7 Module 7: Social Stratification and Social Inequality

Susan Robertson

Learning Objectives

  • Describe how the concept of social inequality is related to: social differentiation, social stratification, and social distributions of wealth, income, power, and status.
  • Define the difference between equality of opportunity and equality of condition and discuss meritocracy as ideology and reality.
  • Distinguish between caste and class systems of social stratification.
  • Distinguish between class and status.
  • Identify the structural basis for the different classes that exist in capitalist societies.
  • Describe the current trend of increasing inequalities of wealth and income in Canada and discuss how these trends are related to the rise of neoliberal ideology.
  • Distinguish between Marx’s and Weber’s definitions of social class and explain why they are significant.
  • Describe the social conditions of the owning class, the middle class, and the traditional working class in Canada.
  • Compare, contrast and apply functionalist, critical sociological and interpretive perspectives on social inequality.

7.0. Introduction to Social Inequality in Canada

Figure 7.1. The Ted Rogers statue with Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research in the background. Who gets monumentalized in Canada, and who gets forgotten? (Ted Rogers Statue Toronto by Oaktree b is available under the Free Art License.)

When he died in 2008, Ted Rogers Jr., then CEO of Rogers Communications, was the fifth-wealthiest individual in Canada, holding assets worth $5.7 billion. In his autobiography (2008) he credited his success to a willingness to take risks, work hard, bend the rules, be on the constant look-out for opportunities, and be dedicated to building the business. In many respects, he saw himself as a self-made billionaire who started from scratch, seized opportunities, and created a business through his own initiative.

The story of Ted Rogers is not exactly a rags to riches one, however. His grandfather, Albert Rogers, was a director of Imperial Oil (Esso) and his father, Ted Sr.,  became wealthy when he invented an alternating current vacuum tube for radios in 1925. Ted Rogers Sr. went from this invention to manufacturing radios, owning a radio station, and acquiring a licence for TV broadcasting.

However, Ted Sr. died when Ted Jr. was five years old, and the family businesses were sold. His mother took Ted Jr. aside when he was eight and told him, “Ted, your business is to get the family name back” (Rogers, 2008). The family was still wealthy enough to send him to Upper Canada College, the famous private school that also educated the children from the Black, Eaton, Thompson, and Weston families. Ted seized the opportunity at Upper Canada to make money as a bookie, taking bets on horse racing from the other students. Then he attended Osgoode Hall Law School, where reportedly his secretary went to classes and took notes for him. He bought an early FM radio station when he was still in university and started in cable TV in the mid-1960s. By the time of his death, Rogers Communications was worth $25 billion. At that time just three families, the Rogers, Shaws, and Péladeaus, owned much of the cable service in Canada.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Indigenous gang members in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre (CBC, 2010).  In 2010 the CBC program The Current aired a report about several young Indigenous men who were serving time in prison in Saskatchewan for gang-related activities (CBC, 2010). They all expressed desires to be able to deal with their drug addiction issues, return to their families, and assume their responsibilities when their sentences were complete. They wanted to have their own places with nice things in them. However, according to the CBC report, 80% of the prison population in the Saskatchewan Correctional Centre were Indigenous and 20% of those were gang members. This is consistent with national statistics on Indigenous incarceration which showed that in 2010–2011, the Indigenous incarceration rate was 10 times higher than for the non-indigenous population. While Indigenous people account for about 5 % of the Canadian population, in 2013 they made up 23.2% of the federal penitentiary population. In 2001 they made up only 17% of the penitentiary population. Indigenous overrepresentation in prisons has continued to grow substantially (Office of the Correctional Investigator, 2013). The outcomes of Indigenous incarceration are also bleak. The federal Office of the Correctional Investigator summarized the situation as follows. Indigenous inmates are:

  • Routinely classified as higher risk and higher need in categories such as employment, community reintegration, and family supports.
  • Released later in their sentence (lower parole grant rates); most leave prison at Statutory Release or Warrant Expiry dates.
  • Overrepresented in segregation and maximum security populations.
  • Disproportionately involved in use-of-force interventions and incidents of prison self-injury.
  • More likely to return to prison on revocation of parole, often for administrative reasons, not criminal violations (2013).

The federal report notes that “the high rate of incarceration for Indigenous peoples has been linked to systemic discrimination and attitudes based on racial or cultural prejudice, as well as economic and social disadvantage, substance abuse, and intergenerational loss, violence and trauma” (2013).

This is clearly a case in which the situation of the incarcerated inmates interviewed on the CBC program has been structured by historical social patterns and power relationships that confront Indigenous people in Canada generally. How do we understand it at the individual level, however — at the level of personal decision making and individual responsibilities? One young inmate described how, at the age of 13, he began to hang around with his cousins who were part of a gang. He had not grown up with “the best life”; he had family members suffering from addiction issues and traumas. The appeal of what appeared as a fast and exciting lifestyle — the sense of freedom and of being able to make one’s own life, instead of enduring poverty — was compelling. He began to earn money by “running dope” but also began to develop addictions. He was expelled from school for recruiting gang members. The only job he ever had was selling drugs. The circumstances in which he and the other inmates had entered the gang life, and the difficulties getting out of it they knew awaited them when they left prison, reflect a set of decision-making parameters fundamentally different than those facing most non-indigenous people in Canada.

Moreover the statistical profile of Indigenous youth in Saskatchewan is grim, with Indigenous people making up the highest number of high school dropouts, domestic abuse victims, drug dependencies, and child poverty backgrounds. In some respects the Indigenous gang members interviewed were like Ted Rogers in that they were willing to seize opportunities, take risks, bend rules, and apply themselves to their vocations. They too aspired to getting the money that would give them the freedom to make their own lives. However, as one of the inmates put it, “the only job I ever had was selling drugs” (CBC, 2010). The consequence of that was to fall into a lifestyle that led to joining a gang, being kicked out of school, developing issues with addiction, and eventually getting arrested and incarcerated. Unlike Ted Rogers, however, the inmate added, “I didn’t grow up with the best life” (CBC, 2010).

How do we make sense of the divergent stories? Canada is supposed to be a country in which individuals can work hard to get ahead. It is an “open” society. There are no formal or explicit class, gender, racial, ethnic, geographical, or other boundaries that prevent people from rising to the top. People are free to make choices. But does this adequately explain the difference in life chances that divide the fortunes of the Indigenous youth from those of the Rogers family? What determines a person’s social standing? And how does social standing direct or limit a person’s choices?

The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) defined ones habitus as the deeply seated schemas, habits, feelings, dispositions, and forms of know-how, Cultural Capital. that people hold due to their specific social backgrounds, cultures, and life experiences (1990). Bourdieu referred to it as ones “feel for the game,” to use a sports metaphor. Choices are perhaps always “free” in some formal sense, but they are also always situated within one’s habitus. The Indigenous gang members display a certain amount of street smarts that enable them to survive and successfully navigate their world. Street smarts define their habitus and exercise a profound influence over the range of options that are available for them to consider — the neighborhoods they know to avoid, the body languages that signal danger, the values of illicit goods, the motives of different street actors, the routines of police interactions, etc. The habitus affects both the options to conform to the group they identify with or deviate from it. Ted Rogers occupied a different habitus which established a fundamentally different set of options for him in his life path. How are the different lifeworlds or habitus distributed in society so that some reinforce patterns of deprivation while others provide the basis for access to wealth and power?

As Bourdieu pointed out, habitus is so deeply ingrained that we take its reality as natural rather than as a product of social circumstances. This has the unfortunate effect of justifying social inequalities based on the belief that the Ted Rogers of the world were naturally gifted and predisposed for success when in fact it is success itself that is “predisposed” by underlying structures of power and privilege. As described in Module 5, sociologists use the concepts of power and privilege to refer to the means and strategies used to direct or conduct the behaviour of others, and of oneself.  Moreover, the operation of power and privilege in society is not limited to the formal institutional contexts of politics and economy; rather the influence of power and privilege is a pervasive feature of the cultural contexts within which the formal structures and institutions of society are embedded.  While habitus refers to the perceptions individuals and social groups hold about society and their position in society, cultural capital is a concept that refers to the knowledge, or ‘know-how’ that different individuals and social groups possess as a result of their social location and interactions with others in society. The elements of Bourdieu’s theory of Cultural Capital are elaborated further in the following YouTube video.

Class traits, also called class markers, are the typical behaviours, customs, and norms that define each class. They define a crucial subjective component of class identities. Class traits indicate the level of exposure a person has to a wide range of cultural resources. Class traits also indicate the amount of resources a person has to spend on items like hobbies, vacations, and leisure activities.

