Ten Questions: A Sodological Perspective
T ~ rquot;1~ C~
I Shibutani, Tamotsu 1955 ~Reference Groups as Perspectives.quot;
American Journal ofSociology, 60: 562-569.
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Why Are People
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Unequal in Society?
'II· Berkeley: University of California Press.
Shils, Edward S., and Morris Janowitz 1948 quot;Cohesion and
The Origin and Perpetuation of Social Inequality
Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II.quot; Public Opinion
Slmmel, Georg 1950 The Sociology ofGeorg Simmel. Ed. Kurt W. Wolff.
New York: Free Press.
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7th ed. New York: HarperCollins.
Spindler, George, Louise Spindler, Henry T. Trueba, and Melvin
D. Williams 1990 The American Cultural Dialogue and Its Transmission. Introduction
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In the view of Voltaire, the French eighteenth-century philosopher,
Strauss, Anselm L. 1978 Negotiations: Contexts, Processes and Social
~It is because the very nature of society creates inequality that the
Order. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
purpose of government must be to work for equality.quot; Voltaire
Sumner, William Graham 1906 Folkways. 1940 ed. Boston: Ginn and
yearned for the equality of all humans, but he recognized that his
goal was difficult precisely because we all live in societies, and soci
Sykes, Gresham M., and Sheldon L. Messinger 1960 ~The Inmate
eties necessarily create inequality. Sociologists are generally in
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Pamphlet 15. New York: Social Science Research Council. agreement with Voltaire, and they are driven to understand more
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Harper and Row. Sociologists have been interested in inequality since the very
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deed, the workS of almost every great sociologist contain an ap
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proach to the subject.
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seek a just world almost always identify it as a source of injustice. In
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fact, this problem probably brings more thinking and caring people
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to study sociology than any other problem.
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Every time we interact with one another, inequality emerges in
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some form or another. Individual qualities, for example, not only
will differentiate us from one another, but also often become the
Whyte, William F. 1949 ~The Social Structure of the Restaurant.quot;
basis for inequality between us. We will be unequally handsome,
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intelligent, outgoing, talented in athletics, and even cool. Where
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Oxford University Press. such qualities matter, inequality will exist. When we compare our
selves on more social qualities, we will see many others as richer,
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Cultural Analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press.
70 Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society?
The United States is a society dedicated to a democratic ideal
power in certain matters, as do the American Medical Association
that includes equal opportunity for all. Yet if we are honest, we find
and the National Association of Manufacturers. Political parties are
it difficult to ignore the great inequalities that persist and cause us to
rich or poor. Some churches survive on a few funds, whereas other
fall short of our ideal. In 1993, for example, the wealthiest one-fifth of
churches are very wealthy.
the population received 44% of the income, whereas the poorest three
Why does inequality exist? Whereas most of us are tempted to
fifths received 30% of all income (estimate based on U.S. Bureau of answer this in terms of human nature, biological superiority or infe
the Census, 1995).
riority, supernatural forces, or a just free-market system, sociologists
Total wealth is much more difficult to measure, but there is gen will, of course, look at the nature of our social life. To understand
eral agreement that it is even more unequal. In 1995, the wealthiest
inequality among people in society, it is necessary to understand so
10% owned 68% of the total wealth in the United States (Beeghley,
cial organization itself, to see social inequality as a central quality in
1996); in fact the richest 1% of the population owned 42 % of the
society, to see social forces at work that make it almost inevitable in
total wealth in 1986 (U.S. Congress, Joint Economic Committee,
human life. The sociologist will generally examine two aspects of
1986). According to one estimate based on 1990 Federal Reserve
data, the net worth of the top 1% of the U.S. population was greater
First, the reasons why inequality arises in the first place.
than the net worth of the bottom 90% (Kennickell and Woodbum,
1992). And John J. Macionis (1997:263) estimates that quot;the one Second, how inequality is perpetuated over time-why,
dozen richest U.S. families have a combined net worth approaching once established, it tends to continue in society, and thus
$150 billion, which equals the total wealth of 1 million average fam why it is so difficult to limit its development or alter its
ilies.... quot; We should add here that the bottom 40% of the popula importance.
tion has no net worth at all because it owes more than it makes
It should be evident that the sociological approach to inequality
(ibid.). There also seems to be a trend making wealth differences
involves the creation of social structure in society. Social structure is
even greater, although that trend has probably become less severe
a social pattern that involves unequal ranks; thus, wherever it de
in the 1990s; for example, in the 20 years between 1963 and 1983,
velops, a permanent system of inequality is established, and individ
the average wealth of the wealthiest 10% rose 147%, compared
uals become ranked throughout society and throughout every social
with 45% for the rest of the population (U.S. Congress, Joint Eco
organization. It is, therefore, not the nature of human beings that
nomic Committee, 1986).
create inequality, nor is it natural superiority or inferiority, or su
Much of what sociology has done is to understand and docu
pernatural forces, so much as it is social interaction and the creation
ment the various types of inequality. It is not an easy task. Weber
of social patterns. In a sense, sociologists take a view that maintains
writes that we are unequal in three orders, or arenas in society: the
that so long as people have to live in society-and that seems to be
economic order, the social order, and the political order. We might
our essence-inequality will be a central part of life. Even Karl
translate this into class (economic order); race, occupation, educa
Marx, who dreamed and predicted a world of equality someday, saw
tion, gender, and ethnic group membership (social order); and polit
its possibility only with the disappearance of society and its perma
ical position (political order). Furthermore, sociologists point out,
nent social patterns.
within every organization from university to place of employment
we also enter positions that are unequal. Even when we interact in
Why Does Inequality Emerge in the First Place?
small groups or even with one other person, we develop a system in
which our informal positions are almost always unequal. In groups,
As people come in contact with one another they generally inter
there are leaders, followers, and even scapegoats. Similarly, we find
act-they take one another into account as they act. For some rea
differences between organizations of people: Management in a cor
son, this social interaction develops social patterns. Once created,
poration is more or less powerful than a labor union. Harvard and
these patterns hang on. One of these patterns is social structure. So
Stanford have more prestige-sometimes even more power-than
cial structure is almost always a system of inequality, so that is what
most other universities. The National Rifle Association has great
we need to focus our attention on.
