Basic Sociology Concepts: Social Stratification and Inequality

What are the basic sociology concepts in social stratification and inequality?

To understand basic sociological theories in social stratification and inequality, we must first understand basic concepts in this field.

This post presents definitions of basic sociology concepts and concepts related to inequality and social stratification. It is based on classic theorists.

You may be interested to read about how to evaluate and choose concepts. We applied this evaluation to a classic text. We also discussed the limits of using very old sociology textbooks for understanding modern phenomena. You may find these of interest after you read this post.

The study of social stratification includes many interrelated concepts. 

To understand inequality, sociologists ask basic questions:

  1. Why are people different?
  2. How are they different?
  3. How do their differences affect how they act or behave?

In sociology, we assume that social origins and current social conditions affect behavior.  Social stratification identifies the difference between people, groups, and societies and addresses the causes and consequences of these differences.

Let’s define some of these basic interrelated concepts.


The scientific study of human social life in all its aspects (Sanderson 1999).


A system of interrelationships at the boundaries of which is a substantive level of interaction cleavage between it and its neighbors (Giddens et al 2003; Mann 1986).

Social structure

A general terms for any collective social circumstance that is unalterable and given for the individual.  They are enduring patterns of behavior that set limits on action and cannot be changed by any individual will (Abercrombie et al 1994: 391; Rytina 1997).

In a sociological sense, our behavior is CONSTRAINED and generations of social relationships have built into us expectations for behavior and limit the range of choices we consider.

Social structures change, but no one individual can redefine our collective social situation nor can one individual change a social structure.  If they could, it wouldn’t be a social structure.

Now that we understand these basic sociological concepts, we can turn to basic concepts in inequality research.

Most importantly, we need to understand that differentiation, inequality, and stratification are not the same terms.

Social differentiation

A social condition in which people possess distinct individual qualities and social roles (Kerbo 2003).  This is a nominal, or non-rank ordered social situation.

Social inequality

A social condition in which people have unequal access to scarce and valued resources in society (Kerbo 2003).  This is a rank ordering of society.

Social stratification

The existence of structured inequalities between social groups on the basis of power, privilege, and prestige (Giddens et al 2003; Lenski 1966).  This is a rank ordering of society.  

Let’s apply basic sociological concepts to inequality and stratification.

First, let’s note the term “structured.”  In order for social stratification to exist, the inequalities must also be social structures. It is also referred to as “institutionalized inequalities.”

This means that social categories and social groups are unequal, and that inequality has existed before individual members were born and will likely persist well after they die.  No one individual can alleviate the inequalities. Alleviation of inequality must take place at the societal level through political action or some other societal level means.

For example, in American society, racial minorities tend to have lower levels of income and occupational achievement in comparison to racial majorities with similar social backgrounds.  This has occurred for generations and has root causes and unique consequences.  This inequality constitutes a social structure.

Are Inequality and Stratification Synonyms?

For everyday purposes, yes, inequality and stratification can be considered as synonyms. However, the key message is that the kind of inequalities that sociologists study are structural inequalities — inequalities that are social structures — such as that produced by structural racism. Sociologists are the ones who typically use the term stratification. Most people just use the term inequality.

Further Reading

Michèle Lamont on The Sociology of Inequality

The best books on Inequality recommended by Daron Acemoglu

A note: The painting is by DALL-E, an AI text-to-picture generator. The text I inputted was “Painting of Inequality.”

Copyright Joshua Dubrow The Sociology Place 2022

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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