People may associate the upper class with enjoyment of costly, refined, or highly cultivated tastes — expensive clothing, luxury cars, high-end fundraisers, and opulent vacations. People may also believe that the middle and lower classes are more likely to enjoy camping, fishing, or hunting, shopping at large retailers, and participating in community activities. It is important to note that while these descriptions may be class traits, they may also simply be stereotypes. Moreover, just as class distinctions have blurred in recent decades, so too have class traits. A very wealthy person may enjoy bowling as much as opera. A factory worker could be a skilled French cook. Pop star Justin Bieber might dress in hoodies, ball caps, and ill fitting clothes, and a low-income hipster might own designer shoes.

These days, individual taste does not necessarily follow class lines. Still, you are not likely to see someone driving a Mercedes living in an inner-city neighbourhood. And most likely, a resident of a wealthy gated community will not be riding a bicycle to work. Class traits often develop based on cultural behaviours that stem from the resources available within each class. In Sociology 112, the embodied forms of cultural capital and their relationship to social identity are elaborated in greater detail.  In Sociology 111 we focus more explicitly on the structural conditions of social inequality and social stratification–the objectified and institutionalized forms of cultural capital–which organize and order the relationships among different social classes in society.  In reality, however, the subjective and objective dimensions of social class coexist and are inter-related.

7.1 What Is Social Inequality?

A man and a woman, both wearing business suits, are shown from behind at the top of an escalator
Figure 7.2. In the upper echelons of the working world, people with the most power reach the top. These people make the decisions and earn the most money. The majority of Canadians will never see the view from the top. (Office Politics: A Rise to the Top, by Aelx Proimos is available under a CC BY-NC 2.0 License.)

Sociologists use the term social inequality to describe the unequal distribution of valued resources, rewards, and positions in a society. Key to the concept is the notion of social differentiation. Social characteristics — differences, identities, and roles — are used to differentiate people and divide them into different categories, which have implications for social inequality. Social differentiation by itself does not necessarily imply a division of individuals into a hierarchy of rank, privilege, and power. However, when a social category like class, occupation, gender, or race puts people in a position in which they can claim a greater share of resources or services, then social differentiation becomes the basis of social inequality.

The term social stratification refers to an institutionalized system of social inequality. It refers to a situation in which the divisions and relationships of social inequality have solidified into a system that determines who gets what, when, and why. You may remember the word “stratification” from geology class. The distinct horizontal layers found in rock, called “strata,” are a good way to visualize social structure. Society’s layers are made of people, and society’s resources are distributed unevenly throughout the layers. The people who have more resources represent the top layer of the social structure of stratification. Other groups of people, with progressively fewer and fewer resources, represent the lower layers of our society. Social stratification assigns people to socioeconomic strata based on factors like wealth, income, gender, race, education, and power. The question for sociologists is how systems of stratification come to be formed. What is the basis of systematic social inequality in society?

A rock formation showing various layers is shown.
Figure 7.3. Strata in rock illustrate social stratification. People are sorted, or layered, into social categories. Many factors determine a person’s social standing, such as income, education, occupation, age, race, gender, and even physical abilities. (Strata in the Badlands by Just a Prairie Boy is available under a CC-BY 2.0 License.)

In Canada, the dominant ideological presumption about social inequality is that everyone has an equal chance at success. This is the belief in equality of opportunity, which can be contrasted with the concept of equality of condition. Equality of condition is the situation in which everyone in a society has a similar level of wealth, status, and power. Although degrees of equality of condition vary markedly in modern societies, it is clear that even the most egalitarian societies today have considerable degrees of inequality of condition. Equality of opportunity, on the other hand, is the idea that everyone has an equal possibility of becoming successful. It exists when people have the same chance to pursue economic or social rewards. This is often seen as a function of equal access to education, meritocracy (where individual merit determines social standing), and formal or informal measures to eliminate social discrimination. Ultimately, equality of opportunity means that inequalities of condition are not so great that they greatly hamper a person’s life chances. Whether Canada is a society characterized by equality of opportunity or not is a subject of considerable sociological debate. Moreover, as Michael Sandel argues in “The Tyranny of Merit”, meritocracy serves as a powerful ideology to justify the successes of the advantaged, blame those who experience disadvantage, and erode a sense of the moral value in working to secure the common good of all in society.

To a certain extent, Ted Rogers’ story illustrates the belief in equality of opportunity and meritocracy. His personal narrative is one in which hard work and talent — not inherent privilege, birthright, prejudicial treatment, or societal values — determined his social rank. This emphasis on self-effort is based on the belief that people individually control their own social standing, which is a key piece in the idea of equality of opportunity. Most people connect inequalities of wealth, status, and power to the individual characteristics of those who succeed or fail. The story of the Indigenous gang members, although it is also a story of personal choices, casts that belief into doubt. It is clear that the type of choices available to the Indigenous gang members are of a different range and quality than those available to the Rogers family. The available choices are a product of habitus, which in turn is related to the cultural capital that different individuals and social groups have access to.

Sociologists recognize that social stratification is a society-wide system that makes inequalities apparent. While there are always inequalities between individuals, sociologists are interested in larger social patterns. Social inequality is not about individual inequalities, but about systematic inequalities based on group membership, class, gender, ethnicity, and other variables that structure access to rewards and status. In other words, sociologists are interested in examining the structural conditions of social inequality. There are of course differences in individuals’ abilities and talents that will affect their life chances. The larger question, however, is how inequality becomes systematically structured in economic, social, and political life. In terms of individual ability: Who gets the opportunities to develop their abilities and talents, and who does not? Where does “ability” or “talent” come from? As we live in a society that emphasizes the individual — i.e., individual effort, individual morality, individual choice, individual responsibility, individual talent, etc. — it is often difficult to see the way in which life chances are socially structured.

A row of houses.
Figure 7.4. The people who live in these houses most likely share similar levels of income and education. Neighbourhoods often house people of the same social standing. Wealthy families do not typically live next door to poorer families, though this varies depending on the particular city and country. (Fort Mason Neighborhood by Orin Zebest is available under a CC BY 2.0 License.)

Factors that define stratification vary in different societies. In most modern societies, stratification is often indicated by differences in wealth, the net value of money and assets a person has, and  income, a person’s wages, salary, or investment dividends. It can also be defined by differences in power (how many people a person must take orders from versus how many people a person can give orders to) and status (the degree of honour or prestige one has in the eyes of others). These four factors create a complex amalgam that defines individuals’ social standing within a hierarchy.

Usually the four factors coincide, as in the case of corporate CEOs, like Ted Rogers, at the top of the hierarchy—wealthy, powerful, and prestigious — and the Indigenous offenders at the bottom — poor, powerless, and abject. Sociologists use the term status consistency to describe the consistency of an individual’s rank across these factors. However, we can also think of someone like the Canadian prime minister who ranks high in power, but with a salary of approximately $320,000 earns much less than comparable executives in the private sector (albeit eight times the average Canadian salary). The prime minister’s status or prestige also rises and falls with the vagaries of politics. The Nam-Boyd scale of status ranks politicians at 66/100, the same status as cable TV technicians (Boyd, 2008). There is status inconsistency in the prime minister’s position. Similarly, teachers often have high levels of education, which give them high status (92/100 according to the Nam-Boyd scale), but they receive relatively low pay. Many believe that teaching is a noble profession, so teachers should do their jobs for love of their profession and the good of their students, not for money.  Yet no successful executive or entrepreneur would embrace that attitude in the business world, where profits are valued as a driving force. An even more stark example is the tendency to ignore the economic and social value of non market work performed within the context of households–a social responsibility that has traditionally been allocated to women.  Cultural attitudes and beliefs like these support and perpetuate social inequalities.

7.2 Systems of Stratification

Sociologists distinguish between two types of systems of stratification. Closed systems accommodate little change in social position. They do not allow people to shift levels and do not permit social relations between levels. Open systems, which are based on achievement, allow movement and interaction between layers and classes. Different systems reflect, emphasize, and foster certain cultural values, and shape individual beliefs. This difference in stratification systems can be examined by the comparison between class systems and caste systems.

7.2.1 The Caste System

Caste systems are closed stratification systems in which people can do little or nothing to change their social standing. A caste system is one in which people are born into their social standing and remain in it their whole lives. It is based on fixed or rigid status distinctions, rather than economic classes per se. As we noted above, status is defined by the level of honour or prestige one receives by virtue of membership in a group. Sociologists make a distinction between ascribed status — a status one receives by virtue of being born into a category or group (e.g., hereditary position, gender, race, etc.) —and achieved status — a status one receives through individual effort or merits (e.g., occupation, educational level, moral character, etc.). Caste systems are based on a hierarchy of ascribed statuses, based on being born into fixed caste groups.

In a caste system, therefore, people are assigned roles regardless of their talents, interests, or potential. Marriage is endogamous, meaning that marriage between castes is forbidden. An exogamous marriage is a union of people from different social categories. There are virtually no opportunities to improve one’s social position. Instead the relationship between castes is bound by institutionalized rules, and highly ritualistic procedures come into play when people from different castes come into contact.