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society? 73
Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective
Marx focuses almost entirely on the economic division of labor.
Marx is a good place to begin. Marx emphasized the central im
but division of labor can be broadened to include other types of ac
portance of social structure. But why does it arise as people come
tivities. Division of labor and therefore inequality can be found in
together? Why does inequality have to emerge? Marx describes
families, in friendship groups, in schools. in politics, in churches
three basic reasons:
indeed, wherever there is a social organization. We might notice di
vision of labor will exist in such places because a division will arise
1. The division of labor
between those who lead and those who follow. As an organization
2. Social conflict
becomes large or complex (differentiated in functions), someone
3. The existence of private property.
arises to make sure that events go smoothly, to take care of day-to
day decision making, and to guarantee that the organization works
To Marx, so long as a society develops these three qualities, inequal
to achieve its goals. Indeed, such individuals are often necessary to
ity will exist in society. Marx's explanation is not all that needs to be
represent the interests of the organization in relation to other orga
understood, but it is a good place to begin.
nizations. Coordination of activities and successful achievement of
goals normally means having a leader or set of leaders. Once leader
Division ofLabor and the Rise of Unequal Power ship positions are created, a division of labor has been established.
But why will this necessarily bring inequality? Robert Michels
It is important to note that almost every sociologist who tries to ex
(1876-1936) explains this; in the process. he adds to Marx's expla
plain inequality brings in quot;the division of labor.quot; To Marx this is cen
nation and to the importance of division of labor. Michels looks at
tral. As a division of labor arises in society-that is, as people
this as an inevitable process: Once the leader is chosen in any orga
increasingly do different things-some of these activities give some
nization (and it does not seem to matter how), certain forces are set
people advantages over others. Some activities are more valued,
in motion to give the leader advantages over everyone else. In fact,
some allow for control over others, some give people advantages in
leadership usually centers on a small number of individuals, who
the way they live their lives, some lead to increasing accumulation
Michels calls the elite. Positions of leadership give the elite great ad
of advantages over time. If one person farms and others do not, then
vantages: more information about the organization. the right to
the others become increasingly dependent on that one. And if one
make decisions on a day-to-day basis, and control over what others
person farms successfully (through skill, luck, exploitation, or cheat
in the organization know. Over time these members of the elite sep
ing), then that farmer is able to accumulate economic resources
arate themselves from the rest in the organization, and they pur
for example, land, laborers, and capital-that give him or her
posely create ways to hold onto their positions. Those who are not
advantages over those with fewer of these resources. More impor
leaders eventually become less and less capable of criticizing the
tant, if the farmer is able to employ workers (a division of labor), a
leadership-and less and less willing. Whoever enters these posi
system of inequality begins in earnest. To Marx, the employer con
tions in the future will enter positions that are inherently more pow
trols employees, the boss exploits his or her workers, gains at their
erful. Michels's pessimism concerning the possibility of equality in
expense, and becomes increasingly wealthy and powerful in rela
organization has been called quot;the Iron Law of Oligarchy.quot; which
tion to them. The employer over time is able to consolidate a fa
means that wherever organization exists, so will a few people who
vored position, and advantages accumulate. Once this process begins
have power in relation to everyone else. To say quot;organizationquot; is to
in society, it cannot be easily stopped. Division of labor itself en
say the rule by a few, whether we call it a democracy or a dictator
courages social inequality, and division of labor that involves em
ship. In the end, this division of labor itself means inequality in power.
ployers and employees is especially important.
Michels tries to identify some of the conditions that seem to in
If everyone essentially performs the same tasks-there is no im
crease the division of labor. As numbers rise in organization, for ex
portant distinctions in what people do in society-significant social
ample, informal interaction usually gives way to formal attempts by
inequality will not arise. If no one is employer and no one the em
leaders to coordinate activities. In addition, conflict with other orga
ployee, then equality will characterize that society.
74 Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society?
nizations encourages centralization of power and division of labor as
thority exists in every modern society as well as in almost every or
ways of surviving and maintaining internal order.
ganization within modern society. A bureaucratic authority struc
This process is complicated, however. Although increasing the
ture will exist whenever we enter an organization, and we will all
division of labor normally creates greater inequality, at a certain
fill positions within that structure and have more or less power than
point other factors enter in and work for greater equality. In the so
others in that structure. In this sense, social inequality is created on
ciety's economic development, for example, Gerhard Lenski shows
purpose by people who want to organize other people to get work
us that as society moves from an agrarian to an industrialized state
and therefore to a greater division of labor-there is actually greater
Weber saw bureaucracy as a system of organization that would
equality. This happens because industrialization demands a more
come to dominate the twentieth century, and, if we look around,
knowledgeable population, a more technically skilled work force.
