural capital: Cultural assets in the form of knowledge, education, and taste that can be transferred intergenerationally.

Davis-Moore thesis: An argument that social inequality provides positive functional incentives in the occupational system.

downward mobility: A lowering of one’s social class.

endogamous marriages: Unions of people within the same social category.

equality of conditions: A situation in which everyone in a society has a similar level of wealth, status, and power.

equality of opportunity: A situation in which everyone in a society has an equal chance to pursue economic or social rewards.

exchange theory: A sociological paradigm that models human interaction on the basis of calculated social exchanges of resources governed by a norm of reciprocity

exogamous marriages: Unions of people from different social categories.

Gini Index: A measure of income inequality in which zero is absolute equality and one is absolute inequality.

Great Gatsby curve:   the correlation between greater social inequality in a society and lower intergenerational mobility

hegemony:  the ability of a dominant group in society to secure consent to its rule by successfully presenting its own interests, values and norms as the common sense interests, values and norms of everybody.

income: The money a person earns from work or investments.

intergenerational mobility: A difference in income level between different generations of a family.

intragenerational mobility: A difference in income level between different members of the same generation.

intersectionality:  The compounding effects of multiple determinants of social inequality

living wage: The income needed to meet a family’s basic needs and enable them to participate in community life.

lumpenproletariat: In capitalism, the underclass of chronically unemployed or irregularly employed who are in and out of the workforce.

means of production: Productive property, including the things like tools, technologies, resources, land, workplaces, etc. used to produce the goods and services needed for survival

meritocracy: An ideal system in which individual achievements determine social standing.

neo-liberalism: A set of policies in which the state reduces its role in providing public services, regulating industry, redistributing wealth, and protecting the commons while advocating the use of  free market  mechanisms to regulate society.

petite bourgeoisie: In capitalism, the class of small owners like shopkeepers, farmers, and contractors who own some property and perhaps employ a few workers but rely on their own labour to survive.

power: How many people a person must take orders from versus how many people a person can give orders to or influence with their decisions.

presentation rituals: Ritualized practices by which individuals attest to the esteem they hold for others.

primogeniture: A law stating that all property passes to the firstborn son.

proletariat: The class of people defined by selling their labour for a wage or salary.

proletarianization: The process in which work conditions increasingly resemble those of the traditional, blue-collar working class.

relative poverty: Living without the minimum amount of income or resources needed to be able to participate in the ordinary living patterns, customs, and activities of a society.

social differentiation: The division of people into categories based on socially significant characteristics, identities, and roles.

social inequality: The unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in a society.

social mobility: The ability to change positions within a social stratification system.

social stratification: An institutionalized system of social inequality.

socio-economic status (SES): A group’s social position in a hierarchy based on income, education, and prestige of occupation.

standard of living: A level of material goods and comforts required to maintain a particular socio-economic lifestyle.

status: The degree of honour or prestige one has in the eyes of others.

status consistency: The consistency, or lack thereof, of an individual’s rank across different social categories like income, education, and occupation.

structural mobility: When societal changes increase or decrease the relative income of an entire group or category of people vis-a-vis other groups.

upward mobility: An increase in one’s social class.

wealth: The value of a person’s assets.

white-collar: Relating to “mental,” administrative or services work, particularly in an office or other professional environment

Section Summary

9.1 What Is Social Inequality?

Social inequality is defined by the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and social positions in a society. Key to the concept are the notions of social differentiation–the social characteristics used to differentiate people–and social stratification–the institutionalized systems that maintain and perpetuate social inequality. Stratification systems are either closed, meaning they allow little change in social position, or open, meaning they allow movement and interaction between the layers. A caste system is a closed system in which social standing is based on ascribed status or birth. Class systems are open, to a degree, with individual achievement playing a role in social position. A debate exists between Marxist and Weberian sociologists about whether class is best understood as a structure based on a group’s relationship to the ownership of the means of production or as a multi-dimensional variable based on factors like wealth, income, education, status, and occupation.

