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Social Institutions as Sources of Social Stratification

Any society can be compared to the coin with two sides. On the one hand, it consists of people and social relations on a given geographic territory. On the other, it provides the resources to meet all of its members’ basic needs, as self-sufficiency is a defining characteristic of a society. The more developed the society is, the more complicated are the needs of its members. For example, in a primitive society, the basic needs are nurturing, clothing, and shelter security. In the modern society, medical care, electricity, communication and high quality educating are added to the list. A society meets the growing requirements of people through social institutions that are accepted and persistent combination of statuses, roles, values, and norms that respond to important societal needs. As concepts, the basic institutions consist of family, education, economy, the state, religion and health care system.  These are ideal types of social institutions. According to the functionalist theory, the functions served by social institutions are the development and maintenance of orders that are essential for the existence of a certain society. The article “Why the Debate over Cursive Is about more than Penmanship” by Neyda Borges explicitly mentions and relates the topic to such social institutions as education and family. Both institutions are important agents of socialization that is a constant process of cultural learning by interactions. They create the social framework in which socialization takes place. Through family and education, individuals learn and absorb values and norms of their culture and their different positions in the social structure as for class, race and gender. Although family and education are supposed to be the institutions in society that provide comfortable outline and atmosphere for socialization (family) and equal opportunity in achieved statuses (education), they both serve as sources of social stratification and inequality.


According to the functionalists, a family serves as the first frame in socialization of children, effects forming of gender behavior, and provides social maintenance. The gender revolution in work and family has caused “notable effects on children” (Conley, 2013, p. 465). Institutions are interdependent that is change in one institution causes change in others. According to Weber, it is impossible to anticipate causes and consequences of social institutions in advance (Conley, 2013, p. 24). Borges’ article “Why the Debate over Cursive Is about more than Penmanship” shows the evidences of some gaps in achieved skills while educating at schools such as learning grammar or writing in cursive. The problem is that only “children who live in more affluent homes are more likely to learn outside of school, widening the achievement gap” (Borges, 2014, para. 18). Children from poor families may accumulate more and more white spaces that will lead to further stratification in their achieved statuses. According to its socioeconomic status, family conveys different forms of investment (resources) such as economic (depending on wealth, income and prestige), cultural (parents’ educational, race, ethnicity background, gender roles), and social (prestige of the status family has accessed). Therefore, there is always inequality from the very birth.

Conflict theory underlines divisions and encounters within social institutions (Conley, 2013, p. 30). “The dilemma is the growing chasm between kids whose parents have the money, education, and time to enrich their children’s learning, and those that don’t” (Borges, 2014, para. 15). In order to fill some gaps at home, financial side is not the only important, but also time spending from parents. The “second shift,” Hochschild’s term of women’ responsibilities for housework and childcare (Conley, 2013, p. 468), makes moms exhausted and prevents them from quality and efficient teaching their children. In other words, women face the role conflict (conflicting demands and expectations of multiple roles) between the roles of a professional at workplace and a caring mother. In the article, there is only one student for the whole class who is not lost facing a writing task thanks to his mom not elementary school teaching (Borges, 2014,para. 13-14). Conley presents statistics that “having a working mother in one’s early years can result in lower cognitive achievement and increased behavioral problems for a child” (Conley, 2013, p. 464-465) while gender gap widens in families with a stay-at-home mom (Conley, 2013, p. 465). The solving of the supermom role stains may be in sharing “the second shift,” with her spouse, and reviewing gender roles in the family (Conley, 2013, p. 473). Anyway, family forms diversity in the modern society suggests the according diversity of problem solving but the causes and consequences of these solutions reflect in the changes of interacting social institutions. The strain of poverty may also stimulate the use of disciplinary methods in breeding that take less time and effort than methods such as reasoning and negotiating.