we can see how right he was. Almost every large organization we
The elite needs more help in leading society, and part of the cost is
enter is another example of bureaucracy. Weber's brilliant analysis
sharing wealth and power. Lenski never claims that inequality ends,
of bureaucracy reminds us of some central points: (1) Bureaucracy
only that in industrialization inequality is tempered by a recognition
is a system of organization set up on purpose to get things done as
by those at the top that to protect their position and for society to
efficiently as possible. (2) Bureaucracy is a system of inequality cre
progress economically, there must be some sharing of wealth and
ated so that responsibilities and lines of authority are clearly distrib
power. In fact, it well may be that dependence on other classes
uted. Obedience to authority is a central value. (3) Bureaucracy is a
within one's own society is less and less important to economic elites in
form of organization whose inequality is regarded by actors as nec
the modern world, and that we have come to a point where sharing
essary and legitimate. It is a system of control carefully created to
of wealth and power in society is no longer necessary for economic
ensure that the commands of the few are carried out by the many.
progress. Increasing division of labor may simply bring greater and
(4) Once formed, bureaucracy is almost impossible to dismantle be
cause the division of labor becomes a necessary tool to achieve the
Sometimes a division of labor is created on purpose, and a sys
goals of the organization, and because those at the top have the
tem of inequality exists from the very beginning of organization.
means to control other people in ways unimagined in other types of
When one society conquers another and a new social structure is set
up, almost always a structure purposely places the losing group into
Almost every classical sociologist underlines the importance of
positions different and lower from those who have won. Slavery
the division of labor for the creation of inequality. An organization
and colonialism in the nineteenth century are two examples of this.
in which there are no leaders or a society in which everyone does
In fact, when people come together in order to create their own
the same tasks seems like an impossible dream (or nightmare). The
organization-a business, a club, a league of sports teams, for ex
trick is to create a division of labor that has equal positions, and this
ample-a division of labor is created on purpose, and along with it
seems to be impossible.
an explicit and clear system of inequality. A new business will set
up a board of directors with a president, a vice-president, and so on.
Social Conflict and the Rise of Unequal Power
A new restaurant will open with a manager, an assistant manager, a
head waiter, and a chief bottle washer. Weber describes this system Thus far we have focused on the division of labor as an explanation
of inequality as ~legal-rationalw or quot;bureaucratic authority,quot; the for inequality. Marx introduces us to a second source: social conflict.
intentional ranking of positions in terms of social power in organi Conflict means the struggle by actors over something of value.
zation. What is the purpose of doing this? Weber's answer is effi Where there is struggle, some actors win and some lose, or, in most
ciency: In the modern world, because efficiency is so important in cases, some simply get more of what they want than others. Conflict
organization, people will purposely create what they consider to be occurs when there is scarcity: Not everyone can obtain what he or
a rational system of inequality to ensure that a clear and efficient di she wants because there is simply not enough to go around. Conflict
vision of power and responsibility is established. To Weber, such au also occurs when some people monopolize what is valued in soci
Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective 77
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society?
ety, and, as a result, others are denied. In either case, scarcity or un thus making life easier and increasing their wealth. We might truth
equal distribution is the result as some increase their possessions fully maintain that the system of inequality protects the favored posi
and others cannot. tion of the powerful, increases their competitive edge, and allows them
Victory in conflict is explained best by understanding the role of to exploit those who are in less powerful positions.
power: Those who win have more power than their opposition and Imagine the world as a place of continuous social conflict: All
are therefore able to win in the interaction. This might be personal individuals, groups, organizations, and societies are struggling for
power (based on intelligence, strength, attractiveness, guns, or whatever is valued. As some win, others lose, and over time a fairly
wealth, for example). Often it is an organization, group, or society permanent system of inequality emerges. Some will be rich, some
that enters into conflict and wins through superior power (better ef: poor; some will be powerful, some powerless. An upper class
ficiency, greater loyalty among members, better technology, better emerges, and a poor class develops. Men rather than women come
leaders, or more weapons or wealth, for example). to control the economic and political order, and all kinds of laws,
When there is conflict and some people begin to win, they are ideas, customs, and institutions arise that continue that control.
able to achieve their goals better than the opposition. They are Whites dominate nonwhites, and Protestants dominate Catholics. In
normally able to build on their victory and increase their advan each case a stable system of inequality is created that favors the pow
tage over others, which in turn allows them to build up even erful. This happens in every organization and group. Individuals en
greater power. Eventually, those who win are able to create a sys gage in conflict in newly formed groups, from juries to clubs to study
tem of inequality, a social structure where they are at the top, and a groups to families. In each case, as people win, they are able to es
culture and set of institutions that work to protect them. This sys tablish ways of protecting their interests. In short, the victors in so
tem of inequality helps to ensure that they (as well as their group dal conflict are normally able to ensure their favored position.
and their descendants) will continue in this advantaged position. The clearest examples are instances of extreme domination.
