Chapter 7 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

Social Inequality

Chapter Overview

The study of social inequality is a longstanding sociological tradition. Social inequality is the long-term existence of significant differences in access to goods and services among social groups. Social inequality is a function of many factors, including ethnicity, “race”, and gender. A central term used in discussing social inequality is class. Karl Marx defined class as relational, meaning it reflects a person’s relationship to the means of production, or resources required to produce capital—funds and properties needed for large-scale manufacturing and trading.

Karl Marx identified two main classes based on their relationship to the means of production. The bourgeoisie is a collective of capitalists who own the means of production. On the other hand, the proletariat, a collective of workers, do not own any means of production, but work for those who do. Marx also identified two sub-classes: the petty bourgeoisie (small-scale owners with little capital) and the lumpenproletariat (small-time criminals, beggars, and the unemployed).


<According to Marx, a class has a group identity , meaning that there is a sense of common purpose among members of each class. One aspect of corporate identity is class consciousness, an awareness of what is in the best interest of one’s class. Marx argued that the bourgeoisie had always had class consciousness, while the working class often had false consciousness, the belief that something is in its best interest when actually it is not.

Marx’s class binary has to be understood in the context of the industrial revolution, laissez-faire market principles and ongoing struggles between capitalist interests and workers’ rights of the time. However, Max Weber, another early sociologist who examined social class, argued that Marx’s approach was too simplistic. Like Marx, Weber believed that society was divided into distinct economic classes, but they are not solely organized around access to the means of production. Weber also focused on wealth, prestige, and power as elements that contributed to social inequality. In Weber’s view, wealth did not just include capital, but also power and prestige.

The classic Marxist model of class does not neatly apply to modern Canadian society, as most Canadians do not fit into the capitalist–worker binary. There are many wealthy people who are technically employees (such as CEOs) and many small-business owners who do not have the income or control typically associated with capitalists. Also, Canada has a fairly large middle class that has also a strong sense of self. Therefore, Curtis, Grabb, and Guppy (1999) expanded Marx’s class paradigm by dividing people into three classes instead of two: a dominant capitalist class (who own or control large-scale production), a middle class (small business people, educated professional-technical or administrative personnel, credentialed salaried employees, and wage earners), and a working class (who lack resources or capacities apart from their own labour power).

Not all forms of social inequality are rooted in social class, however. Class reductionism is an important concept to consider in sociological research. It occurs when an individual studying a situation of inequality attributes all forms of oppression to class, ignoring or minimizing the impact of other social factors such as ethnicity, “race,”, age, gender, and sexual orientation.

Contemporary examinations of class structure focus on social stratification. Social stratification describes society as a series of equal layers, or strata. In sociology, strata, borrowed from geology, are levels or classes to which people are assigned for research purposes, based on social status, education, or income. Most studies of social stratification in Canada divide the population into quintiles. A quintile is each of five equal groups into which a population is divided according to the distribution of values of a particular variable, such as income. Quintiles are useful for comparisons within a society and also across time periods and geography. By examining quintiles we can see that the top 20 per cent of Canadians receive nearly half of all income in Canada, while the bottom 20 per cent account for under 5 per cent of all income.

Arguments and ideas pertaining to social inequality are shaped by ideology. An ideology is a set of beliefs about society and the people who make up society, usually forming the basis for economic or political theories. There are three main types of ideologies. A dominant ideology is a set of beliefs that generally supports and justifies, society’s dominant culture and/or classes, for example, the idea of a “trickle down economy.” Liberal ideology is a dominant ideology that focuses on the individual as an independent player in society. Liberal ideology involves a belief in social mobility, suggesting that, with effort, any individual can move from one class to another, achieving the American Dream. This ideology minimizes criticism of social inequality and ignores social factors beyond class. Blaming the victim involves attributing failure to achieve success entirely to the individual, despite broader social causes that block social mobility and success. A counter ideology is one that critiques and challenges the dominant ideology and is promoted by those seeking social change, for example the Occupy movement or Idle No More.

In most societies, the ruling class does not rely on sheer force through military or police to maintain control. Political theorist Antonio Gramsci developed the concept of hegemony, which he defined as a set of relatively non-coercive methods of maintaining power used by the dominant class. Hegemony can be reflected in education, media, and the legal system. People can be influenced to accept dominant ideologies through these institutions even if they are not in their best interest.

The study of social inequality often involves looking at the extreme ends of poverty and wealth. Statistics on the use of food banks can provide information on the poor in Canada. A food bank is a not-for-profit organization that collects, stores, and distributes food to those in need, free of charge. Food bank use increased dramatically in 2009, during the worst of the recession. An increase in first-time users suggests that food bank use will continue to increase. The situation of food bank users contrasts starkly with that of Canada’s wealthiest CEOs, demonstrating further inequality and class divide. While poverty and food bank use have gone up, so have the salaries of the highest paid Canadian CEOs, with the top CEO making 189 times the average Canadian salary in 2010, up from 85 times the average in 1995.

Post-secondary education presents an avenue for upward social mobility in Canada, providing people from lower strata the opportunity to secure employment in high-prestige, high-paying jobs. However, when the cost of education is too high, lower-income individuals can be blocked from attending college or university, or must take on high student debt. By the same token tuition fees have risen dramatically in Canada over the last two decades due to a reduction in government funding. Thus, it is not surprising that students from low-income families are underrepresented in higher education. In addition to this general increase, various post-secondary programs have different costs. The increasing cost of professional schools, including law and medicine, and dentistry has decreased the proportion of students from lower-income families in these programs. In the case of dentistry, not only do high tuition fees limit low-income individuals’ access to the profession, but high costs of dental care also limit their access to good quality dental work essential to health.

Learning Objectives

After reading chapter seven, you will be able to:

  • Explain Marx’s binary definition of class in reference to the historical context in which that definition emerged.
  • Distinguish between Marx’s class consciousness and false consciousness.
  • Compare and contrast Marx’s and Weber’s definitions of class and discuss contemporary expansions of Marx’s class conception and how Weber expands Marx’s view.
  • Outline key characteristics of social stratification.
  • Compare and contrast dominant, liberal and counter ideology using examples.
  • Critically discuss the contrast between poverty and wealth in Canada.
  • Demonstrate how social inequality shapes individuals’ life chances, in education, health care, employment.
  • Articulate ‘hegemony’ as a subtle mode of domination and its manifestations in politics, business, marketing.