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Does social stratification lead to social conflict

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  • Published On: 09-12-2023
Does social stratification lead to social conflict? Discuss with reference to the theories of Weber and Marx.


Social stratification is a system that provides the elite class with political power in order to procure dominance and acceptance of an ideology that rationalises the status quo, which may be logically, naturally or morally right (Marx & Engels, 2006). According to Karl Marx, the structure of and activities in a capitalist society is determined by the capitalist mode of production (Doob, 2013, p. 27). Max Weber provides an extended view of social stratification. It is not only the economic factor in the form of mode of production, which Marx identifies, but also political and socio-cultural spheres in the form of class and status (Marx & Engels, 2006). According to Weber, stratification arises from unequal property relations (Marx & Engels, 2006, p. 6). Both the theories from Marx and Weber project existence of inequalities in the social structure. It may be due to confinement of the capitalist mode of production with a few or due to a complex structure of inequalities due to economic, social, cultural and political arrangements in the society. The question that will be dealt in this essay is whether or such structure producing inequalities will lead to social conflict. This essay proposes that it does. This essay finds its proposition on conflict theory, which provides that social stratification benefits a few leading to a situation of social conflict because of the inequalities. This essay will determine the extent of social conflict that social stratification could cause.


Social stratification

Social stratification is a part of human society from an early time; it has been written about by philosophers like Aristotle, which points to the fact that social stratification was reflected in the Greek society at the time. In more recent times, philosophers like John Locke and Montesquieu have written about social stratification; however, it is the work of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber in the 18th century that gave us a more systematic analyses of system of social stratification (Kerbo, 2017 ). These concepts are still being used today to understand social stratification in the society and its effects on different aspects of society; for this reason, Marx and Weber are enduring in academic study of social stratification.

To briefly explain the term social stratification, the word stratification comes from the root word strata, which when used in the social sense refers to level or class into which groups are divided in the society. Social stratification refers to a “ranking of people or groups of people within a society” (Kerbo, 2017 , p. 1). This ranking is reflected in all complex societies around the world.

Marx’s approach to social stratification and its impact on the society was unidimensional in that he was more concerned with or articulated more the conflict between capital owners and those who did not own property. Marx believed that the ownership of property was the basis of class divisions in the society from the times of preindustrial agricultural societies, which translated to ownership of capital in the capitalist industrial societies (Esping-Andersen, 1993). In the preindustrial agricultural societies, stratification was based on the division of private property, which was concentrated in the hands of the landowners (Esping-Andersen, 1993). In the capitalist industrial societies, the division was between the owners of industrial capital and the working class (Esping-Andersen, 1993).

Weber’s approach was different from Marx in that the latter adopted a more multidimensional view to social stratification. While Marx was predominantly concerned with the divisions in the society due to economic ownership, Weber also recognised the divisions based on other factors like occupational skills, status, organisational power, class, status, and power or party (Kerbo, 2017 ). Stratification can happen in the society not only on the basis of economic divisions, but also occupational skills because that is related to an individual’s relation to the marketplace (Kerbo, 2017 ). Weber’s study of stratification also involved considering the role played by religion, value systems, and power politics, because people could be divided over prestige with respect to a strongly held value system and political or organisational power of a group that the individual belongs to (Kerbo, 2017 ). This point is also made more recently by Lenski (2013) who writes that the term ‘class’ can be used to cover all the collective aspects of systems of stratification. All classes are not the same and (similar to Weber), classes can also be based on power, prestige and privilege (Lenski, 2013).