Victory becomes institutionalized; that is, it becomes established in Until recently, South Africa had been characterized by laws, cus
the way society operates. Those who win create a system that helps toms, and ideas that openly declared the separation of the races and
to guarantee their continued success. Thus, the Europeans come excluded blacks from equal participation in society and from equal
to America, conquer the Native American population, and estab protection by the law. Such was also the case with American slav
lish a treaty and reservation system that guarantees continued ery. To different degrees, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim societies
ownership of the land and subservience by the Native American have always had a strict code governing the actions of men and
people. Two businesses compete for a market. One eventually women, a code in which women have been systematically excluded
moves ahead in that competition, and over time the one that is from full participation in the political, educational, religious, and
ahead attempts to protect that favored position through instituting economic orders. When the Nazis came to power in Germany, they
a distribution system, a pricing system, and an advertising program made it illegal for Jewish people to hold decent jobs, passed laws
that will continue its domination of the market. Normally, the stripping Jews of citizenship, and took over Jewish property. They
result is a fairly permanent system of inequality between those eventually established an organized system of resettling the German
businesses. Jews in concentration camps, where the vast majority were system
Building a permanent system of inequality is advantageous to atically murdered.
the dominant group in several ways. First it protects the advantages Donald Noel (1968) highlights the role of conflict in his theory
the group already has. Thus, a system of law and government, if it is of the origin of ethnic stratification. Three conditions are necessary.
heavily influenced by the rich and powerful, will help protect their First, groups that have separate cultures and identities come to
property and their privileges against others in society. Second, it gether. Second, there is competition for a scarce resource, or there is
places the dominant group in a favorable competitive position for an opportunity for the exploitation of one group by the other (both
jobs, education, and housing. Third, it allows members of the elite are examples of conflict). Third, one group has more power than
to use those in lower positions as laborers, renters, and consumers, the other and is able to exert itself successfully in the conflict.
Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society?
As parties win in conflict, a system evolves that essentially per be less need for conflict over valued items. Sometimes it is not
petuates the resulting inequality: scarcity that is the problem, but simply the fact that some individu
Creation of a system als or groups are able to accumulate more than what they actually
-----. of inequality that
Social conflict -----. Triumph of need, creating a source of power over those who do not have
a group perpetuates the group's
enough. If it were possible to distribute the valued items equally,
then conflict would be lessened considerably. However, as Marx re
Two explanations of social inequality have been presented here:
minds us, equal distribution of material goods especially is impossible
the division of labor and social conflict. As an organization Qr soci
when private property exists. Then people are able to to own whatever
ety divides tasks among its people, some will become more powerful they can get, and accumulation of what they own becomes difficult
than others. As people engage in social conflict, some will win and to limit. They establish as part of their rights keeping whatever they
some will lose, and over time a system of unequal power will be cre
can get. People are no longer governed by satisfying one another's
ated. There is no suggestion that those who win are evil and selfish basic needs, but by increasing their privileges and their power in re
(sometimes they are and sometimes they are not), but most of us
lation to others. Jean-Jacques Rousseau describes this most clearly:
who succeed will be motivated to preserve the kind of world within
The first man who, haVing enclosed a piece of ground,
which we were successful and will do things to protect that world.
bethought himself of saying, quot;TIllS IS MINEquot; and found peo
So far we have linked social conflict to social power: Social
ple simple enough to believe him, was the real founder of civil
power allows some to win in social conflict; winning in social con
society. From how many crimes, wars and murders, from how
flict, in turn, generally brings greater social power. We' have also
many horrors and misfortunes might not anyone have saved
linked the division of labor to sOdal power: Once a division of labor
mankind, by pulling up the stakes, filling up the ditch, and
is created, some positions emerge with more power than the others;
crying to his fellows, quot;Beware that the fruits of the earth be
positions with more power are able to ensure the continuation of a
long to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.quot; (1755:207)
division of labor that favors them.
The easiest way to understand the meaning of social power is to If everyone owned everything, if no one had more of a right to ma
recognize that it enables actors or organizations to achieve their terial things than anyone else, then inequality would be insignifi
goals in relation to others. To have a lot of power means that one is cant. In most societies, however, private property exists and is
able to triumph over others. Because ofboth sodal conflict and a division cherished. Some people, in conflict over material things, win and
of labor, a system of power inequality arises in all groups, organizations, accumulate slaves or land or money. It becomes theirs. The more of
and societies. such things some people acquire relative to others, the greater is the
inequality between them. Weber calls such things privileges. Privi
leges include all the benefits the actor receives because of his or her
The Rise ofPrivate Property and Unequal Privilege
position in society or a social organization-for example, income,
The division of labor and social conflict not only create power in housing, office space, health care, and opportunities for education.
equality but also distribute privileges in an unequal manner. To un We become unequal, therefore, in both power (our ability to achieve
derstand this, let us consider social conflict once more. our will) and privileges (the benefits we receive), and both inequali
Social conflict means that actors struggle for something: Some ties arise from social conflict.
win, some lose. There is struggle over power, but there is also strug An inequality of privilege results not only from conflict but also
gle over other items that are valued by the actors: land, money, busi from the division of labor. Employers make more money than em
. ness, good housing, good education, safety. There is struggle because ployees; doctors make more than nurses; rock stars make more than
these items are scarce; people want more than what is available. teachers. Why should this be? ObViously, those who gain powerful
There is conflict, and the more some people get, the less others can positions in the division of labor are in the best position to increase
have. If all people could be satisfied with what they had, there would their privilege. Owners of factories have more power than others
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Sodety?