The feudal systems of Europe and Japan can in some ways be seen as caste systems in that the statuses of positions in the social stratifications systems were fixed, and there was little or no opportunity for movement through marriage or economic opportunities. In Europe, the estate system divided the population into clergy (first estate), nobility (second estate), and commoners (third estate), which included artisans, merchants, and peasants. In early European feudalism, it was still possible for a peasant or a warrior to achieve a high position in the clergy or nobility, but later the divisions became more rigid. In Japan, between 1603 and 1867, the mibunsei system divided society into five rigid strata in which social standing was inherited. At the top was the emperor, then court nobles (kuge), military commander-in-chief (shogun), and the land-owning lords (daimyo). Beneath them were four classes or castes: the military nobility (samurai), peasants, craftsmen, and merchants. The merchants were considered the lowest class because they did not produce anything with their own hands. There was also an outcast or untouchable caste known as the burakumin, who were considered impure or defiled because of their association with death: executioners, undertakers, slaughterhouse workers, tanners, and butchers (Kerbo, 2006).

However, the caste system is probably best typified by the system of stratification that existed in India from 4,000 years ago until the 20th century. In the Hindu caste tradition, people were also expected to work in the occupation of their caste and to enter into marriage according to their caste. Originally there were four castes: Brahmans (priests), Kshatriyas (military), Vaisyas (merchants), and Sudras (artisans, farmers). In addition there were the Dalits or Harijans (“untouchables”). Hindu scripture said, “In order to preserve the universe, Brahma (the Supreme) caused the Brahmin to proceed from his mouth, the Kshatriya to proceed from his arm, the Vaishya to proceed from his thigh, and the Shudra to proceed from his foot” (Kashmeri, 1990). Accepting this social standing was considered a moral duty. Cultural values and economic restrictions reinforced the system. Caste systems promote beliefs in fate, destiny, and the will of a higher power, rather than promoting individual freedom as a value. A person who lived in a caste society was socialized to accept his or her social standing.

Although the caste system in India has been officially dismantled, its residual presence in Indian society is deeply embedded. In rural areas, aspects of the tradition are more likely to remain, while urban centres show less evidence of this past. In India’s larger cities, people now have more opportunities to choose their own career paths and marriage partners. As a global centre of employment, corporations have introduced merit-based hiring and employment to the nation.

7.2.2 The Class System

A class system is based on both social factors and individual achievement. It is at least a partially open system. A class consists of a set of people who have the same relationship to the means of production or productive property, that is, to the things used to produce the goods and services needed for survival: tools, technologies, resources, land, workplaces, etc. In Karl Marx’s analysis, class systems form around the institution of private property, dividing those who own or control productive property from those who do not and must survive on the basis of their labour.

Social class has both a strictly material quality relating to these definitions of individuals’ positions within a given economic system, and a social quality relating to the formation of common class interests, political divisions in society, sites of conflict and compromise, life styles and consumption patterns, and what Max Weber called different “life chances” (1969). We will return to the differences between Marx’s and Weber’s definitions of class later in this module. Whether defined by material or social characteristics however, the main social outcome of the class structure is inequality in society.

Marx argued that class systems originated in early Neolithic horticultural societies when horticultural technologies increased yields to economic surpluses. The first class divisions developed between those who owned and controlled the agricultural land and surplus production and those who were dispossessed of ownership and control (i.e., the agricultural labourers). Prior to the Neolithic period 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, there were no classes. Societies were egalitarian and were characterized by equality of condition. For tens of thousands of years, hunter-gatherer societies shared productive property and resources collectively and did not produce economic surpluses. They could not form class societies.

In capitalism, the principle class division is between the capitalist class who live from the proceeds of owning or controlling productive property (capital assets like factories and machinery, or capital itself in the form of investments, stocks, and bonds) and the working class who live from selling their labour to the capitalists for a wage. Marx referred to these classes as the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, respectively. In addition, he described the classes of the petite bourgeoisie (the little bourgeosie) and the lumpenproletariat (the sub-proletariat). The petite bourgeoisie are those like shopkeepers, farmers, and contractors who own some property and perhaps employ a few workers but still rely on their own labour to survive. The lumpenproletariat are the chronically unemployed or irregularly employed who are in and out of the workforce. They are what Marx referred to as the “reserve army of labour,” a pool of potential labourers who are surplus to the needs of production at any particular time.

In a class system, social inequality is structural, meaning that it is “built in” to the organization of the economy. The relationship to the means of production (i.e., ownership/non-ownership) defines a persistent, objective pattern of social relationships that exists, in a sense, prior to or outside of individuals’ personal or voluntary choices and motives. In Marx’s analysis, this was also the basis of class conflict, because objectively (i.e., beyond individuals’ personal perceptions or beliefs) the class positions are contradictory. The existence of the bourgeoisie is defined by the economic drive to accumulate capital and increase profit. The key means to achieve this in a competitive marketplace is by reducing the cost of production by lowering the cost of labour (by reducing wages, moving production to lower wage areas, or replacing workers with labour-saving technologies). This contradicts the interests of the proletariat who seek to establish a sustainable standard of living by maintaining the level of their wages and the level of employment in society.

While individual capitalists and individual workers might not see it this way, objectively the class interests clash and define a persistent pattern of management-labour conflict and political cleavage structures in modern, capitalist societies.

However, unlike caste systems, class systems are open. People are at least formally free to gain a different level of education or employment than their parents. They can move up and down within the stratification system. They can also socialize with and marry members of other classes, allowing people to move from one class to another. In other words, individuals can move up and down the class hierarchy, even while the class categories and the class hierarchy itself remain relatively stable.

This means that in a class system, one’s occupation is not fixed at birth. Though family and other societal models help guide a person toward a career, personal choice plays a role. For example, Ted Rogers Jr. chose a career in media similar to that of his father but managed to move from a position of relative wealth and privilege in the petite bourgeoisie to being the fifth wealthiest bourgeois in the country. On the other hand, his father Ted Sr. chose a career in radio based on individual interests that differed from his own father’s. Ted Sr.’s father, Albert Rogers, held a position as a director of Imperial Oil. Ted Sr. therefore moved from the class of the bourgeoisie to the class of the petite bourgeoisie.

7.2.3 Social Mobility and Social Inequality

Social mobility refers to the ability to change positions within a social stratification system. When people improve or diminish their economic status in a way that affects social class, they experience social mobility. This is a key concept in determining whether inequalities of condition limit people’s life chances or whether we can meaningfully speak of the existence of equality of opportunity in a society. A high degree of social mobility, upwards or downwards, would suggest that the stratification system of a society is in fact open (i.e., that there is equality of opportunity).

Upward mobility refers to an increase — or upward shift — in social class. In Canada, people applaud the rags-to-riches achievements of celebrities like Guy Laliberté who went from street busking in Quebec to being the CEO of Cirque du Soleil, with a net worth of $2.5 billion. Actor and comedian Jim Carey lived with his family in camper van at one point growing up in Scarborough, Ontario. Ron Joyce was a beat policemen in Hamilton before he co-founded Tim Hortons. CEO of Magna International Frank Stronach immigrated to Canada from Austria in 1955 with only $50 to his name. There are many stories of people from modest beginnings rising to fame and fortune. But the truth is that relative to the overall population, the number of people who launch from poverty to wealth is very small. Still, upward mobility is not only about becoming rich and famous. In Canada, people who earn a university degree, get a job promotion, or marry someone with a good income may move up socially.

Downward mobility indicates a lowering of one’s social class. Some people move downward because of business setbacks, unemployment, or illness. Dropping out of school, losing a job, or becoming divorced may result in a loss of income or status and, therefore, downward social mobility.

Intergenerational mobility explains a difference in social class between different generations of a family. For example, an upper-class executive may have parents who belonged to the middle class. In turn, those parents may have been raised in the lower class. Patterns of intergenerational mobility can reflect long-term societal changes.

Intragenerational mobility describes a difference in social class between different members of the same generation. For example, the wealth and prestige experienced by one person may be quite different from that of his or her siblings.

Structural mobility happens when societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the social class ladder. Structural mobility is attributable to changes in society as a whole, not individual changes. In the first half of the 20th century industrialization expanded the Canadian economy, which raised the standard of living and led to upward structural mobility. In today’s work economy, the recession and the outsourcing of jobs overseas have contributed to high unemployment rates. Many people have experienced economic setbacks, creating a wave of downward structural mobility.

Many Canadians believe that people move up in class because of individual efforts and move down by their own doing. In the ideal of equality of opportunity, one’s access to rewards would exactly equal one’s personal efforts and merits toward achieving those rewards. One’s class position or other social characteristics (gender, race, ethnicity, etc.) would not skew the relationship between merit and rewards. Others believe that equality of opportunity is a myth designed to keep people motivated to work hard, while getting them to accept social inequality as the legitimate outcome of personal achievement. The ideology of equality of opportunity is just a mirage that masks real and permanent structural inequality in society. The rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor. Data that measures social mobility suggest that the truth is a bit of both.

