Stratification of Great Britain


Stratification entails subdividing the society into discrete hierarchy of layers, which are often distinguished depending on wealth, prestige and power. Brown (2009) perceives stratification as arranging people in a society basing on hierarchy. In the animal kingdom, stratification is a common phenomenon and depends on power and gender. According to Fox (2004), the development of food as well as other surpluses because of technological progress in manufacturing and agricultures resulted in a number of people of beginning to amass more resources than others. As a result, the origins of stratification can be traced back to the changeover from hunter and gatherer societies towards pastoralist and agricultural societies. The societies during this period were characterized by class stratification, which drew upon the predispositions of social inequality. In addition, these societies had multifaceted government bureaucracies whereby tyrannical leaders ruled in the form of divine monarchs. Moreover, societies were grouped depending on their economic condition. Gunn (2013) stipulates that, at the global level, different countries were compared basing on their economic conditions. Regardless of the fact that it is still a widespread practice for countries to be grouped as either third-world or first world, Gunn (2013) points out that this method of grouping is obsolete and has been substituted by terms such as least developed, developing, and developed. Several variables are used in social stratification, which include language, religion, race, occupation, gender, age, power, region, education, wealth, income, caster, politics and party among others.

Lambert, Blackburn, & Connelly (2012) perceives social stratification in the light of an institutionalized structure of social inequality wherein individuals are ranked basing on their amount of desirable and scarce values such as prestige, power and property. In this regard, the core elements of social stratification include: (a) institutional processes defining particular types of goods as desirable and valuable; (b) rules defining the allocation and distribution of those goods among people in various positions such as farmers, housewives and doctors among others; and (c) the mobility mechanisms linking people to positions as well generating uneven control and power over the desirable and valuable goods. Macionis (2010) posits that a comprehensive understanding of the concept of stratification needs knowledge on the components of stratification structures as well as how they differ; the collective and individual outcomes associated the variations in these structures; and the factors causing the change in these stratification structures. According to Lyall (2013), two schools of thought exist with respect to societal stratification: the classical theory, which focuses on privilege and political power; and empirical tradition that draws upon contemporary systematic data regarding societal stratification. This paper discusses the societal stratification of Great Britain.

Great Britain’s Social Structure

            Historically, the social structure of the British society has significantly drawn upon the notion of social class, which is still evident in the contemporary British society during the early 21st century (Rigney, 2001). Prior to the onset the of industrial revolution, just like most societies in the world as well its European neighbors, the British Society was grouped into a caste system referred to estates characterized by endogamy (people marrying only from the same group) and hereditary inheritance of political influence, social status and occupation. Following the onset of industrialization, the British social structure has been changing constantly following the inclusion of new factors besides birth such as education, which played an influential role in creating an identity in British society. Despite the fact that the characterizations of social class in the British society are different and draw a lot of controversy, most definitions draw upon on education, occupation and wealth. Recently, the Parliament of the United Kingdom was rearranged on the basis of class, wherein the House of Lords represented hereditary upper class whereas the House of Commons denoted other people. According to Shin & Lee (2010), the British monarch is positioned at the top position of the social structure. Scott & Bell (2007) asserts that the British social structure has changed drastically following World War II characterized by an increase in home ownership and access to higher education; this marked a transition towards an economy that is service-dominated, an increase in an individualistic culture, the role of the women changing as well as mass immigration, which have imposed a substantial effect on the country’s social landscape. Nevertheless, the assertion that the British society is becoming a classless society has drawn a lot of criticism.

Stratification of Great Britain

            Saunders (2001) describes the formal stratification in British society in three distinct time domains: the archaic period following the founding of Great Britain during 1707; the 20th century; and the 21st century. According to Rigney (2001), social status was an influential factor during the archaic English society. Equally significant in determining social rank during this time were employment, education and birth. As Saunders (2001) describes, the social ranks in the archaic British society include laborers and cottagers, husbandman, yeoman, gentry/gentleman, knight, baronet, peer, and royal. Members of the royal family, the prince as well as close relatives of the king or queen were at the top of the social structure and comprised an extended family to the king and were often referred to as royals basing on their hereditary rights. Peers, which comprised of nobles and archbishops were owners of large tracts of land and lived off their assets. In addition, peers had seats in the House of Lords. The baronets comprised of hereditary non peers, and had the highest social rank below the peerage. Gentry referred to people owning relatively large assets to make them live on rents without necessary having to work. Gentries were also well educated and worked in professions that did not need manual labour such as politics, priesthood and law (Rigney, 2001). The yeoman social class comprised of small farmers owning a sizable tract of land whereas the husbandman rented land or had very little land. Cottagers often engaged in manual work for other people to earn wages, and were the lowest class in the social hierarchy of the British society during early-modern English society. According to Saunders (2001), families that were naturally well established placed emphasis on lineage and birth, whereas newcomers emphasized that nobility was relied significantly on merit. Despite the fact that the English society was extremely hierarchical, it was not difficult to traverse the social ranks, especially in the case of changing generations.