Ten Questions: A Sodological Perspective
create unequal power, and unequal power allows for increasing
and therefore more opportunity-to increase what they receive in
privileges. Employers tend to be high on both power and privilege;
society. Those who have less powerful positions can increase their
employees tend to be low on both. Leaders tend to be high on both;
privileges only through organizing and taking a bigger share from
followers low. The rich tend to be high on both; the poor tend to be
those above them.
low. Whites, corporate executives, and army generals tend to be
Another reason the division of labor leads to the unequal distri
high on both; nonwhites, janitors, and privates tend to be low.
bution of privilege has something to do with market conditions: Po
sitions are given different amounts of privilege in an organization
Prestige and Inequality
because of a combination of (I) importance to that organization (the
most important positions tend to get the most privileges), (2) the Another type of inequality emerges in this complex process, and this
amount of training and sacrifice one must go through to prepare for inequality influences both power and privilege. This is sodal prestige.
those positions (the more the training and sacrifice, the greater the
Marx did not emphasize prestige in his analysis, but other soci
privileges), and (3) the scarcity of people for those positions (the
ologists, such as Weber, did. Prestige has to do with how other peo
fewer the people seeking the position, the greater the privileges).
ple evaluate us. All of us wish to be respected by others. Some of us
Conversely, any position that is not very important, takes little train
work our whole lives to gain and keep this respect. Respect is per
ing, and has many people competing for it will be paid much less.
sonal. It centers on the individual qualities that a person possesses:
After all, positions that are essential must be filled; to fill them, peo
integrity, intelligence, talent (musical, athletic, artistic). quot;Man, do I
ple must be attracted; to attract them, privileges must be used. Mar
respect that guy!quot; Prestige is like respect in that it has to do with
ket conditions and sodal power combine to ensure that the division
how others view us; however, prestige is social. It is honor that oth
of labor creates a system of unequal privilege.
ers accord an individual because of the social position that he or she
However, our discussion becomes even more complicated. Not
has in sodety.
only does social power bring more privilege, but also the reverse is
As positions become differentiated in sodety or in any sodal or
true. Social privileges (for example, money, land, factories) also
ganization, people come to attribute different degrees of honor to
bring greater social power. Power depends on many things, but
those positions. Individuals are judged on the basis of where they are
wealth is certainly among the most important. Those in well-paid
in the social structure: Are they men or women? white or non
occupations have more power than those in low-paid occupations.
white? professional or blue-collar worker? secretary to the president
Those with wealth influence what happens in the economy, in gov
or secretary to the vice-president? People accord high prestige to the
ernment, and in the media. Therefore, it is important to see the
top executive and dishonor to the prostitute in society. Officers in
relationship between power and privilege: Power begets privilege,
the army have more prestige than enlisted personneL professors
privilege begets power. Both are the result of sodal conflict and di
have more prestige than instructors, and the rich more prestige than
vision of labor. It may be helpful to illustrate these complex links:
the poor. It is not always clear why some positions gain more pres
Division of labor tige than others, but in large part it is because of the power and privi
Sodal conflict Private property lege that go with those positions. Powerful and well-paid positions
I tend to be the most honored (the upper class, the chairman of the
board, the movie producer, members of Congress). Those without
Inequality of power ....-.. Inequality of privilege
power or privilege are normally low in prestige (the poor, the un
employed, the unskilled, minorities).
The division of labor differentiates people and creates a system
. Not only do power and privilege influence prestige, but also
of inequality in both power and privilege. Sodal conflict creates win
prestige influences power and privilege. Prestige is one basis for
ners and losers; the winners are then in a position to increase both
power: One can use prestige to achieve one's will. Someone, for ex
their power and privilege. Social conflict and the right to private
ample, who has high prestige in any authority structure or who is
property create unequal privileges. Unequal privileges, in turn,
82 Ten Questions: A Sodolo9ical Perspective 83
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Soaety?
rich, white, male, and so on has an important advantage both in in our own organization, social conflict, division of labor, and the right
teraction with others and in the general society in achieving his or to private property will ensure that a new system of inequality will
her own goals. Prestige can also influence privilege: Those honored arise (even if we do not intentionally create it).
in organizations are normally given (or simply demand) special
treatment. All three qualities are strongly linked: Prestige begets
power and privilege; power begets prestige and privilege; privilege Why Does Inequality Continue?
begets prestige and power. Together these benefits help create a
Once a system of inequality has been established, it is difficult to
ranking system in all organized life.
alter. Of course, it changes slightly over time, but it tends to perpetu
In a sense our picture is complete, and we can begin to see'why
ate itself. It seems that five mechanisms work to cause this stability:
inequality arises in the first place: A system ofinequality arises in society
because of a combination of division of labor, social conflict, and private 1. Efforts of the powerful
property. The resulting positions develop different levels of power, privilege, 2. Social institutions
and prestige. Power brings privilege and prestige; privilege brings power and
prestige; prestige brings power and privilege.
Division of labor
5. Instruments of force
Social conflict . Private property
I~ Let us examine each in turn.
Inequality of power ..-... Inequality of privilege
Efforts ofthe Powerful
~/ Marx and Michels (the quot;iron law of oligarchyquot;) explain how the
Inequality of prestige powerful protect the system of inequality. When one gains a high
position, one has the resources to protect oneself. Those who are
It is important to understand the basic argument being made not favored within the system have fewer resources to protect
here. Simply put, inequality arises from the development ofan unequal themselves and have little ability to change a system that keeps
social structure. It is not human nature, supernatural forces, survival them low. In short, inequality is perpetuated through social power,
of the fittest, or nature that creates social structure, but the fact that and those who have power are those who benefit from the system of
in all social interaction certain important qualities encourage a sys inequality.
tem of inequality we are calling social structure. Inequality arises Marx highlights this in his theory of society. When some people
because it is the nature of our social life to develop social patterns, own the means of production, he argues, they will have great
one of the patterns is social structure, and social structure is almost power. They will use this power to protect their positions and in
always unequal. It is unequal because a permanent system of in crease their wealth. Thus, once economic inequality is created, there
equality arises from a combination of the division of labor, social will be a strong tendency for the rich to get richer and effectively
conflict, and private property. It is unequal because of the interplay protect the whole social structure as well as their positions in that
of power, privilege, and prestige that become attached to the vari structure.
ous positions. We enter organizations-schools, businesses, profes Those who own the means of production are appropriately
sional associations-each of which has a structure (often called the quot;ruling classquot; by Marx. Control over large businesses gives
intentionally created) with positions in place. Although each actor them control over people's jobs, the communities people live in, the
has some leeway in these positions, each is also faced with the fact products that are made, the economic decisions that affect the soci
that positions have over time developed more or less power, privi ety, even the world. Control means that any decisions made will
lege, and prestige than other positions. And if we interact and form probably help the rich and powerful.