Weber’s view of social stratification being multidimensional is able to explain the phenomena based on which contemporary society is divided or stratified and this allows sociologists to explain the differences or strata related to the middle class (Kerbo, 2017 ). Weber’s approach can also explain social mobility and status attainment. Social mobility refers to movement of individuals up and down the stratification, while status attainment refers to the process that allows individuals to move up or down with respect to their parents' position (Kerbo, 2017 ). As Weber also noted that occupational skills can be used to explain stratification, social mobility and attainment can also be explained with the help of occupational skills where regardless of the parent’s position in the stratification, the individual can move up or down. Marx did not write significantly on the newer forms of stratification, although he did commence work on the development of joint stock companies which led to capital not being concentrated in the hands of few capitalists, was now divided between the members of the joint stock company (Grusky, 2019, p. 106). The modern society also witnessed the decline of the concepts of enterprise owned by an individual as a dominant pattern of economic organisation (Grusky, 2019).

The joint stock company also saw the development of the division between ownership and control, which led to the development of a new class of managers who are also a part of the social stratification. Marx considered this to be a radical departure from the past which would lead to more alienation between the producers of capital (managers and workers) and the capitalists (Grusky, 2019). Therefore, Marx would predict more social conflict between the classes of the owners of the capital and managers and workers. On the other hand, this view is rejected and it is argued that there is homogeneity between owners (stockholders) and managers so that their interests would be opposed to the interests of the workers who are also a homogenous class (Grusky, 2019). In this context, Weber has also noted that owners of the capital can exercise their control and authority over the means of production personally or by appointment of managers (Brennan, 2020). Thus, it can be concluded that Weber took a different line to Marx over the issue of separation between ownership and management and how that would impact stratification and conflict amongst the groups.

However, Marx’s central thesis still remains valid that there is conflict between different classes due to the power of one class and the oppression of the other. Even though Marx’s homogenisation of classes (managers and workers) has not materialised, there is still conflict between the many classes that have materialised in the modern capitalist society. These different classes are more akin to the stratification devised by Weber who argued that one of the ways in which society can be divided is on the basis of the occupational skills. This is apparent from the ways in which industrial societies depict the divisions between skilled, partly skilled and unskilled labour (Grusky, 2019, p. 107). These classes are different not only in the terms of their skills but also in their status in the society. Conflicts can arise between these classes because of the divergent interests that these groups have. For instance, the demands of the skilled for security can come at the cost of the semiskilled, who may also demand higher wages that may be objected by the skilled, and the interests of the unskilled workers may raise concerns amongst the skilled labour with regard to differentials (Grusky, 2019, p. 108).

Relation between social stratification and social conflict

Social stratification as a constant factor in human society, and how this leads to social conflict was famously explained by Marx and Engels in their seminal work as follows:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Free man and slave, patrician and plebeian. Lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word. Oppressor and oppressed. Stood in constant opposition to one another. Carried on an uninterrupted. Now hidden. Now open fight. A fight that each time ended. Either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large. Or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx & Engels, 1848, 1967, p. 2).

Marx argued that social conflict was caused due to the stratification of the society into landowners and serfs and latter industrial capital owners and workers or the proletariat. He argued that the source of the conflict was property, the ownership of which led to injustice and oppression, which in turn led to class struggle (Dimitriadis & Kamberelis, 2006, p. 31). From the Marxian perspective, the class antagonisms that existed in the feudal society, continue to exist in the modern bourgeois society. The old feudal societies had certain conditions of oppression and class struggle; the conditions of oppression and class struggle have changed in the modern society and continue in the context of the new classes created in the modern capitalist society (Grusky, 2019, p. 92). These conditions are more encompassing within the Weber construct of social stratification, which includes class, status, and party as the three dimensions of stratification because Weber was able to construct a multidimensional approach to social stratification reflecting the interplay between wealth, prestige and power (Grusky, 2019).