Education is an essential agent of socialization after a family. According to the functionalist theory, community supposes schools to transmit knowledge and skills, and to provide students with equal opportunity to become a successful member of a society.  “Education is the process through which academic, social, and cultural ideas and tools, both general and specific, are developed” (Conley, 2013, p. 497). “Hidden curriculum” of schooling also provides students with extra, implicit understanding of how to live and cooperate within a particular society (socialization function) (Conley, 2013, p. 498). Functionalists mean the main function of education “simple supply and demand” that is forming social control over youths (Conley, 2013, p. 512). As institution of education is interdependent with financial institution, it has to provide “more and more on leaner and leaner budgets” (Borges, 2014, para. 10), because “school grades and teacher pay depend on student test scores” (Borges, 2014, para. 10). Changes in a society needs dictate changes in educational programs. “In the high-tech world of high-stakes tests, educators are working to prepare students for the FCAT, end-of-course exams, AP and AICE exams, college admissions and a successful future in which computer and typing skills are essential” (Borges, 2014, para. 10). The expanding in one direction consequently leads to limiting in others such as teaching “fancy curlicue letters” that turns out to be not imperative nowadays (Borges, 2014, para. 10). “The Common Core State Standards allow communities and teachers to make decisions at the local level [as for curriculum]… what their students need” (Borges, 2014, para. 12). Nevertheless, researches find that “many Americans have more education than they need for their occupations” (Conley, 2013, p. 512). The more institution of education tends to meet society demands the more gaps in personal development of individual may appear.

On the contrary, according to the conflict theory, employers tend to create more and more requirements to single out people that cause the rise of credentialism (“an overemphasis on credentials… for signaling social status or qualification for a job”) (Conley, 2013, p. 513). That is why the atmosphere in schools consists of more and more competitions and strains. The tracking systems and similar differential actions support social inequalities. “School is sorting machine, placing students such that existing social structures would be reproduced… through tracking, a way of dividing students into different classes by ability or future plans” (Conley, 2013, p. 505). Therefore, one of education function is instilling of common values to incorporate people. Nevertheless, “tracking” (“dividing students into different classes by ability or future plans” (Conley, 2013, p. 505)) as any measuring of student progress in their academic careers leads to inequality in distribution of the opportunities to gain this progress. Since education is an important agent of socialization, and schools are the first impersonal and collective experience that children run into, valuation of their abilities through grades and official records through, for example, the Common Core State Standards causes social stratification in future as they create stereotype threat. The sorting may also depend on family backgrounds. Affirmative action that is “a set of policies that grand preferential treatment to a number of particular subgroups within the population” (Conley, 2013, p. 517) causes restrictions of range of students and their opportunities in achieving high statuses. Moreover, “poor kids — not to mention immigrants and children whose parents do not speak English — start so far behind when school begins that they never catch up” (Borges, 2014, para. 19). Schools reproduce and arrange the inequalities that are part of the social structure and stratification. Education institutions value middle-class parenting style more than lower-class. Working class children meet less advantageous teacher expectations, and have lower score on the SAT (Conley, 2013, p. 519). Working-class children may adopt the idea that graduate school is not for them while middle-class children feel more comfortable in the school environment since their cultural backgrounds meet the institution’s expectations. 

In the article by Borges (2014), the debate over cursive expands far above the topic of necessity of penmanship. According to the sociological theory of symbolic interaction (social constructionist), people create denotation using symbols to comprehendthe world. Symbols are cultural representations of reality. Culture’s participants are interpreting handwriting as a symbol of previous centuries because of fast development of technology. “It is true that college students are more likely to type out their notes on laptops and tablets than to write them with pen and paper. Fewer people write checks every day, opting instead for credit cards and e-banking” (Borges, 2014, para. 20). Handwriting interpreting depends on how people perceive and evaluate the reality in general. Nevertheless, at the same time, it denotes the changes in the education institutions that lead to social stratification.

Though a society expects education institutions to provide equal opportunities for its members, the process of schooling dialectically influence and is influenced by social stratification. On the one hand, within the educational process, people of higher class have more advantages and possibilities in both getting qualified education and fulfilling gaps at home than people in lower class. On the other, after schooling people are likely to occupy the status that reflects its primary background. As far as social mobility, that is the moving to other positions of social stratification system (Conley, 2013, p. 270), is more common under class systems, Americans are still optimistic about possibilities that education gives in achieving high person’s position which has prestigious respected status in the society.