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society?
84 Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective
To some extent Marx and Michels agree: Those who have power
Marx goes much further, however. Control over the means of
(economic or political) develop interests different from everyone
production-economic power-is translated into other types of
else's (to maintain the inequality that exists), and they are in the
power. Economic power influences government: the rules govern
very best position to influence society to work in these interests. We'
ment goes by, the people who fill its positions, and the laws it makes.
must therefore begin to understand the perpetuation of inequality
The ruling class influences media, the schools, the courts, and al
by recognizing that it is in the interests of the most powerful to do
most every other sector of society.
what they can to maintain the system that favors them, and their
.Why does this happen? Simply put, it is in everyone's interests
power gives them the ability to do so.
to influence successfully the direction of society. I want to--:-;so do
you. But I will try to influence it differently from you. For example,
you will try to lower tuition, but I will try to raise faculty salaries. Prevailing Social Institutions
Feminists, African Americans, lawyers, unions, ministers-to name
The result of this control by the ruling class is the creation of institu
but a few-all have their own agendas, and all V'ould like to see
tions, the ongoing and legitimate ways of doing things in society. In·
their needs met. The rich and powerful have interests too, but the
stitutions, as we saw in Chapter 3, are the established procedures
difference between them and everyone else is that they have greater
that help to ensure the continuation of society, and to some extent
resources to use in ensuring that their needs are, in fact, met. Thus,
they benefit most people in society. However, institutions normally
although the society never works completely in their interests, the
benefit the wealthy and powerful the most, for institutions are cre
tendency is for it to work in ways that are consistent with what the
ated and supported by them, and institutions end up working to
protect the system of inequality that eXists.
Remember: The question we are considering is, how is inequal
Over time, for example, political institutions are created in soci
ity perpetuated over time? How is the system able to continue? We
ety to make laws, carry out those laws, and interpret those laws.
have one answer here: Inequality is perpetuated because those who
The United States has separate legislative, executive, and judicial
are wealthy and powerful are in the best position to ensure that their
branches of government to do this. Other societies, including Eng
interests-the protection of their wealth and power-are met
land (which is at least as democratic as the United States) do not
separate these powers. The political system in the United States is
Michels agrees with Marx in that he, too, argues that those who
characterized by a two-party system, an electoral college, federal
have power will protect the system of inequality. Michels empha
ism, separation of powers, and civilian control over the military.
sizes the political side of the coin rather than the economic. He is
These are our political institutions, our ways of dealing with politi
not interested in ownership of the means of production, but in peo
cal matters. We also have economic institutions such as multina
ple who lead society. He simply makes the point that leaders in any
tional corporations, a Federal Reserve system, a stock market,
organization will over time become increasingly separated from
private property, and private enterprise. We also have certain edu
everyone else in the organization. They will have a stake in keeping
cational, religious, health care, military, kinship, and entertainment
their positions and in continuing their policies. They will try to en
institutions. The United States as a society works-or does not
sure that their positions remain theirs, and that the system of in
work-because of its institutions. One primary reason the Soviet
equality is maintained in their favor. Although they might be elected
Union was forced to turn from a communist system was simply be
democratically, once they are in their positions, there is a strong
cause its institutions could not solve the problems it faced in the
tendency for them to regard their positions as quot;theirs,quot; and they will
.1990s. It did not work.
tend to institute policies and pursue goals that are consistent with
It is important to realize that institutions generally work for the
that belief. Leaders eventually unite and form a self-supporting elite
society as it is. If they seem to work, they continue; if they seem to
that distinguishes them from everyone else. Others in organization
work in the interests of the powerful, they are especially encour
tend to trust them, and they, in turn, become more and more inter
aged. Once a society develops a system of inequality, the prevailing institu
ested in perpetuating the system that favors their positions.
86 Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Sodety?
Ten Questions: A Sodological Perspective
ization means that we take on many of the qualities that people who
tions tend to work in such a way that the inequality is maintained or even·
represent society (parents, political leaders, religious leaders, media
increased. It is easier to see this process in other societies than in our
leaders, and teachers) teach us. To a great extent, we take on their
own. Saudi Arabia is a society where almost everything that exists
language, their rules, their values, and their expectations-and our
works to maintain the wealth and power of a few families and the
socialization into culture is how we come to accept the system of in
dominance of men over women. That is the way the government.
equality we inherit from our ancestors.
the economy, the religion, the military, and the family work in that
Culture almost always includes justifications for inequality. For
society. Apartheid in South Africa, the forced separation of the races
example, Americans generally believe that we live within an eco
for purposes of domination by the whites, was maintained through
nomic order in which people will be justly rewarded for hard work:
a complex set of institutions. In China, government, military, edu
MIf you work hard, you can rise to the top. quot; In a sense, we believe
cation, and media combine to help ensure the continued dictator
ship of a small party. that the system of inequality is somehow just and democratic, re
warding those who ought to be rewarded. This is the type of cul
Unless equality is a value that a society truly pursues, the insti
tural idea an individual comes to believe through socialization. Peter
tutions will normally protect and expand inequality. Poverty con
Berger argues that most societies actually develop two ideologies
tinues in the United States because institutions are not truly set up
that serve to protect inequality. One ideology legitimates the posi
to deal with this problem. Our tax system does not substantially re
tion of the upper classes, usually arguing that these people are some
distribute wealth, it does little to effectively limit the wealth that
how superior or more deserving. (For example, they are more
one can achieve, and in the past decade it has actually contributed
talented, more hardworking, or superior in culture.) The other ide
to greater inequality. Our schools, government, welfare system, and
economic system may be wonderful in some ways, but they tend to ology argues that poverty is a consequence of sin or laziness and
protect the system of inequality that prevails and maintain people in that good behavior by the poor will eventually be rewarded in the
afterlife or next life.
