Definition of Stratification
Social stratification means the division of groups of people, in a hierarchy form, i.e. there are at least two layers of groups or more exist in a society. For which a group of people is share a common status or rank. In deciding which group(s) should be ranked over the others, it is depends on the distribution of their wealth, prestige and power. Social stratification in other hand implies that the presence of social inequality is inevitable due to individuals who play their role in different strata/positions in the society, thus received different rewards.
Sociologists are of different perceptions on the social stratification; the following are explanations from Functionalism and Weberian.
In this functional approach, it seem a society as a biological organism (OUHK, 2003) that contains different organs to run with cooperation and interaction. Simply speaking, “organs” means different social institutions or units, such as school, hospital, family business firm, government and etc. Individuals within these institutions are working independently and cooperate/interact with each others, for instance, in a school, a teacher not only deliver his knowledge to the students, but also report to his supervisor about the students’ progress and provide suggestion to the headmaster. Moreover, being an “organ”, a school will also cooperate/interact with other institution in the society, for example, she will ask for more resource from the education department of the government, and/or join with other schools to organise student activities. All of these functions are run in a harmony manner.
Based on this biological model of society, different functional roles should be filled by different individuals. For instance, in a school, a teacher have acquired educational training and attained certain academic level; a secretary required least training, like typing and computer operation; and a workman required nothing. Thus, it reflects the functional importance on different roles and the importance of division of labour. In this connection, few individuals can take up the role as a teacher, on the contrary, many people can filled the role as a workman. Therefore, their functional roles will inevitably form a ranking order (see Figure 1 below), and a hierarchy structure will eventually be formed.
(Figure 1 : an example of a hierarchy structure is formed by the role of their functional importance.)
According to this situation, important functional role will be filled by skilled/trained individuals, it is fair that they should received more rewards than others, perhaps you may applied to the ‘demand & supply’ theory, important roles have less supply but with great demand, thus their rewards should be relatively high.
Even though people in the strata of society will receive different degree of rewards, they agree with the golden rule – more work/responsibility, more rewards. As they are working together to achieve the common goal – survival, they are working under a cooperating and harmonious relationship, i.e. fundamental conflict of interest will never exist among the various social strata.
Another academic Max Weber have different views on stratification, he shared with the other sociologist Karl Marx’s idea that social inequality as the inevitable result of class relations between two groups of people. They are the bourgeoisie who possess with the means of production and the proletariat who own nothing, thus one class being dominated by the other one (OUHK, 2003). However, Weber do not agree that such simply distinction can apply to this complex society. He thought that the social stratification and inequality are depending on the classification of three groups of people, they are class, status and party as well.
The first one “class” refers to individuals’ economic position. In Weber’s view, propertied class meant the one who possesses of goods, materials or capital. This propertied class can be further divided into two subdivisions, they are the “rentier” who does not directly involve in the production process; and the “entrepreneurial”, like factory owner who participate in the production directly. As mentioned above, even though the propertyless class without the means of production, some of them have acquired marketable skills, which can sell in a high price in the market, such as professor, lawyer, doctor and etc. This class is regarded as middle class by Weber. (OUHK, 2003)
The second is “status” or social position, that is a group of individuals who share similar social level in the society, and their consumption pattern and lifestyle will have no great difference; for instance, academic and family background, gender, occupation, age, religion. In compare with the classification of class, status is incline to more personal and non-rational, whereas class is more impersonal and rational. e.g. An employer may select an employee by their religion background and regardless their experience and academic level, such non-rational consideration of status are resulting the social inequality in terms of opportunity.
The last one is “party”, in determine what is a party, Weber stated that a party should contains with three major elements, i.e. it should develop a rational structure and formal organisation and employ administrative staff. For example, a labour union or a voluntary association is also a party, individuals in a party share common consensus to pursue their interest. That implies that if you are a labour without joining to a union to defend/represent your interest, you are faced with social inequality with one who has joint to a labour union.
In sum, the classification of class is based on individuals’ possession, status depends on the contemporary society’s views on different value and party is a collective of individuals with conscious to pursue common goal. One critical thing to be point out is that, these three classes themselves inherently are conflict free in their roles, that means they may work independently or cooperatively. Sometimes their roles may be overlapped or cross-over. For instance, a group of teachers can join together to form a union and then fight for more interest.
