Section I: Inequalities

Social Inequality – An Overview…

Topic 2: Social InequalityClick image to enlarge.

Much of the work of sociology focuses on social problems that result from inequalities. Social inequality may be defined as unequal opportunities for individuals based on their membership in a particular social group. The United States, like most countries, is socially stratified with some groups having greater opportunities than others. Sociologists refer to this as a system of social stratification. Inherently, systems of stratification (which include slavery, feudalism, the caste system, and the social class system) are unfair and create divisions within a society.

According to Max Weber, a person’s status, or position within a stratified social system, is determined by their relative power, prestige, and wealth. Power is the ability to convince others to do what we want them to do. Powerful people, also known as elites, are successful at controlling the political, economic, social, and cultural institutions of a society. As elites they gain a great deal of prestige, or esteem, from their occupation, rank, political position, or relative importance in the community. Elites may use their positions of power to maintain their high statuses as well as to acquire large amounts of wealth, either in terms or money or property.

Inequalities exist in the US today. Access to jobs, fair wages, good housing, and educational opportunities are still dependent upon factors such as race/ethnicity, gender, sex, sexuality, age, and other statuses.


The unequal distribution of resources and opportunities inherent in socially stratified societies is often based upon the ascribed statuses of individuals. Ascribed statuses are the social characteristics that an individual holds as a result of birth (like sex, gender, race, family origins, and ethnic background). They are distinct from the achieved status that an individual earns over their life course (like educational attainment). A master status is the social position through which one sees oneself throughout the life course. It is integral to one’s sense of social identity and overshadows all other social positions. Let’s look at two ascribed statuses that are often viewed as master statuses of individuals and are integrally linked to inequality: sex/gender and race/ethnicity.

Race and Ethnicity

Race is not a biological or genetic fact, but a socially constructed myth (Thio 2007; 234). There is no statistically significant difference in the genetic makeup between racial groups; thus, it is often said that race is socially constructed. These classifications are assigned to people on the basis of often arbitrary differences like the shape of the nose, the degree of pigmentation in the skin, and the texture of the hair. There is in fact more genetic variation within a particular racial group than between racial groups. Nonetheless, the perception of racial differences is a powerful social force.

While we understand that race is a social classification and not a biological one, it is still a very meaningful concept to most people in America. Even the US federal government acknowledges the lack of a scientific basis of racial categories, yet continues to create distinctions between peoples. The salience of race to individual identity, to group affiliation, to legal code, economics, and almost all areas of social life is clear. The question arises then that, if these terms we use like white, black, Asian, and Hispanic, are social constructs and are not reflected in any great biological differences, then why are they still embedded in our institutional structures and everyday interaction? Why is race so important to how we define ourselves and our relationships in American life?

Race & Ethnicity

Minority and Dominant Groups

The distinction must be made that an ethnic or racial minority group is not necessarily the group with the least number of individuals, but people who lack power within the stratified social order. A minority is thus a group “that is subjected to prejudice and discrimination” (Thio 2007; 234) while the dominant group holds greater power, privilege, and prestige within the society. Interestingly, ethnic group identity increases when the group has fewer members, has little relative power, and experiences higher levels of prejudice and discrimination.

Prejudicial attitudes and the belief in stereotypes clearly influence people’s willingness to be open to those who are different from themselves. Often underlying this prejudice is a feeling that one’s own group is somehow superior, a concept known as ethnocentrism. Most damaging is when prejudice leads to discriminatory practices or treating people inequitably on the basis of their race or ethnicity (aka racism). This unfair treatment can be systemic or individual. Individual discrimination occurs when one person treats another unfavorably. Yet, an entire social system or institution may establish practices that favor one racial or ethnic group above others. Racial stratification has become institutionalized in law, criminal justice, education, the economy, healthcare, politics, and even where we may choose to live.

Sex vs. Gender

Typically, we think of the terms sex and gender as having only dichotomous possibilities: male/female and masculine/feminine. Yet, as seen through the sociological lens, these classifications do not capture the reality and diversity of individuals. They are each myths or social constructs in their own way.

A person’s sex is clearly linked to biological characteristics: XY vs. XX chromosomes, genitalia and other sex organs, hormonal levels, and secondary sex characteristics, such as muscularity, body hair, and breast development. Thio (2007) explains that “nature makes women and men different, but these differences do not add up to female inferiority or male superiority” (267). Great variation and overlap exists in the biology of males and females. Recent understanding of the variety and diversity of combinations of chromosomal, hormonal, and physiological body types has challenged the traditional conception of male and female. Medical science now recognizes individuals whose chromosomal makeup differs from their other sex characteristics, a condition known as intersexuality. Only about 1% of the population may be said to have “non-standard” sexual characteristics. While a small percentage, this may still cause us to reconsider the biologically-defined division between male and female. In fact, it may be argued that sex itself is a social construct as society interprets biological differences and assigns an individual to the categories of male or female.