9.2 Social Inequality
Standards of living range from extreme wealth to absolute poverty–an inability to meet basic needs for survival–and relative poverty–an ability to participate in the ordinary activities of a society. Sociological research into inequality shows that the gap in income and wealth between the rich and the poor has been increasing in Canada over the last 40 years. In a comparative perspective, the Gini Index measure of inequality shows that Canada’s level of inequality is much higher than many European countries but is lower than the United States  and Mexico.

9.3 Social Classes in Canada

There are three main classes in Canada: the owning class, middle class/traditional working class and the working poor/underclass. Social mobility describes the ability of people to shift from one social class to another, but even in open class societies research shows that people tend to remain in the classes they were born into. Class background significantly affects one’s chances to get ahead.

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Inequality
The increasing social inequality of the last four decades can be examined from different sociological perspectives — functionalism, critical sociology, and interpretive sociology. The functionalist perspective states that inequality serves an important function in aligning individual merit and motivation with social position. Critical sociologists observe that class power accounts for the increasing wealth of the owning class over the last 40 years. Interpretive sociologists examine how social inequality is communicated at both micro-level and macro-levels in society. They observe how social standing affects people’s everyday interactions, particularly the tendency to use rituals of deference and interact with people of like status, and how social class is constructed and maintained through cultural capital and conspicuous consumption.


Quiz: Social inequality and class

9.1 What Is Social Inequality?

  1. Caste systems are closed due to what factor?
    1. Exogenous marriage practices.
    2. People cannot change their social standings.
    3. Feudal deference rituals and values.
    4. All of the above.
  2. What factor makes class systems open?
    1. There are no formal restrictions on movement between classes.
    2. People are more open-minded.
    3. People naturally socialize within their class.
    4. All of the above.
  3. Social inequality is based on                 .
    1. Social differentiation
    2. Social stratification
    3. Unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards and social positions
    4. All of the above
  4. Which of the following best illustrates equality of condition?
    1. Everyone in a society has an equal possibility of becoming successful.
    2. Everyone in a society has an equal level of wealth, status, and power.
    3. Everyone in society as an equal level of skill, talent, and ability.
    4. Everyone in society has equal access to meritocracy.
  5. Which statement illustrates low status consistency?
    1. A suburban family lives in a modest ranch home and enjoys a nice vacation each summer.
    2. A single mother receives welfare and struggles to find adequate employment.
    3. A college dropout launches an online company that earns millions in its first year.
    4. A celebrity actor spoils his public image by slapping another actor on stage.
  6. Based on meritocracy, a physician’s assistant would                 .
    1. Receive the same pay as all the other physician’s assistants.
    2. Be encouraged to earn a higher degree to seek a better position.
    3. Most likely marry a professional at the same level.
    4. Earn a pay raise for doing excellent work.
  7. Marx defines social class as                 .
    1. A group of people with the same relationship to the means of production.
    2. A group of people with the same relationship to the market value of their property or labour skills.
    3. A group of people with the same life chances.
    4. Proletarians, Lumpen proletarians, Bourgeoisie, and Petit-Bourgeoisie.

9.2 Social Inequality

  1. In Canada, most people define themselves as                 .
    1. Lower class.
    2. Upper class.
    3. Middle class.
    4. Classless and free.
  2. Structural mobility occurs when                 .
    1. A large group moves up or down the class ladder.
    2. An individual moves up or down the class ladder.
    3. The degree of intergenerational “stickiness” changes.
    4. A member of a family belongs to a different class than their siblings.
  3. The difference between relative and absolute poverty is                 .
    1. A living wage vs. minimum wage.
    2. The ability to participate in society vs. the ability to survive.
    3. Half the median family income vs. the income level below which a family would devote at least 20 percentage points more of their income to food, clothing, and shelter.
    4. All of the above.
  4. Which of the following scenarios is an example of intergenerational mobility?
    1. A janitor belongs to the same social class as their grandmother.
    2. An executive belongs to a different class than their parents.
    3. An editor in 2021 earns less than an editor did in 1981.
    4. A lawyer belongs to a different class than their sister.
  5. The difference between blue-collar and white-collar means that jobs are                 .
    1. not all equal in status.
    2. not all equally paid.
    3. not all equally defined by relation to the means of production.
    4. not all equally distributed between genders.
  6. Fragments of the Canadian capitalist class refer to                 .
    1. The Bourgeoisie and Petit-Bourgeoisie.
    2. 1st, 2nd and 3rd generation wealth holders.
    3. Break-up of corporate conglomerates due to the  “Dutch Disease” phenomenon.
    4. Carbon capital, industrial capital, pharmaceuticals and biotech, commercial retail chains, financial institutions.
  7. A figure of “0” in the Gini Index indicates                 .
    1. Social inequality.
    2. Equality of opportunity.
    3. Equality of condition.
    4. Disenchantment of the world.