Typically social mobility is measured by comparing either the occupational status or the earnings between parents and children. If children’s earnings or status remain the same as their parents then there is no social mobility (i.e., horizontal mobility). If children’s earnings or status moves up or down with respect to their parents, then there is social mobility (i.e., vertical mobility). Corak and colleagues compared  “intergenerational earnings elasticity” between fathers and sons in Canada and the United States (2010). (Some data are available on daughters as well, but it is less common and therefore difficult to use to make cross-national comparisons.) Intergenerational earnings elasticity gives a percentage figure that indicates the degree to which fathers’ income predicts sons’ income (i.e., the degree of  intergenerational “stickiness” or lack of social mobility). The data show that there is a much lower degree of social mobility in the United States than in Canada. While earnings elasticity (from 2006 data) in the United States was 0.47, meaning that almost one half of the fathers’ earning advantage was passed on to their sons, in Canada the figure was 0.19, meaning that less than one-fifth of the father’s earnings advantage was  passed on. This suggests that Canada has a relatively high rate of social mobility and equality of opportunity compared to the United States, where almost 50 percent of sons remain at the same income level as their fathers. In an international comparison, the United Kingdom had even lower social mobility than the United States with an earnings elasticity of 0.50, while Finland, Norway, and Denmark had greater social mobility than Canada with earnings elasticities of 0.18, 0.17, and 0.15 respectively.

One of the key factors that distinguishes Canada’s degree of social mobility from that of the United States is that the United States has a much greater degree of social inequality to begin with. The higher degree of social inequality is linked to lower degrees of social mobility. The main factor that contributes to the difference in the intergenerational earnings elasticity figures is that there is a great degree of intergenerational social immobility at the lower and higher ranges of the income scale in the United States. For example, over 25 percent of sons born to fathers in the top 10 percent of income earners remain in the top 10 percent, compared to about 18 percent in Canada. On the other hand, in the United States, 22 percent of sons born to fathers in the bottom 10 percent of income earners remain in the bottom 10 percent, while another 18 percent only move up to the bottom 10 to 20 percent of income earners. The figures for Canada are 16 percent and 14 percent respectively (Corak et al., 2010).

However, these data also show that Canada by no means has “perfect” social mobility or equality of opportunity. Class background significantly affects one’s chances to get ahead. For example, the chance that a son born to a father in the 30 to 40 percent or 40 to 50 percent ranges of income earners (i.e., in 2004 families averaging $42,000 or $55,000 a year respectively) would move up into the top 50 percent of income earners (i.e., families averaging $65,000 a year or more) was about 50 percent (Yalnizyan, 2007). In contrast, a son from the bottom 20 percent of income earners had only a 38 percent chance of moving into the top 50 percent of income earners. For the bottom 20 percent of families, 62 percent of sons remained within the bottom 50 percent of income earners (Corak et al., 2010).

Most sociologists define social class as a grouping based on similar social factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. As we note later in the module, there is dispute within the discipline about the relative importance of different criteria for characterizing economic position. Whether the Marxist emphasis on property ownership is more important than the Weberian emphasis on gradations of occupational status is a matter for debate. Each definition captures some aspects of the experience of inequality in modern society but misses others. Either way, the concept of class does imply a shared standard of living based on social factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation. These factors also affect how much power and prestige a person has. In most cases, having more money means having more power or more opportunities.

7.2.4 Standard of Living

In the last century, Canada has seen a steady rise in standard of living, the level of wealth available to acquire the material necessities and comforts to maintain one’s lifestyle. The standard of living is based on factors such as income, employment, class, poverty rates, and affordability of housing. Because standard of living is closely related to quality of life, it can represent factors such as the ability to afford a home, own a car, and take vacations. Access to a standard of living that enables people to participate on an equal basis in community life is not equally distributed, however. The irony of rising standards of living is that one does not have to live in absolute poverty — “a severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information” (United Nations, 1995) — to be marginalized and socially excluded. Relative poverty refers to the minimum amount of income or resources needed to be able to participate in the “ordinary living patterns, customs, and activities” of a society (Townsend, 1979).

In Canada, a small portion of the population has the means to achieve the highest standard of living. Statistics Canada data from 2005 showed that 10 percent of the population held 58 percent of our nation’s wealth (Osberg, 2008). In 2007, the richest 1 percent took 13.8 percent of the total income earned by Canadians (Yalnizyan, 2010). In 2010, the median income earner in the top 1 percent earned 10 times more than the median income earner of the other 99 percent (Statistics Canada, 2013). Wealthy people receive the most schooling, have better health, and consume the most goods and services. Wealthy people also wield decision-making power. One aspect of their decision-making power comes from their positions as owners or top executives of corporations and banks. They are able to grant themselves salary raises and bonuses. By 2010, only two years into the economic crisis of 2008, the executive pay of CEOs at Canada’s top 100 corporations jumped by 13 percent (McFarland, 2011), while negotiated wage increases in 2010 amounted to only 1.8 percent (HRSDC, 2010).

Many people think of Canada as a middle-class society. They think a few people are rich, a few are poor, and most are pretty well off, existing in the middle of the social strata. But as the data above indicate, the distribution of wealth is not even. Millions of women and men struggle to pay rent, buy food, and find work that pays a living wage. Moreover, the share of the total income claimed by those in the middle-income ranges has been shrinking since the early 1980s, while the share taken by the wealthiest has been growing (Osberg, 2008).

Statistics Canada produces two relative measures of poverty: the low income measure (LIM) and the low income cut-off (LICO) measure. Human Resources and Skills Development Canada has developed an absolute measure: the market basket measure (MBM).

Low income measure: The LIM is defined as half the median family income. A person whose income is below that level is said to be in low income. The LIM is adjusted for family size.

Low income cut-off: The LICO is the income level below which a family would devote at least 20 percentage points more of their income to food, clothing, and shelter than an average family would. People are said to be in the low-income group if their income falls below this threshold. The threshold varies by family size and community size, as well as if income is calculated before or after taxes. For example, a single individual in Toronto would be said to be living in low income if his or her 2009 after-tax income was below $18,421.

Market basket measure: The MBM is a measure of the disposable income a family would need to be able to purchase a basket of goods that includes food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and other basic needs. The dollar value of the MBM varies by family size and composition, as well as community size and location. MBM data are available since 2000 only.

The three measures produce different results. In 2009, according to each measure, the following numbers of Canadians were living in low income:

  • LICO—3.2 million (9.6 per cent of the population)
  • MBM—3.5 million (10.6 per cent)
  • LIM—4.4 million (13.3 per cent)

Table 9.1 shows how the three measures also produce different results over time. Using the LICO measure results in a decreasing share of people in low income from 1996 to 2007, followed by a slight upturn in 2008 and 2009. The LIM measure results in a share of people in low income that has increased since 1990. The MBM, which has data starting only in 2000, shows results similar to the LICO but with a sharper upturn in 2008 and 2009.

Figure 7.5. “Measuring Levels of Poverty” excerpted from The Conference Board of Canada “Canadian Income Inequality: Is Canada becoming more unequal?”. (Used under the Conference Board of Canada’s Terms of Use)

7.3 Trends in Social Inequality

The news from sociological research into inequality is that the gap in income and wealth between the rich and the poor has been increasing in Canada (Osberg, 2008). In 1982, the median income earner in the top 1% of incomes earned seven times more than the median income earner in the other 99%. In 2010, the median income earner in the top 1% earned ten times more. Moreover, while the median income for the top 1% increased from $191,600 to $283,000 in constant dollars (i.e., adjusted for inflation), the median income for the bottom 99% only increased from $28,000 to $28,400. In the early 1980s, the top 1% of income earners accounted for 7% of the total income generated in Canada, whereas in 2010 they accounted for 10.6%, down slightly from 12.1% in 2006 (Statistics Canada, 2013). In effect, the incomes for middle-income earners remained flat over the last 30 years, while the incomes for the top 1% increased significantly both in absolute terms and as a proportion of all incomes. (Note: Median income is not the same as average income. It refers to the amount that the person who is exactly in the middle of an income range earned: 50% of the people in this income range earned more than the median, and 50% earned less).

Table 7.1. Share of Aggregate Incomes Received by Each Quintile of Families and Unattached Individuals. (Table courtesy of Osberg, 2008/CCPA)

[Skip Table]

Income Group 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991 1996 2001 2005
Bottom 20% (poorest) 4.4% 4.2% 3.6% 4.6% 4.5% 4.2% 4.1% 4.1%
Second 20% 11.2% 11.9% 10.6% 11% 10% 9.6% 9.7% 9.6%
Middle 20% 18.3% 18.3% 17.6% 17.7% 16.4% 16% 15.6% 15.6%
Fourth 20% 23.3% 24.5% 24.9% 25.1% 24.7% 24.6% 23.7% 23.9%
Top 20% (richest) 42.8% 41.1% 43.3% 41.6% 44.4% 45.6% 46.9% 46.9%

Sources Statistics Canada (1998) Income Distribution by Size in Canada Catalogue No. 13-207, CANSIM Table 202-0701, V1546465, J.R. Podoluk (1968) Incomes of Canadians, Dominion Bureau of Statistics.