Following World War II, the British society witnessed a massive transformation, which was also evident in the social classes. Besides the common social classes that included the labour class, gentry, aristocrats, and royals, other social classes were increasingly becoming recognized in the British society. Rigney (2001) points that there was the emergence of the professional class. In the British society, professionals often lacked income-bearing property and did not take part in trading; as a result, they relied significantly on the income they received from the services they provided. According to Saunders (2001), professionals in the British society had the confidence and skills required to maintain the standards of erudition; as a result, they established a base for providing political advice to aristocrats. Some of the people in the professional class included civil servants, lawyers, doctors, private tutors, secretaries and estate agents. At the same time, women were increasingly becoming active in economic, political and social spheres, which played an instrumental role in reducing their independence on men. For instance, they took part in WW2 and were considered equal partners in assisting to keep away enemies (Scott & Bell, 2007). Family life was on the decline as more women began focusing on careers. Scott & Bell (2007) points that, with the emergence of the working class, women empowerment increased. This saw several immigrants settling in the Great Britain following the WW2, as evidenced by the increasing ethnic diversity in the British society after the 1970s following a surge in the number of migrants from China, Africa, Pakistan, India, and West Indies among others. The immigrant groups constituted 5 percent of the British population. In addition, the polish minority joined the British society after Poland became a member of the European Union, which resulted in the creation of a different social class on the basis of ethnic origin.

The post-war British society saw the emergence of the middle class as a political moderator. The British embarked on active participation in the House of Commons, comprising of 646 members elected to represent the single-member constituencies. Traditionally, people sitting in the House of Lords relied on their hereditary right, which include peers, high ranking officials from the Church of England as well as the Lords of Appeals; however, in 1999, the House of Commons and House Lords voted to remove the voting and sitting rights of hereditary peers. This resulted to limited powers in the House of Lords, wherein the House of Lords had no power to obstruct a bill that the House of Commons have passed (Shin & Lee, 2010). In addition, the House of Lords does not have the authority to preside over money bills. Similarly, there is no need for the Crown to concur with all legislations passed, which points out the significance of the Middle class in mediating politics in the British society.

After the WW2, the Great Britain revolutionized its industries because it was the only feasible way that Britain could use to solve the economic turmoil that happened after the war. Without a doubt, the British economy was severely affected by the war. For instance, there were severe manpower losses following the death of about 420,000 people; there was the need to rebuild the urban areas; and the need to reconstruct and modernize industrial plants. Britain lost its position as a leader in world trade, banking and shipping to the US and was forced to liquidate most of its overseas investments in order to pay for the costs that followed the World Wars (Macionis, 2010).  Gunn (2013) asserts that this was a severe hit for the British economy since the income from shipping, trade and banking as well as overseas investments were used to counterbalance its import-export deficit. During 1945, the Labour administration embarked on a vital agenda aimed at nationalizing industries and extending social services, which led to the nationalization of internal transport, electricity, civil aviation, communications facilities, the coal industry and the Bank of England. The outcome was the creation of job opportunities and people severely affected with the WW2 commenced rebuilding their lives following the rapid industrialization, this gave birth to the rise of the industry/working class (Shin & Lee, 2010). This is evident in the following chart, which indicates the trends of the percentage of the working males in the professionals and managers category, which is often considered a measure of the British middle class.

            In the last three decades, the social structure of the British society has changed significantly as evidenced with the emergence of new social classes. The social structure of the contemporary British society is based on income, occupation and education. Rigney (2001) defines a social class as an informal social ranking of individuals in a society basing on the dwelling, education, occupation and income among other variables. At present, the British society comprises of three primary social ranks, which include the upper class, the middle class, and the working/lower class. According to Macionis (2010), the upper class comprises of individuals having inherited wealth such as the oldest families and aristocrats. Besides title, bloodline and education plays an influential role in defining the upper class. The middle class make up the most fraction of the contemporary British society and comprises of shop owners, business individuals, professionals, and industrialists. The middle class can be divided into upper and lower middle classes. The upper middle class comprises of businessmen, civil servants and managers, and are increasingly becoming a significant stratum in the British society. In addition, the upper middle class have a substantial influence in the civil service, administration and politics. The lower middle class comprises of small business owners, skilled workers, office workers and lesser officials, and make up the largest stratum in the contemporary British society (Saunders, 2001). In addition, the lower middle class is the most expanding social group in the British society. The working class comprises of the semi-skilled and unskilled workers and are often typified by close community and family ties. The lower class comprise of the unemployed individuals, casual laborers, unsupported mothers and the disables. Fox (2004) asserts that 33 percent of the lower class live below the poverty line and most rely on state benefits. The Great British Class Survey reported 7 distinct social classes in the British society, which include the elite, established middle class, technical middle class, new affluent workers, traditional working class, emergent service sector and the precariat (Gunn, 2013). Their characterization is shown in the table below.

Social Stratum Characteristics
Elite Extremely high economic capital, social and cultural capital. Examples include CEOs, sales and marketing directors, judges, dentists and financial managers among others
Established middle class High economic capital and emerging cultural capital. Examples include police officers, electrical engineers among others
Technical middle class High economic capital and moderate cultural capital. Examples include pilots, physical scientists, senior professors and  medical radiographers among others
New affluent workers Moderate economic capital, poor social contacts and emerging cultural capital. Examples include electricians, sales assistants, ventilation engineers among others
Traditional working class Poor economic capital, have housing assets, few social contacts and emerging cultural capital. Examples include legal secretaries, electronics technicians.
Emergent service sector Poor economic capital, sizeable household income, emerging cultural capital. Examples include chefs and nursing assistants among others
Precariat Poor economic capital. Examples include drivers, caretakers, and retail cashiers among others.



            This paper has discussed the trends in stratification of Great Britain since the founding of the country. There is no doubt that stratification has changed significantly since the founding of the Great Britain to the contemporary British society. During the early modern English society, stratification was mainly based on birth and education. During the 20th century, stratification in the British society expanded to include other factors such as occupation. In the contemporary British society, social stratification is determined by various factors such as birth, education, income and profession among others. In addition, it is worth noting that the middle class has increased its influence in the British society.



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