Social Class and Inequality within Society

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All societies are composed of a hierarchy of classes. These classes while sociological or cultural in nature are fundamental to understanding inequalities between individuals. The concepts are universal and have been present throughout human history and occur in every society. Here I discuss the definitions of social class that have been used in psychological, sociological, and economic disciplines. I relate the effect of race and social class to a variety of inequalities that occur in modern societies. I start with a discussion on the relationship between social class, wealth, and access to wealth. Second, I discuss the relationship between social class and human health and the rates of mortality. Finally, I discuss the relationship between social class and the educational experience that children of different classes received. In particular, I discuss the effect of variation in educational training and access to opportunity that perpetuates particular class structures, an inequality of opportunity that begins at an early age. Overall these arguments demonstrate that social class is the ultimate predictor of inequality, and it works across societies.

Social class is a tool to differentiate between different groups of people based on their position in the economic system of production. The standard definition in sociology uses five different levels of social class: Upper Class Elite – These are the wealthiest in society and also occupy leadership positions in government and corporations. Upper Middle Class – These are individuals with social prestige, high income, and excellent education. Doctors, university faculty, lawyers, engineers, and other highly skilled individuals occupy this rung of society. Lower Middle Class – These are individuals who are typically in white-collar jobs that are typically less well respected, or perhaps blue-collar jobs that are highly skilled. Sales jobs, paralegals, clerical persons, and jobs of this ilk would be considered lower middle class. Working Class – These are persons in positions that require on your feet physical labor. Factory workers, waiters, mechanics, and other similar positions are considered to be working class. Poor – This last and lowest class is occupied by people that work, but are below the national poverty line, and by individuals that are on welfare and social services because they are unable to work (2014).

Looking beyond the standard definition economists make distinctions between different social classes based simply on economic status (Stiglitz, 2012). The exact definitions vary depending on the society of interest. For example, the middle class in India may be not the same as the middle class in Japan or the middle class in the United States. To some extent, it’s a measure of relative wealth, although there are no fixed definitions and those ratios change through time. For instance, in the United States, the Upper Class Elite made 20 times as much income per capita as middle-class workers at the turn of the century, today that disparity is approaching 300 times the income of middle-class workers (Stiglitz, 2012).

Psychologists attempt to measure social class by assessing socio-economic status or SES as we’ll refer to it from here on (Adler et al, 2000). Objectively this can be measured by considering a variety of different factors including the highest degree of education obtained, the current income of the individual, and the profession that the individual is in. This must then be corrected for age to allow comparability between subjects. In addition to objective SES, there is also the consideration of subjective SES (Adler et al, 2000). Interestingly, the perception of the individual and their own social status may be just as important, perhaps even more important, than the objective measurements of income, education, and position. There are strengths and weaknesses with all of the approaches above. Individuals may be unemployed and uneducated, but come from a wealthy family and be supported by that family. Based upon an income-only approach they’d be considered lower class, and yet instinctively we’d know that would be an incorrect classification. Incorporating family wealth and support may help with those issues.

Inherent in every system used to classify individuals into different social groups, there is a flaw that makes it difficult to use social status as a predictor of inequality. The problem is circularity. There are inherent differences in wealth, power, and prestige between the social classes. These could definitely all be considered inequalities, so in a way, using social class to predict inequality is like using someone's body mass index to predict how overweight they are. In other ways though, social class is a completely valid predictor of inequality. For example, its valid to use social class to predict other variables outside of the data used to classify individuals such as health, and when we assign a social class to unmeasured offspring and measure inequality in things related to education.

There is clear evidence to suggest that differences in social class lead to differences in health (Smith et al., 1998, Adler et al., 2000). It has been shown that people who are in lower socioeconomic classes are more prone to disease. This effect may come from a combination of differences in access to health, differences in the quality of food that is being consumed, and differences in the behaviors that are characteristic of the different social classes (Adler et al., 2000). Another important pathway is the relationship between sleep and SES. Stressful lives can interfere with sleep patterns and cause individuals to sleep poorly. Sleep disorders, inadequate amounts of sleep, and poor sleep are all linked with poor health.

In a study in 2000, Adler et al. looked at the relationship between SES and health in a sample of 157 white women between the ages of 30 and 46 years old. The group looked at the body mass index of the woman, their objective SES as measured by household income, highest degree earned, and occupation status (blue-collar, clerical, and professional), and also their subjective SES. Subjective SES was the socioeconomic status that the woman believed themselves to be part of, independent of the objective SES measure. Adler et al. measured a variety of different response variables related to health including self-rated health on a 100 point scale, BMI, body fat distribution, sleep quality, resting physiological response based on blood pressure and heart rate, and cortisol levels during a stress test (2000). They also measured the participants' positivity or negativity based upon self-assessment. The group found across the board that SES was a strong predictor of the participant’s health and mental status. More importantly, the group also found that the participants' subjective SES was a strong predictor of physiological and psychological health. This means that our own opinion of where we belong in the social hierarchy, independent of wealth and status, can create inequality in physical health.