This discrepancy does not simply mean that the very rich are increasing their share of the wealth at the expense of the very poor — the middle classes are also losing their share of the wealth. One way to analyze this trend is to examine the changing distribution of income in Canada over time. In Table 9.2 (above), changes in inequality are measured by looking at how the total annual income is distributed between each fifth (or “quintile”) of Canadian families from the lowest earning to highest earning for different years (Osberg, 2008). If perfect equality of income existed, each quintile would have earned exactly 20% of the total income. Instead, Table 7.2 shows that between 1951 and 1981 the top 20% of family units received around 42% of total income, but after 1981 this figure steadily increased to 47%. On the other hand, the share of income of the middle 60% of families declined by 4.7%, going from 53.8% to 49.1%. The lowest 20% also lost 0.5% of their already tiny share, going from 4.6% to 4.1%. Although the majority of people in Canada have not seen any growth in real income in three decades (Osberg, 2008), the average income of the top 1% grew by about 180% (Yalnizyan, 2010). Over this period, the share of the total income received by the top 1% has doubled, the top 0.1% has tripled, and the top 0.01% has quintupled (Yalnizyan, 2010).

Why is this news? For several decades, Lars Osberg notes that the joke was that the study of income inequality was like watching grass grow because nothing ever happened (2008). Between 1946 and 1981, changes in income inequality were small despite the fact the Canadian economy went through a massive transformation: It transformed from an agricultural base to an industrial base; the population urbanized and doubled in size; the overall production of wealth measured by gross domestic product (GDP ) increased by 4.5%; and per capita output increased by 227% (Osberg, 2008). As Osberg puts it, the key question was why did economic inequality not change during this period of massive transformation? From 1981 until the present, during another period of rapid and extensive economic change in which the overall production of wealth continued to expand, economic inequality has increased dramatically. What happened?

The main explanatory factor is that between 1946 and 1981 real wages increased in pace with the growth of the economy, but since 1981 only the top 20% of families have seen any meaningful increase in real income while the very wealthy have seen huge increases. The taxable income of the top 1% of families increased by 80% between 1982 and 2004 (Obsberg, 2008). Neoliberal policies of reduced state expenditures and tax cuts have been major factors in defining the difference between these two eras. The neoliberal theory that the benefits of tax cuts to the rich would “trickle down” to the middle class and the poor has proven false. The biggest losers with regard to neoliberal policy, of course, are the very poor. As Osberg notes, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that the homeless — those forced to beg in the streets and those dependent on food banks — began to appear in Canada in significant numbers (2008).

Some have argued that to the degree that equality of opportunity exists, inequality of condition or inequality of “outcome” is perhaps not fair, but it is justifiable. Others have argued that because capitalism is built on the basis of structural inequality, equality of condition is impossible. The idea that equality of opportunity — a meritocracy — actually exists and that it leads to a meaningful access to social mobility — the movement of people from one social position to another — is debatable, as we will see below. Also, it is important to note that if total equality of condition — a world where everyone’s social position and financial rewards would be exactly the same — is unlikely, varying degrees of social inequality are possible. In fact degrees of social inequality vary significantly between jurisdictions.

The Gini Index is a measure of income inequality in which zero is absolute equality and one is absolute inequality. Table 7.3 shows that Canada’s degree of inequality increased by 5% between 1980 and 2005 from a Gini Index of 0.38 to 0.43 (Osberg, 2008). From a comparative perspective, Canada’s Gini Index is much higher than many European countries but is lower than the extremes of inequality in the United States and Mexico (who are Canada’s NAFTA partners). See Table 7.4 (below). This comparison indicates that a much greater equality of condition can exist even under the same pressures of globalization if different social and economic policy models are chosen. Even though the countries with the lowest levels of inequality — Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Austria — have progressive tax systems and strong welfare states, they are able to maintain high levels of employment and economic growth while remaining “competitive” in the global economy (Osberg, 2010). If addressing poverty and inequality rather than promoting greater transfers of wealth to the rich is a reasonable goal, a variety of viable policy alternatives are available from which Canadians can choose. However, what needs to happen in order for Canadian governments (whatever their political affiliation) to support and promote policy alternatives that are more conducive to reducing social inequality?



7.4 Sociology and Social Class Analysis

Figure 7.6: The traditional working class — Miners in Nanaimo, B.C. (late 19th century). The Nanaimo coal mines were the site of a brutal two-year strike from 1912–1914 against low wages and dangerous working conditions. Source: Miners of Number One Mine, Nanaimo, at the pithead, B-03624 (Image is in the public domain and is courtesy of the Royal B.C. Museum)
Figure 7.7: The owning class—James and Laura Dunsmuir shown beside their Italian-style garden at their Hatley Castle residence near Victoria, B.C. (now part of Royal Roads University). James Dunsmuir was heir to his family’s coal fortune and managed the family coal operations on Vancouver Island from 1876–1910. He was a powerful spokesman for capitalist interests and anti-union efforts in B.C. and spent two years as B.C. Premier from 1900–1902. (Image is in the public domain and is courtesy of the Royal Roads University Archives.)


For sociologists, categorizing and analyzing social class is a fluid science. The chief division in the discipline is between Marxist and Weberian approaches to social class (Abercrombie & Urry, 1983). Marx’s analysis, as we saw earlier in this module, emphasized a materialist approach to the underlying structures of the capitalist economy. Marx’s definition of social class rested essentially on one variable: a group’s relation to the means of production (ownership or non-ownership of productive property or capital). In Marxist class analysis there are, therefore, two dominant classes in capitalism — the working class and the owning class — and any divisions within the classes based on occupation, status, education, etc. are less important than the tendency toward the increasing separation and polarization of these classes.

Often, Marx and Weber are perceived to be at odds in their approaches to class and social inequality, but it is perhaps better to see them as articulating different styles of analysis. Weber’s analysis presents a more complex model of the social hierarchy of capitalist society than Marx. Weber’s model goes beyond structural class position to include the variables of status (degree of social prestige or honour) and power (degree of political influence). Thus, Weber provides a multi-dimensional model of social hierarchy. It is important to note that although individuals might be from the same objective class, their position in the social hierarchy might differ according to their status and political influence. For example, women and men might be equal in terms of their class position, but because of the inequality in the status of the genders within each class, women as a group remain lower in the social hierarchy.

Weber defined social class slightly differently, as the “life chances” or opportunities to acquire rewards one shares in common with others by virtue of one’s possession of property, goods, or opportunities for income (1969). Owning property/capital or not owning property/capital is still the basic variable that defines a person’s class situation or life chances. However, class is defined with respect to markets rather than the process of production. It is the value of one’s products or skills on the labour market that determines whether one has greater or lesser life chances. This leads to a hierarchical class schema with many gradations. A surgeon who works in a hospital is a member of the working class in Marx’s model, just like cable TV technicians, for example, because he or she works for a wage or salary. Nevertheless the skill the surgeon sells is valued much more highly in the labour market than that of cable TV technicians because of the relative rarity of the skill, the number of years of education required to learn the skill, and the responsibilities involved in practising the skill.

Analyses of class inspired by Weber tend to emphasize gradations of status with regard to a number of variables like wealth, income, education, and occupation. Class stratification is not just determined by a group’s economic position but by the prestige of the group’s occupation, education level, consumption, and lifestyle. It is a matter of status — the level of honour or prestige one holds in the community by virtue of ones social position — as much as a matter of class. Based on the Weberian approach, some sociologists talk about upper, middle, and lower classes (with many subcategories within them) in a way that mixes status categories with class categories. These gradations are often referred to as a group’s socio-economic status (SES), their social position relative to others based on income, education, and occupation. For example, although plumbers might earn more than high school teachers and have greater life chances in a particular economy, the status division between blue-collar work (people who “work with their hands”) and white-collar work (people who “work with their minds”) means that plumbers, for example, are characterized as lower class but teachers as middle class. There is an arbitrariness to the division of classes into upper, middle, and lower.

However, this manner of classification based on status distinctions does capture something about the subjective experience of class and the shared lifestyle and consumption patterns of class that Marx’s categories often do not. An NHL hockey player receiving a salary of $6 million a year is a member of the working class, strictly speaking. He might even go on strike or get locked out according to the dynamic of capital/labour conflict described by Marx. Nevertheless it is difficult to see what the life chances of the hockey player have in common with a landscaper or truck driver, despite the fact they might share a common working-class background. Weber’s analysis, however, is descriptive rather than analytical. It can provide a useful description of differences between the levels or “strata” in a social hierarchy or stratification system, but does not provide an analysis of the formation of hierarchy itself.