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Inequality

  1. The basic premise of the Davis-Moore thesis is that the unequal distribution of rewards in social stratification                 .
    1. Serves a purpose in society.
    2. Is an outdated and dysfunctional mode of societal organization.
    3. Is a source of social strain.
    4. Is a product of class power.
  2. Unlike Davis and Moore, Melvin Tumin believed that because of social stratification some qualified people were                  higher-level job positions.
    1. Encouraged to train for
    2. Denied the opportunity to obtain
    3. Fired from
    4. Naturally suited to
  3. Which statement represents stratification from the perspective of interpretive sociology?
    1. Flashy clothes demonstrate street cred[ibility].
    2. After work, Pat, a janitor, feels more comfortable eating in a truck stop than a French restaurant.
    3. Doctors earn more money because their job requires rarer skills.
    4. Teachers have relatively high status and relatively low wages.
  4. Critical theorists explain the increasing share of the pie controlled by capitalists as a product of                 .
    1. The rarity of specific skills or capacities required by corporate executives.
    2. Inheritance of wealth.
    3. Global corporate networks.
    4. Neo-liberal taxation policies.

[Quiz answers at end of chapter]

Short Answer

9.1 What Is Social Inequality?

  1. Track the social stratification of your family tree. Did the social standing of your parents differ from the social standing of your grandparents and great-grandparents? What social traits were handed down by your forebears? Are there any exogamous marriages in your history? Does your family exhibit status consistencies or inconsistencies?
  2. Outline the differences between Marx’s and Weber’s definition of class. What do you see as the strengths and limitations of each definition?

9.2 Social Inequality

  1. Which social class do you and your family belong to? Are you in a different social class than your grandparents and great-grandparents? Does your class differ from your social status and, if so, how? What aspects of your societal situation establish you in a social class?
  2. Is the middle class the same or different from the working class? Consider Marxist and Weberian arguments. Why does it matter whether the middle class is same or different from the working class?
  3. Do a search of recent newspaper articles on poverty in Canada. How is poverty represented in the media?  Are the representations informed by concepts of absolute poverty, relative poverty, or both? How might the sociological analyses of class structure, status distinction, and habitus contribute to the discussion of poverty?

9.4 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Inequality

  1. Analyze the Davis-Moore thesis. Do you agree with Davis and Moore that inequality is necessary for society to function? What examples can you think of that support the thesis? What examples can you think of that refute the thesis?
  2. Do you see any evidence of the growing gap between the rich and poor in Canada? What evidence do you see of the relative decline in wealth and income of the middle class? Does growing inequality affect you personally? What do you think the broader implications are?
  3. What class traits define your peer group? For example, what speech patterns or clothing trends do you and your friends share? What cultural elements, such as taste in music or hobbies, define your peer group? How do you see this set of class traits as different from other classes either above or below yours?

Further Research

9.1 What Is Social Inequality?
The New York Times investigated social stratification in their series of articles called “Class Matters.” The online accompaniment to the series includes an interactive graphic called “How Class Works,” which tallies four factors — occupation, education, income, and wealth — and places an individual within a certain class and percentile. What class describes you? Test your class rank on the New York Times interactive site.

9.2 Social Inequality
Mark Ackbar made a documentary about social class and the rise of the corporation called The Corporation. The filmmakers interviewed corporate insiders and critics. The accompanying website is full of information, resource guides, and study guides to the film.:


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Solutions to Section Quiz

1 B, | 2 A, | 3 D, | 4 B, | 5 C, | 6 D, | 7 A, | 8 C, | 9 A, | 10 B, | 11 B, | 12 A, | 13 D, | 14 C, | 15 A, | 16 B, | 17 B, | 18 D, [Return to Quiz]


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