Similarities and Differences between the two Approaches
Since the functionalism emphasis the functional importance of the role, even though a class is on top of the others, it does not mean that it can control the rest. As for Weber’s approach, the classification of people of “status groups” could sometimes balance the power of “classes”. Therefore, both approaches reflected that no single class could dominate the society.
The hierarchy structure in functionalist is ranked by their functional/occupational importance, people who can reach to upper level will certainly received higher rewards and vice versa. That means there is room for the existence of social mobility. That is also agree to Weber’s view that individual who acquired marketable skills could move up from one class to another class in the social hierarchy.
Firstly, the formation of stratification in functionalism is based on their functional importance; i.e. more important role will ranked in relative high position in the hierarchy. However, Weber’s approach on stratification formation is based on the classification of people into three spheres, i.e. classes – based on economic position; status groups – based on social order; and parties – based on power.
Secondly, functionalism does not specify how many classes/strata in the social hierarchy, it is only based on the importance of the role, simply speaking, if you can clearly define the importance among a doctor, a lawyer and a teacher in a society, it will exists 3 strata. On the contrary, Weber clearly stated that, market position and lifestyle may intersect, thus produce four basic social classes, they are :
1. an upper class of propertied people,
2. a petty bourgeoisie of small business owners,
3. a middle class of white-collar people who, while propertyless, possess some skill of marketable value, and
4. a class of manual workers
Lastly, in functionalism, classes in different level of the social hierarchy are working cooperatively and with harmonious relationship, i.e. no fundamental conflict between them. However, in Weber’s view, it believes that struggle for advantages/interests between classes are exists, i.e. there is considerable conflict among the hierarchies.
Social Stratification in Hong Kong
When considering which approach is more appropriate to elaborate the social stratification in Hong Kong, we could study some findings done by academics previously in various aspects at first.
Is the society fair?
In Lau & Kuan’s1 findings, it revealed that near half of Hongkongers opined that “Hong Kong to be a fair or very fair society”. As in T Wong’s2 study, he also concluded that Hongkongers “did not perceive serious … poverty or inequality in the society”. These two results are more incline to functionalism, because Hongkongers are fully agreed and satisfied with their positions and rewards.
In determining themselves’ social class, respondents of the Social Research Centre’s3 research found that, Hongkongers “used for determining a person’s social class included wealth and income, educational attainment, political or administrative power, and morality”. Such classification obviously agreed to Weber’s approach of “status groups”; because these people are sharing similar lifestyle and interests. Furthermore, Lau also suggested “Social classes as structural forces in shaping interpersonal relationship are political actions are relatively insignificant ….”; that are also meet Weber’s view.
Attitudes towards the rich and poor
In Lau and Kuan’s1 study, it revealed that Hongkongers are in general satisfy to the distribution of wealth, i.e. people with special skills/knowledge, will received more rewards, it exactly same as functionalism. However, in Wong and Lui’s4 study, their findings shown that Hongkongers’ earnings are exploited by the involvement of economic and political resource, i.e. large corporations and financial groups.
Perception of Mobility
“Hong Kong people consider their society to be full of opportunities for upward mobility ……”, concluded by Lau and Kuan1, which is matched to functionalism. In supporting to that result, other academic Tsang5 also mentioned that “the territory is a place of abundant opportunities which any individual can take advantage of regardless of his/her place in the social structure”. However, in Wong and Lui’s6 study, it disclose that the above mentioned situation can not reflect the true picture. They found that even though “there are opportunities and openness, just as there are inequalities” and “class of origin is an important sign of class of destination”. Therefore they are inclined to support to Weber’s approach.
As we can seen that academics are of different perceptions in explaining the social stratification of Hongkong; both funcationalism and Weber’s approaches are also supported by certain grounds. As a whole, I opined that Weber’s approach, in terms of extent are more appropriate in explain Hongkong’s phenomenon. Last but not the least, it should be bear in mind that because all the findings/studies were conducted over ten years, it is absolutely not suitable for explaining the prevailing situation of Hongkong.