On the other hand, Marx’s analysis of class is essentially one-dimensional. It has one variable: the relationship to the means of production. If one is a professional hockey player or a clerk in a supermarket, one works for a wage and is therefore a member of the working class. In this regard, his analysis challenges common sense as the difference between the different “fragments” of the working class — those who survive by selling their labour for a wage or salary — seem paramount, at least from the point of view of the subjective experience of class. It would seem that hockey players, doctors, lawyers, professors, and business executives have very little in common with grocery clerks, factory or agricultural workers, tradespersons, or low level administrative staff despite the fact that they all depend on being paid by someone. However, the key point of Marx’s analysis is not to ignore the existence of status distinctions within classes, but to examine class structure dialectically to provide a more comprehensive and historical picture of class dynamics.

Dialectics in sociology proposes that social contradiction, opposition, and struggle in society drive processes of social change and transformation. It emphasizes four components in its analysis (Naiman, 2012). The first is that everything in society is related — it is not possible to study social processes in isolation. The second is that everything in society is dynamic (i.e., in a process of continuous social change). It is not possible to study social processes as if they existed outside of history. The third is that the gradual accumulation of many social changes eventually create a qualitative transformation or social turning point.

The fourth analytical component of the dialectical approach is that the tensions that form around relationships of power and inequality in society are the key drivers of social change. In the language of Marx, these tensions are based on “contradictions” built into the organization of the economic or material relationships that structure our livelihoods, our relationships to each other, our relationship to the environment, and our place within the global community. The capitalist class and the working class do not simply exist side by side as other social groups do (e.g., model boat enthusiasts and Christian fundamentalists), but exist in a relationship of contradiction. Each class depends on the other for its existence, but their interests are fundamentally irreconcilable and therefore the relationship is fraught with tension and conflict. Social tensions and contradictions in society may simmer or they may erupt in struggle, but in either case it is not possible to study social processes as if they were independent of the historical formations of power that both structure them and destabilize them.

These dialectical qualities are also central to Marx’s account of the hierarchical structure of classes in capitalist society. The main point of the dialectical analysis of class is that the working class and the owning class have to be understood in relationship to one another. They emerged together out of the old class structure of feudalism, and each exists only because the other exists. The wages that define the wage labourer are paid by the capitalist; the profit and capital accumulated by the capitalist are products of the workers’ labour.

In Marx’s dialectical model, change occurs because the “unity” of this system is characterized by the struggle of opposites (i.e., the classes are “structurally in conflict” because of the contradiction in their class interests). The composition of classes changes over time; the statuses of different occupations vary; the proportions between workers’ income and capitalists’ profit change; and the types of production and the means of production change (through the introduction of labour saving technologies, globalization, new commodities, etc.). In addition, change proceeds from the quantitative to the qualitative in the sense that changes in purely quantitative variables like salary, working conditions, unemployment levels, rates of profitability, etc. lead to changes in qualitative variables like the subjective experience of class, the divisions of “left” and “right” in political struggles, and the formation of class consciousness.

Thus, the strength of Marx’s analysis is its ability to go beyond a description of where different groups fit within the class structure at a given moment in time to an analysis of why those groups and their relative positions change with respect to one another. The dialectical approach reveals the underlying logic of class structure as a dynamic system and the potential commonality of interests and subjective experiences that define class-consciousness. As a result, in an era in which the precariousness of many high status jobs has become clearer, the divisions of economic interests between the different segments of the working class becomes less so.

Social class is, therefore, a complex category to analyze. Social class has both a strictly material quality relating to a group’s structural position within the economic system, and a social quality relating to the formation of status gradations, common subjective perceptions of class, political divisions in society, and class-based lifestyles and consumption patterns. Taking into account both the Marxist and Weberian models, social class has at least three objective components: a group’s position in the occupational structure, a group’s position in the authority structure (i.e., who has authority over whom), and a group’s position in the property structure (i.e., ownership or non-ownership of capital). It also has an important subjective component that relates to recognitions of status, distinctions of lifestyle, and ultimately how people perceive their place in the class hierarchy.

One way of distinguishing the classes that takes this complexity into account is by focusing on the authority structure. Classes can be divided according to how much relative power and control members of a class have over their lives. On this basis, we might distinguish between the owning class (or bourgeoisie), the middle class, and the traditional working class. The owning class not only have power and control over their own lives, their economic position gives them power and control over others’ lives as well. To the degree that we can talk about a “middle class” composed of small business owners and educated, professional, or administrative labour, it is because they do not generally control other strata of society, but they do exert control over their own work to some degree. In contrast, the traditional working class has little control over their work or lives. Below, we will explore the major divisions of Canadian social class and their key subcategories.

7.5 Class Structure in Canada

7.5.1 The Owning Class

A luxurious house with a golf course.
Figure 7.8. Members of the upper class can afford to live, work, and play in exclusive places designed for luxury and comfort. (Goldwater Estate by Ben Freedman is available under a CC BY 2.0 License.)

The owning class is considered Canada’s top, and only the powerful elite get to see the view from there. In Canada, the richest 86 people (or families) account for 0.002 percent of the population, but in 2012 they had accumulated the equivalent wealth of the lowest 34 percent of the country’s population (McDonald, 2014). The combined net worth of these 86 families added up to $178 billion in 2012, which equalled the net worth of the lowest 11.4 million Canadians. In terms of income, in 2007 the average income of the richest 0.01 percent of Canadians was $3.833 million (Yalnizyan, 2010).

Money provides not just access to material goods, but also access to power. Canada’s owning class wields a lot of power. As corporate leaders, their decisions affect the job status of millions of people. As media owners, they shape the collective identity of the nation. They run the major network television stations, radio broadcasts, newspapers, magazines, publishing houses, and sports franchises. As philanthropists, they establish foundations to support social causes they believe in. They also fund think tanks like the C. D. Howe Institute and the Fraser Institute that promote the values and interests of business elites. As campaign contributors, they influence politicians and fund campaigns, usually to protect their own economic interests.

Canadian society has historically distinguished between “old money” (inherited wealth passed from one generation to the next) and “new money” (wealth you have earned and built yourself). While both types may have equal net worth, they have traditionally held different social standing. People of old money, firmly situated in the upper class for generations, have held high prestige. Their families have socialized them to know the customs, norms, and expectations that come with wealth. Often, the very wealthy do not work for wages. Some study business or become lawyers in order to manage the family fortune.

New money members of the owning class are not oriented to the customs and mores of the elite. They have not gone to the most exclusive schools. They have not established old-money social ties. People with new money might flaunt their wealth, buying sports cars and mansions, but they might still exhibit behaviours attributed to the middle and lower classes. For example, Toronto politicians Rob (deceased, 2016) and Doug Ford were estimated to hold family assets worth $50 million, yet they presented themselves as just “average guys” aligned with their blue-collar constituents against “rich elitist people” (McArther, 2013; Warner, 2014). Rob Ford’s infamous crack cocaine smoking, public binge drinking, and use of foul language would not make him at home within the circles of old money in Canada.

7.5.2 The Middle Class

A group of women professionally dressed sit around a table talking.
Figure 7.9. These members of a club likely consider themselves middle class. (Photo by United Way Canada-Centraide Canada is available under a CC BY 2.0 License.)

Many people call themselves middle class, but there are differing ideas about what that means. People with annual incomes of $150,000 call themselves middle class, as do people who annually earn $30,000. That helps explain why some sociologists divide the middle class into upper and lower subcategories. These divisions are based on gradations of status defined by levels of education, types of work, cultural capital, and the lifestyles afforded by income.

Upper-middle-class people tend to hold bachelor’s and postgraduate degrees in subjects such as business, management, law, or medicine that lead to occupations in the professions. Professions are occupations that claim high levels of specialized technical and intellectual expertise and are governed and regulated by autonomous professional organizations (like the Canadian Medical Association or legal bar associations). Lower-middle-class members hold bachelor’s degrees or associate’s degrees from two-year community or technical colleges that lead to various types of white collar, service, administrative, or paraprofessional occupations.

Comfort is a key concept to the middle class. Middle-class people work hard and live fairly comfortable lives. Upper-middle-class people tend to pursue careers that earn comfortable incomes. They provide their families with large homes and nice cars. They may go skiing or boating on vacation. Their children receive quality educations (Gilbert, 2010).

In the lower middle class, people hold jobs supervised by members of the upper middle class. They fill technical, lower-level management or administrative support positions. Compared to traditional working-class work, lower-middle-class jobs carry more prestige and come with slightly higher paycheques. With these incomes, people can afford a decent, mainstream lifestyle, but they struggle to maintain it. They generally do not have enough income to build significant savings. In addition, their grip on class status is more precarious than in the upper tiers of the class system. When budgets are tight, lower-middle-class people are often the ones to lose their jobs.