Weber explained conflict as follows. A social relationship would be referred to as a conflict insofar as one group orients their actions intentionally in a manner that is meant to carry out their will even as other group or party resists that (Brennan, 2020). This is also relevant to the question of power in the sense that the party that is able to resist the will of the other or to overcome the resistance of the other can be the party that exercises power in that specific context of the relationship. To explain this in the context of social stratification and conflict, if it is accepted that social conflict arises partly because a social group or class has inherent interests that it seeks to enforce as against the other classes that may resist it or may have conflicting interests, then the context of power becomes important because each group will try to maximise its interests by overcoming resistance of the other group. To explain this in the context of capitalist relations, capitalists have used the power of their capital and the influence that it creates in the social institutions as Marx noted for maximising their interests as capital holders. This was at least the state of affairs until the tools of collective bargaining allowed workers to organise and resist or even at times overcome the resistance of capitalists to gain advantages in their terms of contract.

Thus, power relations become relevant to understanding conflict and how it may be negotiated in the relationship between the capitalist and the worker. The same approach can also be used to understand how gender and race can engender classes or stratification which can then lead to social conflict; for instance, the conflict between interests of men and women. Some feminist theorists have sought to explain this conflict from the perspective of power relations. Similarly, some theorists have seen events like the Miners’ Strike in the UK as a reflection on social conflict that reflected not only on the class struggle between capitalist state and workers, but also reflected on the different impacts of the social conflict for the men and women who participated in the strike (Rowbotham & McCrindle, 1986). Thus, social stratification can lead to social conflict in different ways for different groups within the society. In other words, the conflict is complex in nature.

Conflict theory can be used to explain the ways in which there is a competition for limited resources in the society, which conflict Marx links to the different social classes competing for social, material, and political resources. Marx argued that inequalities linked to class are structural in nature and also institutional due to which these inequalities are reflected in the institutions like government, education, and religion. Marx argued that because of the inherent powers that attach to the social class and condition of certain individuals and organisations, such are able to obtain more resources than others and then continue to wield power within the social institutions (Marx & Engels, 2006). Weber’s approach also leads to consideration of how social stratification leads to social conflict, however, his approach is encompassing of economic inequalities, inequalities of political power and social structure that can cause conflict between different groups (Grusky, 2019).

Although there are differences between Marx and Weber in how they approach social stratification with the latter adopting a wider approach, the commonality in their view is that social stratification leads to social conflict. Just as Marx argued that conflict due to stratification can be linked to the class struggle against resource allocation and power structures in the society, Weber also linked conflict with stratification. The difference however is that Weber expanded the scope of stratification to include not just economic factors (class), but also status and party and he observed that different groups’ reactions to inequality were moderated by class differences, social mobility rate, and as perceptions about the legitimacy of those in power (Brennan, 2020).

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One of the reasons for social conflict arising from social stratification is the conflict between interests of one class or group with that of the others. Lenski (2013) writes that within a power class, members of that class have certain common interests or shared interests and it is these shared interests that can serve to pose conflict or hostility towards the other classes. This point can be applied to both Marx and Weber’s postulation of stratification. For instance, with respect to Marx’s theory, industrial owners have shared interests of protection of their capital while the workers may have shared interests in protection of their wages or interests against oppression. This may give rise to potential source of hostility and conflict between the two groups. With respect to Weber’s theory, similar potential hostility and conflict may be seen in the power groups’ shared interests; for example, the shared interest of professional classes as a power group to protect the interests of the profession can be a source of hostility to those outside of it. Weber also argued that the struggle between the capitalists and the workers or consumers is manifested in the conflict over wages (or prices) and money is weaponised in the class struggle between capitalists and workers (Brennan, 2020).

Another reason for conflict between different groups in a society, which can be related to stratification is based on the conflict over distribution (Lenski, 2013). In this context, the conflict in the society is not just related to the struggle between the classes but the conflict between different principles of distribution and the between different class systems (Lenski, 2013). This has been related to the ways in which countries like the United States have sought to increase the importance of the educational class system for decreasing the significance of the ethnic-racial and sexual class systems (Lenski, 2013). In other words, there is an effort to reduce the significance of the class systems related to ethnicity and race as well as sex through increasing the importance of the distribution system related to education. In the UK as well there have been efforts by the British governments to place an emphasis on integration of ethnic minorities as an important societal goal (Lessard-Phillips & Li, 2017).