An even more serious consequence of differences in social status than differences in health is the effect that social status can have on rates of mortality (Davey et al. 1998). Our lives are our most precious possession and the right to life is considered one of our unalienable rights. So if differences in social status lead to differences in the amount of life we enjoy than this could be considered the greatest inequality of all. Davey et al. looked at the effect of social status on rates of mortality in 5,749 men in the United Kingdom (1998). These men came from workplaces as varied as bankers, engineers, architects, manufacturing plant laborers, and civil servants. Data collected on participants in the study included age, age of finishing full-time education, social status based on the Registrar General’s Classification, owner of a car, and health data including smoking history, physical examination (height, weight, blood pressure), and particular chronic illnesses such as angina. The men were then followed for 21 years and mortality was measured. The authors related mortality to social status and corrected for cross-correlated variables related to health at the time the study was started.

The authors found that men in the lower social classes had a mortality rate that was 59% higher than comparable men in the higher social classes. This agreed with a similar study in Scotland which found that men in the lower social classes had a 66% higher rate of death than comparable upper-class men. The proposed mechanism is that well educated upper-class men tended to use their extra free time to make long term investments into their health. The upper-class men also had better education about the effect of particular activities on long term health, leading to different decisions being made.

These results clearly demonstrate that as adults, our social class has a large impact on our health and the amount of life that we get to enjoy. Individuals with higher social status are healthier and live longer. Given that the health and mortality rates are not used to estimate social status, to begin with, it seems fair to argue that using social status to predict health and length of life is valid. Furthermore, the significant gaps in these response variables among social groups are sufficiently large to definitely represent an inequality. It could be argued that the relationship between social class and health is not causal, but merely correlational. While this may be true, even correlational relationships are often linked to one another via unmeasured underlying variables.

Another important inequality between the different social classes is differences in the access to opportunities that the children of different classes have. Opportunity begins with home life. Families with greater SES may have the ability to pay for things like tutors, extra classes, experiences like trips to museums and other countries. All of these types of activities will enrich the lives of children and may better prepare them for the future. Middle-class families have been shown to try to foster children’s talents and interests by organizing fun activities that build reasoning and skillsets. Working-class families, in contrast, will work on their children’s sense of self but don’t invest the time in organizing fun activities for the growth and development of the children (Lareau, 2002). Furthermore, living in a family that has a high SES will increase the perceived SES of a child. As we show above, the perceived SES of an adult has a major impact on their own health, so the environment that fosters a higher personal SES will increase the health of a child for the rest of their life. In some ways, this is reminiscent of Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby. While Gatsby had neither the money nor the connections, he had the upbringing and sense of self of worth that propelled him to reach for greatness. By believing he was upper class, he created the opportunity to become upper class for himself.

There are other societal ways that differences in social class lead to inequality in opportunity. These factors are built into education systems. Our education system is built off the idea of a meritocracy, i.e. those who work harder will get more (Hayes, 2012). Those students who do better will get into better schools because they deserve it. This division definitely occurs when students separate into different colleges; however, it may happen even earlier, as students separate into different high schools, middle schools, or even elementary schools. Many of the lower schools have entrance exams that supposedly give a level playing field for all applicants, but social status can always confer some kind of advantage (Hayes, 2012). The separation that occurs early will compound over time. As students receive unequal educations, the deviations between students will continue to grow and grow.

The problem is made worse when we consider situations where this is no attempt at sorting children based on a meritocratic system. Leaving alone the issue of excellent private schools which only those that have large levels of disposable income can afford, there are huge variations in the quality and educational experience of public schools throughout the United States and other countries (Reay, 2006). Even within small areas, there can be a wide variation in the quality of education students receive. School quality is correlated with SES of the families that go to those schools (Anyon 1980). So, if you’re a poor parent, it is likely your children will go to a bad school. This inequality begins with the children but creates disparities that last a lifetime.

Teachers contribute to inequality subconsciously. Rist found that teachers starting in kindergarten classes will begin to show favoritism to students that come from higher social classes (1970). Favoritism in the teachers creates issues of self-worth in students that eventually lead to inequalities in health (Reay, 2006). Incredibly, teachers subtly shift their philosophy of teaching based upon the identity of the social class of the students (Anyon, 1980). In a survey of elementary schools, Anyon found that working-class students are taught to follow instructions to the letter, Middle-Class students are taught to seek the correct answer, Upper Middle-Class students are taught to think creatively and independently, and Upper-Class Elite students were taught to develop their analytical powers to reason through problems (1980). The curricula were the same across schools, but the way the students were taught to think was preparing them for jobs and status that were comparable with their parents. This inequality in education, in theory, leads to a perpetuation of the existing social classes.

Social class helps us understand the differences between different groups in society. The variation in status, money, and power among groups is only the beginning of the differences. Social class is a powerful predictor of inequality in health, length of life, and access to opportunity. These patterns are true throughout the developed and developing world and they have been this way for a long time (Stiglitz, 2012). There will always be issues with disentangling cause and correlation when we discuss inequality and social class, but they are intricately related to one another and we cannot have a discussion about inequality without invoking the effect of social status.


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