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Social Sciences: A Foundation Course sample essay


How do you understand the concepts of social stratification and social mobility? Critically examine whether Hong Kong is a highly stratified capitalist society that provides little opportunity for social mobility.

Answer :

Inequality exists in the human societies since the earliest times. It forms regular patterns within the society. The different levels which can be ranked in order from top to bottom are called Social Stratification. The movement of people between these social levels is called Social mobility. In this article, we are going to discuss about the concepts of social stratification and social mobility and examine whether Hong Kong provides little opportunity for social mobility.

Under sociology term, social inequalities are the skewed allocation of scarce resources and power in society that bring about an unequal distribution of status or prestige and often generate a feeling of superiority or inferiority among different people. They are not permanent and not wholly separate from one another but connected. Social stratification is the division of a population into inequalities layers of strata based on different dimensions like wealth, gender, income, power, status, ethnicity, age, religion etc. These layers can be ranked from top to bottom.

It not only reflects the differences of individual, it is also a structural characteristic of society and a system of belief justifying its existence. It can persist over generations and is difficult to have any changes. It is universal and variable. The life experiences and opportunities of the people are depending heavily on the strata they or their social categories belong in society. The identity for people locating in the same social stratum is shared by social stratification engenders. The ease of social mobility varies in different stratification system is the indication for the openness of a society.

There are different systems of social stratification in different societies. Below are some examples.

Some pre-industrial societies are stratified by age sets. People move from one age set to the next one as they grow up. Different age sets are responsible for different tasks.

It is based upon the power relation of domination (master) and subordination (slaves) which is maintained by the constant use of physical violence and punishment for pre-industrial societies.

It is based on scribed statuses for pre-industrial societies. Different cultures have different meaning, rules and practices of the caste system. It can create extreme rigidity and non-openness.

It is a complex socio-economic and political entity that supplied and sustained an orderly chain of interlocking rights and obligations throughout society. The nobility, clergy and commons are the main groups. The social mobility was very limited but there still have little movement from generation to generation.

The terms of class is different from each country but it is mostly recognised the existence of an upper class, a middle class and a lower or working class. Class systems are fluid, large scale and impersonal. They are not established by political or religious authorities but they operate through large scale and impersonal associations. It is an expression of the difference of economic between categories of individuals.

Different sociological theorist has different interpretation of social stratification. In the followings, we will focus on three theories to explain social stratification.

Functionalist theory
This theory is based on the biological model of society. All functional roles in the society must be filled and the people who fill the role are trained and skillful. An important role is one on which other roles depend and the functions cannot be performed satisfactorily by other roles. As only few people can fulfil the special requirements for the roles, extra rewards and status will be allocated to those who are willing to take the roles. The amounts of rewards are determined by the degree of functional importance of the roles in the society.

Marxist View
Under Marx’s theory, all hitherto human societies are class societies. The social stratification arises when an economy is developed beyond mere subsistence under a private ownership of the means of production where the fruits of labour are not being distributed equally. This kind of unequal distribution creates a propertied class and a propertyless class. The fundamental interests such as profits of propertied class are in conflict with the fundamental interests of the propertyless class and the propertied class control and exploit the propertyless class. It is a hierarchy of control. The propertyless class may have false and class consciousness that they overlook their fundamental interests due to their immediate interests of securing a job and it is difficult for them to rise up against the propertied class. For example, Sun Hung Kei Properties (propertied class) only invests in building luxury residential property to earn profits and ignore the needs of Hong Kong people.

Weberian View
Weber argued that it requires an even greater level of detrimental social control and bureaucratization than capitalist society. The credentials and marketable skill of the people can determine their market situation and class position. He claimed that there are four main classes which are upper class, white collar workers, petit bourgeoisie and manual working class. The four main classes can be further subdivided by using the ownership of means of production, work situation and market situation. He also introduced three independent factors which are class, status and power. Class is a person’s economic position in the society based on birth and individual achievement. Status is the prestige, social honour or popularity of a person while power is the ability of the person to get their way despite the resistance of others. He emphasized the difference between these three factors and treated these as separate.

Social mobility refers to the movement of people up or down the social stratification order in society. It may refer to classes, ethnic groups or entire nations and may measure health status, literacy or education. The mobility can be either absolute or relative. Absolute mobility measures whether the living standards have been increased while relative mobility refers to how likely the children are to move from their parents’ place in the income distribution. For the vertical mobility, it is the movement of people up or down from one socio-economic level to another by changing jobs or marriage. It is usually measured by occupational change.

Horizontal mobility refers to the movement from one position to another within the same social level which does not involve a major movement up or down the stratification order. For example, the bank messenger changes to work as bank teller is the example of vertical mobility while the bank accountant changes to work as the cost controls in shipping company with same salary package is horizontal mobility. Lateral mobility is a geographical movement between neighbourhoods, towns or regions. It is often combined with vertical and/or horizontal mobility.

Social mobility can be changed in status between inter-generational or intra-generational. Intra-generational mobility refers to the change during the lifetime of a person and is influenced by the nature of pervious jobs, parent’s occupation, and family size, age at marriage or amount of education. It occurs when people strive to change their own social standing. Intergenerational mobility is usually measured by comparing the occupations of parents and their children at similar point in their careers. A high level of intergenerational mobility is considered praiseworthy, and the sign of greater fairness, or equality of opportunity in the society. It is both merit and non-merit based. Parents who can create social capital for their children tend to increase the social mobility of their children.

The income inequality in Hong Kong is getting seriously even the disparity of wealth between countries is getting closer under globalization. Hong Kong still remains a city of considerable social mobility but it provides little opportunity for bottom class to move upward due to the social inequality. Due to the low production cost, more and more factories relocated from Hong Kong to Mainland China. Owners of many factories are more willing to pay the workers in China with lower salary package rather than pay to Hong Kong workers and many Hong Kong workers lose their job.

The owners only concern about the profit but ignore the employment situation of Hong Kong. The resources distribution for the education in Hong Kong is also inequity. The child who comes from rich family has more chance to study in famous school. For some famous international school, parents need to buy the debenture of the school to increase the chance for application. However, not all parents can afford the expensive tuition fee. Only the rich parents can increase the social mobility of the children. The inter-generational poverty is getting seriously in Hong Kong.

During 1950s and 1960s, Hong Kong was not yet a highly stratified capitalist society. Many opportunities are available for upward social mobility. However, after the rapid economic development, big business corporations especially for the real estate corporations, become the propertied class and control the economy in Hong Kong. They only concern about their profit and reduce Hong Kong’s mobility and increase its social inequality. It squeezes out a living space for small and medium-sized enterprises and small traders and makes 80s people difficulties to build up their own business and move to the upper class. Hong Kong still has social mobility especially for the middle and upper class but less opportunity for the bottom class to move upward the social stratification ladder in Hong Kong.


Book references:
(2011)Law and enforce security Mgt – “Sociology”, Hong Kong Open University Unit 13, page 9-35 Susan and Peter Calvert(1992) Sociology Today, Harvester Wheatsheaf, Chapter 3 Social: Stratification I: Class, Wealth and Poverty, Pages 62-65. and Chapter 4 Social Stratification II: Gender, Race and Ethnicity, Pages 69-89 Broom, Leonard(1981) Sociology A text with Adapted Readings 7th edn, Harper & Row, Chapter 11: The Class, Pages 289-309 Encyclopedia of Sociology, 2nd edn Macmillan Gale Group, 2000, Page 2711.

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