7.5.3 The Traditional Working Class

A man is shown scrubbing floors and walls beneath a group of sinks in a restaurant kitchen.
Figure 7.10. This man is a custodian at a restaurant. His job, which is crucial to the business, is considered lower class. (Restaurant chains outsource cleaning by Frederick Md Publicity is available under a CC BY 2.0 License.)

The traditional working class is sometimes also referred to as being part of the lower class. Just like the middle and upper classes, the lower class can be divided into subsets: the working class, the working poor, and the underclass. Compared to the middle class, traditional working-class people have less of an educational background and usually earn smaller incomes. While there are many working-class trades that require skill and pay middle-class wages, the majority often work jobs that require little prior skill or experience, doing routine tasks under close supervision.

Traditional working-class people, the highest subcategory of the lower class, are usually equated with blue-collar types of jobs: “wage-workers who are engaged in the production of commodities, the extraction of natural resources, the production of food, the operation of the transportation network required for production and distribution, the construction industry, and the maintenance of energy and communication networks” (Veltmeyer, 1986, p. 83). The work is considered blue collar because it is hands-on and often physically demanding. The term “blue collar” comes from the traditional blue coveralls worn by manual labourers.

Beneath those in the working class are the working poor. Like some sections of the working class, they have unskilled, low-paying employment. However, their jobs rarely offer benefits such as retirement planning, and their positions are often seasonal or temporary. They work as migrant farm workers, house cleaners, and day labourers. Some are high school dropouts. Some are illiterate, unable to read job ads. Many do not vote because they do not believe that any politician will help change their situation (Beeghley, 2008).

How can people work full time and still be poor? Even working full time, more than a million of the working poor earn incomes too meagre to support a family. In 2012, 1.8 million working people (including 540,000 working full time year round) earned less than Statistic Canada’s low income cut-off level, which defines poverty in Canada (Johnstone & Cooper, 2013). Minimum wage varies from province to province, from $9.95/h in Alberta to $11/h in Nunavut and Ontario (Retail Council of Canada, 2014). However, it is estimated that a living wage — based on a 35-hour work week — is $19.14/h in Vancouver, $16.60/h in Toronto, and $14.95/h in Hamilton (differences due to the difference in cost of living in these locations). A living wage is the amount needed to meet a family’s basic needs and enable them to participate in community life (Johnstone & Cooper, 2013).  Even for a single person, minimum wage is low. A married couple with children will have a hard time covering expenses.

The underclass or lumpenproletariat is Canada’s lowest tier. Members of the underclass live mainly in inner cities. Many are unemployed or underemployed. Those who do hold jobs typically perform menial tasks for little pay. Some of the underclass are homeless. For many, welfare systems provide a much-needed support through food assistance, medical care, housing, and the like. However, why, as indicated in the wealth inequality videos for Canada and the United States have social welfare programs for the poor declined since the 1980’s and social inequality increased? Moreover, why is inequality increasing at a time when productivity is increasing?

7.6 Theoretical Perspectives on Social Inequality

Basketball is one of the highest-paying professional sports. There is stratification even among teams. For example, the Minnesota Timberwolves hand out the lowest annual payroll, while the Los Angeles Lakers reportedly pay the highest. Kobe Bryant, a Lakers shooting guard who retired in 2016, was one of the highest paid athletes in the NBA, earning around $25 million a year (Basketballreference.com, 2011). Even within specific fields, layers are stratified and members are ranked.

In sociology, even an issue such as NBA salaries can be seen from various points of view. Functionalists will examine the purpose of such high salaries, while critical sociologists will study the exorbitant salaries as an unfair distribution of money. Social stratification takes on new meanings when it is examined from different sociological perspectives — functionalism, critical sociology, and interpretive sociology.

7.6.1 Functionalism

In sociology, the functionalist perspective examines how society’s parts operate. According to functionalism, different aspects of society exist because they serve a needed purpose. What is the function of social stratification?

In 1945, sociologists Kingsley Davis (1908-1997) and Wilbert Moore (1914-1987) published the Davis-Moore thesis, which argued that the greater the functional importance of a social role, the greater must be the reward. The theory posits that social stratification represents the inherently unequal value of different work. Certain tasks in society are more valuable than others. Qualified people who fill those positions must be rewarded more than others.

According to Davis and Moore, a firefighter’s job is more important than, for instance, a grocery store cashier’s job. The cashier position does not require the same skill and training level as firefighting. Without the incentive of higher pay and better benefits, why would someone be willing to rush into burning buildings? If pay levels were the same, the firefighter might as well work as a grocery store cashier. Davis and Moore believed that rewarding more important work with higher levels of income, prestige, and power encourages people to work harder and longer.

Davis and Moore stated that, in most cases, the degree of skill required for a job determines that job’s importance. They also stated that the more skill required for a job, the fewer qualified people there would be to do that job. Certain jobs, such as cleaning hallways or answering phones, do not require much skill. The employees don’t need a college degree. Other work, like designing a highway system or delivering a baby, requires immense skill.

In 1953, Melvin Tumin (1919-1994) countered the Davis-Moore thesis in Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis. Tumin questioned what determined a job’s degree of importance. The Davis-Moore thesis does not explain, he argued, why a media personality with little education, skill, or talent becomes famous and rich on a reality show or a campaign trail. The thesis also does not explain inequalities in the education system, or inequalities due to race or gender. Tumin believed social stratification prevented qualified people from attempting to fill roles (1953). For example, an underprivileged youth has less chance of becoming a scientist, no matter how smart he or she is, because of the relative lack of opportunity available.

The Davis-Moore thesis, though open for debate, was an early attempt to explain why stratification exists. The thesis states that social stratification is necessary to promote excellence, productivity, and efficiency, thus giving people something to strive for. Davis and Moore believed that the system serves society as a whole because it allows everyone to benefit to a certain extent.

7.6.2 Critical Sociology

CCF promotional poster. Long description available.
Figure 7.11. “Towards the Dawn,” a 1930s promotional poster for the Saskatchewan Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) (Image is in the Public Domain and is courtesy of the Rosetown and District Archives)

Critical sociologists are deeply critical of social inequality, asserting that it benefits only some people not all of society. For instance, to a critical sociologist it seems problematic that after a long period of increasing equality of incomes from World War II to the 1970s, the wealthiest 1 percent of income earners have been increasing their share of the total income of Canadians from 7.7 percent in 1977 to 13.8 percent in 2007 (Yalnizyan, 2010). In 1982, the median income earner in the top 1 percent of incomes earned seven times more than the median income earner in the other 99 percent. In 2010, the median income earner in the top 1 percent earned ten times more. Moreover, while the median income for the top 1 percent increased from $191,600 to $283,000 in constant dollars (i.e., adjusted for inflation), the median income for the bottom 99 percent only increased from $28,000 to $28,400 (Statistics Canada, 2013). Canada’s richest 1 percent took almost a third (32 percent) of all growth in incomes in 2007 (Yalnizyan, 2010).

Critical sociologists view this “great U-turn” in income equality over the 20th and 21st centuries as a product of both the ability of corporate elites to grant themselves huge salary and bonus increases and the shift toward neoliberal public policy and tax cuts. Rather than creating conditions in which wealth trickles down, tax cuts and neoliberal policies tremendously benefit the rich at the expense of the poor. This is an example of the way that stratification perpetuates inequality. Contrary to the analysis of functionalists, huge corporate bonuses continued to be awarded even when dysfunctional corporate and financial mismanagement of the economy led to the global financial crisis of 2008. Nor is it the case that corporate elites work harder to merit more rewards. Over the period of increasing inequality in income, the only group not working more weeks and hours in the paid workforce is the richest 10 percent of families (Yalnizyan, 2007).

Critical sociologists try to bring awareness to inequalities, such as how a rich society can have so many poor members. Many critical sociologists draw on the work of Karl Marx. During the 19th-century era of industrialization, Marx analyzed the way the owning class or capitalists raked in profits and got rich, while working-class proletarians earned skimpy wages and struggled to survive. With such opposing interests, the two groups were divided by differences of wealth and power. Marx saw workers experience deep exploitation, alienation, and misery resulting from class power (Marx, 1848). He also predicted that the growing collective impoverishment of the working class would lead them, through the leadership of unions, to recognize their common class interests. A common class “consciousness” uniting different types of labour would lead to the revolutionary conditions whereby the working class could throw off their “fetters” and overthrow the capitalists. With the abolition of private property (i.e., productive property) and collective ownership of the means of production, Marx imagined that class conflict could be ended forever. A “communist” society that abolished the private ownership of the means of production would be a true democracy. Marx did not live see the state socialist systems in the Soviet Union and elsewhere that called themselves communist but ended up replacing capitalist-based inequality with bureaucratic-based inequality.

