Part 1

Social Stratification

Victoria’s odyssey began when she was 17, fresh out of school in Chisinau, the decayed capital of the former Soviet republic of Moldova. ‘There was no work, no money,’ she explained simply. So when a friend—‘at least I thought he was a friend’—suggested he could help her get a job in a factory in Turkey, she jumped at the idea and took up his offer to drive her there, through Romania. ‘But when I realized we had driven west, to the border with Serbia, I knew something was wrong.’

It was too late. At the border she was handed over to a group of Serb men, who produced a new passport saying she was 18. They led her on foot into Serbia and raped her, telling her that she would be killed if she resisted. Then they sent her under guard to Bosnia, the Balkan republic being rebuilt under a torrent of international aid after its years of genocidal civil war.
Victoria was now a piece of property and, as such, was bought and sold by different brothel owners ten times over the next two years for an average price of $1,500. Finally, four months pregnant and fearful of a forced abortion, she escaped. I found her hiding in the Bosnian city of Mostar, sheltered by a group of Bosnian women.

In a soft monotone she recited the names of clubs and bars in various towns where she had to dance seminaked, look cheerful, and have sex with any customer who wanted her for the price of a few packs of cigarettes. ‘The clubs were all awful, although the Artemdia, in Banja Luka, was the worst—all the customers were cops,’ she recalled.

(Source:  “21st Century Slaves” by Andrew Cockburn.  COPYRIGHT 2003 National Geographic Society.)

There are an estimated 27 million people in slavery today. The example above is a form of human trafficking, which is a serious problem in some parts of the world. In these regions, law enforcement is almost nonexistent and border control is ineffective. It is also prevalent in countries where there are conditions of extreme poverty and few job opportunities for women. One of the most common types of slavery today is debt bondage. Similar to trafficking, individuals owe a debt, sometimes to the person who transported them across the border, and they must pay off the debt through hard labor.  Usually, the debt owed is almost always too high to be paid off.  Once it is paid off, they are usually sold to a new owner and must work off the purchase price. Victoria’s “debt” was established when she was taken across the border to Serbia.

Social stratification is defined as the unequal distribution of resources in society. Every society has some form of stratification. Even the Hunter-Gatherer society, considered the most egalitarian, had a minimal amount of stratification. Technological development often contributes to changes in social stratification. Tools such as the plow made it possible to grow large plots of vegetation, and a surplus of food became available to the population. As a result, societies settled in one place and certain families prospered more than others. The agricultural society has had the highest degree of stratification when compared to the Horticultural, Pastoral, Industrial, and Postindustrial societies.

A global view of social stratification reveals that there are different stratification systems throughout history. The Hunter-Gather society is an Egalitarian system, the least stratified society in the world. Men usually enjoyed more privilege in Hunter-Gatherer society, but this is most likely due to the dangerous nature of their work. Men typically were shamans, hunters, and priests. All of these statuses enjoyed a level of prestige that was higher than the roles associated with women.

Another system found in society is the Master-Slave system.  Most of the work in these societies was done by slaves. Ancient systems of slavery are found in Egypt, Rome and Athens. People were usually enslaved because of their religion, ancestry, poverty, or because they were conquered in war. Many people were also enslaved because they had committed a crime. The master-slave system in the Americas was based primarily on race. Many point out that this was the most brutal form of slavery ever. In most other societies, slaves usually enjoyed some rights such as marriage, the right to raise a family, speak their language, or pay off their debt. However, in America, slaves were treated purely as property. It was also believed that slaves were biologically inferior, which served as justification for the mistreatment and enslavement of a large segment of the U.S. population. Although slavery exists throughout the world today, it is not as likely that a nation’s entire economic system rests solely on this form of labor.

One of the most rigid forms of stratification is known as the Caste System. This type of stratification is based on anascribed status, something you are born with. Southern states in the United States had a caste system based on race. Jim Crow laws required separate but “equal” facilities for African Americans. These facilities, however, were substandard, and many people were subjected to a life of extreme poverty and segregation. There were also anti-miscegenation laws that forbid African Americans from marrying whites. These types of laws, formal and informal, maintain a closed system of stratification. Individuals are born into their place in society and will remain there for the rest of their lives. In the caste system in India, pre-arranged marriages typically assured that individuals would marry someone within their rank. There was also the ritual of the dowry where the bride’s family would pay the groom in land and property once the marriage took place. This practice maintained the caste system because only members of the wealthy caste could afford to pay an acceptable amount to men of the upper castes. As we will discuss in a later unit, this practice also contributed to extreme gender inequality, female infanticide and female selective abortions. Even today, this cultural practice continues to be a problem throughout India and China.

The Class System is a stratification system based on achieved status. Although there are structures in place that keep people from moving out of their social class, this system of stratification is less rigid and allows people to achieve a higher status within their lifetimes. Class systems of stratification are typically found in modern, industrial societies. The United States, for instance, is a class system. In modern societies, education is available to larger segments of the population, and this is an important means of achieving a higher status.

As societies modernize, social stratification decreases. This is due largely to the changes in social institutions such as education and government. At one time, for instance, education was only available to the wealthy. However, after industrialization, public schools afforded all members of society the opportunity to get a high school diploma. Jobs in factories also began to offer competitive wages, and many families were able to afford a better standard of living.


During the 1970s, America entered the Post-Industrial Era. Loss of manufacturing jobs in the central cities displaced a large number of workers. While these jobs have been replaced with jobs in the service sector, wages have not been as competitive. Today, there is a growing disparity between the income levels in the United States. Some suggest we are in a period of transition. Others contend that social institutions will eventually adapt to the changing nature of globalization and the Post-Industrial economy.