From a Marxian perspective conflict increases because of the worker’s position in the capital class system where the worker’s worth reduces as the value of the products that he helps manufacture rise (Grusky, 2019, p. 87). To take it further, reference may be made to the argument of Geiger (1949), who wrote that there is institutionalisation of class conflict, which is represented in the class conflict between capital and labour, is now institutionalised through recognition and bringing into control of the methods and techniques of class struggle, thus becoming “a legitimate tension between power factors which balance each other” (Grusky, 2019, p. 108). The legitimate stuggles of the capital and labor and its institutionalisation are reflected in the ways in which disputes between the two groups are resolved through processes of legal mechanisms and negotiations, which lead to the determination of terms of work like wages, hours of work, and other similar conditions (Geiger, 1949, p. 184).

Social conflict can also be the result of the skewed power relations between the different classes and those who are in power having more clout and lobbying power (Doob, 2015). In the United States, an example of this can be seen in the ways in which taxation norms have been affected by the lobbying potential and power of the superrich who have managed to gain reliefs from paying taxes like capital gains tax, with Warren Buffet claiming that the wealthiest individuals pay lower tax rate than the workers “who clean their offices” (Doob, 2015, p. 121). This example reflects on how the wealthier and powerful groups have more means and tactics for furthering their goals (Doob, 2015). Such means are not available to the lower and less powerful classes. The question is how such stratification leads to conflict. Conflict can arise because the differentials between the classes (in this case relating to tax rate) are not. In this context, it has been argued that in an ideal society inequalities can be said to be equitable when they reflect the differential skills, contributions and merit factors as well as the ways in which the state provides “minimum subsistence guarantees and affirmative action policies to enable those who are poor and disadvantaged” (Whyte, 2020, p. 139).

Social stratification on the basis of power and prestige that may be related to one religion or belief system and its engendering of conflict has been written about in literature and can be related to the conflicts between different strata of society through the ages; an example can be seen post Ottoman Turkish society where non-Muslim subjects have increasingly been found to be given a secondary status of citizenship (Li & Millamn, 2016). There are other divisions in the Turkish society based on religious and ethnic grounds and which have led to rise in identity based conflicts between Arabs, Turks, Armenians, Christians, and Kurds (Li & Millamn, 2016). These conflicts cannot be explained with the help of Marx’s stratification theory but can be explained on the basis of Weber’s theory of stratification because while the former was concerned only with economic factors of stratification, the latter was able to encompass other social, political and religious factors that can also lead to stratification of the society. This can be seen in the ways in which social conflict is derived from the ways in which the society may be stratified on the basis of religion and belief system in Turkey.


The essay discussed social stratification theory and social conflict with reference to Marx and Weber who are the two foremost and enduring scholars in this field. As the essay discussed, social stratification does lead to social conflict because of the ways in which classes struggle for the limited resources in the society and also because of the conflicting interests of different classes. There is a crucial difference between Marx and Weber in how they see stratification, with Marx basing stratification on a unidimensional concept of economic difference, whereas Weber employs a much broader and multidimensional approach to class, status, and party as being the different factors that can lead to stratification in the society. Due to this difference, Weber’s theory is able to explain a broader range of conflicts amongst different social classes and groups that we see in a complex modern society. Marx’s theory is not able to explain these variety of conflicts in the society. Both are however unified in their argument that stratification does lead to conflict. Therefore, to conclude this essay, social stratification does explain social conflict in the society because when society is stratified, each stratum has its own interests which it tries to protect by overcoming the resistance of another class which is opposed to the interests of the power class. This leads to constant conflict between different classes or groups. Social conflict in the modern society however cannot be simply explained with a Marxian emphasis on economic stratification. As Weber has explained class, status and even party can lead to stratification and conflict in the society.


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