States and Stratified Societies

A Slippery Slope

By Alana L. Jolley – 2013

As stated elsewhere on this site, theories about culture and/or the aspects of culture are not our main focus; however, stratification of societies is one area where it seems appropriate to talk about theory.  As mentioned earlier, the study of culture is so vast that it is not possible to discuss every viewpoint.  Students are encouraged to research on their own about any of the topics that are offered on Its All About Culture.  That being said, the topic of stratification of society is pertinent to the discussions relating to evolution of culture and the political organizations of bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.

The reason this lecture is termed a slippery slope is because there are numerous theories and controversies as to how and why stratification came about in state societies in the first place. Evolution of tribes and chiefdoms into state societies took a very long time; so it is no wonder that the slate of ideas of how and why this happened are varied and slippery.  States are associated with agriculture and domestication of animals, which is possibly the greatest and most far-reaching of all cultural adaptations.  Those adaptations changed the very culture core of those people who took to farming, and this is why it is often termed a “revolution.”

The topics of socialization and enculturation (learning ones own culture) are related to evolution of culture; so here I will introduce students to the stratification theories promoted by a well-known German sociologist, Max Weber (1864-1920).  He first published his three-layered theory of stratification in 1920.  His theory has been criticized, disputed, and given less credibility by others considering themselves more accomplished or knowledgeable since his death, but Weber’s work has much relevance in today’s globalized world, where states are struggling to survive in many places.  The slippery slope is still very slippery, as humanity must face the consequences of our own actions, which are depleting natural resources, and are responsible for disappearing rain forests and extinctions of other natural flora and fauna.

According to Weber, three terms are related to stratification of societies.  They are; power, status, and class.  Though Weber was influenced greatly by Karl Marx’s own theories fifty years earlier, Weber did not believe a communistic state would be a viable society in the long-term.  He also believed that a communistic state would require even more bureaucracy than one that maintained economic structures around capitalism.

Weber’s class divisions were: upper class, upper middle class or white-collar workers, middle class, and the manual working class, often called blue collar workers.  He built his theory on the social structures of his native Germany, where he noticed that many members of the aristocracy had little wealth, yet they had strong political power.  Weber’s observation might be compared to the United States Congress.  Those people who are elected to the U. S. Congress have a great deal of power, but overall are generally not considered wealthy aristocrats.  Weber also noted that wealthy families did not always have a great deal of power for a variety of reasons.  He maintained that the three terms of power, status, and class were the determining factors for social stratification, not just capital.

Weber’s three terms are defined as follows:

Max Weber, sociologo

Max Weber (1864-1920)

Class is a person’s economic position in society, based on birth and achievements; status is about a person’s prestige, honor, or perhaps even his/her popularity; whereas power is a person’s ability to persuade and influence others in spite of any resistance.

When we examine bands as a political organization, we notice that there is no power granted to any person due to economic circumstances, because bands are egalitarian.  However being egalitarian does not mean that someone in the band may not have prestige or popularity.  There may also be a person who has some power by way of persuasion or influence.  But bands are very small and kin-related, so people may be persuaded more by relationships than something more relevant.

A question that has been asked time and again is why would people give up their egalitarian ways of living for one where there is inequality at all levels?  We never know exactly why people do what they do, but perhaps the bands, tribes, and chiefdoms were experiencing some of the same things that humanity is facing today.  Glaciers were melting, climates were changing, animals and plants were becoming extinct, either by natural means or by overhunting, populations were growing, and technologies were changing.  Ten thousand years ago there were no automobiles, no factories, and no air pollution.  Perhaps those living in those uncertain times just had to make deliberate decisions about how to change the way they were living their lives.  Those problems sound rather familiar.

 The more people located in a community, the more organizational structures have to be developed.  In populated societies there is need for specialists in many crafts, and those people are non-food producers, yet they still must be fed, clothed, and sheltered.  Talented specialists may gain a great deal of power, especially if their skills are necessary for the survival of the community.  Such power is an achieved status.

 Visiting the slippery slope again, and attempting to define a stratified society, we can say for sure that a stratified society is one in which a great deal of inequality exists, but human beings themselves are not equal – and occupations are not equal – and judgments of what is considered upper class, middle class, and lower class is different among those with various degrees of intelligence and education.  The sharp lines of inequality are more due to culture than to anything else because all state societies are sociologically and economically splintered into various categories that are culturally constructed.  What is considered upper class in one society may not have such high status in another.

 Thus, we see how the evolution of hierarchies began, both achieved and ascribed.  Even small states today have a huge degree of bureaucracy, with many tiers of authority and much stratification.  The larger the state, and the more dense the population, the greater the need for more tiers of authority and bureaucracy.  The more tiers of authority and bureaucracy that are needed leads to a more stratified society to maintain order, which is the primary goal of every state government.

Social stratification visually.

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