the class positions of their birth. Institutions maintain our segre
In European societies, inequality was justified for centuries
gated society, they generally support the inequality between men
through arguing that it was God's plan. God chose the rulers and
and women, and they protect the power and privileges of a political
and economic elite. This is why sociologists tend to see the perpetu also favored an upper class whose purpose was to lead the masses.
ation of inequality built into society itself. It is rare to see a society Although revolution eventually destroyed this idea, it held on for a
whose real purpose is to maintain a system of equality. long time. Indeed, in much of the world today inequality is still seen
Remember Voltaire's warning described at the beginning of this to be God's will, and in most cases people are taught to spend their
time and energy doing other things besides trying to change society
chapter. Unless a society really makes efforts to create and maintain
to make it more equal.
equality, the tendency will be toward a state of inequality. It is easy
to see why this is true when we recognize the tendency for social For a long time, people in the United States denied the existence
institutions to protect and expand social inequality. of either a rich upper class or a class of poor people: quot;We are the
Thus, the second reason why inequality becomes perpetuated land of equal opportunity for all.quot; To believe this is to deny the ef
in society is that institutions generally work in that direction, partly fects of inequality, and such an idea works well to protect the in
because the powerful have the greatest impact on the nature of equality that actually exists. It is difficult to identify exactly what
those institutions. American culture consists of, but try to list the very basic ideas, val
ues, and morals that we believe in, and you will see that they work
to uphold the system of inequality that prevails: MThe poor do not
Culture: The Acceptance ofInequality
really want to work [and thus deserve their fate].quot; MCapitalism with
Over time, most people come to accept the inequality that eXists. little government regulation and taxes is the most just and efficient
Obviously, this acceptance aids its perpetuation. economic system.quot; MPeople have a right to make what they can, keep
It is important to remember that people are socialized into the all that they make, and pass down to their children all that they
society within which they are born. As we saw in Chapter 2, social keep.quot; MWe may be a class society, but everyone has the chance to
88 Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society? 89
strike it rich.quot; quot;People are naturally competitive, selfish, and lazy.
quot;lack of motivation.quot; Many Americans have recently come to be
We all work to beat the other guy, we all take whatever we can get,
lieve that we have moved too fast toward equal rights and that soci
and we have to be paid well if we're going to work.quot;
ety has done enough.
Or consider the ideas that accompany other kinds of inequality:
Culture is also important in what it does not teach. The 1990s
quot;Women are not naturally capable of competing in the political and
have seen the collapse of the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe
economic world.quot; quot;God did not mean for women to work outside
and the rapid decline in communist institutions within the Soviet
the home.quot; quot;Women have a moral obligation to obey their hus
Union. The U.S. media have responded by paying tribute to certain
bands.quot; quot;Blacks are naturally inferior to whites.quot; quot;God meant for
American institutions and values, especially private property, a free
blacks to obey whites.quot; All of these ideas-and many more-have
market, and freedom to own one's own business. Somewhere along
existed in our own society and have worked to retain systems of in
the line these values have come to dominate our culture more than
equality. Similar ideas exist in other societies. In India people are
equal opportunity, social justice, respect for the individuaL and cul
born into castes in which they are expected to stay their entire lives.
tural pluralism. It is not that we no longer believe in the latter; it is
How can such a system be justified? The answer is thatpeople come
simply that the former values have come to dominate our thinking.
to believe that their position in the next life depends on how well
By ignoring equality and social justice, culture tends to support in
they accept their position in this life. Caste is seen as a test; accep
equality and lack of social justice. It does not encourage people to
tance of position becomes a moral virtue. And when people become
question the extent to which these inequalities exist in society.
too sophisticated to believe such ideas, new ideas arise to justify in
Even in organizations we see ideas that 'serve to justify inequal
equality: quot;Women are naturally different from men and will do bet
ity there: quot;The leader knows what is going on; the rest of us just
ter than men in some things, such as rearing children, and not in
don't have enough information to make intelligent decisions.quot;
others, such as mathematics.quot; quot;I believe that blacks should be equal
quot;Democracy, where everyone votes, is inefficient.quot; quot;The real world
to whites, but the fact that they are not is their own fault.quot; quot;It is
isn't equal. Why should this organization practice equality? We have
morally right for us to dominate nonwhites in society because of
to run this place like a business, don't we?quot; quot;You want justice? Life
their cultural inferiority-they just do not accept the right values
is simply not just.quot;
and ideas, and thus deserve their positions.quot;
The key point should not be missed: Society-all social organi
In Oppression, Turner, Singleton, and Musick carefully show how
zation-develops a system of belief (quot;culturequot;), and that system of
the dominant beliefs in the United States concerning African Ameri
belief (among other things) functions to protect the inequality that
cans have changed as the relationship between blacks and whites
has changed (1984:170-176). We always work out a new ideology
But where does the culture come from? As we saw in Chapter
that justifies inequality. Before 1820, whites described blacks as un
3, a culture is a set of ideas, values, and rules that people adopt over
civilized heathens, the curse of God, and ill-suited for freedom. After
time as they deal with their environment. These ideas, values, and
1820 and before the Civil War, slavery was justified as good for both
rules are partly true, but more important, they are useful. Our cul
blacks and whites, an institution that civilized and protected African
ture works for us; other people's culture works for them. Culture
Americans. After the Civil War and before World War I, while all
explains and guides our actions. But who is us? Whom does culture
areas of life became segregated, blacks were described as inherently
really benefit? In one sense, it benefits everyone because it helps
inferior, and thus segregation became necessary for the protection
bring peace and order to our relationships. It helps guide our choices
of whites. From World War I to 1941, as African Americans moved
and how we live our lives. However-and this is the point being
north, black inferiority became a quot;scientific fact,quot; and segregation
made here-eulture most especially benefits those people who gain
was described as naturaL distinctive, and desired by both races. After
the most from society: those at the very top of society.