Today, while working conditions have improved, critical sociologists believe that the strained working relationship between employers and employees still exists. Capitalists own the means of production, and a neoliberal political system is in place to make business owners rich and keep workers poor. Moreover, the privileged position of the middle classes has been steadily eroded by growing inequalities of wealth and income. Some sociologists argue that the middle class is becoming proletarianized, meaning that in terms of income, property, control over working conditions, and overall life chances, the middle class is becoming more and more indistinguishable from the wage-earning working class (Abercrombie & Urry, 1983).  Nevertheless, according to critical sociologists, increasing social inequality is neither inevitable nor necessary.

7.6.3 Interpretive Sociology

Within interpretive sociology, symbolic interactionism is a theory that uses everyday interactions of individuals to explain society as a whole. Symbolic interactionism examines stratification from a micro-level perspective. This analysis strives to explain how people’s social standing affects their everyday interactions.

In most communities, people interact primarily with others who share the same social standing. It is precisely because of social stratification that people tend to live, work, and associate with others like themselves, people who share their same income level, educational background, or racial background, and even tastes in food, music, and clothing. The built-in system of social stratification groups people together.

Symbolic interactionists also note that people’s appearance reflects their perceived social standing. Housing, clothing, and transportation indicate social status, as do hairstyles, taste in accessories, and personal style. Pierre Bourdieu’s (1930-2002) concept of cultural capital suggests that cultural “assets” such as education and taste are accumulated and passed down between generations in the same manner as financial capital or wealth (1984). This marks individuals from an early age by such things as knowing how to wear a suit or having an educated manner of speaking. In fact the children of parents with a postsecondary degree are 60 percent likely to attend university themselves, while the children of parents with less than a high school education have only a 32 percent chance of attending university (Shaienks & Gluszynski, 2007).

Cultural capital is capital also in the sense of an investment, as it is expensive and difficult to attain while providing access to better occupations. Bourdieu argued that the privilege accorded to those who hold cultural capital is a means of reproducing the power of the ruling classes. People with the “wrong” cultural attributes have difficulty attaining the same privileged status. Cultural capital becomes a key measure of distinction between social strata.

Imelda Marcos' shoes in a glass display case.
Figure 7.12. Imelda Marcos, the wife of the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was reputed to be one of the ten wealthiest woman in the world in 1975. When her husband was deposed in 1986, the couple fled leaving behind 2,000 to 3,000 shoes from world renowned designers Ferragamo, Givenchy, Chanel, and Christian Dior. (Imelda Marcos shoes by Vince_Lamb is available under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 License.)

In the Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929) described the activity of conspicuous consumption as the tendency of people to buy things as a display of status rather than out of need. Conspicuous consumption refers to buying certain products to make a social statement about status. Carrying pricey but eco-friendly water bottles could indicate a person’s social standing. Some people buy expensive trendy sneakers even though they will never wear them to jog or play sports. A $17,000 car provides transportation as easily as a $100,000 vehicle, but the luxury car makes a social statement that the less-expensive car can’t live up to. All of these symbols of stratification are worthy of examination by interpretive sociologists because their social significance is determined by the shared meanings they hold.

Our discussion of social inequality and social stratification is developed further in Module 8 with an examination of global stratification and patterns of global inequality.

Key Terms and Concepts

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 (eg. occupation, educational level, moral character, etc.).

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

bourgeoisie: In capitalism, the owning class who live from the proceeds of owning or controlling productive property (capital assets like factories and machinery, or capital itself in the form of investments, stocks, and bonds).

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 factors like wealth, income, education, and occupation.

class system: Social standing based on social factors and individual accomplishments.

class traits: The typical behaviours, customs, and norms that define each class, also called class markers.

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: A thesis that argues some social stratification is a social necessity.

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

empire: A new supra-national, global form of sovereignty whose territory is the entire globe.

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

equality of condition: 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.

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.

global stratification: A comparison of the wealth, economic stability, status, and power of countries as a whole.

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

intergenerational mobility: A difference in social class between different generations of a family.

intragenerational mobility: A difference in social class between different members of the same generation.

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 used to produce the goods and services needed for survival: tools, technologies, resources, land, workplaces, etc.

meritocracy: An ideal system in which personal effort—or merit—determines social standing.

neoliberalism: 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.

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

proletariat: Those who seek to establish a sustainable standard of living by maintaining the level of their wages and the level of employment in society.

proletarianization (the act of being proletarianized): The process in which the work conditions of the middle class 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: A socioeconomic system that divides society’s members into categories ranking from high to low, based on things like wealth, power, and prestige.

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

standard of living: The level of wealth available to acquire material goods and comforts to maintain a particular socioeconomic 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 social categories like income, education, and occupation.

structural mobility: When societal changes enable a whole group of people to move up or down the class ladder.

upward mobility: An increase — or upward shift — in social class.

wealth: The value of money and assets a person has from, for example, inheritance

7.7 References

Abercrombie, N., & Urry, J. (1983). Capital, labour and the middle classes. London, UK: George Allen & Unwin.

Beeghley, L. (2008). The structure of social stratification in the United States. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction: A social critique of the judgement of taste. New York, NY: Routledge.

Boyd, M. (2008). A socioeconomic scale for Canada: measuring occupational status from the census. Canadian Review of Sociology, 45(1), 51-91.

Corak, M., Curtis, L., & Phipps, S. (2010). Economic mobility, family background, and the well-being of children in the United States and Canada. [PDF] Institute for the Study of Labor. (Discussion paper no. 4814). Bonn, Germany. Retrieved from http://ftp.iza.org/dp4814.pdf.

Davis, K., & Moore, W. E. (1945). Some principles of stratificationAmerican Sociological Review, 10(2), 242–249. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2085643.

Gilbert, D. (2010). The American class structure in an age of growing inequality. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. (2010). Average annual percentage wage adjustments. Retrieved from  http://www.hrsdc.gc.ca/eng/labour/labour_relations/info_analysis/wages/adjustments/2010/09/quarterly.shtml.

Johnstone, A., & Cooper, T. (2013, May 1). It pays to pay a living wage. CCPA Monitor. Retrieved from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/publications/monitor/it-pays-pay-living-wage.

Kashmeri, Z. (1990, October 13). Segregation deeply embedded in India. The Globe and Mail. 

Kerbo, H. (2006). Social stratification and inequality: Class conflict in historical, comparative, and global perspective. Boston, MA: McGraw Hill.

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1977). The communist manifesto. In D. McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 221–247). London, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1848.)

Marx, K. (1848). Manifesto of the Communist Party. Retrieved from http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/.

McDonald, D. (2014). Outrageous fortune: Documenting Canada’s wealth gap. [PDF] Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Retrieved from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2014/04/Outrageous_Fortune.pdf.

McFarland, J. (2011, May 29). Back in the green: CEO pay jumps 13 per cent. The Globe and Mail.  Retrieved from http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/management/back-in-the-green-ceo-pay-jumps-13-per-cent/article582023/.

Osberg, L. (2008). A quarter century of economic inequality in Canada: 1981-2006. [PDF]  Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Retrieved from http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National_Office_Pubs/2008/Quarter_Century_of_Inequality.pdf.

Retail Council of Canada. (2014). Minimum wage by province. RCC: The Voice of Retail. Retrieved from http://www.retailcouncil.org/quickfacts/minimum-wage.

Rogers, T., & Brehl, R. (2008). Ted Rogers: Relentless. The true story of the man behind Rogers Communications. Toronto, ON: HarperCollins.

Shaienks, D., & Gluszynski, T. (2007). Participation in postsecondary education. Culture, Tourism and the Centre for Education Statistics Research Papers. Statistics Canada. Retrieved from  http://www.pisa.gc.ca/eng/participation.shtml.

Statistics Canada. (2013, January 28). The Daily — High-income trends among Canadian taxfilers, 1982 to 2010. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/130128/dq130128a-eng.htm.

Statistics Canada. (2013, January 28). The daily — high-income trends among Canadian taxfilers, 1982 to 2010. Retrieved from http://www.statcan.gc.ca/daily-quotidien/130128/dq130128a-eng.htm.

Townsend, P. (1979). Poverty in the United Kingdom. London, UK: Penguin.

Tumin, M. M. (1953). Some principles of stratification: A critical analysis. American Sociological Review, 18(4), 387–394.

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Veblen, T. (1994). The theory of the leisure class. New York, NY: Dover. (Original work published 1899).

Veltmeyer, H. (1986). Canadian class structure. Toronto, ON: Garamond.

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Weber, M. (1969). Class, status and party. In Gerth & Mills (Eds.), Max Weber: Essays in sociology (pp. 180-195). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Yalnizyan, A. (2007, March 1). The rich and the rest of us: The changing face of Canada’s growing gap. [PDF] Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Retrieved from https://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National_Office_Pubs/2007/The_Rich_and_the_Rest_of_Us.pdf.

Yalnizyan, A. (2010). The rise of Canada’s richest 1%. [PDF] Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.  Retrieved from http://www.policyalternatives.ca/sites/default/files/uploads/publications/National%20Office/2010/12/Richest%201%20Percent.pdf.


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