In the United States, gender is often considered along a continuum of masculinity and femininity. At the poles of the continuum would be the hegemonic male (tough, muscular, rugged) and the hegemonic female (soft, demure, sexy) with a range of gender types in between. However, many psychologists and sociologists agree that this bi-polar model is too limiting to explain the array of gendered expression in society. In fact, Cornell University psychologist Saundra Bem devised the Bem Sex Role Inventory (BSRI) to test a person’s masculinity and femininity as independent scales or axes, thus allowing for combinations such as high masculinity and high femininity, and low masculinity and low femininity.

Gender Socialization

While sex is linked to biological determinants, gender is clearly shaped by society through a process of socialization. “However a society defines gender roles, its socializing agents pass that definition from generation to generation” (Thio 2007; 268). These agents of socialization (the family, school, peers, the media, the church, and other institutions) begin shaping individuals as soon as they are born. Primary socialization, occurring between infancy and adolescence, is instrumental in shaping our gender identities. The family plays a central role during this period and has been found to reinforce gender stereotypes: “Females were socialized to be dependent, fragile, unaggressive, sensitive, nurturant, and hesitant to take risks. Males were seen as being socialized in the home to be strong, confident, independent, and daring” (Peters 1994). Socialization reinforces gender roles. These social roles influence our life choices, from what toys a child plays with, what a person may study, and even the jobs they may consider. They also shape our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Gender roles tell us what is the appropriately gendered way to express anger or sadness, when to be aggressive or passive, and when to speak or be quiet.

Inequalities: Education, Work, and Politics

Just a few decades ago, it was expected that based on gender roles, a woman would get married, remain at home to raise her children, attend to the home, and take care of her husband. Few options were open to women who wanted to pursue a career outside of “acceptable” fields like teaching or nursing. Education for the few women who completed a higher degree was limited mostly to women’s colleges. Interestingly, while fewer men today are enrolling in higher education, women are still found in greater numbers in majors that lead to lower-paying professions. By all measures, women earn less than 75% of the pay of men (Institute for Women’s Policy Research). More importantly, Gettings et al. (2007) point out that though women work in almost equal numbers to men, “only eight Fortune 500 companies have women CEOs or presidents, and 67 of those 500 companies don’t have any women corporate officers.” This lack of women in corporate leadership roles has been seen as evidence of a “glass ceiling” limiting women’s advancement and parity with men.

Additionally, women have been almost entirely barred from political life. Until the 1920s women could not vote. In recent years women have made only modest gains, limited in part by what Thio calls a “double bind.” He explains, “If a woman campaigned vigorously, she would likely be regarded as a neglectful wife and mother. If she was an attentive wife and mother, she was apt to be judged incapable of devoting energy to public office.” Disproportionality may clearly be seen in the number of women elected to public office. Though 51% of the population is female, less than 2% of seats in the Senate have gone to women; there have only been 35 women senators in 219 years. Things have only improved marginally; currently 16 women are seated in the Senate. Gender was also a central issue in the 2008 presidential campaign (see Baird 2008, and Devney 2008).

Intersectionality of Statuses

Statuses such as race/ethnicity, nationality, class, gender/sex, sexuality, age, etc. do not operate independently from one another. Our social identities are made up of the intersectionality of all of these statuses. According to Brah and Phoenix (2004)[1] intersectionality is “the complex, irreducible, varied, and variable effects which ensue when multiple axes of differentiation—economic, political, cultural, psychic, subjective and experiential—intersect in historically specific contexts. The concept emphasizes that different dimensions of social life cannot be separated out into discrete and pure strands.” Put another way, intersectionality is a sociological perspective that seeks to explain systematic social inequality as socially and culturally constructed and operating on multiple levels simultaneously.

[1] Brah, Avtar and Ann Phoenix. (2004). “Ain’t I A Woman? Revisiting Intersectionality.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 5(3).


Julia S. Jordan-Zachery. (2007) “Am I a Black Woman or a Woman Who Is Black? A Few Thoughts on the Meaning of Intersectionality.” Politics & Gender, 3: 254–263. Online at: “”

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