World War II, as discrimination and segregation were increasingly
It should come as no surprise that those at the top try to ensure
attacked, ideas favoring inequality were fewer. After 1968, how
that their ideas, values, and rules prevail in society. Think of the so
ever, inequality again became justified: There is black inferiority,
ciety giving rise to many ideas. Which ones are believed, and which
and it is due to the African Americans themselves, especially their
ones are rejected? This question is not answered simply, but be
Chapter Four Why Are People Unequal in Society?
Ten Questions: A Sociological Perspective
sition, some figure out ways to make great leaps to overcome their
aware that ideas, values, and rules must have sponsors, groups that
subordinate position, and some succeed. Most who try do not suc
push for their acceptance. Those groups with the most power will
ceed, not because of lack of effort or intelligence alone, but because
have the best chance for their ideas to be accepted. To some extent
real opportunity is denied by factors related to class and minority
Marx is correct: The rich not only produce the goods of society, but
positions. And for those who try and do not succeed, it becomes in
also to a great extent produce (and spread) the society's culture.
creasingly difficult to hold onto aspirations that seem to be out of
And, of course, when ideas, values, and rules are put forth that are
reach. Here is one of the most important ways we are all socialized:
not consistent with those of the elite, they will be opposed and have
We are taught to change our sights, and this means accepting the
less chance for acceptance.
position that most people like us are expected to stay in.
Inequality prevails in society, then, because it is supported by
Legitimate authority is one of the concepts that Weber intro
culture; and culture, in turn, most reflects the ideas, values, and
duces to sociology. Why is it that we willingly obey others over us?
norms of the most powerful in society.
he asked. His answer is that most of us believe that they have a right
to command us. Socialization induces people to feel a part of a com
Socialization: The Acceptance ofPlace munity and to feel an obligation to obey the people who represent
that community. We come to believe that we must accept the pre
Besides the fact that people are socialized to accept the system of in
vailing system of inequality as right if we are to exist as a commu
equality itself, they are also s9cialized to accept their own position.
nity. A stable system of inequality is built into the community's
This is a complex process. We learn who we are early in life. Our
tradition or law that loyal people feel an obligation to follow. Our
neighbors, parents, and teachers tell us in overt and covert ways our
system of inequality appears to most citizens to be legitimate, and
ranks in society and what we have a right to expect from life: quot;Peo
most feel a moral obligation to obey those above them.
ple like us don't do those things.quot; quot;Marry your own kind.quot; quot;Go to
Thus, the system prevails through the collusion of the individu
Harvard.quot; quot;Be satisfied with the college in your own town.quot; We are
als who are socialized into society. Socialization brings the accep
taught what to expect from life if we work hard (generally slightly
tance of a culture that justifies inequality, and it normally brings an
above our present rank, whatever that may be), but rarely do we
acceptance of one's relative position in that system of inequality.
expect great things without a realistic model to go by. Wealthy busi
ness executives socialize their children to expect wealth, fame, and
power. Lawyers socialize their children to expect a professional po Society's Instruments ofForce
sition. Of course, we are not simply the result of what our parents
Of course, some individuals refuse to accept their place in society
expect, but they, together with teachers (who teach in class-based
and try to improve their position in any way they can, including
schools) and friends (who tend to come from our class-based neigh
going outside the law. Often, they realize that the system works
borhoods), show us where we are in society and teach us to expect
against them and that to make it they cannot try the normal chan
approximately that level.
nels. Through their acts they threaten the legitimacy of the prevail·
In Schooling in Capitalist America, Bowles and Gintis highlight
ing order. Procedures are instituted to discover, control, and punish
how legitimating inequality and teaching people their positions is
such individuals. Police, courts, and prisons work to protect more
an integral part of our educational system. Schools sort students into
than people; they also protect the system of inequality.
academic tracks, which distribute students into the occupational sys
Some groups refuse to accept the system itself and organize to
tem and ultimately into the economic system. Schools teach disci
overthrow it. In our society such groups have some leeway: They
pline, hierarchy, and obedience, and they teach students to expect
usually have the right to say what they want and to write what they
little control over their work. Working-class students learn obedi
want. When they act outside the law to alter the system, we call
ence; upper-middle-class students learn leadership and innovation.
them revolutionaries, and we use force to stop them. All societies
Or witness, too, women and minorities who are socialized to
draw lines, and all try to control groups with force if they threaten
accept subordinate positions in most societies. Such socialization is
the established order, including the prevailing system of inequality.
usually successfuL but not always. IneVitably, some refuse their po-